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Marian Traditions in the Pyrenees
Throughout the Pyrenees and southern France, there is a long, perhaps even timeless tradition of Marian appearances. In the immediate area surrounding Lourdes, there were at least forty shrines dedicated to her, and most of them had been inspired by either previous apparitions, or by the mysterious finding of her ancient statues. The medieval pilgrimage roads that led the faithful into Spain and on to Santiago de Campostella ran right through the Bigorre region. Wherever the zealous pilgrims wandered, miracles followed, spilling over on both sides of the road. Many of the shrines in the area surrounding Lourdes eventually took on the function of mini-pilgrimage sites, serving those who couldn’t undertake the full trek into Spain.
From the thirteenth through the seventeenth centuries, in particular, comes evidence of local Marian apparitions that could be said to have set the “pattern” for the public perception of Bernadette’s story. At the fountain in nearby Garaison, the Virgin appeared in the early sixteenth century to a twelve-year-old shepherdess named Angleze de Sagazon. There are distinct parallels between this story in the local lore, and the details of Bernadette’s experiences.4 Like Bernadette, Angleze was also poor and uneducated, and only she could see and hear the Lady during her appearances. Just as at Lourdes, the Virgin requested that a chapel be built outside of town, at the site of the apparitions near the fountain. The chapel at Garaison became a popular pilgrimage site and, like Bernadette, Angleze eventually retired to a convent.
In the nearby grottoes of Medous, a popular pilgrimage destination until at least the end of the eighteenth century, a shrine commemorated a much earlier apparition of the Virgin to a little shepherd girl named Liloye. The faithful can still, with a little imagination, make out the image of Virgin and child in the tangled rock formations hidden within the mysterious caves.5
The local shrine of Betharram has an intriguing history. According to the legend, young shepherds, out grazing their flocks, saw a mysterious light that looked like flames coming from between the rocks at the foot of the mountain. As they came closer to investigate, they found a marvelous statue of the Virgin hidden in the bushes. The locals decided to place the statue in a niche on a bridge over the river Gave, but after installing it there, come the morning, the statue was gone. It had fled back to its rocky home. They tried to move it again, this time securing the statue in a nearby church, but it refused to stay there as well. The image escaped and re-appeared again where it had been found. Thus it was decided to build a chapel on the wilderness site, which soon became a popular pilgrimage center. It is said that Bernadette got her own rosary at Betharram.6
Another story from Betharram explains the origin of the site’s name. A young girl had fallen into the Gave, and was in danger of drowning, when she prayed to the Virgin for help. Mary appeared on the bank of the river, holding out a flowering branch, which she used to pull the girl to safety; hence the name, Betharram, which means “beautiful branch” in the local Bernaise dialect. This name raises another interesting parallel, for in 1931, a series of approved Marian apparitions took place in a Belgian town called Beauraing. The Virgin repeatedly appeared to a group of children from the branches of a hawthorn tree. We will be examining these apparitions in detail in a later chapter, but it is worth mentioning here that the name Beauraing also means “beautiful branch” in their local dialect.
As Ruth Harris points out in her excellent book, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, in the Pyrenees, the Virgin had a particular affinity for both the hawthorn and the wild rose. Harris mentions twenty-eight shrines to the Virgin in the region surrounding Lourdes that involve either a hawthorn or wild rose (pg. 68). Bernadette’s aquero always appeared standing on the wild rose branches draped above the entrance to the grotto. These thorny plants played a role in the traditional medicine of the area, and were considered to have some unique healing virtues, but their special connection to the Virgin Mary and her miraculous statues may lead us much further back into pre-Christian traditions.
In the nearby town of Sarrance, due west of Lourdes, is a splendid and treasured Marian shrine. Legend has it that a beautiful bull suddenly began to appear in town each day, only to disappear at night. Everyone tried to catch him but it was impossible. No rope could hold him. One fellow decided to follow the bull at night, and it led him to a mysterious spring, deep in the woods. There, the bull bowed down and prayed to an image of the Virgin Mary, which stood on a stone at the spring’s source. Word spread, and soon everyone wanted to worship at the miraculous statue. The bishop of the nearby town of Oloron came to see it, and decided to move the marvelous image to the cathedral, but come the morning, the statue was gone! Like the Marian image at Betharram, it had made its way miraculously back to the spring. That was where the statue wanted to be worshiped.
A shrine was built on the site and the statue stayed put. Meanwhile, the stone at the source of the spring, where the statue had originally been revealed, gained a special reputation for helping pregnant women. They would actually eat tiny pieces of the rock to ensure an easy delivery.7
This theme of cattle finding a miraculous image of Our Lady in the wild is very popular in the area around Lourdes. At the shrine of Notre-Dame de Bourisp, the Marian image was revealed when a shepherd followed a steer into the forest and found it licking the statue with its tongue. At Notre-Dame de Nestes, a calf had revealed the statue in a bush, necessitating the building of yet another wilderness shrine.8
This was the spiritual and psychological atmosphere in which Bernadette lived and learned, where a respectable Roman Catholic veneer overlaid thousands of years of Basque traditions. Inspired livestock and the worship of miraculous statues in the wild intertwined freely with a passionate devotion to the Mother of God. Her ancient images, possibly older than Christianity itself, were buried and forgotten, but not gone. Sleeping just below the surface, like the old beliefs that originally inspired them, these statues resurfaced unexpectedly, calling worshipers out of their towns and back to the wilderness, for this heavenly Mother did not want to be worshipped in the proper places, in churches or Christian sanctuaries. She wanted the faithful to come out to the mountains, to the caves and rivers, to springs and hawthorn bushes to pay her their proper respects. In return, she granted grace and healing, and the protection of a good Mother goddess.9
In the highlighted part we see the references to a Bull or is it really refering to the Mithraic underground worship meeting up with places of worship of the Marian tradition. By offering donations to "Lourdes" Sauniere may have been paying a commission for use of the area whenever it was needed.