Friday, December 20, 2013

Creature of the Month The Beast of Le Gevaudan by Micah Hanks


Among the curious and frightening locales and periods where one might ever dread to live, France in the 1760s might stand out amidst the nightmares of men, particularly those of superstitious sensibilities. For across the French countryside in those years, it is well remembered that a beast so fearless and cunning had existed that small armies had been enlisted to stop the spread of its influence.

France is a country where legends about werewolves would become particularly memorable following these events, for while history tells us that the beast that scoured the countryside of southern France was a wolf, its grisly appetite has caused it to be remembered as perhaps being something more. Thus, to this day, there is debate over what, precisely, terrorized the empty land known as Le Gevaudan, toward the outskirts of the famous and hilly Auvergne.

Some legends do indeed tell of this beast being wolf-like, while other more obscure sources tell us that the creature, remembered today as the Beast of Gevaudan, had been something more. The creature was supposedly far to large to be a common wolf, and the creature also was said to be capable of standing upright as a man did, particularly when it had cornered its prey. Some would tell that the beast was a ghoulish entity who drew its blood from the bodies of those it claimed as victims, while others still felt that the monster was perhaps Satan himself; clearly any land or people scourged with a presence so vile and unrepentant in its hatred for humankind must be punishment from God, if not purely the work of the evil one.


 While those legends have, and will no doubt still persist, what we do know of the beast is that it’s earliest appearances began in 1764, at which time a woman claimed to watch a group of bulls among cattle she had been tending fending off a large wolf-like beast that approached her in a pasture in the eastern Gevaudan region. While this witness would see the beast and live to tell about it, several others were killed that same year, with the recurring trend being that these deaths seemed to nearly always befall lone individuals who tended to their livestock. Curiously, the victims were also quite often found to suffer the greatest injury around the neck and head.


Deaths would continue to proliferate throughout the region, and by the arrival of the early winter months, it had been suspected that this creature might possibly not be acting alone. Could the creature have merely been a lone wolf, in the most literal sense? Or if there had indeed been more than one of the beasts, perhaps it had been a small pack of the creatures roaming the region, which had created this illusion of prolific killings by a single, murderous animal. Then again, if the latter had been the case, witnesses had still seemed perplexed at the fact that they never were able to see more than one of the monsters at any given time. The identity of Gevaudan’s beast, and that of its alleged kindred, remained a mystery.

Looking at the history of the creature’s activity in the region of Gevaudan, there are other problems that begin to arise from these early narratives. In most instances, the victims had been nameless, and with the perspective of historical skepticism applied, perhaps more likely the stuff of legend than the essence of any factual narrative. This would change somewhat the following year, in January of 1765, when the creature attacked twelve-year-old Jacques Portefaix and several other children near La Coustasseyre. The party managed to survive, and even chase away the beast by grouping together, a story which became renowned throughout the region, even garnering the attention of King Louis XV, who awarded Portefaix with a sum of 300 livres for leading his companions against the assault of the beast. This sum of money would change the life of the young Portefaix, who went on to receive a state-funded education, in addition the finances he had been awarded, though he would ultimately pass away at the early age of 32. However, throughout his life, Portefaix had remained interested in the beast, and was said to have authored a report on the monster and its attacks, which detailed the story of he and his companions, as well as the general strife shared by the people throughout the region in knowing of the lurking monster’s presence. The document was never recovered, though speculation about its contents has continued over the centuries.

Following the Portefaix incident, King Louis XV became very interested in the so-called “Beast of Le Gevaudan,” and enough so that two expert wolf-hunters were employed and tasked with the capture and killing of the beast. These men, Jean Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son, Jean Francois, would succeed in killing a number of Eurasian wolves in the area, although attacks that were appended to the mystery beast would continue nonetheless. Louis XV chose to employ a new hunter to stalk the animal, this time choosing his Lieutenant of the Hunt, Francois Antoine, in June of that year. Antoine would succeed in killing a number of wolves as well, though one was purported to be very large, and after it had been killed in September of 1765, this animal was preserved by taxidermists and sent to Versailles.


On receipt of the wolf, Louis XV was impressed enough that he awarded Antoine with a large sum as a prize, just as young Portefaix had been given earlier. However, the celebration would be short-lived; by December, attacks would resume, causing further panic throughout the region, and renewed interest in discovering whether the wolf killed using the king’s own harquebus firearm had been merely one of a small pack in the area, of if perhaps this new streak of killings had been perpetrated by something else entirely; perhaps it was the same killer who had unabashedly terrorized Gevaudan for two years already.

Attacks would continue for the next several years, before a breakthrough came in the summer of 1770, near the Sogne d’Auvers. It was here that a hunter named Jean Chastel managed to deal the death blow to what was actually believed to be the single Beast of Le Gevaudan, though the accounts of precisely how this transpired seem to vary. Chastel was known to most often carry a double-barreled shotgun, though on the June 19 he likely had been carrying more than one weapon while he pursued the beast as part of a large hunting party. The most popular rendition of the story holds that Chastel had positioned himself by a small set of bushes along the corner of the Sogne, where he knelt to read a bible he carried with him. As he prayed, he could hear the hounds off in the distance as they run with the other members of the party that worked their way amidst the brush that scattered the hillside. Then, Chastel glanced up to see that the beast had appeared, and it stood glaring at him. Curiously, the monster which normally would attack a human on sight now paused and watched Chastel, who purportedly finished his prayers before lifting his weapon—in this case it was the flint-lock rifle he carried, rather than the shotgun—and firing a projectile that launched through the trachea, the Beast of Le Gevaudan was finally killed.


The various legends surrounding the tale also include the notion that in order for the beast to be destroyed, Chastel had been required to use a silver bullet that a priest had blessed, in keeping with fables about silver projectiles and their legendary and devastating success rate in killing lycanthropes. Another theory focused more on how Chastel had been permitted, rather strangely, to complete his prayer before lifting his rifle for the killing shot; in either case, it would seem that divine intervention must have been involved to some degree… unless the game had been rigged, of course. Skeptics argued that Chastel had not relied so much on intervention from a higher power as he had been provided foreknowledge that the beast wouldn’t attack him; but how could this have been? The only possible solution, many would contend, had been that Chastel had actually trained the creature, though proof for such a claim has never been supported with any reasonable evidence.

So what was the beast that Chastel killed, and which has remained he stuff of legends in the centuries since its famous rampage across Le Gevaudan in the 1760s? In likelihood it was a wolf, though other theories have been proposed over the years, including a History Channel documentary in 2009, which contended that the “monster” had actually been a species of longhaired Hyena. Other theories involve similar exotic interpretations, ranging from lions and tigers, to some unknown animal of large and beastly proportions, perhaps the final existing remnant of its kindred. Perhaps the most damning commentary provided on the creature was given by none other than Robert Louis Stevenson, whose recollection of the beast that was sent to Versailles presents us with a less-than-spectacular remembrance of the Gevaudan monster:

[T]his was the land of the ever-memorable Beast, the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves. What a career was his! He lived ten months at free quarters in Gévaudan and Vivarais; he ate women and children and "shepherdesses celebrated for their beauty"; he pursued armed horsemen; he has been seen at broad noonday chasing a post-chaise and outrider along the king's high-road, and chaise and outrider fleeing before him at the gallop. He was placarded like a political offender, and ten thousand francs were offered for his head. And yet, when he was shot and sent to Versailles, behold! a common wolf, and even small for that.

It is unclear whether the beast Stevenson describes was the actual creature killed by Chastel, or the wolf that had been preserved earlier, which Antoine had been awarded for killing in 1767. Our thoughts would lean heavily toward the latter.

            Ultimately, the identity of this mysterious Beast of Le Gevaudan may never be known. The circumstances surrounding its death seem to shed no more light on it than the records of its murderous habits while it existed. Whether a wolf, or perhaps something greater and more exotic in nature, there is little doubt that the legends surrounding the creature may have served in the further mystification of its legacy. Had the creature merely been a large and particularly ravenous wolf, one thing would certainly hold true of this story regardless: as is so often the case with such reports, the beast, whatever it may have really been, will likely be remembered as something far more horrid and monstrous—even supernatural, by some accounts—when compared with the real possibilities as to what was killed at the Sogne d’Auvers in 1770. We may never know what it was, precisely, but we know with certainty that this “beast” will never be forgotten. 

SOURCES:

1)     Steiger, Brad. Real Monsters, Gruesome Critters, and Beasts from the Darkside. Visible Ink Press, 2010.
2)     “Jacques Portefaix.” Website. Accessed December 13, 2013. http://betedugevaudan.com/en/jacques_portefaix_en.html
3)     “Le Tir de Chastel” Website (French Language). Accessed December 13, 2013. http://www.labetedugevaudan.com/pages/militaires/tir_chastel_02.html
4)     Stevenson, Robert Louis. Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. 1879.


Micah Hanks is a writer, researcher, lecturer, and radio personality whose work addresses a variety of scientific concepts and unexplained phenomena. Over the last decade, his research has examined a variety of approaches to studying the unexplained, cultural phenomena, human history, and the prospects of our technological future as a species as influenced by science.

He is author of several books, including Magic, Mysticism and the Molecule, Reynolds Mansion: An Invitation to the Past, and his 2012 New Page Books release, The UFO Singularity. Hanks is an editor for Intrepid Magazine, and consulting editor/contributor for FATE Magazine and The Journal of Anomalous Sciences. He writes for a variety of other publications, and produces a weekly podcast, The GralienReport, which follows his research.

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