Les Saintes Maries de la Mer is a quiet, pretty seaside place with small holiday homes and fishermen’s cottages hung with buoys, nets and anchors, with shops selling buckets, spades and plimsoles, a broad esplanade with a painted merry-go-round, a town square dominated by a statue of a Camargue bull and a skyline pierced by the tower of its fortified church.
Yet it’s a place with a hint of mystery, none so much as in its name. Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, in English, is, the Holy Marys of the Sea. It’s a name that begs the question – Who were the Holy Marys and how or why did they give their name to this little town out on the far edge of the Camargue?
According to the bible, after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, three women paid a visit to his tomb. They found it open and empty. The three women were Mary Magdalene, the famous follower of Jesus, Mary Salome, the sister of Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and Mary Jacobi, the mother of James, the apostle.
According to an old French legend, back in the very first days AD, three women, their uncle and their dark skinned servant, were washed ashore on the coast near the mouth of the Petit Rhone. They had set sail from Alexandria in Egypt. According to that same old French legend, these three Maries were none other than Marie Magdalene, Marie Salome and Marie Jacobi. Their Uncle was Joseph of Arimathea and their servant was an Egyptian girl named Sarah. They had come to spread the gospel of Jesus and to avoid persecution in their native land.
According to the Knights Templar, Dan Brown, and a large number of others, a woman named Marie and her daughter, Sara, were washed ashore on that spot. The woman was none other than Mary Magdalene and her daughter was the child of Jesus. They had fled Jerusalem to escape death.
According to Gypsy lore, two women named Marie, half-dead from thirst and starvation, in a boat without oars or rudder, were washed ashore on that spot. They had been put to sea in the Holy land and sent off to starve, dehydrate or drown, a common way of dispatching undesirables (read Christians) at the time. They were rescued by a dark-skinned woman named Sarah. These two Marys were none other than Mary Salome and Mary Jacobi. The dark-skinned woman was Sara, patron saint of the gypsies.
The place where the Marys landed was known first as Notre Dame de Ratis (our Lady of the boat) then Sainte Marie (for just one Mary, if so which, or because one Mary stands for all?) Finally, in recognition of the two, or three, Marys and the sea which had delivered them, in 1838, it was named Les Saintes Maries de la Mer.
Mary Salome and Mary Jacobi lived out their days in that place at the mouth of Le Petit Rhône. After their deaths, their sacred remains were sealed in a casket and placed in the town’s fortified church. They remain there today. A statue of Saint Sara, clothed in finery, keeps vigil nearby.
Pilgrims have been coming to Saint Maries since the 15th century. Arles was on the route of Saint Jacques de Compostelle and as Mary Jacobi was the mother of the apostle James or Saint Jacques, they made the short detour to Les Saintes Maries de La Mer to pay homage to her.
Every year, Gypsies from all over Europe gather in Les Saintes Maries de la Mer on May 25, to celebrate the fête, or feast of Saint Sara. Early in the morning a special Mass is celebrated in the church. The casket containing the relics of Marie Salome and Marie Jacobi are lifted from the vault and along with the statue of Saint Sara, it is carried to the sea in a solemn procession. Long into the night, the Gypsies dance and sing.
The story of Les Saintes Maries and Sainte Sara, fascinating and mysterious as it is, is just one of the stories of this town. There are many more. Likewise the Fête of Sainte Sara is just one of the town’s fêtes. There are many more of those too, like La Fête des Vierges (festival of the virgins, in the sense of unmarried girls) started by Frederic Mistral, the great Occitane poet, in 1904.
Check out the others here: http://www.saintesmaries.com/fr/accueil/agenda.html