An Ethiopic Version of the Life of Mary of Egypt

Publication type Article
Status Published
Affiliation: The University of Texas at Austin
Address: Austin, Austin, USA
Occupation: Professor Emeritus
Affiliation: The University of Texas at Austin
Address: Austin, USA
Journal nameVostok. Afro-Aziatskie obshchestva: istoriia i sovremennost
EditionIssue 3

The Ethiopic version of the Life of Mary of Egypt, translated into Ethiopic sometime in the Medieval period, is a remarkable and understudied text that provides numerous insights into the Ethiopian hagiographical tradition, especially the narratives of female saints. An English translation of the Life from Ms. Oriental 686 from the British Library appears here for the first time, accompanied by an introduction to the text and images of the manuscript. Written primarily in a dialogue format, the Life records the journey of a monk named Zosimas into the Jordanian desert on a quest for spiritual knowledge. In the desolate wilderness he encounters Mary, a curious but holy figure, who details her transformation from a libidinous woman into a desert ascetic. Our hope is that this translation allows for wider access to the text, which might stimulate future study.

KeywordsEthiopic hagiography; female saints; manuscript studies; medieval literature
Publication date06.06.2019
Number of characters76957
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1. We are grateful to the British Library for permission to publish images from Ms. Or. 686 and for granting us access to the manuscript during the summer of 2017. We would also like to thank Professor Alessandro Bausi for sharing his expertise in Ethiopic paleography and Professor L. Michael White for his observations on scriptural citations, especially as they relate to Paul.
2 The Life of Mary of Egypt is a story that documents the spiritual journey of a monk named Zosimas via the spiritual journey of Mary, a woman with an insatiable sexual appetite turned desert ascetic. Originally written in Greek in the 7th century CE, the Life was one of the most popular saints’ lives of late antiquity.2 Following its translation into Latin in the 8th century by Paul, deacon of Naples, the story achieved an even higher level of popularity in the medieval period when redactions of the Latin text were translated into vernacular versions such as Old English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German [Kouli, 1996].3 However, the popularity of the text was not limited to Western Europe as the manuscript tradition also records versions in Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, Georgian, and Ethiopic [Pereira, 1903, p. ix]. A translation of the Ethiopic version of the Life, following Ms. Oriental 686 from the British Library is available here in English for the first time.4 2. Over 100 manuscripts of Mary’s Life survive in Greek and Latin.

3. For more on the Latin versions and their relationship to the vernacular translations see Craddock, 1966; Kunze, 1969; Dembowski, 1977; Sargent, 1977; Magennis, 2002.

4. A translation of the Ethiopic Life of Mary of Egypt from Ms. Oriental 686 was rendered into Portuguese by F. Pereira in 1903. This, to our knowledge, is the only available edition and translation of the manuscript.
3 Remaining relatively faithful to the Greek original through its many translations, all versions of the Life subsequent to the Greek have a tripartite structure that takes the reader on a journey from the confines of civilization toward the inner desert and back out again. The text begins and ends with the exhortations and explanations of a monastic scribe imploring his audience to believe the tale he relates. The scribe’s comments frame the physical and spiritual journey of a monk/priest named Zosimas. Zosimas was raised in a Palestinian monastery where, in his old age, he thought he had become perfect in all practices. Encouraged to learn more, he ventures to another monastery near the River Jordan. At this monastery tradition dictates that during Lent the monks disperse into the desert to spend time in solitude; Zosimas hopes that his wanderings will lead him to a desert father to guide his development. But instead of a father he encounters a desert mother, Mary. Zosimas’s journey then becomes intertwined with Mary’s narrative – an autobiographical recounting of her journey from “harlotry” to holiness.5 5. Mary is frequently categorized as one of the “harlot saints.” See, for example, Ward, 1987.
4 Mary’s story begins in Alexandria. She describes that she left her parents’ home at an early age and made a career out of her insatiable appetite for sex. In fact, Mary’s appetite was so voracious that she did not even accept payment for her services, but freely and willingly gave her body to men to satisfy her own lust. One day she saw people running to the harbor to board a ship to Jerusalem to attend the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Mary decides to sail with them, engaging in licentious behavior both on the boat and in Jerusalem. When the day of the festival arrives, Mary attempts to follow the crowd into the Church of the Resurrection, but is stopped at the threshold of the door by an invisible force. Saddened that she is unable to enter the church, Mary looks around and sees an icon of the Virgin Mary. She then realizes that her lascivious lifestyle is what prevents her from entering. She petitions the Virgin to allow her to enter, promising that she will go wherever she is commanded after she has prayed in the church. Her request is granted; Mary enters and then, upon hearing a voice in the church, journeys across the River Jordan into the desert where she spends forty-seven years repenting her sins. Mary’s narrative culminates with her death, and with this event the story shifts back to a focus on Zosimas’s journey, and then back to the scribe’s exhortation.
5 Most scholars classify the text as instructional, as Mary seems to offer the reader a spiritual or moral lesson. In the early 20th century, scholars asserted that the Life exemplified the possibility of the reformation of women who “entirely lost the modesty proper to their sex” and descended the path of vice “to the deepest degradation,” demonstrating that even the most sinful woman could exceed the most ascetic of men [Pereira, 1903, p. v]. More modern readings have likewise emphasized the didactic nature of the Life, but have taken a more nuanced approach to gender roles. That is, by overcoming feminine lust and promiscuousness, the figure of the prostitute could not only represent the “Everywoman,” but also the “Everyman,” since monastic authors often developed the theme of “woman-as-temptress” in recognition that men, too, sinned through lust [Karras, 1990, p. 6]. In this traditional reading, the Life transforms profane flesh into a vehicle of grace, and Mary’s conversion “extends the hope of universal salvation to sinful humanity” [Coon, 1997, xvii; cf. Stevenson, 1996; Kouli, 1996].
6 The traditional reading of Mary’s sublimated female desire as the focal point of the Life has not gone unchallenged. Other interpretations of the structure and purpose of the Life focus, for instance, on the presence of icons in Mary’s conversion experience, suggesting that since Mary is converted to Christianity through an icon of the Virgin Mary, the text functions to demonstrate the efficacy of icons [Conner, 2004]. Others have argued that as his purpose, the author of the Life intended to elevate one form of monastic life over another in his praise of the eremitic life over the cenobitic [Salisbury, 1991]. More recently, Virginia Burrus has pointed out the subversive nature of the text, arguing that rather than repenting of her transgressive female sexuality, Mary’s sanctity actually “inheres” in her “unrepentant – if nonetheless transfigured – seductiveness” [Burrus, 2004, p. 13].

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