La Bête du Gevaudan –
or the Animal that swallowed the Whole World
The wolf has always been a symbol. Here in Europe it has amongst other things been a symbol of fertility. Who doesn’t know the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf? When you analyse this story closer, it turns out that the story is about the little girl changing into a woman, helped on her way by the wolf. I don’t only mean the version by Perrault from the end of the 17th century, which is the best known, but also the old legends from before that time. The oral traditions. These are often more grim than the story we already know, and describes in great detail how the wolf butchers the grandmother like a pig and how Little Red Riding Hood makes a stew of her blood.
About 30 kilometres from where I live the mountainous area of the Cevennes starts, and in these mountains there is a wolf enclosure, where the animals live in semi-freedom in 5 hectares of land. But there is an adjoining area of about 250 hectares which is quite isolated and wild countryside.
One Halloween I visited this enclosure. It took me nearly four hours to drive up there because of the narrow and windy roads. The wolves’ enclosure adjoins a valley called le Val d’Enfer. The Vale of Hell. The valley is quite unique with big sharp cliffs, gnarled old trees, foggy atmosphere and a 3 metre wide road which winds up and up over an abyss several hundred metres deep.
The mood is pure Edgar Allen Poe.
Thus one enters the wolves’ enclosure.
The following story is told about this very area:
At the beginning of 1764 some young cattle farmers reported that a large dog had attacked them several times, but their cows and oxen had protected them.
This would not have amounted to much, if the remains of a 14 year old girl, who had been devoured, had not turned up.
This was the start of a story which lasted 3 years.
By December 1764 there were 18 dead.
A hunt was organised.
In January 1765 the king, the bishop and the département promise a reward of 800 pounds to be rid of the nuisance.
January: 11 victims.
February: 6 victims.
A huntsman was sent to the area by the king. The huntsman had previously killed 1200 wolves. He is an experienced man. No result.
Death has a field day.
Another huntsman was sent out. He finds that the tracks around the victims’ bodies are inexplicable.The rumours run wild. Is it hyenas? An animal from a fable? A mixture of a wolf and a bear? A monster escaped from a circus? A divine punishment, an instrument of the devil? A sadist or a werewolf?
All kinds of traps had failed. The bishop asks the people to pray.
The hunt starts with hounds trained in hunting wolves. A large pack of wolves is wiped out. The attacks stop. But it has meant 57 victims in 9 months, mostly quite young people.
But a couple of months later two more children were killed in the same area, and the killings continue.
A new huntsman arrives with his rifle, blessed by the church. He has lead bullets made out of Virgin Mary’s medallions. A large animal like a wolf is shot. A very strange wolf.
And the killings stop.
In 3 years 99 people were killed.
Already when the first victims were discovered, the rumours began to fly.
It is easy to understand that there are different opinions today about whether it is a good or bad thing for wolves to be reintroduced into France in the wild. It is known that there is a wild pack living near the Italian border. They are protected, but many people especially cattle and sheep farmers think they ought to be eradicated.
As I keep a dog myself, I know all about a dog’s instincts. But when one approaches wolves, you soon discover the difference. The wolf’s behaviour is three times as obvious as the dog’s. The wolf pack has a stricter ranking order. Only the leaders may procreate. Only the strongest survive. The yellow eyes of the wolf look right through you. You feel an atavistic power and understand how rumours about wolves come about. You feel the attraction of the savage beast and feel a connection with one’s forefathers.
I start to understand why, 30 kilometres from where I live, there were people who painted wolves, tigers, bears and bison with earth colours in large chalk caves, – cave paintings painted about 15,000 years ago.
It was a necessity to survive.
Their powers had to be exorcised.
The strong had to survive.
You had to survive yourself.