An expression describing the first anchorites. It was first used by one of the first “reporters” of these practitioners of the “flight to the desert,” PALLADIUS himself. In fact, he twice, at least in explicit terms, used a form of this phrase to designate those who chose to live in the desert. The first time was to describe the companions of AMMONIUS of Kellia: “as the desert fathers attest concerning him.”
A less clear formula is used in the second instance: the sister of Pior, wishing to have news of her brother, who has gone to the desert, asks the bishop to write “to the fathers, those who are in the desert.” In the same way, Cyril of Scythopolis (d. after 559) used the same expression with reference to a monk whose biography he wrote: in the Life of Saint Sabas he spoke of the “desert fathers” (Schwartz, 1939, p. 180).
This formula was popularized by the work of Arnaud d’Andilly entitled Vies des saints pères des déserts, which appeared at Paris in 1688. The expression was then taken up by a number of works in various languages.
Numbered among the desert fathers are the great founders of monasticism of the fourth and fifth centuries: ANTONY, PAUL OF THEBES, MACARIUS ALEXANDRINUS, MACARIUS THE EGYPTIAN, Ammonius, PACHOMIUS and his disciples THEODORUS and HORSIESOS, and EVAGRIUS. Other celebrated figures to be noted are ONOPHRIUS and PAPHNUTIUS. The works that relate their exploits or repeat their sayings include the APOPHTHEGMATA PATRUM, the HISTORIA MONACHORUM IN AEGYPTO, the Historia lausiaca of Palladius, and the LETTER OF AMMON. To these may be added, by reason of their role in Coptic Christianity, the later names of SHENUTE and his disciple BESA and of MOSES OF ABYDOS and his disciple MACROBIUS.
- Andilly, A. d’. Vies des saints pères des déserts. Paris, 1688. Chitty, D. J. The Desert a City. London and Oxford, 1966.
- Schwartz, E. Kyrillos von Skythopolis. Texte und Untersuchungen 49. Leipzig, 1939.