December 7, 2015
Earliest-known biography of Ethiopian woman features religious struggle and same-sex love
by Kait Howard
In seventeenth-century Ethiopia, a religious noblewoman named Walatta Petros (1592–1642) left her husband to lead the struggle against the Jesuit conversion of Ethiopian Christians to Roman Catholicism. Eventually elevated to sainthood for these efforts, Petros lived the rest of her life in what is thought to have been a romantic, if celibate, relationship with a fellow-nun. Thirty years after her death, her disciples wrote her biography. This month, Princeton University Press published the book in its first English translation.
The text—the earliest-known, book-length biography of an African woman—has only previously been translated from the Gəˁəz language into Amharic and Italian. That is, until Wendy Laura Belcher, an associate professor at Princeton University, stumbled upon a mention of the book and decided to undertake its English translation.
The Guardian’s Alison Flood reports:
“Translator and editor Wendy Laura Belcher…came across the biography while she was studying Samuel Johnson’s translation [of] A Voyage to Abyssinia. ‘I saw that Johnson was fascinated by the powerful noble Ethiopian women in the text,’ said Belcher. ‘I was speaking with an Ethiopian priest about this admiration and he told me that the women were admired in Ethiopia as well, where some of them had become saints in the Ethiopian church and had had hagiographies written about them.’”
It took Belcher ten years to learn Gəˁəz and complete the English version, aided by the Ethiopian priest she consulted, as well as the translator Michael Kleiner.
Petros’s story gives scholars significant insight into the lives of religious women in an African nation that was never colonized by a European power, but still experienced the presence of Jesuit missionaries. Belcher told The Guardian, “As a biography, it is full of human interest, being an extraordinary account of early modern African women’s lives—full of vivid dialogue, heartbreak, and triumph.”
Of particular note is the book’s frank depiction of same-sex desire among African women during the time—an element that was, according to Belcher, either mistranslated or censored in the Italian version of the book. The text includes extensive description of the relationship between Petros and another nun, Eheta Kristos, whose first encounter was “rapturous,” and who “lived together in mutual love, like soul and body… the two did not separate, neither in times of tribulation and persecution, nor in those of tranquility, but only in death.”
While Belcher notes that the nuns were certainly celibate, these details will likely strike many contemporary readers as another suprising aspect of a story that deserves wider readership.
The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros is available from Princeton University Press.
Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.