It is May in the south of France. The weather is superb, and not only are more images of the Black Virgin located here than anywhere else, but the season of the Visitation of Mary as well as the feast day honoring Sara-la-Kali in Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer is upon the region. I can almost smell the thick curls of frankincense and myrrh on the gentle lavender-scented air, hear the chapel bells and strum of guitars, and taste the special boat-shaped breads and cookies, called les navettes, that the bakeries make to commemorate the arrival of the Magdalene (and other saints) to the Camargue. In my mind, I recall the traditional prayer to Sara, and consciously invoke her presence:
Sara, toi la sainte patronne des voyageurs et gitans du monde entier,
tu as vécu en ce lieu des Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
Tu es venue d’un lointain pays au-delà des mers.
J’aime venir te retrouver ici, te dire tout ce que j’ai dans le Cœur,
te confier mes peines et mes joies.
Je te prie pour tous les membres de ma famille et tous mes amis.
Sara, veille sur moi!
(Sara, patron saint of travelers and gypsies the world over, you who lived in this region of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. You came from a far-away country from across the seas. I love to come and find you here, to tell you all that I have in my heart and in you confide my sorrows and joys. I pray to you for everyone in my family and all my friends. Sara, come to me!)
For most of the people throughout Languedoc, Camargue, Bouches du Rhône, and la Provençe, the question of Marie Madeleine in France is not even worth asking. “C’est sûr,” they will tell you. Yes, indeed, this is where the Magdalene fled after leaving the Holy Land. The question some are more hesitant to answer is that of whether or not she carried the Davidian bloodline (the ancestral father-line of Jesus) in her womb when she got here. Thus, we have the story of The Magdalene as Holy Grail, carrier of the sangraal or “royal blood” of future French kings.
By most accounts, Marie-Jacobé and Marie-Salomé (not biblical figures) accompanied the Magdalene in her voyage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and hence the town name. (Other accounts give the landing party as Martha and Lazarus—her sister and brother—and Mary of Bethany, who is often conflated with the Magdalene.) In at least one rendition of the story, it was Sara the Egyptian who greeted the boat at the shore. But other accounts say that Sara was a servant who accompanied them on the journey while still others regarded Sara as the actual daughter of Mary Magdalene.
In any event, this is the same Sara venerated by the Roma people (often called gypsies) who come from far and wide to celebrate her as Sara-la-Kali, which translated means Sara the Dark One. She is their patron Saint (although not a Catholic one), and they honor her in pilgrimage every year. Sara, a dark-skinned woman may also be an avatar of Egyptian Isis. As an avatar, or divine representative on Earth, a dark-skinned woman and goddess come together in her in a confluence of myth and symbol.
Every May 24/25th about 15,000 people converge on this small seaside town to honor Saint Sara. She is small, standing less than five feet tall; but she is just the right height to fit in the corner of the arched and low-ceilinged crypt of the town’s basilica, a crypt situated on a former temple to Artemis (or possibly Isis, as these two goddesses were strongly identified with one another in Hellenistic times).
Her statue is dark, as her name attests. During her festival, those who seek her healing and blessings come to touch her skirts, put scarves around her neck, offer flowers, light candles, and give thanks for miracles and prayers answered in the preceding years. She is paid homage to in the Gypsy Prayer, a copy of which sits framed to the right of her feet. Through her, the Magdalene, a pagan goddess, and Black Madonna are related. Even the crown that sits upon her head holds a symbolic key to revealing the union within her of pre-patriarchal tradition and contemporary Mariology. In it rests thirteen pearls, the number itself recalling the lunar round, and the pearl both Aphrodite’s and Mary’s sacred gem.
Sara’s veneration by the Roma (who have origins in India), and indeed the very name they call her, Sara-la-Kali, make the connection to the Eastern goddess Kali much more explicit. Even her ritual bathing in the ocean at the culmination of festivities make her worship akin to that of the goddesses of the Hindu East who are taken to be immersed in the Ganges River (or other waters in proximity to the temple) after puja rites are performed during the major holy days.
Chandra Alexandre is the founding director of SHARANYA.