I'd like to beg your attention for a moment. Do you know the story of Black Sarah? May I share it with you?
Picture Iron Age Celtic Gaul (France) under Roman rule in around 40 A.D. Southeastern Gaul was remote and rural in the Roman empire; they had principally conquered it around 121 B.C. because they wanted safe, unhindered routes to the Iberian peninsula (Southern Spain). To the Romans it was Gallia Narbonensis and with great cultural sensitivity referred to it as Provincia Nostra ("our province") which gives the region it's modern French designation of Provence. The big cities in the region were Massalia, a Greek colony and Narbonne, founded by the Romans and famous for its rosemary flower honey.
The inhabitants were likely practicing a polytheistic faith that was an amalgam of Celtic Iron Age beliefs and Roman belief.
One legend has it that in the years after the death of the Christ, in the earliest years of Christianity, the two (or three in some versions of the story) Marys, Mary Salome and Mary Jacobi/Cleopas, who had stood at the foot of the cross and had visited the tomb only to see the rock rolled back from the entrance had fled persecution in Israel. Destitute but for their faith, they crossed the Mediterranean in rickety boat without even a sail bound for Gaul's southern shores.
In Gaul was a Egyptian woman, black of skin and beautiful to see. According to legend she was a prophetess and leader of the local Gallic tribe. And this is where the legend begins:
"One of our people who had the first epiphany was Sara-la-Kali. She came from a noble line and ruled her kin on the bank of the Rhone. Thanks to this mysterious revelation, she knew many secrets. By the River Rhone tribes worked with metals and then traded with them. Roma at that time had polytheistic beliefs (they followed several deities) and once a year they took part in a procession with a statue of Ischtari (Astarte) on their shoulders. They walked into the sea with it hoping for benediction. One day Sara-la-Kali had a vision. She saw three holy women calling desperately for help. So Sarah didn't hesitate and went to meet them in a small boat. But the sea was so tempestuous that Sarah almost lost her own life. Finally, in desperation, not knowing which direction was best, she threw her dress into the waves. And lo and behold, by some miracle, it served as a raft and helped her to convey the three Marys to shore. The holy women baptized Sara as a reward and recommended the gospel to her."
Franze de Ville, in the book "Traditions of the Roma in Belgium” quoted here.
Myths and legends often are a confusing mass of tangled threads and this is no exception. As you can see from the above quote, this story is a version which is told by the Roma (more commonly known as Gypsies). Black Sarah was adopted by these wandering peoples perhaps two or three centuries ago… it’s hard to tell and accounts are inconsistent. The Roma are a fascinating people who have via history and genetic studies been shown to have come from northern India.
There are suggestions that the reverence they hold for Sarah-la-Kali or Saint Sarah as they call her go all the way back to the worship of the Hindu Goddess Kali in India but that seems unlikely. Saint Sarah is, by all accounts, viewed as a kind and giving Saint/Goddess whereas the Goddess Kali, while a protector, is not quite as friendly. But as can be seen from the blockquote above, there is a linkage between some form of paganism/fertility rites and Black Sarah.
There are other stories of the woman the Roma call Saint Sarah; some in which she was a servant of the Marys (this is the version the Catholic church accepts — note she is NOT a Catholic saint), others in which she travelled Gaul giving alms to the needy. I chose the story in which she was the heroine.
Her day of celebration and pilgrimage is today, May 24th. The Romani travel to the French village of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer to honor their Saint Sarah, Black Sarah, Sara-la-Kali.
Those who come to Sara pay their respects in two ritual acts...: the first is the placing and removing their hands from her skirts. Women in particular carefully stroke the statue and kiss the tails of her pleated skirts (Sarah never has only one skirt on her, the Romani women are always bringing them as a gift to her). They then put down next to her the things they've brought: handkerchiefs, silk undergarments, and skirts. Finally, items that belong to lost or ill people are presented to Sara in the hopes that the lost are found and the sick healed. This entire ritual is evidently not original, and has been observed among the Dravidians in northern India...
The second part of the annual Romani pilgrimmage is inherent in the procession to the sea and the symbolic submersion in it, although the Church didn't recognize this ceremony until 1935. The procession and the ocean connect Sarah with all the cults of great fertility goddesses - the magic of submersion induced rain, or at least it should... to at least once... to see and touch "their" goddess. It has become a matter of course that just on the 24th and 25th of May parents are having their children baptized in the church before Kali Sarah. Young couples come from all over the world to say their vows in front of Sarah. When the time comes, the men load Sarah on a horse-drawn wagon (sometimes two Sarahs are taken, one Catholic and the second Romani) and the endless procession sets off down the streets. It approaches the sea and the tension mounts. First the carriage with Sarah goes into the sea. The moment the hem of her skirt touches the water, everyone else throws themselves in after her. They believe that the water that Sarah has just blessed will bring them health and luck.
The song above by English folk musicians Tinkerscuss is how I learned of Saint Sarah.
If you are in Europe you may need this link to hear the song. Lyrics below.
"Oh you who own land and choose to raise fences I'll speak with my heart though my words may displease you Black Sarah protect me!
O the good God in Heaven, He meant for his people to live as they chose without harming each other
You are no longer my brother
For you stopped me and my family from drinking of God's own clean streams and grazing our horses free
I was born on the road raised in field and in forest
I live in a broken down caravan park
Black Sarah console me
I'll dream of the past where the seasons we circle
O how can we call only on place our home? Make our lives bleak as your own? Surround us with laws and with government forms
try to teach our children your ways?
But their hearts will choose freedom well.
I'll try to forget nightmares I read in your palms I'll take only your money Black Sarah forgive me
O lead me I pray as you led the two Marys, with love and with strength brought them safe to the land
Help me understand
Although I am a poor woman the eyes of my children will dance with our love, their laughter delights me!”
Thank you for letting me share this imperfectly told tale with you. Have a good day.
The original version of the song was by Lorraine Lee (now Lorraine Lee Hammond) and can be found on YouTube here:
Thank you for the information some other george!!