Introduction to the Desert Trancestors

Previously on this blog, I’ve alluded to the presence of non-conforming, possibly queer, figures, in Christian scriptures and history. This week, we’ll look more closely at two stories of gender-non-conforming monks from the early church. In this post, I’ll tell the stories of Marinos and Hilarion; in my next post, I’ll examine how their lives intertwined with Christian ideals of their day.

 Any attempt to project modern understandings of gender identity backwards onto historical figures is fraught with complication. As these historical figures did not have access to the same words we do, there is no way to know how they understood their own gender identities. This is especially true of people who were assigned female at birth (AFAB) in a patriarchal society and were able to access broader opportunities by presenting as male. Did these people present as male in order to attain a personal ambition despite identifying as female, did they identify as male, did they reject their society’s notions of gender altogether, or some combination thereof? The lack of writing by and about women and AFAB people in such a patriarchal society further muddies the waters. Given that desert monastics included both men and women, it seems likely that those who chose to conceal their birth-assigned gender did so for more reasons than simply to lead an ascetic life. In this paper, I choose not to project any identity on the people in question. I refer to them as “gender-non-conforming,” to describe their actions and presentations, rather than “transgender,” which would describe their identities. I use the name and pronouns that apply to how they were presenting at any given point in their stories. However, I do identify them as “transcestors,” that is, part of a lineage of transgender and gender-non-conforming people throughout history whose lives inform those of transgender people today.

Beginning around the fourth century, some Christians began retreating to the desert, away from the conspicuous consumption of Church and society. These desert monastics formed a community dedicated to each other and to Christ. They showed their dedication through humility, obedience, and rejection of worldly glory. Though not active participants in society at large, they saw this discipline as necessary for their spiritual fulfillment. Among the desert monastics were several gender-non-conforming people, whose lives highlight the monastics’ ideals.


Marinos (center, in red) arrives at the monastery with his father, from a 14th-century French manuscript.
Sainte Marine présentée au monastère, Cote : Français 241 , Fol. 139v. Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea (traduction de Jean de Vignay), France, Paris, XIVe siècle, Richard de Montbaston.

Marina was born in Lebanon, probably in the fifth century. When she was a youth, her mother died; her father intended to marry her off and retreat to a monastery. Marina protested, not wanting to be separated from her father. She took the name Marinos and entered the monastery, passing as her father’s son. Marinos was described by colleagues as “occupying himself with the practice of monastic virtues . . . He was silent and reticent with bowed head and eyes.” Some years later, he traveled away from the monastery and stayed overnight at someone’s home. The home-owner’s daughter was soon found to be pregnant; she accused Marinos of fathering the child. He remained silent during questioning, which was taken as an admission of guilt. Marinos was exiled from the community for a time. He reportedly “resigned himself to the will of God,” and was eventually re-admitted to the monastery along with his assumed son. He continued as a monk until his death, at which point his assigned gender was discovered. The monks repented for falsely accusing him many years prior. As the monastery’s superior prayed over Marinos’ body, he heard a voice from heaven, saying “lift up your head from the ground . . . your sin is pardoned, don’t be saddened anymore.” Throughout his life, and even after his death, Marinos seemed to accept whatever fate befell him in his monastic role.


An icon of St. Hilaria

Hilaria was born in the mid-400s, the oldest daughter of the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno. Rejecting the power afforded her as a member of the emperor’s family, she ran away, dressed as a young man, and joined a monastery in the desert. She became known as Hilarion the eunuch. After nine years, Hilarion’s younger sister became ill. Emperor Zeno sent the sister, who is never named, to the monastery. Hilarion was assigned to care for the new arrival and pray for her recovery; he did so, never revealing his identity to her.  When the girl recovered, she returned to her father. She described the great love and compassion she had received, which raised Zeno’s suspicions about Hilarion’s chastity. As the legend goes, Zeno said: “I never heard that monks would kiss women or sleep with them on the same bench; but I have heard that they hated them and would not condescend to speak with them at all. How is this now? I understand it not.” He sent for the monk. With much fear, Hilarion obeyed the summons and came to stand before the emperor. Hilarion considered his options, weighing the consequences of coming out with the consequences of staying silent. “I should like to conceal the matter,” he thought, “but lest the other monks be confounded on my account now that such foulness has been conceived about these saints,” he decided to tell the truth. After making Zeno promise that he would not tell the secret to anyone, Hilarion revealed his birth identity. He spent several months reconnecting with his family, then returned to the monastery to live out the rest of his days. 

Both Marinos and Hilarion hint at the fluidity of gender, even in the early church. Their stories share a few common themes, which also help us understand the motivations of the desert monks who helped shape Christianity as a whole in its infancy. Stay tuned for the next post, where we’ll go more in depth and explore what we can learn from these transcestors!

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