Queer “Saint”, Ethiopian Nun Walatta Petros

In a useful report at qspirit of an early African saint with a female partner,  Kittredge Cherry provides material that as well as being an intriguing report of an Ethiopian queer saint,  is also a reminder that:

  • Christianity was well-established in Africa more than a thousand years before the arrival of the colonial missionaries.
  • Same-sex relationships were common in Africa before the colonial period
  • Ethiopia had a literary tradition and written script before the colonial period
  • Ethiopia was never colonised by missionaries
  • “Saints” are not exclusively those formally honoured by the Vatican.

Introducing her post, Cherry writes:

Walatta Petros is a 17th-century Ethiopian nun and saint who had an intense lifelong friendship with another nun and led a successful movement to drive out foreign missionaries. Her feast day is Nov. 23.

Her biography, written by her disciples just 30 years after her death, is the earliest known depiction of same-sex desire among women in sub-Saharan Africa. That section was censored until 2015, when the first English translation was published.

Cherry’s source is a 2015 translation by Wendy Belcher and Michael Kleiner, of a 17th-Century African Biography by by Galawdewos.  Acknowledging that the story is “controversial”, for more background on the story, she includes a link to Belcher’s webpage.

There, Belcher describes the painstaking work of not simply translating, but also editing the original text by comparing twelve different extant hand-written manuscript copies. She is careful to insist that as a nun committed to a celibate, ascetic life, Walatta Petros’ relationship with her female partner Eleha Kristos was clearly not a sexual one. Rather it was one of deep emotional attachment and mutual care – probably similar in this respect to that between Cardinal Newman and St John Ambrose. However, the text includes a report that she observed plainly sexual “lustful behaviour” between other nuns.

The Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros plainly depicts a scene of Walatta Petros witnessing nuns being lustful with each other.  This scene shows that desire between members of the same sex is not a recent Western import to Ethiopia but existed in Ethiopia before the twentieth century.

Defending her translation against allegations that “lustful” is not an accurate translation of the original text, she includes an image of the original, together with an extract from the foremost English-Gəˁəz dictionary.  I include the image, just to show the appearance of the Gəˁəz script.

The Ethiopian Orthodox church has a long history as an independent body extending back at least to the early fourth century, when it was granted its own Patriarch by the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa, Cyril VI. Ethiopian tradition however, dates it back at least to a mission by the apostles Bartholomew and Matthew, and possibly to the Ethiopian eunuch described in Acts 8:26-40. Ethiopia is also the second country only after Armenia to have officially proclaimed Christianity as state religion (in 333 AD).

One of the reasons for the Ethiopian veneration of Walatta Petros as a saint, is her record of resisting and then expelling Jesuit missionaries in 1632, thus preserving their distinctive form of Christianity.  In recent years, some Catholic bishops and others have  objected to what they describe as “ideological neo-colonialism” for introducing homosexuality and non-binary understanding of gender. The story of Walatta Petros is a reminder that “ideological colonialism” was central to the missionary project itself, in Africa, the Americas, and Asia – and that same-sex relationships and gender variance were a feature of all these regions before the colonial period.

It was not homosexuality, but homophobia and transphobia, that the missionaries and colonial authorities imported.

Related posts

Recommended Books

  • Brockton, Nobert: Boy Wives and Female Husbands 
  • Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality and Civilization
  • Greenberg, David F: The Construction of Homosexuality
  • Herrada,  Gilles:  The Missing Myth: A New Vision of Same-Sex Love
  • Naphy, William: Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality 
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