Tarasque de Noves and The Dragons of Gaul

Lagadigadèu, The tarasque, The tarasque
Lagadigadèu, The tarasque of the Chateau
Let her go by, The old witch
Let her go by, For she’s going to dance!

Text of folk song that is chanted during parades celebrating the Tarasque, as set down by Frédéric Mistral, attributed to King René of Anjou

Tarascon Coat of Arms

Studying the archaeology and folklore in France where the Gaulish Druids would have called home, one quickly comes across The Tarasque de Noves. It’s a genuinely stunning limestone sculpture of a very unique dragon like creature with it’s enormous clawed paws cradling two heads as well as holding a severed limb in it’s mouth. It’s most notably very unique in it’s appearance in that it’s a possible combination of many animals including the lizard, bear, lion or wolf. It dates to approximately 200 BCE which puts it directly in the middle of the La Tene artistic movement and patterning. This artistic style is thought to be the foundation of the more iconic Celtic knot work that subsequently evolved and is so well known today. The heads are also very iconically identifiable in regards to the common cult and veneration of the head as the seat of the soul.

There are a few hypotheses for the statue’s purpose. The first is that it stood just on the outskirts of a particular tribe’s territory as a warning sign. This would have been directed to outsiders or reflected the local folklore that related to the sculpture, but possibly again, to instill fear and issue a warning. Another possibility is that it was simply a statue erected in honor of a specific deity or what was perceived to be a living creature of the area, at least in folk legend. Maybe by way of trade, a crocodile was brought to the area and escaped into the river. It’s thought that the story related to this statue may very well be the tales of the Tarasque (where the statue gets its name) as well as other dragon like creatures which thankfully have survived into modern living memory.

There is another statue that was also discovered in southern France which looks nearly identical to the Tarasque de Noves in its appearance called the Monster of Linsdorf or Le monstre de Linsdorf. The origins of its discovery are completely shrouded in mystery and it was never dated or really investigated as it was sold into a private collection in the 1970’s. In retrospect by scholars, it is thought to be created around the same time as the Tarasque de Noves. It has been proposed by many Celtic scholars that these idols were beasts that were given ritual offerings where a severed head would have been placed in the hollowed center of the sculpture as an offering or in between the other statue’s front legs. Although, this is of course completely speculative.

Going back to the Tarasque, the story related to this beast was thought to have possibly survived in the Golden Legend, which was written by Jacobus de Voragine between 1259 and 1266 and contains more than a thousand manuscripts. The book was a conglomerate of Christian and local belief that is seemingly typical of literature throughout this time period. Many scholars feel that a lot of the stories are older while main characters were changed to saints and therefore able to continue to be told in a more acceptable form. Although, it’s possible that by the time the text was written the newer Christianized tales were the only well known ones and seemingly original from the writer’s perspective. That is to say, there wasn’t necessarily purposeful manipulation done in all similarly written texts. Nonetheless we can sense a continuation over time of older belief and symbology through story telling and folk symbolism. Ultimately, there’s no way to know but many French archaeologists feel that the story is indeed based on the same folklore surrounding the statues.

Poster of St. Martha and the Tarasque

The legend goes that the Tarasque migrated to the area near the south of France from modern day Turkey. They were said to inhabit an area along the River Rhône near the town of Tarascon (named in honor of the beast) but it was formerly called Nerluc, the “black place”. The tarasque lurked in the hedges and dark waters along the river attacking boats and people that passed, devouring them limb by limb. The beast is described in various pseudo text as…

“A huge dragon, half animal, half fish… fatter than a bull, longer than a horse, it had the face and head of a lion, teeth sharp as swords, the mane of a horse, a back that was hatchet-sharp with bristly scales keen as augers, six feet with bear-like claws, the tail of a serpent, and a double shield/carapace, like a tortoise’s, on each side.”

Tarasque statue outside of King René’s Castle in Tarascon

“…terrible dragon of unbelievable length and great bulk. It breathed out poisonous fumes, shot sulfurous flames from its eyes, and emitted fierce hissings with its mouth and horrible noises with its curved teeth. With its talons and teeth it tore to pieces anyone who crossed its path; with its poisonous breath it killed anyone who came too near.”

It was said to be a combination of the biblical leviathan, a sea serpent and the bonacho, a bull with horns of Galatia and Greece. People asked St. Martha for help in ridding them of the beast to which she obliged. She found the beast in the act of eating a man with his body in it’s mouth and legs dangling out. She sprinkled it with holy water and held up a cross which caused it to become submissive to where she tied a leash around it’s neck. She led it to villagers which cast rocks and spears at it until it died. Afterwards, they felt guilty for killing the beast which had seemingly become tame and peaceful so decided to name the town Tarascon after it. A festival was started to honor the monster in 1469 by King René of Anjou. Today, a sculpture of the Tarasque sits proudly in the town near King René’s Castle. Every year, there is a festival in honor of the Tarasque and its unfortunate death.

St. Martha and tarasque, Hours of Henry VIII—ca 1500

The statue of the Tarasque we know from antiquity was discovered and located in the town of Noves, hence the name Tarasque de Noves, however, the village was once called Tarasconnet (lending etymological significance) before this. It’s also worth mentioning that the towns of Noves and Tarascon are very close to one another, about a half hour driving distance, and both border along the River Rhône. Again, the 2nd sculpture, although the origins are mysterious was also found in southern France. There are other parallels scholars have drawn to the Graouilli and the Velue, other French dragon type beasts. They all seem to have variations in their physical descriptions but share a similar manner in which they terrorized locals by inhabiting the river ways or hidden spaces.

Interestingly, the belief in this creature was also shared in parts of Iberia and Spain and in both France, Iberia and Spain the Tarasque was and is thought to be a ‘she’ and often compared to an old witch, possibly in shape shifted form as a beast. From this context, one could wonder if the Tarasque was originally a version of the werewolf. In later artistic depictions she was even given numerous full breasts. In fact, the Spanish word tarasca itself is said to come to have signified a ‘crooked or ugly’ old woman. However, many scholars feel that this was possibly a type of misogyny introduced in later years in that a ‘negative pagan’ cultural creature was being associated as female verses the male it may have originally been. This is considered because the Tarasque de Noves has a very visible phallic shape in its nethers. Of course, there is a woman saint that was taming it in legend but we know that female saints were still far less likely occurrences than their male counterparts. There’s the possibility there were both male and female tarasque creatures rather than only one main figure. There’s also the possibility of a more original folk tale involving the beast where it was a folk hero instead of an enemy in that, it was possibly a protector of their tribe and as mentioned already, being displayed with an intent to instill fear in enemies thinking of invading. This has been suggested by way that the more modern story of the Tarasque incites sympathy and it was seemingly chosen to be heralded and of more significance than St. Martha herself.

What do you think the Tarasque was? A mythical beast that was given ritual offerings? A legend meant to scare children into staying home in a dangerous and wild world? A tribal identifier and beastly protector? A visiting crocodile from a far away land? All of the above?

Various artistic interpretations…

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