The Beast of Gevaudan is easily one of the most popular werewolf legends. Movies, TV shows, books – tons of things are based on it, and new ones pop up every few years.
But here’s the problem – it isn’t really a werewolf legend at all.
Before we dive into why it isn’t, let’s first look at what exactly the legend is. In brief, because going into too much detail would make this even longer than it already is, and that’d be totally unpalatable.
In 1764-1765 in France, a creature called the Wild Beast of Gevaudan “ravaged several districts,” hunted by a detachment of dragoons, with a bounty of a thousand crowns for its death. It was said to,
[H]ave devoured more than a hundred persons. Not merely solitary wayfarers were attacked by it, but even larger companies traveling in coaches and armed. (Summers 235)
A lot of what we have today about the Beast of Gevaudan comes from extrapolations of the legend, misinformation, and retroactive changes to it based on the modern miscategorization of it as a werewolf legend.
So why am I saying it isn’t a werewolf legend?
Firstly, the beast is only ever described as some kind of unknown creature.
Secondly, and very importantly, it never changes shape beyond speculation.
There were claims made, either then or recently, that the creature was a “warlock, who had shifted his shape” (Summers 236), and one account from a supposed eyewitness who heard it speaking.
There is no particular reason or purpose behind this creature being a wolf – because it was not a wolf. It simply has absolutely no hallmarks of a proper werewolf legend, beyond the fact that the beast is shown to be intelligent (”With mysterious skill the beast baffled and even spurned its pursuers” [Summers 235]).
The Beast of Gevaudan was physically described by various historical sources, and speculated to be any of the following things:
- A “panther”
- A “hyena”
- “the offspring of a tiger and a lioness” (and we know those are possible!)
It was described as having “most formidable” teeth, which is wolflike. But it was also described as using its tail to fight. “With its immense tail it could deal swindging blows.” Along with being able to jump to tremendous heights and run with “supernatural speed,” it is described as stinking. “The stench of the brute was beyond description” (Summers 235). Yeah, wolves aren’t skunks, so I think we can write another point off toward “was it a wolf?”
There were other instances of people speculating it was a werewolf later in the legend’s history, so not actually at the time when these things were happening. An anonymous writer not even from the time period (great source, right? Very reliable) made some random claim off the top of his head that it must’ve been a werewolf because he once saw an engraving where it was eating a girl, and werewolves likey the girl flesh (this guy must’ve read a very limited range of werewolf legends, though).
But the thing ate everyone regardless of age, sex, or what-have-you, and we have multiple accounts of it eating all kinds of people, so that’s about as helpful or likely to hold up as a bucket with holes in it.
And then we can turn to the illustrations…
Oh yeah I see wolves and werewolves that look like that all the time!
Does that remotely resemble a wolf to you? (note: don’t ask that to people designing stylized wolf models for video games, especially WoW, or most people who design werewolves in Hollywood)
Look, I get it. The medievals were super terrible at artistically portraying basically anything. Pick up 90% of bestiaries and they’re full of laughs.
Here’s another Beast of Gevaudan…
Arguably a little more wolfish by medieval standards? Still not doing it for me.
So what’s the problem here?
For a long time, scholars got triggerhappy categorizing things as werewolf legends, vampire legends, dragon legends, etc. – trying to find a way to fit everything into a certain category, because humans seem to have an irresistible need to categorize everything (just look at TV Tropes).
But not all of these categorizations are true. That, and they were trying to make these fields into a thing, trying to prove there was enough material for something like “werewolf studies” to exist, so they got pretty ridiculous about it.
Before someone jumps in with “but Mav, Jean Chastel killed it with a silver bullet!” I’m going to cut you off at the pass, because we have no actual reliable source stating that this is true.
And also other sources say one Monsieur Antoine killed the beast, not some guy named Jean Chastel, so we have conflicting sources about this legend absolutely everywhere.
About the “silver bullet” thing: Until I am given a small mountain (or honestly at least 2-3) of verifiable sources from the actual time period, I 100% stand by that this was retroactively inserted into the Beast of Gevaudan legend by someone who watched The Wolf Man movie, and then the completely fake “source” was made and thrown out there because some scholar wanted to be the first one to find it (i.e., make it up).
And even if it was true, you know what? That wouldn’t make it more of a werewolf legend. Because guess what? Werewolves in literally every other legend ever, everywhere on the face of planet earth, aren’t sensitive to silver like that.
So, no, that is not a property of folkloric werewolves and if true (which I still hold that it is not), does absolutely nothing to nudge the Beast of Gevaudan closer to the “werewolf legends” category.
Because the Beast of Gevaudan is not a werewolf legend. It meets not even a single requirement necessary to be called one. It’s a cool legend, sure, and people have a relatively easy (arguably; I’m not a huge fan of a lot of the media, but some of it is alright) time turning it into a werewolf story, but that doesn’t make the historical legend about a werewolf. Any werewolf media that uses it needs to be aware of that.
This applies to a lot of other “werewolf legends,” too, such as the trial of Peter Stubbe, for a whole lot of reasons. It’s simply a miscategorization. A mistake. And it is one that needs to stop being further solidified, despite being a pretty literal error, in the scholarly world.
Don’t get me wrong, though, the legend itself is pretty hardcore (and horrible, because those people did actually die, you know). It’s just not a werewolf legend.
Note: All quotes in this article are from The Werewolf by Montague Summers, cross-examined with various other sources. But any actual quotes are from that book.