Thursday, February 04, 2016

Saint Walatta Petros: African nun shared a lifetime bond with a female partner in 17th-century Ethiopia

For a new version of this article, click here

Saint Walatta Petros is a 17th-century Ethiopian nun who had an intense lifelong friendship with another nun amd led a successful movement to drive out foreign missionaries.

Controversial evidence of same-sex love in her history is revealed in her biography, which was recently published in English for the first time: “The Life  and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A 17th-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman” by Galawdewos.  It is translated and edited by Wendy Belcher, associate professor of African literature at Princeton University, and Michael Kleiner.

Walatta Petros is recognized as a saint by the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church, which honors her for preserving early African Christian beliefs by expelling Jesuit missionaries from Portugal. Her feast day is Nov. 23.

Her biography, written by her disciples just 30 years after her death, is the earliest known book-length biography of an African woman. Written in 1672, it includes the earliest known depiction of same-sex desire among women in sub-Saharan Africa. That section was censored until last year, when the first English translation was published.

Portrait of Walatta Petros (Wikimedia Commons)

Walatta Petros (1592 - 1642) was a noblewoman who married at a young age. Her name is a compound meaning “Daughter of (Saint) Peter” and cannot be shortened. She gave birth to three children who all died in infancy. Then she then left her husband, shaved her head and became a nun.

Walatta Petros’ hair is shaved to prepare her for becoming a nun (Credit: SLUB Mscr.Dresd.Eb.415.e,2)

The biography vividly describes the day she met Eheta Kristos (1601-1649), another noblewoman who had given up married life to become a nun. Her name means “Sister of Christ.” The moment they met sounds like love at first sight:

“As soon as our holy mother Walatta Petros and Eheta Kristos saw each other from afar, love was infused into both their hearts, love for one another, and... they were like people who had known each other beforehand because the Holy Spirit united them.”

Before long they moved in together. The text uses language that evokes a marriage bond, saying that they “lived together in mutual love, like soul and body. From that day onward the two did not separate, neither in times of tribulation and persecution, nor in those of tranquility, but only in death.”

Belcher’s introduction points out that it would be “anachronistic” to identify Walatta Petros as a lesbian because it is a 20th-century Anglo-American term. Instead she says in the introduction that the two nuns were “involved in a lifelong partnership of deep romantic friendship,” noting that and they were committed to celibacy and asceticism.

Indeed the chapter newly translated as “Our Mother Sees Nuns Lusting After Each Other” describes how Walatta Petros objected to such behavior. The saint herself tells the story in the text:

“It was evening and I was sitting in the house, facing the gate, when I saw some young nuns pressing against each other and being lustful with each other, each with a female companion. Therefore my heart caught fire and I began to argue with God, saying to him, ‘Did you put me here to show me this?’”

The footnote in the book explains that the phrase “my heart caught fire” might have a double meaning: “On the surface, it expresses her anger against God for showing her this scene, but the words chosen also suggest that she is angry because she felt desire upon looking at the scene.”

Some Ethiopians reject this interpretation, and Belcher’s website includes a page devoted to the “Controversy over Sexuality in the Gadla Walatta Petros.”

The church that Walatta Petros served was one of the earliest forms of Christianity, the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church. It was established officially in the fourth century but may trace its roots back to the Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by Philip in the New Testament. There were only a few such pre-colonial Christian churches in the world.

During Walatta Petros’ lifetime, Jesuit missionaries came from Portugal and tried to convert the Ethiopians to Roman Catholicism. The Ethiopians found heresy in some Catholic doctrines, such as Original Sin. Instead the Ethiopians believed in transformation of human beings by grace. Walatta Petros led a successful nonviolent movement that expelled out the Jesuits in 1632 and preserved Ethiopia's ancient form of Christianity.

In addition her biography describes how she founded seven religious communities -- the first in Sudan and the rest around Ethiopia’s large Lake Ṭana.

The account also humanizes the saint with lively dialogue and colorful details from daily life. Some chapter titles reveal that conflicts similar to those encountered by women church leaders today. such as “Male Leaders Work Against Our Mother” and “Envious Monks Attack Our Mother’s Authority.”

Christ gives Walatta Petros souls in the likeness of crystal vessels (Credit: SLUB Mscr.Dresd.Eb.415.e,2)

There are also charming scenes of Walatta Petros’ spiritual life.  Most dramatic is her debate with Christ when he asks her to care for souls that appear in the form of doves and shining crystal vessels.

After more than two decades as a nun, Walatta Petros fell ill and appointed her long-time companion Eheta Kristos as her successor to head the religious community. Walatta Petros died on Nov. 24, 1642 after a three-month illness. She was 50 years old and had spent 26 years as a nun. Belcher points out in her introduction that their loving bond lasted until death:

“Upon her deathbed, Walatta Petros’ last thoughts and words were about her friend, worrying about how Eheta Kristos would fare without her, saying three times, ‘She will be disconsolate; she has no other hope than me!’”

Ehelta Kristos went on to lead the community for almost seven years until her own death on April 2, 1649.

There are no known images of Eheta Kristos, but she is undoubtedly one of the mourners in the image of the whole community mourning when Walatta Petros died.

The community grieved for Walatta Petros (from Gadla Walatta Petros MS F, image 64)

Death does not end Walatta Petros’ biography, since it also serves as a hagiography. The book continues with 27 miracles that she performed after she departed to eternal life. They include dramatic healings as well as more down-home assistance such as repairing a broken jar of ale and recovering a stolen book of poems.

Belcher, who spent much of her childhood in Ethiopia and Ghana, learned the Gəˁəz language in order to translate the biography known as Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros. She and Kleiner also worked on the translation with other experts, including an Ethiopian priest. She is one of the few Westerners who have studied the 340-year-old parchment manuscript, which is housed in a monastery near Lake Tana. Belcher visited local nuns and monks while searching for copies of the manuscript at Ethiopia’s remote monasteries.

She discusses Walatta Petros and Eheta Kristos in depth in her lecture on “Same-Sex Intimacies in an Early Modern African Text about an Ethiopian Female Saint,” which is available as a YouTube video. She also has an article coming out on the topic “Same-Sex Intimacies in the Early African Text Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros (1672) about an Ethiopian Female Saint” in Research in African Literatures, June 2016.

The new book on Walatta Petros is lavishly illustrated with images from illuminated manuscripts, some of which are posted here today. This 500-page book is much more than a translation, featuring thousands of footnotes and hundreds of pages of contextual and scholarly information based on comparing twelve different manuscripts.

Some manuscripts and the new book conclude with two praise poems about Walatta Petros. One celebrates the saint from head to toe, including her breasts and womb. The other is a hymn that begins:

Hail to you, Walatta Petros, a garden! Wrapped in heavenly scent,
you are shade for the doves, from the heat of misery
that fills our world.


Top image: Walatta Petros receives souls in the form of doves as a gift from Christ (Credit: SLUB Mscr.Dresd.Eb.415.e,2)

This post is part of the LGBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, humanitarians, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

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Jendi Reiter said...

Another fascinating discovery. I like that you share stories of holy people who were homoromantic yet celibate. This is a nuance often lost in the rush to find queer role models in history. Your approach respects celibacy as a vocation while decoupling it from shame about sexual orientation.

Kittredge Cherry said...

The issue of “homoromantic but celibate” is a delicate one, so I’m glad to hear that I communicated the nuances to you, Jendi. This sheds light on why the new research on Wallata Petros is controversial among those who take offense when a saint is studied from a queer viewpoint. I am forwarding your comment to translator Wendy Belcher because I believe she will appreciate it too.

Anonymous said...

It's so sad that you westerners must sexualize everything you read. It's also disappointing that this woman learned our language and decided to put it to shameful use. Words have completely different meanings and connotations in the Ge'ez language and using a direct translation to desecrate the holy name of St. Welete Petros is deeply sadenning. It's funny that no one would say this about a western saint like Mother Theresa or one of the saint marias, but the moment they find an ethiopian orthodox saint, they find anything to tarnish Her holy name, even immoral fiction such as this. To the author of this "biography" I would like to say, on behalf of all ethiopian and even african believers that we are proufoundly disappointed in you. For learning our culture only to twist and add your own agenda for the fame of the world, may the Saint forgive you.

Kittredge Cherry said...

I know that some Ethiopians disagree with how Mother Walatta is presented in the new book.

You may find these queer interpretations shameful, but they are NOT limited to only African saints. This blog DOES cover similar interpretations of Saint Mary. For example:

Mary, Diana and Artemis: Feast of Assumption has lesbian goddess roots

Queer Lady of Guadalupe: Artists re-imagine an icon