An ancient stone goddess watched over a sacred spring at Saint-Martin de Belleville, on the French side of the Alps. Her veneration in Savoy goes back before the beginning of the written record. An influx of Celtic culture swept into this high valley of Doron de Belleville around the 400 bce, and it is full [...]
An ancient stone goddess watched over a sacred spring at Saint-Martin de Belleville, on the French side of the Alps. Her veneration in Savoy goes back before the beginning of the written record. An influx of Celtic culture swept into this high valley of Doron de Belleville around the 400 bce, and it is full of early sites of the La Tène era.
The Goddess statue was probably carved in the early centuries bce. She stands just over five feet tall, with a body that widens into a skirt at the base. Her eyes are large and close-set, with a “grave and meditative expression.” She holds a large cylindrical vessel over whose surface spill flat carved drops of water:
“These globules appear in strong relief, under each of her hands, three on one side, four on the other, and form a liquid flowing out of the reservoir, first obliquely, then vertically.” The sculpture symbolically conveys “the birth of a spring, over which the feminine deity presides.” [Thevenot, 194] The fountain poured into into a stone cist. Thousands of people came there to drink its waters, perform ablutions, and ask for healing and other blessings.
Over a long process of Christianization—one that was never completed—successive chapels were built at the spring sanctuary of this Goddess. In countless places around Europe, pagan sanctuaries were christianized by building churches on the spot, and bringing in a statue of Mary or another saint. But what happened here was exceptional. For nearly two millennia, an ancient Celtic goddess remained in her spring sanctuary, disguised under the Christian nomenclature of the Virgin Mary. She was given the thinly-christianized title Notre-Dame-de-la-Vie, “Our Lady of Life.”
The clergy moved the Goddess from her original position, probably among the rocks of the spring, and had her built into the foundation wall of the most recent of the chapels. Otherwise unchanged, the Goddess of Life continued to receive the devotions of Savoyards at her mountain spring. As Emile Thevenot says, “the church did not even ‘substitute’ the Marian cult for the mother-goddess, personification of the spring of Life. It was enough to discreetly juxtapose it, and the old statue continued to receive its due of tribute, even as the rite of ablutions was kept going.”
Veneration of the Goddess and her waters continued into modern times, when she was esteemed as a source of tremendous healing power. Records show that extremely rich offerings were being made at this shrine in the 1600s and 1700s (and doubtless many more humble ones). In the same time period, dozens of murals were painted in the chapel depicting stories of miraculous cures by the Lady.
The Goddess originally had full breasts. In the mid-1800s, a pious fanatic hacked them off—without doubt considering them too pagan, indecent, too full of naked female power. He left tool marks in the stone. Someone, probably the same person, also tried to drive a cross into her head, splitting the stone through the entire face of the icon. (This topping with crosses was often done to megalithic monuments and other known recipients of pagan reverence.) Someone drilled a hole into her neck, and passed a pipe through it to divert some of the spring water through the opening. This did not work out well, because the photo above shows the ugly raw pipe bypassing the Goddess altogether. These damaging interventions made it necessary to patch the statue, with white cement visible in the picture above.
An eyewitness account from the 1930s describes one of the annual pilgrimages of to Notre-Dame-de-la-Vie. Savoyards came from villages near and far, often on foot, with their offerings and prayers. (One online account said that in the past surrounding villages pretty much emptied out to attend her annual festival in late summer. The chapel was furnished with special trunks for offerings of rye and wheat; people put cheeses and other dairy products near, and even on, the altar. Live animals were tied up for later sale, with proceeds going to the chapel.
The witness saw women approaching a rough statue embedded in the wall that supported the chapel courtyard. The fountain poured into an old rectangular stone receptacle, the “tank of ablutions.” The women had brought clean linen to dip into the water and sponged their faces, eyes and breasts with it. Everyone regarded the water as “saving and fertilizing.”
The Goddess of Life had survived christianization, medieval bishops, the Catholic Reformation, and even those 19th century mutilations — but not modernity. In 1960, church authorities removed the ancient statue from her place at the spring. They put her in a covered gallery, leaning against the west wall of the chapel. (Thevenot comments that this was “a real relegation.”) The Goddess no longer stood in the open air, and there was no longer room for people to gather around her. The receptacles for depositing offerings remained in place, but the pilgrimages fell off after the goddess was enclosed by the church. 
This move by the priests succeeded, at long last, in driving popular veneration in a more conventional, doctrinal direction. It refocused attention to the chapel, adorned with standardized Catholic art. It made Notre Dame de la Vie disappear from view, literally. The only pictures I’ve ever been able to find of her are in Thevenot’s book, written over 40 years ago.
Thevenot tells of another water goddess in the mountains of Savoy who survived under a Christianized veneer. The chapel of Notre Dame des Vernettes was built around another “miraculous and healing” spring to which people made pilgrimages. “We are assured that, even in our times, the ablutions, condemned by the hierarchy, continue to be practiced in an open or clandestine manner.”  So the struggle to suppress ancient cultural practices continues.
Lots of other pagan survivals exist in these mountains. La Pierre Chevettay (the “Owl Stone”) in the little hamlet of Villarenger hamlet is a huge block balanced on a small square. On its surface are six or seven cupules connected by grooved lines. People said this sacred stone preserved the village from floods and fires. It underwent the same de-paganizing indignities as Notre Dame de la Vie which, however, may have saved it from being destroyed entirely: “Numerous crosses were engraved on it to christianize this magic stone.” 
Going further afield, Madonnas in other parts of France were often located near springs and wells. The Black Virgins of Rocamadour, Vassivieres, Cusset, Clermont and Chartres all stood near wells or
fountains. In Clermont, the tiny, very old black statue of Notre Dame du Port stood at a subterranean altar next to a sacred well. The Lady of la Font Sainte (“holy spring”) was carried in procession to and from her summer and winter shrines.
A legend from around 1400 describes how similar processions with the image of Notre Dame de Vassivières originated in a struggle between the peasants and clergy. The highland altar of the Black Madonna of Vassivières stands near an ancient spring venerated since Celtic times. Ecclesiastics removed her statue down the mountain to a church in the town of Besse. “Here the priests could keep an eye on her, rather than leave her in the hands of the laity in her outdoor shrine in the cow herding hamlet.” ["Vassivière"] But she soon vanished from the church. An old woman bringing her cow to the town market told people that the Lady had reappeared over the sacred fountain in the heights.
A tug-of-war followed: the priests kept taking the goddess to the church in Besse but the peasants always managed to smuggle her back to Vassivières. Finally the clergy struck a compromise with the rural people that allowed her to stay the summer in her highland sanctuary, but to spend winters at the Besse church, in captivity like Persephone. [from Frances Marion Gostling, Auvergne and Its People, 1935] The church set a new condition for allowing the Lady to return to her mountain: a priest had to be present to supervise what people did. A report from 1321 refers to the practice of many “profane and inappropriate” things of Vassivières. “They say strange things were practiced here. We don’t know what.” ["Vassivière"]
© 2012 Max Dashu
Emile Thevenot, Divinités et Sanctuaires de la Gaulle, Paris: Fayard, 1968, pp 191-198.
“Vassivière: Our Lady of Vassivière.” http://www.interfaithmary.com/pages/Vassiviere.htm