Mary of Egypt, St. (rebellion? wished-for child?) (fourth century) In Christian legend, prostitute who became a saint. Feast, 2 April. St. Jerome wrote that in Alexandria there was a woman “whose name was Mary, and who in the infamy of her life far exceeded Mary Magdalene.” After having passed 17 years in “every species of vice,” one day she spotted
a ship that was ready to sail to Jerusalem “to celebrate the feast of the true cross.” She was “seized with a sudden desire to accompany them” but had no money, so she paid her way with “every means in her power.” When they arrived at Jerusalem, all of the worshippers entered the church except for Mary, whose “attempts to pass the threshold were in vain,” for a supernatural power drove “her back in shame, in terror, in despair.” Convinced that she should mend her ways, she prayed and renounced her wicked life. She bought three loaves of bread and “wandered forth into the solitude” until she had reached the desert. She lived in the Syrian desert as a female hermit. She was finally discovered by St. Zosimus after 47 years. He was asked to bring the Holy Communion to the saint at the end of the year. When he returned, he was not able to pass over the Jordan, but Mary, “supernaturally assisted,” passed over the water and received the Holy Communion. St. Zosimus was to return the next year to give her Communion, but when he arrived he found she had died. He buried her body with the assistance of a lion who helped him dig the grave. St. Mary of Egypt, though sometimes confused with St. Mary Magdalene, is frequently shown in art as a wasted woman, stripped of her clothes, her long hair covering her body, with three loaves of bread. She is thus portrayed in Quentin Massys’s painting St. Mary of Egypt, as well as in a painting by Emil Nolde.
Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow
Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante