Controversy over Sexuality in the Gadla Walatta Petros
In October 2014, a controversy over sexuality and the Ethiopian woman saint Walatta Petros emerged after I, Dr. Wendy Laura Belcher, began giving talks at US universities about her. This controversy re-emerges from time to time, with misinformation about my position spread online, so I created this page to aid those members of the general public who are interested in understanding the matters at the heart of the controversy. To make things clear about who did what, I’ve put myself in the third person below.
(Scholars should instead read my full-length article on the topic which appeared in Research in African Literatures. It discusses the different reading protocols required—merging surface and symptomatic reading, as well as attending to Ethiopian authorial and interpretive practices—for interpreting these texts, protocols for which queer theory provides useful warnings and tools. There, I proffer various interpretations of the Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros and insist on none.)
The hagiography titled the Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros was written down in 1672 about the Ethiopian woman Walatta Petros (Wälättä P̣eṭros, ወለተ ጴጥሮስ ). It was written in the Ethiopian language Gəˁəz. The author was Galäwdewos, but he was writing down oral histories from nuns and monks in her monastery. Walatta Petros is a saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Täwaḥədo Church, one of the oldest churches in the world, with a vibrant following today of around 50 million people.
The Translation and Edition
The first translation of this text into English, The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman, appeared in 2015. Published by Princeton University Press, it was co-translated and co-edited by Wendy Laura Belcher and the gifted translator she hired, Michael Kleiner. This 538-page book, with thousands of footnotes and hundreds of pages of contextual and scholarly information, is not just a mere translation. It is also an edition, based on comparing twelve different manuscripts of the Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros. That is, Galäwdewos wrote the original on parchment and monks in neighboring monasteries copied that original. Each scribe, when copying, created tiny differences accidentally (or, rarely, deliberately), so each manuscript is slightly different than the other manuscripts. Belcher and Kleiner compared eleven manuscripts to come up with the best translation, and documented the variations in the notes. Since previous translations and editions of the Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros were based on just one manuscript, and that one badly copied, with many errors, the award-winning English translation edition is now the definitive work on the Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros. Scholars have stated that it is one of the finest translations into English of a Gəˁəz text ever done. This is largely due to the expertise of Michael Kleiner, who has extraordinary knowledge of Gəˁəz.
The Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros plainly depicts a scene of Walatta Petros witnessing nuns being lustful with each other. Many scholars who read Gəˁəz, both Ethiopian and European, have agreed that the English translation of this sentence as it appears in The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros is correct. 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. See below for detailed information about the English translation of this sentence.
Walatta Petros’s Female Partner
The Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros plainly depicts the friendship of Walatta Petros and a woman named Eheta Kristos (Ǝḫətä Krəstos). They became friends when they were first starting out as nuns and they remained dear friends for the next twenty-five years, leading Walatta Petros’s community together. Many scenes depict the women discussing their lives, eating together, traveling to dozens of places together, reading to each other, taking care of each other when sick, and making decisions together.
In her talks and article, Belcher has said that this friendship was not sexual (the two women did not have sex with each other), but that they were life partners. Belcher has stated that it is unlikely that Walatta Petros and Eheta Kristos had sex with each other because these two women were nuns devoted (1) to celibacy and (2) to an extreme asceticism that denied all pleasures of the flesh. Although Belcher has repeatedly stated that the two women were life partners who did not have sex, many Ethiopians have sexualized the matter and accused her of depicting the celibate saint as in an ongoing sexual relationship. These false accusations have to do with current Ethiopian politics around LGBTIQA issues rather than the translation.
Walatta Petros’s Desires
An Ethiopian monk, interpreting the response of Walatta Petros to the lustful nuns in Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros, stated that the book suggested that the saint herself felt desire upon looking at these lustful women. Belcher reported on this interpretation in her talks and provided further evidence for this interpretation. Since all Christian saints must struggle against temptation–including sexual temptation–Belcher has speculated that the text suggests that God sent this sight of lustful nuns to tempt the saint. Further, Belcher wrote an article considering all the ways of interpreting the relationship of Walatta Petros and Eheta Kristos, especially in light of the lustful nuns’ anecdote. She hopes that others will read the translation and publish their own interpretations. There is always room for debate when it comes to interpretation.
Lustful Nuns in the English Translation
Some non-scholars have said that the sentence about the lustful nuns does not exist in the Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros, but this position is now rare. Most acknowledge that the sentence exists, although some members of the Ethiopian Täwaḥədo Orthodox Church have continued to say it has nothing to do with lust. In 2020, an Ethiopian scholar published his interviews with Ethiopian priests who agree that the sentence does speak of lust on a literal level, but that it should be interpreted on a metaphorical level. Those interested in the topic should read Kleiner’s lengthy defense of the translation of that passage and others. Below is a short explanation, for convenience:
A. The Gəˁəz sentence in the original manuscript from the saint’s monastery and that was written in 1672:
B. The Gəˁəz sentence transliterated and with the literal translation for the lustful part:
… ǝnzä … yǝtmarrǝˁa bä-bäynatihon (being lustful [fem.] with each other [fem.])
C. The Gəˁəz word ይትማርዓ (yǝtmarrǝˁa) as defined in the foremost English-Gəˁəz dictionary (see the full entry in Google Books page 356):
D. The Gəˁəz word ይትማርዓ (yǝtmarrǝˁa) appears in the foremost Amharic-Gəˁəz dictionary with the same sexual definitions, as well as some ostensibly nonsexual ones. However, two examples from other Gəˁəz texts are provided to demonstrate the word’s typical use and both textual examples are about same-sex desire. It thus seems probably that this is the preferred word for same-sex desire in Gəˁəz.
E. The English translation of the sentence in Belcher and Kleiner’s work is thus correct:
Now our holy mother Walatta Petros revealed [the secret] to him, “Since you compel me, listen up and let me tell you. It was evening and I was sitting in the house, facing the gate, when I saw some young nuns pressing against each other and being lustful with each other, each with a female companion.” (page 255)
F. The controversy is sometimes fueled by those using the Amharic translation of the book as their source, but it was translated from one mistaken manuscript. The first manuscript of GWP, the one written by the author, plus the other eight oldest manuscripts, which are copies of it, have the Gəˁəz word ይትማርዓ (yǝtmarrǝˁa, lustful). Only two late manuscripts (one copied for a European) have ይትማርሓ (yǝtmarrǝḥa), meaning ǝnzä … yǝtmarrǝḥa bä-bäynatihon (leading each other around or playing around). This “leading each other” around version was used for the Amharic translation, which many use to challenge Kleiner and Belcher’s translation, without consulting the Gəˁəz manuscripts.
Again, those interested in the topic should read Kleiner’s scholarly defense.
Some scholarly terms that Belcher has used in her talks and published research have been misunderstood by the general public. So, some definitions below.
Queer: In the twentieth-century United States, the word “queer” was used as a hurtful word for those who were homosexual–people who had romantic or sexual relationships with members of their own gender. In the late 1980s, activists and scholars began to reclaim the word and use it to create community among those who did not fit dominant ideas of gender or sexuality and to develop a broader way of thinking about relationships, called queer theory.
Queer theory: In queer theory, all identities are considered fluid, not stable. Your gender identity is not a binary–you are not either a woman or a man–but a range: you may behave in different gendered ways in different places, cultures, or times in your life. Also, genitalia, being male or female, does not determine your own gender. Likewise, sexuality is not a binary–you are not either “normal” or “homosexual”–but a range: you may behave one way as a youth, another way as an adult, another way in prison, and another way as an old person. Also, genitalia does not determine the gender of the person you desire. Contrary to the popular understanding, queer theory is not very interested in sexual activity and does not see sexual activity as the defining component of a relationship. It is interested in relationships of all sorts.
Queer reading: In the United States, performing a “queer reading” of a text does not mean identifying the people in the text as homosexuals. It is reading for difference of all sorts, including any relationships that do not look like one woman married to one man and having children.
Women-desiring women: Queer theory asserts that we cannot label past behaviors with modern identities like “lesbian.” That’s because sexual identities are formed in different ways in different times and places. However, many fields of scholarship–including biology, archeology, and anthropology–have taught us that throughout human history and in every culture there have been women who desired women and men who desired men. Thus, in the Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros, there are no “lesbians,” but there are definitely women-desiring women.
Same-sex intimacies: Because queer theory is not primarily interested in sexual activity, it has a number of terms for relationships that leave this matter open. For instance, the term same-sex intimacies is about all types of closeness between members of the same gender. This extends from a range of nonsexual relationships (such as those between mothers and daughters or good female friends) to a range of sexual relationships (such as boys having sex with boys at boarding school or two men who marry each other and have sex).
Life-long partnership: Women life partners is a common relation in many African countries, and around the world. This is a relationship in which two women support each other through life as if they were married. In some cases, the relationship has a sexual aspect; in many others, it does not. The term “life-long partnership” does not limit itself to sexual relationships but leaves this aspect of the relationship ambiguous.