On a morning that begins like any other...
...the gathering crowd outside the town's church indicates that this day is special.
The Gypsies* and townspeople of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer are preparing a pilgrimage to the sea. This stunning procession takes place semi-annually. The first, on 24 and 25 May celebrates Mary Jacobé; the second, celebrating Mary Salomé, takes place on the Sunday closest to the 22 October.
During these pilgrimages, the Gitan and Gardian traditions mix it up.
Gardians are as near to anyone comes nowadays to living the cowboy way of life. They play a major role in guarding Camarguais traditions. They live in traditional cabanes, thatched and windowless single-storey structures furnished with bulls' horns over the door to ward off evil spirits. A typical house/structure in the Camargue looks something like this:
A guardian's traditional tools are a trident and a black hat.
When the mass ends, attendees file out from the church into the square where the gardians wait to lead them in a procession to accompany the Saints to the sea.
Many of the participants wear traditional Provençal dress from the region of Arles. The Arlesian women’s costumes date back to the mid-18th century and developed from the desire of the women of this region to dress differently from others. Today this costume is worn for festive occasions in Arles and throughout the Camargue.
The headdress, with its famous velvet ribbon, appeared around 1835.
Finally the saints arrive to join the procession to the sea...
...and the rest of the pilgrims bring up the rear of the parade.
The three legendary Marys of Stes. Maries de la Mer are sometimes represented as Mary Jacobé (the sister of Mary, Jesus' mother - a person invented by the Roman Church to explain biblical mentions of other children born of the "Virgin" Mary); Mary Salomé (the mother of Apostles James the Greater and John); and Mary-Magdalene.
Sara, who became the patron saint of the gitans, is often explained away as a servant. Her relics are kept at the church in Stes. Maries de la Mer and her statue has a special place in the cave of the church where followers can go for prayers and blessings.
Either way the three Marys were supposedly expelled from Jerusalem around the year AD 40. They were shipped off, along with Lazarus, Martha, Maximin, and Sidon, on a boat without sails, oars or provisions.
According to the story, Sara was not allowed on board but one of the Marys threw her coat onto the waters and it miraculously turned into a raft, allowing Sara to join the other sea farers. Another legend offers that when the evil Romans set the boat adrift in the Holy Island, Sarah, left ashore, begged to be taken with them. By a miracle she was able to reach the boat by walking on the water.
Their boat eventually landed near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The Marys - along with Sara - lived out the rest of their days in the Camargue, where their graves became places of pilgrimage, especially for gitans and their patron saint, Sara.
According to legend, the passengers of that little boat found their places in various corners of Provence:
• Mary Magdalene went to Sainte Baume, where she spent the rest of her life in a cave, clothed only by her hair.
• Mary Salomé remained in the area, in time, becoming an object of veneration by the local people.
• Mary Jacobé was the sister or cousin of the Virgin Mary. This Mary also remained in the area where the boat had come ashore and became an object of veneration to the local people.
• Martha, the sister of Mary Magdalene, went to Tarascon. There, it is believed that she converted a monster (the Tarasque) that used to rise out of the waters of the Rhone to devour people and livestock.
• Lazarus went to Marseille and became its first bishop
• Maximinus went to Aix.
• Saint Sarah, or Sara, an Egyptian child servant, is believed to have remained in Stes. Maries de la Mer.
A representation of the boat in which they arrived awaits the procession down at the seaside.
Les gardians are the first to hit the beach.
Part II to follow tomorrow. Plan to stop back in to see what happens next.
(There will be music - I can promise you that!)
* In French, Gypsies are called Gitans (from Spanish gitano, short form of egiptano (Egyptian) - the same error about their origins underlies the English word "gypsy").
** A rough and tumble region of Provence, the Camargue is a triangular area lying on the coast between the Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence. It is a river delta where the Rhône meets the sea - a marshy island bounded by two branches of the Rhône and the Mediterranean Sea. With an area of over 930 km² (360 sq. miles), the Camargue is western Europe's largest river delta, with exceptional biological diversity, and home to unique breeds of horses and bulls, and to more than 400 species of birds including pink flamingos (in fact, the Camargue is the only place in France, and one of the few anywhere around the Mediterranean, where pink flamingos nest).