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A DEVOLUTION OF TERROR

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The Database of Ornament

                                          I

DROPPING the garment of reason, of logical
induction, and of common-sense, and putting off
the vestment of some consoling and comforting
religious belief, let the helpless, quivering soul
stand forth frightened and appalled before the
cruel, inexorable unknown against which it
must fight for its life.

It is hard for us of to-day—who expect a reason to be given for
everything, and who have our ideas as fixed as the intervals on
a piano—to sympathise with, or in any way to realise, the shift-
ing fluidity of the early mind, with its floating, unstable melting
of one concept into another. Far back in the nebula of time,
before man and beast and earth and sky became sharply differ-
entiated in the human mind, we must try to image forth to
ourselves those who were the beginners of the man-tribe, here
in the lower valley of the Rhône.

                                          II

Plunged in the dark of a long autumn night, the males and
females and little ones of a human pack are huddled together
in a narrow-mouthed cave of the fantastic limestone peaks
of the Aupiho: the Alpilles that overlooked the then great
mephitic marshes of the Rhone and the Durance.


                                          170

A fierce wind—the strong, cruel magistral: the mistral, the
god-wind—beats into the forlorn shelter as the terror-stricken
human brutes crowd close together for warmth and for com-
panionship.

With the few words and signs at their command, the poor souls
shadow forth their vague concept of the fearful unknown:
narrowed for them to dreadful, reptile-like, man-devouring
beasts, lurking in the fetid, wide-spreading morass. They hint
at the awful horrors of the swamps, and the agony of their un-
comprehending terror is like that we can divine in the eyes
of a dog in mortal fear.

Who knows if the terror have not devoured the day? As the
good warm sun fell down, a huge black dragon (for there were
dragons in those times) crouching on the mountains caught
him—and suddenly the sun was not, and all around was bathed
in a sea of blood, and blood was splashed up above along where
went the sun’s path. A naked savage stammers out shudder-
ingly how he saw the great black beast grow and swell and
vanish in the dark. The women burst into a keening wail for
the dead sun, and cruel fear clutches at all their hearts. Who
knows, who knows if the beast be not coming now? if the
rushing wind be not its breath? if the whistling roar be not
its voice, as it howls and raves outside? Who knows? Who
knows?

In the black darkness an old man rises to his feet and bursts
forth into a strangely modulated chant. The strident ululation
rises and falls more like the howling of a wolf than a human
voice. Suddenly a long note of triumph breaks into the whin-
ing howl, and ends in a wild shout of victory as the full moon
springs up over the distant crags and floods the land with light.
Lean, gaunt, naked, with rough shock of white hair and beard,
the old man stands pointing with a finger as crooked as a
bird’s claw. The poor brutes grovel at the feet of the far-seer,
the fore-teller, who has brought the light once more to them.
The terror of the marsh and the howling wind are forgotten—
and all is peace.


                                          108

                                          III

This early people lived and died; and other peoples came and
lived and died; and time went on and on and there was no one
to count the days nor to note the changes. The tribes of those
we call Kelts drifted down to the Rhdne valley, and as time
flew by they mingled with the early peoples of the land and the
memory of the ancient terror sank into their souls.

Some of these Kelto-Ligurians settled themselves near where
now the tenth-century romanesque chapel of Nosto-Damo-de-
Castdu stands high up on its rocky eminence not far from
Tarascon. They learned to build unto themselves ‘bori’—
shelters of stone safely perched on the ‘bau,’ the precipitous
rocks, of the Alpilles. They made themselves weapons with
which to kill game and to defend their homes; and pottery,
shards of which are still found in their ancient haunt. They
made tools wherewith to till the land, and in time they had
flocks and herds for clothing and for food: so life was made
easier for them, but fear stayed with them ever.

Again a long autumn night is slowly passing, and a cowering
group, huddled together for warmth and companionship,
crouches over a smoky fire. The black master-wind roars and
tears at their rough shelter; and as it howls outside, the wolf-
like dogs crowded in with their masters rise growling, and
with bristling hair snarlingly show their fangs.
Men and women and children press still closer together, and in
low tones, with fearful backward glances, talk of the terror of
the marsh: the multiform horror that never dies, but has lived
on from all time.

With more or less definite concepts in his mind, and with more
or less clear-meaning words in which to express them, a man
tells how, while hunting in the marsh, he caught a glimpse of a
huge scaly creature gliding through the mud and slime. An-
other tells how at times the awful beast shows as a great curly-
fronted thing like a bull. An old man tells how his son, now
sick unto death, was caught by the darkness and kept night-

                                          109
long: in the swamps. His son did not see the beast whose
breath is devouring fire that eats into the bones and slowly
burns out the life of man ; but he must have passed close to its
lair, for his life is going out of him in burning flame.
All are silent as the mistral pounds and tears and rattles stones
at the hut; while down the ravines the ‘rouans,’ the foam-
fronted, glistening-horned water bulls, charge bellowing to join
the great ‘rouan,’ the Rhone—bearing with them on their wild
plunge to the sea the millet harvests swirling along with the
drowned harvesters, and leaving behind them desolation and
awed despair.

‘Oh,’ wail the women, ‘will we never be delivered from the
ancient terror!’

Then rose up certain astute men, and said: ‘We who are the
elders of the people, we will deliver you.’ And these men
drew themselves apart and went into dark places, where they
took the terror of the people and (either of themselves entirely,
or because of the strangers that had passed through the land)
fashioned it into a god and showed it forth in a symbol.
They called the people together and said: ‘The ancient terror
is an awful god, and greatly to be feared; but when served as
he should be, he will watch over and protect his own tribe, his
chosen people. We the elders, the priests, are the servers of
him.’ Then the people fell at the feet of the servers of god
and worshipped there.

In time, the god shone forth in a ghastly stone whereon
was seen the scaly lizard, with gaping jaws (crocodiles lived in
the Rhone even unto our own time), or a raging bull, or a
devouring lion, or even man—so shifting are the attributes of
a god. Then the priests set up this terror-god, this tarasque,
in the different habitats of their tribe: a Kelto-Ligurian tribe
known to the Romans as the Desuviatici. The people brought
precious gifts to propitiate, and bloody sacrifice to placate, the
terror-god.

Life grew better as time went on, and fear sank down out of
sight in the hearts of the people.


                                          110

                                          IV

It is very hard clearly to make out all this far past: through
the Phoenician, Keltic, Greek, and Roman waves that have
flowed over the land. It is still harder when the tide of Chris-
tianity sweeps in from the East and churns all this confusion
into strange currents, refluent on themselves in whirlpools that
suck down the new creeds and cast them up again mingled
with the old beliefs.

From our vantage-point of to-day, aided by the search-light of
true science, we can look out over these troubled waters. We
see the old gods and the new, the ancient rites and the modern
ceremonies, all mingled in an inextricable confusion. We see
how the ancient terrors lose their power, and are degraded;
either vanishing utterly or else changing in nature. But here
and there we can clearly discern some fixed points slowly
surging up in the mind of man.

We see the Roman Marius who delivered the land from the
northern barbarians, and with him is Martha, the Syrian
prophetess. Martha seems to detach herself from Marius
and the Romans, and—possibly because of her taras, or taras-
eicon—becomes the saving deity of the people near Tarascon,
whom she delivers from danger.

In the dark ages, and the early middle ages, when reason was
not and truth barely existed, again comes confusion; for the
monkish records tell that St. Martha of Bethany (whose
legend says she came to this land from Palestine), as the price
of conversion to Christianity saved the people from a frightful
river-monster, the tarasque. In the whirl of time this tarasque
has become in many minds but a symbol of conquered pagan-
ism, whose simulacrum is led meekly in a pious procession
still held at Tarascon in honour of St. Martha’s victory. The
priests of the Roman Church carry on high in this procession
the miracle-working relics of St. Martha; before which the
tarasque, the humbled and fallen terror of the past, makes three
clumsy jumps in token of submission.

In dim remembrance of old times the people of Tarascon go, in

                                          111
blossoming May, up to the deserted heights of Nosto-Damo-
de-Castdu in gay pilgrimage to honour an ancient image of the
Virgin Mother there enshrined. A pilgrimage full, though the
people know it not, of strange memorials of their far past.

                                          V

King René of Anjou, the laughter-loving Count of Provence,
seeking to divert the melancholy of his beloved wife, Jeanne de
Laval, turned the old-time Keltic terror into gay new fêtes: the
games of the tarasque. These games still are played. The
tarasque—a monster of wood and canvas, a plajrthing and a
joy-producer—now goes through the sunny streets of Tarascon
curveting to the most rollicking of airs set to very ancient
words.

With rockets shooting fiery breath from its black nostrils, the
old-time terror plunges viciously into the laughing crowd of
onlookers, who scatter in fright—that may not be all pretence,
as the nerves thrill down to long-buried fears. And under the
rock on which towers King René’s castle is pointed out the
creature’s old lair.

The people of Tarascon to-day are fiercely, if somewhat shame-
facedly, proud of their tarasque, and many of them have a kind
of unconscious loving dread of it. In this very year of the
Lord 1896 they could be seen crowding to touch, and to make
their children touch, la Tarasco—la maire-grand, the grand-
mother, as they call it—for that touch brings good luck.

The old god has fallen to be an amusement for the crowd
and a study for the antiquarian. His image found at Taras-
connet (Noves) sits harmless in the museum at Avignon;
and another, from Les Baux, lies broken in an antiquarian’s
garden at Eyragues. Cornfields and vines are green
where were the dark morasses in which he lurked,
and the god is dead save in the poet’s song and
the tales whispered furtively at twilight.

                CATHARINE A. JANVIER
                             ‘Sòcio dóu Felibrige.’

MLA citation:

Janvier, Catharine A. “A Devolution of Terror.” The Evergreen; A Northern Seasonal, vol. 4 Winter 1896-7, pp. 106-111. Evergreen Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2016-2018. Yellow Nineties 2.0, General Editor Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/egv4_janvier_terror/