9/20/81 TARRAGON (Une histoire de l'herbe et d'une sainte)

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9/20/81 TARRAGON (Une histoire de l'herbe et d'une sainte) Tarragon and Martha

We are told that Saints Martha, Mary Magdalen, and Lazarus went to southern France in A.D. 48, where St. Mary Magdalen retired to a life of penance, and St. Lazarus acted as Bishop of Marseilles. St. Martha's life in Europe was a very interesting one according to the Golden Legend:

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.

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 as word, 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 he was slain with the lionheaded.

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 exact nature of the (obviously now-extinct) creature being called a "dragon" is unknown (many Saints have been credited with having dealt with "dragons" --Saints Margaret of Antioch and George being the two best-known -­and, of course, St. Michael will have his way with the Dragon of Dragons in the end!). But in any case, St. Martha's conquering of the beast known as "La Tarasque" has been commemorated in Tarascon, France (the town was named for the animal) ever since A.D. 1474 when "Good King Rene" instituted an annual celebration which continues to this day and takes place now in the last weekend of June. The town lies just between Avignon and Arles, on the left bank of the Rhone River, in a part of France famous for caves filled with "prehistoric" art. Below are two old postcards of the annual "Jeux de la Tarasque": There are no other customs associated with St. Martha's Day that I am aware of, but her patronage makes it a natural day to honor homemakers and cooks.

Also, given that tarragon ( Artemisia dracunculus sativa), or "estragon" in French, grows in the region where St. Martha lived in France, and given that the Latin botanical name for this herb means "little dragon," other ideas come to mind. Tarragon is the most powerful of the four herbs that make up "fines herbes" --the Classic French mixture of equal parts of fresh chervil, chives, parsley and tarragon, chopped finely and added to dishes at the last minute. Fines herbes go well with eggs, salads, vegetables, chicken, and fish. Perhaps an omelette aux fine herbes, or a chicken tarragon dish would be a nice reminder of dear St. Martha.

As an aside, chewing on tarragon leaves is a very ancient cure for toothache, and tarragon tea is said to help with sleep, menstrual cramps, and digestion.

Tarragon Tea

1 tsp. dried tarragon

1 tsp. dried peppermint

1 cup hot water

Steep tarragon and mint in water and cover for five minutes. Discard herbs and sip warm or slightly chilled, as needed.

St. Martha is the patroness of homemakers, cooks, innkeepers, domestic servants, and those whose work centers around hospitality. She is most often shown in art working in the kitchen (usually with her sister and Jesus in the foreground), at the tomb of Lazarus, crossing the sea on her way to France, or with a dragon at her feet or on a leash. Her symbols are the aspersory and/or aspergillum used to inflict holy water on the dragon, the dragon itself, a broom, and a girdle.