In the history of the Holy Mountain, there are a few instances recorded where women violated the sacrosanct and entered the “forbidden” world of the monks.
The legendary first violation of the sacrosanct was in 1346. The “guilty” party was Helen, wife of the Serbian ruler Stephen Dushan. However, she did not reach the Serbian monastery Hilander.
In 1850, the wife of the British ambassador in Constantinople, Stratford Canning, visited Mount Athos exceptionally and with prior authorization. Although the Patriarch Anthimos indicated in his letter that he “understood” the reasons for the visit, he strictly recommended not repeating it.
In 1929, a French journalist, Maryse Choisy, is said to have went to Mount Athos dressed as a man and stayed there for a month. Upon her return, she wrote a book about her experiences, and the “kinky” monk who continually spoke of his desire for making love, temptations and a guilty conscience. Her book entitled, “A Month with the Men of Mount Athos”
The members of the Monastic State responded to her book, “It is fanciful. 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 5,000 lively stout monks, and not bring any of them…to temptation? Would she have remained unscathed for a month?” [Obviously these monks were unfamiliar with the Gerontikon and Lives of Saints where many women have dressed up as men and lived their entire lives in male monasteries].
In 1932, Aliki Diplarakou, “Miss Europe of 1930”, disguised herself as a man and snuck into a monastery. She was publicly cursed and anathematized by Patriarch Photios II.
However, the case of the Pontic woman from Thessaloniki, Maria Poimenidou, was the most interesting since it was the cause—two months after her venture—for Legislative Decree 2623/1953 to be voted. This decree imposes an imprisonment for up to one year for offenders.
On April 17th, 1953, the then 22-year-old Maria “slipped” into the depths of Mount Athos dressed as a man and remained there until the 19th of the same month.
It should be noted that the State of Mount Athos, the Self-governing and Autonomous Part of the Greek State , belongs politically to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
These are the incidents that have been officially recorded.
The following information is taken from Ralph H. Brewster’s The 6,000 Beards of Athos, 1935, pp. 16-18:
…From the very earliest constitution to the present day, admittance to the Holy Mountain has been expressly forbidden to all women, female women, female animals and beardless youths. The latter provision is by no means observed nowadays. That relating to female animals is still preserved with the sole exception that nowadays hens and female cats are kept by idiorhythmic monasteries. Other animals are still excluded, “so that their mating nay not furnish an outlandish spectacle to souls which detest all forms of indecency, and are daily being purified” (Monk Pavlos of Xiropotamou, quoted by Choukas, Black Angels of Athos, p. 204).
The part of the law relating to women has, however, never been slackened. Women have never been permitted on the Holy Mountain. If some have succeeded in living there, they have not published the fact. In modern times, various women have tried to enter Mount Athos, mainly, however, from motives of curiosity; but they have had very little success. A year or two ago a Swedish girl came dressed as a man and equipped with her brother’s passport. But already on the steamer doubts were raised about her sex; she didn’t seem to be quite one thing or the other. And, finally, as she was about to land, she had a fit of giggling, completely giving the show away.
Mademoiselle Maryse Choisy, in her seductively entitled book: Un Mois chez les Hommes, has made far greater claims. She describes the endless trouble she went through in order to enter, the opening words of the book being: “To start with I had my breasts cut off.” She describes herself being smuggled in, rolled up in a mattress. Once there she proceeds to have a series of completely improbable adventures. However, to anyone that knows anything at all about Athos, the book is a complete and obvious fake. Mademoiselle Choisy was never there.
A Greek girl, “Miss Europe” of 1930, at least landed on Athos. She came with another girl on her fiance’s yacht, and they both went ashore dressed as sailors at the monastery of Vatopaidi, where I heard the details of this story. The two girls walked about an hour or two, and one young monk in particular flirted with them a bit, without knowing that they were girls. “Miss Europe” had herself photographed beside the monk, and when she returned to Athens published the photograph in a newspaper along with the story of her adventure. After some time the newspaper found its way to Vatopaidi. The young monk without saying a word took off his cassock and gave up his whole religious life. He went to Athens in civilian clothes intending to marry the girl. But he found her already married and his despair at his hopes being shattered was so deep that he went mad. He is still being kept at a sanitarium near Athens.
But who knows if other women have not defeated the thousand-year-old laws of Athos and, unknown to fame, succeeded in living in the one country in the world from which they are excluded?