“Auvergne… was an unknown, uncharted land which even many of my French friends didn’t know, a country with one-way traffic only; for the Auvergnat often leaves Auvergne, but few strangers penetrate his world of extinct volcanoes, rivers and lakes.”
–from An Unfinished Journey to South-Western France and Auvergne by Peter de Polnay (1952)
Charles Godfrey Leland once said: “There is not much in life pleasanter than a long ramble on the road in leaf-green, sun-gold summer.” As far as we know, Leland did not spend any time in the sun-drenched uplands of Auvergne in France’s Massif Central. Nonetheless, there is much about the province that reflects his intellectual and nature-loving sensibilities.
Formerly a volcanic district not unlike Vesuvius-dominated Naples, Auvergne is a testament to the extreme, athanor-like, mechanics of plate tectonics. It was this subterranean process—a kind of seismic alchemy—which transformed the land into the verdant idyll it is today. Rural Auvergne, with its craterous hills and sweeping meadows, probably looks more or less the same as it did in the time of the Gallo-Romans.
There are, for example, in the heart of the Dore mountains, deep, Lincoln-green, pine and deciduous forests seemingly untouched by the ravages of history. From the time when high druidry was still rampant in ancient Gaul, these dark wildwoods have been regarded as the abode of strange, otherworldly creatures—but more on this later.
North of the village of Mont-Dore lies the mighty Puy de Dôme, sacred mount of the Celtic Arverni tribe. The view from its peak is without comparison. A natural crow’s nest, it provides the best panorama of the cone-shaped chains of extinct volcanoes so extolled by ancient and modern writers. These puys, which snake around the countryside in emerald glory, form a striking contrast to the smiling, saffron-coloured plains of the Limagne; an area described in the Résumé de l’histoire d’auvergne (1826) as a “veritable terrestrial paradise”.
Unsurprisingly, there exist volumes upon volumes of books in which these sights are gushingly praised. That said, Auvergnat history also has some very interesting aspects which—some would aver—are scarcely worth a paean. Like the inner volcanism that birthed and shaped Auvergne’s iconic landmarks, wars launched from or waged within the area’s borders have altered the course of history. One of these fateful and oft-romanticised events was the Battle of Gergovie.
This bloody conflict—held in the shadow of the Puy de Dôme—saw the troops of Vercingetorix, chieftain of the Arverni, overwhelm the forces of Julius Caesar. Despite Vercingetorix’s bravery, the Romans eventually won the war. Roman Gaul was subsequently built on the bones and megaliths of the deposed Celtic rulers and governments, and slowly the Arverni and other tribes were forced to undergo the goose-stepping process of Latinisation.
The next epoch-making event came a little more than a thousand years later and took place just outside the city walls of Clermont (modern-day Clermont-Ferrand). According to some reports, it was here—in the presence of hundreds of dignitaries and churchmen—that a charismatic ascetic named Peter the Hermit and the grandiloquent pope Urban II preached on the need for Christians to disrupt the influence of the Saracens and Turks by mounting a holy assault on Palestine. The assembly seems to have responded to the idea by collective shouting “Deus vult!” (“God wills it”). Emboldened by the unanimous backing of his peers (some of whom Rebecca Rist and others have stated had been planted to stir up the crowd), Urban swiftly launched the Crusades.
In the Middle Ages, Auvergne was also perpetually plagued by bands of marauders and mercenaries called “routiers”. Like the Neapolitan and Apulian banditi, these pre-modern terrorists (among whom was the notorious criminal Aimerigot Marchés) exploited rural communities with brute force. Even though they were occasionally supported by nobles, the routiers also benefited from the local geography. The undulating and vertiginous terrain of the Massif Central, abounding in steep plateaux and sparsely-trodden vales, provided them with endless, near-impenetrable strongholds.
Vexatious and despotic as they were, the routiers were not the only dangers that threatened the lives of ordinary Auvergnats. Like much of old Europe, Auvergne was once a wolf-haunted land. In the eighteenth century, the Beast of Gévaudan turned the pastures and woodlands around Saugues into its own hunting ground. Its monstrous killing spree made headlines across France, and to this day the creature remains one of the most widely-discussed topics in French folklore. Yet the Beast was not the first of Auvergne’s lycanthropic entities. Henri Boguet, in his Discours exécrable des sorciers (1606) claimed that—in 1588—a woman was accused and executed in Riom for metamorphosing into a wolf and attacking a hunter.
Anecdotes like this are part of a vast body of folk tales that most likely can be traced to the oral traditions of Auvergne’s aboriginal denizens. Featuring fabulous beings like dryads, nymphs, imps, and therianthropes, these tales speak of the nachseite or the occult underbody of Auvergne’s uplands. They describe a psychogeographical reality underlying the visible world, a temenos existing not in historical time but in (to use Leland’s phrase) “Goblin days”.
Arguably the best distillations of this eclectic genre of literature can be found in the works of Louisa Stuart Costello and Paul Sébillot. Both writers imaginatively and passionately described the genii loci of the land and both probably would have agreed with Leland’s spiritual naturalism as he described it in his book Etruscan and Roman Remains (1892):
“…there is a spirit in the pathless woods…homes of visions in the old grey rocks with possible portals through which elves or their own elfin thoughts may pass.”
With this quote in mind, this Almanack—our longest yet—can be thought of as Leland’s ideal two-part walking guide to Auvergne. It features the wonders of the physical landscape as well as those fairy-ridden aspects of the land that are invisible to the naked eye; buried like massy ruins beneath the shifting sands of time.
One could go on and on about Auvergne’s many comfort foods, all of which are uniquely flavoured by its primaeval volcanic soil. As the region is a land of cows, grain, and grasses, much of its cuisine is based around potatoes, cheese, and beef. In Cantal, the chestnut-furred Salers cattle are especially prized not only for their meat but also for their milk. When aged it becomes the tart but mouthwatering Salers cheese. Cantal cheeses also feature in a number of Auvergnat dishes, such as truffade (a kind of potato and cheese casserole), and aligot (creamed potatoes and cheese).
In Leland’s time, these dishes could be supplemented with cabbage, bourriol (buckwheat pancakes), bacon, and fruit. The following passage, taken from Mary Duclaux’s Fields of France (1905) is an excellent description of the kinds of foods that were consumed on a daily basis by Cantalian farmers at the beginning of the twentieth century. Amazingly, it illustrates that few (if any) things have changed in Cantal’s gastronomy over the past hundred years:
“Four times a day, and five at midsummer, the farm-hands gather in Madame Langeac’s kitchen and take their bowl of cabbage-soup, where the bacon, potatoes, black bread and cabbage make a mess so thick that the spoon stands up in it ; they eat also a crumpet of buckwheat, and a noggin of Cantal cheese ; and often a dish of curds and whey, when a cheese is in progress ; a sausage if the pig has been lately killed ; a fry of mushrooms in September ; a tart of wild- cherries in July ; or carrots sliced and fried with snippets of bacon ; sometimes a queer stew of potatoes and curds called truffado ; or some other homely treat which, at mid- day, serves to mark the importance of dinner, always washed down with a glass of the strong bluish-red wine they call Limousin…”
Thermal Fountains of Youth
For hundreds of years, doctors in the West persuaded their patients that the secrets to eternal youth and bonne santé lay not in some faraway, tropical oasis but rather in the thermal springs of three picturesque Auvergnat towns: Royat, Mont-Dore, and Bourboule. The conventional wisdom at the time was that bathing in, drinking from, and inhaling the vapours of the mineral-rich waters would relieve most physical and psychological ailments.
Haemorrhoids, dermatitis, asthma—even depression were said to be treatable with Auvergne’s healing fountains. For this reason, Royat, Mont-Dore, and Bourboule in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became ritzy escapes for upper-class tourists. Their hydrotherapy sessions took place in palatial buildings reminiscent of the grandeur of Imperial Rome.
After bathing, spa-goers could attend a concert in a nearby theatre, unwind with a game of billiards, and treat themselves to gourmet meals. With stress-relieving activities like these, it’s no wonder Auvergne’s spa towns came highly recommended. As one tourist, writing in The Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal noted, the “chief magic” of Auvergne’s “watering-places” was “fresh air, abundant out-door exercise, and relief from common cares”.
Puy de Dôme, The Olympus of France
In far-distant ages, the Puy de Dôme was no friend to montagnards. There were no funiculars, no park rangers, no government-maintained, colour-coordinated footpaths. In those days, the summit of the mountain was a scoriae-clad Olympus, reachable only by braving wolf-infested forests and the lightning-spewing tantrums of Mother Nature at her rawest. Like the “high places” of the ancient Assyrians, the Dôme’s mountaintop was a place reserved for divine beings and their priestly anointed ones. For the Gallo-Romans who consecrated the site by erecting a massive temple, it was the special domain of the syncretistic deity “Mercurius Dumias”.
Here, amidst columns of marble and assemblages of lustrous votives, the great Mercury—like Zeus at Olympia—was visibly present in the form of a gigantic, resplendent statue. In his European Paganism (2000), Ken Dowden tells us that it was specially constructed by the Greek sculptor Zenodorus. Unfortunately, as it was with the Greek gods themselves (always subject to the goddess Ananke) the temple of Mercury was not built to withstand the powers of the fates. Tragedy came in the third century A.D. when Chrocus (a leader of the Germanic Alemanni) razed the sanctuary to the ground.
The history of this Olympus remained shrouded in mystery until the 1870s, when researchers and archaeologists supported by the Academy of Clermont-Ferrand first began to seriously examine the temple’s remains. Despite the fact that the temple was discovered fairly recently, the Dôme, as we will very shortly see, has never relinquished its reputation as a seat of supernatural forces. Lambert D’Aubert, count of Résie in his Histoire et traité des sciences occultes (1857) described the mountain as a place where “wizards and witches still assemble to this day”. According to D’Aubert, these persons “travelled through the air” and came from “all parts of France and Spain”. In fact, as D’Aubert saw it, Auvergne was one of the few regions where sorcerers preserved their “ancient reputation”. Some of the historical events and fables which informed D’Aubert ’s assertions are chronicled below.
A Millennium of Witcheries and Wonders
Potentially the most famous Auvergnat magician was Gerbert of Aurillac, also known as Pope Sylvester II. Born in the part of Auvergne that was then a county of the duchy of Aquitaine, Gerbert became a towering figure in the Church and acquired renown for his erudition and diplomatic skills. He was elected to the pontificate in 999 at the age of fifty-three. From the twelfth century onward, chroniclers such as William of Malmesbury and Walter Map began to smear his legacy by generating stories about his supposed pacts and apprenticeships with the devil, a nymph named Meridiana, and Moorish sorcerers. These tales circulated widely in the Middle Ages and—as Pieter Bientenholz has said—their ubiquity provides insight into the “migratory” tropes of medieval myths.
One of the most bizarre reports of sorcerous funny business in Auvergne comes from the pen of Étienne de Bourbon, a medieval heresiographer. In his Tractatus de diversis materiis predicabilibus (composed between 1250 and 1261), he included the testimony of a woman who claimed to have regularly taken part in torch-lit rituals in a “subterranean place” near modern-day Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule. According to Étienne, during these secret ceremonies, Lucifer appeared to the woman and her fellow conventiclers in the form of a black cat and extinguished their lamps with its tail. Afterwards, the attendees engaged in some kind of orgy. Étienne’s words are: “they mixed repulsively with one another.”
Another case of witchery (which ultimately resulted in execution) occurred in the fourteenth century in Chadron and involved a poor and itinerant cunning woman named Johanneta Revergada. Johanneta was hired to produce a potion to restore the happiness of the lord of Burzet, whose marriage was on the rocks. Johanneta succeeded in filling the order, but—as fate would have it—something went wrong with her concoction and the seigneur died of poisoning. There was no way she could evade the consequences of her mistake. As detailed in the Spicilegium brivatense (1886), she was burned at the stake on 6 August 1390.
In the sixteenth century, the Puy de Dôme was explicitly mentioned by two alleged practitioners of witchcraft. The first was Jeanne Bosdeau, a young woman from Dordogne who was burned at the stake at Bordeaux in 1594. A contemporary of hers, Florimond de Raemond, tells us in his L’Antichrist (1597) that Bosdeau confessed to convening with a “general chapter” of “sixty others” on the Dôme. These sabbats took place every Wednesday and Friday and involved every Christian’s worst nightmare: loose dancing, ritual urination, and mockery of the sacraments.
The second person who—under torture—admitted that he had attended black masses at Puy de Dôme was Pierre Aupetit, a “sorcerer-priest” (prestre sorcier) from Limousin. According to the infamous demonographer and witch-hunter Pierre de Lancre, Aupetit had also assassinated, seduced, and healed people with spells and noxious powders. He was ultimately condemned to death in 1598.
Aupetit’s case was unusual, but the fact is that country priests in pre-modern France were often suspected of having knowledge of and power over all the elemental forces. Gabriel Vicaire, in his book Études sur la poésie populaire (1902) noted that a common adage at the time was: “Priests and shepherds are all sorcerers.” Similarly, in Histoire et traité des sciences occultes D’Aubert wrote: “In Auvergne, they also believe that priests, if they are willing, can conjure storms by employing prayers and exorcisms.”
One remarkable demonstration of this priestly superpower took place in the seventh century. According to Frances Gostling, Saint Leobard (a friend of Gregory of Tours) punished the inhabitants of the Doire valley in Cantal with a deluge. Similar abilities were also reported by Camille Flammarion in his I’Inconnu: The Unknown (1900). Flammarion declared that he had heard of a priest from Issoire who in the 1870s was using incantations to protect his parish and direct tempests to others corners of France.
Those Auvergnats who lacked both the courage to engage in mountainside sabbats and the resolve to study the Holy Writ could—according to D’Aubert—also obtain magical powers through the Freemasons. D’Aubert claimed to have met a shepherd and magician from Saint Pourçain-sur-Sioule who said that prospective sorcerers could acquire occult abilities by engaging in a bibliomantic ceremony at a Freemasonic lodge in Riom. During the initiatory rites, the master of the lodge would put a book in the postulant’s hands and open it at random. The career path of the initiate would then be decided by the chance content of the open pages. Based on the results, the neophyte would either become a “wolf-leader” (meneur de loups) or a “drawer of milk” (tireur de lait).
Drawers of milk were instructed in all the hidden ways of getting milk from cows, while wolf-leaders were taught occult arts like thief-catching and divination. However, George Sand in the beautifully illustrated Légendes rustiques (1858) maintained that wolf-leaders were “captains” of shape-shifting sorcerers. They were, she explained, “wise and mysterious men, woodsmen or cunning rangers.” Sand’s statement echoes the words of Eliphas Lévi: “True practical magicians are almost invariably found in the country.”
In rural Auvergne, folk magic continued to be practised throughout the 1900s. In her book, Auvergne and its People (1911), Frances Gostling reported that she had encountered a witch in a “picturesque gorge of the Allier” near Coudes. Gostling related her story to an “Auvergnat friend” who confirmed that there were still a number of locals who believed in and sought help from witches. The friend also said that an old woman from her village had used the following charm to heal people: “Te, Te, Ante Te, Super Ante Te.” The construction, attested in French magical literature since at least 1547, appears to have originally been used to preserve the longevity and security of farm animals like roosters and horses.
Our last example is compelling evidence of Auvergne’s ongoing psychogeographical significance as a land of mysticism and magic. On 13 December 1973, a twenty-seven-year-old named Claude Vorilhon went for a night-time hike on the Puy de Lassolas. It did not go as planned. According to Vorilhon, he was contacted—not by a Satanic faun—but by a spaceman named Eloha. After descending into the crater in his starship, Eloha lectured Vorilhon on the mysteries of the universe and gave him the name “Raël”. Later, in 1975, another spaceship landed on the Puy de Lassolas and took Raël on a tour of Eloha’s homeland. These experiences all factored into the cosmological and spiritual beliefs of the Raëlian Movement—a UFO religion which, to this day, is very much alive and well.
See what Thinker’s Garden Fantasts are doing this summer!
- WORLDWIDE: Release of “Les bijoux de Rose+Croix” Centenary Collection. Where: iconcraft.gr. When: NOW. Who: Featuring Sasha Chaitow.
- WORLDWIDE: The beginning of Ferdinando Buscema’s “magician-in-residence” tenure at Institute for the Future. Where: Institute for the Future. When: NOW. Who: Featuring Ferdinando Buscema.
- LONDON, UK: Portals of London Abney Park Walk. Where: Secret location in North East London. When: 23 June. Who: Featuring London Dreamtime.
- WORLDWIDE: Release of Francis Young’s book, A History of Anglican Exorcism: Deliverance and Demonology in Church Ritual. Where: Amazon. When: 30 June. Who: Featuring Francis Young.
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Dowden, Ken. European Paganism. Abingdon: 2000.
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— The Gypsies. Boston: 1882.
Palmer, Susan. The New Heretics of France: Minority Religions, la Republique, and the Government-Sponsored ”War on Sects”. Oxford: 2011.
Polnay, Peter de. An Unfinished Journey to South-Western France and Auvergne. London: 1952
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Rist, Rebecca. “The Medieval Papacy, Crusading, and Heresy, 1095–1291,” in A Companion to the Medieval Papacy, Leiden: 2016.
Sand, George. Légendes rustiques. Paris: 1858.
Smith, Jonathan Riley. The First Crusaders, 1095-1131. Cambridge: 1997.
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Woolf, Greg. Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul. Cambridge: 1998.
6 thoughts on “Issue #8: Legends and Idylls of Auvergne”
Wow, what a fascinating place! Sounds like an older Gallic version of Sleepy Hollow. Well researched and well written. I’ll definitely be coming back!
Thank you Hammerson! Delighted you enjoyed it!
Can you tell me who wrote the article Issue #8: Legends and Idylls of Auvergne? And can I quote some phrases to explain my photos taken in Auvergne. More on http://www.marloesderkinderen.com My artproject ‘Water On Edge’ .
The article was written by Jonah Locksley, editor and founder of both The Thinker’s Garden and Godfrey’s Almanack.