One of the sacred places our early ancestors worshipped deity was in the Pyrenean Caves in the south of France. Found in these were ivory fetishes, beautiful carven representations known as Venus’. The most striking of which is the Dame de Brassempouy from 25,000 years ago, sporting the earliest known realistic representation of the human face.
Through the following ages, goddesses came and went in the region: Belisenna, Astarte, Cybele, Epona, Matrona, Artemis, Minerva, Bellona, and Arduinna, to name but a few. Names lost to the mists of time, and yet their essence was still felt within the land.
When the Celts built their places of worship to their goddesses, they always included a sacred source often connected to some kind of healing miracle which one bathed in or drank from. It is no coincidence that the Catholic Church built their holy edifices upon these sites, and the manifestation of the goddess, or La Dame Blanche, the White Lady apparitions often encountered there, became Notre Dame, Our Lady, and the Virgin herself.
During the Middle Ages, Occitania, as the south of France was then called, was a land whose beauty bred a way of life known as paratge--meaning the celebration of honor, courtesy, and chivalry, From that ideal, grew the culture of the troubadours, wooing their dominas at the Courts of Love. For the noble women of the time, marriage was about commerce and securing dynasty, not love. It was acceptable, and even encouraged, that the chataleines of the castles had various troubadours competing for their affections. Courtly love was a paragon, as opposed to carnal love. But some say courtly love was also a continuation of goddess worship, or worship of the feminine essence, veiled under the nose of the patriarchal church of Rome, who would soon arrive to strike terror across the region, and all but eradicate the old ways in the Albigensian Crusade.
Tales of Mary Magdalene surfaced during the Middle Ages as well, stating she had traveled to the south of France, and had died there. In 1260, a Domincan friar wrote that fourteen years after the crucifixion some pagans threw Mary and a few others onto a rudderless boat in the Mediterranean which miraculously washed ashore in Marseilles.
There, she converted the local populace to Christianity, and performed a miracle by intercession, that brought the governor’s wife back from the dead after two years, and allowed her newborn child to survive during that time on a deserted island on his then deceased mother’s breast milk. After this incident, it was said, Mary retired to become a penitent ascetic for thirty years in a cave.
Originally, the Magdalene’ supposed remains were found in Vézelay. In 1267, the bones were brought in front of the King of France who venerated them. But another burial of Mary was found in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume, Provence. A Gothic basilica was built around them, and Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume gradually displaced Vézelay in popularity and acceptance, which continues to this day. Thousands of pilgrims still pay homage to the shrine every year.
Ancient goddesses, La Dame Blanche, Notre Dame, courtly love, and the Magdalene, all flow from the same source, one that seems to be very particularly potent in the south of France. Perhaps it is the fecundity of the land which feeds the underground stream of the feminine or, perhaps, it is something more. It is enough to know it survives.