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Monday, October 24, 2005
My Favorite Monsters #2: The Beast of Gevaudan
For my second favorite monster, we get a bit of a departure from what has gone before. For one, it's a European beast, rather than one haunting the Americas. Two, it has an historical pedigree rather a bit more convincing than a few blurry photographs, unconvincing eyewitnesses and a dead goat here and there. There is ample historical evidence surviving from the period to indicate that there truly was some kind of animal in the County of Gevaudan that killed nearly one hundred people and was seen by dozens of eyewitnesses. There's even a...well, we'll get to that in a minute. Third, the Beast of Gevaudan is one of the very few monsters out there to be regarded as female. It's La Bete to the French, and don't you forget it.
The broad facts of the case are fairly easy to relate. In the wolf-haunted southern county of Gevaudan in mid-18th century, starting in the summer of 1764, a wolf-like beast the size of a cow began to attack people. A few survived, but most who saw the creature were killed by it. La Bete's reign of terror continued for several years, attracting the attention of all France, including worrying Louis XV a great deal. Several likely candidates for the beast were killed by hunters, but deaths continued shortly after each proclamation that La Bete was dead. Popular opinion started to sway towards the belief that La Bete was a judgment sent from God against the wickedness of the people. The English insisted that it was some large baboon escaped from a menagerie. Finally, Jean Chastel, using two silver bullets made from a melted down medallion of the Virgin succeeded in killing La Bete once and for all. The carcass was sent to the court of the king.
I mean, it sounds like some sort of fairy tale, and in other circumstances it would be hard to credit. It sounds more like yet another regional French monster, such as the tarasque (and damn you D&D players for filling up the internet with page after page about your stupid made up monster, thus making it difficult for me to find one about the actual tarasque!). Plus, it makes for an odd little footnote to history; that in the midst of the Enlightenment, France was gripped by a monster panic. A compelling counter-argument about the universal good that was brought about by humanism and Enlightenment philosophy, as it were. Except, of course, for the pesky fact that almost a hundred people were killed by La Bete. It may be tempting, in our comfortable 21st century homes, to dismiss the people living in rural France in the 1700s as backwards, superstitious peasants who merely mistook some wild dog for a horrible monster, but it strikes me as a very arrogant thing to do.
The Wiki, with a nice shot of one of the memorials to La Bete.
Oh, and that thing I said I'd get to in a minute...well, the carcass of the creature killed by Jean Chastel was sent to the National Museum of Natural History, where it was misplaced sometime after 1819. But it had been positively identified as an example of Hyaena hyaena, or the striped hyena. See, I just gave you a monster story with a resolution.