There’s a town on the sea, near where we live, called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, or Saints Mary of the Sea. It’s a really beautiful little sea-side town, and when my mom came to visit, we took her here, with a bottle of red wine in a plastic bottle and a big chunk of bread and good cheese and little spicy cheese stuffed peppers in oil.

The town has a shrine, and that’s where the story gets interesting.

So, Saintes Maries…more than one, right?

The story goes something like this: after the crucifixion of Jesus, Mary Magdalene fled Jerusalem for Alexandria along with Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Salome and Mary Jacobe (who are supposed to be the women who were the first witnesses of the empty tomb.) Egypt was the traditional place of asylum for Jews whose safety was threatened in Israel; Alexandria was easily reached from Judea and contained well-established Jewish communities at the time of Jesus. In all probability, the emergency refuge of Mary Magdalen and Joseph of Arimathea was Egypt. And later–years later–they left Alexandria and sought an even safer haven on the coast of France.

The legends go deeper than this…anyone who read Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” will probably be familiar with the gist of this, but basically the local legends say that Mary Magdalene MAY have been the spouse of Jesus, and that she was carrying a baby. Dan Brown supported his argument in the following way:

“According to the novel, the secrets of the Holy Grail as kept by the Priory of Sion are as follows:

  • The Holy Grail is not a physical chalice, but a woman, namely Mary Magdalene, who carried the bloodline of Christ.
  • The Old French expression for the Holy Grail, San gréal, actually is a play on Sang réal, which literally means “royal blood” in Old French.
  • The Grail relics consist of the documents that testify to the bloodline, as well as the actual bones of Mary Magdalene.
  • The Grail relics of Mary Magdalene were hidden by the Priory of Sion in a secret crypt, perhaps beneath Rosslyn Chapel.
  • The Church has suppressed the truth about Mary Magdalene and the Jesus bloodline for 2000 years. This is principally because they fear the power of the sacred feminine in and of itself and because this would challenge the primacy of Saint Peter as an apostle.
  • Mary Magdalene was of royal descent (through the Jewish House of Benjamin) and was the wife of Jesus, of the House of David. That she was a prostitute was slander invented by the Church to obscure their true relationship. At the time of the Crucifixion, she was pregnant. After the Crucifixion, she fled to Gaul, where she was sheltered by the Jews of Marseille. She gave birth to a daughter, named Sarah. The bloodline of Jesus and Mary Magdalene became theMerovingian dynasty of France.
  • The existence of the bloodline was the secret that was contained in the documents discovered by the Crusaders after they conquered Jerusalem in 1099 (see Kingdom of Jerusalem). The Priory of Sion and the Knights Templar were organized to keep the secret.

The Cathars, a Christian dualist sect that thrived in northern Spain and southern France between the 12th and 14th century, subscribed to this belief, They were heretical to the Catholic church, and women were given as important roles in the church as men, and saw Mary Magdalene as a more important figure than Peter in the Church. (The famous medieval fortress of Carcassone here in southern France was a Cathartic fortress.)


Ok, so back at the shrine:The stories say that the three Marys, accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea (sometimes Lazarus appears here too in the story) washed ashore in 42 CE in this town, with their “Egyptian maid”, a dark-skinned girl of about 12 named Sarah. There is a festival every May 23 to 25 at the shrine in honor of Saint Sarah, who is also called Sara Kali.

Sarah has become the mythic patron saint of the Roma people, the Gypsies, and this shrine and this festival is THEIR festival. For the Gypsies, who saw themselves in her and adopted her as their appointed protector, she is “Sara-la-Kâli”, a tzigane word which means both “gitan” and “black”. Outside the shrine, the town square is full of gypsies…and the shrine itself is full of relics and devotions to Sarah. There is a statue of Sarah that is so completely draped with tapestries and textiles and scarves from pilgrims that it is virtually unrecognizable.

Some authors have drawn parallels between the ceremonies of the pilgrimage and the worship of the Hindu goddess Kali, subsequently identifying the two. The author Ronald Lee states:

If we compare the ceremonies with those performed in France at the shrine of Sainte Sara (called Sara e Kali in Romani), we become aware that the worship of Kali/Durga/Sara has been transferred to a Christian figure… in France, to a non-existent “sainte” called Sara, who is actually part of the Kali/Durga/Sara worship among certain groups in India.

Kind of fascinating stories! I think to me the blend of Christianity and Roma mythology, the mix of Mary worship with older pagan goddess worship, the strange blend…it’s compelling. The shrine is dark and small and the room where the statue is is so full of candles and incense that it is uncomfortably warm. There are glass cases full of little reliquaries, ivory carved hands containing finger bones, and little golden boxes. There is a painting of the women in a wooden boat as you enter the church. It is undeniably magical.

Here’s a link to more information about the Gypsies in southern France, and the festival:

I know where I’m going to be in the end of May!

More about Mary Magdalene:


One thought on “Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

  1. Yes I have read all of Dan Brown’s books and look forward to his new one in November, I think. Thanks for the info and links. I will read a bit later, because we leave this AM for Portland on the beginning of our new adventure, all the way to Sydney. We will think of you every time we are up on deck 15!

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