Sara e Kali: A Bit of History and a Recipe
In honor of Sara e Kali (also called Saint Sarah, Sara-la-Kali, Sarah the Egyptian, and Kali Sara), on the feast day of May 24th, our cofounder wrote out a bit of history on the figure and the recipe that our household made for our own veneration feast.
Apologies, readers - this is one of those blog posts where the recipe follows a great deal of other information. Please feel free to skip down to the if that’s all you’re looking for. No hard feelings from us.
In the South of France, at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer in the Camargue, there is a black statue of a figure venerated by the Romani. The origin of the statue is debated; the various versions and historical veracity of her legend are even more debated.
It is likely the figure existed there long before Christianity and long before the Romani even came to France. According to some historians, the village now known as Les Saintes Maries de la Mer was originally called Ratis, which translates to raft in Latin. The temple or church where the statue resides dates back to the 12th century and is shaped like a boat. The church is named for Notre Dame de Ratis (Our Lady of the Raft). But there is evidence that in the first century CE, various other goddesses from polytheistic religions may have been worshipped there, including a sea goddess or a triple goddess like figure. The area has been conquered and annexed and held by the Celtic Gauls, the Iberians, the Greeks, and the Romans, and then had (beginning in 1418) and now has a large Romani population. Even Phoenecians had an influence on the region, as they founded the colony of nearby Massalia (Marseilles). Each culture may have had its influence upon the veneration of the figure.
The locals claim that the present statue replaced an earlier statue, which had also replaced an earlier one, which had also replaced an earlier one, and so on. Just how long there has been a black female figure venerated at the site is unknown.
Whatever goddess or goddesses were worshipped at Ratis, by the time Gaul was France and the village had been renamed, the early Christians and the local Romani had somehow syncretized and blended the veneration of gods, saints, and cultural figures into a single figure, Sara e Kali.
There is a flexible mythology of at least two Marys (possibly three) and Sara e Kali. The mythology shifted over the centuries and varies from culture to culture and from family to family within that culture.
From the period of the fragmentation of the Carolingian empire in the ninth century to the Hundred Years' War with the Kingdom of England (1337–1453), there was a widespread legend in France that Mary Jacobé, Mary Salomé and Mary Magdalene had traveled to the South of France after fleeing from Palestine in a boat after the crucifixion of Christ, where they allegedly taught Christianity to the local population.
If there is any historical veracity to the story, the Marys (and possibly various other figures of early Christianity) would have been fleeing to Roman occupied Gaul - Gallia Transalpina - while it was under the rule of either Torquatus Novellius Atticus or Titus Mussidius Pollianus. This isn’t hugely likely, however, as Christianity did not spread in the region until long after the Marys would have died.
A version of the story told in the Middle Ages describes Sara e Kali as a black Egyptian servant who came with the three Marys. This version of Sara e Kali was said to have learned to beg for alms in order to provide for the three Marys. In a variation of this version, the Egyptian servant saved the lives of the three Marys by spreading her headscarf or cloak on the water when the boat was in danger of sinking.
According to some versions, even more figures of early Christian faith were present, including Lazarus, his sisters Mary and Martha, and Maximin.
The story of the Three Marys arriving in France appears in the 13th century “Golden Legend”, a collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Varagine, but makes no mention of Sara e Kali. Sara e Kali’s first written appearance in the legend dates to Vincent Philippon's book The Legend of the Saintes-Maries (1521), which describes her as, "a charitable woman that helped people by collecting alms, which led to the popular belief that she was a Gypsy."
In that version of the story, Sara e Kali was not actually Romani, but was mistaken for one, and subsequently, Sara was adopted by Romani as their saint.
Even the Romani have many, many different versions of the story.
The popular versions of the story amongst the Romani are not actually historically probable, as the Romani did not leave northwestern India until approximately 512 CE, hundreds of years past when the Marys would have died.
One Romani version claims that Sara was the leader of a Romani group living in the area where the three Marys were fleeing to safety. When the three Marys arrived, Sara e Kali gave them shelter and was eventually baptised into Christianity and became responsible for the conversion of many Romani to Christianity.
Another version of the story claims Mary Jacobé, Mary Salomé, and Mary Magdalene fled to Roman occupied Gaul because Mary Magdalene was pregnant. When the boat began to struggle in the water, Sara e Kali saw the foundering, and used either her headscarf or a cloak to rescue them. She then sheltered the child of Christ in the Romani, hiding its existence from those who would harm the child.
There is even a version where Sara e Kali was the child of Mary Magdalene and Jesus.
One written version of the Romani perspective on the the story comes from Franz de Ville (1956), who wrote:
“One of our people who received the first Revelation was Sara the Kali. She was of noble birth and was chief of her tribe on the banks of the Rhône. She knew the secrets that had been transmitted to her... The Rom at that period practiced a polytheistic religion, and once a year they took out on their shoulders the statue of Ishtari (Astarte) and went into the sea to receive benediction there. One day Sara had visions which informed her that the Saints who had been present at the death of Jesus would come, and that she must help them. Sara saw them arrive in a boat. The sea was rough, and the boat threatened to founder. Mary Salome threw her cloak on the waves and, using it as a raft, Sara floated towards the Saints and helped them reach land by praying.”
There is, of course, the official explanation given by the Roman Catholic Church, from which Mary Magdalene has been removed. The only Marys permitted in the official church story are Mary Jacobé and Mary Salomé, which says that they arrived in a boat from Palestine with their servant Sara. Sara is now called Saint Sara, despite the fact that officially there is no such saint in the hierarchy of Catholic saints. The only two official saints from the story, according to the Roman Catholic Church, are Saint Mary Jacobé and Saint Mary Salomé.
There is a very slim possibility that has recently been put forward as a theory, although there is no historical documentation that would lend it credence. There is a theory that Jesus travelled through India during his lifetime. It is theoretically possible, though highly improbable, that he might have met with the Romani in India during his travels before returning to Judea, and possibly brought with him a Romani person who would later be referred to in legend as Sara e Kali.
Another theory, also very slim, is that Sara e Kali was Dom. The Dom are a group of Romani who, at some point, split off from the other Romani and travelled into the Middle East, including places that Jesus would have travelled in his lifetime. Some historians claim the Dom left India, splitting off from the Romani, fairly early - before the rest of the Romani left India. But the prevailing theory is that the Dom split off from the Romani in the 5th century CE, which would make Jesus meeting one of the Dom in the Middle East impossible.
King René d’Anjou (1409–1480), King of Naples and Jerusalem, was largely responsible for thoroughly establishing the veneration of the Marys and Sara e Kali. King René was reputedly the friend or lover of Joan of Arc (having pretended to be the Dauphin in order to test whether the divine actually spoke to her). He narrowly escaped charges of heresy when he founded the Order of the Crescent, which the Roman Catholic Church viewed as suspiciously Islamic and also connected with the pagan worship of Isis.
It was during his reign, in 1448, that the remains of the four unidentifiable, decapitated skeletons were discovered during excavations under the church. These were assumed to be those of the Three Marys and of Sara. Later, in a box found under the church in 1496, another skeleton was discovered, which is also claimed to be Sara e Kali, and the four skeletons were attributed to the three Marys and Martha.
The bones could have any number of explanations - they could be the original figures for whom the structure (shelter, temple, or church) was made, whose story syncretized into the Christian faith, or even priestesses or caretakers of the temple or church who were permitted to be buried where they had worked.
The bones have not been carbon tested to establish the date of demise, so it isn’t even known how long they’ve been buried.
In the present day the church houses two statues of two white Saint Marys and black Saint Sara.
Many Romani groups attend the annual pilgrimage to the shrine at Les Saintes Maries on the 24th and 25th of May, traveling from all over the world. They come in the days before May 24th and stay with friends, relatives, distance acquaintances, or camp in the surrounding area. During this time, they feast and dance, hold sacred ceremonies, arrange social connections and weddings, and perform for tourists.
On the night prior to the pilgrimage from the shrine to the sea on May 25, they hold a vigil in the crypt where the black statue is located.
On the day of the pilgrimage to the sea, the statue of Sara e Kali is placed on a pedestal covered with flowers during the course of the ceremony. It is then carried on the shoulders of several Romani men in the presence of Romani guards on white horses to the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The statute is submerged in the water and then carried back to the church.
The whole ceremony is accompanied by Romani music and song.
The Romani pilgrimages are mentioned in historical writings dating as far back as the 15th century, though the writings refer to the Romani as “Egyptians”, a common error of understanding at the time.
In 1998, the statue was recreated in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and a Kali Sara Festival was held. In 2001, another statue was created in Toronto, Canada.
For most of the recorded veneration of the statue of Sara e Kali in the South of France, it was widely believed that the veneration was localized only to the Romani of the area - the Iberaian Cale or Calo (also Romanized Kale or Kalo) and the Manouche.
Ronald Lee’s research amongst the Romani of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and the Balkans revealed that there were other Black Virgins who were and are worshipped or venerated by the Romani.
He also interviewed refugee Roma who fled persecution to Canada from Central and Eastern Europe who detailed the Sara e Kali equivalents they venerated in their own countries. Even Muslim Romani described ceremonies similar to those of that venerated Kali Sara, which praised a female divine figure named E Guglí Sagíya (The guardian Angel). E Gugli Sagiya is venerated by Muslim Romani in the South Balkans (former Rumelia), who praise as pettitioners, asking for good health and fortune.
The veneration of these black, female figures closely aligns with the ritual observed in the south of France - including the creation of black statues of a veiled or haloed figure, the laying of flowers at the feet of the statue, the carrying of the statue on a platform strewn with flowers into the closest body of water such as a sea, lake, flowing river or even a large pond of clear water.
In most cases, the veneration or worship includes the adorning of the statue with clothing of the sick hoping for cures, placing written requests at the feet of the statue, and lighting candles in prayer and supplication, and the playing of music to honor the figure.
In Mexico, Mexican Romani attend the festival of La Virgen de Guadalupe, and in Sainte Anne de Beaupré, Quebec, Canadian and American Romani attend the annual Novena held there on the week of July 24, 25 and 26 in honor of Santana (Saint Ann). The Romani often syncretize Saint Ann with E De Devleski (The Earth Mother). At the Novena to honor Santana, the Romani host special ceremonies that differ from those of the non-Romani pilgrims and which are very similar to those performed at Les Saintes Maries to honor Sara e Kali, except that the statue of Saint Ann is not removed from the crypt and carried into the nearby Saint Lawrence River.
Even when Sara e Kali is not the focus of the festival or saint's day, the Romani all over the world continue to worship a female figure in shrines located near bodies of water, honouring them with ceremonies that appear not to be Christian in origin.
Dr. Weer Rishi, a scholar of Indian history, culture, and theology, witnessed the Romani venerations of the black figure and identified the ceremony as being very similar to those that venerate Durga Pooja of India, which takes place annually in October. During the ceremony, a statue of Durga is carried on a platform into a body of water and immersed. This destroys the statue. In France, a reduced Sara e Kali ceremony also takes place in October to complement the major festival of May.
In India, the Durga Pooja honors the Goddess Kali, who is also known as Durga or Sara, in various aspects. According to the Durgasaptashati (seven hundred verses in the worship of Goddess Durga and her various forms), chapter 5, verse 12, which describes Kali, says the following:
“Salute to Durga, Durgapara, (Deliver of all difficulties), Sara, (Embodiment of everything par-excellent), Cause of everything, Krishna and Dhurma (Evaporated form in smoke).”
Kali/Durga/Sara is the consort of Shiva, whose worship or veneration may also have been preserved among the Roma as O Baró Devél. Some Romani pray to Sara e Kali to ask her to intercede with O Baró Devél on their behalf.
The Romani came from India in 512 CE, when India was undergoing a syncretization of the existing Vedic, Hindu, and Sramanic beliefs together, along with and the emerging Bhakti tradition. During this period, there was broad Sanskritisation (Indian Romanization), a particular form of social change found in India, a process by which castes or tribes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes. Since Vedic times, people from many strata of society throughout the subcontinent tended to adapt their religious and social life to Brahmanic norms, including the tendency to identify local deities with the gods of the Sanskrit texts.
In simpler words, it was very common, when the Romani were still in India, to merge and syncretize various beliefs, and even to associate a local deity with a deity of the Indian traditions, and worship one through worshipping the other.
It is likely that Sara e Kali is a way for the Romani to worship or venerate Kali, Durga, Durgapara, the deliverer from all difficulties, Sara, the embodiment of everything par-excellent, the cause of everything, while in an place it was unsafe to practice their own religion. The Romani who would have entered France in 1418 had witnessed their own people enslaved and persecuted throughout the Byzantine Empire, Wallachia, Moldova, and Germany. By 1492, Spain had passed anti-Romani laws that subjected the Romani to the Inquisition and by 1502 King Louis the XII had ordered the Romani forcibly expelled from France.
It wasn’t safe to be Romani or to worship in the Romani way. But the religion that they likely belonged to permitted the worshipping of deities via worshipping another, similar, local deity. And so a figure that may have already been worshipped or venerated by Celts, Iberians, Greeks, Romans, and Christians came to be venerated by the Romani, as well.
Some Romani still practice this way, following the original Romani religion, but disguising it through the dominant religion of the area. Others syncretize many religions and traditions, and believe that Del or Devél can refer to any God from any religion. Others claim that there are many gods - O Devél o Puranó (The Old God), O Devél o Nevó (The New God), O Devél Kristoso (Jesus Christ) and others, with O Baro Devél, being the most powerful of all the gods, who may or may not be known by many names.
Many Romani have also fully converted away from the original Romani religion, even the one that exsted under the protective veneer of Christianity or Islam, and have fully converted into non-Romani religions.
There are many traditional Romani dishes served at various celebrations, feasts, and sacred occasions. This is a single variation that should not be taken as absolute representation of any group of Romani, as the cultural variances across the various nations and offshoots of those nations are vast. This is just the dish that we made, our way, and the way it was made for us by a relative.
This relative insisted that seafood or fish was the appropriate feast day food, and an abundance of it, as Sara e Kali is associated with the water.
Baxtalo Slava e Sara Kali!
For the fish stock:
Traditionally, this stock would be made with fish bones and lobster exoskeleton, but as we did not have those on hand, we substituted in a simple shrimp head stock, which worked well
- One sweet onion, chopped
- One taproot of young fennel, chopped
- One stalk of young fennel, chopped (or, in place of these, a few tablespoons of chopped adult fennel bulb)
- One head of garlic, smashed and peeled of papery skin
- Several small spicy dried red chilis, broken open
- One large sweet dried chili, broken open
- A few thick slices of galangal root
- A few thick slices of turmeric root
- The heads and exoskeletons of two pounds of large wild shrimp, setting aside the inner meat
- One to two tablespoons of high fat, European butter
- A teaspoon of peppercorns
- A pinch of salt
- Approximately six to eight cups of water
- A medium stockpot
- A fine-mesh sieve
In the medium stockpot, heat the butter over medium-high heat. When hot, add the shrimp shells and cook, stirring occasionally, until the shells are pink and toasty-fragrant, four to six minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients. Cover the ingredients with water in a small stockpot. Simmer until pink and savory smelling, approximately one hour. Skim off any foam that rises to the top and discard. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve and reserve the stock, discarding the ingredients used to create the stock.
For the soup base:
- Two tablespoons of high fat, European butter
- The shrimp head stock created
- A half a bottle of good, French white wine
- Two four-inch or so sticks of fresh rosemary
- A handful of fresh thyme
- A few sprigs of marjoram
- A few sprigs of oregano
- A sprig of French tarragon or substitute anise hyssop (if you can find it; do without if you cannot)
- Two tablespoons of fennel fronds, scraped with the blade of a knife off of the stem
- A large pinch of saffron
- A pot with a lid that will remain warm while serving (we recommend a cast-iron Dutch oven or enameled cast-iron Dutch oven)
Brown the butter over low heat, until tiny brown specks form and float up through the foaming surface, and the butter smells nutty. If the brown bits turn black, discard the entire batch and start over. Add the shrimp head stock, the wine, the Cognac, and the herbs, excepting the saffron. Do not add the saffron until after the stock and wine and Cognac have reduced by half. Then add the saffron and allow to color the soup base before turning off the heat. Put the lid on the soup base and keep hot.
For the fish:
- Two pounds of monkfish
- Two pounds of shrimp meat, reserved from making the shrimp head stock
- One pound of scallops
- Two tablespoons of smoked paprika
- Two tablespoons of Spanish paprika
- Chili powder to taste
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Two to three tablespoons high fat European butter
- A small Dutch oven or braising pan
Chop the monkfish into larger than bite-size medallions. Toast the spices in the dry pan on low heat until fragrant. Add the butter and combine with the spices until the spices and butter turn a dark red-brown and smell fragrant and nutty. Turn the pan to medium-high and add the monkfish, coating thoroughly, and cook until it flakes easily with a fork, about four minutes per side. When the monkfish is approximately three minutes from cooked through, add the shrimp and cook for approximately three minutes, until the shrimp turn pink and begin to curl. When the shrimp has cooked for approximately one minute, add the scallops and cook until they are just barely turned opaque, which should take about one to two minutes. This staggered cooking time stops the seafood from becoming rubbery. If there are drippings from cooking the seafood, the drippings can be stirred into the soup base for added richness.
- The cooked seafood
- The hot soup base
- Fresh crusty bread
- Good, room temperature butter
- A pinch of saffron
- Fresh cracked salt and pepper
Place all the seafood in a serving dish and bring the hot soup base to the table with it. Place the cooked seafood into a bowl and serve poured over with the hot soup base, sprinkled with a few strands of saffron, with fresh cracked salt and pepper to taste. Eat with warm crusty bread coated with butter to sop up the drippings.