A female role model among religious women: Domnika Hegoumena*

Volume 7, issue 1 (summer 1999)

A female role model among religious women: Domnika Hegoumena*
by Annabelle Parker

In making a comparison between women who have become role models for other women, it is difficult to say which characteristics are similar and which ones different, and we can ask ourselves what we are trying to retrieve for kind of information. In what way does it help us to analyse role models, and thus those women and maybe men who followed these models. If it is so, that it explains a development in female religious experience, then it is worthwhile. I will study one woman in this paper, so that later on her life and the many other lives of female religious role models, or spiritual guides, may tell us about what was important for women in Late Antiquity and later periods.

I have chosen to focus on Domnika, because she deserves our attention, having been buried in obscurity for so long.

The Vita Domnicae as a historical text

First, let’s look at the ‘historical’ Domnika: Domnika Hegoumena is a Greek saint who lived during the reign of Theodosius the Great (379-395) in the 4th century. Her Life is to be found in several manuscripts containing Menologiae, on 8th of January. 1 I have used the text edited by Theophilus Johannes in 1884.2 Luckily, a new edition is under way, (by Maria Alexiou) because it is in need of revision. Maybe a new look can clarify the obscurities that one finds in encyclopedias, when researching this text…

For instance: the question “where did Domnika come from?” Will bring up some meddled answers, for which we need to study the manuscripts:

According to the existing edition, Domnika comes originally from Rome (ch. 3), although an article in Bibliotheca Sanctorum wants us to believe she originates from Cartagena.3 It could well be that in other manuscripts than the one(s) used by Theophilus Johannes (Mark. 25), the words tou apo tès Hispanias to genos katagontos in chapter 3 were interpreted as meaning: from Cartagena. But here, this information is given about emperor Theodosius, mentioned in the sentence above, who, as we know from Socrates Scholasticus in his Ecclesiastical History: “This person [Theodosius] was descended from a noble family in Spain.”4

In a Greek encyclopedia 5 we find an item on Domnína (or: Domniki), (8th jan.) in which Domnika’s story is told but it is stressed that she lived under Theodosius II (408-450) and not under Theodosius I. Also it is mentioned that Domnína originates from Cartagena, which corresponds with the article in Bibliotheca Sanctorum.

Then after some other items, follows the Monastery of Holy Domnínes (or: Domnikes). This, a double monastery erected by 2 women from Rome, and the Monastery which Domnika erected, named after the Prophet Zecheriah, are discussed and reduced to monasteries that existed on paper, but maybe not in reality. But apart from this, in discussing Domnika’s monastery and the chapel in name of the Prophet Zecheriah, this author (S.G.P.) discusses how Domnika did live in Theodosius the Great’s time. So the encyclopedia contradicts itself. Unless there are 2 very similar saints, called Domnína and Domnika, who are intertwined.6 The information about these monasteries in Constantinople was probably taken from a 15th century work entitled De Aedificiis or peri ktismatoon tès Koonstantinoupoleoos, by George Kodoni.7 R. Janin writes more thoroughly about the monastery of the Domnikes, or Domnines and the chapel of Zecheriah, that are difficult to localize. Also, in Theodosius the Great’s time, there were apparently only 2 monasteries built, not for women, but for men: that of Dalmatius and of Dius, around 382 and later.8 Janin suggests that the legendary story of Domnika was used to give one of these monastery a worthy history. But he is sure a monastery with a church dedicated to te prophet Zecheriah existed.

In the text of Domnika’s life we find a mention of a contemporary Constantinopolitan, Daniel the Stylite (409-493).9 In this Life we find in chapter 64 a mention of the chapel of St. Zecheriah in Catabolus, the Harbour. In Domnika’s Life the monastery, which is built with the help of Bishop Nectarius (381-397) in a remote place in or near Constantinople, is actually built as an ‘euktèrion’, a chapel, so could this chapel of St. Zecheriah be the same as Domnika’s? It must have been erected before 395, when Theodosius I died, whose death Domnika predicted. The reader can conclude that the author has written this Life much later than the time of Theodosius the Great, because the emperors Zeno and Basiliskus (474-491 and 475-476) are mentioned.

Domnika’s saintly life

At an early age, Domnika learned to read or recite the Bible (Ch. 2). She decided to choose to lead the life of an ascetic. She went to the harbour in Rome, and a boarded a ship for Alexandria. After suffering a heavy storm, she reaches Alexandria, and comes to a prisonbuilding, where she finds 4 virgins, who are not (yet) christian, but who are virtuous heathen. She manages to convert them, and through her prayers, the locks on the doors break open, and they are free. They all go to a ship that is bound for Constantinople, and during this crossing they again suffer storms. In Constantinople, they are greeted by Bishop Nektarius, who had foreseen the arrival of Domnika in a dream. They are taken to the church, and there, the 4 virgins are baptized. The emperor, Theodosius the Great, himself comes to visit her, and many other people come to receive her blessings.

Domnika decides to build a chapel near Constantinople, because she cannot take the pressure of the bad demons who are afflicted by her being there. So with the help of the bishop and the emperor, the Zecheriah-chapel is built, and she wants the ceremony of inauguration to take place at 24th in stead of 29th January, because she foresees a disaster on that day. This disaster is not mentioned after this., although it is suggested by Gédéon in 1899, that in 388 troubles with the Arians mighr have been the disaster Domnika was hinting at.10

In her residence at that chapel, she cures the ill, and also those who are mentally ill. She then hears from an Angel that Theodosius is going to die. In chapter 14 and 15, Domnika’s situation is compared to that of Daniel the Stylite, who had to descend from his pillar (ch. 72-73) to reason against Basiliskus, who had thrown Zeno off the throne for 20 months, and who favored the anti-Chalkedonian, ‘monophysite’ current. Domnika has to go to the empress (whose name is not given), to advice her and bring salvation upon her. Domnika sends her ‘second’, Dorothea, one of the virgins who were baptised, but she is refused entrance by the empress. The empress dies shortly after Dorothea predicts she will never be deigned worthy of entering the church.

Domnika herself foresees her own death, and arranges that Dorothea take over the monastery or convent and everything that she has built up. She offers a prayer, lasting most of chapter 16. After her death, Domnika appears in the sky, and the whole population of the monastery sees her amongst other saints, clothed in bridal suit.

At a great fire (maybe the one of 465? Also mentioned in Daniel the Stylite’s Life), they see a woman, standing next to the Prophet Zecheriah, and they are holding off the flames from the buildings. Later on, a woman who approaches the monastery, is posessed of an evil spirit. This spirit is tormented by the late Domnika, who chases him away.

Domnika as a female role model

In this text, clearly, Domnika is characterized as a leading figure, with a lot of power. Many people, men and women, up to the emperor, came to see her.

For the girls in the prison, Domnika represented a person who was very much in touch with God, through her strong belief, and they wanted to copy her life. Domnika gave direction to the lives of these women. It was not her femininity that was their primary example, because in the text there is not much hint of her as a woman. She does not for instance encounter specific boundaries for women, as a planned marriage, or evil thoughts. And if one changed the name of Domnika into Domnikus, one would not see much difference.11 It is most of all what she did that makes Domnika a role model.

Speaking of Role Models, it is noticable, that our heroine, Domnika, herself chooses a man, the prophet Zecheriah, as role model for her. The chapel she builds is named after him, because she received prophecies herself by imitating him (ch. 9).


* Summary of a paper given at the 13th International Conference on Patristic Studies 16-21 August, 1999.

1 See: Bertocchi, Pietro, ‘Domnica, egumena di Constantinopoli, Giorgio, chozibita, ed. Emiliano, santi’, in Bibliotheca Sanctorum, T. iv, p. 762, [1964].

2 Mnèmeia hagiologika nun prooton hupo (hieroiakonou) Theofilou Iooannou, Benetia, 1884, p. 268: Bios kai thaumata tès hosias mètros hèmoon Domnikès.

3 Idem.

4 Socrates Scholasticus: Ecclesiastical History: A history of the Church in seven books (306-445), transl. from the Greek, London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1844, p. 366: Bk. 5, Ch. 2.

5 Thrèskeutikè kai èthikè egklopaideia, 5e Tomos, Athinai, 1964, column 162.

6 F. Halkin in Bibliotheca Hagiographicorum Graecorum mentions 3 types of Vita and 1 epitome: see BHG 562. There is another Domnína, mentioned in the Historia Religiosa or History of the Monks of Syria by Theodoretus of Cyrrhus (393-458). Here, Domnína is a saint who lived around 444 in a hut by her mother’s house, somewhere in the province of Cyr, and who posessed the Gift of Tears. See: Theodoret de Cyr: Histoire des Moines de Syrie, ed. Pierre Canivet et Alice Leroy-Molinghen, 2 tomes: S.C. 234 and 257, Paris, 1979, T.2, Caput xxx.

7 Georgii Codoni / Geoorgiou tou Koodinou: ‘peri ktismatoon tès Koonstantinoupoleoos’ (Saec. XV, anni 1400-1462), in: Migne PG 157, Kol. 605.

8 R. Janin: La Géographie ecclésiastique de l’Empire Byzantin, Iière partie: Le siège de Constantinople et le Patriarchat Oecuménique, T.III: Les églises et les monastères, 2ième éd., Paris, 1969, p. 100-101. He uses M. I. Gédéon’s book: Buzantinon heortologion, Constantinople, 1899, which I have been unable to study.

9 An English translation of this Life is: ‘St. Daniel the Stylite’, in: Three Byzantine Saints, by Elizabeth Dawes and Norman H. Baynes, Crestwood, 1977.

10 See R. Janin: La Géographie ecclésiastique de l’Empire Byzantin, p. 100.

11 With thanks to Dirk Krausmüller for pointing this out to me.