Katherine Clark has been a resident of Paros on and off for 35 years and an Orthodox Christian since 1987. She has written about the Ekatontapiliani and written and lectured on Greek Orthodoxy generally. She has kindly agreed to write a series of articles on Orthodoxy for Paros Life, so if you have specific questions, please contact her at transactKC@aol.com.
St. Theoktisti is one of four saints who lived on Paros and thus occupy a particularly warm spot in Parian hearts. The accounts of her life tell us much about her times - the 9th century - and as much as we are likely to learn about Paros more than a thousand years ago, a chaotic period in Byzantine history notable for its lack of documentation.
In St. Theoktisti's day, the Aegean was at the mercy of Arab corsairs, known at that time and to Parians today as the Saracens. Two Byzantine emperors, Leo VI (the Wise) (886-911) and his son Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos (912-959), had their hands full coping with their disruption of trade and raids into Byzantine territory. It was Saracens driven out of Spain who conquered Crete around 825 and held it until 961. From this important strategic base, they sallied forth virtually unchallenged by the militarily weakened Byzantine empire. They continually raided the Aegean islands for valuables of all kinds and - significantly for Theoktisti - for slaves. Place names, like Sarakiniko on Paros (just above Ag. Irini), and clusters of date palms on some islands reveal to us today where the Saracen raiders holed up at that time.
What we know about St. Theoktisti we owe primarily to St. Symeon Metaphrastis (the translator) (ca. 890 - 960), renowned primarily for his Lives of the Saints (148 of them). St. Symeon served Leo and Constantine ably as counsellor, diplomat and ambassador until he retired from "the world" to become a monk and write. He was not a translator in the usual sense, but a chronicler, collator, transcriber and editor of the sometimes confused, contradictory and fanciful accounts of earlier authors.
St. Symeon bases his account of the life of St. Theoktisti on the report of one Nikitas Magister, a government official during the reign of Leo VI. Around the year 905, Nikitas was on his way from Constantinople to Crete to negotiate with the Saracens. As he and his men approached Ios, they were driven back by headwinds and forced to seek shelter at Paros, anchoring in the bay now known as Santa Maria.
Making the most of this unscheduled visit, Nikitas set out to see the well-known - even at that time - church of the Panaghia, the Ekatontapyliani. Like a good public servant, he also resolved to survey the general state of the island, which was entirely uninhabited at that time.
Nikitas writes a long and glowing description of the holy objects in the sanctuary of the Ekatontapyliani - particularly the altar and the fabulous kivorio, the scalloped canopy of solid marble above it.
Emerging with his companions from the church, Nikitas was astonished to see approaching through the grove of trees a weathered and emaciated monk, barefoot, cowled and cloaked in animal skins. Nikitas and his men asked him who he was, where he came from, how he came to be alone there, etc., but the monk, an ascetic, refused to talk about himself other than to give his name, which, like our chronicler, was Symeon, and to say that he had been living alone on Paros for about 30 years (that is, then, ca. 875 - 905). Having given Nikitas and his men his blessing, as they asked, he sat with them amid the many large cut stones and columns by the church in the thick green shade by a little spring and told them this tale about the kivorio:
The Saracen commander Nissiris (active 821-827) had also stopped at Paros and resolved to make off with whatever treasures he could gather from the Ekatontapyliani, including the marvellous kivorio. Prudently, he measured it and the great western doors through which it would have to pass, to make sure it would fit. He then had it removed from its pillars and carried to the doors, but surprisingly it wouldn't fit after all. So he enlarged the doorway. But it still wouldn't fit. At this point he decided to break it in two (alas, alas!), but when it still wouldn't pass through the doors, he finally had to concede that greater forces were at work, gave up, and left it where it was. Which is why the kivorio is split today. (According to one chronicler, it was a bit of luck for us all that Nissiris didn't take it, as his ship hit a rock off of Euboia and sank with all hands and the entire cargo of booty.) So it was repaired and replaced and can be admired where it belongs above the great altar (please not by peering through the Holy Gates but by looking through the side door with the image of St. Michael: ask the priest to please open it for you).
After this, the monk and Nikitas' party all dined together, and the monk cheered the frustrated travellers by foretelling that they would arrive at Crete in only three days with favourable winds, that their negotiations would be successful, and that they would return safely to Constantinople, all of which came to pass.
Then he turned very serious and said he had something of great importance to relate, which they must carefully note and write down and document when they returned to Constantinople (which indeed Nikitas did). He said hunters had come to Paros from Euboia on a number of occasions because the island was so rich in deer and wild goats (!), and one of them, nameless, told him the following:
"When I came a few years ago [ca. 872] with companions to hunt, I first went to the church to pray, as was my custom. Looking around afterwards, I noticed a little pool of water encircled with lupins: I could only think that a human hand must have been at work, and that puzzled me greatly in that wild place. But having tarried, I ran to catch up with the others and then hunted for several days. As we were all returning once more to the ship, I turned aside once more to the church to pray. But this time, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of some gauzy cloth lifted by the wind - or could it just be cobweb, I asked myself? - just to the right of the altar. As I approached for a better look, imagine! A voice spoke to me! Well, my hair stood on end and my skin prickled, I can tell you, so terrified was I! When something so unexpected happens your soul quakes no matter how brave you are. I wanted nothing more than to just take to my heels!
"She - for the voice was a woman's - spoke these words [known to every Parian, surely]: 'Stop, sir, and come no further, nor come nigh unto me. For I am ashamed, being a woman and naked!'
"Well, I summoned up my courage and asked who she was, living in this wild place, and she asked me to throw her my cloak, which I did, and thus modestly covered she came forward. She looked hardly human, all white hair and black skin. And I was terrified all over again and fell down trembling and begged for her blessing. She stretched out her hands and whispered, 'May God be merciful unto you. But surely it was He who sent you to this uninhabited island, and I will tell you my story.'"
Alas, dear Paros Life reader, you will have to wait until the August issue to learn the exciting outcome of this dramatic tale! Until then!
You can read about St. Theoktisti at the website of Ekatontapyliani, www.ekatontapyliani.org/part5/