Theodora of Alexandria: A 5th Century Gender Fluid Desert Mother?

Theodora of Alexandria: A 5th Century Gender Fluid Desert Mother? February 22, 2023

artist rendering of Theodora of Alexandria
pen and ink drawing by Trey Everett

The legend of Theodora of Alexandria is a 5th century tale of sex, gender fluidity and deception.

Theodora was a beautiful married woman, who in a moment of sexual passion cheated on her husband with another man. Her guilt over this indiscretion led her to a life of penance in the desert. So, Theodora cut her hair and posed as a man named Theodore to join an ascetic community of desert monks (since the desert fathers considered women too much of a temptation to live among them).

Living a necessary lie

For the rest of her life, Theodore/Theodora fooled everyone, including a young woman who attempted an unsuccessful seduction. When the young woman turned up pregnant, she named Theodore as the father (as a trap) not realizing that was biologically impossible. As a result, the baby boy and Theodore left the community and lived in poverty for seven years. Theodore chose exile rather than reveal the truth about her biological gender.

Penance for someone else’s sin

Throughout all of this, Theodore/Theodora, accepted this harsh treatment as punishment from God for that one incident of extramarital sex. Still, she was a sought-after teacher of the spiritual life. She remained dedicated to a life of integrity, patience, and concern for those she ministered to.

Neither asceticism, nor vigils nor any kind of suffering are able to save, only true humility can do that.  -Theodora

The truth revealed

Just before Theodore/Theodora died, the abbot of the community had a vision that revealed the truth about this non-binary monk. Biologically, he was female. As they dressed the body they discovered her secret. The monastic leaders contacted Theodora’s husband and brought him to the monastery to became a monk, living out his days in the desert community serving God and honoring Theodora.

Theodora is now considered as one of the Desert Mothers whose teachings can be found in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. She is a saint in the Orthodox Christian church.

About Teresa Blythe
Teresa Blythe is a spiritual director and founder of the Apprentice Training Program for spiritual directors. She's the author of "Spiritual Direction 101" and "50 Ways to Pray." Learn more about the work she does at her website You can read more about the author here.
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