Tarasque Tarascon Provence Bernard GirardinTarasque Tarascon Provence Bernard Girardin
©Tarasque Tarascon Provence Bernard Girardin| Bernard GIRARDIN / adobestock.com

The Tarasque

Imagine a six-legged dragon with a lion’s head, covered with a turtle shell and equipped with a scorpion’s stinger and you get the Tarasque of Tarascon, a folkloric creature from Provence.


If you are passing through Tarascon, you should meet her there. According to the myth, this hybrid monster who lived on the banks of the Rhone haunted the swamps around Tarascon and terrorised the villagers by destroying everything in its path. Since 2005, the festival of the Tarasque has been proclaimed by UNESCO as part of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.


Saint-Martha’s Victory

According to Provençal legends, the Tarasque is a fabulous animal, a subtle mix between a dragon, a crocodile and a snake. Covered in scales and measuring 15 metres in height and 20 metres in length, this mythological creature with red eyes lived on the banks of the Rhône and spread terror throughout the Provencal village by devouring animals and inhabitants.

One day, Saint Martha – a young girl from Bethany and sister of Mary Magdalene – decided to confront the beast. Thanks to her faith in Christ, she succeeded in subduing the creature, which could be kept on a leash. Having come initially to evangelise the region, Martha overcomes the Tarasque with her belt and leads it before the crowd, which puts it to death. Since this event, Marthe has become the patron saint of the town.

Legend has it that Tarascon owes its name to this horrific creature. Every year, at Pentecost and Saint Martha’s Day, a mannequin representing the Tarasque is carried in procession in Tarascon to remember the young nun’s triumph over the terrible beast.

Good King René’s Provençal Tradition

The legend of the Tarasque gave rise to festivities on the initiative of King René of Anjou in 1469. In fact, in the 15th century, King René of Anjou inherited the kingdom of Provence and settled there. He organised festivities on the second Sunday after Pentecost and on July 9th – the day of Saint Martha, patron saint of Tarascon. On April 14th 1474, King René decided to create the Order of Tarascaires – also called the Order of the Knights of the Tarasque – to whom he bequeathed the presidency of the festivities. In this way, he wished to ensure that the festivities would continue, which were to be celebrated at least seven times a century, for 50 days, with an all-you-can-eat banquet and a lot of din. A warm welcome was also to be provided for foreigners. For the residents of the Rhône, the aim of these festivities was to exorcise evil in order to prevent the river from overflowing.

Until the end of the 19th century, these festivities consisted of games and a procession led by the various trade associations (winegrowers, shepherds, gardeners, etc.). The presence of these guilds was very symbolic: they represented the fertile rebirth during the Pentecost celebrations. The shape of the Tarasque as we know it is attributed to King René: a monster with a lion’s head, a torture shell, armed with stings and fangs, a reptile’s tail and a fish’s belly. The festivities promoted by King René generated a popular enthusiasm of great fervour despite the danger. Indeed, the Tarascaires – who animated the beast from within to make its tail swing – could injure the crowd present.

The Tarasque festivities, intangible cultural heritage in France

In the course of the 19th century, the festivities linked to the Tarasque grew in importance and became a major event in Provençal ethnography. The Tarasque festivities – as they are known today – date from after World War Two, more precisely from 1946. They take place in Tarascon (Bouches-du-Rhône) every last weekend in June. The main change to the festival is the introduction of the character of Tartarin of Tarascon, referring to the book by Alphonse Daudet. In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed the Tarasque festival in Tarascon as part of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. This event is also listed among the processional giants and dragons of Belgium and France. Since 2019, the Tarasque of Tarascon has also been listed in the inventory of intangible cultural heritage in France.

In the footsteps of the Tarasque

The Tarasque is a fabulous animal that evolves on a very real territory, which you can discover during your holidays in Provence. What if you went to meet the legend?

From Avignon, it will take you about half an hour to reach Tarascon. You can take the D2 road for 10 km and then take the third exit at the roundabout to continue on the D402 towards Vallabrègues/Barbentane/Boulbon/La Roque d’Acier.  You then join the D35 which will allow you to reach your destination.

From Marseille, allow an hour and a half to reach Tarascon. Take the A55, A7 and A54 motorways in the direction of Saint-Martin-de-Crau to exit 12 and leave the A54. Then follow the D27, D78D, D17, D33A and D970 towards Rue des Halles in Tarascon.