The Legends of Provence: The Tarasque Monster of Tarascon
During our last visit to Provence, I picked up a book called the “Legendes de Provence” by Eugene Bressy. This book is comprised of a series of short stories about the legends of Provence. In this series of posts, I will dive into some of these stories and let you decide whether you believe the legends or not.
Tarasque and Tarascon
Two thousand years ago, Provence was already the most beautiful place on earth. It was there that the sun was the softest, the water the most lively and the hills the most perfumed. But in spite of these many blessings, the people were far from happy, especially those who lived near the banks of the Rhône River.
Even the mariners who sailed the Rhône would cease their singing and paddle quietly as they approached Provence. And woe unto those who disturbed the waters and awoke the beast beneath. Because then those waters would roil like the eruption of a volcano and the boat would be no more.
It was in these times that the deep and wild Rhône gave refuge to the terrible Tarasque.
The few who had seen the Tarasque spoke of it only in quiet and fearful voices. They said it was like a giant crocodile, with a supple and scaly body and legs the size of an elephant’s. It breathed fire and smoke so constantly that it was as if its head was surrounded by a blue cloud, pierced by bolts of red lightning.
The people tried to kill the Tarasque but it was too clever for them, always showing up where they did not expect it. When they set a trap in Viviers, it attacked Roquemaure. And when the people of Avignon prepared their axes to defend themselves, it was those of Arles who came to grief instead.
Then one day, help came in the form of a young woman, wearing a scarf in the oriental fashion. It was Martha, the sister of Lazarus, who had arrived from the Holy Land with Mary Magdalene and others. She was traveling the Rhône River to spread the word of her new religion.
One day Martha passed a deserted village and learned that the Tarasque had attacked the night before, killing many. She realized that her mission was to rid the world of this terrible beast.
She found a group of people hiding in a wood. “I have come to save you from the Tarasque,” she announced.
“But how?” asked one, as the people crowded around.
“By this sign!” said Martha, drawing a cross in the air.
The crowd laughed and pitied the young fool. The Tarasque was stronger than a dozen men, much less this slip of a girl.
Martha was undaunted and set out to find the monster. She passed another village that had been attacked just hours before, the burning smell of the Tarasque’s breath still filling the air.
The blacksmith, the strongest man in town, heard of her mission and thought, “This girl is a fool.” He was afraid to follow her. But a young mother who had lost a child took courage and began walking behind Martha. Then another mother, and another, and finally the whole village followed her as she searched for the great beast.
It did not take long to find him, flames leaping from his mouth. The monster turned when it saw Martha and started walking towards her, ready to claim another victim. But Martha was not afraid. She stood before the Tarasque, her arms straight out to each side, making the sign of the cross.
The monster stopped and quieted. Its flames slowly went out and the smoke dissipated. The crowd, astonished, fell silent and could hear Martha talking to the beast. As she talked she stepped forward, and with each step, the monster lowered its head, each time more and more like a dog that fears its master. Finally, it lay down before her, cowering.
“Death to the Tarasque!” yelled the crowd.
But the monster knew that it had no life in captivity. Only by frolicking in the murky depths of the Rhône and feasting on human flesh, as it had since the dawn of time, could it live. It cast a doleful eye at Martha and gave out a great groan, and died.
The crowd gathered around the beast, no longer afraid. They knelt before Martha, who made one last sign of the cross. Then she removed her scarf from the monster’s neck, tightened her sandals and began walking north to continue her mission. The Tarasque, the terror of the Rhône, had passed into legend.
This story is taken from “Legends of Provence” by Eugene Bressy.
More reading: Tarascon and a visit to its castle.