THECLA was the most popular female saint after Mary in early Christianity. Thecla was widely remembered as a disciple of the apostle Paul in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The original source for the Thecla legend was the second-century Acts of Paul and Thecla, which reports her story as follows: When Paul comes to Thecla's hometown of Iconium preaching a gospel that emphasized the virtue of celibacy, Thecla abandons her plans for marriage and follows the apostle. This countercultural action provokes the anger of her fiancé, her family, and the local governor, who together conspire to have her burned at the stake. Thecla is saved only when a miraculous thunderstorm quenches the flames. Later, after being reunited with Paul, she is sexually assaulted on the road to Antioch by a prominent citizen of that city. She manages to rebuff her attacker, but he arranges to have her thrown to the beasts in the local arena. While in custody she receives support from a rich female patron, and in the arena she is defended by a lioness and survives the attacks of lions, bears, and bulls. She finally throws herself into a pool filled with ravenous seals, which are struck dead by a flash of lightning, and she baptizes herself in the water. After the awestruck governor releases her, she dresses herself in male clothes and begins to travel and teach the gospel after the fashion of Paul. Ultimately, Thecla takes her final rest at the town of Seleucia (modern Silifke, Turkey).
The North African writer Tertullian (On Baptism 17, c. 200 ce) provides the first external reference to the Acts of Paul and Thecla. He reports that it was composed by an Asian presbyter, but certain details in Thecla's story have prompted speculation about the folkloric origins of her legend. The prominence of female characters and the details of their social relations have led some scholars to argue further that the Acts of Paul and Thecla may have had roots in the storytelling practices of ascetic women. While such origins ultimately remain uncertain, Tertullian gives evidence that early Christian women appealed to Thecla's example to "defend the liberty of women to teach and to baptize" (On Baptism 17).
By the fourth and fifth centuries, devotion to Thecla as a saint and ascetic exemplar had become a widespread phenomenon in the Mediterranean world. The focal point of this devotion was her pilgrimage shrine, Hagia Thekla at Seleucia. Ancient sources describe large numbers of monks who lived in the vicinity and managed the shrine, including a community of female virgins in residence within the sanctuary area. Modern excavations at the site have uncovered the remains of three basilicas, a large public bath, and a number of cisterns. A flurry of architectural adaptation at the site in the late fifth century attests its rapidly growing popularity among Christian pilgrims.
Thecla's shrine was also the recipient of literary patronage. Later writers produced expanded versions of her legend, including accounts of her "martyrdom" at Seleucia—specifically, how she finally escaped her persecutors by disappearing into a large rock while still alive. The story was meant to validate the local veneration of Thecla as a true martyr, despite the absence of her bodily relics. The rock into which she sank became a local cultic marker, the site of the altar in her church. Finally, collections of miracle stories also documented the experiences of pilgrims who came to the shrine in search of healing, among them women from a wide range of social backgrounds.
The cult of Saint Thecla—that is, the social practices, institutions, and material artifacts that marked the lives of actual devotees—was not limited to Hagia Thekla at Seleucia. From Gaul to Palestine, devotion to Thecla was expressed through literature and art: her visual image appears on wall paintings, clay flasks, oil lamps, bronze crosses, wooden combs, stone reliefs, golden glass medallions, and textile curtains.
One region for which there is wide-ranging evidence of Thecla devotion is Egypt. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 300–373 ce) refers to Thecla extensively in his writings to Alexandrian virgins, and his rhetoric presupposes that his female ascetic readers were already intimately familiar with Thecla's example. During the theological controversies of the fourth century, this community of women was exiled to the distant Kharga Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt. Ancient wall paintings of Thecla that still survive in local cemetery chapels may provide evidence for the funerary practices of those ascetic women at the oasis. Alexandrian devotion to Thecla is also witnessed by the production of monastic Lives modeled after her example—among them, a series of legends about early Christian transvestite saints (monastic women who disguised themselves as men). Near Alexandria, a satellite shrine to Saint Thecla was established near the pilgrimage center dedicated to the Egyptian Saint Menas. Numerous pilgrim flasks with the image of Thecla paired with Menas survive from that site. Finally, the cult of Thecla was thoroughly "Egyptianized" in late antiquity with the production of new namesake martyr legends connected with locales in the Nile Valley.
Other regions have provided more scattered material evidence for Thecla devotion. Fourth-century golden-glass medallions with the image of Thecla among the beasts have been discovered at a cemetery in Köln, Germany. A church and catacomb in Rome are named after Saint Thecla, but no specific images or artifacts survive that might give information about her local cult in late antiquity. In Syriac Christianity, despite a lack of nontextual artifacts from antiquity, a rich literary tradition has been preserved, including a homily given by Severus of Antioch (c. 465–538 ce) on the feast day of Saint Thecla, and at least eleven manuscripts of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the oldest dating to the sixth century ce. Finally, in North Africa, red ceramic pottery from the late fourth or early fifth century portrays the anonymous image of a female martyr, stripped to the waist and praying with arms outstretched between two lions. The details of the iconography have led some to argue that the figure is Thecla; however, it could just as easily be the representation of a namesake African martyr. A similar case appears on the gravestone of an Egyptian woman named Thecla, where the deceased is portrayed in the image of her patron saint.
The evidence for namesakes of Saint Thecla is fairly abundant in late antiquity, and the practice of naming one's child after the saint provides yet another window into the religiosity of her devotees. This religiosity was ultimately grounded in an ethic of imitation. Whether they were mothers or virgins, early Christian women who participated in Thecla's cult commonly saw themselves as striving to imitate her virtues as a female saint and martyr.
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van den Hoek, Annewies, and John J. Herrmann Jr. "Thecla the Beast Fighter: A Female Emblem of Deliverance in Early Christian Popular Art." The Studia Philonica Annual 13 (2001): 212–249.
Stephen J. Davis (2005)