|French 15th c. illustration. |
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March 28 is one of the commemorations of the female ascetic, Saint Mary of Egypt, c. 344-421. This was the date at which her feast day was entered in the Hironymian Martyrology, a possible source for the Irish Martyrology of Tallaght, even though the feast does not appear in the Irish calendar. Saint Mary's feast is today celebrated by the Orthodox on April 1, according to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia it is entered in the Roman Martyrology on April 2 and the Roman calendar on April 3.
The story of Saint Mary is told in an early Life composed in the east in the sixth century and brought to the west in the eighth century when a Latin translation was made. Saint Mary was an archetype of the repentant fallen woman, and her Life was remarkably popular in medieval Europe, appearing in a number of European language versions. The Life of Saint Mary is also known in an Irish version, indeed it has survived in three recensions, the most well-known of which, Recension 1, is a 15th-century adaptation attributed to a prolific scribe, Uilliam Mac an Leagha, who was possibly using an English source. The basics of the story are the same in the Irish version - Mary is born into a life of privilege and devotes herself to a life of hedonism and sexual excess. She eventually comes to her senses and retreats to the desert to repent, meeting a monk called Zosimas at her life's end. Yet our Irish scribe does not appear to have merely copied his unknown English source but to have actually translated or adapted it. Whilst in other versions the desert-dwelling penitent Saint Mary cuts an extraordinary figure as a weatherbeaten naked woman, Uilliam depicts her as actually bestial in appearance. The monk Zosimas is called Damsosmais in this Irish version, and unlike the eastern version, he does not appear at the beginning of the Life but later on in the text. Uilliam also begins his account by associating Saint Mary of Egypt with Saint Mary Magdalene, who was the exemplar of the penitent woman for the western church:
I. Incipit uita Mariae Aegyptianae, that is Here beginneth the life of Mary of Egypt. When the Lark ceases her singing at eventide her heart mourns for the day in sadness and sorrow; for she hath no love or liking for the night but is lonely for the day all the while. Even so the man who has no pleasure [?] in praising another but regards his good deeds and disdains his virtues; that man is lonely for the great glory compact of glories, the noble house of Heaven, where is life without death, love without darkness, cheer without gloom and all other glories besides. For tongue cannot tell, nor eye attain, nor ear receive, nor heart mediate the glory of that house; and he who is not in deadly sin will have his share of that glory. No man can sleep or rest, sit or stand, fast or feast, without sin; but, O mortal, if thou sin, be not downcast and despairing of God’s mercy, but make confession quickly afterwards and God will forgive thee thy vices. For consider how Peter sinned, and Paul and Longinus and Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt and many others likewise; yet these were all saved after repentance, since God longeth more for the sinner to pray that his sins may be forgiven than doth the sinner to obtain forgiveness.
Uilliam is also at pains to point out how beautiful Saint Mary was originally, telling us that she 'became fairer of form than any other woman in the world at that time'. The contrast with what she later becomes during her penitential life in the desert is thus all the more striking:
9. .... And she ranged the desert on her feet and hands; her smooth body put forth a long hideous hairy coat, so that her own fur was her covering in place of clothes. The polished rosy nails fell from her toes and fingers and she grew long, sloping, sharp, savage nails after the likeness of the hideous hooves of a goat....It is the sight of this extraordinary creature which forty-seven years later confronts the monk Damsosmais, he commands her in the name of Christ to stop as she flees from him and she tells him her story. The Life ends with Damsosmais discovering Mary's body in the following year. He buries it with the assistance of a lion, no less, an episode also found in the original Life from the east. The lion helps to dig a grave and whilst the man takes the head of Mary in his hands, the big cat 'took the feet of the holy woman in his fore-feet, and together they laid her in the grave and the lion quickly covered her up with earth'. There is also a rather touching detail added of the parting of these strange mourners: 'Then the lion gave a kiss of peace on the monk's feet and the monk blessed the lion and the lion went his way into the forest fastnesses....' The monk then returns to his community and shares the salutary tale of Saint Mary with them. I am glad that the scribe Uilliam Mac an Leagha shared it with the people of Ireland too, albeit with a few embellishments to an already strange tale!
A. M. Freeman, 'Betha Mhuire Eigiptachdha', Études Celtiques, Vol. I (1936), 78-113 in Máirín Ní Dhonnchada, ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol. IV, Irish Women's Writings and Traditions (Cork University Press, 2002), 143-148.
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