The black virgins of the Brettons
Sometimes, writing about the old religion of the Celts in Brittany gets diverted to other areas in France, throughout Europe and the Isles. For example, in France itself, ‘black virgins’ are found mainly in the East and Southern parts of the country. They are rarely found in Brittany, and for good reason.
Just talking about these kinds of religious icons over there in France, is like trying to re-invent the wheel – so to speak and no pun intended. After all, that region has very deep, religious traditions. And those traditions have already been examined from every possible perspective. Nevertheless, and you know what they say! Great minds think alike apparently!
Because and even though there are not that many statues of black Virgins in Brittany, there are some however! And it is perhaps precisely because of their rarity that great minds have already done good research on these, and the reports they have produced are there for us to peruse. They are excellent reports, so I have taken the liberty to take those, to translate them or adapt them for this post. The names of the authors and titles of their books are clearly noted, as to give proper credit to them and not to me – of course.
On one hand, the black Virgins in Brittany, and in the East and the South of France, are extremely interesting. Yet they are perplexing from a veneration standpoint. Where do these ‘black virgins’ come from? Were they really who the Christian world said they were? Why were they in France – in the first place? Why did they dominate the religious iconic, Celtic/French world? How did they get so deeply imbedded into the belief practices of the people of Brittany?
These questions are best answered by William Glover. William Glover is the author of a book titled ‘The Deep of France: Tales from the Loir’. While there, Mr. Glover stumbled upon the complex symbolism of the ‘black virgins’ in France, and made an astonishing discovery. What follows is an excerpt of William’s brilliant discovery on a very complex ‘religio-socio’ symbolism:
“In the south where I grew up, ‘complex symbolism’ is not so important. It boils down to a simple rule: “Accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and you will be saved”. There is really not much more to it. But in Europe, it is a different story. The history of Christianity there goes back two thousand years and there is a mythology surrounding it that rivals the Greeks and Romans. There are pilgrimages, cults, holy relics, secret societies, Knights Templar, crusades, martyrs, saints and the Holy Grail.
Probably the most fascinating of these mysteries is the cult of the black virgin. There are 210 black virgin sculptures in various churches and chapels around France. They are mostly in the south, with the largest concentration in the Auvergne region. The origins of these statutes are almost always mysterious. When I heard that there was a black virgin sculpture in the Village of Villavard, with an annual pilgrimage (…).
When we enter the church, I see the black virgin on the left high up on an altar. It is very black and very impressive. Perhaps it is the formality of the ceremony or just the drama of discovery, but I am moved by this spectacle. I know that it is at least one thousand years old and that it is a copy of a sculpture more than two thousand years old.
There is something in the sheer numbers that evokes an emotion. The original black virgin of Chartres predated the birth of Christ by several hundred years, making it the most mysterious of all of them. It was made by druids who predicted the coming of Christ two hundred years before his birth. The sculpture was placed in a kind of chapel dug into a grotto. It was above this grotto that the first cathedral of Chartres was built. This subterranean chapel eventually became the crypt of the cathedral.
The druids had received a revelation of the coming of a new order in which a virgin would bear a child. After receiving this revelation they dug the subterranean chapel and placed the wooden statue representing the virgin and child inside. The underground chapel was a symbol of the night, which in turn was a symbol of the wait for the birth of a Savior. It was in this chapel that Aymeric Aymard, the lord of Lavardin, came nine hundred years ago to thank the Madonna for having saved him from captivity and death…” This was – an excerpt – from ‘The Deep of France: Tales from the Loir’ by William Glover (Amazon.com).
Mr. Glover brilliantly described: the transmutation of an old religion into a new one. The fact that there is still to this day so many of these religious icons still well preserved and still standing erect for the purpose of rendering to them cult offerings – is no accident, nor coincidence. The amount of statues itself (200 in France), makes the meaning and significance unmistakable!
It is the fact that there is so very many of these statues of ‘black virgins’, that speaks to just how deeply rooted their cult was in to the Celtic culture of France. The statues where placed in prominent, sacred places, and in a great many Roman Catholic ecclesiastical territories. In ecclesiastical territories owned and operated by Cardinals who had access to Rome and Greece. Cardinals, and Bishops just as much as their parish priests, encouraged and promoted the righteousness in the rendering and offering-up ritualistic devotions and cult of gratitude for miracles attributed to the black Virgin. A Virgin in their grottos and chapels, in their parish churches and cathedrals of course. Parishioners found the ways and means to commission the digging-out of grottos so to place the statues of the black Virgin in to them; the same parishioners participated actively in the religious processions to show their gratitude and so to honor that.
Perhaps what does stand-out the most concerning the veneration to the Christian statue of ‘the black virgin’ in France, is the archeological findings revealing that: while these statues where honored throughout most French provinces after their religious transmutation, some of the other provinces hardly did render a cult to them at all. Obviously, some of the Christian believers of those ‘other provinces’ must have instead gone on a Pilgrimage all the way to the provinces that did have the Christianized versions of the statues of the black Virgins. These same pilgrims are reported to have participated in the religious processions there, to thank the Saintly Icons for the miracles they had obtained. And even then, what stood out the most during the cult practices to the miraculous statues was, that not many of those pilgrims ever really did actually attend a ritual mass held in honor of the Virgins in front of her icon. They did not attend that, because they indeed did have a very good reason not to.
Instead of those deeper rituals, the Brettons saw in the Christian statues of the black Virgin – a much deeper significance. When looking at those more modern day statues, they saw a copy or replica of a much older statue; of an entirely different black Virgin. Perhaps were they reminded of the statues of the black Virgins that the druids had erected for them.
For example, the Gaulois (the old Brettons of the Bronze Age) are recounted as having been among the last regions in the France of the day to have resisted Christianity. Many who had wanted to keep the ‘old religion’ had put-up a strong resistance to the changes imposed upon them at the time of the conquest – and even afterwards.
After all that has been said and done, archeology proves there had been a much older, non-Christian cult to a statue erected to honor and render devotion to ‘another kind of black Virgin’. This cult to the other black Virgin was took place way before the Christian one ever was. This dated representation of the old one had survived as evidence of a religiously imposed, ‘transmutation’ of a black goddess and of her statues. And most especially, that the Christian statues of a Christian black Virgin were but newer copies of the older ones.
Mr. William Glover was not alone in his reflections on ‘statues of black virgins’ in the deep of France. M. Emile Saillens, an agreger of the “an associate of the university and stock exchange” with published Universal editions: Our Black Virgins, “their origins”, also bring us to interesting reflections about them. According to Mr. Saillens, “the cult of the black Virgins is a survival of the very ancient beliefs who’s object were the Gallic (Gaulois) goddess-mothers that our ancestors represented with or without a child in her arms; goddess-mothers who.who, all depending on the divers eras, had great similarities to Cybele and Isis’. When one of these ancient statues was discovered, after the introduction of Christianity, either in a field, or either in the basement of a chapel, we never failed to acknowledge that within the work of art there was a representation of the mother of Jesus.
There are very many of these black Virgins in Auvergne. However, they are quite rare in Brittany for several reasons. But what is special in Brittany as in the East and South of France, is that some of these statues of black virgins become not iconic of the Virgin Mary – mother of Jesus, but rather – of the ‘grandmother of Christ’; that is to say, of St. Anne.” The Gallic goddess’ mother, was the representation of her being in the grand-mother stage’ of her women-hood (the crone).
“When was the cult of Saint Anne in Brittany? (…)” ponders most deeply, Saillens. “In Christianity”, continues Saillens, “I will say that ‘Saint Anne’ is relatively recent. The name ‘Anne’ is hardly seen to exist in our province (Brittany) before the XVth century. The first name of ‘the Duchess Anne’ was transmitted by Anne Beaujeu.
The abbe Lallemand, a Bretton and an historian of Saint Anne d’Auray, believes that the cult to St. Anne in Brittany goes back to the sixth century. There is a tradition, according to the reports of the abbe Abgrall (Monuments of the cult of Saint Anne in the diocese of Quimper, Vannes, 1902), that St. Anne de la Palud would replace the fifth century’s “watch Casta”.
But before the Christian Saint Anne, would there not have existed a Celtic goddess who’s name would have resembled that of Anne’s, and who’s memory would have been confusedly identified as the grand-mother of Christ? There is nothing impossible in this, provided that it is concerning the Celtic goddess re-taking her rights over the Celts while becoming Christian-like”.” (…)
“There existed among the Celts, said Saillens (Appendix B), the goddess Danu or Dana. According to Mac Culloch (The Religion of the ancient Celts, Edinburgh 1911), she gave her name to the whole group of Celtic deities, and she is called ‘their mother’. She was a kin of the goddess Ana or Anu, that Cormac qualifies as Mater doerum hibernensium. Cormac, however, associates the name Anu and the word Ana (abundance). Two hills in Kerry are called the Paps of Anon “Anon the Tetons.” It is impossible not to think here about the foster-mother goddess of the Romans: Anna Perenna who, herself, was the Anna Pourna of Brahmanism. The Celtic Ana or Dana (that signifies: of the goddess) is then a sister of all of the mother-goddesses wearing a name analogue to our ‘mama; one of the names of Cybele was Nanna and, among the Germans, the beautiful Nanna was the wife of the god Balder.”
A curious fact though, that all Brettons can testify to. It is found in the strange tradition that is deeply engrained among all the peasants of Brittanny. According to this strange tradition, Saint Anne who was born in Armorique, would have resided there before going to live and die in Palestine. Do we not have to discern in this legend a way to reconcile an obscure veneration for an ancient divinity with the teachings received at church?