I thought I had gone to the earliest of women hymn writers with Kassia (d. 890). I was mistaken. Sure, Sappho wrote pagan hymns as far back as 600 BC, but I am concerned with hymnists in the Judeo/Christian tradition. Armenia apparently was a hotbed of Christian hymnography even before Kassia. Khosrovidukht Goghtnatsi (the first name meaning “daughter of Khosrov”), also known as Xosroviduxt, lived during the early 8th century. Her brother Vahan Goghtnatsi (700-737) was abducted and murdered by Arab Muslims for converting to Christianity. Meanwhile, she was taken to the fortress now known as Kemah, where she lived in isolation for 20 years. She wrote a sarakan, or canonical hymn, “Zaramanali e Ints” meaning “astonishing to me” wherein she mourned her brother’s death and celebrated her brother as a servant of God. The sarakan went on to celebrate Mary, mother of Jesus.
No sooner had I learned of Khosrovidukht, than I learned of a slightly earlier woman, Sahakdukht (daughter of Sahak) Suinetsi of Armenia, also of the early 8th century and with a similar story of grief and seclusion. She wrote ecclesiastical poems and liturgical chants and was known as a healer and a music therapist. Of all her compositions, the only one extant is Srbuhi Mariam (“St. Mary”), a nine stanza verse dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It is an acrostic with the initial letters of each quatrain spelling her name. She was the sister of a highly reputed 8th century sarakan writer, and music theorist, Stepanos Suinetsi. They were educated at the cathedral school in Dvin. After being educated, she fell into grief from the assassination of her brother and retreated to the Garni valley to live in a cave. While there, she wrote several ktsurds (anthems), sarakans and melodies. She played her lyre to heal people suffering from depression. Though she may have been an ascetic living in a cave, she nevertheless taught lay music lovers and clerical students her sacred melodies while hidden behind a curtain, as required by the conventions of the time. She became so famous, that after her death, people visited her grave for a pilgrimage.
So there it is, the earliest known female Christian hymn writers, or at least so I think. How can I go much further back?