The Star of the Magi

Courtney Roberts, M.A.

The Visions of Bernadette at Lourdes

An Excerpt from Visions of the Virgin Mary

                                 Our Lady, the Water Bearer                                      

The Story       

On the cold morning of February 11, 1858, there was no wood in the Soubirous home, and no fire to warm them. Bernadette set out with her younger sister Toinette, and a neighbor girl, Jean Abadie, to scrounge in the forest for kindling. Maybe they would get lucky and find a rag or a bone to sell.

Heading out of town, the girls neared the foot of Massabieille, a massive, cliff-top rock formation, within view of the ancient hilltop fortress that served as the traditional landmark of the town. To reach the woods, they had to ford the river Gave at the bottom of the cliff.  Bernadette’s mother had warned her not to get her feet wet, for that would surely bring on the asthma, so while the other two girls scampered across the river, Bernadette reluctantly hung back.

According to her own accounts, as she lingered near the banks of the Gave, the girls calling after her as they hurried into the woods, she heard a sound like rushing wind. The sound seemed to be coming from a dark grotto in the rock wall under Massabielle. 

The noon Angelus bells were ringing from the town. As Bernadette turned to investigate the source of the wind, she saw what looked like a glowing young girl, tiny, white, and smiling brightly. She appeared to be standing above the eglantine, or wild rose, that draped the niche over the entrance to the grotto.

Bernadette rubbed her eyes and looked again. This time, the tiny demoiselle nodded, as if to greet her, and opened her arms, smiling all the while. Bernadette’s initial reaction was fear, but she couldn’t run away. She said she felt like she couldn’t move, but she did manage to instinctively put her hand in her pocket and draw out her rosary for protection. She tried to make the sign of the cross, but found that she couldn’t.

In response, the shining little maiden also produced a rosary, and crossed herself in a gesture of surprising beauty and grace. This time, Bernadette found she could respond, and after crossing herself, she began to feel calmer and a little less overwhelmed. Dropping to her knees, Bernadette began to pray her rosary. The little lady fingered her beads along with her. When they had finished, the tiny thing beckoned her to come closer, but Bernadette was too overawed to move. She then vanished, all smiles and delicate grace, leaving Bernadette to rejoin her companions.

The other girls had seen nothing of it, and teased Bernadette about praying while they did all the work. After considerable prying, Bernadette revealed to them what she thought she had seen.  Once home, her sister Toinette told their mother. The Soubirous parents were not at all impressed with this news, and forbade the girls to return to the grotto. 

That Saturday evening, Bernadette told the local curate, Father Pomian, about the vision in confession. He asked for her permission to discuss the matter with the parish priest, Dean Peyramale.

Come Sunday, after Mass, several of the local girls urged Bernadette to return with them to the grotto. She pleaded with her parents for permission, which was not easily granted. Armed with a bottle of holy water, Bernadette returned to the grotto under Massabielle with a small host of childish companions. Arriving at the entrance to the grotto, she dropped to her knees and began to pray her rosary. As she began the second decade, her face changed and she announced the apparition’s presence.

Bernadette sprinkled the holy water in the direction of the girl in white, asking her to stay if she came from God, but to go away if not. The more holy water she spilled, the more the apparition smiled. The little bottle was empty soon enough. Even though her companions could not see what Bernadette saw, they couldn’t help but notice how serene and peaceful her face had become.

Suddenly, a large rock came tumbling down the cliff side and fell into the grotto, spooking the children. Jean Abadie, stationed above, had heaved it, hoping to frighten away the devil. The children panicked and scattered. Some tried to drag Bernadette away with them, only to find that they could not. She didn’t seem to hear or respond to them at all, and in resisting their efforts to move her, her body seemed unnaturally heavy.

In their flight, several children encountered the family from the sawmill upstream. The adults followed the frightened children back to the grotto, where they had no more success at moving Bernadette out of her trance.

The miller himself, Antoine Nicolau, was summoned; a burly man, he still had no small trouble in leading her away.  The incident deeply impressed Nicolau, seeing Bernadette so utterly enraptured, her eyes flooding with tears while her face shone with an otherworldly bliss.  He kept trying to cover her awestruck eyes with his hand to dislodge her gaze from whatever it was that kept her so spellbound, but she wouldn’t break contact.  It took the efforts of the entire crowd to drag little Bernadette back to the sawmill, and it wasn’t until she was seated in the mill kitchen that she came to herself.  Then she excitedly told them all about the beautiful little girl she had seen. 

In the Image of Aquero

Bernadette’s descriptions of the tiny, white maiden were consistent throughout the course of her visions. The apparition, whom she called aquero, or “that thing” in the local dialect, appeared youthful and girlish. There was nothing particularly matronly or maternal about her.

Bernadette repeatedly said that aquero was about the same size as herself, if not a bit smaller. Bernadette was very small for her age. Although she had recently turned fourteen, the combined ravages of illness and malnutrition kept her about the size of an average 10- or 11-year-old. According to Bernadette’s earliest descriptions, aquero looked to be about 12 years old. This is an important distinction, and one that the well-meaning supporters of Lourdes apparently prefer to ignore.

Aquero, according to Bernadette’s initial descriptions, was a jeune fille; a bien mignonette, glowing in a white dress spun of a luxurious, soft, shiny stuff. Her head was covered in a white veil of the same magic fabric, so that only a tiny bit of her hair was revealed in the front. Her eyes were bright blue, and set in a long and very white face. The whole figure shone with a gleaming, white radiance.  Around her waist was a blue girdle, which folded in the front and fell almost to the hem of her robe. Her tiny feet, barely visible beneath her robe, were bare, but each was adorned with a single, golden rose. Her rosary gleamed as well, with shining white beads and links of gold.

This costume is quite significant, for in this particular area of the Pyrenees, the locals maintained a tradition of fairy lore that told of the petito damizela in white who still lingered in the forests and grottoes of the region. When Bernadette first called the apparition a petito damizela, which translates as a petite, unmarried young lady, she may have actually been referring to aquero as a Pyrenean fairy woman. These Pyrenean fairies were tiny, enchanting ladies in glowing, white robes. Charming, helpful, and better natured than most fairy folk, they were recognized by their gleaming garments and said to spend much time washing them to snowy whiteness in the fountains outside their grotto homes.2

The roses on aquero’s feet were yet another aspect of local fairy lore, as was Bernadette’s reluctance to call her by any name other than “that thing.” According to the tradition, these delightful fairy women sometimes married mortal men, making good wives and housekeepers – for a time. Eventually, the husband would slip up and call his fairy wife by her name, at which point she would disappear back into the fairy world forever.

Bernadette’s apparition was distinguished from the local fairy folk by her rosary, and the girdle of blue about her waist. Bernadette had initially presented her own rosary to the apparition in fear, probably as an instinctive reaction to ward off anything unholy, but the praying of the rosary became such an important part of each subsequent visit that perhaps we should assume Bernadette did equate aquero with the Blessed Virgin Mary, even if she continued for some time to treat her like a fairy woman. 

 Can we trace the attempts to reconcile the two traditions within Bernadette’s mind? In combining her Catholicism with the local pre-Christian folk traditions in this image of aquero, perhaps she found some resolution and accommodation for them both.

By the same token, the ecclesiastical and civil authorities who promoted the matronly,  more mature image of Our Lady of Lourdes, which bears so little resemblance to what Bernadette actually described, demonstrate, in their way, their attempts to resolve a similar interior conflict. Bernadette was rarely happy with the paintings and statues submitted for her appraisal.  She was particularly frustrated with the design of the statue installed at the grotto itself in 1864, fashioned by the Lyonnais sculptor, Joseph Fabisch. She thought it was both too old and too big, and yet, this image of a fully-grown, shapely woman, more in keeping with conventional ideas of the Virgin Mary, has become the standard image of Our Lady of Lourdes.3

The Visionary Trance State 

Another important feature of Bernadette’s second apparition is the trance state; the spontaneous, involuntary condition of religious ecstacy.  Bernadette, like many other Marian visionaries, entered into an altered state of consciousness at the approach of aquero.  Her entire attention and vision were suddenly focused on something that no one else could see, while all her other senses retreated.  Oblivious to anything else going on around her, she responded neither to sound, light, nor touch.

Onlookers at these apparitions like to deliberately subject the entranced visionaries to disruptive, even painful stimuli, going so far as to stick them with pins or burning their hands, to try to provoke a response. Bernadette certainly bore her share of these trials, and never seemed to notice. At Beauraing and Medjugorge, repeated experiments have been done on the visionaries which appear to demonstrate that they were not only insensible to pain while in trance, but also remained free from any after effects of the “experimental” burning or wounding upon their return to waking consciousness. We will return to this subject in later chapters where the medical evidence is more modern and substantial than that which was available at Lourdes.

The trance state exhibited so spontaneously by Bernadette and other Marian visionaries has its parallels. The term “catalepsy” has been used since medieval times to describe a similar state of rigidity and unresponsiveness that was often associated with epilepsy.  In the original Greek, the term implies a seizing, or to “seize down from”. Patients experiencing a seizure were often thought to have been seized by a god or some other outside force.

Bernadette’s trance state also bears some resemblance to the symptoms of anesthesia demonstrated by “hysterical” patients of her time. A popular 19th century misdiagnosis, “hysteria” seemed mainly to afflict women, and could render patients oblivious to pain and other sensory stimuli. A somnambulist in a hypnotic trance, under the direction of a skilled operator, can be instructed to ignore pain. Surgical operations have been performed successfully using hypnosis as the only anesthetic.

This trance state is an ecumenical standard, and found in religious practices around the world. Saints and mystics of all faiths have been reported to exhibit symptoms of catalepsy during prolonged periods of prayer. Shamans or practitioners of voodoo deliberately invoke a trance state with drugs or rhythmic incantations to facilitate their communion with the inhabitants of other realms. A distinguishing feature of the trance state experienced by Marian visionaries is its spontaneity. The visionaries, like Bernadette, are usually children, not yogis or shamans. They are not so much seeking the trance state as it seems to be seeking them.

A distinguishing feature of Bernadette’s ecstasies was the beauty and serenity of her face, and the inspirational effect this had on people. There was such grace in her extraordinary rapture that even those who came to scoff at such peasant idiocy were stunned into reverence at the sight of her.  Some observers compared her to a great actress, with dramatic gestures and emotive expressions that commanded the crowd.  Even the way she crossed herself, in imitation of aquero, was breathtaking. And yet she was hardly conscious, and focused not on the crowds, but on a vision that she alone could see. 

Fifteen Visits

 After the tumultuous turn of events at Bernadette’s second vision, Louise Soubirous was even more determined to keep her daughter away from that grotto.  In town, gossip reigned, and Bernadette fast became an object of curiosity and scorn. The nuns at school were outraged, the children teased her, like children everywhere, and even some of the more self-righteous Lourdais confronted her rudely, demanding that she put a stop to the nonsense.  Ironically, the week before Lent was traditionally a time for practical jokes.  Many of the locals naturally assumed that Bernadette was up to some carnival trick. 

It was on Shrove Tuesday, February 16th, that a certain Madame Jeanne-Marie Milhet, a wealthy matron with a bit of time on her hands, took it upon herself to investigate the affair at the grotto. Like others in town, she wondered if the apparition wasn’t some sort of revenant, a returning spirit of the recently departed. These unsettled souls were believed to come seeking prayers and masses from their loved ones to speed their deliverance from purgatory.

There was also speculation that aquero might be the ghost of Elisa Latapie, a young woman of exceptional piety, whose particularly “good death” the previous October had made a great impression on the parish priest, Dean Peyramale.  Elisa had been very active in the local “Children of Mary,” a devotional group for the young ladies of the parish. Their uniform, a flowing white dress with a blue sash, in which Elisa had asked to be buried, was so like the clothing of Bernadette’s aquero that enquiring minds, like Madame Milhet, made the obvious connection.

Madame Milhet appeared at the old jail that Tuesday.  As one who occasionally employed Louise Soubirous, Madame Milhet had some pull and was able to convince Louise to allow her to accompany Bernadette to the grotto. The plan was to take a pen and ink to the grotto and ask the apparition to write her name and requests. This was actually a common local practice in regard to revenants, for they were believed to be able to write their wishes.  To ensure some privacy, they planned to go to the grotto very early on Thursday morning.

At 5:00 AM on Thursday, February 18, Madame Mihet and her seamstress, Antoinette Peyret, came knocking on the door of the old jail.   Carrying a pen, paper, an inkstand and a holy candle, they set out with Bernadette for the grotto.  They had only just begun the rosary when Bernadette announced the appearance of aquero.  The ladies urged Bernadette forward with the pen and paper.  When Bernadette asked if the young lady would be so kind as to write her name, she replied that it wasn’t necessary, in a voice that only Bernadette could hear.  Instead, she had a request for Bernadette.

“Would you have the graciousness to come here for fifteen days?” she asked, using the most courteous form of address in the local patois. Bernadette immediately replied that she would, stunned by both the sweetness of aquero’s voice, and by the respect aquero showed in addressing her that way.

Afterwards, Bernadette was surprised to learn that the two ladies had not heard anything of the conversation, even though they had been standing close by. They thought that she had not even asked the lady to write her name.  Bernadette told them of aquero’s responses, adding that she saw no resemblance to the departed Elisa Latapie.  Now Madame Milhet began to believe that it was the Blessed Virgin who was appearing and she remarked on it as they made their way back to town. Antoinette was not so sure.  Bernadette had no fixed opinion at all, at least none that she was willing to express.

And so began the fortnight of apparitions, from February 18th through March 4th, 1858.  Madame Milhet so wanted to be in charge that she insisted upon taking Bernadette into her own spacious home. That arrangement didn’t last long, for in a few days, Bernadette’s Aunt Bernarde stepped in to return the girl, her namesake, to the family.  On Friday, February 19th, the contingent going with Bernadette to the grotto before daybreak included eight people.  On Saturday, February 20th, their numbers had swelled to thirty.  On Sunday, February 21st, there were a hundred people waiting for Bernadette at the grotto.

These three apparitions followed a similar pattern.  Bernadette arrived, dropped to her knees, and produced her rosary.  Soon after she began praying, her face would change perceptibly and the crowd would know that aquero had arrived.  Sometimes they could see Bernadette’s lips move, sometimes she would sigh, but mostly, she was silent.  What impressed the crowd most was the beauty of her face and the gracefulness of her few movements.  Her physical appearance seemed sound testimony to the presence of the divine. 

Commissioner Jacomet

That Sunday evening,  Feb.21st, after vespers, M. Dominique Jacomet, the Commissioner of Police, detained Bernadette. He took her to his office for interrogation. Also present were Jean-Baptiste Estrade, the local tax collector, and his sister, who both shared the house with Jacomet. Their notes, and the notes of Commissioner Jacomet, provide a detailed record of Bernadette’s first official interview.

The Commissioner was convinced the Soubirous girl was lying, and that someone had put her up to this business, probably her indigent parents. The growing crowds were also a legitimate safety concern. Jacomet was an old pro at extracting confessions from the most hardened consciences, but he foundered with Bernadette, who had already told anyone who asked all that she knew. In fact, Bernadette rattled the seasoned commissioner. After trying in vain to trip her up for a good hour and a half, and failing to find any inconsistency or falsehood in her story, he lost his temper and resorted to bullying the child with insults and vulgar insinuations. Bernadette remained remarkably calm throughout.

By that time a minor riot was shaping up outside the door, for Jacomet did not have the right to examine Bernadette without the presence of her parents. The people of Lourdes found Francois Soubirous and brought him to the house to protect his daughter, thrusting him through the crowd and then through the door.

In the throes of his temper, Jacomet greeted Francois with the preposterous accusation that he and his wife, Louise, were forcing the girl to go to the grotto and to lie about the apparition. Jacomet even claimed that Bernadette had accused them, and he threatened Francois with jail. Francois gladly promised to keep Bernadette away from the grotto and left with his daughter as quickly as he could.  His previous experience with Commissioner Jacomet made him take the threat of jail very seriously, even though Jacomet’s cells probably would have been an improvement on the one he currently occupied!

Far from being frightened, Bernadette appeared highly amused by the Commissioner’s antics.  She is reported to have laughingly said, “He was trembling.  He had a tassel on his cap which kept going ting-a-ling.”

Another intriguing aspect emerges from the line of questioning in Jacomet’s notes. Even after six apparitions, Bernadette professed no opinion regarding the identity of her new friend.  The Commissioner asked her straightaway about her visions of the Blessed Virgin, and she immediately and repeatedly denied that it was the Virgin.  The only thing she would affirm, in spite of his attempts to trip her up on every angle, was that she had seen a little, young lady (petito damizela), reiterating the same descriptions of her clothing and appearance that she had given previously.

Jacomet continued to refer to the apparition as the Blessed Virgin throughout the interview, and each time he did, Bernadette corrected him.  In this interrogation, we get a sense of the pressure of public consensus, even among those who sought to discredit the apparitions. Bernadette’s contemporaries already had fixed ideas about who and what she should be seeing, and did not seem to let the details of her descriptions deter them. 

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

Beliefs of the Basques

In the Basque population of the Pyrenees, we have a unique link into the mindset of our most distant ancestors. There is reason to believe the Basques have occupied the Pyrenees region from the remotest antiquity, possibly even to the time of the Cro-Magnon cave painters. The inaccessibility of their mountain fastness kept them relatively isolated from the Indo-European influences that swept the rest of the continent. Consequently, the Basques have retained a unique language and a culture that, while not entirely untainted by foreign contact, still reveals roots reaching down into our most shadowy origins.

Furthermore, the Basques, with their extensive folklore and mythology, are relative latecomers to Roman Catholicism.  Religious writers of the 1400 and 1500s continue to speak of the Basques as “gentiles” or “pagans.” The widespread persistence of their ancient beliefs and practices provoked the full wrath of the Spanish Inquisition.10  The brutal repression of centuries of witch hunts has left its mark, and clearly, some of the tradition that remains is highly adulterated and Christianized, but we can still trace influences extending far back into the Neolithic, and perhaps beyond.

Basque beliefs are rooted in the landscape, in the rugged mountains, the waters, and the caves reaching deep into the earth.  They held to that most primitive fundamentalism, the belief in the divinity of the masculine Sun and the feminine Moon. The terms Ost or Eguzki refer to the light of the sun and their god of the firmament. This masculine force, similar to Zeus or Thor, ruled the day and the world of light, but the night belonged to Ilargia, the Moon.  Ilargia ruled the hidden, dark side of nature, the underworld of the dead.  The Basques were forever fascinated with her mysterious phases and cycles.11

However, the Basque people’s deepest and most widespread devotion, long before the arrival of Christianity in the Pyrenees, centered on their female deity, the great goddess who lived in the caves.  Her name, perhaps the ultimate irony, was Mari.   Devotion to Mari spanned the entire Basque territory, and any respectable hilltop boasted a shrine to Mari, and a statue as well, but the caves remained her favorite habitation.

Within the vast lore and ritual dedicated to her worship, the image of Mari emerges, complex and glorious. She moved like a fireball from mountaintop to mountaintop, trailing wild storms from the subterranean caverns in her wake.  She demanded honor and charity from men, punishing those who failed to keep their word or refused to help others.  Oddly enough, tradition holds that Mari must only be addressed in the familiar pronoun, putting a unique twist on Bernadette’s surprise at being addressed formally by her aquero.  Mari commanded legions of fairy spirits, with varying titles in different locales: the Mairi, or Maide of the mountaintop cromlechs and stone circles, and the fey laminak, often spotted combing their hair in the caverns.12

This great and very ancient goddess spawned a vast body of tales and traditions, and the rituals of her devotees in the caves of the Pyrenees kept the Spanish Inquisition busy for years.  One of her most vicious persecutors was Juan de Zumarraga, who, in 1528, assisted in the biggest Basque witchhunt.  Zumarraga eventually moved on to Mexico, where, as bishop, he persecuted and destroyed the native Aztec culture and religion just as vigorously as he had brutalized his Basque brethren.

One of Mari’s more popular minions is a creature known as Beigorri, a red-haired bull or calf.  One of several cattle deities associated with her worship, Beigorri’s chief function is to serve as the guardian of the houses, or shrines, of Mari.  Seen in that light, the tales of a magical bovine unearthing a long-lost statue of a female divinity, which then refuses to be worshipped in a Christian sanctuary but instead draws her devotees back to congregate at her wilderness origins, starts to make a certain kind of sense.  Perhaps, in these unique Marian traditions, which continue to spring up so freely, even after centuries of repression, we can trace both the reemergence of the Basque Mari, and her conflation, in the aftermath of the Inquisition, into the all-encompassing image of the Christian Mary.

Back to the Grotto

The morning after Bernadette’s interrogation by Commissioner Jacomet, her parents firmly forbade her to go to the grotto.  She was torn between obedience to her parents and the promise she had made to aquero.  She stayed home during the dawn hours, when she would normally have made her trek to Massabielle, and later reported to school, where the sisters continued to treat her with contempt.  A large crowd had gathered to see her at the grotto, but eventually dispersed.

It was during her lunchtime break that the inner compulsion became too intense, and she found herself heading down the path to the banks of the Gave.  Her detour did not go unnoticed, for try as she might to be inconspicuous, poor Bernadette would never again have another moment of private life.  The police began to follow her immediately, and another crowd quickly gathered at the grotto.  Even after saying her rosary through and bearing up under the taunts of police Sergeant D’Angla, aquero still did not appear.  Bernadette was desolate as her aunt led her away to the mill to rest.

Stricken in conscience, Bernadette once again visited Fr. Pomian in the confessional. “They do not have the right to stop you,” he told her.  He was right.  That same night, the local authorities conferred together and agreed that they had no legal grounds to prohibit her from visiting the grotto, and that doing so would only provoke resentment among the people.  Constant surveillance certainly was in order, and they determined to watch the entire Soubirous family around the clock, but from that evening on, Bernadette was finally free to go to the grotto whenever she chose.

The following morning, Tuesday, February 23rd, Bernadette was back at the grotto by 5:30 A.M. Almost 150 people waited there to see her, and they were not disappointed. On the next morning, with almost 400 in attendance, in addition to her usual routine, Bernadette fell to her face and kissed the ground after saying her rosary. She explained later to her aunt that aquero had asked her to do this as penance for sinners.

The Miraculous Spring

On the morning of Thursday, February 25th, Bernadette’s behavior took a bizarre turn.  People had been arriving from 2:00 A.M. on, for it was getting harder and harder to get a good spot at the grotto. Bernadette began her rosary and entered her trance state as usual, but then she began to crawl about towards the back of the grotto, kissing the ground as she went along.  Her lips were moving as if in conversation, but the crowd could hear nothing. Then, still on her knees, she turned and began moving towards the Gave. The crowd dispersed to give her room.  She stopped and re-entered the grotto, going to the very back wall.  She seemed to be looking for something and experiencing some confusion in finding it.

After more fumbling, she bent down and scooped up a handful of dripping mud from a depression at the back of the cave. Bringing it up towards her face, as if to drink it, she stopped just short of doing so, and dug around a bit more.  Four times she brought handfuls of the filthy stuff to her face, finally tasting a bit of it on her fourth try and smearing her face as she did.  The crowd was shocked, and murmured that she had gone mad.

Her supporters were even more dismayed when, dripping and dirty, Bernadette then crawled over to eat some leaves from a saxifrage plant growing along the fringe of the mud hole she had just dug.  As Bernadette came up out of her trance and headed back into town, the crowds she left behind were outraged.  Many who had believed and stood by her felt betrayed.  Bewildered and angry, they bore the abuse of the scorners and curiosity seekers who now felt justified in their skepticism.

As strange as Bernadette’s behavior seemed to observers, in her own words from her own perspective, her actions have their own inner consistency.  Bernadette explained that aquero told her to go and drink at the spring and to wash herself in it.  This was when she left the grotto on her knees and headed for the Gave, for that was the only water she could see.  But aquero beckoned her back into the grotto and directed her to look under a rock at the rear of the cave. She did find a little trickle in the mud there, and after some digging, was able to scoop out a muddy handful. She threw the mud aside three times because it was too dirty to drink, but did try to drink the fourth handful.  Aquero also told her to eat the leaves of the plant.  Her only explanation as to why was that it was done “for sinners.”

Lourdes was frothing over with gossip after Bernadette’s performance, but when some of the onlookers returned to the grotto that afternoon, they were surprised to see that the hole Bernadette had dug in her trance had grown.  A stream of water was now gurgling out of it.  They dug out the hole a bit more, as Bernadette had done, and the water flowed more fully and clearly than before.

Such was the origin of the famous healing waters of Lourdes. The mudhole Bernadette dug that day at the back of the grotto has since poured its water all around the world, and draws pilgrims by the millions every year to drink and bathe in it.  The spring itself did not miraculously appear on that day.  Locals familiar with the area were aware of its prior existence, but the source had been blocked up for some time by the rubble washed in from the Gave.  Bernadette’s entranced reactions to aquero’s instructions lead me to believe that she probably had no knowledge of its presence.  Once the area had been dug out more, and the floor of the grotto cleared, the spring actually flowed from the area in front of the grotto entrance; a fitting fountain for a fairy to launder her gleaming white gown.

While many in town continued to speculate upon the subject of the Soubirous girl’s sanity, others rushed back to the grotto to dig about for themselves, carrying bottles of the spring water back with them.  Meanwhile, the authorities intervened again.  That night, Bernadette answered a summons from the Imperial prosecutor, Dutour.  He had some questions for her.

Another Interrogation

The interview that took place in the prosecutor’s house that night went much the same way as the one with Commissioner Jacomet.  Dutour was convinced that Bernadette was lying before he even saw her, but the child’s simple honesty again triumphed over his every attempt to trip her up.   Like Jacomet before him, the exasperated Dutour resorted to bullying and coarse intimidation, and ordered Bernadette to keep away from the grotto. 

Bernadette’s mother, Louise broke down sobbing under the pressure. 

Dutour had kept the two standing for two hours of intense interrogation. When he begrudgingly offered them a seat, Bernadette sidestepped his condescension, refusing the chair with, “No, I would soil it.”  She continued the interview sitting cross-legged on the floor, “like a tailor.”

Where did this child find the poise, the character, and the courage to withstand the intimidation, the threats of prison, and worse?   Later in life, while at the convent in Nevers, she told Sister Vincent Garros, “There was something in me that enabled me to rise above everything;  I was tackled from all sides, but nothing mattered.  I wasn’t afraid.” 12

She left the Imperial Prosecutor’s office laughing at Dutour, just as she had laughed at Jacomet. He had cut a comic figure, so flustered by her intransigence that he kept jabbing his pen at his inkstand and missing, while crossing out what he had written and making a mess of his notes.

The following morning, February 26, a crowd gathered around Bernadette’s door as the family debated whether she should go to the grotto or not.  Aunt Bernarde stepped in again, declaring, “If I were in Bernadette’s place, I would go!”

When Bernadette arrived at the grotto, a crowd of nearly 600 awaited her, but although she recited her rosary and performed her usual supplications, aquero did not appear.  Heartbroken, she resorted to the mill, blaming herself.  However, the next morning, aquero was back and the crowd was even larger.

On Sunday, February 28th, eleven hundred and fifty people were gathered around the grotto.  The situation was potentially dangerous, for the crowd was wedged between the cliff and the river, an accident waiting to happen.  The constabulary forces were about, but crowd control was difficult to enforce.  After Mass, the Warden of Springs detained Bernadette and conducted her to yet another interrogation, this time with the examining magistrate, Judge Clement Ribes. He also ordered her to keep away from the grotto, but when Bernadette explained that she had promised to visit aquero for a fortnight, he had no legal grounds to prevent her.

Continued in Part II 


1- Lois Rodden, Profiles of Women, 1988, AFA,Tempe, AZ, pg. 288. “Luc de Marre, from “birth record given by Choisnard in Language Astral (1922, pg.218)

2- Ruth Harris, Lourdes - Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, 1999, Viking/Penguin, NY, NY, pg. 77-78

3- Fr. Rene Laurentin, Bernadette of Lourdes, 1979, Winston Press, Minneapolis, MN, pg.112-114; and Margaret Gray Blanton, The Miracle of Bernadette, 1958, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, pg.209-210

My version of the storyline of Bernadette’s apparitions draws upon and synthesizes the accounts in the above sources, and other relevant texts cited within these notes and in the bibliography.  

4- Ruth Harris, Lourdes-Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, 1999, Viking/Penguin, NY, NY, pg. 39-42

5-, May, 2003

6- and May, 2003

7- Ruth Harris, Lourdes-Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, 1999, Viking/Penguin, NY, NY, pg. 36-37 and

8- Ruth Harris, Lourdes-Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, 1999, Viking/Penguin, NY, NY, pg. 37-38 and Margaret Gray Blanton, The Miracle of Bernadette, 1958, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, pg.45-46

9- Pamela Berger elaborates on this point in The Goddess Obscured, Beacon Press, Boston, 1985, pg.37.  In Gaul, Christian leaders routinely destroyed statues of goddesses, as part of their missionary duty.  “During the era of conversion, from the fourth through the eighth centuries, some rural pagans no doubt hid their statues, perhaps even buried them. Legends concerning the finding of statues of stately females, immediately christened the Virgin, abound throughout Europe. The sites of the discoveries have often been what archeologists now know to be ancient mother goddess shrines.”  

10- Max Dashu, Secret History of the Witches, Xorguinas Y Celestinas;

11- Angel Murua, Folklore and Traditions, The Basque Country: Come and then Pass the Word or

12- Michael Everson, Tenacity in Religion, Myth and Folklore: The Neolithic Goddess of Old Europe Preserved in a Non-Indo-European SettingThe Journal of Indo-European Studies 17, Numbers 3 & 4 Fall/Winter 1989, Pg. 277-95

13- Andre Ravier, Bernadette, 1979, Collins, London, pg. 21 

14- The Lost Books of the Bible and The Forgotten Books of Eden, 1926, World Bible Publishers Inc., pg. 19

15- Charles E. Sheedy, C.S.C., Immaculate Conception, Encyclopedia Americana, Danbury, CT