Travels in Southern France's départements/Volume III/Chapter XCII

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Travels in Southern France's départements by Aubin-Louis Millin, translated by Wikisource
Vol III - Chapter XCII - p.450-453
A translation of Voyage dans les départemens du midi de la France, vol III, by Aubin-Louis Millin, Paris : Imprimerie impériale, 1808, p.450-453.

[450]

Tarasque is the name given to the monster from which Saint Martha is said to have liberated the city of Tarascon. The oldest author who speaks of that tradition is Gervase of Tilbury, an English gentleman who took the quality of Chancellor of the Kingdom of Arles, and who was writing at the beginning of the thirteenth century. That tradition is also enshrined on seals from that time [1]. According to Gervase, the Tarasque is a snake of the same race as Leviathan, and could be found in the Rhone river between Arles and Tarascon, devouring the people who sailed the river downstream. Saint Martha tamed it and chained it up with her veil [2].

[451]

A gross figure representing the Tarasque is carried around the city twice annually on the second day of Pentecost and on Saint Martha's day. A woman who is now in charge of this valuable deposit, made many difficulties to let us see it, doubting the fervor of our zeal; finally, she agreed to satisfy our curiosity. This figure is made of wood, and represents a dragon, not after the noble ideas of Greek artists, but after these strange forms given by legend tellers[3]: The body is composed of hoops covered with painted canvas. A kind of shield bristling with straight horns is located on its back, and that shield looks like a turtle shell, making Bouche[4] suspect that the idea of the Tarasque came from some big green turtle [452] swimming into the delta of the Rhone river up to Tarascon, but this shield does not appear on the seals which provide us with the oldest shape of the Tarasque: on seals, the Tarasque is simply shown as a dragon. Handles are placed at equal distances on the flanks of this monstrous figure, in order to carry it more conveniently.

It is on the second day of Pentecost that the Tarasque is walked around the streets: eight skilful and strong young men are in charge of that. They wear stockings and white shoes, and their head is topped with a muslin cap. They wear on their chests a patch bearing a figure of the animal. They carry the Tarasque at belt height, and steer its movements in such ways that they express rage and fury: sometimes they run quickly, sometimes they stop, then they turn abruptly shouting: La voulen may nostrou tarascou [We want it more, our Tarasque]. To increase the terror that the monster at the center of this commemorative festival must inspire, a man sitting inside the body of the animal makes it vomit squibs through the eyes and the mouth.

Those who, out of curiosity, approach the monster too closely, often endure severe contusions: the Tarasconese then seem to be delighted with the prowess of their monster. Far from being moved by the screams of the unhappy bruised ones, the followers of the Tarasque make them jump. And the people, filled with joy, [453] chant the anthem A qua ben fé! A qua ben fé! La tarascou a rou un bré ! [That is well done ! That is well done ! The Tarasque has broken his arm !] The careless and the strangers who ignore this brutal custom risk their lives: Several people have been killed and the Tarasque is never walked around the city without any accident occuring. On Saint Martha's day, the Tarasque plays quite a different role: it is made to attend the procession and a girl, dressed in white, leads it by a long ribbon of the same colour, in remembrance of the revered Saint who once lead it by a chain down the streets of Tarascon. When the procession has entered the church, it is showed to the entrance door of the choir: a priest sprays holy water onto it, the animal makes several convulsive movements and falls on its side.

References[edit]

  1. Recueil de sceaux du moyen age, dits gothiques, pl.LXX, n° 5.
  2. The same author tells the story of the Drac, whose name probably means dragon. He argues that this monster took to his remote place of residence a woman from Beaucaire as she was looking for a wooden vase she had dropped into the Rhone river: he kept her there for seven years, forcing her to care for his son, and when the child stopped needing the services of a woman she was allowed to go. She told her friends, who had difficulties to recognize her, the amazing things she had witnessed: she told them that dracs eat human flesh, and that they can change their bodies into human forms. One day, she said, the drac gave her a portion of eel pie, and she rubbed one of her eyes with that grease, and instantly her eye acquired the ability to see underwater. Three years later, this woman recognized the Drac at the market in Beaucaire and called him by his name, asking him news of his half and of his son. As the Drac seemed surprised that she had been able to recognize him, she told him naively how one of her eyes had acquired such a piercing sight ; immediately the Drac stuck his finger into her eye, and blinded her to prevent being recognized again. Girvasius Tilberiensis, Otia imperii, 85.
  3. Dictionnaire des beaux-arts, dragon entry
  4. Histoire de Provence, l, 326.