©Ronald Lee, 2002, all rights reserved
While there are many Black Virgins and Black Madonnas in the Christian countries of the Mediterranean and elsewhere, the black statue worshipped by the Roma. at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer in the Camargue in the South of France stands out as something of an enigma. The actual origin of this statue is lost in antiquity and there is no doubt that a Black Goddess must have existed there long before Christianity. According to some authorities the village now known as Les Saintes Maries de la Mer was originally known as Ratis, which means raft in Latin, and later, the church itself , which is shaped like a boat, and dates back at least to the 12th century, was for some time known as Notre Dame de Ratis (Our Lady of the Raft). There is also evidence that in the first century AD, Artemis, Cybele, Isis and the Celtic Triple Goddess, Matres had temples there (1).
With the advent of Christianity and the common practice of the early Christians which was to incorporate existing pagan shrines and their Gods and Goddesses into Christianity as churches and Saints, much like a modern Macdonald’s Restaurant will be built on the site of a long-established and well-patronised eatery and raise the “Golden Arches”, whatever Goddess or Triple Goddesses, may have existed there were transformed into the mythology of the Three Maries and a Christian church was constructed incorporating the original place of pagan worship. This legend has now taken many forms over the centuries. These include the official explanation presented by the Roman Catholic Church , local folk legends among the surrounding population, theories by authors and researchers who have attempted to explain the phenomenon and the folk legends of the Romani groups who attend the annual pilgrimage to the shrine at Les Saintes Maries on the 24th and 25th of May. from France and Spain and even as far away as Hungary, the Balkans and the Americas. Most of these Romani pilgrims spend a few days prior to May 24 camping in the area where they meet, exchange news, arrange marriages and perform music and dance to honour Kali Sara, make money from tourists through musical performances, hawking and other commercial activities and to enjoy themselves. They also hold a vigil during the night prior to the ceremony of May 25 in the crypt where the black statue is located. Romani musicians bring their instruments and play music to honour Kali Sara during this vigil. The church, strapped for funds, has endorsed the festival and conducts its own fund-raising activities.
By the Middle Ages there was a widespread legend in Provence, that Mary Jacobé, Mary Salomé and Mary Magdalene had arrived in the South of France after travelling from Palestine in a boat after the crucifixion of Christ. They then allegedly taught Christianity to the local population. This is mythology only, since official Christianity did not exist until long after the demise of these Biblical Maries. The exact location of this alleged landing was originally not defined. This legend mentions Sarah, a Black Egyptian servant who accompanied the three Maries and who sustained them while they were spreading the Gospel by travelling around begging alms. Another legend claims that Sarah, the Egyptian, spread her cloak on the water when the boat was in danger of sinking, thus enabling the three (now two) Maries to reach land safely. A Romani folk legend claims that Sarah was the “queen” of a Romani group living in the area when the three Maries arrived who became baptised and taught her people Christianity. This, of course, is not possible since the Roma did not leave India until the 11th century AD.
By 1438 the location of the actual landing was established as Les Saintes Maries where the present church, housing the two statues of the two white Maries and black “Saint Sarah” now stands. The pilgrimages are mentioned in the 15th century. ‘Egyptians” 1 the name then used to define the Roma in Europe, are mentioned as being present at the pilgrimages as early as the mid 15th century. This can be accepted since the Roma entered central Europe through Romania by the end of the 14th century and by the middle of the 15th century they had spread as far west as Spain and as far east as Poland/Lithuania. Their first documented appearance in France was in Paris in 1415.
In 1448, four decapitated female skeletons were discovered in the foundation of the church and were tentatively identified as those of the three Maries and Sarah, their Egyptian servant. Over time, Mary Magdalene disappeared from the trio of Maries and today, only Mary Jacobé and Mary Salomé are the official Saints of the Church. One legend says that Mary Magdalene became a hermit, grew her hair long and hid herself in a cave to atone for her sins. In any event, she has been forgotten by the Church and the official modern version of the legend offered by the Church authorities is that only the two Maries (Jacobé and Salomé) arrived in a boat from Palestine with their servant Sarah who is now called Saint Sarah despite the fact that officially there is no such saint in the hierarchy of Catholic saints. Equally mysterious is the presence of the black female statue in the crypt of the church. The present statue is said to have replaced an earlier statue, which in its turn replaced an earlier one, etc, etc. Just how long there has been a Black Madonna or a previous pagan Black Virgin in this location is unknown. The original statue has somehow been connected to the bones now in a casket which are said to be those of Sarah, originally the Egyptian servant later elevated to the status of a pseudo Saint by her devotees if not officially by the Church..
Any attempt to define who Kali Sara actually is or to explain how she came to be worshipped by the Roma within the context of the official dogma is doomed to failure unless the question is addressed from within the Romani culture. In the past, most of the Roma who attended the annual pilgrimage were from the French Sinti and other Romani groups in France and the Spanish Calés (2). During the Communist era, Roma in central/eastern Europe were prevented from attending and until inexpensive air travel became available, Roma from the Americas seldom attended. While the non-Romani pilgrims attend the festival to honour the two Mary’s whose statues are carried into the nearby Mediterranean on May 24 and the ever increasing horde of tourists flock to the site just to see something colourful and take snapshots or video tapes, the Roma attend to worship “Saint Sarah” who is called Sara La Kali by the western-European Sinti and Calés or Kali Sara by the eastern-European Roma in the Romani dialects spoken by these two groups. Her ceremony takes place on May 25. Originally this was a purely Romani event but now the camera-wielding tourists, “Gypsyologists” (3), anthropologists, professional and amateur filmmakers and other non-Roma usually outnumber the Roma.
Until recently it was widely believed that this worship of Kali Sara, the Romani Black Madonna or Goddess was unique to Les Saintes Maries de La Mer. My own recent research among Romani refugees from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and in countries of the Balkans has uncovered the little-known fact that other Black Virgins are worshipped by Roma in central/eastern Europe and that Roma from these countries perform similar rituals. These rituals include laying flowers at the feet of the statue, adorning the statue with clothing of the sick hoping for cures, placing requests to the statue, and lighting candles to the female divinity. To the Roma, Kali Sara is the Protectress who will cure sickness, bring good luck and fertility and grant success in business ventures.
The Romani ceremony at Les Saintes Maries, as elsewhere, consists of carrying the statue on a platform strewn with flowers (4) into the closest body of water such as a sea, lake, flowing river or even a large pond of clear water. The platform is then lowered to touch the water while the crowd throws flowers into the water. Indian scholars such as Dr. Weer Rishi (5) and others who have witnessed this Romani ceremony, as well as Western observers who are familiar with Hindu religious customs have identified this ceremony with the Durga Pooja of India. In Romani, Kali Sara means Black Sara and in India, the Goddess Kali is known as Kali/Durga/Sara. Like the Hindus, the Roma practice shaktism, the worship of Goddesses. In other words, the Roma who attend the pilgrimage to Les Saintes Maries in France and in other related ceremonies elsewhere honouring black female divinities, are in fact continuing to worship Kali/Durga/Sara their original Goddess in India.
According to the Durgasaptashati (seven hundred verses in the worship of Goddess Durga and her various forms), chapter 5, verse 12, which mentions Sara, contains the following: “Salute to Durga, Durgapara, (Deliver of all difficulties), Sara, (Embodiment of everything par-excellent), Cause of everything, Krishna and Dhurma (Evaporated form in smoke).” Other references in this ancient Hindu scripture also confirm that Sara is one and the same with the Indian goddess Durga who is also another aspect of Kali, the consort of Shiva.
The memory of Shiva himself has been preserved among the Roma as O Baró Devél in Romani (6). Thus, the Roma pray to Kali Sara to intercede with O Baro Devel to bring them luck, health and prosperity. During the ceremony of the Durga Pooja in India which takes place annually in October, a statue of Durga is carried on a platform into a body of water and immersed which destroys the statue. At Les Saintes Maries, the Roma do not immerse the statue but otherwise the two ceremonies are so similar that the similarity could not be accidental (7). In France, a reduced Kali Sara ceremony also takes place in October to complement the major festival of May.
The unexplained mystery is how the worship of Kali became fused with the Black Madonna in the crypt at Arles. Most likely there was always a Black Virgin at Les Saintes Maries dating back to Pagan times, which later became incorporated into Christianity. To explain the presence of this Black Statue, the church may have simply invented the legend of Sarah, the Egyptian servant of the Three Maries, now reduced to two with the passing of time and the Church’s attitude towards “sin.”. In other words, there must have been multiple overlays of the original Black Goddess whose name or names have been lost. Many cultures and religions have existed in the coastal region of Les Saintes Maries, perhaps Egyptians and Cretans, but certainly Phoenicians and Greeks who founded the colony of nearby Massalia (Marseilles), Gauls, pre-Christian Romans, Christian Romans, Moors and all the other ancestors of the present-day population.
The Roma arrived early in the 15th century when they would have been forced to hide their original Indian beliefs and religious practices under a veneer of Christianity to escape condemnation and persecution by the Mediaeval Church, which began to root out heresy and witchcraft in the 15th century. To avoid charges of heresy and witchcraft they must have found this loophole which allowed them to continue to worship Kali in the guise of Sarah the Egyptian. King René d’Anjou of Provence was responsible for establishing the cult of the Maries and of Sarah the Egyptian in the 15th century. King René was reputedly the friend or lover of Joan of Arc and narrowly escaped charges of heresy himself because of his “pagan beliefs” and his founding of the Order of the Crescent which the Church viewed as suspiciously Islamic and also connected with the pagan worship of Isis. This was considered unacceptable to the Church which at that time was devoted to stamping out heresy. It was during his reign that the remains of the four unidentifiable, decapitated skeletons were discovered during excavations under the church. These were assumed to be those of the Three Maries and Sarah, the Egyptian (8). This, however, conflicts with the bones found later, in a box under the church in 1496, which are also claimed to be those of Sarah the Egyptian servant of the original three Maries. Bones are bones and could have belonged to anybody including martyrs to some faith, Christian or non-Christian, human sacrifices to some long forgotten God or Gods, or even to some pious priestesses or temple virgins who died after a lifetime of service to some long forgotten Goddess. As far as is known, they have not been carbon tested to establish the date of demise which might help to solve the mystery.
Standard Christianity took a long time to become established in the Provence region of France and this may have created a refuge of tolerance where the Roma were able to worship Kali Sara unmolested. This was the location of the Cathars and the Albigenses, two Gnostic Christian groups who were mercilessly persecuted by thugs, pillagers, arsonists, murderers and rapists with an eye for loot masquerading under the guise of “Crusaders” recruited and blessed by the Pope of the era under the banner of Christ to wipe out “heresy” in the region. But until today, many survivals of pre-Christian religions survive in this area from the sacred white bulls and the horses of Provence, another ancient pagan legacy perhaps connected with the worship of Mithra, the tridents carried by the Guardians (9), the bull herdsmen who escort the statues of the Two Maries and of Kali Sara into the Mediterranean on May 24 and May 25 to the Black statue at Les Saintes Maries whose confused and multi-layered identity has allowed the Roma to worship Kali Sara in the guise of Saint Sarah while the original Black Goddess herself has refused to die but has suffered only many changes of names and identities with the passing of time.
Now, far from dead, in her Romani identity of Kali Sara she has migrated to Canada and her statue was recreated in Vancouver, BC, in 1998 where the first Kali Sara Festival ever held in Canada took place. In 2001, Kali Sara migrated to Toronto where another statue was created. My amazing discovery during these events was that the refugee Roma who have recently arrived in Canada from central/eastern Europe, including the Balkans, were quite aware of who Kali Sara was, and explained that she had her equivalents in their countries among the Roma. Even Muslim Roma described ceremonies similar to those of Kali Sara, where a female deity, E Guglí Sagíya – The guardian Angel (10), was worshipped by Muslim Roma in the South Balkans (former Rumelia) in order to bring health, luck and success. Thus, far from being an isolated survival of ancestral Hindu religious beliefs, the Roma worship of Kali Sara at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer is simply the best known of a religious practice among the Roma that is much more widespread in many countries of Europe and now, in Canada (11).
In Mexico, Mexican Roma also attend the festival of La Virgen de Guadalupe which enables them to worship a female divinity sponsored by the Church. Again, in Sainte Anne de Beaupré, Quebec, Canadian and American Roma have attended the annual Novena held there on the week of July 24, 25 and 26 where they continue to practice shaktism. Here the central figure is Santana (Saint Ann) whom the Roma identify as E De Devleski (Mother of God or the Earth Mother). Special Romani ceremonies, differing from those of the non-Roma pilgrims are performed which are very similar to those performed at Les Saintes Maries to Kali Sara except that the statue of Sainte Anne is not removed from the crypt and carried into the nearby Saint Lawrence River. Thus, even when Kali Sara is not the focus of these ceremonies, Roma all over the world continue to worship female deities or saints in shrines located near bodies of water, honouring them with ceremonies that come not from Christianity but from Hinduism. The modern Romani cult of Kali Sara which is now taking root among the Roma, especially the younger generation, is more and more reverting to the concept that Kali Sara is an Indian deity brought from India by our refugee ancestors. We are removing her from any connection with Christianity unlike the older Roma in western Europe who were unaware of the true origin of Kali Sara since this knowledge had been lost. They simply continued the tradition of the pilgrimage which they had learned from their parents whose ancestors in western Europe had been forced to hide it in Christianity because of the Inquisition. Education is teaching the new generation of Roma who Kali Sara really is and that they, like her, originated in India. Kali Sara is now finally coming out of the closet and emerging as a Romani Goddess, the Protectress of the Roma and our indisputable link with Mother India, the cradle of our emerging Romani Nation.
Opré Roma! (12)
(1) Humphrey, Jeanne, 1997, The Beltane Papers, Issue 13, Page 19.
(2) In the flamenco culture of the Spanish Kalé, Kali Sara appears in the type of song called Debla where the refrain ends with the expression Deblica Baré – Great Goddess.
(3) Gypsyologist: The Gypsy Lore Society was founded in 1889 in England and has continued until today. People who studied Roma referred to themselves as “Gypsyologists,” i. e. collectors of Gypsy Lore. The American Chapter has recently modernised its concept and has changed the title of their journal from Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society to The Journal of Romani Studies. Many Roma see “Gypsyologist” as synonymous with “entomologist.”
(4) The statue is not always carried into a body of water in Romani ceremonies performed elsewhere. Sometimes it is worshipped only inside the church.
(5) Weer, W.R. Padmashri, July 1986, Chandigarh, Roma, No. 25, “St. Sarah (Goddess Durga/Kali) Ancient Indo-French Cultural Link,” Pp. 5-8.
(6) God in Romani is Del or Devel depending on the dialect. Both originated in Sanskrit Deva. To traditional Roma who follow the Romaníya or Romani Folk Religion, God is seen as abstract. Roma pray directly to a female figure (shaktism) and not to God. While Del or Devel can refer to any God from any religion, the Romani folk religion has many terms such as O Devel o Puranó (The Old God), O Devel o Nevó (The New God), O Devel Kristoso (Jesus Christ) and others. O Baro Devél, however, is the most powerful of all the Gods. In the traditional Romani benediction recited by the Patriarchs at the Table of the Dead (Pomanaki Sinya) the following invocation is solemnly recited: Kama, Shona tai Devla, ashun man – Sun Moon and God, hear me. This is the Rajput invocation to the Sun, Moon and God which has been preserved among the Kalderash and other traditional Roma. Since ashun (hear) is in the imperative singular, the invocation is obviously addressed to a Trinity. The Rajputs claimed descent from the Sun and the Moon and worshipped Shiva through his consort Kali. Some modern Roma have abandoned the traditional Romani folk religion and its protective veneer of Christianity or Islam, and have adopted non-Romani religions such as Pentecostal and other modern forms of Christianity, especially in former Communist countries where religions were outlawed under Communism. Other young Roma more acquainted with their history and origins are developing the traditional Romani folk beliefs based on shaktism, animism and earth-based spirituality to create a modified traditional Romani religion.
(7) Rishi, W.R., July, 1986, Pp. 5-6
(8) Humphrey, Jeanne, 1997, p.16.
(9) These tridents are reminiscent of the Trident of Poseidon and Neptune suggesting possible Greek or Roman pagan origin. The Trident is also often seen in Mediaeval and Renaissance portrayals of the Goddess “Fortuna.” It is also held by the British “Tribal Goddess” Britannia. The Roma, having come from India, would have known about the Trident of Shiva. Cross, in Romani, is trushúl, which comes from Sanskrit and is connected to the trushula, the Trident of Shiva. Nothing is known of the bulls of the Camargue nor the origin of the particular breed of horses used by the Guardiens. They appear to have been well-established there during the Dark Ages of European history.
(10) This Guardian Angel often appears in dreams to inform the Muslim Roma how to cope with sickness and tribulations. To invoke her help, the Roma sacrifice white rams in her honour. Other ceremonies are performed including water ceremonies involving floating, lighted candles. No such traditions exists in standard Islam.
(11) Sources not attributed to any published authority come from the author’s The Gypsy Invasion : Romani Refugees in Canada, presently under review but as yet unpublished and his own personal research among various Romani groups.
(12) “Arise, Roma!”.