How wolf became beast in French folklore

IN JUNE 1767, a quarter of a millennium ago this month, the bloody career of a mysterious killer came to an end, writes Richard Collins

Three years earlier a young girl, tending cattle near the French village of Gévaudan, was menaced by a

beast emerging from the forest. Fortunately for the child, bulls in her herd drove the intruder off. Another

shepherdess was not so fortunate; 14-year old Jeanne Boulet was attacked and killed; “La Bête de Gévaudan” had begun its reign of terror.

The reddish brown creature, black on top, had huge teeth apparently, and was the size of a donkey. Apocalyptic rumours circulated and mass hysteria erupted. Over the next three years, about 100 people, mostly lone children, were killed.

Word of the monster reached Louis XV, who decreed that La Bête be tracked down and destroyed. A reward was offered for its head. Expert hunters and eight bloodhounds were sent to Gévaudan. Dozens of wolves were slaughtered by vigilantes, the animals’ entrails being examined for human remains. An exceptionally large wolf had scars on its body, thought to have been inflicted by victims trying to defend themselves. The stuffed carcass was sent to Versailles and exhibited to the public. But it was not the Beast; the attacks continued.

Writers, including Robert Louis Stevenson, became obsessed with the creature. Novels and films have featured La Bête in one form or another. Its exploits became part of Cévennes folklore.

Only a silver bullet can bring down a werewolf. One cast from silver was said to have been used against a wolf shot near Gévaudan on June 19th 1767. The carcass, it was claimed, showed traces of human remains. There were no further attacks after that date. Was this the culprit? Could the Beast have been just an exceptionally large and violent wolf?

The incidents had occurred over a 90km spread. Wolves roam widely, so the pattern of attacks is consistent with the wolf theory. However, these much-maligned animals never attack people unless rabid or provoked; they got their fearsome reputation from farmers bad-mouthing them for attacking livestock. It might be argued that wolves were more aggressive in the past than they are today, but so radical a change in behaviour seems unlikely. Would children have been seen sent out to protect flocks if they faced such a risk?

A review of wolf attacks, historically and worldwide, was carried out by the Norwegian Institutt for Naturforskning in 2002. It found that “shepherds attempting to defend their sheep and trying to kill wolves with a stick” have never suffered a single fatality. “The majority of attacks (on humans) concern wolves with rabies. Although wolves do not serve as a reservoir of rabies, they can catch it from other species”. According to the World Health Organisation, a rabid dog’s life expectancy is one to seven days. If La Bête were a rabid wolf, its illness wouldn’t have allowed it survive for three years.

The suggestion that the creature was a hybrid between a wolf and an aggressive domestic dog seems more plausible. The late Gérard Ménatory, who established the Parc à Loups du Gévaudan, was sure the creature wasn’t a wolf. He believed that it was a domesticated wild animal, possibly a hyena, which had escaped to the wild. Private menageries were becoming popular with French grandees at the time.

Karl-Hans Taake, writing in National Geographic, argued that the culprit was a sub-adult male lion. These big cats kill by seizing the neck and blocking the air passages of their victims. It was noted, at the time, that only the throats and heads of the unfortunate Gévaudans had been savaged.

He quotes a hunter, who saw La Bête, as saying “this animal is a monster whose father is a lion; it remains open who the mother is”.


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