The Holy Mountain, the domain of the Holy Theotokos, has had a strict rule against the admission of women for many centuries. At one time, it applied to female species animals. Women cannot come to the coast of the Holy Mount closer than 500 metres. There have nevertheless been several documented instances of trespass on Mount Athos.
Causes of the restrictions
Mount Athos is a territory reserved for repentance and great ascetic feats. In a sense, Mount Athos lives like one large monastery, making it distinct from any other monastery. Refusing admission to women is the easiest way for the monks to enforce the celibacy rule. The Most Holy Theotokos is honoured as the Hegumeness of the Holy Mountain, its sole woman host and the only woman who can tread in this holy place. But the prohibition of visits by women did not become the rule at the arrival of the Virgin Mary to this Greek peninsula – it came into force centuries later.
Although its first hermit, the Venerable Peter of Mount Athos did not settle here until the 7th century and its first monastery was established only in the 10th, women stopped visiting the area already in the fifth century. According to legend, Galla Placidia, daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius the Great, visited the Holy Mountain in 422. She came to venerate the holy places and relics, but as she approached a church, she heard the voice of the Holy Virgin commanding her to leave the area immediately. “From now on, no woman shall set foot on the land of the Holy Mountain,” declared the Most Holy Theotokos. It is believed that the restriction of access to Mount Athos (“Avaton” in Greek) has existed since that moment, barring the entry of women to Mount Athos. Its monks have upheld this tradition for over a millennium. For a time, the prohibition applied even to female species of animals, so the Athonite monks had to procure all their animal foods, even eggs, outside. Eventually, the prohibitions were lifted for hens, female cats and wild animals and birds whose migration was difficult to control.
The women who entered Mount Athos
There is not a law that cannot be broken. Several dozen incidents have been documented of women who broke the rule against their presence on Mount Athos.
Some of the women were of noble birth. Elena, wife of the Serbian king Stephan IV Dushan was one. During a plague epidemic in Serbia in 1347, these royals sought refuge at Mount Athos, over which they had sovereignty.
After the fall of Constantinople widow of the Turkish Sultan Murad II Maria Brankovich, a Christian, came to deliver to the Monastery of Saint Paul a portion of the gifts brought by the Magi to the infant Christ. According to legend, the royal intended to bring the relics into the monastery herself, but no sooner had she entered it than she heard the voice of an angel of God. The angel told her to proceed no further and return to her boat. Immediately, Maria fell on her knees in repentance. The monks saw her, and she handed them the gifts. A cross and a chapel stand at that place today. The Monastery of Saint Paul has kept the gifts to this day, and they continue to emit a fragrance.
At times, people of both sexes have sought refuge on Mount Athos from political persecution. In 1081 and 1108, several hundred shepherds violated the restriction of access to Mount Athos. In 1770, hundreds of people – including women and children – came to Mount Athos in the wake of the Orlov uprising against the Turks. In 1821, numerous refugees fled to Mount Athos at the time of the revolution against the Turks, and in 1854 a host of young women found refuge here after the Halkidiki uprising. In 1944, a group of women fleeing German prosecution asked the monks of Esfigmenou Monastery for asylum. During the Greek Civil War, a group of armed men and women from the Democratic Army of Greece fleeing from the Greek Army broke through the cordon and entered the Holy Mountain. Seventeen-year-old Eugenia Pegiu was in the group. In a later interview with the media, she admitted: “I sinned. I was numb with fear. I came with the group to the Iveron Monastery. The monks refused to open the gate. One of the fighters climbed over the wall and opened the gate from inside. I did not enter. I waited outside with a gun in my hand. “
Yet in some of the most outrageous violations of the access restrictions, sinful curiosity was the motive. The female violators changed into male clothing and entered Mount Athos dressed as men.
A highly public incident happened in 1930, involving the winner of the Miss Europe contest. Aliki Diplarakou, 18, daughter of a successful lawyer, entered the Holy Mountain dressed as a man on the boat of a rich businessman. She toured the monasteries of Mount Athos without anyone asking any questions. Eventually, her visit went public and provoked an uproar. Aliki contracted a serious illness and went to Switzerland for treatment. God did not send her recovery until she repented and apologised in writing to the monks of the Holy Mountain. She wrote: “I have now seen, and I am firmly convinced that it was my punishment from the Most Holy Theotokos for being disrespectful of her. For an educated woman, I acted inappropriately, which I regret. I repent unceasingly my action and to pray the Most Holy Theotokos for Her forgiveness. I apologise to you, venerable fathers, for burdening my heart with this sin.” She donated to the Holy Mountain 5000 Drams and asked the monks to pray for her health during liturgy. The Lord and the Athonite monks accepted her apology. Aliki was cured and lived to be ninety.
Simultaneously, Maryse Choisy, a French journalist, published a book titled “One month among the men.” In her description of the book, she wrote that it reported her experience of spending one month on Mount Athos disguised as a sailor.
The trespass of another woman, Maria Pimenidou of Greece, became a cause celebre. Dressed as a man, she stayed on Mount Athos for three days.
The incident triggered a law that barred women from accessing Mount Athos. Violation was punishable by two to twelve months imprisonment. Worse still, violators of this rule of Mount Athos also bring upon themselves the wrath of God of an unknown magnitude.
Various monasteries of the Holy Mountain keep the relics of women saints: Righteous Anna, Mother of the Holy Virgin (part of her incorrupt left foot); Martyr Marina (right hand); Great Martyr Anastasia, Deliverer from Potions, Virgin Martyr Pelagia (parts of her incorrupt head); Equal-to-the-apostles Mary Magdalen (parts of the left hand and foot); Martyr Eudocia and Great Martyr Barbara (Parts of their hands); Venerable Macrina, Holy Virgin-Martyr Paraskevi of Rome (parts of the relics).
Today, the relics of Mount Athos are accessible to all, men and women. Athonite monks take them on boats and serve Molebens for pilgrims. Online tours to different locations on Mount Athos are also available on the Internet. Some elders of Mount Athos are available to talk to the visitors in an area free from the restrictions. There is no need for any woman to take upon themselves the sin of trespassing on Mount Athos out of curiosity. The Lord, the Holy Virgin and all the saints are equally accessible to every man and woman. We only need to keep our hearts and minds open.