The tarasque is a famous dragon of medieval French folklore. It burned its victims with fire, but the fire did not come from its mouth. Quite the opposite.
Almost every society has some form of dragon – going as far back as ancient Chinese, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian mythologies. The image of a large, serpentine creature seems to be some kind of cultural bedrock, and it persists even through to today.
France has some great dragon myths. The first and foremost of these is the tarasque. The head of a lion, the body of an ox, the shell of a turtle, the (six) legs of a bear, a scorpion’s stinging tail, and wings above all, the tarasque is said to have terrorised the marshes near Tarascon and the Rhône river – pulling whole ships down into the waters.
All of this is recorded in the Golden Legend, the famed collection of stories about saints that was one of the most popular texts of medieval Europe (and which I hope to write about another time). The Golden Legend has one lovely sentence that caught my attention: the means by which the tarasque fought its enemies:
And when he is pursued he casts out of his belly behind, his ordure, the space of an acre of land on them that follow him, and it is bright as glass, and what it toucheth it burneth as fire.
Yes, that’s right, the tarasque crapped out an acre of flaming poo. Amazing.
The tarasque was undone by the saint at the centre of this story, Saint Martha: she paralysed him with prayer and holy water and let the townsfolk perform the coup de grâce:
And she cast on him holy water, and showed to him the cross, which anon was overcome, and standing still as a sheep, she bound him with her own girdle, and then was slain with spears and glaives of the people.
Every year the city of Tarascon has a festival in commemoration of the saint and the tarasque. A dinosaur has been named after the myth – the tarascosaurus – and the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons has adopted the tarasque as the most lethal creature it is possible to encounter. As far as I know, neither the festival, the dinosaur, nor the RPG mention the whole flaming poo angle.
What a missed opportunity.