The Camargue Secret

The Camargue Secret
The Camargue Secret (with respect to Dan Brown!)– by Chris Cobb The job of any writer, in my opinion, is to stimulate the imagination of his reader. Dan Brown certainly stimulated mine while I was reading The Da Vinci Code, and it got me thinking about some things I’d learned while living in the Camargue wilderness in the south of France. With hindsight, I should have guessed that I would be given insights not usually associated with your average "tourist trap.”Recuperating from clinical depression, I had just completed the healing process by travelling alone more than one thousand miles in my tiny motorboat "Sky,” traversing the canals of the UK and France, and finally motoring out into the blue Mediterranean Sea at 15:20hrs, on Tuesday, 16th September 1997. To say that that was an emotional moment for me would be an understatement, and I drifted on the water for a while, just quietly accepting that I had achieved something remarkable for once in my life. I looked around at the kaleidoscope of twinkling miniature suns reflecting off the surface of the Mediterranean and I was pleased. Behind me was another life, and ahead of me, in the distance, under a blue, blue sky, beckoned the little sunbleached village of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Now it has taken me over five years to appreciate the marvels of this village known as "Les Saintes", so please be patient if I paint you a pictorial, social background for the thesis I would like to share with you. Now it has taken me over five years to appreciate the marvels of this village known as "Les Saintes", so please be patient if I paint you a pictorial, social background for the thesis I would like to share with you. Sky and I quietly entered Port Guardian, passing a welcome sign, "Bienvenue aux Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer," and under direction from a port employee we moored up at our new home. (How different this was from the welcome afforded to the saintly personalities we will meet in this article.) The church was the first thing I saw on arrival, as local building regulations impose height restrictions on all buildings in the village, with the exception (interestingly enough) of a townhouse built recently by one of the town’s mayors. The church tower, however, rises high above the rooftops, and its five distinctive bells can be seen from miles away. This church is the focus of two major annual pilgrimages, one a Christian celebration and the other a gypsy festival. But what brings pilgrims from all over the world to this humble venue? The Breviary of the diocese of Aix records  that Mary Jacob, the sister of the Virgin Mary, and Jesus’ aunt, was shipwrecked on the shores of the Camargue delta along with Mary Salome, mother of the "sons of Zebedee", James and John. Both women were made saints in view of their faithfulness to Jesus both during and after his ministry. The Gospels tell that Jesus accepted them as disciples, unlike other rabbis of the time who only accepted male followers (this perhaps also raises the question of the place of women in religion today). All the apostles, save John, hid themselves during the crucifixion, but Mary Jacob and Mary Salome were witnesses, and later, when the stone  was rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, Mary Jacob was there with another Mary, Mary Magdalene. Historically, during that time Christians were being persecuted throughout the Middle East. Indeed, Mary Salome’s son James was executed by Herod Agrippa. The Breviary of Aix states that in Palestine "… Mary Jacob and Mary Salome were arrested and put on a ship with neither sail nor oar which, guided by Providence, found its way to the Provence shore." The two saints spent the rest of their lives spreading Christianity throughout the south of France. The Sunday closest to October 22nd is the feast of Mary Salome. And what a day that is! Thousands throng the narrow streets of Les Saintes. The relics of the saints are lowered down from the window of the "Chapelle Haute" in the church, and the excited crowds follow "Les Arlesiènne" ladies in their colourful traditional costumes and the local cowboys ("guardians") on their white horses,  who escort the statues of the two Marys down to the brilliant white sandy beach. There they ride out into the sea with the statues to perform a blessing on the waves.   The other pilgrimage starts on 24th May with a gypsy festival in honour of their patron "saint". Although she has never been pronounced a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, she is revered by Gypsies, Tsiganes, Romanies etc., who have named her Sara-la-Kâli (Black Sarah). Now let’s go back for a moment to The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. In the book, he invokes the ancient Chinese Yin/Yang philosophy and relates this to the basic premise of his story. According to Yin/Yang, the universe comprises a balance of opposites, so, using black and white as an example, let us also apply this concept to the two pilgrimages to Les Saintes. We can then see that Black Sarah is surely a balance to the two "white" Marys, whose statues are taken down to the shore, once again, on 25th May, the Feast of Mary Jacob. The gypsy festival is even more expansive than that for the two Marys. One year I was fascinated to see a long line in front of a magnificent modern caravan trailer–hundreds of subjects of the King of the Romanies were waiting to kiss the huge jewelled ring on his finger. Thousands of Gypsies come from all over the world, these days mostly in expensive or not so expensive motor cars, but also in traditional horse-drawn caravans. After the ceremony, during which the statue of Sarah is taken out of the church and paraded through the village,…
Previous Article Cháteauneuf du Pape
Next Article Diary from Limousin Part 16