Did you know that Byzantine abbess, poet, composer, and hymnographer, Kassia, is one of the earliest medieval composers whose hymns both still exist and are interpretable by modern scholars and musicians. In-fact Kassia, who lived from 810 AD- 865 AD in Constantinople, still has 23 hymns used in the Eastern Orthodox Church liturgical books today. Her most famous hymn is “The Hymn of Kassiani” also known as “The Fallen Women” which is sung once a year on Holy Wednesday in the Eastern Orthodox faith.
The Hymn reads as follows.
O Lord, the woman who had fallen into many sins, sensing Your Divinity, takes upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer. With lamentations she brings you myrrh in anticipation of your entombment. “Woe to me!” she cries, “for me night has become a frenzy of licentiousness, a dark and moonless love of sin. Receive the fountain of my tears, O You who gather into clouds the waters of the sea. Incline unto me, unto the sighings of my heart, O You who bowed the heavens by your ineffable condescension. I will wash your immaculate feet with kisses and dry them again with the tresses of my hair; those very feet at whose sound Eve hid herself in fear when she heard You walking in Paradise in the twilight of the day. As for the multitude of my sins and the depths of Your judgments, who can search them out, O Savior of souls, my Savior? Do not disdain me Your handmaiden, O You who are boundless in mercy.
It is said that the emperor of the time, Emperor Theophilus, had in their youth rejected Kassia as his bride for another due to his wounded pride over a quick and witty retort from Kassia to something he had said. Years later, just before his death, the emperor, still in love with Kassia, sought her out at her abbey to beg forgiveness for his rash decision and proclaim his continued love. Kassia, having seen the Emperor approach and not wanting to allow her own love for him the chance to override her monastic vows, abandoned the hymn she’d been writing at her desk and hid in a closet in her room to avoid meeting the man. The Emperor entered the room to find it empty save for the hymn on the desk and after reading it added the lines “those very feet at whose sound Eve hid herself in fear when she heard You walking in Paradise in the twilight of the day”. The tales say that the Emperor, visibly upset at the absence of the abbess, noticed Kassia hiding in the closest before leaving the room but never spoke to her out of respect for her wish to be left alone. Kassia kept the lines the Theophilus had added to her work and finished product is the hymn still sung today.