Variations: Tarasca, Tarasco, Tarascona, Tarasconus, Tarascus, Tirasconus, Tirascurus
The story of the Tarasque is inextricable from that of Saint Martha and the southern French town of Tarascon. It features on the coat of arms of Tarascon, and it is attended to by the Order of the Tarascaires, the Members of the Provencal Order of Knights of the Tarasque. It is part of a long and venerable tradition of French beasts associated with particular cities and usually paraded through the streets during relevant feast days.
Etymologies for the Tarasque’s name vary. Folklore attributes the name of Tarascon to the Tarasque, but it is most likely that the dragon was named after the city. Tarascon itself may have been derived from Tauriscus, a Gaulish tyrant supposedly slain by Hercules. As to the origin of the tale itself, everything from vanquished pagan religions to displaced captive crocodiles has been suggested.
The earliest elements of what was to become the tradition of Saint Martha in Provence originated in Vézelay in the 11th century. By the end of the 12th century these had been associated with Saint Martha, and developed concurrently with Tarascon. The Vita S. Marthae of the Pseudo-Marcella is the oldest reference to the Tarasque, and is dated somewhere between 1187 (the date of the discovery of Saint Martha’s relics in Tarascon) and 1220. Vincent of Beauvais and Jacobus Voragine based their accounts on the prototype of the Pseudo-Marcella and gradually brought Saint Martha into 13th century martyrologies. The tale served to strengthen the cult of Saint Martha in Provence, and further establish Tarascon’s identity as a cultural, political, and religious center.
The Tarasque was found in the woods between Arles and Avignon, near town of Nerluc (“Black Lake”), or otherwise in the Rhone, in a hole by the river. The Pseudo-Marcella gives the most complete description. The Tarasque was a dragon, half animal and half fish, larger than an ox and longer than a horse, with teeth as sharp as swords, and armored on both sides like a turtle. It had the face and head of a lion, a horse’s mane, a back sharp as an axe, spiky scales as sharp as augers, six bear-clawed legs, and a serpent’s tail. It was more than a match for a dozen lions or bears. Having come by sea from Galatia, the Tarasque hid in the river, sinking boats and devouring anyone who came near. In a flourish of erudition, we are told it was the offspring of the sea-serpent Leviathan and the onachus or bonnacon, a creature that fires burning dung as a weapon. The mechanics of such a coupling are left unexplained.
The Pseudo-Rabanus adds that the Tarasque, in addition to being an enormous dragon with hooked fangs, had pestilential smoke for breath and sulphurous sparks coming from its eyes. It whistled and roared horribly, and the mere infection of its breath was lethal. It lived along with other serpents.
The people of Nerluc entreated Martha to deliver them from this menace, so the saintly woman entered the woods in search of the Tarasque. She found the dragon halfway through eating a man. Far from being intimidated, she sprinkled the Tarasque with holy water and brandished a cross, whereupon the dragon came to her as peacefully as a lamb. Martha leashed it with her belt and delivered it to the people, who avenged themselves by tearing the Tarasque apart with lances and stones. Subsequently Saint Martha preached and converted the townsfolk to Christianity. Some modern retellings claim that the people came to regret the killing of a now-harmless creature, but there is no mention of this in the texts.
It was from then on that Nerluc became known as Tarascon, in honor of the dragon defeated by Saint Martha and the power of Christ. However, there is no indication that Tarascon was ever called Nerluc; it is more likely that the story of Saint Martha was attached to a local tradition involving the Tarasque as a symbol of fertility or destructive floods. The description in the Pseudo-Marcellus reads like an overview of the effigy, and the multiple feet brings to mind the feet of people holding and moving the dragon.
The effigy of the Tarasque has made its appearance on the streets of Tarascon on multiple occasions, including on Pentecost and on the feast day of Saint Martha (July 29th). In the former it is wild and untamed, breathing fire; in the latter it is tame, chastened, held on a leash by a little girl. Its manifestations are accompanied by celebration, games and music, including the traditional chant:
Lagadigadèu, la Tarasco, Lagadigadèu, la Tarasco de castéu!
Laissas la passa, la viéio masco
Laissas la passa, que vai dansa
Leissas la dounc passa, la viéio masco!
(“Lagadigadèu, the Tarasque, Lagadigadèu, the Tarasque of the castle!
Let her pass, the old mask
Let her pass, she’s going to dance
Let her pass then, the old mask!”)
In this case, lagadigadèu is an untranslatable expression, a sort of Tarasconian war-cry, a musical tally-ho.
The Tarasca, a dragon effigy paraded in Spanish cities during Corpus Christi celebrations, is a direct descendant of the Tarasque.
Dumont, L. (1951) La Tarasque. Gallimard, Paris.
Mistral, F.; Berthier, A. trans. (1862) Les Fetes de la Tarasque. M. E. Drujon, Tarascon.
Tilbury, G.; Banks, S. E. and Binns, J. W. (eds.) (2002) Otia Imperialia. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Véran, J. (1868) Histoire de la Vie et du Culte de Sainte Marthe. Seguin Ainé, Avignon.
Very, F. G. (1962) The Spanish Corpus Christi Procession: A Literary and Folkloric Study. Tipografia Moderna, Valencia.
Voragine, J. (2004) La Légende Dorée. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard, Paris.