The legend of Saint Mary the Egyptian is derived from a Greek Life falsely attributed to Sophronius of Jerusalem ( 87, cols. 3697-3726). It is there related that a monk-priest named Zosimus from a monastery in Palestine went out during Lent into the desert beyond the Jordan, and there met an old woman who was living as an ascetic in complete solitude. He took her at first for a spirit. Since she was without clothing, she sought to flee. Zosimus threw to her his cloak to cover her. She then told him her life story.

A native of Egypt, she left her parents from the age of twelve to go to Alexandria, where she lived for seventeen years in prostitution. One day, near the harbor, she met some men who were going on to Jerusalem. She resolved to go with them, and to pay for her passage continued to ply her trade on the ship. In Jerusalem, on the day of the of the Holy Cross, she wished to go into the church with the others. But a mysterious force held her back several times at the door. Realizing that this was because of her sins, she was seized with compunction and supplicated the Virgin.

Converted, she decided to go and live as a penitent and solitary in the desert of the Jordan. When Zosimus met her, she had been living there for forty-seven years. She asked him to come back to see her the following year to give her the sacrament. The next year she renewed this request. But when Zosimus returned for the third time, he found her dead. In obedience to a message that she had left for him, he buried her, assisted by a lion, which helped him to dig the grave. This story is also reported, with slight variations, in the for 6 Baramudah.

This legend seems to have a historical foundation. In his Life of Cyriacus, Cyril of Scythopolis relates how two monks, probably in the first half of the sixth century, met a woman who lived in the desert of the Jordan as an and who told them her life story before dying and being buried by them in the cave in which she had lived. Named Mary, she had been a cantoress in the church of the Anastasis. Observing that her exceptional beauty invited many men to sin, she resolved to leave to go and live in the desert of the Jordan, where she had been for eighteen years when the two monks met her. The story is also related by in his Pratum Spirituale ( 87, col. 3049 A-D). It is probably this text that inspired the story attributed to Sophronius in the seventh century.


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