Virgins of The Desert
“The role of women in the “desert father” phenomenon is a major factor. More precisely, the Christian virgin is the subject under consideration. This contingent became substantial in Egypt during the third century, and more particularly in Alexandria. Their renunciation of family commitments gave them opportunity and leisure for study of scripture and other works. This field of “Christian philosophy” attracted literate young women who were frequently of a wealthy background. Modern scholars sometimes refer to the studious tradition in terms of “academic Christianity.”
Alexandrian presbyters continued that tradition into the fourth century, one reason why many virgins supported the heretical Arius in the conflict with Bishop Athanasius. However, other virgins in Alexandria were followers of Athanasius. The latter was intent upon subjugating the “academic” tradition of Alexandria, replacing this with the clerical rules of guidance that seem more like a straitjacket to some recent investigators.
“Athanasius’ effort to separate virgins from the discourse of academic Christianity thus involved intensive censorship of the virgin’s speech and hearing” (Brakke, “Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism”, OUP 1995, p. 72).
For instance, in this episcopal directory, virgins were to avoid conversation with men and instead converse silently with their “bridegroom,” meaning Christ or the Word of God. Such emphases can be found in the bishop’s first “Letter to Virgins”, apparently addressed to women in Alexandria. Such injunctions were designed to prevent “public conversations with anti-Athanasian teachers”, a situation representing the seclusion of virgins within the episcopal milieu. In this interpretation, the correct teachings were only to be found in the church led by the (Athanasian) bishops and priests.
Autonomy and equality was thus forfeited by the virgins who chose to follow Athanasius. Their role as the “brides of Christ” here amounted to a repetition of the dutiful wife clause favoured in the traditional Greek and Latin repertories, and echoed by some philosophers and moralists like Plutarch. Independent female thought was frowned upon in such directions, a problem perpetuated by Athanasius and other bishops.
“Many [Christian] virgins did not play the role of the dutiful wife. Instead, they carried on their own commercial activities, made journeys to the Holy Land, cultivated innovative relationships with ascetic men, and participated in public discussions of Christian philosophy”.
These virgins (parthenoi) of Egypt came from a wide variety of social backgrounds. Some were wealthy and owned property and slaves, while some of the less elevated were themselves slaves. The virgins were numerous in the capital of Alexandria, but also existed in the towns and villages of Egypt. The extent of provincial occurrences is less certain in the third century. The “Life of Antony” says that this early Coptic hermit entrusted his sister to respected virgins in his village. “It is possible that this is not a historical fact, but merely Athanasius’ depiction of what he thought Antony should have done with his sister”.
However, a reading of the “Canons of Hippolytus” (revised in the 330s) has confirmed that “women of a variety of ages were leading a life eis parthenian, in virginity – just like the ones who were entrusted with the education of Antony’s sister – and formed part of a long-standing tradition; these women lived as part of their village … and not in some special community” (Elm, “Virgins of God”, OUP 1994, p. 230).
By the late third century, Christian women in Egypt were living a dedicated religious life. “These women held the title of widow or virgin, achieved their status through a vow, and expressed it by wearing a specific habit” (ibid., p. 231). They were allowed to teach in private, but not in public (ibid., p. 249), a constraint reflecting the influential bias of the apostle Paul, who asserted “I do not permit a woman to be a teacher, nor must woman domineer over man; she should be quiet” (First Letter to Timothy 2:12-13; New English Bible, p. 267).
There were different categories of lifestyle applying to virgins in the fourth century. The woman might live quite independently, or at home with her parents, or in an ascetic community with other women. A more complex role was that of sharing the dwelling of a male ascetic, an option which was denounced by Athanasius in his second “Letter to Virgins”. This practice has been described by modern scholars as “spiritual marriage.” Athanasius cast doubts that celibacy could be maintained in such arrangements, though he conceded that some female ascetics were beset by poverty and needed assistance. In such cohabitation, the female virgin received shelter, food, and clothing, in return for which she was expected to cook and clean the quarters.
The underlying intention of Athanasius was to divert virgins from other living situations to that of communities under episcopal control. “He believed that the only male authorities in a virgin’s life should be, in addition to Christ, her father and her priest or bishop” (Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics, p. 31).
Many virgins (parthenoi) visited the hermits in the desert, and in some cases these visits were on a regular basis. The hermits in the Nile valley were often only a few miles away from villages. Several apophthegmata refer to virgins who lived with male ascetics (Fathers) as their servants. These cohabitations occurred both in villages and in the desert (Elm, Virgins of God, p. 261).
There were rather more individual cases of virgin life in the desert. In 391, Abba (Father) Bessarion and a disciple visited Lycopolis, and en route they entered a desert cave where an old Father was making palm-leaves into ropes. On their return journey, they discovered that the same Father had died, and when burying the corpse, they found with surprise that the “Father” was a woman (ibid., p. 262).
At the same period, a virgin known as Amma (Mother) Theodora lived in the desert, apparently in Nitria or Scetis, and her sayings were commemorated along with those of male ascetics. Compilers of the apophthegmata evidently regarded her as an ideal teacher, and a model to emulate like that of the male anchorites. She describes the characteristics of a spiritual teacher in terms of being “a stranger to the desire for domination, vainglory, and pride” (ibid., p. 265). She was reputedly in contact with Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria, though it is very difficult to regard that entity as a stranger to the desire for domination in his violent campaign against paganism.
Amma Sarah lived in the desert of Peluseum, perhaps situated in the Arsinoite or Fayyum area. She evidently encountered masculine doubts concerning her valid identity as a desert-dweller. Her sayings include the assertion, addressed to male ascetics, that: “It is I whom am a man, you who are women” (ibid., p. 266). This identity is reminiscent of the much more recent Sufi female ascetic Hazrat Babajan (d. 1931), who insisted upon her masculine credential after being buried alive by Islamic fundamentalists. The simplistic version of motivation for desert presence is reduced in some sayings of Coptic desert fathers to the factor of need to escape women.
Whatever the deficient mentality of some male ascetics, the desert was partly inhabited by women, some fleeing the threats of tax-collectors, some visiting their male relatives who had become ascetics, some seeking cures for illness, and yet others being on pilgrimage (ibid., pp. 271-2). The strong implication is made that some women also became mendicants, adopting perpetual xeniteia or wandering.
A few examples of male mendicants are attested in the apophthegmata, though some writings of Evagrius Ponticus (himself a desert ascetic) indicate that women were inclined to constant xeniteia. Ultimately, the issue amounts to the fact that both men and women wanderers were even less controllable by the clerical authorities than hermits in the desert, the mendicants being “unencumbered by the demands for obedience and regularity which were the staple of ‘orthodox’ ascetic life” (ibid., p. 282). The coenobitic monasteries were the easiest target for regulation.
Palladius records a revealing event. Elias was an ascetic who lived at Athribis (possibly Atripe, near Panopolis, rather than the place of that name in the Nile Delta). He owned property in that town, and he was thus one of many ascetics in the urban category. He created a large monastery for women, being concerned at the situation of wandering virgins. Over three hundred women found shelter there, gaining the amenities of medical care, household goods, and gardens. He himself lived in the monastery, resolving quarrels amongst the inmates. (ibid., pp. 321ff.).
In his “Lausiac History”, Palladius devoted a chapter to “manly women,” meaning female virgins in the desert whom he granted a spiritual equality with male counterparts. He gives details about virgins such as Alexandra, who secluded herself in a tomb just outside Alexandria, receiving living essentials through a window via a servant-girl. This retreatant occupied herself by spinning flax, by prayer, and by meditating upon the lives of prophets, apostles, and martyrs (ibid., p. 319).
The city of Antinoe (in Middle Egypt) was covered by Palladius, where he sojourned c. 410. No less than twelve monasteries for women existed there. One of these housed sixty virgins, whose leader was the octogenarian Amma Talis; the front door was not locked, a detail interpretable in the context of loyalty to the leader, a lock being indicative of a tendency to leave the precincts (ibid., p. 328).
To the north of Antinoe, the city of Oxyrhynchus (Al-Bahnasa), so famous for ancient papyri, was a major site for ascetics and virgins. The “Historia Monachorum” describes this place as being full of monasteries by the 390s, together with an encircling zone of monasteries outside the city walls.
The ascetics outnumbered the secular citizens, and could be found living in gate-towers, porches, and former pagan temples. “Five thousand monks lived within the city walls, as many again surrounded it; the bishop of the town counted 10,000 monks and 20,000 virgins in his jurisdiction” (ibid., p. 329 note 45). Many of the ascetics did not live in monasteries, and the practices in vogue evidently varied substantially, a factor which could easily mean that teachings did also.
With regard to the general situation in Egypt during the fourth century:
“Women are mentioned as practising ascetic life in villages and in the desert, alone, with their mothers, as partners in a mariage blanc, in communities, as anchorites, and as wandering ascetics…. all communities referred to, with the exception of Amma Talis’, included men who lived in close proximity to women” (Elm, Virgins of God, p. 330).
Male ascetics (monazontes) and virgins (parthenoi) were part of the Christian congregation in Alexandria during the first two decades of the fourth century. The former lived as solitaries or in groups, and included erudite men, who might be in contact with desert ascetics. The virgins have similar associations. These contingents featured strongly in the career of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria.
Different reports exist concerning the major exile of Athanasius during 356-62. He was not necessarily living in the desert at that time. According to Palladius, the eminent cleric spent the entire six years in hiding with a virgin who “washed his feet and cared for all his bodily needs and his personal affairs, obtaining the loan of books for his use” (ibid., p. 357). That virgin was apparently Eudaemonis, who was tortured by the military commander Artemius for obstructing the official search for the bishop. One interpretation of the texts has deduced that the Palladian version was a legend based upon an initial two years hiding of Athanasius in the city, though the plight of Eudaemonis in the face of Graeco-Roman military brutality is not denied (Brakke, “Athanasius and the Politics”, p. 130).
The violence inherent in the clerical temperament is indicated via the account by Athanasius of events at Alexandria in 339, when the rival bishop Gregory (a Cappadocian) was installed. The imperial prefect Philagrius, another Cappadocian Greek, was notorious as a persecutor of Christians; he sent a mob to attack male and female ascetics, these pro-Athanasians being in danger of their lives. Bishop Gregory caused the prefect to publicly scourge over thirty victims, prominently including virgins and married women, after which they were imprisoned. While virgins were beaten, Gregory looked on, sitting comfortably with the duke (and military commander) Balachius (Elm, “Virgins of God”, p. 361). These high class Greeks (and Romans) had too much violence in their genes, and their contempt for inferiors and slaves is not attractive. Many Copts must have loathed the sight of them.
Twenty years later, the violence in Alexandria was more acute, with Duke Sebastianus presiding over the Arian attack on virgins and related religious entities. Some victims were beaten, some were exiled, and some were killed. Females apparently joined in the attack, at least in a verbal sense, and these are now implied as Arian virgins, a category Athanasius was clearly reluctant to reveal (ibid., p. 368). His opponents likewise relied on parthenoi for financial and related support.
This scenario of conflicting Arian versus pro-Athanasian (and Nicene) virgins is an unfortunate illustration of how the elite Graeco-Roman governing class imposed religious doctrines upon the urban population. The conflict was created by vehement Christian dogmatism sustained on both sides, and giving rein to military brutality. The excommunicated Arius was dead and not responsible for the outrages.
Despite preaching otherworldliness, Athanasius and prestigious rivals were so strongly involved in political and lobbying activities. They were amongst the least likely persons to retreat to the paneremos, the deep desert wilderness of total solitude. When Athanasius retreated from the dire Alexandrian disturbances in 356, and wherever he was actually living after a while, he was not primarily contacting desert ascetics but “those [ascetics] who were members of the clergy and resided in an urban context” (ibid., p. 368).
Many urban virgins came from the upper ranks of society, while a fair number of urban male ascetics were themselves members of the clergy. A significant number of bishops were ordained by Athanasius from ascetic ranks, and those renunciates more resistant to clerical status remained a mystery to episcopal psychology.
“Contrary to the impression given by many of the contemporary sources such as Gregory of Nazianzus (and certainly fostered by Athanasius himself), his [Athanasius’] involvement with the desert ascetics like Antony or Pachomius was indirect and facilitated by mediators such as Therapion of Thmuis or Theodore, not the result of an intense personal pursuit” (Elm, “Virgins of God”, p. 370).
The situation pertaining at the close of the fourth century represented a triumph for the Athanasian standpoint. Nicene bishops ruled the religion of Egypt, and heresy was outlawed. Origen, Hieracas, and many others were left in the shadow. The Manichaeans were brutally repressed in various countries. Gnostic books were consigned to oblivion. Even erudite Christian Origenists were exiled. The virgins became a totally subservient appendage to the revised monasticism. Ironically, women appear to have enjoyed a higher religious status in Pharaonic times.
The elite organisation of Nicene bishops created a conformist ideology encumbered by literalist concepts and hysteria over anything which could be deemed non-canonical. The monasticism they favoured was not the original Coptic endeavours of the desert, but a diluted version of Antony and the early Pachomian model. The clerical establishment gained support from a new wave of fifth century monks, including Shenoute of Atripe (c.350-466), a literate Coptic abbot.
In distant Rome, the status of Christian women was very low by the mid-fourth century. Pope Damasus (office 366-84) features in one of the issues attaching to this trend.
“The erasure of the female bone gatherers and other politically and socially influential Christian matrons is completed by Damasus, in his bloody and contentious campaign to become the sole bishop of Rome. In promoting male saints over female ones, Damasus embarked on a ‘masculinised reformulation’ of Christian memory and devotion. He also strived to ensure that the piety of the average Christian woman and the veneration of female saints took place through ‘complex rituals of access’ controlled by the church.” (Caroline T. Schroeder, review of Nicola Denzey, “The Bone Gatherers”, in “Bryn Mawr Classical Review”, Sept. 2008.)
The monasticism which prevailed in the fifth century was that devised by Athanasius, Theophilus, Basil of Caesarea, and Augustine of Hippo (354-430). These entities were glorified by the clerical class presiding in both the Greek and Latin sectors of Christianity. Modern scholarship is still involved in the attempt to extricate the truth from the mythologies and usurpations.”
An edited extract from Kevin Shepherd “Desert Fathers of Egypt and Christian Philosophy”:
David Brakke “Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism” [OUP, 1995]
Nicola Denzey “The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women” [Beacon Press, 2008]
Susanna Elm ““Virgins of God” The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity” [OUP, 1994]