Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Myths & Legends: The Beast of Gévaudan, 1764-67

Though originally this article was part of the Trials section of my old website, I decided to put it into a different category here due to it not being, strictly-speaking, a usual werewolf trial.

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The case of the Beast of Gévaudan is one that to this day baffles many cryptozoologists – it features an animal similar to a wolf, but the size of a cow, which terrorized the French district of Gévaudan (today’s Lozčre) from 1764 till 1767. The small province, situated in the mountains of Margeride in mid-southern France near such towns as Langogne and Mende, was haunted by the beast for the first time in 1764.

That month, a young woman was attacked by a large, wolf-like monster in Forét de Merçoire near Langogne. She was one of a few people who survived the encounter with the beast. In October of the same year, two huntsmen approached the creature and fired at it at a close range. The animal was shot four times, but appeared to have not suffered any physical damage. Captain Duhamel, who lead nearly sixty soldiers, began the hunt for the monster, wounded it a few times, but never managed to kill it.

In 1765, king Louie XV sent an experienced wolf hunter by the name of Denneval to Gévaudan so that he would kill the beast. Before Denneval tracked down the creature, a man named Chaumette had spotted the animal in the vicinity of his home, near St. Chely. He and his two brothers shot the beast twice, but it would still not be killed. In June of 1765 Denneval abandoned his fruitless search. A month earlier, king Louie had sent to Gévaudan his commander of weapons transport – Antoine de Beauterne. On September 21st he had commenced his hunt in Béal Ravine, near Pommier. He had killed something that he had considered to have been the famous beast. It had been an unusually big wolf, six-feet-long (circa 1,8 metres). The animal was on display at the Natural History Museum in Paris till the beginning of the 20th century.

However, something was still killing people. In the summer of 1767, hundreds of villagers made pilgrimages to the Notre-Dame de Beaulieu cathedral in the vicinity of Mount Chauvet to pray to God for the salvation from the monster. They regarded it as divine punishment or a werewolf (loup-garou). One of the pilgrims was Jean Chastel, who was carrying a gun and three baptized bullets.

On June 19th 1767, a local noble organized a great hunt attended by three hundred people. Chastel lay in wait for the monster in Sogne d’Aubert. When the beast appeared, he fired the three bullets at it and the monster was finally slain.

In the end, what was the monster? French villagers believed that it was a kind of demon,  but at the same time English scientists concluded that it was a cross between a tiger and a hyena. Others spoke of a wolverine, bear, even of a baboon. However, in recent times the remains of the animal killed by Chastel were found in the magazine of the Natural History Museum in Paris – even though at the time the beast was classified as a wolf, a zoologist Franz Jullien studied what remained of the creature and concluded it to have been a striped hyena (Hyena hyena) which normally live in Africa.

While there can be observed a specific similarity of the striped hyena to a wolf (especially to 18th-century European folk who had probably never seen a hyena before in their lives), it has a closer relation to a bear than a wolf, like other hyenas. The striped hyena is also the second-smallest subspecies of the family (other being the aardwolf), measuring at most 130 cm length, 80 cm in height, and weighing around 55 kg. The contemporary descriptions of the beast vary, but it was said to have reddish fur with a streak of black on its back - this description, in turn, brings to mind the maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus), which, by the way, is a wolf only in name. Whatever the creature might have been, it is yet another mystery how the animal got to France and how it suddenly started to freely roam its terrain. The claim that it was immune to bullets can as well be attributed to the people’s lack of sharpshooting skills. However, much of this case remains – and will continue to remain – a mystery as to its true nature. That said, nowadays it is presumed that – due to the vast area in which the attacks took place – that the famous beast was not a single animal, but a couple of wolves or even wolf packs that resorted to hunting humans who were increasingly encroaching on their territories. Coupled with the already-existing mass hysteria concerning wolves and wolf attacks during the 18th century, it is possible that such isolated incidents started being perceived as the work of a solitary, demonic monster. This theory is reinforced by the fact that with the drastic reduction of the wolf population in France during that century, the attacks on humans ceased.

A monument was erected in the village of Auvers to honour those who fought against the beast.

The story of the Beast of Gévaudan was the premise of a 2001 French movie, Le Pacte des Loups (a.k.a. The Brotherhood of Wolves).

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  1. I am sending this communication, if you are interested. Thank you.

    New book in English on the history of the Beast of Gevaudan with historical data on the cannibalism of the wolf from the Middle Ages to the present in Europe and in Asia, the Middle East and North America.

    The man-eater of Gévaudan

    This is a true story, happened in France in the XVIII century. It talks about the hunt, lasted for a good four years, against a mysterious anthropophagous beast, which plunged into terror the poor people of the Gévaudan and of the Auvergne, today Lozère. The animal was terribly lethal, shrewd, elusive, but also ferociously reckless and apparently invulnerable. This is the story of the men in charge of killing what was simply nicknamed the Beast, of the strategies which were carried out, of the beatings that were made even with dozens of thousands of men and many packs of dogs, of the long posts in the wild mountains of that area with such a terrible climate, so described : “Nine months of winter, three months of hell”. In spite of the soldiers and the famous hunters sent by the King of France, the monstrous beast continued committing slaughters most of all of women and children, attacking hundreds of times and making at least 131 victims, many of which were devoured. Only after years of terror the Beast was finally killed and they were able to ascertain which species it belonged to. Thanks to the impressive quantity of official documentation of the time, the told facts are not imaginary, but they are a scrupulous historical description of the events, treated in an enthralling and unusual way by the author, who is not only a naturalist journalist and historian, but also consultant of the Italian authorities for the identification and bloodless capture of potentially dangerous animals. Therefore, a theoretical and practical analysis of the facts which makes the book one of the most detailed treatment about the “man-eaters” and which conveys fascination, adventure and terror.
    The part about cannibalism of the wolf (in Europe never occurred, mind you, I am a fan of the wolf) consisted of: France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Norway, as well as countries of 'East, Ukraine, Belarus, Finland, Turkey, Russia, Korea, China, Mongolia, Japan, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Arab countries, Canada and the United States.
    Giovanni Todaro is a journalist and author of several books on dogs and other animals and founder of an international nature museum in Bardi. He collaborates with the Italian authorities for the identification and bloodless capture of native and exotic animals.

    For sale on Lulu com:
    Ebook available - ISBN: 978-1-291-51098-0
    Paper book available from August 30, 2013 – ISBN: 978-1-291-50340-1

  2. where fact werewolf i want become werewolf serious