Saturday, July 3, 2010

Les Saintes Puelles

Lately, I have been working on a longish inventory of representations of women, both secular and religious, in the south of France and especially Toulouse. Originally meant to be a series of brief sketches, it has become something a bit more. What follows was originally just a smidgeon of the whole but has since taken on a life of its own. So, I've decided to break it off into a separate post. It touches on some profound issues which revolve around the conflation of saints and other syncretic processes, but I haven't quite gotten to exploring this as fully as I'd like. For now, I'm working with particularities and intend to work my way towards a more general approach.

It's certainly not intented to be my final word; this is more of an initial survey.

This post deals with the martyrdom of the Patron Saint of Toulouse and more specifically, the two women who gathered up his remains after the deed was done.

Let's go.

Saint Saturninus of Toulouse is variously known as Saturnin, Sernin, Cernin, Sanzornín, Sadurní, etc. according to what language you speak. His cult is centered in the south of France and the North of Spain, from Catalonia over to Asturias and even into northern Portugal. Although not the most wildly popular or well-known figure, several places in Spain and France bear his name and he is connected with the evangelists of the early Christianization of the area.

The legends around his life are taken from the Acts of Saturninus, which have been lost to time. Briefly, they state that Sernin (I use the local appellation) was the son of a king and the grandson of another on his mother's side. He was said to have been one of the 72 disciples of Christ (Luke 10:1-24) and present at the Last Supper. Furthermore, he was ordained by no less than Saint Peter himself.

This legend is historically impossible as it is most likely he was one one of the seven bishops Pope Saint Fabian (236-250 CE) sent out to Christianize Gaul. His lifetime was certainly well after the events portrayed in the Acts.

It is said that Sernin had to frequently pass before the pagan altars of the Toulouse to and from the Christian church. It so happened that oracles located there fell silent as he passed. This understandably pissed off the pagan priests, who blamed him and his sermons characterizing their gods as devils. They seized him, brought him to their altars and gave him an ultimatum: "sacrifice to our gods, or else." He apparently said something like "Why should I, when my very presence makes them mute?" Then came the "or else". He was tied to a bull and dragged until he died. Or, as one version has it they

"bound him to the feet of a bull and drew him unto the highest place of the capitol and cast him down the degrees and steps to the ground, so that his head was all to-broken and the brain sprang out, and so he accomplished his martyrdom."

What seems to be a minor detail is that two pious young Christian women known as "les Puelles" (from the Latin puellae, "young girl"), then buried his body. Not much is know about the Puelles, but they have, like innumerable other minor figures in the vast history of Christendom, inspired a small cult in their own right.

Later legend relates that Sernin had met the Puelles in Spain and that they were daughters of the King of Huesca. (Interesting in that Sernin too was the son of a king). Legend also relates these pious women gathered up the remains and buried them in a "deep ditch." For this they were punished. They were stripped, whipped and driven out of town. They found refuge in a place called Ricaud (in the Aude département); or maybe not. "Ricaud" or "Recaud" merely means a "safe-haven." In any event, the place is now called Mas-Saintes Puelles in their honor. In the town, one can find a monument to the women and in the church, a painting depicts the women being driven out of town, their torsos naked and their backs whipped.

I'd like to examine the Puelles story in more detail in connection with other legends from the South of France. First, though, I'd like to say a few words about the bull. The bull is still an important symbol in Toulouse, which until not so long ago continued the tradition of bullfighting. There is a Rue du Taur, where Sernin was apparently dragged to his death, a station Matabiau (Kill Bull), and the big bell in a Toulouse carillion is called the Bull, etc.

Some have speculated that the bull imagery somehow refers to Mithraism. The Occitan cross, symbol of Toulouse and of Occitania in general (where all of our events take place), is configured so that there are twelve points which some speculate refer to the signs of the zodiac, and a lot of Mithraic symbolism was based on the zodiac. This site notes that a bas-relief at St. Sernin Basilica in Toulouse depicts the Puelles with a lion and a lamb and goes on to a very detailed explanation of the astrological symbolism in the church. It may be Sernin was battling Mithraists. Other sources mention that the oracle who Sernin offended was in fact that of Jupiter.

Sarcophagus of St. Sernin; St. Hilaire Abbey
The cult of the Puelles in France seems to be located principally around the Aude. The Abbey of Saint Hilaire (Aude) holds the sarcopahgous of Saint Sernin, a white marble masterpiece depicting the arrest, martyrdom and burial of Saint Sernin. In addition to depicting the Puelles, Saints Papulus and Honestus are depicted. Papulus was beheaded in Toulouse, while Honestus was martyred in Pampluna; variants of the same legend have conflicting accounts of whether or not Sernin or Papulous (Papoul) converted and baptized Saint Fermin, patron of Pamplona. The martyrdom of Sernin is sometimes transferred onto Fermin. That is say that while some accounts have Fermin beheaded in Amiens, others have him being dragged to his death behind a bull.

Interesting that many of the cities associated with these three saints--Honestus was born in Nîmes and martyred at Pampluna, for example, also have very strong bullfighting traditions. Some have speculated that bullfighting is an echo of the central rites of Mithraism. In any event, the reversal of a man killing a bull, may indicate that Sernin was killed by Mithraists. Many scholars have noted the two sects share many features in common: virgin births, baptisms, last suppers, the 25th of December, blood symbolism, etc. Others have speculated that the deep-ditch into which Sernin remains were place may have been a Mithraeum (although why this would be so is a mystery if in fact his quarrel was with Mithraists). Whatever similarities the two sects share, there is a chicken or egg situation here. Some believe the Christians borrowed elements from Mithraism to broaden its appeal; Justin Martyr, writing in the 2nd century, claimed the Mithraists were perverting Christianity.

Was there some kind of syncretism going on between the two, reflected in Toulouse in the imagery we have described? We may never know the answers to this question but the parallels and associations are striking indeed. I would like to here mention, with the intention of elaborating at a later date, that the link of bulls with Christian imagery in the south of France is not limited to San Sernin. The phenomenon of the Black Madonnas, most highly concentrated in Auvergne and the Pyrenées, is also connected with the animal. Indeed, there is now a church on the Rue du Taur called Notre Dame du Taur, and the statue itself may or may not be a bona fide Black Virgin. I have never seen it identified as such, despite is markedly dusky hue, but it is certainly very close in style to other examples. (For more about Black Virgins please see Notre Dame de la Daurade and Notre Dame du Taur).

One of Sernin's disciples was Saint Fermin. According to tradition, the place where Saint Fermin was baptized by Sernin was at the Pocico de San Cernin, the "Small Well of San Cernin" across from a temple dedicated to the latter and built upon a pagan temple. There is evidence that Fermin had a cult in Anglo-Saxon England. A monastery bearing his name was also said to have a sacred well. "Unofficial" pilgrimages to this place were halted in 1298. Three towns in England (North Crawley, Thurlby and Thorney) have churches bearing his name.
The Saintes Puelles; Tautavel
Again, I'm in the early stages of this project, but the recurrence of sacred wells bears interest for this story because they too are associated with the phenomenon of the Black Virgins.

Another veneration of the Puelles, after Mas-Saintes-Puelles and St. Hilaire, occurs in Tautavel (Pyrénées-Orientales, a stone's throw from Aude), where there is a chapel dedicated to them. This chapel dates from the era when many chapels were erected to various Black Virgins and, like many of these, is located outside of town in an isolated spot.

In this chapel one can find a strange sculpture, about which there is an interesting discussion here. Visitors have noticed striking similarities to a painting on the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, called "the Holy Hermits", where two figures are said to be Mary Magdalene and the Egyptian Maria (Maria Aegyptica).

Maria's legend is that she ran away as a child to Alexandria and lived the life of a sexual profligate, buying her way to Jerusalem with sexual favors. Once there, she tried to enter the Church of the Holy Sephulchre but was prevented from doing so by an unseen hand; she promised to reform her ways andafterwards was able to enter the church. She then went off to live as a hermit in the desert.

One description of the altarpiece:
Mary Magdalen and Mary of Egypt;

 Ghent Altarpiece
Upon the nearer of the two panels to the left are the Holy Hermits HEREMITE SANCTI the foremost is Saint Paul, with at his left, leaning on a staff, Saint Anthony, and close to him another, bald-headed and bare-footed, these two telling their beads ; on their right, seven more ascetics, mostly dark- complexioned, with beards and tangled hair, are followed from behind some rocks by Saint Mary Magdalene, bearing her pot of ointment, and Saint Mary of Egypt.

These two Mary's were often conflated into one figure, as some legends state without scriptural basis that Magdalene fled into the desert after the Ascension of Christ and lived as a penitent. In the 11th century this desert was relocated to Provence. Given the prominence of their association, penitents who had been harlots, it is interesting that the legend of the Puelles has grown up with similar iconography at least in this case, such as the pot of ointment for anointing the dead. Mary of Egypt usually holds three loaves of bread and this one holds a book. Which is, in fact, another symbol commonly used for Magdalene. You can even find images of Magdalene with a small pot or jar, resting on a book. Our statue of the Puelles at Tautavel depicts one carrying the jar and the other, a book.

There is more than one conflation going on here. Mary Magdalene is never in fact described in the Bible as either a harlot or a whore, but the association of Mary of Egypt shows that by the Medieval period this was a widespread belief. One reason for this is that Mary Magdalene, in the Latin church, is considered to be the same person as Mary of Bethany, described as a "sinner." But this identification is not at all clear, and there is confusion here, as with other Marys, as to exactly how many Marys there were:

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910) states, "The Greek Fathers, as a whole, distinguish the three persons: the "sinner" of Luke 7:36-50; the sister of Martha and Lazarus, Luke 10:38-42 and John 11; and Mary Magdalen. On the other hand most of the Latins hold that these three were one and the same. Protestant critics, however, believe there were two, if not three, distinct persons."

Odd that in both Van Eyck's painting and the Tautavel sculpture, the women seem to rise out of the same dress, like a pair of Siamese twins, or two manifestations of one principle, perhaps?

Robert Graves speculates in The White Goddess (1948) that Mary of Egypt can be identified with "Mary Gipsy", a virgin with a blue robe and a pearl necklace. Otherwise known as Marina, Marian or "Maria Stellis". She is supposedly a remote descendant of Aphrodite, the love goddess from the sea.

The Myrrhbearers
This is exactly what I thought when I considered the legends associated with Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer; a town which, for those already familiar with it, cannot but spring to mind given the context of our discussion. It helps that the famous feast days described below were taking place at the very moment I was beginning this post. This town is named after the three Marys, that is to say the women who first saw the empty tomb after the crucifixion. These three Marys are often depicted with the same kind of Jar as we see in the van Eyck painting and the curious sculpture of the Puelles.

On May 24 the Roma (Gypsies, so named because they were commonly though to descent from Egyptians) population of France descend upon Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in order to venerate their patron saint, Saint Sarah, like Mary of Egypt, a dark-skinned Egyptian. According to legend, Saint Sarah and the three Marys either set sail or were cast adrift from Alexandria (further shades of Maria Aegyptica) before arriving at the place now bearing their name.

Again, it seems that just as Magdalen and Mary of Egypt are sometimes taken as one figure, there is a link between Mary of Egypt and Sarah; indeed, some recent writers have it that Saint Sarah was in fact Mary Magdalen's daughter.
Older legends place her at the empty tomb. Not all the legends accord with another.

Incidentally, Sarah's crypt in the Church of St Michael at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer contains an old altar that may be the remnants of a Mithraic altar and a sacred spring:

Once a sacred
site of the Celtic threefold water goddess, the holy spring was known as Oppidum Priscum Ra. Superseded by a Roman temple dedicated to Mithras in the 4th century BC, the site was later taken over by the Christians.

Mary Salome and Mary Jacob
The crypt has all the trappings of a fervent cult typical of potent saints: notes, trinkets, photos, abandoned crutches, etc. The church has altars to only two of the Marys: Mary Salome and Mary Jacob; these were the only people from the "landing party' who remained in the village, eventually becoming venerated. Every year in the annual pilgrimage of Gypsies, the statue of Saint Sara is brought down to the ocean to reenact her arrival. The next day the statues of the two Marys are likewise brought to the sea. They seem, like the Puelles and the other two Mary's in the van Eyck painting, to be joined together; one carries the pot of oil.

Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer has been a sacred spot since prehistory; archeological evidence reveals this veneration focused on a sacred spring.

What is clear is that the iconography of Magdalen and the two Marys is also found in the sculpture of the Puelles: jars of oil for anointing and a book. I would like to investigate this further and see if the theory that the Puelles are merely a local copy of the two Marys who rested at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is plausible. Or if it reflects that of Mary Magdalene and Mary Aegyptica. For the Puelles and Magdalene, their stories also tell us they were women who had a special role in caring for the body of a martyred holy figure. They played the same role and the connection in this regards goes far in explaining why they intersect with other legends of early Christian women.

A poster on the thread linked to above also excerpts a passage from the oddly-named Come Carpenter, which is worth re-quoting here:

For the Hermetic arcanes, Egypt has remained the threshold of the occidental realms of death and resurrection, the kingdom where the worship of the departed reigns supreme, the "land of western exile", the Khemi: the black earth where the seed of life is buried before rebirth and where the soul sinks into the afterlife. The land of the Nile is called Misr in semitic languages, a word which may well bear a relation to the latin word miseria. The world Saviour, according to various hermetic and gnostic traditions in the Middle East that reappear in certain alchemical texts, is the son of Maria Aegyptiaca, the black virgin or black stone that fell from heaven.

I have no idea where Mr. Carpenter gets his information, but it is interesting that he calls Maria Aegyptiaca the Black Virgin; other traditions hold that it is Mary Magdalene; still others say the Black Virgin is Sarah!

In the course of my research I experienced a strange coincidence. While I know that there is some foundation to the notions of sacred topography, I'm highly skeptical of many attempts to impose this upon the Languedoc. I believe it's Henry Lincoln who breaks out a ruler and compass and begins drawing lines between various "significant" places until he comes up with a suggestive form which then proves that the Cathars or Templars or Merovingians or what have you founded towns and erected castles in order to conform to a sacred geometry.

That said, when I put a thumbtack on the three places where there seem to be significant references to the Puelles, I first marked Mas-Saintes-Puelles and Tautavel, then pegged the Saint Hilaire Abbey. This was in order to get an idea of the distances involved in order to plan a day trip. I was amused to see that they are almost perfectly aligned and almost equidistant. I ascribe no intention to this; it was merely unexpected, and amusing.

Google Earth Image of Puelles-related sites
I came across another potential veneration of the Puelles in Barcelona. One of the oldest churches in Barcelona is all that remains of a nunnery known as the Sant Pere de les Puel·les. The "puelles" in the name refers to the nuns themselves. These nuns has the reputation of being beautiful young women of noble families and, as this site recounts "was the setting for some of medieval Barcelona's most tragic stories of impossible love."

"Legend has it that the puellae, when threatened with rape and murder by the invading Moors under Al-Mansur in 986, disfigured themselves by slicing off their own ears and noses in an (apparently futile) attempt to save themselves."

Another version has it that the facial disfigurement was a more general phenomenon; that the woman did this in order to avoid being forced into loveless arranged marriages. Whatever the case, it evokes another theme of my larger survey: the suffering young woman.

What is even more curious is that this convent was built on the site of an even older church dedicated to San Sadurní, or as they say in Occitan, San Sernin. The convent dates from 945 and was founded by one count Suñer in order to honor his wife, Riquilda de Tolosa.

So you have a monastery dedicated the "puelles" on the site of a church dedicated to a Saint Sernin by a count whose wife hailed from Toulouse, (the Spanish city Tolosa was not founded until 1256). This would seem to indicate that in fact we are dealing with the puelles from the martyrdom of San Sernin.

But all is not so clear. Apparently, the church is dedicated to a Saint Saturninus martyred in Zaragoza, Spain in 303 A.D.) This Saturninus was one of 18 companions of Saint Engratia who were beheaded for being Christians. Apparently, there were four men with this name among the 18. A rather common name in the area, evidently, thus making it less surprising that this church in Barcelona shares the name of that in Toulouse. Still, although what I've dug up so far makes no mention of a connection with the Toulouse legend, it's a lead I'd like to follow.

The French connection is more prominent in many regards than the Spanish. The church that

"originally stood here, [was] located just outside the old Roman walls of the city, as early as 801 A.D. according to some preserved inscriptions. It was expanded under the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious (known as Lluís El Piadós in Catalonia), King of France from 814-840, who was the son of the Emperor Charlemagne. At that time Catalonia was, in a sense, a part of France, as the Counts of Barcelona were vassals of the King of the Franks, who ruled the city in the King's name. It was only later that the Counts of Barcelona asserted their independence, beginning in 985, and began to build their own empire and royal dynastic traditions without deference to the Frankish throne."

In Lérida, not too far from Barcelona, there is a place calles "Les Puelles" but I haven't found out the provenance of the name. Might be tough going. Only 21 people live there! There is also a town in the area called Sant Sadurní d'Anoia. This doesn't necessarily imply that this is our Sernin and Puelles; it may be coincidence stemming from the Catalan family name of Puelles.

In Asturias, on the other hand, there is also a place called Puelles and nearby is San Saturnino.

Here one can find a church of San Bartolomé de Puelles which was remodelled at some point "se usaron elementos de la capilla de San Saturnino (Sanzornín), que parece que era un monumento de gran interés y belleza, a juzgar por lo que de él se conserva." I will be there in August, as it turns out, and will definitely be paying this place a visit.

Catalan Wikipedia lists several places bearing the name Sadurní and one Sant Serni. This latter is definitely named after our man, but the others may come from the martyrs of Zaragoza.

North of the Pyrenees, many towns in France bear his name; but only one for the Puelles.

In conclusion....

Well, there is no conclusion yet. What I've done above is make some observations and connections and raised more questions than answers. Without some more traditional and serious research, I risk blathering. So, quite arbitrarily, I'm stopping here in hopes of returning to this topic in better detail as soon as I have some.

In the meantime, I welcome any thoughts or comments or rebuttals of the semi-theories I've presented above.

Finally, it would be remiss not to mention this book by Mary Ange Tibot: Les Saintes Puelles Ou la destinée de Saturne (The Saint Puelles or the Destiny of Saturn). I haven't read it yet, but it appears to be an examination of the diffusion of the cult of Sernin and especially the Puelles. Tibot examines the astrological significance of Puelles symbolism, but until I've read it that's all I can say for now.


  1. Hi there.

    I've found your post, which I read in its French version before, very interesting. I happen to be investigating some of your items myself from a different point of view. My second name is Puelles, and I've always believed its origin being related to the south of France, and specially to the town of Mais-des-Saintes-Puelles. As I know, there were many peasant inmigrants coming from the Languedoc in the region were the first people called Puelles appeared in the 13th century.

    I've also read about the legend concerning Saint Sernin and the Saintes Puelles, but my interpretation is slightly different from yours. I agree with you that Saint Sernin cannot be a direct disciple of Jesus for historical reasons, but for the same reasons I know there never was any king in Huesca (Spain ; I'm a Spaniard), where the Saintes Puelles reportedly came from, so it's possible that the word 'king' (Sernin was, as is told, a son of kings, and Jesus himself is also called the 'king of kings') has some symbolic meaning, perhaps related to the Mithraic cult, as has the bull you mention.

    As I have read, the legend about the Saintes Puelles was introduced by Saint Jerome and its origin is reported as pre-christian, that is, roman, and seems to have some asthrological meaning. This would account for the lion and the lamb found on some statues depicting Les Saintes Puelles, and the story of the 'two Marys' you refer to may be simply a Christian transposition of the original roman legend.

    I'd be happy if you told me your opinion about my theories. On the other side, I've collected lots of materials about my family name, which Ive put into my personal blog (unfortunatelly I've written everything in Spanish):

    You can use those data as you may like.


    Juan Puelles Lopez

  2. Hi JPL

    It's very nice to hear from you. I'm sorry I can't respond in Castellano, but I don't think that's a problem for you! I can speak and read Spanish, but writing is very difficult for me.

    I'm embarrassed to admit that it never occurred to me to research the origin of the Puelles name. I always assumed the opposite of what you say, that it originated in Spain and travelled north. I thought it was a Catalan name but I see from some of the docs on your site that the highest concentration of the Puelles family is outside the Catalan provinces. That the name appears in the 13th century corresponds as far as I know with some of the earliest documented references to the Puelles cult, although the cult seems to have been referenced as early as the 10th at Mas Saintes Puelles and Tautavel, both in connection with Barcelonan nobles. So the Catalan connection might not be so far-fetched.

    I've read Tibot's book and an article by J.C. Dénis (which I think you translated?) about the pre-Christian origins of the Puelles legend and its astrological significance. I think this is entirely plausible. My feeling is that there was definitely some kind of syncretic process between early Christians and Mithraists going on, but to be honest, I don't feel that I understand the material well enough to be entirely sure who influenced whom. Astrology was certainly not foreign to the Christian milieu and its seems unlikely that astrological concerns would have entirely disappeared when Chritianity incrementally took hold.

    On the other hand, to me the Puelles are an example of the large virgin martyr genre. Young women who refused to accept pagan husbands or resisted worshipping pagan gods and found death for it. I've documented a lot of these tales in which chastity battles a kind of dark sexuality. They can be traced along the Camino de Santiago. I've documented the Puelles cult in Asturias, but there are links with Pamplona as well. Several virgin martyr stories originate in Galicia and northern Portugal. I have a vague idea this might be linked to Visigothic folklore, perhaps pre-Christian, but I haven't found any definite pre-Christian analogues. Christian examples on the other hand, are numerous.

    Generally these virgin martyrs are the children of nobles, so the historically impossible "daughters of the king of Huesca" variation is not out of place. I'm not so sure there's a symbolic meaning to this in the manner you suggest, but it certainly fits in with Medieval tropes. I see these Golden Legends in the same light as fairy tales and folklore, which often revolve around wronged Princesses and Princes, who re-establish their nobility after periods of suffering. This in itself has many pre-Christian antecedents.

    So, I'm going to go through your documents. We should try to keep in touch on this subject. I see from your pages that you live in Tenerife? I'm jealous! My wife and kids have Spanish nationality, we've often dreamed of moving to the Canarias....

    Thanks again for contacting me.

    Best regards,


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