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  • Writer's pictureApril Beebe

Saintes Maries de la Mer

On a bright and cold January morning in 2018 I arrived in the French town of Saintes Maries de la Mer. I’d driven there from Marseille on a small road, passing endless marshes and many signs with pictures of flamingos on them which I found curious until at one point I actually spotted a flock of the unmistakable pink birds, which added to the sense of wonderment that already infused this journey. 

Saintes Maries de La Mer is a lot like many seaside resort towns- it’s very quaint, with avenues of cafes and shops that sell postcards and beachwear. Picture Venice Beach except small, clean, and European. January is most definitely the off season so most of the businesses were closed, and there was a sense of emptiness with hardly any motor or foot traffic. 

I parked my tiny rental car and made my way to the beach where there were just a handful of other people enjoying the winter shore. I gazed out over the Mediteranean and thought of Mary Magdalene, who is said to have come ashore at this very place after the crucifixion. 

The official Church sanctioned story of Mary Magdalene is that she was a reformed prostitute who followed Jesus and was among the first to see him after the resurrection. The alternate story is that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, but an initiate in the Egyptian lineage of Isis, Christ’s beloved, and that she gave birth to their daughter. In both versions of the story it’s Saintes Maries de la Mer where she landed in Europe. And I was there. 

I’d like to say I had some kind of mystical experience there on that beach, but mostly I was just cold. So I took a few pictures and made my way into the town itself, where I knew there was a Black Madonna. Well, not exactly a Black Madonna, but close. 

Let me back up a bit here. Part of the reason I was in Southern France to begin with is the Black Madonna. Most portrayals of the Virgin Mary depict her as having fair skin, and symbolically that fairness is associated with her virginity and “purity.” (We could go into a whole long thing here about the social construction of whiteness and the virgin/whore dichotomy, but I’m trying to stay focused. Suffice to say there is definitely a connection there.) 

There are a number of depictions of Mary, however, where her skin is decidedly dark. Art historians and religious scholars debate the reason for this, but among a growing group of spiritually oriented feminists (like yours truly) the Black Madonna has come to symbolize the repressed sacred feminine. The idea is that when worshippers of the Goddess were faced with with torture and death by the church for their heretical beliefs, they found ways to subtly give a nod to those beliefs by making the Madonna black. Black symbolizing not evil or impurity, but Yin Energy, the feminine principle, and an embrace of sexuality as a creative force. 

The statue in the church at Saintes Maries de la Mer is not of the Madonna, but of Saint Sarah. She has dark skin, though, and is listed in many directories of Black Madonna sites. Additionally, some believe that St. Sarah is the not-so-secret daughter of Mary Magdalene and Christ. Interestingly, and not related to the Black Madonna/Mary Magdalene mythology, Saint Sarah is the patron of the Roma people and they have a huge annual festival where they gather and take her statue and plunge it into the sea. So I was excited to see her. 

The statue of St. Sarah

As I neared the church a Roma woman approached me and offered me a small pin of Saint Sarah which I gratefully accepted in exchange for a few francs, and which is on my backpack to this day.  Upon entering the church I explored the main sanctuary for a bit, looking at the many works of art depicting the Marys arrival by boat (allegedly Mary Magdalene was accompanied by Mary Salome and Mary of Clopas). I also meditated for a bit in preparation for my encounter with Saint Sarah. 

Here my ability to narrate breaks down a bit. On one hand I don’t believe we need statues, candles, incense, crystals, or whatever to access the divine. We are divine. It’s our birthright and we’ve never been separate from it and could never be. And yet. There is something palpable about being in certain spaces, they have a potency that is experiential and undeniable. That mystical experience I didn’t have on the beach? It was waiting for me in St. Sarah’s basement sanctuary. I can’t articulate it entirely because these types of things are generally ineffable, but it had to do with a deep realization of that innate divinity I was just talking about. It was this sense of not being separate from Mary Magdalene, Saint Sarah, or Christ because we are them and they are us. Words are an abysmal failure, but that’s the best I can do to describe it.  

When I emerged from the basement sanctuary back into the main church I felt like I wasn’t finished so I sat down to meditate more. When I opened my eyes I saw something which took my breath away. I’d missed it during my initial circuit of the church-- a giant marble vulva set into the wall. Reading the plaque I learned that it was part of the original pagan temple upon which the church had been built. The stone vagina was serving as a pillow for two people who had been buried there. 

It took my breath away and still does. Can you imagine living in a world where the practice is to rest one’s head on a sacred vagina when rejoining eternity? It’s so foreign to our current culture that I have some reluctance to even share this part of the story because it feels like something that could so easily be laughed at or misunderstood. But underneath that reluctance I have a very deep and real desire, a need even, to reclaim that sense of utmost reverence for that part of us. Because to revere our sex is to bring an awareness of the divinity of our actual, physical bodies. Which is to heal that sense of separation I mentioned before. 

So, yeah. In addition to a mushroom death suit, I want a pussy pillow in my grave. Please let this become a thing.

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