Early in Jóusè d’Arbaud’s 1926 Provençal novella, The Beast of Vacarés, the narrator, a 15th century gardian or bull herder, describes how in summer la Vièio ié danso—the Old Dancer— “can be glimpsed on the dazzling salt flats” that surround the Vacarés lagoon in the Camargue region of Southern France.
In a note, d’Arbaud explains that la Vièio is how locals refer to mirages in this liminal landscape where earth, sea, and sky merge. “Mirages are common in the Camargue,” he tells us:
They begin with a vibration in the air, a trembling that runs along the ground and seems to make the images dance; it spreads into the distance in great waves that reflect the dark thickets. How not to see in this mysterious Vièio, dancing in the desert sun, a folk memory of the untouchable wild goddess, ancient power, spirit of solitude, once considered divine, that remains the soul of this great wild land?
“The untouchable wild goddess . . . once considered divine . . .”
Nearly a century later, d’Arbaud’s words still have the power to startle and move us, vividly evoking Earth’s sacredness. Here is a man, himself a bull herder in the region he so lovingly describes, who seems to have been a devotee of the Goddess, the “ancient power” he venerates and bring to life for his readers. Indeed, in an early poem, “Esperit de la Terro” — “Spirit of the Earth”— d’Arbaud explicitly dedicates himself to the old gods sleeping below the earth, vowing to “defend” and “aid” them. How extraordinary to discover this writer making such a commitment, well before the rise of our recent feminist spirituality and ecofeminist movements. D’Arbaud speaks directly to our current environmental, theological, social, and political concerns.
I stumbled on d’Arbaud in 2014, during my first visit to the Camargue, where I’d gone to learn more about the setting for a novel I was translating. My airbnb hostess, writer and photographer Brigitte Curdel, promptly handed me a copy of La Bèstio dóu Vacarés/La bête du Vaccarès, insisting that if I wanted to know the region I needed to read this book.
And so I fell in love, both with the Camargue—the vast and haunting Rhone delta, populated by herds of wild black bulls, white horses, and flocks of pink flamingos—and with this book that pays homage to that lonely and beautiful region, where the Goddess indeed “remains the soul” of the land.
The Camargue’s main village of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is named for the three Marys (Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobe, and Mary Salome) said to have arrived from the Holy Land in a rudderless, sail-less boat, bringing Christianity to Europe in the first century of the common era. And its church, built over a spring and an ancient “pagan” altar, houses a Black Madonna, Saint Sara, honored in an annual pilgrimage by Roma peoples who come from all over Europe to worship Her. (I’ve written about the pilgrimage in an earlier FAR post: “Our Ladies of Sea, Earth, and Sky.”)
Everywhere I went in the Camargue, I came across signs of d’Arbaud and his iconic work: the central square in Les Saintes bears his name; his books are on display in the local bookstore; and he is prominently featured at the Musée de la Camargue, the Museum of the Camargue.
Although it was celebrated when it was first published and hailed as a “masterpiece of world literature,” La Bèstio dóu Vacarés has been largely neglected outside this isolated and sparsely populated region of France. I decided I had to translate it, hoping to bring it the attention it deserves.
The novella is the story of a fifteenth-century herder, the solitary and disfigured Jaume Roubaud, who keeps a journal to record his unsettling encounters with a strange creature he can only call “La Bèstio”—the Beast. Alerted to its presence by unfamiliar prints in the deserted landscape, he tries to track it down, only to be horrified when he finally meets it: a creature with the legs and torso of a goat and the head of a human—with horns! Because this is the fifteenth century, and because Roubaud is a devout Catholic, he fears that he is either hallucinating (a mirage—La Vieio?) or that he has met the devil. Roubaud vainly tries exorcism, but when the creature speaks to him he is transfixed. “Human, do not be alarmed,” the Beast says, “I am not the devil you dread.” Instead, the Beast, whom we may recognize as the Great God Pan, claims to be a demigod:
There is but one eternal God. But there were once gods, gods born from the earth and who, upon the earth, are now dead. There are demigods . . . They live a sovereign life, slaked by floats of ether, drunk on earthly essences. Masters of a world in flower, spun in the dance of seasons and stars, they sing with the same voice as sunlight and sea.
Roubaud struggles to understand, torn between fear and pity. For the Beast is a dying demigod, scrawny and starving, persecuted by humans, drawn to the Camargue for the “wild wind” and “free air” it “cannot live without.” Day by day, Roubaud records his baffling encounters in a notebook, hoping that someone in the future will find his journal and “know how to shed light on these harrowing events.”
Of course we are those future readers, and we may bring to the tale an awareness of how the old gods and goddesses “born from the earth” might bring healing to a world that has forgotten or denied their divinity. To read Roubaud’s journal is to come face-to-face with one of those ancient beings, an incarnation of the “wild goddess” herself, and to see in Her a possibility for transformation and redemption.
My translation of La Bèstio has just been published by Northwestern University Press under the title The Beast, and Other Tales. May it offer some sustenance during this season of struggle when so many of us feel abandoned and alone.
Joyce Zonana served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. She is a literary translator and the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. Her translation of Henri Bosco’s Malicroix is available from New York Review Books Classics; her translation of Jósuè d’Arbaud’s The Beast, and Other Tales was awarded the 2019 Global Humanities Translation Prize.