On the Trail of Le Drac, A Mythical French Creature

I know I’ve inflicted two posts on you in as many days, but I can’t let Hallowe’en pass without going in pursuit of a mythical beast. Every country has its myths and legends, and France is no exception. In country areas, people exchanged them during les veillées, when neighbours came together for company on winter nights. Superstition and fantasy often combined to endow lonely places with supernatural beings that were hostile and dangerous. One such in our region was le Drac.

Haunt of mythical beings

I had heard of le Drac, but I came across it again (not personally, you understand) when I visited Laguépie recently. There, I learned that the Viaur River, which ends its journey at Laguépie, is one of its haunts.

Often impenetrable tree-covered slopes of the Viaur Valley

If ever there was an untamed and untrodden place, it’s the Viaur. It has always been off the beaten trail, even today. The river’s rushing waters and the valley’s steep, tree-lined slopes make it an ideal environment for sprites and unearthly beings.    

There was a long-held belief that fairies lived alongside the paysans in the area before the arrival of Christianity. At night, the fairies bathed in the Viaur and combed their golden hair. The river carried off the hairs they pulled out, making its waters gleam. This gave rise to the legend that there is gold in the river. With the advent of Christianity, the fairies were chased away. More sinister beings replaced them.

River Viaur rushing over the rocks

Le Drac

What is le Drac? The creature takes a variety of forms depending on where you are. Rather like the Loch Ness Monster, this reflects the fact that no one has ever actually seen it, but many people claim to know what it looks like. Conveniently, in some accounts, le Drac had the power to make itself invisible.

The creature was sometimes represented as a dragon, and its name may stem from the Latin for dragon, draco. In the Rouergue, people often described it as a werewolf: man by day and beast by night. His preferred meals were children and young virgins. Le Drac needed to keep his wolf-skin hidden in his house so that he could transform himself into his ferocious alter ego every night. The only way to lift the spell was to burn the pelt.

Drawing of werewolf
Le Drac as werewolf with its favourite prey. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fear of wolf packs was common in France even up to the early 20th century, although their numbers had greatly reduced by then. The true nature of La Bête du Gevaudan, a fierce beast that terrorised people in the Margeride area of Southern Auvergne in the 1760s, remains a mystery. One theory (among many) is that it was a wolf or a pack of wolves. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that one of le Drac’s incarnations was a werewolf.

Also in the Rouergue, some believed that le Drac chased swallows, which explains their erratic flight as they try to escape. The birds have a forked tail because le Drac managed to damage a swallow’s tail when trying to grab hold of it.

For centuries, parents have brandished the threat of child-eating monsters to chasten their disobedient children. Le Drac fitted the bill nicely.

Tales of le Drac

An Aveyronnais author, Joan Bodon (1920-1975; also known as Jean Boudou), was born in Crespin, near the Viaur. He wrote exclusively in Occitan and was fascinated by the tales his mother, a locally renowned conteuse (storyteller), and other family members told.

The village of Lagarde Viaur downriver from Bodon’s birthplace, on the Tarn side

Bodon published many of the tales he had heard as a child, rewriting them or inventing his own versions, and seeking to draw out the universal message in them. Los contes de Viaur (Tales of the Viaur) appeared in 1952, Contes del Drac (Tales of the Drac) in 1975. Many, but not all, of his works were translated into French.

It may be no coincidence that Bodon became a writer. His mother’s maiden name was Balssa, the original name of the celebrated author Honoré de Balzac’s (1799-1850) family. Balzac’s father was the eldest of 11 children and was born in Canezac, a few kilometres downstream from Bodon’s birthplace. He later moved to Paris and changed his name to de Balzac. His siblings appear to have remained in the Viaur area. Bodon and Balzac were therefore distantly related. Maybe storytelling ran in the genes.

Le Drac and the Viaur

According to Bodon, le Drac was considered to be the devil’s son. With his wife, la draquessa or draga, he sired many little demons, dracous, who delighted in playing malevolent tricks on humans.

Which brings us back to the Viaur. Le Drac was frequently associated with water, a kind of siren. With his diabolic offspring, le Drac was partial to lurking around crossing places, waiting to lead hapless travellers astray. They then wandered around in the lonely, wooded places along the Viaur until they died or were dragged down into le Drac’s lair beneath the river.

The Viaur even has a ruined pont du Diable (Devil’s Bridge), which may date back to the 12th century. Legends about this bridge abound, among them that it was built by the devil and was one of le Drac’s favourite places to waylay travellers. Apparently, around 50 ponts du Diable exist in France, most of them either built by the devil or with his help, usually in exchange for the builders’ souls (e.g. le pont Valentré in Cahors). River crossings were hazardous places.

Sadly, Bodon’s books appear to be out of print, but you can visit his family home in Crespin in the summer months. Tales of the fearsome Drac live on.

Hallowe’en is catching on in France, but thankfully, the “trick or treat” (un bonbon ou un sort) routine hasn’t really taken off in a big way yet. Toussaint, 1st November, is a much bigger deal, when French people celebrate all the saints and decorate their loved ones’ tombs.

Whether or not you choose to celebrate it, happy Hallowe’en!

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4 comments

  1. You have reminded me that somewhere I have a little booklet of stories about le drac bought at a local book fair. We have a lovely storyteller in our area who, accompanied by his dog, visits events to entertain. I heard him once on a theatrical history walk around a local village. He uses the occitan words but, thankfully, throws in their French translations. I remember le drac popped up in many of his tales, sometimes creating comic denouements so not always sinister.
    ps our Halloween lollipops are still here untouched. When the village teenagers were younger they used to trick or treat but always sent a polite warning in letter form. Too sophisticated now! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was hoping to read Jean Bodon’s tales of le Drac, since I can manage Occitan if I read it, but they seem to be out of print. Portrayals of Le Drac vary from simply mischievous to downright evil. It seems to be the latter around here!

      Where we live, we are spared the trick or treat visitors. How nice to have received a warning in previous years!

      Liked by 1 person

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