October 8, 2020

Saint Pelagia the Harlot, A Living Embodiment of the Goddess Aphrodite

On October 8th the Orthodox Church commemorates a fourth century woman who is said to have been a very beautiful actress, dancer and the most notorious prostitute in Antioch, so beautiful in fact that no carnal men could take his eyes off of her. She was a haughty woman who enjoyed being the center of attention, splendidly yet scantily adorned, accompanied by a large crowd of admirers, leaving in her wake a fragrance of alluring perfume. Her birth name was Pelagia, but the people of Antioch called her Margarita after the many pearls she adorned herself with by her sinful lifestyle. One day, when she overheard Archbishop Nonnus of Antioch preaching about the Last Judgment, Pelagia was overcome by the weight of her sins, and after being reborn in the waters of baptism and once again assuming her birthname Pelagia, she went on to lead a life of repentance and chastity till her death.

The goddess Aphrodite was also known by the epithet Pelagia. The name Pelagia implies "one who was from the sea". According to the myth, Aphrodite was born two generations before Zeus when the ancient god Cronos chopped off the genitals of the god Uranos with a sickle, and when his genitals fell in the ocean it was covered with foam, and from it emerged Aphrodite as a fully formed woman. She was then taken by a giant scallop shell to the island of Cyprus, where she met attractive girls who adorned her with beautiful clothes and stunning jewels, while doves and sparrows flocked around her and accompanied her. Aphrodite was so beautiful that all men who saw her loved her, and she was known to have had many sexual encounters with both gods and men, even after she was married. The ancient Greeks called pearls the "tears of Aphrodite", because they both emerged from the ocean and she had been carried along in a scallop shell. This is how the goddess of love was born.

To the citizens of the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries who had known and heard about Saint Pelagia, which included Saint John Chrysostom, she was like a living embodiment of the goddess Aphrodite. Her striking beauty, her sexuality, the evocation of lust, her luxurious adornment, her fame, and both of her names Pelagia and Margarita conjured up the connection with Aphrodite and the sea as well as pearls. Most especially we have the theme of birth and rebirth. While Aphrodite was born in the sea and emerged as a full formed woman becoming known by the epithet of Pelagia, Margarita was reborn as a full formed woman in the waters of baptism and took on once more her birthname Pelagia. Such an uncanny resemblance cannot be overlooked.