A medieval monster: THE TARASQUE by Janice Lert

The tarasqueThere is an early Christian legend about the city of Tarascon which has persisted over the centuries and is still very much alive today. It concerns the Tarasque, a mythical monster that is said to have given its name to the city. The legend goes back to the earliest days of Christianity in Provence, and is connected to other similar legends, in particular that of the "Saints Mary of the Sea".


The Tarasque was one of the most dangerous mythical animals in the Roman world, and we know there were many (griffins, mermaids and such). Today we think that the origin of these legends may go back to pre-Roman times. There appear to have been other Tarasques in the area, such as the one on exhibit in the Calvet Museum in Avignon. They were often associated with water.


The Tarascon one is considered to have been a reptile, some say a dragon, that lived in the murky waters of the Rhône river in a lair located approximately where the Tarascon château can be found today. Being an amphibian, he could not only upset boats but also seek victims on land as well. Descriptions of the beast vary, but he is generally considered to have had the body of a crocodile, the head of a lion, six human feet and a long tail, the most dangerous part of him. Here is a description written up by Raban- Maur in the 9th century: "... a terrible dragon unbelievably long and very fat; his breath was like stinking smoke, his eyes like burning sulphur, from his mouth with its crooked teeth came terrible shrieks and roars: with his claws and teeth he tore apart everything he met and the stink of his breath killed anyone who came too close..."


The monster was called Tirascurus, and some say that it could be at the origine of the name of the town of Tarascon. But it would seem that the name of the town is older: the suffix 'asque' can be found in the names of several other towns in the area. At any rate, it is easy to imagine the fear this monster inspired, particularly among children whose parents used it to keep their youngsters in line.


All this was before the arrival of Christianity of course. Then, in 48 AD, according to the legend, the "Holy Marys" arrived in the Camargue and with them Martha who, with her brother Lazarus, was also in the boat that came floating from the Holy Land and landed at Les Saintes-Maries-de- la-Mer.


The inhabitants of Tarascon, after hearing of the numerous miracles performed by Martha, sent a delegation to ask her to come and rid them of the terrible Tarasque. She was happy to oblige, travelled to Tarascon, and was able to uncover the Tarasque in his lair. She used the weapons she had with her, a little holy water and a cross, to mesmerize him: he submitted under their combined effect, and she was able to tie him up with her belt and parade him into the city where the inhabitants pitilessly proceeded to kill him with stones and lances. Thus ended the Tarasque and thus began the legend.


The tarasque 2Could there be any truth in this tale? Many people believe that all legends have an original basis in fact, and, in the case of the Tarasque, some hasten to point out that the Roman legions had been in this area since the 2nd century BC, pacifying the road between Italy and Spain. Some of these legionnaires had fought in Africa and we know that exotic African animals were regularly imported into Gaul (didn’t Hannibal come with elephants in the 3rd century BC?). It is conceivable that the Romans could have imported crocodiles from the Nile (the crocodile is still the symbol of the city of Nîmes), one of which might have escaped and found its way into the Rhône river. It is easy to imagine that for the locals, who had never seen anything like it, this ferocious beast, with its scaly body and long tail, could have inspired dread.


The triumph of frail Martha over the Tarasque is considered todato be a symbol of the triumph of Christianity over paganism. A small woman armed with nothing but her faith was able tovercome the fear and suffering of peoples who cowered under the reign of pagan emperors. By liberating Tarascon of the Tarasque, Martha gave courage and hope to the inhabitants, like the arrival of Christianity supposedly brought courage and hope to many — a ray of light in the darkness of the times.


The memory of the Tarasque has crossed the centuries. It was actually the last king of Provence, King René, who decided to honour it by creating a pseudo-military order, the Knights of the Tarasque, on April 14, 1474, with the idea of providing entertainment for the inhabitants of the city where he had decided to build his castle. And thus Tarasque "games" were organized: at the time twice a year, in the spring and fall, the first with a ferocious Tarasque and the second with a tamed Tarasque. These festivities still continue today. They involve a procession where a giant Tarasque, a papier-mâché creation carried by the Knights of the Tarasque (young able-bodied men in costume), parades through the town, acting as ferocious as possible, trying to scare or upset people with his long tail.


The Tarasque has been for centuries a symbol of the city, appearing on the city coat of arms and sculpted on the city hall. A sculpture representing him has recently been inaugurated beside the Tarascon castle: the ferocious Tarasque now protects the city!