Mary of Egypt

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(5th century(?),

penitent. A certain Mary lived the life of a hermit in Palestine according to John Moschus, and her tomb was visited by Cyril of Scythopolis, who in his Life of Cyriacus related how two of his disciples had met a woman hermit in the desert beyond Jordan, and on a second visit found her dead and buried her. There is no record of a public cult.

According to this popular and agreeably written source, Mary was an Egyptian, who left home at the age of twelve and went to live in Alexandria, where she became a prostitute for seventeen years. At the age of twenty-nine through curiosity she joined a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, paying for her passage by offering herself to the sailors. Once at Jerusalem, she was held back from entering the church with the other pilgrims by an invisible and irresistible force. Lifting her eyes to an icon of the Blessed Virgin, she was told to go over the Jordan where she would find rest. She bought three loaves and went to live in the desert, where for the rest of her long life she lived on dates and berries. Her clothes wore out, but her hair grew long and took their place. She could not read, but was divinely instructed in the Christian faith. A devout monk called Zosimus met her by chance in the desert, covered her with his cloak at her own request, and heard her story. He promised to meet her in the same place next Maundy Thursday to bring her holy communion. This was done and arrangements made for another meeting. But when he came, he found her dead body, which a lion helped him to bury. This story was popular in the East, but it was also known in the West, as by Ælfric in his Lives of the Saints, and artists depicted it from the 12th century on carved capitals, in stained glass in the cathedrals of Chartres, Bourges, and Auxerre (13th century), and in paintings and sculptures of the later Middle Ages. She is often confused with Mary Magdalene (also depicted as a hermit) and occurs in Books of Hours and elsewhere clothed with her long hair and carrying with her three loaves as her emblem, as on a screen at Kenn (Devon). Feast: usually 1 April (as in most English monasteries) but sometimes on 9 or 10 April.

AA.SS. Apr. I (1675), 67–90;A. T. Baker, ‘Vie de Sainte Marie l'Egyptienne’, Revue des langues romanes, lix (1916–17), 145–401;13th-century Life by Rutebeuf, ed. B. A. Bujila (1949);K. Kunze, Studien zur Legende der heiligen Maria Aegyptiaca im deutschen Sprachgebiet (Philologische Studien und Quellen, xlix, 1969);B.L.S., iv. 1–2.

Subjects: Christianity.

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