Provençal Legends of Mont Ventoux and the Mistral
I recently read Le Dit du Mistral, by Olivier Mak-Bouchard, an entertaining book set in Provence. The author, who grew up in the Luberon, weaves fact and legend into the story of two neighbours who discover an ancient relic, and the adventures that follow. Reading the book taught me a lot about Provence, especially about Mont Ventoux and the famous Provençal wind, the Mistral.
A Celtic God
I was surprised to learn, for example, that “Ventoux” doesn’t mean “windy,” as I had always thought. Instead, it comes from Vintur, an ancient god worshiped by the Albiques, a Celtic tribe that once lived in the area.
Vintur means “brilliant” or “luminous,” possibly because the top of Mont Ventoux is brilliantly white, due to the rocks that cover it. Inscriptions with Vintur’s name have been found throughout Provence, and local maps called the mountain Mont Ventour as late as the 18th century.
Mistral, by contrast, comes from the Provençal maestral, meaning “master” or “master wind.” Anyone who has been caught in a fierce Mistral will understand the name!
The people of Provence have been dealing with this master wind for a long time. Fragments of terra cotta trumpets have been found near the top of Mont Ventoux, and archaeologists believe the Albiques used them to ward off the effects of the Mistral.
A Capricious Child
According to a legend that Mak-Bouchard recounts in his book, the Mistral is Vintur’s son. He is a playful and capricious child who loves to blow men’s hats off their heads and cause ladies’ skirts to fly up. And when he starts playing, he doesn’t like to stop. He eventually gets cranky and violent, like an overtired child who won’t go to bed. And just like with an overtired child, the way to put the Mistral to sleep is with a lullaby and a bedtime story.
Time for Bed!
Mak-Bouchard tells us that in the days of the Albiques, when the Mistral became unbearable, a group would climb to the top of the mountain. They would then use the terra cotta trumpets, with their long, deep, calming notes, to play a kind of lullaby. They would play all night long, while someone told a story. At dawn, if all went well, the Mistral would be fast asleep. The trumpets would then be shattered as an offering to Vintur and left behind.
Full of interesting history, Provençal legends, and some colourful local expressions, Le Dit du Mistral is a fun book to read. It is only in French now, and I hope it gets translated into English, so it can find a wider readership.
Mont Ventoux: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License, attribution muneaki
Book cover: Amazon
Santon: Wikipedia, public domain