Friday, January 27, 2012

John Tyler

The 10th president of the United States, John Tyler, was born in 1790.

His grandchildren are still alive.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Virgin and the Cross

I've mentioned a few times recently (in comments anyway) that in the southwest of France we find crosses which have Mary at the center as opposed to a crucified Jesus.

For the Gid, who was pretty flabbergasted by this, I present a couple of photos of the phenomenon.

The first used to be a grave marker; a neighbor rescued it from the scrap heap and it's now in my possession.  Note the vegetal motif.  This one's been re-painted with rust-proofing paint.

The following image comes from Le Burgaud, a neighboring town I've mentioned previously; in this town there is a small chapel dedicated to Notre Dame de Aubets along with a sacred spring.  This second example is particularly striking.  The vegetal motif on the cross is less abstract and the cross itself like two logs lashed together.

A lot could be said on this topic but I've written so many things about Marial shrines lately I'm totally fuggered on it.  Suffice it to say that's it's pretty clear evidence of the thriving cult of Mary in France and may have something to do with pre-Christian goddesses of the crossroads such as Hecate and the Mater Larum, both of which, like Mary in the Cross (usually found as a grave marker--exhibit A--or crossroad marker--exhibit B), have associations with the afterlife. (previously).

Make of that what you will.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


In Logo Veritas
In my new job I noticed a certificate which attests that my employer is ISO compliant.  I was struck by this little cartouche, filled with stylized forms like so many hieroglyphs:  a torch, a mirror, scales, a ship, the caduceus, a cock, a nekkid woman....

Long-time readers will recognize that almost every symbol in this logo has been covered by LoS at some time or another.  Here's the Bureau Veritas description: 

Bureau Veritas was established in 1828 “to seek out the truth and tell it without fear or favor.” The allegorical figure of Truth, represented by a woman emerging from a well, was chosen as the logo.

The Bureau Veritas emblem shows a young woman seated on the edge of a well with her arms raised. In her right hand is a torch, in her left a mirror. Her left foot rests on a globe.

On the ground are a pair of scales, Mercury’s wand (a caduceus), and a rooster with its eyes raised towards the woman. The horizon shows a three-masted vessel, sails billowing, passing across a bay.

They've got a nifty lil' flash animation to illustrate.

Amateur symbologists and Illuminist killers are likely to blow a nut over this one.  Lucifer clearly has had his filthy paws all over it.  I likes it, me.  We've already discussed the mirror as symbol of truth in Debia's allegorical painting L'Arbre de la Liberté.  A woman with a hand mirror, Venus, is evoked in the title of another post, yet for some reason we never actually discuss the mirror!  Incidentally, that post continues to be one of the top three (ususally second but currently fourth) posts on LoS by number of views.  The title stems from the belief that the Venus symbol, the symbol of Woman (♀) represents a hand mirror.  Whether when associated with Venus the miror represents an appreciation of beauty and/or healthy self-love, vanity and narcissism, or truth, is question whose answer eludes me.  But the mirror doesn't lie and the answers we find there may be unsettling.  Unless you're an ageless goddess, eternal and erotic.  Or ISO compliant.  Could the woman with the hand mirror represent Venus, whose eponymous plant was called in it's dawn aspect Lucifer, the light-bringer.  Light of course representing....Truth?  And you thought that Luciferian Illuminati talk was just me being glib (I was). 

Formed in June 1828 in Antwerp by underwriters Alexandre Delehaye and Louis van den Broek, and insurance broker, Auguste Morel, the Bureau Veritas name was adopted in 1829. This included the adoption of the figure of Truth logo designed by Achille Deveria.

Déveria's portfolio, by the way, contained a heavy swath of erotic engravings and watercolers.  An acolyte of venus, perhaps.

I'd like to see the unmodified original logo if anyone digs up a copy.  As it says above, it pictured a naked woman climbing out of a well.  They don't make logos like they used to!

Compare it, if you will, to the "macaron" of the BIPM.:scantily clad woman, Mercury's caudceus, globe.  Cool stuff....

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Too late, baby. Slay a few animals. At the crossroads."

This "croix de chemin" both marks an intersection and memorializes a chapel to 
St. Blandine, destroyed during the Revolution.

This post began when I mentioned to Gid that here in the south west of France one often finds roadside crosses (croix de chemin) with the Virgin Mary at the center as opposed to a crucified Jesus.  The Gid was a bit surprised by this and requested a photo, so I've tried to oblige him.  These crosses do in fact sometimes represent the crucified Jesus.  They can also be unadorned, simple crosses or crosses made to look like unworked logs covered in vines and flowers.  Some are adorned with symbols of the Crucifixion:  a cock, spear, ladder, various tools and implements.....

In the Toulouse region, these small monuments are suchlike:  they are generally about chest-high square pillars, maybe 3 feet (1m) to a side, made of brick.  A cross is mounted on top, made of wrought iron.  Viola.  Simple.  They are ubiquitous.  In the relatively small town of Aucamville, I can count more or less a dozen off the top of my head, but perhaps there are more....

I've pondered these monuments for years and have several theories about their origin; I lay them out in three categories.

Category one is practical.  Imagine when roads were simple dirt tracks, at best.  When it snows, the roads would quickly become covered, side roads easy to miss.  The cross would then pop up, like those poles you see by the side of the road in the mountains, in order to mark the edge of the road.  I should mention that these crosses invariably mark the junction of either a t-intersection or crossroads.

The southwest, however, is not the snowiest of regions, so perhaps this explanation is not the origin--merely added value.  They may have been markers in the wider sense:  "OK, Johann, head towards Grenade and when you come to the second cross, go left." Or maybe, "The farm you're looking for is three crosses down the road."  Where the streets have no name, the cross guides.

My second category is linked to superstition.  My first instinct was to think of the Blues legends of the crossroads.  You know, go to the local crossroads at midnight and make your deal with the devil, play guitar like Ralph Macchio, etc.  A cross would offset this unholy place, no?  In fact, I have read that crossroads were traditionally regarded with apprehension as places where the roads converge were especially prone to unforeseen encounters.  Strangers presented a larger danger in those days, I think.  Cathar heretic?  Sorcerer?  Plague victim?  Without an explicit diabolical association, they could still represent vague forms of danger from the four corners of the earth.

I tend to think that a crossroads, being a cross, might have provoked unease because people were essentially trampling a cross underfoot.  Maybe by dedicating a cross at these spots, the populace felt they'd mollified Jesus into not sending Michael down with a flaming blade in order to make quick with the smiting.  It seems quite possible, much like the theory that the red cross became a symbol of health after the practice of painting them on walls to prevent peasants from pissing there....

The third category is something I'd wondered about and in discussing these things with my neighbor, my feeling was supported: Christianization.  Recall that the Romans had tutelary and guardian deities (lares) for just about everything: cities, neighborhoods, down to the individual households.  There were even lares of intersections:

Lares Compitalicii (also Lares Compitales): the Lares of local communities or neighbourhoods (vici), celebrated at the Compitalia festival. Their shrines were usually positioned at main central crossroads (compites) of their vici, and provided a focus for the religious and social life of their community, particularly for the plebeian and servile masses.

This festival was annual and its name itself derives from "crossroads": 

In ancient Roman religion, the Compitalia (Latin: Ludi Compitalicii) was a festival celebrated once a year in honor of the Lares Compitales, household deities of the crossroads, to whom sacrifices were offered at the places where two or more ways meet. The word comes from the Latin compitum, a cross-way.

There is even precedent for honoring a feminine deity at the crossroads.  Apparently, a "mother of the lares" was honored at them, her devotees hanging woolen effigies which were believed to have replaced the actual sacrifice of children.  Hmm, a mother deity....the sacrifice of children....the cross with Mary at the center may have some kind of foreshadowing here.  The roadside crosses too, are often decorated with flowers upon Mary's feast days.

From the Late Republican and early Imperial eras, the priestly records of the Arval Brethren and the speculative commentaries of a very small number of literate Romans attest to a Mother of the Lares (Mater Larum)....She is named as Mania by Varro (116–27  BC), who believes her an originally Sabine deity. The same name is used by later Roman authors with the general sense of a bogey or "evil spirit". Much later, Macrobius (fl. AD 395–430) describes the woolen figurines hung at crossroad shrines during Compitalia as maniae, supposed as an ingenious substitution for child sacrifices to the Mater Larum, instituted by Rome's last monarch and suppressed by its first consul, L. Junius Brutus.

In this context the following may even indicate aspects of the Black Madonna:

Modern scholarship takes the Arval rites to the Mother of the Lares as typically chthonic, and the goddess herself as a dark or terrible aspect of the earth-mother, Tellus...Mercury leads her to the underworld abode of the dead (ad Manes); in this place of silence she is Tacita (the silent one). En route, he impregnates her. She gives birth to twin boys as silent or speechless as she. In this context, the Lares can be understood as "manes of silence" (taciti manes).

Manes of silence?

Hecate, another figure associated with the underworld, was thus honored, and her shrines served as signposts to find one's way, one would assume in a literal and spiritual sense.  This most certainly included the afterlife as well, as Hecate was the goddess of this realm.  These three forms: literal direction, spiritual direction and navigating the underworld, neatly echo our three categories of purpose outlined above.

In a similar fashion, food was often left at the crossroads to honor Hecate, especially at junctions where three roads converged --what we often call a "Y-intersection".

Frequently a pole was erected at the intersection and three masks would be hung from it to pay homage to Hecate and to request her guidance in helping to choose the right direction.

Interesting in this context is that the iron crosses used for the croix de chemin markers often serve to adorn grave markers as well.  Could we here be seeing an echo of Greco-Roman devotion, in which literal space was marked by a kind of road sign which also had connotations of the journey of the soul in the afterlife?  As we will see, the roadside cross was often used along the route to the cemetery, so that the funeral procession could stop and make appropriate prayers.

Could this ancient association of the crossroads with a goddess of the underworld have influenced the the legend that the Devil, Lord of the Underworld, will appear at a crossroads 'round Midnight?

Crossroads also played a part from time to time in the Imperial cult, indicating that the honorees were not only feminine principles:

In 86 BC, offerings of incense and wine were made at crossroad shrines to statues of the still-living Marius Gratidianus, the nephew of the elder Marius, who was wildly popular in his own right, in large part for monetary reforms that eased an economic crisis in Rome during his praetorship.

After returning to the subject of the roadside cross and formulating the above speculations, I decided to re-read some articles I hadn't read in a while on the topic.  The first, from French Wikipedia, is "Croix de chemins".  This article distinguishes three types of cross:  memorial crosses, boundary crosses and crossroad crosses.  I've spoken a bit about the idea of the memorial and boundary marker in past posts, but in this article I focus mainly on the third type.  This category is the only which has an article of it's own:  "Croix de carrefour".  Under the "functions" heading it mentions the religious use, of course, but indicates they were also used as guide stones, specifically for when roads were covered by snow.  Whereas I'm quite sure  I thought of the first point independently, I think this is where I first heard of the idea that they were used in snowy conditions, but, as I've mentioned, the Toulouse area isn't the snowiest of regions.

The crossroad cross is described as having its origin in the Christianization of megaliths and other pagan monuments, as well as in the practical purpose of defining the limits of parishes, the location of hamlets, as a guide for religious processions.  Why the crossroads?  As stated before; one can get lost more easily there than on the straight and narrow and besides, they've always stood for uncertainty from any direction, a place where the likelihood of a malefic encounter is heightened: 

Le carrefour, dans de nombreuses symboliques, évoque un choix pour lequel il est facile de se tromper de direction, donc de tomber sous la domination des puissances maléfiques.

I have focused primarily on crossroad crosses, but this here site deftly summarizes the roles and types of crosses:  the roadside cross; the processional cross marking the route of, hey hey! religious processions; the boundary cross; the cemetery and village cross (unlike the crossroad crosses which often feature Mary, these usually feature a crucified Jesus); crosses at bridges, summits and springs; finally, memorial crosses.

Unless you read French, this site won't do you much good and the pics aren't stunning but they do their job and show you what the crosses look like.  Note these come from Cantal, north of where I live in the Lomagne area northwest of Toulouse; the Cantal Crosses have much more variety and are hewn from stone.  As I've said, these parts, like most of the buildings in Toulouse and environs, the socles are made from brick and the crosses themselves wrought iron.

I've posted a few example from Aucamville, including one in my possession that was once a grave marker.  No, I didn't desecrate a had been thrown on a pile of rubble after having presumably come loose from the tomb.  Some of these village cemeteries are in a shocking state of disrepair and it's not uncommon to find a pile broken headstones and iron thrown into an unused corner of the cemetery, invariably behind a high-brick wall on the edge of town....questions of sanitation and what not.

OK, so this is a hubbub of ideas.  I'm not so sure I've done the subject justice, confusedly evoking both underworld figures such as Hecate and Tellus:  "chthonic....a dark or terrible aspect of the earth-mother" and the Virgin Mary.  In the French Southwest at least, Mary, like her pagan counterparts, is a tutelary figure of the crossroads and a spiritual guide.  Yet Mary herself, though usually associated with Isis, the Great Mother and Cybele, has in the Black Virgin the cthonic aspect of these other goddesses; BV's were often found in caves or buried in the earth.  Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Apuleis, in perennial LoS favorite The Golden Ass, identifies Hecate with Isis. Googling "Hecate and the Virgin Mary" I'm not surprised many people make the link.  And why not?  Being thrice-headed, she represents a trinity.  Her powers linked to regeneration and rebirth are not incompatible with Mary's, nor her dominion over childbirth.  The Virgin is indeed believed to have a special role in childbirth; for both Mary and Hecate, this roles was represented by a serpent.

Though Hecate evolved into a vampiric and terrible figure, she began more benignly, something of a protectress.  By the Middle Ages, she was a Witch Queen.  Could this be a result of the growing popularity of Mary in the Middle Ages, perhaps a subsequent need, even if unconscious, to distance her from her prototypes?  Is it a coincidence that midwives and healers, working in Hecate's domain, began to be accused of being witches?  The first witch, Lilith, Adam's first wife, was transformed into a demon when Yahweh booted her from Eden for daring to proclaim herself equal to Adam.   But it was Eve who eventually brought Adam down and brought the curse of pain and suffering upon the process of giving birth.  But Mary, free from their Original Sin, was able to counter the pain and danger of birth, if the right prayers were offered and objects such as her belt rented for such occasions (ND de la Daurade).

It is said that four rivers flowed from Eden to the four corners of the world, forming a great cross.  Each crossroads is a microcosm of this vast cross covering the world.  The center of each crossroads is the center of the world, if not the universe. The axis mundi is "a point of connection between sky and earth where the four compass directions meet. At this point travel and correspondence is made between higher and lower realms".  Hecate and Mary, are unsurprisingly both considered as mediators between heaven and earth, Hecate especially seen as a gatekeeper and patron of the liminal; what could be more liminal than birth, or death?  Each one impossible without the other.

Trouble was knowing which paths lead to heaven and which ones to hell.  Linger too long, and who know who'll turn up.  Choices, choices.  At least in the Southwest, you've got the Virgin Mary looking over you, sometimes from a cross cast to look like wood, decorated with vines and flowers.  An instrument of death, with wood taken, according to legend, from the Tree of Life, if not the Tree itself.  Carpentry seems to have played a large role in the symbolism of rebirth; the tree returns to life each Spring, the carpenter transforms dead wood into useful, even if sometimes cruel creations.  Jesus, the carpenter, killed on a wooden cross.  Noah saved humanity in a big wooden Ark.  The other tree in Eden, that of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, has a name that says it all.  Good and evil, more paths, more choices.

None of this is a direct analogy, role by role, blow by blow, but it is a kind of associational cloud in which we can see faces peering back us, at times distinct, at others, blending into one.  At times distinct and unique all at once, leaving us with a vantage point filtered as if through old glass, forms defined by what isn't rather than what is; questions as opposed to the artificial transparency of answers.

I once saw a sign that said "if you can't dazzle 'em with diamonds, baffle 'em with bullshit."  I may make it my new motto.  That or "Wherever you go, there you are."

Monday, January 16, 2012

Beaten to the Punch

 I wish I'd done this first.

“Black Madonna” is a documentary series spanning centuries, continent, cultures and religions. This ‘road movie,’ is a Quest through a landscape of ‘heresy’ to explore the enigmatic icon of the black virgin and her role as a crossroads figure. Representing a spiritual matrix predating Christianity, she threatened the very formation of the early Church, and though suppressed, has shaped Western culture and consciousness.

I wish I'd gotten to it first because the documentary seems to be sensationalist and instead of focusing on the already interesting and well-grounded theories about Black Madonnas, will be a leap into humbug, to whit:

* What does an obscure 9th Century, black, rough hewn sculpture of a woman in the south of France have to do with Mary Magdalen, “The Da Vinci Code,” the mysteries of eros or the Divine Feminine?

* Was Mary Magdalene a high priestess of ancient spiritual lineage?

* Did Jesus perform sacred sexual rites with his Shekinah Mary Magdalene?

* What does the black madonna have to do with Cinderella, the Knights Templars, the Tarot or the Rromani people?

* Is the current crisis in Western religious institutions rooted in the suppression of ‘heretical’ ideas?

Interesting questions and I'm all for looking into some of them, sure, but that Da Vinci Code reference sets off alarm bells.  I'm willing to give this film its chance, but unless they're just being canny with the publicity and will actually take a more sober look at what is known and speculated about the origins and "meaning" of Black Madonnas, I smell hokum and exploitation.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Notre Dame de Rocamadour

Notre Dame de Rocamadour
Rocamadour -- the place, the legends and its Black Madonna -- are so evocative and rich that I've resisted writing about them until now.  Too daunting, too much to cover, too many connections to things we've already written about on LoS....

Well, I can't be a wuss.  I've got to jump right in and sort it all out.  As I said, we will look at a lot of themes covered in LoS posts, not simply about Black Madonnas, but about high holy places, living rock and sacred waters -- all of which have reappeared regularly on LoS since the subject was first opened in relating the legend of St. Fris, many years ago.  I'm pretty much convinced these elements, related to nature, survive from pre-Christian beliefs, both Celtic and Greco-Roman -- the worship of stones, holy springs, the changing of the seasons -- even if this conviction is born of feeling rather than irrefutable logic and fact (though there is that too).  Many Christians are loath to accept pagan survival because they feel it undermines Christian exceptionalism.  I, on the other hand, think pagan survival is a kind of validation, almost an honor.  But then again, I am not a Christian....

It has been proposed that some Black Virgins are copies of pre-existing pagan deities.  In the case of Notre Dame de la Daurade,  for example, this deity may have been Pallas Athena.  Notre Dame de Tudet and La Virgen de Monserrat both may have derived from Isis.  Although it is believed Rocamadour once housed a shrine to Cybele, certain iconographic elements lead me to believe there is a strong link to Isis as well.  In previous posts I have mentioned that Isis lent many attributes to the Virgin Mary....and vice versa.  The Romanized cults revolving around Isis, such as the mystery religion described by Apuleius (The Golden Ass) and in other more popular exoteric forms of worship, were widespread in Gaul.  That aspects of these cults survived into Christian practice is far from an original proposition.

So, let's see what Rocamadour is all about.

A vertiginous view....

Aside from producing one of the best cheeses on the planet, the region around Rocamadour is hilly and full of gorges and crags.  The better part of Rocamadour is built into the base of a cliff and the complex of churches and religious buildings which ornament this still-popular pilgrim's destination rises dizzily up the side; the buildings at cliff's edge seem to lean ominously overhead.  I found it best to keep my eyes ahead of me or else suffer from a sense of being on the edge of a great precipice, vertigo making my head spin slightly and my knees go a bit wobbly.

This characteristic, i.e. the placement of chapels dedicated to Black Virgins being found on hills overlooking a village, doesn't seem to be something other writers have dwelt upon; in the examples I have seen, it's quite common:  Notre-Dame du Pouech, the chapels at St. Béat and Aspet, Notre Dame de Sabart Notre Dame de Boisville, Notre Dame d'Alet....

According to the founding legend, Rocamadour is named after the founder of the ancient sanctuary, Saint Amator, identified with the Biblical Zacchaeus, the tax collector of Jericho mentioned in Luke 19:1-10, and the husband of St. Veronica, who wiped Jesus' face on the way to Calvary. Driven out of Palestine by persecution, St. Amadour and Veronica embarked in a frail skiff and, guided by an angel, landed on the coast of Aquitaine, where they met Bishop St. Martial, another disciple of Christ who was preaching the Gospel in the south-west of Gaul.

The actual origin of the sanctuary is lost to time; no one knows exactly who founded it and when.  Inconsistencies in the founding legend make it unreliable history -- the appearance of  Saint Martial (3rd century), for example, is completely anachronistic.  Some have suggested that Saint Amadour was actually Saint Amator, a 4th-century bishop in Auxerre, making the appearance of St. Martial impossible.  In any event, the legend is full of other anachronisms and inconsistencies.

What strikes me about this is that Martial was one of the seven "apostles to Gaul" sent by Pope Fabian to Christianize Gaul; these magnificent seven are a group I recently referred to as including St. Denis and Saint Saturnin.  Regarding this latter Saint, I have an ongoing interest in the two Christian girls who buried his remains, les Saintes Puelles -- drawing parallels between them and the Three Marys.  The Three Marys came to France much as Saints Amadour and Veronica:

According to various legends, during a persecution of early Christians, commonly placed in the year 42, Lazarus, his sisters Mary Magdalene and Martha, Mary Salome (the mother of the Apostles John and James), Mary Jacobe and Saint Maximin were sent out to sea in a boat. They arrived safely on the southern shore of Gaul at the place later called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

These Marys were accompanied by one Saint Sarah, a servant of Mary Jacobe, who some fanciful commentators have suggested is the real inspiration behind....the Black Madonnas.  What the initial quote mentions is that St. Amadour, in addition to being identified as St. Amator (without historical basis) or Zacchaeus, is also sometimes identified in legends as a servant of another Mary...the Virgin!

So we have at least two ahistorical Saints identified as servants of a Mary, exiled from Palestine and making their way to Gaul on a perilous journey by boat.  As I said, Sarah has been identified by some a the origin of the Black Madonnas.  I reject this notion, but it is interesting to note that a reproduction of Notre Dame de Rocamadour is in fact placed near the main shrine in a boat.  This of course neatly echoes the story of Sarah.  It also echoes the mystery religion practices devoted to Isis as described by Apuleius.

Saint Amadour's tomb and spring.
Apparently, pre-Christian worship at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer focused on a sacred spring.  At Rocamadour, a sacred spring comes from the rock cliff, from the tomb of St. Amadour.  We have also seen this sort of sacred spring from the rock/sarcophagus in the legend of St. Fris and at the Asturian Marial shrine of Covadonga

Durandal, the sword of Roland.
Above this spring/tomb, a sword is wedged into the cliff, said to have belonged to Roland, a Frankish paladin killed by Saracens (at least according to the legends).  Compare this with the story of Covadonga: there we have a Visigoth prince, Pelagius, victorious against Saracens; the Virgin is honored in a sacred cave; a sacred spring pours out of the rock.  Both of these Virgins' chapels are hewn directly into the face of a cliff. St. Fris' legend doesn't feature a cave, but the rock (in this case a stone sarcophagus which serves as a virtual cave) spewing water is central to his story; he died from wounds sustained in a victorious battle against Saracens.  This battle took place on a hill, a small bluff of sorts, outside of what is now Bassoues in the Gers.  Unsurprisingly, all of these places are along routes to Santiago de Compostela; some legends about Santiago, a.k.a. the "Moor Slayer" also contain the elements of sacred rocks and waters.

Other BV's we've looked at have connections to the Reconquista, such as Notre Dame du Sabart and La Virgen de Montserrat.  ND de Sabart figures in the story of Charlemagne (Roland's uncle), who was saved from a Saracen trap by her sudden appearance.  St. Fris was the nephew of Charles Martel, Charlemagne's grandfather, making Roland and St. Fris cousins of some kind (I've never understood this "once-removed" business so if anyone can tell me what kind of cousins they'd be, there's a thank you in it).

As I mentioned earlier, a reproduction of Notre Dame de Rocamadour is found next to the original chapel; this reproduction sits in a boat.  Not only does this evoke the legend of Saint Amadour and Veronica and the Three Marys, it also evokes other legends about the Virgin.

I chanced across a charming image of another Virgin Mary, in a boat (I'm on a boat, yo!), which referred to another article, found here.  This article speaks of Notre Dame de Boulogne, identified by some as a Black Virgin.  Her legend appeared in the Middle Ages but took place in the 7th century.  There are two versions, but in both the statue appears on the shore near Boulogne-sur-Mer in an unmanned ship, without oars or sails.

Her cult became fervent, interrupted by the Revolution, at which point the statue was burned; her cult was subsequently taken up again with enthusiasm afterward:

From 1943 to 1948, four reproductions of Our Lady of Boulogne (also known as Our Lady of the Great Return) were made, each mounted on a skiff. They toured nearly 750,000 miles across France, visiting 16,000 parishes and causing a surge of new faith, prayers and conversions in its path.
The statue of Our Lady, carried as it stood in a boat, accompanied pleas for the deliverance of France, which took on a new sense in the context of World War II.

I would thus argue that the image of Mary in a boat is more than just a local phenomena, but an archetype which has special meaning in France, hearkening back to other stories of figures from the Bible making their way to France under similar miraculous circumstances.  Another reputed Black Madonna, Notre Dame de Boisville, to cite one example, has echoes of the Boulogne story.  In Boisville, a statue of Mary was perched in a boat which had become stranded; She then guided the sailors to shore and indicated where She wanted to be worshiped.  ND de Rocamadour is also credited with saving sinking ships; a miraculous bell sounded at these miracles which are commemorated by lovingly-detailed model ships hanging in her chapel.  An odd sight in this land-locked town.  In the chapel of Notre Dame d'Alet, who could rightly be considered a Black Madonna, ex-votos attest to similar miracles.  Yet the chapel is, like Rocamadour, far from the sea.  Incidentally, there is a statue of Saint Veronica at the entrance to this chapel. 

Copy of Notre Dame de Rocamadour, a pagan reminiscence?
This leads us back to Isis. Isis was frequently pictured in a boat; in the Book of Coming Forth by Day she is pictured, arms outstretched, in a solar barque. Her special connection to the sea is described by Apuleius. In the Greco-Roman world, Isis was the patron of sailors and ships.

There is also another curious legend I've read about, which is summarized in an interesting article found here. Apparently it was a popular belief among French historians as early as the 14th century that Paris was founded by Isis. Images of her from this period show her arriving in a boat. Perhaps this dates back to the fact that several shrines to Isis existed in pre-Christian Paris, and co-existed for centuries. One idol was worshipped as the Virgin Mary in St.-Germain-des-Pres. A few years after its destruction a cult to the Virgin sprung up in a nearby church; this Virgin is today worshipped as Notre Dame de Bonne Délivrance, another Black Madonna. (I discussed this story in a post about La Vierge de Chaillot, who, like ND d'Alet, is not generally referred to as a Vierge Noire.)

To support their claims, historians had recourse to a number of fanciful etymologies, for example:

This place [St.-Germain-des-Pres] is called the Temple of Isis and, for the nearby city, this was called Parisis....meaning near the temple of Isis.

These legends led to some other curious results. Napoleon apparently became interested in Isis upon his return from Egypt in 1799, commissioning a scholar to verify the claims that Isis was in fact the tutelary goddess of Paris; the scholar concluded it was true and in January, 1811, Napoleon issued the order to include Isis and her star on Paris's coat of arms. A more general Egyptian revival was by then in full swing. In the coat of arms, (again I refer you to the aforementioned article), Isis is clearly seen on the prow of a ship, wearing a headdress in the form of a tower. This tower headdress reappears in various Paris monuments. Historically accurate or not, the prevailing opinion of 18th-century French historians is that the goddess in the tower headdress was Isis.

It is curious that a saint often seen in such a crown is Mary Magdalene, whose name derives from the Aramaic word for "tower".  As we have seen, French legend has it that Magdalene left from Egypt to arrive in France by boat, with two other Marys:   Jacobe and Salome. Finally there are legends that the Virgin Mary, or a statue of her, also came to France by boat. Likewise Amadour and Veronica. I think there's a lot of clues here to suggest a general conflation of several Biblical women and Isis. A proposition bound to offend Christians. If it were only the boat, this might be a stretch. Add to it the titles of Isis, such as "Queen of Heaven" and "Star of the Sea". Add to that the ubiquitous images of Isis suckling Horus. Add too the iconography of a crown of stars or a starry cape and it's hard not to conclude Mary is an evolution of Isis. Their shared roles as tutelary figures, protectors of children and patrons of the sea support this conclusion.

To sum up, Rocamadour involves several motifs common to French folklore. As a Black Madonna, the Rocamadour exemplar is the one which fits most neatly into the conflation of Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Saint Sarah and again, Isis. It also involves sacred waters and stones. Like several Black Madonnas in the Pyrenées, it is linked to the combat against invading Saracens.

As far as my own experience goes, Notre Dame de Rocamadour is the most ancient and mysterious of the sculptures I have seen. Her style is unique, one might even say "primitive".  It is the most pagan of the Black Madonnas, again, as far as I have seen.

Rocamadour is a dizzying ceremonial complex; the welter of associations surrounding its legend equally so.  I hope this brief little conjecture is useful in provoking, eventually, further reflection.  After the burnout recedes....

Photo note: The first photo of the statue is the only photo I didn't take. My own pics were useless so I snagged this one. In this pic, the Virgin is not on her regular hangout, e.g. the altar in her chapel. So I'm not sure if this is a copy or the original. The photo comes from this page, which includes a 23-minute video of a POV journey to the sacred precinct by artist Matt White. Matt is not the original author of the photo.

I should also note a debt here to Ean Begg. ND de Rocamadour graces the cover of his Cult of the Black Virgin and he speaks quite a bit about the link between BV's and Isis; his book is a folklore goldmine and I've referred to him in the past. I didn't consult him much for this post, but I'm sure that some of what I've said here is influenced by if not derived from his work.

Monday, January 9, 2012

♪ ♫ Get yerself a black Madonna....♪ ♫

Wanting to tie up any loose ends regarding my experiences with Black Madonnas, I decided to write a brief post on two roadside shrines I photographed years ago featuring Virgins dark in hue.

The first is located in the small town of Loubens-Lauragais, where an American acquaintance of mine once lived.  I made a web search to see if I could find any info on this shrine and there, on the village website,  I saw a link to...."la vierge noire".  I was both surprised and delighted.

The link leads to a PDF which tells us the legend of a child about to be attacked by a wolf and saved by an apparition of the Virgin.  Indeed, the parish church is dedicated to Notre Dame de Loubens-Lauragais.  This incident almost certainly gave the village it's name, as Loubens (Lobens de Lauragués in Occitan) is derived from the word for wolf.  "Lop" in some dialects of Occitan, "Lobo" in Spanish" etc.  In Latin is it "lupus."  We can see from the two examples how he "b" and the "p" in Romance languages interchange. 

The sculptor was Regis Vialaret, who also painted the interior of the church and apparently was a friend of the local priest.  The work is ceramic, made sometime in the 1950's.  The shrine is built into the wall of the local chateau, a modest affair belonging to a family of minor local nobles with a rich family history.

Calling it a "vierge noire" is a canny stroke, given contemporary interest in the phenomenon.  I would stop to visit if I was passing that way if I knew there was a Black Virgin to be found, and so would many others.  As it turns out, I was there anyway, took an interest in the sculpture, but never thought of it in the Black Virgin context until now....and my instinct has been vindicated.  As far as I can tell, no miracles are attributed to this statue and it doesn't have a fervent cult.....but it is dark and I can only imagine that the artist was either referring to the phenomenon of the Black Virgins or had his own aesthetic reasons, the appellation Black Virgin added later.

I think the wolf as an animal of pagan goddesses could be evoked here, but I'm more inclined to think  it's a straightforward reference is to the legend and the very real danger wolves presented to villagers in the Middle Ages, back when they were more numerous and apparently, much larger.

Coincidentally, I just saw the film Brotherhood of the Wolf, a fantastical take on real events in 18th-century France about the the Beast of Gévaudan.  This was a real reign of terror; in the course of a year or two there were over 200 attacks and nearly a hundred deaths by a wolf, wolf-pack or wolf hybrid.  The exact nature of the animal(s) is still not clear.  Although this is an extreme case, the danger was widespread.   This Virgin commemorates that collective memory.

The second roadside shrine in this post is also a more contemporary statue, but I have absolutely no details about it.  I can't even remember where it is.  Is does appear in a folder between photographs I took at Aspet and St. Béat....that is to say two chapels dedicated to Black Virgins.  There are several others within a short distance of these as well, representing a kind of micro-cluster among the already well-represented Pyrenées.  My next (and last post) on this phenomenon will discuss some examples I photographed in Andorra, which, as far as I can tell, have not been documented as Black Virgins.

What these two shrines tell me is that the Blackness of certain Virgins continues to exert a fascination and continues to be a salient feature worth referring to, even in humble devotions. Although the majority of the "BVs" are Romanesque works or post-Revolutionary re-creations of statues thrown onto the bonfires, it's more interesting to see this not as a static historical phenomenon but an ongoing devotion which is, to judge by the number of books and articles which continue to appear on the subject, a notable manifestation of contemporary spirituality.

P.S.  Jan. 16, 2012.

Gid asked in a comment (see below) if the second Madonna was holding Jesus.

From the close-up taken from the picture on the left, it would appear Mary is holding her hands in prayer and not the infant Jesus.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


Anomie is a really weird Wikipedia article, but even weirder is an article it used to link to on the Ik People, which claims this bizarre practice:
Children by age three are at least sometimes permanently expelled from the household and form groups called age-bands consisting of those within the same age group. The 'Junior Group' consists of children from the ages of three to eight and the 'Senior Group' consists of those between eight and thirteen. No adults look after the children, who teach each other the basics of survival.
Wikipedia casts some doubts on this practice, but I'll be blunter: I don't believe this at all.

Has any culture ever done such a thing?

I'll give you this much: Any given Friday night at my house pretty much resembles this quote--it's basically lord of flies amongst the kids running about.

But we do feed them...

(Photo source)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012