Desert Mothers

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Desert Mothers Saint Paula and her daughter Eustochium with their spiritual advisor Saint Jerome--painting by Francisco de Zurbaran Francisco de Zurbaran 043.jpg
Desert Mothers Saint Paula and her daughter Eustochium with their spiritual advisor Saint Jerome—painting by Francisco de Zurbarán

Desert Mothers is a neologism, coined in feminist theology in analogy to Desert Fathers, for the ammas or female Christian ascetics living in the desert of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. [1] They typically lived in the monastic communities that began forming during that time, though sometimes they lived as hermits. Other women from that era who influenced the early ascetic or monastic tradition while living outside the desert are also described as Desert Mothers. [2]


The Desert Fathers are much more well known because most of the early lives of the saints "were written by men for a male monastic audience" [3] —the occasional stories about the Desert Mothers come from the early Desert Fathers and their biographers. Many desert women had leadership roles within the Christian community. The Apophthegmata Patrum , or Sayings of the Desert Fathers, includes forty-seven sayings that are actually attributed to the Desert Mothers. There are several chapters dedicated to the Desert Mothers in the Lausiac History by Palladius, who mentions 2,975 women living in the desert. [3] Other sources include the various stories told over the years about the lives of saints of that era, traditionally called vitae ("life"). [4] The lives of twelve female desert saints are described in Book I of Vitae Patrum (Lives of the Fathers). [5]

Notable examples

Melania the Younger, from the Menologion of Basil II Melania the Younger, nun of Rome (Menologion of Basil II).jpg
Melania the Younger, from the Menologion of Basil II
Syncletica of Alexandria from the Menologion of Basil II Righteous Syncletica of Alexandria (Menologion of Basil II).jpg
Syncletica of Alexandria from the Menologion of Basil II

The Desert Mothers were known as ammas ("spiritual mothers"), comparable to the Desert Fathers (abbas), due to the respect they earned as spiritual teachers and directors. [6] One of the most well known Desert Mothers was Amma Syncletica of Alexandria, who had twenty-seven sayings attributed to her in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Two other ammas, Theodora of Alexandria and Amma Sarah of the Desert, also had sayings in that book. Desert Mothers described in the Lausiac History include Melania the Elder, Melania the Younger, Olympias, Saint Paula and her daughter Eustochium, and several women whom the author does not name. [7]

According to written accounts, Amma Syncletica might have been born around AD 270, since she is said to have lived to her eighties in about AD 350, to wealthy parents in Alexandria and was well educated, including an early study of the writings of Desert Father Evagrius Ponticus. After the death of her parents, she sold everything she had and gave the money to the poor. Moving outside the city with her blind sister, she lived as a hermit among the tombs outside of Alexandria. Gradually a community of women ascetics grew up around her, who she served as their spiritual mother. Even though she was an ascetic and hermit, Syncletica taught moderation, and that asceticism was not an end in itself. [8]

Theodora of Alexandria was the amma of a monastic community of women near Alexandria. Prior to that, she had fled to the desert disguised as a man and joined a community of monks. She was sought out by many of the Desert Fathers for advice—reportedly Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria came to her for counsel. [9]

Sarah of the Desert's sayings indicate that she was a hermit living by a river for sixty years. Her sharp replies to some of the old men who challenged her show a distinctly strong personality. [7] According to one story, two male anchorites visited her in the desert and decided, "Let's humiliate this old woman." They said to her, "Be careful not to become conceited thinking to yourself: "Look how anchorites are coming to see me, a mere woman." She replied, "According to nature I am a woman, but not according to my thoughts." [10]

Melania the Elder, the daughter of a Roman official, became widowed at a young age and moved to Alexandria, and then to the Nitrian Desert. She met several of the Desert Fathers, following them in their travels and ministering to them using her own money. At one point she was thrown into prison for supporting them, after several of the Fathers had been banished by the officials in Palestine. She eventually founded a convent in Jerusalem which had about fifty nuns. [11] Her granddaughter, Melania the Younger, was married at the age of thirteen and had two sons, both of whom died at a young age. When she was twenty, she and her husband Pinianus renounced the world, both founding convents and monasteries. [11]

According to Averil Cameron, women were quite prominent in the desert tradition, even though early accounts often leave women nameless. In Cameron’s opinion there is no distinction between the men’s wise sayings and that of Amma Sarah and Amma Syncletia. One text refers to Theodora, who had monks listening to her counsel and asking questions. Some women converted their houses into religious establishments and there were sex-mixed social/religious groups. Women could not obtain ordination as a deacon or a priest. [12]

Desert Mothers are honored with a Lesser Feast on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America [13] on January 5. [14]


See also

Related Research Articles

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The Desert Fathers were early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt beginning around the third century AD. The Apophthegmata Patrum is a collection of the wisdom of some of the early desert monks and nuns, in print as Sayings of the Desert Fathers. The most well known was Anthony the Great, who moved to the desert in AD 270–271 and became known as both the father and founder of desert monasticism. By the time Anthony died in AD 356, thousands of monks and nuns had been drawn to living in the desert following Anthony's example—his biographer, Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote that "the desert had become a city." The Desert Fathers had a major influence on the development of Christianity.

Saint Melania the Elder, Latin Sancta Melania Maior was a Desert Mother who was an influential figure in the Christian ascetic movement that sprang up in the generation after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion of the Roman Empire. She was a contemporary of, and well known to, Abba Macarius and other Desert Fathers in Egypt, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Paulinus of Nola, and Evagrius of Pontus, and she founded two religious communities on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. She stands out for the convent she founded for herself and the monastery she established in honour of Rufinus of Aquileia, which belong to the earliest Christian communities, and because she promoted the asceticism which she, as a follower of Origen, considered indispensable for salvation.

Evagrius Ponticus Christian monk

Evagrius Ponticus, also called Evagrius the Solitary, was a Christian monk and ascetic. One of the most influential theologians in the late fourth-century church, he was well known as a thinker, polished speaker, and gifted writer. He left a promising ecclesiastical career in Constantinople and traveled to Jerusalem, where in 383 he became a monk at the monastery of Rufinus and Melania the Elder. He then went to Egypt and spent the remaining years of his life in Nitria and Kellia, marked by years of asceticism and writing. He was a disciple of several influential contemporary church leaders, including Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Macarius of Egypt. He was a teacher of others, including John Cassian and Palladius of Galatia.

Melania the Younger

Saint Melania the Younger is a Christian saint and Desert Mother who lived during the reign of Emperor Honorius, son of Theodosius I. She is the paternal granddaughter of Melania the Elder.

The Lausiac History is a seminal work archiving the Desert Fathers written in 419-420 by Palladius of Galatia, at the request of Lausus, chamberlain at the court of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II.

Saint Isidora

Saint Isidora, or Saint Isidore, was a Christian nun and saint of the 4th century AD. She is considered among the earliest fools for Christ. While very little is known of Isidora's life, she is remembered for her exemplification of the writing of St. Paul that “Whosoever of you believes that he is wise by the measure of this world, may he become a fool, so as to become truly wise.”. The story of Isidora effectively highlights the Christian ideal that recognition or glory from man is second to one's actions being seen by God, even if that means one's actions or even one's self remains unknown or misunderstood. This ideal was extremely important to the early Desert Fathers and Mothers who recorded Isidora's story.

The Apophthegmata Patrum is the name given to various collections of letters from Roman Egyptian Orthodox monks popularly known as Sayings of the Desert Fathers. These testimonials consist of stories, sayings of real life episodes attributed to the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers from approximately the 3rd until the 5th centuries AD.


Abba Poemen The Great was a Christian monk and early Desert Father who is the most quoted Abba (Father) in the Apophthegmata Patrum. Abba Poemen was quoted most often for his gift as a spiritual guide, reflected in the name "Poemen" ("Shepherd"), rather than for asceticism. He is considered a saint in Eastern Christianity. His feast day is August 27 in Julian calendar.

Eastern Christian monasticism developed for around a century and a half as a spontaneous religious movement, up to the time of the Council of Chalcedon, which took place in 451. At that Council, monasticism had become an acknowledged part of the life of the Christian Church, and it was specially legislated for.

Syncletica of Alexandria

Syncletica of Alexandria was a Christian saint and Desert Mother from Roman Egypt in the 4th century. She is the subject of the Vita S. Syncleticæ, a Greek hagiography purportedly by Athanasius of Alexandria but not written in fact before 450. She then appears as amma Syncletica, an anchorite to whom are attributed twenty-eight sayings in the Apophthegmata Patrum, compiled c.480–500.

Amma (Mother) Sarah of the Desert was one of the early Desert Mothers who is known to us today solely through the collected Sayings of the Desert Fathers. She was a hermit and followed a life dedicated to strict asceticism for some sixty years.

Chariton the Confessor

Saint Chariton the Confessor was a Christian saint. His remembrance day is September 28.

Apollinaris Syncletica was a saint and hermit of the 5th century, venerated in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Her story is most likely apocryphal and "turns on the familiar theme of a girl putting on male attire and living for many years undiscovered".



  1. Cardman 2000 , p. 373: The Desert Mothers were Christian women ascetics who lived in monastic communities or, more rarely, as solitaires during the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., principally in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.
  2. Cardman 2000, p. 373.
  3. 1 2 King n.d.
  4. Cardman 2000, pp. 373–374.
  5. Beresford 2007, p. 10.
  6. Earle 2007, pp. 1–2.
  7. 1 2 Cardman 2000, p. 374.
  8. Chryssavgis 2008, pp. 29–32.
  9. Earle 2007, p. 41; Swan 2001, p. 104.
  10. Forman 2005, p. 32.
  11. 1 2 Palladius 1918.
  12. Cameron 1993.
  13. "Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018".
  14. "Sarah, Theodora & Syncletica: Thde Desert Mothers". Retrieved 2021-04-13.
  15. Swan 2001, p. 43.
  16. Swan 2001, p. 39.
  17. Chryssavgis 2008, p. 30.
  18. Chryssavgis 2008, p. 73.

Works cited

Further reading