The Feast of St Martha: Dragons, Food and Tour de Force, Part 2

This is Part Two of a Two-Part blog. Read Part One.

Our French Market feast at the Alliance Francaise d’ East London’s Tour de Force mountain bike race was only two days after St Martha’s. As an avid amateur cook, I was more than happy to consider it transferred to the Sunday.

Besides, the feast is an important occasion in some parts of France, Tarascon one of them, so there was something wonderfully appropriate about it all.

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Martha probably lived with her sister Mary and their brother Lazarus in Bethany, not far from Jerusalem. Friends of Jesus, they welcomed him into their home for meals.

In one story, Martha asked Christ to tell her sister to help her with serving the meal (cf. Luke 10). In another, she tells him that her brother would not have died, had Jesus come sooner (cf. John 11). This paves the way for talk of the resurrection, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

Mary of Magdala absorbed Mary of Bethany’s character in the Middle Ages, so, for a time, she was regarded as Martha’s sister (cf. Mary Magdalene: The Essential History, Susan Haskins).

Mary-Martha-Lazarus thinglink dot com
Christ with saints Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Pic: Thinglink

 St Martha Goes to France

According to Jacqueline Simpson’s Tarasque article published on the Folklore Society website, the earliest account of the life of St Martha was a Latin composition, dated somewhere between 1187 and 1212.

It is in this account that the saint’s life becomes not so much colourful as psychedelic, and it was this colourful story that also found its way into mediaeval bestseller, the Golden Legend, quoted on Fisheaters:

“After the ascension of our Lord, when the disciples were departed, she with her brother Lazarus and her sister Mary, also S. Maximin which baptized them, and to whom they were committed of the Holy Ghost, and many others, were put into a ship without sail, oars, or rudder governail, of the paynims, which by the conduct of our Lord they came all to Marseilles, and after came to the territory of Aquense or Aix, and there converted the people to the faith. Martha was right facound of speech, and courteous and gracious to the sight of the people.

martamarylazarus
Martha’s arrival in France. Pic: Fisheaters

“There was that time upon the river of Rhone, in a certain wood between Arles and Avignon, a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, and defended him with two wings on either side, and could not be beaten with cast of stones nor with other armour, and was as strong as twelve lions or bears; which dragon lay hiding and lurking in the river, and perished them that passed by and drowned ships.

He came thither by sea from Galicia, and was engendered of Leviathan, which is a serpent of the water and is much wood, and of a beast called Bonacho, that is engendered in Galicia. And when he is pursued he casts out of his belly behind, his ordure, the space of an acre of land on them that follow him, and it is bright as glass, and what it toucheth it burneth as fire.

To whom Martha, at the prayer of the people, came into the wood, and found him eating a man. And she cast on him holy water, and showed to him the cross, which anon was overcome, and standing still as a sheep, she bound him with her own girdle, and then was slain with spears and glaives of the people.

The dragon was called of them that dwelled in the country Tarasconus, whereof, in remembrance of him that place is called Tarasconus, which tofore was called Nerluc, and the Black Lake, because there be woods shadowous and black. And there the blessed Martha, by licence of Maximin her master, and of her sister, dwelled and abode in the same place after, and daily occupied in prayers and in fastings, and thereafter assembled and were gathered together a great convent of sisters, and builded a fair church at the honour of the blessed Mary virgin, where she led a hard and a sharp life. She eschewed flesh and all fat meat, eggs, cheese and wine; she ate but once a day. An hundred times a day and an hundred times a night she kneeled down and bowed her knees.”

The Golden Legend 

martha naturalibus blogspot
St Martha and the Tarasque. Pic: Naturalibus

Reflections on Feast and Legend

The 29 July feast day of St Martha arose in the 12th century, around the time of the “discovery” of her bones and the composition of the legend of her taming of the Tarasque. The festival associated with the legend celebrated at Tarascon, France, was confirmed by Rene of Anjou when he encouraged the townsfolk to maintain the tradition in 1469.

The date of the festival is the date she died, at least according to two contemporary hagiographies. However, feasts in her honour had been celebrated before that time, but on different dates. It appears a feast was celebrated in her honour on 19 January, from the late sixth century.

By means of the festival instituted by Rene, originally observed on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, the evil spirit that caused the Camargue to flood would be exorcised, and their dykes and dams would be made safe. It seems like the Tarasque got the blame for the flooding, despite its end at the hand of the townsfolk centuries before.

Simpson’s article on the Tarasque offers a good deal of insight on the festival, and invites us to look deeper than flooding rivers. It’s interesting to note that in some of the early accounts I’ve read, the dragon is described as male, but the people of Tarascon regard it as female – something which may or may not be a more recent version of the legend.

 Two Days for the Dragon

Originally known as Jeux et Courses de la Tarasque, the Fêtes de la Tarasque was celebrated on two dates. The first was the rather worldly Running of the Tarasque, which took place on the Monday following Pentecost Sunday (May/June).

Crowds would gather in a narrow street and dance to the beat of drums until the effigy of the dragon appeared, fireworks flaring out of its nostrils. Those carrying the effigy would run unpredictably through the crowd, so that its head swayed, its jaws snapped, and its long tale knocked people over, sometimes breaking bones – much to the delight of the crowd!

The dragon’s retinue, known as the Tarascaires, carried whips to keep the crowd away from the effigy. It was considered good luck to pull off one of the dragon’s spikes.

The Tarasque would eventually make its way to St Martha’s church, and would be taken away after bowing to the church three times. The rest of the day would be given over to a parade by guilds and trade groups, practical jokes played on spectators by said guilds and groups, and much drinking and merriment.

The second date of the festival was 29 July, the feast of St Martha. This occasion was more sacred than secular.

Instead of appearing suddenly and wildly on the streets, the Tarasque would be led by a young girl dressed as St Martha, at the head of a procession that left from the church after Mass. The girl used a ribbon for a leash, and carried an aspergillum (an implement used for sprinkling holy water).

Behind the pair came men dressed as soldiers, priests, monks, religious groups, and a reliquary containing the relics of St Martha.

The dignified procession would be punctuated by sudden attempts by the Tarasque to break free from its leash. The girl dressed as the saint would restore calm by sprinkling the dragon with holy water.

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Interpreting the Tarasque

In her article, Simpson points to various interpretations assigned to the Tarasque, such as it being a memory of an exotic animal such as a crocodile, a symbol of the flooding Rhone, or a symbol of the defeat of local paganism by Christianity.

However, she goes on to suggest that the legend shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. Instead, it is perhaps better understood as “kin to various other monster effigies used in religious rites and/or popular festivals, notably those in Rogationtide processions… Above all, as Dumont puts it:

‘The sociological factor is fundamental: the Tarasque is above all the eponymous beast, the palladium of its community. … It would seem that on the level of popular festivity the official catholic patron saint of the locality [Martha] is outshone by the Tarasque, the true and far more brilliant secular patron, whose ‘runs’ are a violent glorification of local energy, often at the expense of strangers.’”

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The Tarasque as part of a Corpus Christi parade in Valencia, Spain. Pic: Chosovi, Wikipedia

Gemma Gary’s comments on the Oss at Penzance’s Golowan (Midsummer/Feast of St John) festival may provide further insight. The Penglaz Oss is a horse skull dressed in black, and decorated with red and green ribbons and flowers.

“She represents and embodies the seasonal energies, and, at Golowan, she is the vehicle for the very spirit of the summer season as she dances through the streets, terrifying and ‘en-trancing’ the crowds, led by the Penglaz Teaser… The serpent dance, which has become quite a wild creature, often broken by the unpredictable and equally wild movements of Penglaz, seems to be a spontaneous conjuration and communion with the serpentine flow which as this time of year zeniths in potency.”

Cornish Witchcraft, Gemma Gary

It may well be that the Running of the Tarasque echoes the current of the Golowan festival, given that they fall roughly around the same time of the year. The dragon, then, embodies the raw, wild impulse of life lived locally; that spirit or energy within the people and in the world around them – summer vibes, “good and bad”, at fever pitch.

Penglaz Nancy Lee Moran
Penglaz at Golowan in Penzance, Cornwall. Pic: Nancy Lee Moran.

Reconsidering Saint Martha

By the time St Martha’s feast day rolls around, the Baptist’s feast has been celebrated, the sun has begun its journey south, and the harvest is well underway. It was on her feast that the Tarascon townsfolk recalled the taming and death of the Tarasque.

Roughly two weeks after Martha’s feast comes that of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in Heaven; a feast that is replete with themes of harvest and death.

According to Nova Roma, the feast of the Assumption replaced the ancient Roman Nemoralia, also known as the Feast of Torches, which celebrated Diana as the “Lady of the Wilds, Mistress of the Beasts, Goddess of the Moon, Guardian of the Oak, Friend of the Nymph, Grand Midwife, and Protector of Maidens”.

St-Martha jamesduvalier dot com
St Martha. Pic: Jamesduvalier.com

I find it interesting that some of the more recent depictions of St Martha have her holding a flaming torch. Other symbols of hers include a soup ladle, broom, cooking pot, an aspergillum, a vessel of holy water, and the Tarasque (usually shown as a classical European dragon). I’ve also seen keys, a boat, and gold coins listed among her symbols.

St Martha and the Dragon

The saint’s taming of the dragon is a legend that sits comfortably among Mediaeval fables about hunting unicorns. Shani Oates offers a profound view of the hunt for the Unicorn, which she names as the “vital spirit of transformation” whose capture was “most often by the seductive attentions of a ‘comely’ maid,” in the Divine Duellists, found in her book, Tubelo’s Green Fire:

“[The] Unicorn embodies the ‘Word’, through which its manifestation is commonly, though not exclusively, linked to Christ… One of the earliest literary references to the Unicorn can be found in the Old Testament where it is cited as a reem, the ‘Ur Reem’ (Sun’s Light) indicating the implacable might and sovereignty of Yahweh, the Father-God…

“A pre-Christian symbol, the Unicorn possesses extraordinary amorphous qualities that link it to the evolution and elevation of the spirit. As the bestial lover of Mary, he is taken and subsequently killed. Yet this spiritual quality does not ascend, in fact it remains earthbound, in his re-emergence within the ‘edenic’ garden of abundance. This anchoring in the material world suggests the Saturnian qualities of both the Father and those of the son/Sun as Lord of this World.”

– The Divine Duellists, Shani Oates

In the legend, St Martha tames the Tarasque with prayers, showing it the cross, sprinkling it with holy water, and then leashing it with her girdle. At the time, a virgin’s girdle was a symbol of her chastity, purity, and virtue.

However, the symbolism of the girdle changes quite a lot when a goddess such as Aphrodite wears one. Aphrodite’s magic girdle, the cestus or zone, has the power to awaken desire, and is described in Homer’s Iliad as “elaborate, pattern-pieced”, upon which are figured “all beguilement , and loveliness is figured upon it, and passion of sex is there, and the whispered endearment that steals the heart away in the fold of your bosom.”

In her notes on the Divine Duellists, Oates mentions that the Syriac version of the hunt of the Unicorn “erotically dramatizes the Maid as a naked temptress, who suckles the Unicorn in the way of archaic Pagan Goddesses; coupling is suggested before its subsequent capture, death and apparent ‘resurrection’. Sexual imagery is… prevalent within alchemy where the ‘Tantric’ union of opposites inculcates the highest freedom.”

It is through Martha, icon and exemplar of ‘Womanhood,’ that the wild and ferocious Terasque is tamed; refined so that it might be brought to the town. However, instead of welcoming the dragon, the townsfolk kill it.

In the Wikipedia version of the legend, Martha then preached and converted the townsfolk, who expressed remorse for having killed the dragon, and renamed the town in its honour.

In the renaming of Nerluc to Tarascon, the Tarasque is ‘resurrected’ and ‘anchored’ to the town as a tutelary or totemic guardian spirit.

According to the legend, the saint remained in the town, where she lived an austere life in service of those around her. She founded a community of virgins, and performed miracles such as turning water into wine, and raising the dead.

St Martha as a Mistress of Fate

In my reading of the Provencal legend of the life of St Martha, I see her recast as Goddess, the Mistress of Life and Fate. She is the ‘other side’ of the Magdalene.

Where the Magdalene was wanton, Martha was chaste; where the Magdalene sat in quiet contemplation, Martha was active; where the Magdalene lived in solitude and was transported to heaven and back every day, Martha lived in a community where she worked wonders of extreme transformation – water and wine, and demonstrated power over life and death.

marta riding latinandabeer blogspot
St Martha riding the Tarasque. Pic: Latinandabeer

The Tarasque makes a fitting symbol of the vital spirit of transformation; the wild, expansive, impulsive spirit of life in everyman. Left to our own devices in our natural state, we’re little more than beasts capable of neuroses.

When Man encounters the spirit of Wisdom, Inspiration, Grace, and Beauty in Woman, and in his Love for Her finds reflected Truth and Virtue, he is ennobled.

This is a theme that could have been familiar with some of the first audiences to hear the legend, as it’s a major theme in Fin d’amors literature and poetry. Oates gives enlightening expression to the theme in the Wisdom of Courtly Love, also found in Tubelo’s Green Fire:

“Father Denomy recognised, nearly sixty years ago the inherent anathema to the Church within the ‘Cult of the Beloved,’ whose basic principles were: Ennoblement of human love, Elevation of the beloved to a superior position than the lover’s, [and] the concept of love as ever insatiate, of ever increasing ardour.

“He further postulates them as distinct from all other forms of love explored by the Troubadours… By the above definitions, the surge of the lover to rise in worth and virtue towards the beloved, through the force and energy of desire, to seek spiritual elevation through her, was a heresy of the highest order. This compels everyone to love, since only through it can one be ennobled and virtuous.”

– Wisdom of Courtly Love, Shani Oates

Through Her, he is initiated into and learned the arts of civilisation. The wild, vital spirit is leashed with Her girdle, and the chaotic rampage and the floods give way to peace and illumination, and so he goes to his death.

The Tarasque didn’t make it into the town. Still bound by St Martha’s girdle, he remained still as a sheep as the swords and spears of the townsfolk rained down on him. Perhaps he understood the meaning of the girdle, the water, and the wood.

Through St Martha, the Tarasque’s death became a sacrifice, and he was ‘resurrected’, not as mortal, but divine, to live on as the town’s tutelary guardian spirit. So, too, Man in his submission to Her as Fate, submits to the point of giving up his life, and then receives, from Her, life in death.

For those who have a traditional way of doing things, perhaps the feast of St Martha is a good time to start preparing for that harvest festival par excellence, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where the Goddess again shows Herself as Lady of Life and Death, and as Dark Mistress of the Soul.

A Festive Meal for St Martha’s Day

The Fisheaters website provided great inspiration when I couldn’t find any dishes traditionally associated with St Martha’s feast day.

They suggest using the herb tarragon in a dish, as part of its botanical name means “little dragon”, and it grows naturally in the part of France where our saint is believed to have lived.

The following recipe is from Joanne Harris’ the French Kitchen, and apparently dates back to the 17th century. I made it with great success on the last night of a friend’s visit a few months ago, and have every intention of making it again.

fillet steak with tarragon
Fillet steak with tarragon

Fillet Steak with Tarragon

25g butter

6 large open flat mushrooms

Olive oil for frying

4 shallots, diced (or 1 small onion)

100ml red wine

50ml double cream (if you can’t find double cream, use crème fraiche or, at a pinch, ordinary cream)

1 tablespoon wholegrain mustard

1 clove of garlic, crushed, peeled, and chopped (or put it through a garlic press)

A small bunch of fresh tarragon, chopped finely, or 2 level teaspoons dried tarragon

Salt and pepper

6 150g fillet steaks

Melt butter in a pan over a medium heat, and cook the mushrooms on both sides until golden. Reduce the heat, remove the mushrooms from the pan, and keep them warm until needed.

Heat a little olive oil in a saucepan over a medium heat, and fry the shallots/onion until soft and golden. Add the wine and let it simmer for three minutes.

Reduce the heat, and add the cream, mustard, garlic, and tarragon, and season with salt and pepper. Let the sauce warm through gently – don’t let it boil, because it’ll separate.

Heat a drizzle of olive oil in a large frying pan over a high heat. Fry the steaks (make sure they’re at room temperature) for 1½ minutes a side for rare, 2½ minutes a side for medium, or 3 minutes a side for well done.

Serve the steaks on the mushrooms, topped with the sauce. Serve with simple sides of asparagus or green beans, and baby potatoes or mashed potatoes.

Read part one of this blog.

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