Walatta Petros: Ethiopian nun, radical leader and lover of women
December 6, 2015 8:56 PM   Subscribe

"She was a revered religious leader who led a nonviolent movement against European proto-colonialism and was the founding abbess of her own monastery, which still exists today. She led an amazing life: a woman who was born to an adoring father, lost three children in infancy, left her abusive husband, started a movement, defeated a wicked king, faced enraged hippos and lions, avoided lustful jailors, founded seven religious communities, routed male religious leaders, gathered many men and women around her, and guided her flock subject to no man, being the outright head of her community and even appointing abbots, who followed her orders. Her name is Walatta Petros (which means Daughter-of [Saint] Peter, a compound name that cannot be shortened) and she lived from 1592 to 1642." Now the story of her life is available in English in a new translation by Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner, "The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman".

Walatta Petros also seems to have been same-sex attracted, living together with her fellow nun Eheta Kristos "in mutual love, like soul and body", which is naturally attracting some attention and even controversy.

More information on Walatta Petros, including poetry written in her praise, part of the introduction to the book, and a presentation by Belcher are available through Belcher's website.
posted by Athanassiel (10 comments total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
My instant reaction to this is : Yaaaaaaass! I need to go bed now, but I will be back to read through the links.
posted by yueliang at 8:59 PM on December 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sorry guys, put the same link in twice - the link from above the cut is the same as the interview link. Went a little crazy with finding this stuff out. Have a different interview instead. Or this one.

And if anyone wants to read the original Ethiopic text, you can. (You'll have to set up an account though.)
posted by Athanassiel at 9:41 PM on December 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Thanks for posting this! Hagiography is an interesting genre, and the preview for this one looks fascinating. For example, in one chapter, Walatta Petros's gaze repels the invisible demons that swarm like mosquitoes around a princess, and in another, a nun in a rush to buy some fish and get the cooking done stops the sun to make more time in the day but forgets to start it again until folks are like, "Hey, what's with the sun?" A footnote compares this to Joshua 10:13 and says stopping the sun is a common theme of Ge'ez hagiographies as well as something WP does in the 11th miracle herself. Fun stuff.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:45 AM on December 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

There are over 200 Ethiopian orthodox saints and over 100 of them have biographies. At least 17 of them are women and six of them have biographies (or, since they are saints, what are called hagiographies).

I always thought the terms weren't strictly interchangeable For example, you can read a biography of Augustine of Hippo that relies strictly on historical events, Augustine's writings, his role in North Africa and the broader Christian world, etc.; and then you can read a hagiography of Saint Augustine, one focusing more on his religious fervor, preaching, miracles, and cult after his death, all written with the aim of inspiring religious devotion in the reader.

The Walatta Petros stuff sounds like hagiography to me, but then the translators/editors compiled these stories as a "Biography." Which is it?
posted by resurrexit at 4:27 AM on December 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hagiography technically just means "writing about a saint"

However, as many hagiographies are/were full of overly positive material, making the saint out to be without fault, the term has come to adopt a second definition, which you're thinking of.
posted by timdiggerm at 6:26 AM on December 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Flagged as Fantastic! I've added the book to my wishlist and I'm working my way through all the links. I loved the poem; it's such a tender kind of tribute to praise every part of someone's body. As someone raised an Irish Catholic it was also quite touching to see some lines and references that were familiar to me yet that come from such a different time and place. I'm now fascinated to know more about Ethiopian Christianity - I had no idea that it existed around a thousand years before European missionaries to Africa (if I've understood that correctly) and I'm very curious as to the origins of the faith. When I was small I was taught that European missionaries "brought" Christianity to Africa (as if it were a gift, the many problematic aspects being carefully elided), and so it does and doesn't come as a surprise to learn that there was a flourishing faith long before Westerners decided to busy themselves with other people's business.

Basically I'll be getting no work done at all this afternoon while I follow a rabbit hole of links it hasn't even occurred to me to look for before so this post is basically why the internets were invented. Thanks!
posted by billiebee at 6:29 AM on December 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

> I had no idea that it existed around a thousand years before European missionaries to Africa (if I've understood that correctly)

Very much so. It was declared a state religion in 330 AD, just a few years after Constantine reversed the ban on Christianity in the Eastern Roman Empire.

Great post, I knew nothing about her!
posted by languagehat at 7:00 AM on December 7, 2015

Another book to add to my reading list, thank you! It's kind of weird how invisible Orthodox history has become, as if oh hey, all these 4th-14th century churches across China and India and Africa can't be seen because they aren't Catholic/Protestant.

Another lovely pair of Orthodox women is St Perpetua and St Felicity, martyred in the 3rd century and with complications of race, class, slavery, pregnancy and love - her diary is translated here.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 7:36 AM on December 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

Whoa, I knew nothing of this. How wonderful! Thanks, I'm putting the book on my reading list and getting lost in the links.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 8:49 AM on December 7, 2015

African Christianity is among the oldest there is, and even at the beginning exerted great influence at a distance - to the point that early Celtic monasticism and early Islam shared many of those roots.

It's a deeply fascinating area. I look forward to going through the links.
posted by Devonian at 9:31 AM on December 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

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