August 4, 2014

Women Who Violated the Avaton of Mount Athos

A Pontian woman violated it in 1953, forcing the State to enact a law with penalties.

Tasos K. Kontogiannidis
August 4, 2014

Four years ago, two ladies of an artsy community in Brussels, rather than dealing with serious community problems, were hurt over the fact that Mount Athos is inaccessible to women (avaton) and asked "for the sake of equality" for it to be abolished. These idle women had to occupy themselves with something, so they should have rather been quick to learn the reasoning behind and the purpose of the avaton.

The Monastic State of Mount Athos, an autonomous and self-governed part of the Greek State, politically belongs to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and religiously to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. In this area there exists the "avaton", that is, the ban on opposite genders entering monasteries from the time of Justinian  that was introduced into Roman Law in 539: "A female is not to enter a male monastery at all, nor is a male to enter a female monastery."

Respect for the Avaton

This ban was respected even by the Turkish agas who during their visits would leave their harems at Karyes. They kept it "avaton, impassible and untrodden by females". Of course, this had nothing to do with devaluing women, but was rather for the protection and respect of monastics in regards to temptations.

The constitutional protection of the "avaton" was respected in a joint statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the European Union, with the only objections being from the female foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland, as well as some female European Parliament members. Even the European Parliament adopted the "avaton" by a vote of 277 in favor, 255 against and 15 abstention.


According to legend, the first violation of the avaton took place in 1346 by the wife of the ruler of Serbia Stephen Dusan, Helen, without entering however the Serbian Monastery of Hilandari. Also, the wife of the English ambassador to Constantinople Stratford Canning visited Mount Athos by exception in 1850, and she was greeted by the monks. But after Patriarch Anthimos in a letter dated 12/18/1854 understood the reasons for the exemption, he constituted strictly for this to not be repeated.

Documented, also, is the violation by the elected Miss Europe of 1930, Aliki Diplarakou, who was a guest aboard a yacht by the owner, and it touched down at an Athonite port with the help of a monk. Two other cases of particular interest are a French journalist and a Pontian woman from Thessaloniki.

The lively French journalist Maryse Choisy claimed that in 1929 she entered Mount Athos dressed as a man, stayed a month, then returned home and wrote all of her experiences in the book Un mois avec les hommes (A Month With Men on Mount Athos). She wrote about some "kinky" monk who only spoke about making love, temptations and a guilty conscience. A reporter from the newspaper Makedonia later went to the Monastic State and speaking with monks received the following response: "It is a made-up fantasy. She probably only saw Mount Athos from a boat. Further, how is it possible for a young and pretty girl, prone to adventures, to remain even a day in whatever type of outfit, amid five thousand lively stout monks, and not bring any of them ... to temptation? Would she have remained unscathed for a month?"

Maria Poimenidou

The Venture of Maria Poimenidou and Her Motivation

The second case refers to a bold Pontian from Thessaloniki in 1953. This is what the newspaper report from Embros says:

"Despite official denials by the Minister of Northern Greece Mr. Stratos, we disclose today that the avaton of Mount Athos has been breached. This did not take place from among the females in the mentioned Byzantine Studies Conference, but by a juvenile of 22 years of age named Maria Poimenidou, who entered the Conference as one of the participants dressed as a man. She stayed for three days, from Friday 4/17/1953 to Sunday April 19th, visiting most of the monasteries. As she stated, for many years she planned to 'tread upon Mount Athos' with a flaming desire to see in person what manner of life the monks lead."

The venture of Maria Poimenidou was the cause of a vote two months later, on July 12th of the same year, of LD 2623/1953, that gave offenders a one year imprisonment.

Translated by John Sanidopoulos.