Orthodox Monk Prayer Service

Greek Monk Lives His Entire Life Without Ever Seeing a Woman

Stories

| LAST UPDATE 09/26/2023

By Malikah Mcintosh

Men have been on the moon and traveled to the ocean's depths, but this Greek man did something no one else has. He lived his entire life without ever seeing a woman. Here's his fascinating story.

Mihailo Tolotos

Mihailo Tolotos was born over a hundred years ago, yet people are still fascinated with him today. He lived an ordinary life, but there was one extraordinary element to it: he never laid eyes on a woman.

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He was presumed to have been born around 1856 in a northern region of Greece called Halkidiki. However, shortly after his birth, his mother sadly passed away. There were no other family members left to care for the infant. What was going to happen to him?

A New Family

Luckily, the orphaned baby wasn't left completely alone. He was welcomed into a new family that would end up providing for him, raising him, and caring for him for the rest of his life. He was taken in and adopted by the Greek Orthodox monks who were living in the mountains of Mount Athos.

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The monks welcomed the baby with open arms. They were happy to give baby Mihailo a place to call home. However, growing up in a monastery is not the most typical upbringing. The monks living on Mount Athos did things differently than what we're used to.

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Strict Rules

The monks from the Orthodox Christianity religion follow strict rules in their daily lives. According to Meteroa Thrones Travel & Tourism Center, monks follow three basic guidelines: purity, lack of property, and obedience. Their belief is that this will bring them closer to God.

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Rudolph.A.Furtado, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The monks spend many hours of their day praying, but they also work on contributing to their community. These traditions are not new, either. They have been passed down from century to century. For thousands of years, monks have followed these rules.

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Historic Tradition

There has been a Christian presence on the peninsula of Mount Athos since ancient times. These traditions that are still followed today have roots in the Byzantine era. Although empires have risen and fallen around it, the rules and practices of the monks have remained.

Mount Athos Ancient SiteMount Athos Ancient Site
Unknown Author, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Monks have lived on this holy site since the fourth century and some even debate that they could have been there since the third. A long line of devotion and tradition has sustained the faith's followers for hundreds of years. However, some of the monks' rules may seem outdated in our modern world.

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No Women

One of the main rules of the monasteries on Mount Athos is that women are banned from entering. Not only are they excluded from the island, but women are not allowed within 500 meters of the coast, which is around 1,640 feet. This restriction has been put in place for over a thousand years.

Mount Athos Women BanMount Athos Women Ban
Christaras A at German Wikipedia, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This rule is one of the main reasons that Tolotos went his entire life without laying eyes on a woman. It may seem hard to believe for most of us, but it was normal for Tolotos and the monks living on Mount Athos. How does a rule like this even get set into place?

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The Reason Behind the Rule

There is a belief in the Orthodox tradition that gives insight into why this rule exists. Dr. Graham Speake, author of Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, explained, "One of the traditions is that the Virgin Mary was blown off course when she was trying to sail to Cyprus and landed on Mount Athos."

Virgin Mary greek monkVirgin Mary greek monk
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He continued, "And she liked it so much that she prayed to her son that she should be given it as her own and he agreed. It's still called 'the garden of the mother of God', dedicated to her glory, and she alone represents her sex on Mount Athos." Another reason to keep women off the island was to ensure celibacy.

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Growing Up on Mount Athos

While it may be an unconventional upbringing to what we are used to, growing up on Mount Athos must have been a magical experience. Towering mountains define the region. They dominate the landscape. Then, on the other side, there is the majestic and historical Aegean Sea.

Aegean Sea UNESCO SiteAegean Sea UNESCO Site
Dgolitsis, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The famous blue waters of the Aegean also have a historical significance. These waters are the backdrop to many Greek stories, and they are simply the backyard for the monks living on Mount Athos. The 80,000-acre site boasts trails through the mountainside that date back centuries.

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Daily Practices

Life for the monks on Mount Athos is quite simple, and it hasn't changed in hundreds of years besides a few electrical updates. Prayer is the number one priority for the monks. Everyday services are taking place, rain or shine, holiday or not. Services can run for six hours at a time. Wow!

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When the monks aren't praying, they remain busy. They also have tasks to be done every day. The monks on Mount Athos try to stay as sustainable as possible, so they grow their own food, renovate their buildings, tailor their own clothes, and more. Usually, they are praying as they complete their duties.

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Cultural Significance

Mount Athos has been a landmark destination for centuries. Many have sought to come to live a simpler life in the 20 monasteries on the peninsula, while others, religious and not, have come to visit the remarkable sight. The sight was even named on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

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It received this recognition back in 1988. This honor was bestowed due to Mount Athos' impressive architecture throughout the monasteries, the preservation of the various plant species, and its historical and cultural significance. This isn't the only notable thing about the peninsula…

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A Wealth of Treasures

With all of this religious and cultural importance, there are bound to be artifacts on Mount Athos, which is also known as the Holy Mountain. One of the most famous relics is the Codex Athous Dionysiou. It is a manuscript of the Old Testament that dates back to the 10th century. How cool is that?

UNESCO World Heritage TreasureUNESCO World Heritage Treasure
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It's known for its intricate decorations and is considered one of the great pieces of Byzantine art. Another rare manuscript held there is the Codex Sinaiticus. It is known as one of the oldest and most complete versions of the Bible that we have. Other treasures include ancient paintings, literature, and artwork.

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The Solemn Lifestyle

This quiet, solemn lifestyle is one that most seek out. People come from all over the world to try and live the life of a monk. For Mihailo Tolotos, he had no choice in the matter. This life was chosen for him. All he knew were the blue waters of the Aegean, the prayers of the monks, and a life of devotion.

Monastery Monks Mount AthosMonastery Monks Mount Athos
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He was raised in this world and knew no different. Although some travelers would pass by and tell their stories, they were monks just like him. Tolotos had little exposure to what else was out there. However, he wasn't alone in this. Many other monks chose this tranquil lifestyle for themselves.

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Not the Only One

There are an estimated 2,000 monks living on Mount Athos. They live among the twenty different monasteries on the Holy Mountain. Of the twenty monasteries, the majority of them are Greek. In fact, seventeen of them are Greek. The remaining three monasteries are Serbian, Bulgarian, and Russian.

Mount Athos Aegean SeaMount Athos Aegean Sea
Gvasiliadis53 CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Many monks living on Mount Athos work and live in their respective monasteries. However, there are some who choose to live off the beaten path. As poet Robert Frost would say, they decided to take the path less traveled by. So, where do these monks live?

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Living on the Outside

They live in small communities outside of the monasteries that are called sketes. According to The Guardian, these isolated living arrangements make the monks who chose this lifestyle feel closer to God as they are free from distractions to their prayer. 

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One of the remotest parts of Mount Athos is called Karoulia. Monks live right on the cliff's edge in this skete community! Many of these living spaces are hard to access, so the monks created a pulley system with rope and baskets to transport necessary supplies, like firewood and food.

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Skete Monks

Father Iusif is one monk who lives in Karoulia, one of the more secluded places on Mount Athos. He told The Guardian, "I don't like monastery life, it is like a prison. Here I am more free." He has a bedroom with crosses and paintings hanging on the walls. There is also a ceiling fan. 

Skete Monk Monastery LivingSkete Monk Monastery Living
Factuarius, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Another monk who lives in the community is Father Arsenios. When the picture essay was published in 2017, The Guardian reported that he had not left his home in 64 years. At that point, he was too frail to climb the surrounding cliffs. This lifestyle isn't for everyone, but for those who want it, they enjoy it very much. 

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Turn of the Century

While the monks may choose a life of solitude, things are constantly happening in the world around them. While Mihailo Tolotos was going about his life in the Holy Mountain, the turn of the century brought new inventions, fashion styles, and much more to the outside world.

Wright Brothers Plane HistoryWright Brothers Plane History
Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There were so many exciting things happening. The Wright brothers completed their first powered flight. Henry Ford revolutionized the automotive industry with the assembly line and his Model T car. Plus, author L. Frank Baum published his novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Yet, Tolotos did not experience any of it. 

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Heard the Rumors

He heard about women and knew what they were. There were stories from monks arriving at the monastery later in life and travelers stopping by for short periods. Tolotos also read about the other gender in his books. He read descriptions of them but was never curious enough to see one for himself.

Greek monk woman banGreek monk woman ban
Dgolitsis, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We can't help but wonder why he never sought out what females look, sound, or act like. Perhaps he wasn't curious enough or thought that something terrible would happen to him. More than never seeking out what women look like, Tolotos never left Mount Athos.

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Never Leaving

If he never left Mount Athos, that meant that he was never able to see a woman since they were barred from entering. He's not the only one who had no desire ever to leave. It is actually a more common sentiment shared amongst the monks than we could ever guess.

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When Father Iakovos received a phone call last year that his father was dying, he remained at the Holy Mountain. He told CBS correspondent Bob Simon, "I know that we're going to see each other in paradise one day." While this can be viewed as one downside to living this remote lifestyle, there is one big bonus.

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Long, Healthy Lives

The monks tend to live long, healthy lives. According to CBS News, there are "shockingly low levels of cancer and heart disease." Furthermore, barely any of the monks develop Alzheimer's. Scientists were curious about this observation and studied how the monks lived. They chalk up their nutritious lifestyles to their diets.

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"What seems to be the key is a diet that alternates between olive oil and non olive oil days, and plenty of plant proteins. It's not only what we call the Mediterranean diet, but also eating the old-fashioned way. Simple meals at regular intervals are very important," said urologist Haris Aidonopoulos to The Independent.

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Importing Eggs

They also barely eat dairy. Although, it's not because of the health benefits. It is part of their no-women rule. Not only does this ban apply to humans, but it also applies to their farm animals. Therefore, there are no eggs because there are no chickens, and there's barely any cheese because there are no female cows or goats.

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Mick D Kirkov CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

They have to order their dairy products from the outside. For Easter, they bring in eggs to keep with tradition. Dr. Graham Speake told the BBC, "They have eggs at Easter - hens' eggs which they paint red. That is absolutely standard. Again they have to import them as there are no chickens on the mountain."

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82 Years on the Island

Whatever the monks are doing on Mount Athos with their diet and exercise, it seems to be working. Mihailo Tolotos ended up living until he was 82 years old. Throughout all those decades, he farmed the land, prayed in services, and lived his life as monks do. He passed away in 1938.

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That entire time, through all those years, he never saw a woman. The monks on the mountain mourned the loss of their dear companion. Not only did they grieve their friend who grew up in the mountains, but they did something extra special to signify his remarkable status.

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Special Burial

The fellow monks living on the mountain thought it was right to give Tolotos a special burial for his special status. They believe that he was the only man in the world to have gone his entire life and died without ever really knowing what a woman looked like.

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Tolotos never stepped foot off of the Holy Mountain, and his bones will remain there forever. His life was celebrated because of his achievement of never laying eyes on a woman. While we don't know details about what happened at the burial, we can only assume that it was a moving event to memorialize this remarkable man.

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In the Newspaper

The news of his death didn't stay within the confines of the Holy Mountain. There was an obituary written about Mihailo and his life. While many obituaries talk about the family left behind, his life could not provide that. However, it did give insight into his life.

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Although it was not extremely detailed, the obituary provided a perspective on the type of life that Toloto lived. The Edinburgh Daily Courier posted the headline, "Monk Dies in Greece Without Seeing Woman," on October 29, 1938. Over 80 years later, the fact is still fascinating to people all over the world. 

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Believe It or Not

Not only did he never lay eyes on a woman, but there were other surprising things that Mihailo Tolotos never did or saw. According to his obituary, the Greek man never went to the cinemas to see a movie or rode in an airplane high above the sky. He also never even saw a car.

Ford Model T AutomobileFord Model T Automobile
William Creswell from Bremerton, Washington, USA, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

For all of us with Netflix accounts and long commutes to work where we spend hours in our vehicles, it is hard to imagine that someone never even saw any of these things. While it may seem utterly foreign to us, for Mihailo, it was completely normal. This was his way of life.

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Women on the Island

Although Tolotos never saw a woman because they have been banned on Mount Athos, there have been a few instances where women have defied the rules and gone ashore. During the Greek Civil War, which occurred between 1946 and 1949, a group of raiders, among them women, came to the mountain in search of animals.

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There was another instance in 1953 where a woman, Maria Poimenidou, tried to disguise herself as a man to be granted entry to the Holy Mountain. She managed to stay there for three days before her secret was found out. Afterward, Greece passed a law that anyone who breaks the ban can face jail time.

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A Fascinating Discovery

Another woman may have made her way onto the island, but she was found out quite unexpectedly. Women haven't been allowed on the Holy Mountain for over 1,000 years. Yet there was one found. The discovery was baffling. A team of researchers found skeletal remains of what appeared to be a woman.

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The remains were discovered under the floor of one of the Byzantine chapels, per Smithsonian Magazine. Phaidon Hadjiantoniou, one of the people who found the remains, said, "If a woman is found among the bones it will be the first known incident of a female finding her final resting place on Mount Athos." Spooky! 

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Not the Only Ones

Mount Athos is not the only location that has a ban on women in place. According to the BBC, there are a few others. One of them is located in Japan on Mount Omine. The area is considered a holy site by the Japanese folk religion, Shugendo. The mountain is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Another site that has a ban on women is the Sabarimala temple in India. The Hindu temple enforces a ban on women between the ages of 10 to 50. Many have tried to overthrow this rule. Yet another is Herbertstrasse Street in Hamburg's red-light district.

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Another Ban

Women aren't the only ones who face rules on Mount Athos. Just as there's a ban against their gender, one has also been implemented against young boys. Dr. Speake said, "The rule is and always has been that men should be capable of growing a beard if they were going to go to Athos…"

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Hippalus at English Wikipedia, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

He continued, "What happens nowadays is that boys frequently come if they're accompanied by an adult - usually their father…" While the rule has become somewhat flexible over the years, it remains. The rule was initially made because the monks were scared a woman pretending to be a boy or a eunuch could sneak in.

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Limited Visitors

Mount Athos has another strict rule to it. They have a visitors policy that requires a few hoops to go through. Firstly, anyone interested in traveling to the sacred site must submit a copy of their passport to the Mount Athos Pilgrims' Bureau. This permit is called a Diamonitirion.

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There are only 100 Orthodox and 10 non-Orthodox allowed to enter daily. The permits last four days, and visitors can stay three nights in one of the available monasteries. Women will be denied entry if they try applying. So, what do people think of this rule that led to Tolotos never seeing a female in his life?

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Protesting the Ban

According to HuffPost, there are a growing number of Orthodox women who are protesting the ban. They believe it is among their rights to partake in this part of the religion. The reporter wrote how there have been Facebook groups and political lobbying done to try and reverse this ancient ban. 

Holy Mountain Mount AthosHoly Mountain Mount Athos
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A group member of Allow Women to Visit Mount Athos wrote, "Catholic and Orthodox churches still refuse to recognize that men and women are of equal value and deserve equal respect and equal rights." Another commented, "Mount Athos is a place for every believer…" Although many are upset by the rule, no changes have happened.

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A Life Without Women

No matter what one's opinion is on the ban on women or not, we can all agree that it is remarkable that one man lived his entire life without seeing a woman. Mihailo Tolotos never witnessed what a woman looked like. He only heard of them through tall tales and stories.

Greek Orthodox Monks MonasteryGreek Orthodox Monks Monastery
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The dedication that he had to his religion was noteworthy. So much so that decades later, we are still talking about him! While the lifestyle of the monks on Mount Athos may not be for everyone, it certainly was fulfilling for Tolotos and the others who call this holy site home.

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