By John Sanidopoulos
Though it is commonly known human females are forbidden from entering Mount Athos, based on the ancient monastic principle of "avaton", which states that if they wish to enforce it females should not enter male monasteries and males should not enter female monasteries, it is also commonly believed and highlighted that Mount Athos forbids female animals as well. A Google search of "Mount Athos female animals" will show how persistently this is believed, especially by the foreign press. Just a few days ago the U.K. Daily Mail even included it in a title of a press release that had nothing to do with the subject, where it said: "The Striking Images of Mount Athos in Greece Where Women and Children are Banned (and even female animals are forbidden)". Is it true therefore that female animals are forbidden in Mount Athos?
First of all, to be clear, there is no legislation that bans human females from entering Mount Athos. For human females, it is more an unwritten law that is to be respected, even though there are a small number of women that have been allowed to enter Mount Athos in the past few hundred years for special reasons. However, there is legislation that prohibits eunuchs, beardless youths and even female animals from entering Mount Athos. The Typikon (Charter) of the Monastery of Great Lavra which dates to 970 states: "You will not own any animal of the female sex, for the purpose of doing any work which you require, because you have absolutely renounced all female beings." Here we thus read that it is not necessarily all female animals that are prohibited, but all female domestic animals that labor for the needs of the monastery (specifically here of Great Lavra). The Typikon for Athos which dates to 1045 begins with the exclusion of eunuchs and beardless youths, which is another ancient monastic tradition, because like females both eunuchs and beardless youths were seen to be effeminate and presented a temptation for weaker male monks. Another Typikon from 1406 gives another reason for such a prohibition: "A woman wearing masculine dress and pretending to be a eunuch or beardless youth might dare to enter the monastery." The document of 1045 also remarks on the presence on the Holy Mountain of domestic animals - sheep, goats, even cows - despite earlier legislation banning them (though it applied only for Great Lavra). The reason for the domestic animals is also given in the document of 1406: so that the monks may be pure in all respects and "may not defile their eyes with the sight of anything female." Since the purpose of the monastic profession is to be purified in all aspects of the senses in order to be illumined by the grace of God, this should make sense. Therefore, even though the exclusion of human females is implied in all these legislations, it is never specifically stated because it was always clearly assumed. There was no need to spell out the principle of "avaton" because it was so widely established, understood and deeply respected by males and females alike.
How do these principles and legislations apply today? The "avaton" is still firmly established for human females, however it is much more lenient when it comes to female domestic animals and beardless youth. I know of children going to Mount Athos around the age of twelve, and beardless youth as well, though it is still discouraged to shave while in Mount Athos and even a few days prior to coming to Mount Athos. As for female domestic animals being prohibited, I once asked an Athonite monk about this and he simply thought it was ridiculous that people believed such a thing. For example, hens are bred in Mount Athos, and there is a strong cat population on the Holy Mountain that could not exist unless there were female cats. I don't believe also that when a cow or donkey dies in Mount Athos they have go into the world to purchase another, at least not in every monastery; it is more likely that they breed there (though I've never inquired into this specifically).
Another myth that often comes up about Mount Athos is that not even female saints are allowed to be depicted in icons in Mount Athos, except of course the Mother of God who is the Abbess of the Holy Mountain. This certainly is not true, as female icons can be seen throughout Mount Athos. When I asked the same Athonite monk about female saints being forbidden in Athonite iconography, he just shook his head in astonishment, wondering where people get such ideas. To give just one of many examples, below is a picture from the Katholikon (Central Church) of Vatopaidi Monastery, where on the bottom left is a fresco that depicts the Mother of God holding Christ, surrounded by female saints.