A title given to some presbyters, as a rule used together with the title presbyteros. The term derives from the Greek hegoumenos, whose primary meaning was “ruler,” well known in pagan Greek and also used by Christian authors to denote a bishop. In late Greek texts from Egypt and in Coptic texts, this title referred to clerics and monks and was given to whoever played the leading role in the group.
The clerical usage of hegumenos was the result of the need to find a title that would emphasize the position of that presbyter who headed the episcopal or parish church. Hence, hegumenos actually corresponded to archipresbyteros, a term rarely used in Egypt, or to the even rarer protopresbyteros. A Coptic document from the first half of the eighth century (Crum and Steindorff, 1912, pp. 66-76) mentions an archipresbyteros and a hegumenos of the same church; this indicates that the two titles could be differentiated.
In those sources where hegumenos is one of the titles of an ARCHIMANDRITE, it should be treated as a church title and not a monastic one. In other words, such an archimandrite had a higher church rank than ordinary priests (Till, 1958, nos. 20-21 from Saqqara). Similarly, one of the superiors of the Saint Phoibammon Monastery in Dayr al-Bahri was a priest, hegumenos, and PROESTOS (Crum and Steindorff, 1912, p. 13).
In the monastic context, hegumenos can denote the superior and was used in communities of various types and sizes. One cannot exclude the possibility that originally hegumenos described a monk who enjoyed higher authority, an elder who played the role of informal leader in a semi-anachoretic community. An excellent example is furnished by the HISTORIA MONACHORUM (Festugière, 1964), where some monks are described as “fathers of many monasteries,” although here “monastery” has a different meaning from the one given to it later on. However, Palladius, who was in Egypt at the same time as the author of the Historia monachorum at the end of the fourth century, used hegumenos with the technical meaning that was to become usual later on, such as in a passage where PACHOMIUS is mentioned.
- Kahle was of the opinion that the application of the term with a monastic connotation was limited to the regions of Thebes and Aphrodito. This hypothesis does not seem to be correct, since the title appears in DAYR APA JEREMIAH at Saqqara and in literary texts that refer to ENATON, near Alexandria. It also occurs in the Life of SAMU’IL OF QALAMUN, which was written in the Fayyum (see Alcock, 1984, index).
The borderline between the meanings mentioned could be obliterated. It is, for example, difficult to determine the sense of hegumenos in reference to priests of KELLIA who played a leading role in this semi-anachoretic center, since the role of those monastic officials was strictly connected with the fact that they headed a church that served ascetics.
Today hegumenos means “abbot,” or the head of a monastery. The hegumenos is usually chosen by the monks from their own community and approved by the patriarch, metropolitan, or bishop within whose jurisdiction the monastery lies.
The hegumenate is the highest rank of the priesthood to which priests, married or celibate, serving in cathedrals or large parishes, may be raised. The Arabic equivalent term for hegumenos is qummus (protopriest).
- Alcock, A., ed. Life of Samuel of Qalamun. London, 1984.
- Crum, W. E., and G. Steindorff, eds. Koptische Rechtsurkunden des achten Jahrhunderts aus Djeme. Leipzig, 1912.
- Festugière, A. J. Les Moines d’Orient. 4 vols. in 7. Vol. 4, Enquête sur les moines d’Egypte (Historia monachorum in Aegypto), p. 66. Paris, 1964.
- Kahle, P. Bala’izah: Coptic Texts from Deir el-Balaizah, Vol. 1, pp. 33-34. London, 1954.
- Till, W. C., ed. Corpus Papyrorum Raineri, Vol. 4. Vienna, 1958.