Avaton (pronounced Áh-vah-ton) is Greek for "what may not be set foot upon." Etymology: Negatory a-, vat-, root of verb meaning to walk or go, and -on, gender-neutral nominative suffix.

Along with the advent of religion and spirituality in the human world came the notion of the taboo, the untouchable and places which should be left alone by all or most members of the group. Religious sites would restrict access to the uninitiated and rites would allow only qualified group members to take part. In fact, most contemporary religions have such rules. Given that most societies today, not least of all those based on the Abrahamic religions, are decidedly patriarchal, it's not surprising that many of the restrictions concern exclusively women. Islam and Judaism, as well as some Christian denominations, have rules stipulating segregation in worship and other religious activities.

The ávaton would be a place in ancient Greek religious sites where entry to the uninitiated was forbidden but also denoted places where people could not go, practically speaking, or should not go for other reasons, such as the infirmary in a healing temple where, on one hand. physicians were practicing their trade and displaying the secrets thereof, on the other hand nasty diseases might be present. The line between the practical and religious avaton was often blurry at best. Most avata do make some kind of sense though or, if they don't, the reasoning behind the rationalisation that makes something an avaton is understandable whether one agrees with it or not.

The contemporary rule known as the "avaton" is arguably the most rigidly enforced proscription in Christianity and concerns the entrance of women to the holy mount Athos in Greece. The ban includes not only women but most female domestic animals and beardless men and boys. This doesn't mean you need a beard to get in; it means a man should be found capable of growing one by visual inspection, to rule out the chance of it being a woman dressed as a man. As for the domestic animals, pretty much the only thing they bend the rules for and tolerate is the housecat which is welcome in most monasteries. The ban does not include non-Orthodox males but the number of such visitors is strictly limited.

The Mount Athos avaton dates back to an edict by Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachus in 1045, almost a hundred years after the oldest of the existing monasteries was founded. There is almost nothing documenting the edict itself but it also provided for officially recognised sanctuary in the Athonian monasteries where a wanted man could be free from persecution. This provision also amounts to Mount Athos becoming the first sizeable territory in western civilisation to abolish capital punishment.

The Athos avaton is rationalized through the mount's dedication to the Virgin Mary and deems it contemptuous to allow any woman other than her divine presence on its ground. The ban extends to 500m from the shore so the monks will be free not only from the eyes but also from the sight of women. Sightseeing boats carrying women must remain at that distance. Since 1953 the Greek criminal code makes violation of the avaton a crime worse than mere sacrilege.

Being a ban of purely religious significance and despite the fact that the vast majority of orthodox Christians wouldn't even contemplate its abolition the avaton has seen its fair share of flak. Every now and then voices are raised demanding its abolition and are silenced with reproach from all but the most radical segments of Greek society. The Greek government made provisions for the special status of Mount Athos and its avaton when joining the European Union in 1980. As late as August 2001, both the Greek state and the EU made it clear that, freedom of movement or not, the avaton was guaranteed by treaty and is not being touched in the foreseeable future.

It may seem peculiar that a modern, secular western state would acquiesce to an extremely conservative prohibition on part of its territory but one must understand the relationship between Greece and its state religion. While the clergy is nowhere near as powerful as in the past and the state, especially since joining the European Union and after the many reforms instigated by Andreas Papandreou in the 1980s, is clearly in charge the church still wields significant influence. The issue here is that the Greek nation is to a large extent synonymous with the orthodox faith which forged and upheld a national identity over 400 years of occupation. In this light what to the outside world may appear as an anachronism is seen as a reasonable and faith-based prerogative of the church and treated with the according deference.

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