The Tarasca (French = “Tarrasque”), closely associated with the Catholic Corpus Christi celebration of the Eucharist in France and Spain, is an ancient dragon from the southern French region of Provencal, tamed by Saint Martha in a myth reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast or King Kong (the savage beast tamed by a woman), or dare I say it, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, Dexter, and True Blood. We might even see this archetype, much to the chagrin of Star Wars fans, represented by Han Solo and Princess Leia. Modern fiction and particularly the latest supernatural revivals are replete with examples of the monster’s moral taming by the maiden. Inherent in this theme is the fear of emasculation, that is, that the capacity for aggression that is a fundamental, underlying element of masculinity is a fragile thing, easily mastered with a wink and a sigh by the fairer sex. There be cognitive dragons here. The plot line of these modern folk tales gives us a clue as to what to look for in the symbolic history of Tarasca. In The Vampire Diaries and Twilight, the central female protagonist humanizes her monster paramour, but ultimately must become a monster herself. Dexter’s wife unknowingly forces him to reconsider whether he can lead a normal life, free from serial killing. She ends up brutally murdered. Sookie’s fairy blood is addictive to her love interest Bill Compton (the only “good” vampire for several seasons) and having been rejected by her, he has proceeded in the latest season to demonstrate a heightened viciousness and evil, leading to his harm of many, many people around her and perhaps the human race in general. Zsa Zsa Gabor inadvertently captured the essence of this fear when she quipped, “A man in love is incomplete until he is married. Then he is finished.” The symbolic taming of the monster by the maiden ultimately leads to his, her, or both their doom. Such is the implicit warning. Let us examine how this plays out with the Tarasca.
Oddly, the Tarasca is said to have originated in Galatia (the Anatolian highlands of modern Turkey), tracing its genealogy as the daughter of mother Onachus (a scaly, flaming snake/buffalo monster – note that bull gods are closely associated historically with death and resurrection, or rather “the death that gives life”) and father Leviathan (of biblical sea serpent fame). This is a strange syncretic pedigree to say the least. The legend of Tarasca is included on UNESCO’s list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The dragon Tarasca followed the customary monster habits of eating virgins and preying upon the locals, until Saint Martha tamed the beast.
There was that time upon the river of Rhone, in a certain wood between Arles and Avignon, a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, and defended him with two wings on either side, and could not be beaten with cast of stones ne with other armor, and was as strong as twelve lions or bears; which dragon lay hiding and lurking in the river, and perished them that passed by and drowned ships. He came thither by sea from Galicia, and was engendered of Leviathan, which is a serpent of the water and is much wood, and of a beast called Bonacho, that is engendered in Galicia. And when he is pursued he casts out of his belly behind, his ordure, the space of an acre of land on them that follow him, and it is bright as glass, and what it toucheth it burneth as fire. To whom Martha, at the prayer of the people, came into the wood, and found him eating a man. And she cast on him holy water, and showed to him the cross, which anon was overcome, and standing still as a sheep, she bound him with her own girdle, and then was slain with spears and glaives of the people. The dragon was called of them that dwelled in the country Tarasconus, whereof, in remembrance of him that place is called Tarasconus, which tofore was called Nerluc, and the Black Lake, because there be woods shadowous and black. And there the blessed Martha, by license of Maximin her master, and of her sister, dwelled and abode in the same place after, and daily occupied in prayers and in fastings, and thereafter assembled and were gathered together a great convent of sisters, and builded a fair church at the honor of the blessed Mary virgin, where she led a hard and a sharp life. She eschewed flesh and all fat meat, eggs, cheese and wine; she ate but once a day. An hundred times a day and an hundred times a night she kneeled down and bowed her knees (De Voragine, 1275, “The Life of Saint Martha”)
By association with Catholicism through Saint Martha, Tarasca appears as an important figure in southern France (as the Tarasca is named after the Provencal town of Tarascon), and throughout both the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America, as a central fixture in public Pentecost rituals. The Spanish version of the yearly Tarasca ritual is especially illuminating in terms of symbolic anthropology. “What is of particular interest in the Spanish case is the Tarasca’s promiscuous blend of thematic elements: the Tarasca combines monstrosity with cannibalism, all leavened with a dose of misogyny—a combination not often emphasized outside of Spain and capable of providing insights about Spanish folk culture” (Gilmore, 2008, p.263). I would argue that the Tarasca’s Iberian incarnation, rather than representing an aberration simply more clearly expresses a central mythological theme – the horrific monster soothed by a woman, then mistakenly murdered by a fearful populace unaware of its domestication. The underlying symbolism and paranoia about sexual control of animalism is remarkable in the Spanish enacting of Tarasca rituals precisely through subversions of the message.
To this day, during either Corpus Christi, Pentecost, Mardis Gras, or Carnival the Tarasca appears in effigy at the core of a public ritual, first recorded in Spain in Seville in 1282, shortly before the Christian Reconquista. The essential elements are generally the same – a large paper-mache effigy of the dragon carried by young adult males with a either a real woman or female figure (usually depicted as a biblical temptress of one form or another e.g. the Whore of Babylon) perched on its back is paraded through the streets, while the dragon is manipulated to pretend to snatch children, chase women, and enact simulated castrations of men. In some enactments, the dragon actually “consumes” pretty young females – basically they are pulled underneath the gigantic monster costume, and must be ransomed by husbands, boyfriend, or fathers, particularly by telling the monster a lewd joke. At the end of the ritual procession the effigy is burned or driven from the town.
Attracting much popular interest, the dragon and its good-vs.-evil rituals had become the focus of Corpus Christi all over Spain by the eighteenth century. By that time it had become such an entrenched figure among the rabble that clerical and civil authorities felt it had gotten out of hand. To stem the growing licentiousness, Charles III issued a royal pragmatic, dated 21 June 1780, prohibiting further use of Tarascas in the Corpus or Pentecost celebrations and declaring them a pagan and frivolous entertainment that imparted too much “irreverent atmosphere” to what should be solemn events (Sánchez Herrero 1999, 49). As in other cases of the legal interdiction of vulgar celebrations, this edict was more honored in the breach than in the observation (see Juárez and Martínez 2002) (Gilmore, 2009, p.369).
Obviously, this is a ritual of social renewal utilizing the grotesque as a vehicle, relying on ritual liminality to symbolically re-establish the social hierarchy of Western men and women, year in and year out. This is not necessarily about misogyny, as scholars like David Gilmore have maintained, rather about a sacred fear of the overwhelming power of female sexuality for the male.
Bloch argues that in order for societies to regenerate themselves over time, they must have rituals in which people are attacked by an external force representing evil, usually embodied in the form of a menacing animal or a monster. The people then defeat the monster through common action, killing the beast and returning to normalcy, not in the same form as before, but with a renewed “vitality” that they derive from appropriating and “consuming” the power of the thing they have killed. Through this “rebounding violence” the community “consumes the vitality of the external reality” and absorbs the power of the “sacrificial object” (hence the common “eating” imagery in religious ritual). The rites turn the tables on the alien aggressor, transforming the people from prey into hunter and enacting “societal regeneration” (Gilmore 2008, p.366)
Is this the annual re-establishment of the order of a patriarchal universe? One need not rely on such an extreme and oppressive notion, when in fact it may simply be about assuaging the fear that the often irrational power over men that women wield, surrounded by issues of sexuality, is at best problematic. Tarasca and his associated rituals may well embody this fear.
The history of Tarascan signification is traced to Galatia. Galatia was thus named as it was settled by migrating Celtic Gauls from Thrace (roughly southern Bulgaria) after 3rd Century B.C. Gallic invasions of the Balkans. Galatian culture was not literate so much of what we know about them comes from Greek and Roman contemporaries, ultimately becoming a client state of the Roman Empire and supplying feared mercenary auxiliaries for the Legions. By 25 B.C., Galatia was an enthusiastically loyal Roman province, practicing a form of Romano-Celtic polytheism, and while their fate is unclear, it seems that the Galatians were largely absorbed into the Greek Anatolian populations. The Celtic culture of the Gauls extended across much of Europe to Asia Minor from the Iron Age to their effective assimilation by Rome, so perhaps it is not as curious as it might superficially seem, for French folk legends to incorporate distant Galatia as a source of monsters. There seems to be no direct and unambiguous literary source for the origin of the story of the frightening mating of Leviathan and Onachus, except for the story of Tarasca, and references to Onachus are fairly thin on the ground in general, although some scholars equate Onachus with stories of unicorns and the phoenix, and in all likelihood reference to the Onachus, as the Bonacho, are actually referring to a creature of medieval Bestiaries called the Bonnacon reputed to originate in Central Asia, and described by Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) in his Naturalis Historia, assumed from the striking similarity of the description of its defense mechanism of projecting burning dung.
In Pæonia, it is said, there is a wild animal known as the bonasus; it has the mane of the horse, but is, in other respects, like the bull, with horns, however, so much bent inwards upon each other, as to be of no use for the purposes of combat. It has therefore to depend upon its flight, and, while in the act of flying, it sends forth its excrements, sometimes to a distance of even three jugera; the contact of which burns those who pursue the animal, just like a kind of fire. (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 8, Chapter 33)
Pliny himself seems to have obtained his description from Aristotle’s History of Animals.
The bison is found in Paeonia on Mount Messapium, which separates Paeonia from Maedica; and the Paeonians call it the monapos. It is the size of a bull, but stouter in build, and not long in the body; its skin, stretched tight on a frame, would give sitting room for seven people. In general it resembles the ox in appearance, except that it has a mane that reaches down to the point of the shoulder, as that of the horse reaches down to its withers; but the hair in its mane is softer than the hair in the horse’s mane, and clings more closely. The colour of the hair is brown-yellow; the mane reaches down to the eyes, and is deep and thick. The colour of the body is half red, half ashen-grey, like that of the so-called chestnut horse, but rougher. It has an undercoat of woolly hair. The animal is not found either very black or very red. It has the bellow of a bull. Its horns are crooked, turned inwards towards each other and useless for purposes of self-defence; they are a span broad, or a little more, and in volume each horn would hold about three pints of liquid; the black colour of the horn is beautiful and bright. The tuft of hair on the forehead reaches down to the eyes, so that the animal sees objects on either flank better than objects right in front. It has no upper teeth, as is the case also with kine and all other horned animals. Its legs are hairy; it is cloven-footed, and the tail, which resembles that of the ox, seems not big enough for the size of its body. It tosses up dust and scoops out the ground with its hooves, like the bull. Its skin is impervious to blows. Owing to the savour of its flesh it is sought for in the chase. When it is wounded it runs away, and stops only when thoroughly exhausted. It defends itself against an assailant by kicking and projecting its excrement to a distance of eight yards; this device it can easily adopt over and over again, and the excrement is so pungent that the hair of hunting-dogs is burnt off by it. It is only when the animal is disturbed or alarmed that the dung has this property; when the animal is undisturbed it has no blistering effect. So much for the shape and habits of the animal. When the season comes for parturition the mothers give birth to their young in troops upon the mountains. Before dropping their young they scatter their dung in all directions, making a kind of circular rampart around them; for the animal has the faculty of ejecting excrement in most extraordinary quantities (Aristotle, Hist. Anim. B. ix. c. 45).
Parentage traced from a fiery-dung spewing buffalo and a horrific sea-serpent cannot but result in a monstrosity of enormous proportions, and the perfect foil for medieval Saint Martha, who is credited with freeing the people of southern France from the depredations of the fearsome Tarasca through nothing more than the traditional religious power, chasteness, and charm.
The ritual of the Tarasca is nothing more and nothing less than Beauty and the Beast with a tragic end, re-imagined year in and year out in a ritual of purification, and re-establishment of social boundaries. Sadly, this would make the legend of Tarasca, the Roman Catholic Twilight. Do we as devout modernists re-enact this same ritual in the endless stream of publications with titles like The Feminization of American Culture, The Feminization of Global Manufacturing, The Feminization of American Boys, and The Feminization of American Schools? Each year we seem same to slay our own version of Tarasca, to maintain our conception of masculinity vs. feminity. I have no particular opinion on whether this is bad or good, instead defaulting to Katherine Hepburn’s maxim, “Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.”
De Voragine, Jacobus. The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275. English publication by William Caxton, first edition 1483 Temple Classics ed. F S Ellis.
Gilmore, David D. “Tarasca: Ritual Monster of Spain.” PROCEEDINGS OF THE AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY VOL. 152, NO. 3, SEPTEMBER 2008
The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, London, UK: Taylor and Francis, 1855