Women are excluded from the inner sanctums of many religions--the all-male priesthood of the Catholic Church comes to mind. But I've heard there's a monastery in Greece so misogynistic it excludes female animals. Can this be true? What's the deal? Do they really think femaleness in any form will defile the joint, or are they just concerned that the monks will get, you know, lonely?
--Emily Gusba, Franklin, Tennessee
This is outside my traditional area of expertise, Emily. But if I'd reached the point where a sheep started looking good to me, do you think I'd stop because it wasn't female?
There really is a place that takes things to the extremes you describe, but it's not just one monastery, it's a peninsula full of them--specifically the peninsula of Athos, more commonly known as Mount Athos, which juts into the Aegean Sea in northern Greece. Somewhat grandly referred to as the Garden of the Mother of God (lest we rubes get it mixed up with the Wisconsin Dells), the wild, spectacularly beautiful promontory is home to 20 monasteries, 2,500 monks, and an unknown number of domestic animals--all male. Exception: the local cats, which even the most determined defenders of the faith have learned to leave alone.
Mount Athos is said to be the oldest surviving monastic community in the world. According to legend, the Virgin Mary landed on the peninsula after having been blown off course while traveling and was so struck by its beauty that she asked her son to let it be her garden. Done, said a voice. From that moment--one recognizes a certain gap in the logic here--the peninsula was out of bounds to any other woman.
Mount Athos's history as an organized religious community dates from the ninth century AD. In 885 the Byzantine emperor formally recognized the peninsula as the province of monks and forbade anyone except religious men from living there. Another edict outlawed the construction of any roads to the area, and to this day it's accessible only by boat. Numerous monasteries were built over the ensuing centuries, many of them quite impressive architecturally and containing many beautiful icons and other treasures that are said to be a wonder to behold. But of course if you're a female (anything), you won't.
The when and why of this ban on female domestic animals isn't clear. The simplest explanation is an excess of religious zeal, but one theory I've heard is that the ban dates from the time when the monks shared the peninsula with secular herdsmen and didn't want to compete with them in the raising of animals. Whether or not this is true, the ban presents a pretty basic obstacle to animal husbandry and must have complicated the monasteries' efforts to achieve economic self-sufficiency--to which some may say, Serves 'em right.
Today Mount Athos is an autonomous state within a state, with only 130 outsiders permitted to visit per day. Of this number, 120 spots are reserved for Orthodox Christian pilgrims, while the remaining 10 are for men who can demonstrate a legitimate scholarly or other interest. This involves a lengthy application process, so even if you've got testosterone hissing off you like steam, your chances of actually seeing the place aren't so hot.
One concedes that the ban on females recalls those NO GRILS ALOUD clubs little boys set up in tree forts. Still, let's not be too quick to mock. Like monasteries elsewhere in Europe, those on Mount Athos have often been a candle in a world of darkness, preserving in their libraries many books and manuscripts that otherwise would have been lost and maintaining many aspects of Greek culture during the centuries-long occupation by the Turks. And it's not true that no woman has ever seen the place. During the Greek civil war following World War II, I'm told, the monasteries on Mount Athos sheltered women and girls from the brutality on the mainland. So I'm inclined to be kind and say they come through when it counts.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.