3. Visions, Female Sexuality, and Spiritual Leadership in Byzantine Ascetic Literature of the Sixth and Seventh Centuries

Bronwen Neil

[print edition page number: 45]

In late antique Christianity, in both halves of the Mediterranean, the Byzantine East and the Roman West, opportunities for female leadership narrowed, as charismatic and domestic churches were replaced by clerical orders from the third century onward. In spite of the flourishing cults of charismatic female leaders such as Jesus’ disciple Mary Magdalene,[1] the martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, discussed in Chapter 2 above,[2] and Thecla, legendary companion of the Apostle Paul,[3] the leadership of women in both eastern and western churches never regained the acceptance that it had enjoyed in the earliest centuries of Christianity in the domestic church context.

Instead, in the imperial Church established by Constantine the Great, spiritual leadership was most commonly exercised only by those sanctioned by an official Church order, increasingly institutionalized and hierarchical in nature, and was ultimately governed by the newly converted Christian Byzantine[46] emperors and those bishops instituted with their approval. Some opportunities for female leadership, however, continued to exist in the monastic milieu across the Mediterranean. Ascetic leaders were less constrained than clerics, since their withdrawal from the world allowed them to focus on pursuit of divine things, but even abbas (spiritual fathers) and ammas (spiritual mothers) were governed by monastic rules if they lived in communities. Only the solitaries in the Egyptian desert managed to escape hierarchy (Gk. taxis) altogether and to live according to the law of the Holy Spirit. This afforded more gender parity, at least theoretically. The monastic milieu offered the most opportunities for women to exercise spiritual authority, although, as we shall see, literary representations of such women were strictly limited by the literary conventions that governed the genre of hagiography.

My concern is with the ascetic dream literature produced in the sixth to seventh centuries, in both the eastern and western churches. As religious leadership roles for ascetic women grew, so too did their representation as prophetic dreamers become more frequent. However, their prophecy was limited to the sphere of the afterlife and was a far cry from that exercised by the early martyrs. This can partially be explained by the extremely strong desire of bishops and monks to limit the expression of female sexuality, even by consecrated virgins and widows, and its impact on the men around them. Only by interrogating the above-mentioned sources on the differences and similarities between eastern and western Christian perceptions of dreams and their spiritual value can we evaluate what they contribute in the way of evidence for a Mediterranean theory of dreaming.

Towards a Gendered Theory of Mediterranean Dreaming

Gender studies usually have an agenda of social reform and point to disparities of power reflected both in gendered dreaming and in the interpretative strategies applied to them. Dream accounts are particularly relevant to the study of gender in any society, since they represent the desires of ordinary men and women, their “social aspirations and anxieties,” as Suzanne McAlister observed.[4] The earliest surviving example of the genre of dream-key manuals, the Oneirocritica of Artemidorus of Ephesus, was frequently copied, with modifications, by Greek Christian authors in the first millennium and beyond.[5] It was Michel Foucault who famously brought Artemidorus to the attention of scholars of power relations[47] in the ancient world.[6] Male and female dreamers’ dream contents as portrayed in the Byzantine dream-key manuals (oneirocritica)—and their ascribed meanings—reveal power relations, and especially power relations between the sexes, in the early medieval Greek world. The enormous impact of Foucauldian analysis was a prequel to the development of the study of dreams in post-modern gender studies, whether social-psychological,[7] psychoanalytical,[8] anthropological,[9] or multi-disciplinary.[10] However, the dreams of Byzantine women have received little attention, compared with Islamic or western studies of the same period.[11] Western Mediterranean female dreamers and visionaries have been particularly well served, as shown by recent studies of Perpetua, Felicity, and the Montanist prophetesses of the New Prophecy movement, which arose in Asia Minor and North Africa in the late second and third centuries,[12] out of the Mediterranean Christian domestic church movement of the first and second centuries. In the early Christian Mediterranean, religious leadership outside the organized Church was based on the charismatic gifts of prophecy, preaching, speaking in tongues, or the interpretation of tongues. This kind of spiritual authority was much more accessible to women than institutional authority, and by its very nature less able to be co-opted by men. Some degree of institutionalization occurred even in the charismatic movements, however. The Montanists seem to have developed their own hierarchy of regional bishops, and they may have[48] allowed female clergy, as Epiphanius of Salamis charged in 375 ce.[13] Epiphanius also objected to their conceptualization of the Holy Spirit in female form. The prophetess Quintilla or Priscilla reported that even Christ came to her “under the appearance of a woman, dressed in a white robe and imbued with wisdom.”[14] It is in this context that we find the Church represented as an old woman in the Shepherd of Hermas, another apocryphal text of the second century. However, the Montanist movement did not survive the fifth century. In spite of the continuing flourishing of cults of individual holy women, such as Mary Magdalene and St. Thecla, the leadership of women in both eastern and western Mediterranean churches never regained the acceptance that it had enjoyed in the earliest centuries of Christianity.

Methodological Considerations

Today, scholars of gender relations in the Byzantine world, such as Liz James, recognize that the concept of gender goes further than ‘male’ and ‘female’ biological sex. James notes that such a fluid concept invites us to see masculinity and femininity as constructions of society rather than biological necessities.[15] Contemporary thinking on the question of sex and gender sees biological sex as a given, albeit one that can be surgically changed, while gender slides on a spectrum that does not correlate with biological sex.[16] The Church Fathers who authored the texts under discussion here would have agreed that gender and sex need not correlate, but for them it was a matter of sublimating sexuality altogether in order to attain ‘perfect’ male gender. For them, gender was a given; sex was mutable.[17] Whereas bodies could change because they belonged to the transient realm of ‘becoming,’ gender as the social meaning attributed to the body was eternal, according to early Christian thinkers. To change one’s gender status required transformation of the body, usually achieved through ascetic practices, thereby making oneself a “eunuch for the kingdom of God.” Some ascetics took this ideal literally and resorted to self-castration, as in the case of Origen of Alexandria (d. ca. 254). Others found themselves spiritually castrated through angelic interventions in visions, as we shall see below.[49]

First, a few words on how visions were defined in late antiquity may be useful to the reader, as the term was understood in a different sense from its modern usage.[18] Most western patristic writers, including Jerome, Ambrose, and Gregory the Great, used the terms vision and dream interchangeably, while others, such as the fifth-century pagan Macrobius and the Christian convert Synesius, later bishop of Cyrene, made more precise distinctions between the two.[19] I have used vision here to mean a type of dream that can be divinely or demonically inspired and that can occur during sleep or in a waking or semi-waking state.

In what follows, we are dealing with reported, not necessarily real, visions. Given the didactic function of spiritual literature generally, and hagiography in particular, this is to be expected. The reader of Byzantine and western saints’ vitae was expected to recognize the biblical tropes at play in the lives of its heroes and occasional heroines. The saints were portrayed as examples for imitation, and thus their actions, their conversations, and even their visions were heavily edited or invented to show how their lives conformed to those of Christ and the apostles and those of the Hebrew prophets and patriarchs before them. As a corollary, their misdeeds and shortcomings were also held up as warnings to the reader of what could happen when he or she departed from the spiritual path. It is in this context that visions most frequently appear, as part of the narrative of the winding road to perfection. Sin, in the case of women, is mostly frequently portrayed as sexual sin. It is this basic misogynist understanding of women that informs their representations in both the Dialogues of Gregory the Great and the Sayings of the Egyptian desert elders. Even the title of the latter, the Apophthegmata Patrum, indicates that the very few women who were represented could be conveniently subsumed under the term fathers.

Interpreting Byzantine Sources on Dreaming

The collected sayings of the monks and nuns who inhabited the Egyptian desert from the end of the third century onwards constitute a subgenre of hagiography. These sayings have been preserved by unknown sources, in several collections, most notably the Apophthegmata Patrum, preserved in Greek, Coptic, Syriac, and later in Latin. First written down ca. 500 but with additions being made into[50] the seventh century, they include the sayings of monks and nuns from St. Antony to the sixth-century Abba Phocas. Although the sayings and actions attributed to the desert mothers Sarah, Syncletica, Pelagia, and the ambiguously gendered Athanasia/Athanasios were not necessarily ever uttered or performed by historical women, their inclusion in improving literature for men and women illustrates the wish to present biblical principles of a godly life for women.

Like the Apophthegmata, the Dialogues attributed to Gregory the Great[20] enjoyed wide distribution through its translation into a number of languages, and first of all into Greek by Zacharias, the last Greek bishop of Rome (741–52).[21] This work properly belongs to a Byzantine ascetic context, since Gregory, although a bishop of Rome for fifteen years, understood himself as a bishop of the Byzantine church, and a loyal subject of the Byzantine emperor;[22] like many Greek bishops, he was more inclined to the life of an ascetic and recluse than to life as a governor and public figure.

We will see below that there are unexpected parallels between these two texts in their portrayal of women in visions. Any conclusions are of course necessarily constrained by the paucity of sources now available to us. However, the fact that the Anonymous Collection of Sayings of the Desert Elders was compiled over a period of more than a century suggests that it was indicative of early Byzantine views on ascetic women. Similarly, the Dialogues of Gregory cite stories, orally transmitted, from several generations of holy men and women of the sixth century and therefore may be considered an index of what was considered important enough to preserve in Italy. Moreover, the lasting popularity of both works, as witnessed by their translations into many other languages, shows that they were considered formative and useful beyond their immediate contexts of composition.

Since visions lay outside of the usual practices of the mainstream Church of the sixth and seventh centuries, it is almost impossible to access visionary representations except in hagiography, the lives of the saints. My focus is on a subset of that literature, the lives of ascetics who embraced a celibate life, whether in their own homes, as solitaries in the desert, or in larger communities. It is to ascetic literature that I now turn.[51]

Byzantine Asceticism and “Dream Women”

“A monk who encountered some nuns on the road withdrew from the road. Their leader said to him: ‘If you were a perfect monk you would not have noticed that we are women.’”[23] Reported utterances like this quotation from the Apophthegmata Patrum show that, in Byzantine Christianity, the ascetic life idealized male bodies and male gender as the spiritual peak of human existence. Similarly, reported visions show what monks really thought or were supposed to think about women: women and girls uniformly appeared in monks’ visions as tempters, agents, and provocatrices. What can this reveal to the contemporary reader about how the female gender and women’s leadership were viewed in Byzantine monastic spirituality?

Spiritual advisers in Byzantine monastic communities had to deal with the problem that even very advanced monks reported spiritually challenging visions. The most frequently cited teacher on this subject is Evagrius of Pontus (d. 399), who often reminded his readers how easily demons could cause monks (male and, by implication, female) to have erotic visions, which could result in sinful nocturnal emissions.[24] Such apparitions took various forms, including beautiful women, comely youths, and black Africans or Egyptians. The APanon even presents an account of a demon who appeared to Abba Apollo, who saw “a tall person, completely naked, with a black face horrible to behold, . . . androgynous, black as soot, with thick lips and a woman’s breasts and huge testicles and having a body like an ass.”[25] The demon then transformed into a very beautiful naked woman who invited him to satisfy his lusts. Lustful fantasies were just one of the ways in which demons could trouble the desiring and irascible parts of the soul, in order to wage war on the monk, as Evagrius warns in On Thoughts.[26] However, the APanon is more forgiving of such incidents. Wet dreams were, according to[52] an anonymous elder, the equivalent of nose-wiping, and they were to be brushed off without any concern, because they did not “impose any defilement on you. If however, the enemy sees you apprehensive, he will attack even more. But take care not to give in to the desire when you return to consciousness.”[27]

Augustine of Hippo also used the term illusion (inlusio) for demonic intrusion in waking dreams, which came to have erotic overtones from then on, creating an automatic link between erotic dreams and nightmares.[28] The appearance of demons in erotic visions was more than a mental representation; it was viewed as an actual intervention from the demonic realm, as Charis Messis points out.[29] Such visions were a barometer of the monk’s (or nun’s) spiritual state. Males’ sexual sins were readily associated with women, and women’s sins were most often construed in this literature as sexual.

Women could exert spiritual authority in some ascetic contexts, whether as solitaries or as leaders and members of female communities. Ascetic leadership offered an alternative domain of spiritual authority to the ecclesial orders, and one which was at least theoretically more open to women. The consecration of male and female virgins in the fourth century, especially popular among aristocratic women and girls in Rome, Gaul, and North Africa, was considered “white” martyrdom, compared to the “red martyrdom” of the persecuted Christians in the second to early fourth centuries. These were lay people who consecrated themselves to God’s service within the household, through prayer and fasting and chastity, and often remained living at home with their parents. They were usually wealthy aristocratic women whose inherited wealth and property was left to the Church upon their deaths. Consequently, they were extremely valuable to bishops, not just in spiritual terms, and their stories were carefully preserved as examples to other wealthy women in hagiographic texts such as the Dialogues and the Apophthegmata.

Prophetic Visions in the Dialogues

Gregory the Great’s Dialogues[30] are full of such householder virgins who experience prophetic visions, usually of their own impending death. Prophetic visions are those that convey a divine message, one which can relate to the present or[52] the future. They are commonly described as being vehicles by which the Holy Spirit speaks or by which angels speak on its behalf. Most of Gregory’s prophetic visionaries predict their own deaths, following the example set by the greatest saint of the Dialogues, Benedict of Nursia, whose exploits are the subject of Book 2. Benedict also had a vision of the soul of his sister, the saintly Scholastica, ascending to heaven at the time of her death.[31] Most of Gregory’s examples of women foretelling their own or their sisters’ ends appear in Book 4, which is concerned with the afterlife. Gregory related how a young girl called Musa saw a vision of the Virgin Mary surrounded by “little girls of her own age dressed in white.” Mary encouraged Musa to give up the girlish vices of laughter and foolishness and to adopt a life of sobriety and self-restraint, if the girl wanted to join her heavenly court of virgins. Musa did so, and thirty days later, apparently healthy, gave up her life and was taken up to heaven.[32] Similar portents were seen by Romula, a consecrated virgin who was paralyzed and bed-ridden for many years in the home she shared with another unnamed virgin and their leader, an aged woman called Redempta who “lived as a recluse in the mountains of Praeneste.” Romula’s death, which was foretold in a vision, was accompanied by heavenly music of the psalms and a pleasant odor.[33] Gregory’s aunt Tarsilla is said to have seen a vision of her forebear, Pope Felix III (483–492), who summoned her home to heaven. Shortly afterwards, she too died.[34] A curious tale is told of Galla, a young and wealthy widow who eschewed a second marriage in favor of an ascetic life in seclusion in the convent of the Church of St. Peter. A girl of a “very passionate nature,” Galla began to grow a beard and was told that her only hope of stopping the hirsuitism was to remarry. Nevertheless she persisted in her life of celibacy, preferring “a spiritual marriage with the Lord” alongside several other women, one of whom was her particular friend. So close was their bond that when she received news from St. Peter in a vision that she would very soon die of breast cancer, she begged for her fellow nun, Benedicta, to be taken to heaven at the same time. St. Peter refused to grant this request instantly, but allowed another sister to die with Galla, promising that Benedicta would soon follow. A month later, Galla’s bereaved companion also died and joined her sister in heaven.[35][54]

Not all the visions related by Gregory in this chapter portray such happy outcomes. Several deal with punishments after death, particularly of men and women who had been buried in churches, a mark of their high status in the Christian community. The degree of punishment they receive may seem to us out of all proportion to their faults. Chaste nuns are punished for “foolish talk” and “loose tongues” by hell fire. In such cases the punishment is only part time. In a sacristan’s vision, in the church where a nun guilty of foolish talk was buried, she was cut down the middle, with one half burning and the other not. Two other nuns, reported as being of high birth and unable to embrace suitable humility in their lives as consecrated virgins, were seen by their ancient nurse to rise out of their tombs in the church each Sunday at the time when the priest called for non-communicants to leave the church before communion, as if they had been anathematized. This was on account of their insulting and uncharitable remarks to a layman who served them.[36] These stories served as warning to the noble virgins and widows against such lapses.

Other stories of sexual misdemeanors portray the male perpetrators as unable to resist the temptations of beautiful women, even nuns. One such unfortunate nun possessed “the sort of beauty that corrupts with the flesh.”[37] A layman who raped a young girl in his home on the night after he had sponsored her baptism was given one more week to live, at which point he went straight to hell, which was obvious to all from the flames that gradually consumed his body in the grave.[38] Although Gregory stops short of blaming the victims of these unwanted attentions and assaults, it is clear that had all women been ugly or absent altogether, life would have been much easier for him and the monks and laymen he sought to govern.

The Desert Mothers and Fathers of the Apophthegmata

These stories from Byzantine Italy show uncanny similarities to those of the monks and nuns who inhabited the desert regions of Egypt from the end of the third century onwards, starting with Antony of Egypt (d. 356), and extending to the sixth-century with Abba Phocas. The sayings of the desert hermits are collected in the Apophthegmata. Three collections survive from the sixth century, preserved in Greek, Coptic, and Syriac versions and in a sixth-century Latin translation. Ammas Sarah and Syncletica were among the few desert mothers whose sayings were included in the Alphabetical Collection translated by Benedicta Ward. The sayings attributed to the desert mothers were not necessarily ever uttered by historical women, but their inclusion in monastic literature for the[55] edification of ascetic men and women tells us much about how early Christians regarded the relationship between gender and spiritual authority.

Also included in the Apophthegmata are stories of cenobitic monks and nuns, or those who lived in spiritual communities. In the 320s, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Egyptian monk Pachomius set up chains of monasteries on military lines in upper Egypt, where each monk had his own cell and work to do for the community, such as making mats to sell, gardening, or pottery. The first was located in Tabennisi, north of Thebes. Under Pachomius’ aegis, his sister Maria established a community of women, run along the same lines, but under his ultimate governorship. Obedience to the Pachomian rule, celibacy, and poverty were the primary values in these cenobitic communities, which offered an alternative to the solitary pursuit of the ascetic life by hermits, male and female, that had existed until then. Female communities of nuns were governed by an abbess, to whom absolute obedience was owed. The abbess had ultimate authority over every aspect of the lives of the women in her spiritual charge. One of these women, unnamed, was regarded as a drunkard in her community and was punished for it by her sisters in the convent. She slept outside on the ground and wore tattered rags. This ill treatment continued until Abba Daniel visited the monastery and saw the outcast sister keeping an all-night vigil in the courtyard where she slept “next to the toilets.”[39] She had deliberately concealed her holiness from her sisters, relishing their scorn and ill treatment. As soon as her true identity was revealed, she slipped away from the monastery, disguised as a monk, and was never seen again. Great spiritual women were most easily recognized in hindsight.

As the inferior sex, women were seen as more subject to the weaknesses of the flesh than were men, and the discipline required for transcendence of the needs and desires of the body was considered to be “a manly virtue.”[40] Thus the Egyptian desert mothers who triumphed over their inferior physical status in the solitary ascetic life could be seen as greater athletes than the men who achieved the same goal with fewer handicaps. The harsh conditions of desert life included lack of regular food and water and exposure to predations of wild beasts and to the elements, which together caused most of their outward female characteristics to fall away, such as the menstrual cycle; their breasts to shrivel; their hair to fall out or be shaved off. In a typical example, Abba Bessarion and an old man came upon a brother in a cave, who was engaged in plaiting a rope. The brother ignored their presence and continued with his task. On their return journey they looked for him again and found him dead in the cave. Bessarion and the old man took the body to bury it and discovered to their astonishment that the ‘brother’ was[56] a woman.[41] Such female ascetics as the unnamed “brother” could be considered equal in spiritual terms to men, even excelling them in spiritual warfare. Similar was the mother of two who, after her young children died, received an assurance of their safe arrival in heaven from the martyr St. Julian in a vision. She joined a monastery of the Tabbenisiotes, in the Thebaid, and became a monk. Now called Abba Athanasius, her disguise was so complete that even her husband failed to recognize her: “How could he recognize such wasted beauty and one that looked like an Ethiopian?”[42] The pair travelled together to the Holy Places and then shared a cell in silence for twelve years, with the blessing of the elder who had first received Athanasia into his community. “The elder said to him, “Go, devote yourself to silence, and remain with the brother, for he is what a monk ought to be.” Only on her death was her sex discovered. Then the entire city of Alexandria congregated to bury “the venerable remains of the blessed Athanasia with boughs and palms, glorifying God who had granted such perseverance to the woman.”[43]

Such a manly woman was Candida, the third-century martyr who, refusing to marry the king of Persia, was subjected to sexually degrading tortures, including the removal of both breasts. Through this process of masculinization she became a figure of sexual ripeness, ready to be joined to her bridegroom in heaven, Christ. Strong locates the composition of Candida’s passio as an intermediate step between the martyrdom of Perpetua, a young mother whose lack of virginity was not an issue (although through it she was joined with her heavenly spouse, according to the author of her Passion[44]), and Martha, whose voluntary chastity was the focus of her cult. The chaste “virgin-martyr” of later (sixth-century) east Syrian martyr commemorations was still in the process of being established as a topos when the Passion of Candida was written, an event that Strong places in the fourth or fifth century.[45] Strong observes that, since some east Syrian patristic writers celebrated God as mother and the Holy Spirit as female,[46] the appearance of a sexually transfigurative martyrdom such as Candida’s could be expected, even as he notes that the “intertwining of such dissonant[57] images of feminine and masculine metaphors in martyr and hagiographic literature has long been a noted curiosity and defies a tidy explanation.”[47] Certainly this theory would make sense of the portrayal of the few holy heroines of the sixth- and seventh-century Apophthegmata, whose martyrdoms are all white, not red. Assuming their record has not been suppressed in surviving sources, visions are conspicuously lacking from the accounts of desert mothers in the Apophthegmata.

Many of the women who ended up living as ascetics in the Egyptian desert were ordinary women who were reduced out of penury to a life of prostitution.[48] These cases are usually interpreted in Pauline terms as cautionary tales of falling victim to Satan, or the demon of fornication. Mary of Egypt was perhaps the most famous of these fallen women, whose repentance in the desert involved years of self-denial, wandering around homeless, eating berries and grasses. Through these deprivations her physical appearance became male, as did her spiritual gender. Another was Mary of Aega, a former prostitute who requested conversion, who features in the Spiritual Meadow of John Moschus, an early seventh-century collection of improving tales of monks, nuns and solitary seculars whom Moschus met on his travels through Palestine, Syria, and Egypt.[49] These stories, written in Greek, were translated into Latin in the same century and included in Book 10 of the Vitae Patrum.[50] They are another valuable witness to the continuity of Byzantine ascetic practices and common attitudes in Italy in this period.

The association between women and sexual sin is most noticeable in the frequent appearance of demons in female guise, in the visions of monks. These demon-women attempted to seduce sleeping monks when their guard was down. The Anonymous Collection tells of one monk who was tempted by four demons of porneia (fornication) in the shape of “most beautiful women [who] stayed for twenty days, wrestling with him to draw him into shameful intercourse.”[51] The monk, having survived without succumbing, was given God’s peace “no longer[58] to burn in the flesh again.” Sexual castration, in a non-literal sense, for monks was the happy result of successfully wrestling with the demons of the flesh. A similar tale is told in the Spiritual Meadow.[52] Castration was not, however, a state to which the eremitic women in these collections aspired. Such stories are conspicuously absent from the reported visions of nuns or female solitaries. However, even nuns and female hermits could be the unwitting, and unwilling, instigators of fornication. A secular anchoress in Alexandria put out her eyes rather than lead a would-be suitor into sin.[53] The young man was so shocked he went off to Scythia to become a monk. Another consecrated virgin in Jerusalem who was pursued by a man withdrew to the desert for seventeen years to avoid his unwanted attentions, eating only the few soaked beans she had taken with her, a meager supply that miraculously never ran out.[54]

The lack of reciprocity in such stories, and the one-sided desire of men for women, and seldom vice versa,[55] is a curious feature of both the Apophthegmata and the Dialogues. The women they describe are paragons of virtue. If they unintentionally lead men astray, they are not blamed for it. This may appear to be an improvement on the classical Greco-Roman stereotyping of female sexuality as rapacious and non-discriminating and something that women, as well as men, needed to be protected from. In the monastic literature of the sixth and seventh centuries, it is the men who need to be protected from their own desires, by the close watch of their superiors and continual examination of their consciences. However, such a “high” view of women deprives them of any agency and independent identity. A stunning example is the Alexandrian woman who sought to repel a would-be suitor by gouging out her own eyes, the feature that had first drawn him to her. The cost of gaining spiritual authority for ascetic women was the renunciation of sexual specificity.[59]


Our brief overview of women and gender in ascetic literature of the sixth and seventh centuries shows that the narrowing of roles for the female gender that is evident in the mainstream institutional Church of this period was not as drastic in the monastic sphere, with its prominent female abbesses, spiritual mothers, and consecrated virgins who assumed a white martyrdom. Visions of the afterlife played a powerful part in cementing that authority but also reinforced a view of women that was unbalanced and hyper-sexualized. The widely disseminated Apophthegmata and Dialogues placed an increased emphasis on the chastity of holy women, whether they were virgins or widows. While this emphasis may be seen from a contemporary perspective as a limiting of female identity, it was also a source of great spiritual power. There appears to be little difference between these Greek and Latin texts in regard to their portrayals of celibate female spiritual leaders.

Throughout this brief survey of the monastic texts of sixth- and seventh-century Byzantine hagiographers, we have seen that images of women in reported visions of holy men were usually negative. Women and girls most often appeared (at least in reported visions) as temptresses and tools of demonic delusion. In waking life, however, ascetic women were paragons of virtue, and stories of their heroic feats of self-deprivation served to shame both monks and nuns and to spur them on to greater heights of spiritual maleness. This ambivalence seems to have characterized both the Byzantine East and Italy under Byzantine rule in the time of Gregory the Great. In the closely guarded, male-dominated domain of spiritual authority that was typical of sixth- and seventh-century monasticism, the gift of female celibacy, constrained as it was, amounted to real spiritual and social power. Such power, it could be argued, was gained at the expense of earlier sources of charismatic authority.

Our analysis suggests that the narrowing of female roles within Mediterranean monasticism was closely associated with the smaller representations of women in the institutional Church leadership generally across the later Roman empire from the fourth century onwards. With the loss of charismatic movements such as the Montanists, female access to spiritual authority by being the recipients and narrators of divine visions also decreased across the Mediterranean. After the brief flourishing of female visionaries from the second century to fifth, the Greek and Latin sources under examination here show that the classical Greco-Roman suspicion of female sexuality won out over the Pauline Christian ideal of gender equality in monastic dreams, as in monastic life.[60]


Primary Sources

Anon., The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity

The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity. Edited and translated by Thomas J. Heffernan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Apophthegmata: The Alphabetical Collection

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Translated by Benedicta Ward. Rev. ed. London: Mowbray, 1981.

Apophthegmata: The Anonymous Collection (APanon)

The Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers: A Select Edition and Complete English Translation. Edited and translated by John Wortley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion

The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Books II and III. De Fide. Translated by Frank Williams. Rev. ed. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Evagrius of Pontus, Antirrhêtikos

Evagrius of Pontus. Talking Back. Antirrhêtikos. A Monastic Handbook for Combating Demons. Translated by David Brakke. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1989.

Evagrius of Pontus, Logismoi

On Thoughts. Translated by Robert Sinkewicz as Evagrius of Pontus. The Greek Ascetic Corpus. Oxford Early Christian Texts 153–82. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Gregory the Great, Dialogues

Grégoire le Grand. Dialogues. Edited and translated by Adalbert de Vogüé and Paul Antin. Sources Chrétiennes 251, 260, and 265. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1978–1980.

Translated by Odo Zimmerman as Saint Gregory the Great: Dialogues. Fathers of the Church 39. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1959.

John Moschus, Pratum Spirituale. Translated by John Wortley as The Spiritual Meadow. Cistercian Studies Series 139. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1992.

Odes of Solomon. Edited and translated by Michael Lattke as Die Oden Salomos. Griechisch-Koptisch-Syrisch mit deutscher Übersetzung. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2011.

Vitae patrum. Edited by Heribert Rosweyde as Vitae patrum de vita et verbis seniorum sive historiae eremiticae libri X. Antwerp: Officina Plantiniana, 1628. Liber 10, translated by Benedict Baker at vitae-patrum.org.uk (accessed 20 January 2016).

Secondary Sources

Booth, Phil. “Gregory and the Greek East.” In A Companion to Gregory the Great, ed. Bronwen Neil and Matthew Dal Santo, 109–31. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Butler, Rex D. The New Prophecy and “New Visions”: Evidence of Montanism in The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas. Patristic Monograph Series 18. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2006.

Casey, Damien. “The Spiritual Valency of Gender in Byzantine Society.” In Questions of Gender in Byzantine Society, ed. Bronwen Neil and Lynda Garland, 166–81. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.

Davis, Stephen J. The Cult of Saint Thecla: A Tradition of Women’s Piety in Late Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Elliott, Dyan. Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality and Demonology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

Foucault, Michel. Histoire de la sexualité III. Le souci de soi. Paris, 1984. Translated by R. Hurley as The Care of the Self. The History of Sexuality, vol. 3. New York: Vintage, 1988.

Galatariotou, Catia. “Psychoanalysis and Byzantine Oneirographia.” In Dreaming in Byzantium and Beyond, ed. Christine Angelidi and George T. Calofonos, 221–32. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.

James, Liz, ed. Women, Men, and Eunuchs: Gender in Byzantium. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

Jansen, Katherine Ludwig. “Mary Magdalen.” In Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia, ed. Margaret Schaus, 531–34. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

Lake, Stephen. “Hagiography and the Cult of Saints.” In A Companion to Gregory the Great, ed. Bronwen Neil and Matthew Dal Santo, 225–46. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Leyser, Conrad. “Roman Martyr Piety in the Age of Gregory the Great.” In The Roman Martyrs and the Politics of Memory, ed. Kate Cooper. Special issue of Early Medieval Europe 9, no. 3 (2000): 289–307.

MacAlister, Suzanne. “Gender as Sign and Symbolism in Artemidorus’ Oneirokritika: Social Aspirations and Anxieties.” Helion 19 (1992): 140–60.

Mavroudi, Maria. “Byzantine and Islamic Dream Interpretation: A Comparative Approach to the Problem of ‘Reality’ vs ‘Literary Tradition.’” In Dreaming in Byzantium and Beyond, ed. Christine Angelidi and George T. Calofonos, 161–86. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.

Messis, Charis. “Fluid Dreams, Solid Consciences: Erotic Dreams in Byzantium.” In Dreaming in Byzantium and Beyond, ed. Christine Angelidi and George T. Calofonos, 187–205. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.

Mews, Constant J., and Claire Renkin. “The Legacy of Gregory the Great in the Latin West.” In A Companion to Gregory the Great, ed. Bronwen Neil and Matthew Dal Santo, 316–42. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Miller, Patricia Cox. Dreams in Late Antiquity. Studies in the Imagination of a Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Monroe, R. I., R. G. Monroe, A. Brasher et al. “Sex Differences in East African Dreams.” Journal of Social Psychology 125 (1985): 405–6.

Neil, Bronwen. “An Introduction to Questions of Gender in Byzantium.” In Questions of Gender in Byzantine Society, ed. Bronwen Neil and Lynda Garland, 1–10. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.

———. “Studying Dream Interpretation from Early Christianity to the Rise of Islam.” Journal of Religious History 40, no. 1 (2016): 44–64.

———, and Casey, Damien. “Religious Leaders: Late Antiquity.” In Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Bible and Gender Studies, ed. Julia O’Brien, 804–6. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Oberhelman, Stephen M., ed. Dreams, Healing and Medicine in Greece from Antiquity to the Present. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.

———. “The Dream-Key Manuals of Byzantium.” In Dreaming in Byzantium and Beyond, ed. Christine Angelidi and George T. Calofonos, 145–59. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.

Perato Rivas, Rubén. “Dreams in Evagrius of Pontus’ Life and Teaching.” Forthcoming.

Rupprecht, Christine S. “Sex, Gender, and Dreams: From Polarity to Plurality.” In Among All These Dreamers. Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society, ed. Kelly Bulkeley, 106–35. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Stewart, Charles. “Erotic Dreams and Nightmares from Antiquity to the Present.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8 (2002): 279–309.

Strong, Justin. “Candida, an Ante-Nicene Martyr in Persia.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 23, no. 3 (2015): 389–412.

Stroumsa, Guy G. “Dreams and Visions in Early Christian Discourse.” In Dream Cultures: Explorations in the Comparative History of Dreaming, ed. David D. Shulman and Guy G. Stroumsa, 189–212. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Tedlock, Barbara. “Gender Ambiguity in Dreams of Conversion, Prophecy and Creativity.” In Dreaming in Byzantium and Beyond, ed. Christine Angelidi and George T. Calofonos, 207–19. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.

Trevett, Christine. Montanism: Gender, Authority and the New Prophecy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Winkler, John J. The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 1990.

  1. On the early cult of Mary Magdalene, who was first identified with the sinner of Luke 7:37–50 by Gregory the Great (590–604) and also with Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha, see Jansen, “Mary Magdalen,” 531–34. The Byzantine church rejected this composite figure. However, a Byzantine story that identified that Mary with Mary of Egypt, the desert eremitic who appears in the Apophthegmata Patrum, gained currency in ninth-century Italy: Jansen, “Mary Magdalen,” 532. 
  2. It is likely that Perpetua, who prophesied her death at the hands of imperial officials in Carthage ca. 203, and her companion Felicity belonged to the New Prophecy movement founded by Montanus in Asia Minor in the 170s, as argued by Butler, The New Prophecy and “New Visions.” 
  3. On the popular cult that grew out of the apocryphal legend, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, see Davis, The Cult of Saint Thecla
  4. MacAlister, “Gender as Sign.” 
  5. MacAlister, “Gender as Sign,” gives a good introduction to Artemidorus, the second-century writer from Daldis in Asia Minor, who later settled in Ephesus. On Byzantine oneirocritica in general, see Oberhelman, “The Dream-Key Manuals of Byzantium.” 
  6. Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité III. See also Winkler, The Constraints of Desire, 23–44, who used the methods of feminist anthropology, combined with close textual analysis of the Greek text of Artemidorus in its historical context, to uncover the public meanings of sexual dreams in second-century Greek culture. 
  7. E.g., the gender content analysis of contemporary American women’s dreams by Rupprecht, “Sex, Gender, and Dreams.” A comparative study of women’s and men’s dreams in East Africa, by Monroe, Monroe, Brasher et al., “Sex Differences in East African Dreams,” showed that women dreamed as often as men of physical aggression and more often of verbal aggression. 
  8. Catia Galatariotou offers a Freudian analysis of Michael Psellos’ and his mother’s dreams of his future, in “Psychoanalysis and Byzantine Oneirographia.” 
  9. See Stewart, “Erotic Dreams and Nightmares from Antiquity to the Present,” a diachronic study of the use of ritual artefacts to induce sexual dreams. 
  10. See Tedlock, “Gender Ambiguity in Dreams of Conversion, Prophecy and Creativity,” a cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary study of gender ambiguity drawing its materials from the ancient Greeks to the indigenous peoples of South Dakota. See also the collected essays edited by Stephen M. Oberhelman, Dreams, Healing and Medicine in Greece from Antiquity to the Present
  11. Maria Mavroudi attributes this to the former’s relevance to the contemporary issue of women’s status in Islamic societies: “Byzantine and Islamic Dream Interpretation,” 163 n. 9. 
  12. E.g., Butler, The New Prophecy; Trevett, Montanism
  13. Epiphanius of Salamis, “Anacephalaeosis IV,” Panarion 49.1: “[Pepuzians, also known as Quintillianists] allow women to rule and act as priests,” trans. Frank Williams, Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, 1; idem, “Montanists,” Panarion 48.2.1–8 and 48.12.3–5 [on the prophetesses Priscilla and Maximilla], trans. Williams, 7–8 and 17–18. 
  14. “Pepuzians or Quintillianists,” Panarion 49.1.3; trans. Williams, 22; see Trevett, Montanism, 185–86. 
  15. James, Women, Men, and Eunuchs, xvii. 
  16. E.g., Casey, “The Spiritual Valency.” 
  17. Casey, “The Spiritual Valency,” 171. 
  18. Further methodological considerations for the study of ancient dreams and their interpretation have been canvassed by Neil in “Studying Dream Interpretation from Early Christianity to the Rise of Islam.” See also Perato Rivas, “Dreams in Evagrius of Pontus’ Life and Teaching,” forthcoming. I am grateful to the author for allowing me to cite his as-yet-unpublished article. 
  19. Stroumsa, “Dreams and Visions in Early Christian Discourse,” 189–90, insists on the impossibility of distinguishing between dreams and visions in early Christian discourses. 
  20. On the recent scholarly debate over the attribution of this work to Gregory I, see Lake, “Hagiography and the Cult of Saints,” esp. 225–26. Lake defends the attribution to Gregory and dates the work to between 593 and 594 (p. 227). Even those who doubt Gregory’s authorship, most conspicuously Francis Clarke, recognize that the work was composed no later than the seventh century. 
  21. Medieval translations included Anglo Saxon (9th century); Old French (by the 12th century), and Middle Dutch (13th century). See Mews and Renkin, “The Legacy of Gregory the Great in the Latin West,” 316. 
  22. Booth, “Gregory and the Greek East,” demonstrates the degree to which Gregory became embedded in the Byzantine church and its networks through his years spent as papal emissary (apocrisiarius) in Constantinople before he became bishop of Rome in 590. 
  23. The “Anonymous” Sayings of the Desert Fathers [hereafter cited as APanon] 154/4.75, ed. and trans. Wortley, 104–5 [emendation correct?]. 
  24. Perato Rivas, “Dreams in Evagrius of Pontus’ Life and Teaching,” describes the process of the formation of dream images in Evagrian thought, and their close relationship with the workings of the eight logismoi or passionate trains of thought. With great psychological insight, Evagrius shows how images, memories, and stories are interwoven in waking dreams when the monk is assailed by logismoi. See Evagrius, Antirrhêtikos (an introduction to which is found in the translation of David Brakke, Evagrius of Pontus. Talking Back); and Evagrius, Logismoi [hereafter cited as On Thoughts] 27–29, trans. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus. The Greek Ascetic Corpus, 172–74. 
  25. APanon 729, ed. and trans. Wortley, 582–85. 
  26. Evagrius, On Thoughts 27, trans. Sinkewicz, 172: “[I]n the night time during sleep they fight with winged asps, are encircled by carnivorous wild beasts, entwined by serpents, and cast down from high mountains. It sometimes happens that even after they awake they are encircled by the same wild beasts, and see their cave all afire and filled with smoke. And when they do not give in to these fantasies nor give in to cowardice, they in turn see the demons immediately transform into women who conduct themselves with wanton indecency and want to play shameful games.” 
  27. APanon 605, ed. and trans. Wortley, 486–87. 
  28. Elliott, Fallen Bodies, 20. 
  29. Messis, “Fluid Dreams, Solid Consciences,” 194: “Hence, temptation-filled dreams are usually not described as dream-like but as true experiences.” 
  30. On the cult of Roman martyrs in Gregory’s day, and his desire to rein in its focus on the gore of the martyrs’ deaths and portray them rather as models of virtuous living for emulation in the present, see Leyser, “Roman Martyr Piety in the Age of Gregory the Great.” 
  31. Gregory I, Dialogues [hereafter cited as Dial.] 2.34, trans. Zimmerman, Saint Gregory the Great: Dialogues, 104. 
  32. Gregory I, Dial. 4.18, trans. Zimmerman, 211–12. 
  33. Gregory I, Dial. 4.16, trans. Zimmerman, 208–10. 
  34. Gregory I, Dial. 4.16, trans. Zimmerman, 211. The same story is told in Gregory’s Homilies on the Gospels, Hom. Ev. 2.38.15. 
  35. Gregory I, Dial. 4.14, trans. Zimmerman, 205–6. 
  36. Gregory I, Dial. 2.23, trans. Zimmerman, 91–93. 
  37. Gregory I, Dial. 1.4, trans. Zimmerman, 16–17. 
  38. Gregory I, Dial. 4.33, trans. Zimmerman, 230–31. 
  39. APanon 596, ed. and trans. Wortley, 458–61. 
  40. Neil and Casey, “Religious Leaders: Late Antiquity,” 804. 
  41. Apophthegmata: The Alphabetical Collection, “Bessarion,” trans. Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, 41. 
  42. APanon 596, ed. and trans. Wortley, 450–51. 
  43. APanon 596, ed. and trans. Wortley, 452–54. 
  44. Candida, Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis 18.2: “as a wife of Christ and darling of God” (. . . ut matrona Christi, ut Dei delicata . . .); ed. and trans. Heffernan, The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, 119 (Latin) and 133 (Eng. trans.). 
  45. Strong, “Candida, an Ante-Nicene Martyr in Persia,” 394–95, presents several arguments, following Sebastian Brock, for an “early” date in the fourth century. The events are described as taking place in the third century, although an exact date cannot be determined due to the uncertain identity of the Persian king Shapur (I or II). 
  46. E.g., Odes of Solomon 19, ed. and trans. Lattke, Die Oden Salomos, 78–81. The hymns of Ephrem the Syrian are another rich source of female images for the deity: Strong, “Candida,” 407, n. 75. 
  47. Strong, “Candida,” 407. 
  48. E.g., the prostitute who begged her brother, a monk, to deliver her from her sinful life in the city and take her with him to the desert. She repented for procuring “the destruction of many souls” and was forgiven posthumously by God, who revealed to one elder: “Because she was totally unconcerned with any matter of the flesh and also despised her own body, making no complaint at her great wound, for this reason I accepted her repentance”: APanon 43 (BHG 1438h), ed. and trans. Wortley, 38–39. 
  49. John Moschus, Spiritual Meadow, chap. 31, trans. Wortley, 22–23. 
  50. The Latin version of Vitae patrum Book 10 is translated by Benedict Baker and can be found online at vitae-patrum.org.uk. Heribert Rosweyde’s edition, Vitae patrum de vita et verbis seniorum sive historiae eremiticae libri X, has not been superseded by a modern edition. 
  51. APanon 188/5.41, ed. and trans. Wortley, 132–33. 
  52. Presbyter Conon, in the Monastery of Saba, in the desert near Bethlehem, would not baptize women until John the Baptist appeared in a vision and took the battle away from him. Afterward, he never experienced any excitement of the flesh: Spiritual Meadow, ch. 3, trans. Wortley, 5–6. 
  53. Spiritual Meadow, chap. 60, trans. Wortley, 46–47. The seculars discussed in the Spiritual Meadow were men and women who lived alone in their city households, in Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. 
  54. Spiritual Meadow, chap. 179, trans. Wortley, 148–49. 
  55. A rare exception is APanon 37 (BHG 1318r), the tale of a wife who got logismoi for a young friend of her husband. Even this wife was virtuous enough to confess her situation to her husband. The desirable young man, who did not reciprocate her feelings, effaced his beauty by rubbing lamnin over his face and hair so that he looked like “an old leper.” When the tempted wife saw his ugliness, “God removed the affliction from her”: ed. and trans. Wortley, 30–33. 

About the Author


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Gender in the Premodern Mediterranean Copyright © 2023 by Bronwen Neil is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Share This Book