Geomythology: The Beast of Gévaudan

During the last day of June 1764, the 14-year-old Jeanne Boulet was killed near the village of Saint-Étienne-de-Lugdarès, at the time located in the region of Gévaudan. Just a month later, a 15-year-old girl was attacked near Puylaurent in the same region. Deadly wounded, she managed with her last breath to describe the attacker as “a horrible beast.” Authorities started to note an unsettling pattern. Already September 8, 1762, the young son of the Yolle’s, herding the flock of sheep, disappeared near the village of Laval in the province of Dauphiné. Only remains of the boy, partially eaten, were recovered. Animal attacks were nothing extraordinary and the mutilated body of the unfortunate victim was quickly buried. However, now so many attacks were reported, that the authorities could no longer ignore them. Just one month before Jeanne Boulet’s death another shepherdess was attacked near the city of Saint-Flour in the Auvergne. Her herd formed a defensive ring against the attacker, saving the girl in the end. Notable enough the attacking animal seemed to be less interested in the cattle as in the girl. In the next months more and more children and women were killed by the unknown attacker. Soon the creature was known as the Beast of Gèvaudan.

“Figure of the Ferocious Beast”, one of the first depictions of the Beast published in November 1764.

Authorities, fearing a mass hysteria in the population, asked for military assistance. Jean-Baptiste Duhamel, the captain of the local infantry, organized a hunt involving, as he claims, 30.000 men. But even as the beast was finally spotted and shot, it escaped unharmed by the bullets into the woods (the guns at the time were however notoriously inefficient). A local newspaper wrote at the end of the first year:

» …a ferocious beast of unknown type, coming from who knows where, attacks the human species, killing individuals, drinking their blood, feasting on their flesh, and multiplying its carnage from day to day…hunters who are in pursuit have neither been able to stop it, because it is more agile than they, nor lure it into their traps, because it surpasses them in cunning, nor engage in combat when it presents itself to them, because its terrifying appearance weakens their courage, disturbs their vision, sets their hands shaking, and neutralizes their skill. «

The Gévaudan and Auvergne were rural areas, characterized by the rugged and mountainous landscape of the Massif Central. Just some years before the killings, physician Jean-Etienne Guettard visited the region. During his visit of Vichy, a city in northern Auvergne, he noted some strange dark rocks, used by locals to make bricks and roofing shingles (“roche tuiliére” in French).

Stone wall made from basalt columns, found in the town of Murat, Massif Central.

Guettard was interested also in geology and as a naturalist helped rich collectors to classify their rock samples. He noted that the roche tuiliére were very similar to samples of lava coming from Mount Etna in Sicily and hosted in the collection of the Count Of Orléans. Guettard therefore correctly concluded that large parts of the Auvergne and also some parts of the Gévaudan were formed by the lava flows of ancient, now extinct, volcanoes.

Various types of rock characterize the area where the beast preyed on its victims. The highlands of the Margeride, in the west, are composed mainly of old metamorphic granitoids (rocks of magmatic origin) and gneiss. The mountain massifs of Cantal, Aubrac and Velay, surrounding the Gévaudan, are composed mainly of younger basaltic lava. Some sedimentary rocks are found in the south.

Simplified geological map of the Gévaudan with recorded attacks by the Beast.

The rocks forming the highlands are impermeable to water, the landscape here is characterized by gentle rolling hills, covered by a mosaic of meadows, forests, and swamps. The surrounding volcanic rocks are very resistant to weathering, the landscape here is characterized by a more rugged terrain, single volcanic cones, maar lakes and many rocky outcrops prevail.

Outcrop of volcanic rocks in the extinct volcano of Puy de l’Enfer.

It was extremely difficult to hunt on such a terrain. The hunter D´Enneval de Vaumesle noted after a first survey of the area that,”this beast will not be an easy catch.” Horses could not be used in the swamps and the creature could easily escape in the forests and hide between the rocks.

Swamp landscape with eroded volcanic cones in the moor of Narse.

The Cantal Massif, with some peaks over 1.500 meters high, also acts as a barrier for clouds. The weather in the Gévaudan is notoriously bad, with cold and long winters and wet summers. Again and again the Beast escaped into the mist or hunters gave up the pursuit due to the heavy rain.

View from the Puy Mary in the Cantal Massif, a large and ancient volcanic edifice.

Despite all efforts, the Beast continued to kill. King Louis XV. was even forced to replace Duhamel, sending his own gun-bearer from Paris to the Gévaudan. But also François Antoine, despite his experience, had difficulties with the terrain. Only in September 1765, he shot and killed a large wolf near the town of Murat in the Cantal Massif. The king himself announced the death of the Beast.

The town of Murat today, with outcrop of magmatic rocks and a volcanic cone in the background.

But just two brief months later the attacks resumed.

The mysterious killings continued until July 1767, when the local hunter Jean Chastel shot another large wolf in the forest of Teynazére, on the highlands of the Margeride. Until its final demise, the Beast (or maybe a pack of wolves) had killed at least 116 children and women and wounded many more.

References:

  • SMITH, J.M. (2011): Monsters of the Gévaudan – the Making of a Beast. Harvard University Press:378

Autor: David Bressan

Bressan-Geoconsult bietet geologische Dienste im Alpenraum an, mit Schwerpunkt auf geologische Kartierung, Betreuung von Bohrungen, Quartärgeologie, Hydrogeologie und Baugeologie. Kontakt: david@bressan-geoconsult.eu