When we left San Sebastian we had vague ideas of reaching Toulouse by nightfall but a journey of over 600 kilometres while stopping along the way for sightseeing wasn’t really realistic. As we made slow progress along the French highways we came to that realisation and changed plans. We decided to visit Lourdes approximately half way between Biarritz and Toulouse and another famous city of Christian pilgrimage. For much of its history Lourdes was a small regional town whose most notable feature was the impressive castle overlooking the old town. Then in 1858 a peasant girl called Bernadette saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in a cave. The Virgin gave her a secret message that she passed on to the Pope. That message so impressed the Pope that he certified that Bernadette had recieved a true vision of the Virgin. Bernadette went on to become a nun but died young. Her body was embalmed in the same way as Lenin’s and her tomb became a shrine. Nowadays her body is no longer on display (as that would be a little bit tacky).
Bernadette’s vision transformed Lourdes from a sleepy town into a centre for pilgrimage. A magnificent church was built on the rocky outcrop above the cave. The cave remains much the same as it was a 160 years ago, except for the addition of a statue of the Virgin high up in one corner and a concrete floor to ease access for the elderly and infirm. And of course the elderly and infirm make up the majority of pilgrims. Long queues of people in wheelchairs, walking frames, and hospital beds roll, shuffle and are wheeled past the grotto hoping, praying for a cure from a myriad of ailments. Elderly and middle aged women made up a large proportion of the pilgrims. There were plenty of Irish accents in the crowd, while religious tour groups unfurled banners proclaiming their various pilgrimages. Each night at 9pm a procession winds its way from the church around the grounds to the grotto to the accompaniment of hymns and prayers in various languages. The scale of the procession is astonishing - we visited on a Tuesday night and there were about 5,000 people marching. On Fridays and Sundays the crowds are much bigger.
People believe what they want to believe, but I doubt many of the people here would have thought too deeply about the origins of the rituals they perform. While religions themselves might change, religious practices often reach down to something much deeper, much older. The cult of the earth mother has origins predating history itself, but four millennia ago that the Great Goddess makes her first recognisable appearance in western history amongst the Hitties in central Turkey. Two millennia later the Hittites passed the Great Goddess onto the Greeks, who knew her as Artemis. The magnificent temple of Artemis at Ephesus would later become one of the Seven Wonders of the World and drew pilgrims from all over the Middle East. Later still the Romans would know her as Diana and her shrines were erected throughout the Empire.
In the first century AD, the Apostle Paul made his way across Asia Minor and stopped at Ephesus. His preaching against Artemis upset the Ephesians who not only loved their goddess but also made a lot of money from the pilgrimage trade, and Paul was run out of town. Four centuries later though, Christianity was in the ascendant and the Ephesians converted to the new faith. The Artemesion was converted into a church and the statues of Artemis were carefully buried (to be discovered again in the 19th century). With the change of religion it seemed the Ephesians had done themselves out of a trade, but the Ephesians had found a surprising replacement for their missing Goddess - the Virgin Mary. Not only did they claim that the Apostle John had written his gospel in Ephesus but that Mary, the Mother of Jesus had retired to and died in Ephesus. Her tomb outside of town became the new centre of pilgrimage. Not only that, but in 431AD a church council was held in Ephesus and Mary was proclaimed not only to be the Mother of Jesus but to be the Mother of God. And so, Artemisia, Diana, the immortal Great Goddess had inserted herself into the heart of the new religion and the great candle lit processions that had once wound their way around the Artemision in her honour now carried a statue of a Virgin Mother as their centrepiece. Of course, the Catholic clergy don’t quite take their vows of celibacy as seriously as did the priesthood of Artemis - they had showed their devotion by castrating themselves!
We watched the procession winding its way around the massive processional field. If the weather is bad there is a second, underground processional way that can accommodate 20,000 worshippers - it’s amazing. We cut across the path and into the main town, now lit up like a Catholic Las Vegas. Every shop was filled with tacky Chinese-made faux religious….. shit. Mary snow domes, Mary statues, Mary lampshades, tea towels, spoons, those pictures that change depending on the angle you look at it from - now Mary, now Jesus. All of it crap and yet still so popular.
Along the outskirts of the cathedral grounds and in the margins where the shops’ neon lights began to fade loitered the gypsies. The good Christians and nuns brushed past them as they hurried to and from the cathedral, barely casting them a second glance. Once again my ire towards the gypsies was in full flight. As we walked to the cathedral at dusk there was a man sitting, begging at the foot of the bridge with a miserable filthy child in his lap. They were still there were when we walked back to our hotel at 11pm and they were there again at 10am the next morning. These children, and there were many, should be in school and getting an education, but they aren’t. What future do these children really have when they are forced by their parents to beg; to learn to live a life of exclusion, misery and poverty. The Roma may claim they are trying to preserve their culture but if this is what it means then it isn’t a culture that’s worth preserving.
The pilgrimages and prayers go on all night, every night, so cafes, restaurants and the ubiquitous souvenir shops are open all night. We stopped at a pleasant café for dinner a little after 11. Strangely, the staff were Muslim. I had a fabulous cassoulette and Shelly an average pizza. We didn’t drink. The next morning we wandered back into town with the intention of going inside the cathedral, but when we reached the entrance to the cathedral grounds we decided we really couldn’t be bothered all that way again. Besides, the pilgrimage circus was already starting. Amongst the crowds of elderly were several youth groups from Ireland. We overheard one group talking their day - the cathedral, the grotto, the museum, the tomb, dinner at a restaurant and then a night of booze and debauchery at the local Irish bar. Some things never change.