Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.02.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.02.39

Thomas Arentzen, The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist. Divinations: Rereading late ancient religion.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.  Pp. xiii, 265.  ISBN 9780812249071.  $59.95.  

Reviewed by Evy Johanne Håland, Independent Researcher (


The book under review is based on Arentzen’s Ph.D. dissertation, and the excellent way in which the author’s opening outlines the setting for the origin of the hymn clearly benefits from his studies of fiction-writing both in Bø and Tromsø, Norway. The legend teaches us that the Virgin Mary appeared to “a man of Syrian descent” (1) in a dream on a Christmas Eve in the Blachernae church dedicated to her in Constantinople, ordering him to swallow a scroll of papyrus. When following her command, his voice immediately “turned sweet and gentle” and he “began to sing the hymn The Virgin today gives birth” (2). This young man is known as Romanos the Melodist (ca. 485-560), and Arentzen’s reading of his songs emphasises Romanos’ depiction of the Virgin as an erotic and fertility-granting virgin and mother as well as a model for uniting to Christ.

The bulk of the volume is divided into 4 chapters: 1: The Song and the City; 2: On the Verge of Virginity; 3: The Mother and Nurse of Our Life; 4: A Voice of Rebirth; and a Conclusion: Virginity Recast, the latter reflecting the title of the author’s dissertation. There follow two Appendixes (1: On the Annunciation; 2: Catalogue of Hymns Referred to in the Study), Notes, a rich Bibliography (however, generally repeating the works listed in the notes), a comprehensive Index, and Acknowledgements. The book opens with a Note on Editions and Translations, followed by a List of Abbreviations; it also contains 9 Figures. It would have been helpful if the author had included a note on transliteration, since there is no universally accepted and unified system for transliteration of Greek. It would also have worked better to put the note on editions and translations after the list of abbreviations. The subheadings of chapters are unclear, alternating between uppercase and italicising. Moreover, the main source explored in Chapter 2 might have been placed in the beginning instead of at the end as Appendix 1, but these are all minor details.

Chapter 1 gives the historical setting in the Byzantine world, including a discussion of the scant information available on Romanos; it also gives a general introduction to the approximately “sixty long liturgical hymns called kontakia” (5) that, according to tradition, he wrote after swallowing the aforementioned papyrus. This introduction includes topics encompassing the form of the kontakia, their use in church services, rhetorical strategies and compositional techniques, their positioning between church and theater and their audiences, and the prevalence of dialogue in the kontakia, which enables them to be perceived as dramas. The result of this intermingling of liturgy and drama in the Byzantine setting, “between rituals and mass media,” made the Virgin “available and accessible for a wide audience, in texts merging popular imagination with ecclesiastical teaching,” according to Arentzen (32). Next, we learn that the present study “is about ways to imagine the Virgin in sixth-century Constantinople” (32). To grasp the frame of reference that the inhabitants had for understanding a virgin’s and mother’s life, the author emphasises the life of ordinary women, giving an overview of what Byzantine society could expect of a girl as she passed from childhood to adulthood, including an outline of women’s life in the city. This is followed up by a discussion of Marian doctrine and devotion, and then of construction work and Marian cult, the latter including the festivals devoted to her as well as her legacy from pre-Christian goddesses as a new protectress of the city on the Bosporus.

The next three chapters (ch. 2-4) follow the chronology of the Virgin’s life by focusing, respectively, on three kinds of imagining of her corporeal and relational presence in Constantinople: her erotic appeal, nursing breasts, and speaking voice. Each starts with an excerpt from an ancient religious text, respectively Origen, Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs, warning against erotic appeal; Pseudo-Ignatius of Antioch, First Epistle to St. John , telling about women wanting to see Mary and touch her breasts; Proverbs 1:20-23 (LXX), Wisdom singing hymns telling she will teach her word.

Thus, Chapter 2 involves Mary as a young maiden, focusing on the secret encounter between the young erotic maiden and the male messenger, Gabriel, entering her house, in the kontakion On the Annunciation. This is the oldest surviving hymn (composed around 530) for what has become known as the spring festival dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, celebrated on 25 March. The chapter discusses the relation between Eros and Christian bodies in texts and paintings at the time, and the way Romanos employs this strategy in order to win his audience. We also see the relation between Romanos’ and pre-Christian (Aristotelian) ways of describing a virgin and a woman’s contribution in the generation process, as well as pre-Christian (esp. in Sappho) parallels to the way Romanos considers Mary as a bride, regarding wedding and sexuality.1 Arentzen convincingly emphasises that Marian virginity is far from asceticism, and that her cult grew out of civic rather than monastic elites (82). However, he also stresses that his study presents a Virgin Mary incompatible with what a general person in Constantinople in Romanos’ times “would expect from a virgin,” especially illustrated in the refrain, “Hail unwedded bride!” (44-5, but see n. 1 below).

Chapter 3 investigates the depiction of the young mother and how she breastfeeds in Romanos’ texts, centering on Mary’s aspect as galaktotrophousa, breastfeeding, arguing that nursing involves an exaltation of her person. The chapter focuses on the kontakion On the Nativity I, written for the Christmas festival, and also involves On the Nativity of the Virgin. Arentzen continues his comparison with Aristotelian and other sources, such as Egyptian icons (which no doubt must be seen in relation to former depictions of Isis lactans), also discussing the idea of milk kinship, concluding that birth giving and breastfeeding are parallel phenomena (89).2 One may add that nurses and nursing in caves, moreover, is not only confined to “Mary’s cave of delight” (94-9), but is a widespread theme in ancient culture (one may just mention the nurses caring for Dionysos after his premature birth). Arentzen emphasises that the breastfeeding Mary of Romaios gives nourishment to the entire congregation (119).3

Chapter 4 concentrates on Mary’s voice and on how it interacts with other characters and features in Romanos’ texts. Through Romanos, the Mother speaks to the audience, i.e., the congregation, and conversely the congregation speaks through her voice (121). Through Romanos, Mary’s voice attaches to death and suffering, and it takes part in the generation of new life. The focus of the chapter is primarily on On the Nativity II, which is also a Christmas hymn with a pascal theme, and On Mary at the Cross. The latter text is the oldest surviving Marian hymn for Holy Friday. In it, she is “the ultimate witness to the gospel, since her presence overshadows the incomplete witness of written gospels” (120), as several scholars, first and foremost, M. Alexiou, also have emphasized. The importance of the lament of Mary at the cross (which does not feature in the gospels) is still encountered in the modern Greek Orthodox Church, when women take the leading role.4 The kontakia of the chapter are situated between birth and resurrection, and the first of them introduces Adam and Eve longing for salvation and renewal (123). We learn how the Virgin’s voice of transgression awakens the dead, complementing the iconography (still prevalent in the Orthodox church) that depicts how the doctor Christ literally goes down to Hades and lifts up the two sinners, followed by others, thus acting upon his mother’s mediating role. The Holy Woman, Mary’s aspect as “Mediatrix,” (mesitis) and “intercessor,” between the human and divine world, plays a main role on the chapter (137-41). Mary at the Cross, as illustrated in the hymn, shows the Mother next to her dying son, and her voice as the witness to her son’s, and God’s (144), life and work. Drawing on Giulia Sissa’s theories about the representation of the closed, “virginal,” and silent female body in ancient Greek culture, Arentzen illustrates how Mary “as a closed virgin has been able to store up” the “stories,” while “as an open mother she is able to [reveal] them” (149). Thus we learn how Mary’s cry at the cross, through “virginity voiced,” sums up the poem.

Finally, the conclusion sums up how Romanos recasts Marian virginity in his song, after an introductory excerpt from Gregory the Theologian’s Oration 30. The conclusion correctly highlights the importance of rethinking “the Foucauldian fascination with late antique asceticism… which has led scholars to identify Marian virginity… with ascetic virginity, eclipsing the ways in which some ancient writers, such as Romanos, did not identify the two at all” (166). One may add that Romanos’ presentation of the virgin actually suits much of what one can find in popular thinking in Greek culture, ancient and modern, and also read between the lines in the writings that actually condemn this, but that is another story.

All in all, the book is excellently written and takes up several interesting parallels between Romanos’ way of describing the Virgin Mary in his songs and his pre-Christian predecessors, thus contextualising the work in the Byzantine and Greek world where it belongs. Although this is a topic on which one could have expanded, i.e., from an ethno-historian’s point of view (cf. also n. 1 below), it might probably have produced another work than the aim of the present study.


1.   Several of the topics discussed in the book have been comprehensively discussed in a work not mentioned by the author although it was published in 2007: E. J. Håland, Greek Festivals, Modern and Ancient: A Comparison of Female and Male Values (Kristiansand: Norwegian Academic Press, in Norwegian; English version: Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017, Ch. 6-7). The author also seems to be unaware of the fact that in antiquity it was possible to give birth and still be considered a virgin (parthenos): G. Sissa. Le Corps Virginal (Paris: Libraire Philosophique J. Vrin, 1987: 127 ff.), and “Une virginité sans hymen: le corps féminin en Grèce ancienne,” Annales (ESC) 39 (1984): 1125 ff. Greek (male) culture does not include the maidenhead, only virginity or else maidenhood. Therefore a woman may give birth to a child and still be a virgin as a consequence of her lifestyle.
2.   The conception that it is more important to lay in, or come from, the same womb, than to have the same blood is found among modern Greek women, see Håland 2017: Ch. 7. The idea of milk kinship is still prevalent within Islamic thinking: T. Cassidy and A. El Tom, eds., Ethnographies of Breastfeeding: Cultural Contexts and Confrontations (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015). Concerning the importance of feeding and the Virgin Mary, it might also have been relevant to consult J. Dubisch, In a Different Place: Pilgrimage, Gender, and Politics at a Greek Island Shrine (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
3.   Here it might also be relevant to mention her attribute of Zōodochos Pēgē, the Life-Giving Spring, depicted in Greek Orthodox churches and celebrated on the Friday after Easter: E. J. Håland, “Water Sources and the Sacred in Modern and Ancient Greece and Beyond,” Water History 1, 2 (2009): 83-108.
4.   E. J. Håland, Rituals of Death and Dying in Modern and Ancient Greece: Writing History from a Female Perspective (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014: Ch. 3); see also 2017: Ch. 4. On the importance of women and laments from a female perspective, see also G. Holst-Warhaft, Dangerous Voices: Women’s Laments and Greek Literature (London and New York: Routledge, 1992); Elenē Psychogiou, “Maurēgē” kai Elenē: Teletourgies Thanatou kai Anagennēsēs (Athens: Academy of Athens, 2008, Dēmosieumata tou Kentrou Ereunēs tēs Ellēnikēs Laographias 24).

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