The Lasting Love for Sainte Sara

in Faith/Latest/Spirituality

If you go to the festival in Saintes Maries de La Mer in the Camargue, Roma women will approach you to sell a trinket of Sainte Sara. The idea of buying one may be as alien to you as it was at first to me, but they need the money and you never know, you might become a convert. Because after the rousing service boomed through speakers to the crowds outside the church; the procession parading the statue of the Roma’s patron saint down and into the sea; after immersing yourself in water, music, dances, a multitude of smiling faces, food, wine and conviviality, the love swirling around for her is so intense you’d need a mind fixed in concrete not to leave without a few ques-tions about the positive benefits of faith, community and ritual.

Sainte Sara is known by Roma as Sara la Kali, Sara the Black One. (Kali is one of many Romani words stemming from their origins now thought to be in North West India.) She is beloved by Gypsies, Tziganes, Roma, Manouche, Sons of the Wind, Yeniches, Kalderash and let’s call even those no longer travelling ‘Gens du Voyage’. (The term ‘gypsy’ with its derogatory connotations is offensive to some.) They settle for two days, parking caravans and campers on the outskirts of the town, playing music in the streets, revivifying old friendships and sparking new ones. Over 25,000 people stream into the town including tourists, often inspired by films such as Tony Gatlif’s. Even though ‘gadji’ or outsiders, we’re accepted at their most important religious festival, which considering the hostility directed towards them generally and locally, shows not so much the desire to make money but generosity of spirit. Despite enjoying their music, many people, including myself, are slightly fearful of them. ’N’ayez pas peur’ say remarkable looking women with weathered faces, as they nudge up close and open their palms for a few Euros. (It is interesting to remember prior to colonial rule, begging was an acceptable way of life in India).

During the night before the celebrations of the 24th May, they are allowed unique access to the underground crypt of the Sainte Maries church where the statue of Sara la Kali is kept. ‘Our mother’s womb’ was built on an ancient sacred site, around a water source. There is even a 4th century pagan altar there. But who Sara is or was remains as mysterious and moving as the image of her tiny head.

Did she originate with the Roma in India? As Parvati in her Kali aspect? Or Durga? Or as Saraswati, Goddess of music, knowledge and art? The pro-cession, flowers, jewels and plunging into water are reminiscent of Hindu forms of worship. Was she Christianised by the Roma to make her more acceptable to the culture in which they found themselves? Or is she a Black Madonna (without child) linked to Mary Magdalene or even – as has also been said – the daughter of Mary Magdalene and Jesus? There are many Vierges Noires (with child) in the South of France and speculation about whether they were Christian appropriations of Isis. Gathering increasing devotion and interest, they suggest a hunger for something missing in the traditional iconography of the Christian church. Is Sarah linked to Isis? In some versions of who she was, she’s described as a local woman who begged for alms to help people. In another, as the chief of a tribe working with metals in the area around the time of Jesus. Tutored in esoteric knowledge, she developed a refined, heightened perception. Following a vision of the imminent arrival of refugees from Palestine , she was propelled to-wards the beach to save them, taking off her robe to make a rope to haul the boat in (or miracling it into a raft.) They were Marie Jacobe, Jesus’ aunt, and Marie Salome, mother of the disciples James and John. After the crucifixion these two or possibly three Maries (legends speak of Mary Magdalene also arriving on the coast) were cast adrift without food, oars or sails. In another tale, Sara travelled with them – as either their Egyptian servant or the consort of Pontius Pilate. But legend has it that they lived together and died here. The earliest Christian chapel on the site was called Notre Dame de Ratis or Our lady of The Boat. The Gens Du Voyage say Sarah was the first Christian Roma, and it is known that from this region Christianity spread to Gaul. (Although Roma are not recorded as arriving until after the 9th century, and in larger numbers in the 15th, it’s not impossible there were some in the region before).

Unlike the Maries, she is not mentioned in the gospels and is not recognised as a saint. The Catholic Church celebrates the canonised Saintes Maries with a procession and ‘benediction of the sea’ held on the 25th, accommodating Sara in the reenactment of her welcoming the Maries as they arrived.

Its attempts to marginalise her importance were fiercely opposed by the Gens Du Voyage, until in 1935, they were finally given the freedom to gather in the crypt to honour her every 24th May. On the night before, they light hundreds of candles, re-clothe her statue (a reproduction of a reproduction) queue to stroke and kiss her skirts, bring their children to touch her, leave items for her to bless and sparkly gifts to show her gratitude. They ask for her blessing, healing, good fortune and protection.

Because the site of the church has always been a place of pilgrimage and is built around a water source, it’s likely that a Goddess, possibly threefold, was at one time worshipped here. It is interesting to imagine Sara appearing as a reappropriation of – or fusion with – an ancient female divinity. During the 15th century, excavations were ordered by King Rene and two (or possibly three ) sets of bones were found, supposedly female corpses of ‘oriental ’ type dating from the 1st century and it is these that fixed the basis for later Christian pilgrimage. They have not been analysed since.

On the 24th May a mass is held, encouraging unification and love for the worldwide family of Christians and Gens Du Voyage. Towards the end, the precious relics – kept in a casket high above the alter – are lowered with ropes. Immediately, exuberant bursts of ‘Vive Sainte Maries! Vives Saintes Sara!’ are shouted, booming through the loudspeakers and gathering voices from outside as the moment to parade her draws closer. ’Vive Sainte Sara!’ All our eyes are riveted expectantly in the direction of the church door, trying to see above all the other heads… Eventually she appears, wearing a crown and surrounded by flowers. Her extraordinary effigy is paraded silently and reverently from the church to the sea, to the clanging of church bells. Guardians of the Camargue, holding tridents, accompany her on patient white horses, squashed amongst the crowds. From the moment her skirts touch the water the sea is perceived as blessed. People then walk straight into it to purge and renew themselves as it ripples with the concept of her presence. 

When interviewed unexpectedly by a radio station afterwards, the interviewer asked if I’d been moved by it all. I tried to articulate in French that it was a new experience for me; to be surrounded by so many physically expressive men and women demonstrating such devotion and love for a figure sacred to them, and feminine. I didn’t mention Sara’s blackness touching me deeply in ways I don’t quite understand. And yes. It made me feel lighter, somehow cleansed. And happy …

All photos by Denise Heinrich Lane

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