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The Provençal Christian legend is that Martha, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus and other saints (as well as fourteen bishops), were thrown onto a boat, without sail or oar, in Palestine and eventually landed in Marseille in 48 AD.
Martha went up the Rhône and came to Tarascon where a monster, whose den was near the river, was running wild: the Tarasque.
The people of Tarascon begged for help and Saint Martha captured the beast and took it to the people who tore it to pieces and converted to the new religion. She settled in Tarascon and died here in 68 AD.
Saint Martha’s relics were hidden to be saved from the destructive force of the Saracens. A beautiful Romanesque church was consecrated to her in 1199 and we can still see its impressive porch.
The saint’s tomb became more popular than ever for devout pilgrimages and true devotion. It was no surprise to see the houses of prayer and meditation that are monasteries spring up nearby.
"During this period there was […] a dragon which was half animal and half fish, bigger than a cow, longer than a horse and with teeth like sword-shaped horns and armed with two shields." This is how Jacobus of Voragine described the amphibian monster, the Tarasque, in "The Golden Legend” (1255).
Certain features stand out in the numerous representations and descriptions of the monster which terrorised the banks of the Rhône: the length of the body, the size of the head and its dreadful mouth, gravelly skin, short legs and long tail.
The image of the Tarasque has been reproduced in different ways throughout the centuries but always keeping the same reptile elements (lizard, turtle, dragon, snake, snail or a combination of all these creatures) as we can see on the Consuls’ counter-seal, the town’s coat of arms, the counts of Provence’s coins, carved into churches’ doors or decorating a cloister’s capital. It could only have been a large amphibian, perhaps a crocodile.
Legend has it that this creature entered the Rhône after the sinking of the ship that was taking it to a nearby arena and the Rhône’s delta with its marshes must have seemed a warm, safe shelter to our creature. This would also explain why the monster has been so badly represented since it was a stranger to the region and, of course, he was only glimpsed from far away. Due to the vague descriptions, artists gave free rein to their imaginations and came up with representations of anything, from snake to dragon.