THE HISTORY OF AVEROIGNE?
by Glenn Rahman
Originally appeared in Crypt of Cthulhu #26, Hallowmas 1984.
Clark Ashton Smith’s several mythic worlds stand as testimony to his capacity as an artist. His stories of Zothique, Hyperborea and Poseidonis bring age-old fantasy realms to vibrant life. Yet for all the artistry lavished upon these worlds that never were, Smith’s alchemy never flowed more purely than it did in his tales of medieval adventure and sorcery in the land of Averoigne.
A remote and mysterious province of France, Averoigne was the abode of vampires, satyrs and lamias, a stage where monks, magicians, and lovers were the actors. Half-pagan in his poetic zest, Smith was the one modern American who could have recreated a world of medieval romance such as Averoigne.
But did Smith have a real locality in mind when he created his Averoignian stories? A letter to Smith from H. P. Lovecraft provides the clue.
In a missive dated December 13, 1933, Lovecraft discusses the Averoignian story “The Holiness of Azédarac.” The context makes clear that Lovecraft took for granted Averoigne’s identification with the old French province of Auvergne—in modern times the area delineated by the departments of Cantal, Puy-de-Dome and Haute-Loire. Besides the similarity of names, what evidence supports this connection?
Smith’s Averoigne was an isolated mountain country covered by magical forests and springs, a center of Druidic worship from time immemorial. In the medieval period its castles were peopled by witches and monsters. This description fits the fact and folklore of Auvergne better than any other part of the French landscape. Champagne and Alsace-Lorraine, likewise forested and remote, yet fail to make a convincing match. Eastern France has always stood at the crossroads of Latin and Germanic culture and of political disturbance. Provincial Auvergne, in the quiet center of France, is much more in the spirit of Smith’s creation. Moreover, the story “The Maker of Gargoyles” implies the proximity of Averoigne and Provence. A glance at the map will show that Auvergne abuts upon Provence.
How do the geographies of Auvergne and Averoigne compare? Vyônes, the capital of Averoigne, must be identified with the chief city of Auvergne, Clermont-Ferrand. Like Vyônes, Clermont-Ferrand stands at the heart of the province and boasts of an excellent cathedral—although, unlike Vyônes, Clermont-Ferrand does not house an archbishop. The town of Ximes, often mentioned by Smith, should be sought in one of Auvergne’s other cathedral towns—St. Flour or Le Puy. Of the two, St. Flour’s claim is favored, since, like Ximes, it is also the site of a Benedictine abbey.
The Benedictines were preeminent in both Averoigne and Auvergne. Smith but seldom mentions any other order, and while Perrnonstratensian, Cistercian and Augustine monasteries flourished the length and breadth of medieval France, all the great abbeys of Auvergne were Benedictine. Smith’s Périgon Abbey, the setting of several stories, is to be identified with either Aurillac or La Chaise Dieu, both monastery towns. La Chaise Dieu’s claim is stronger because, like Périgon, the associated town was comparatively small. Furthermore, La Chaise Dieu’s higher prestige in Auvergne rivals Périgon’s eminence in Averoigne.
Averoigne’s physical geography also reminds us of Auvergne’s. Auvergne is a highland centering upon a wide, volcanic valley. Smith, in “The Colossus of Ylourgne,” mentions the “outlying, semi-mountainous hills of Averoigne.”
Accepting the hypothesis that Auvergne can, and probably did, stand as the model for Averoigne, let us briefly sketch the history, fact and folklore of the one and—by implication—of the other.
Auvergne forms the center of what is called the Central Massif of France. On a map the mountains resemble a wolf’s paw-print; from a central mass, the ranges grow out like toes. The highland of Gaul is a landscape of granite, oak, pine and fir, combined into dark, lonely forests. Within them abound groves of chestnuts, patches of mushrooms, and blue, glimmering pools. Legend warns visitors not to throw stones into these crater lakes, lest a terrible storm blow up.
Auvergne’s resources are hardly tapped, hoarded away on those strangely-sculptured heights. From out of the fissured basalts of Auvergne pour the healing waters of France, the last product of its ancient vulcanism. The largest group of outsiders to visit Auvergne are the sufferers from gout, liver ailments, catarrh and rheumatism, drawn to La Bourboule, Châtel-Guyon, Le Mont-Dore and Royat for miraculous relief.
A thousand years before the young civilizations of Sumer and Egypt erected their monuments, the ancient West had raised up the mysterious menhirs, the monoliths, of which Stonehenge is only the best known example. The oldest, dating back six thousand years, are found in Gaul. Auvergne claims many of these monoliths, but in the course of its history, what is six thousand years? The caves of Lascaux, west of Aurillac, contain Europe’s finest prehistoric paintings—three hundred centuries old.
When history begins, the Celtic Gauls reign in Auvergne. The identity of those who held sway before them—the cunning engineers of the monoliths, the painters of the caverns—remains unknown. But in the speech of the Celts philologists detect peculiar influences, giving us pause to wonder what strange tongues Celtic has assimilated.
The province bears the name of its first remembered people, the Arverni. These were Celts in speech and custom, but H. P. Lovecraft spins a legend regarding the Averones, mentioning “that famous passage in Flavius Alesius, where it is suggested that the Averones (a dark race like the Aquitani) came from a great land in the western ocean which had sunk beneath the waves.”
In general though, sources describing the ancient Gauls are very scarce and only cast light upon them at the hour of their destruction. Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, Athenaeus and Julius Caesar wrote about them, but they all used a common source, the account of the Greek Posidonius (135-50 BC).
At this early date, the Arverni were led by magician-sages, the Druids, the authoritative class in Celtic society. Interestingly, the Druids were not originally a part of Celtic culture. According to the French historian Georges Dottin, the institution never existed among the Celts of Italy, Spain, the Danube, Thrace or Asia Minor. The priesthood of Druids was only organized in the far West—or was it borrowed there from a far older source of wizardry and wisdom?
The Druids’ province was enchantment, divination and sacrifice. Sacrifices often were human. According to Caesar, the Gauls thought that the life of a man was the only way of redeeming that of another man, and that the immortal gods could not be placated in any other way. Some tribes used to erect huge effigies of woven osier, which they filled with living prisoners to be immolated by fire.
Women, too, enjoyed high Druidic offices and became the forbears of the medieval witch. Both priest and priestess emphasized the art of shape-shifting, presaging later legends of lycanthropy. Of the legendary knowledge of the Druids, of their uncanny command over all the forces of time and of space, more than enough has been written elsewhere. Gallic theology, even in its fragmentary survivals, is too vast a subject for this article. Lucan, writing in the first century AD, stated the Roman opinion of their rituals: “Cruel Teutates propitiated by bloody sacrifice, and uncouth Esus of the barbarous altars, and Taranis whose altar is no more benign than that of Scythian Diana.”
A kind of fertility goddess called Sheila-na-gig (“The Lady of Breasts”—but corrected by Colin Wilson to “Sheila-na-gog,” “The Lady of the Gods”) was obscenely depicted upon even the walls of Gallic churches well into the Christian era. In addition to gods, Celtic mythology abounded in monsters. The Beast of Noves, whose image is preserved in Avignon, is pictured with a human hand protruding from its jaw, and its forepaws rest upon two severed heads. Was such a creature based on fact? Events of the eighteenth century around Mende would suggest that it was.
The Arverni represented a culture so alien to our own that many moderns would be shocked by it. The Arverni practiced head-hunting and, occasionally, cannibalism. In 58 BC, Caesar initiated his campaign to conquer Gaul. The Arverni were his most skilled and determined foes. They were the last of the Gauls to be subdued and Vercingetorix, their leader, became France’s first national hero. The Arverni champion dealt Caesar his only Gallic defeat, at Gergovia, and very nearly finished him at Alesia.
Gaul’s culture was harsh, but no harsher than that of its neighbors who won respectability. Human sacrifice was common in the hero-tales of Greece’s Mycenaean ancestors. The gladiatorial combat of the Romans was also originally a means of divine sacrifice. Nor did the fall of the Druids put an end to the burning of men in the name of religion. The pyres of medieval Christianity were gluttonously fed by the bodies of heretics. What Gallic civilization might have developed into if given a fair chance is a point of speculation. As Rome festered at the heart, it pulled the provinces down with it. Its Greco-Roman tradition was exhausted and decadent. What the Gauls could cull from the waning culture had to be superficial; what they lost in precious native lore and art was irreplaceable.
The Roman emperors accelerated Gallic decay by the persecution of the culture-bearing Druids. The reason behind the persecutions, in strange contradiction of their religious tolerance elsewhere, has not been satisfactorily explained. The celebrants of the gladiatorial and wild beast shows ought not to have been shocked by a few lives lost in solemn ritual. Nor was Druidism a rebellious nationalistic force; Gaul was quiescent save where a Roman governor revolted. Something in Gallic Druidism threatened the Romans in a way that the priestly mountebanks of Egypt and Syria never did. Was it the power of their sorcery that the Romans feared?
But subtle were the ways of Auvergne; the Druids kept a haven in the highland backwaters. Numerous Gallo-Roman inscriptions show that the cult continued throughout the pagan period. Some Roman emperors, if we are to believe Vopiscus’ Historia Augusta, consulted Druid witches in Gaul, despite the outlawry of the sect.
Except during the civil war, Roman occupation was quiet. Augusto-Nemetum, which became Clermont-Ferrand (Vyônes in Averoigne), was founded at the outset of foreign rule. The Latin language was accepted by the hill-dwellers as readily as had been the Celtic before it. The old gods continued to be worshipped under Roman names. Gaul’s greatest temple of Mercury, celebrating his Gallic counterpart, Lugh, stood in Avergne at Puy-de-Dome. Pan, identified with Cernunnos, the Horned God, was especially taken to heart.
Before Rome collapsed, Auvergne gave it an emperor, Avitus (455-457). His career was short, Avitus having alienated the Romans by dealing with Visigoths, pagans and heretics, and—as Gibbon emphasizes—by his satyrish escapades. The Visigoths actually seized Auvergne in 475, holding it until expelled by the Franks in 507.
Christianity came late to the Auvergnians—and had to accommodate itself to their ways before they accepted it. The pre-Christian cults of the West could not just disappear. To appease them missionaries willingly admitted features of the old worship into the new. Christianity translated the gods and goddesses into saints or devils. The peasant continued to bring offerings to the health-giving spring of Apollo, but now it was accredited to St. Apollinaris. Wells associated with old divinities still received reverence, but were now Christian holy wells. The old shrines and burial grounds had become Christian churches and cemeteries. Auvergne’s saints did not build churches, but sought savage, lonely places to meditate, living in huts or tiny cells.
The travel writer Freda White reported in her 1964 book that she believed she found traces of Druidism still remaining in the Central Massif. Sir James George Frazer observed in The Golden Bough that on the evening of the first Sunday in Lent, fires are still kindled everywhere in Auvergne. Every village, hamlet, ward and farm has its bonfire. People dance, sing, leap through flames and then proceed to a ceremony where a straw torch is fastened to the top of a pole. When it is half-consumed, bystanders light brands from it and carry them to garden, orchard, field and every place where there are fruit trees. They pass the burning torches under the branches singing “Granno.” Finally they go home and feast. This is a fertility charm which Frazer suggests is a ritual of Grannus, the Gallic Apollo, whose ancient worship is attested to by inscriptions all over France.
Visitors to Auvergne today can see for themselves how close to the surface of medieval worship stood the old paganism. In the village of Mozac, a twelfth century carved pillar displays Pan and his satyrs. In the village of St. Paulien an old church has, under its cross, a pedestal which was once a pagan altar. In view of such evidence we must agree with Freda White, who is of the opinion that ancient influences persisted longer in Auvergne than anywhere else in France.
Auvergnians are highly resistant to outside innovation. What less can be expected of a race that has kept its ethnic spirit since pre-Roman times? Except for their language, the inhabitants of Auvergne, physically and ethically, are more akin to their brother Celts, the highland Scots, than to their continental neighbors. They have not often mixed with invaders—who have usually found the rugged hills a hard redoubt to reduce.
During the early Middle Ages, Auvergne was a part of the Merovingian and Carolinian states. When the Carolingian Empire fell apart in the ninth century, Auvergne became a separate country. William the Pious, the first hereditary count of Auvergne, in 886 also acquired the duchy of Aquitaine.
During all this time the old religion was hardly in the minority at all, according to some scholars. The ancient cult worship, so much of it associated with the Horned God, still possessed adherents everywhere, particularly in the hills and country districts. This religion of the Horned God was practiced in serious competition with established Christianity, whose corruption and elitism robbed it of its value as an edifying force and a spiritual model.
These years, up to the twelfth century, were prosperous for Auvergne. Pope Urban II chose Clermont-Ferrand for the starting point of the First Crusade. Auvergne was also the site of the first triumph of the High Middle Ages, the architectural style known as the Roman Avergnat. The province clung to it until the twelfth century, long after the Gothic fashion had swept the less conservative areas of France.
In 1044 La Chaise Dieu (equivalent to Smith’s Périgon) was founded by Robert of Aurillac. Although a count by birth, he went into the retreat with two other monks. Before he died, three hundred disciples had attached themselves to him. The monastery grew and produced a number of the notorious anti-Popes of Avignon. Gradually La Chaise Dieu commenced a spiritual and moral decay. (Smith notes the contemporary corruption of Périgon in a wry tale, “The Disinterment of Venus.”) It was sacked in the Wars of Religion and closed during the French Revolution.
The most notable personalities in Smith’s Averoigne are its sorcerers, including the remarkable Azédarac. But even Azédarac’s career would not outshine that of Auvergne’s Gerbert.
Gerbert, a humbly-born monk of Aurillac, became tenth century France’s greatest scholar, but rumors of witchcraft and alchemy followed him all his life. He acquired arcane Moorish learning in Spain and brought back the pendulum clock and Arabic numbers to Europe.
Subsequently, Gerbert tutored the German Emperor Otto III and was appointed master of the cathedral school of Rheims. He took part in a successful plot to remove Charlemagne’s heirs from the throne of France. His intrigues continued when he usurped the archbishopric of Rheims, despite his low birth. Finally, threatened by excommunication, Gerbert resigned and returned to the court of Otto III. Under royal patronage he won the see of Ravenna and, soon afterwards, the Papal throne itself.
Reigning as Sylvester II, he saw the coming of the Millennium (1000 AD), but suffered a troubled tenure, scandalizing himself with alchemy and intrigue. In 1001 a revolt drove the reputed wizard from Rome. He returned the next year, but died in 1003.
Auvergne’s prosperity ended in the twelfth century, when it fell under the rule of the English kings through marriage. The province became a contested prize between the monarchs of France and England. The local barons used the turmoil to usurp tyrannical power over the inhabitants. Their oppressiveness is remembered to this day. A typical legend recalls the Countess Brayère, who dined on infants.
The Hundred Years War made conditions even worse. The regional nobility joined with common mercenaries, the routiers. Under the ensuing robbery, plagues and famines, the peasantry revolted in the great Jacquerie rising in 1358. Gangs of farmers scoured the countryside, plundering manors and putting anyone with soft hands to death. They wore animal skins, as if they believed themselves one with the shape-shifting Druids of old.
The dawning of the Renaissance brought on the hysteria of the witch persecutions. There had always been crypto-pagans and sorcerers in Western Europe, but now orthodoxy itself was in ferment. The sixteenth century saw the rise of the Protestants and the French Wars of Religion. No longer was Auvergne to be left out of the violent events of Europe. Armies crossed it, struggling for possession of its towns and castles. St. Flour (Averoigne’s Ximes) successfully resisted a Huguenot siege. Its conservatism led it to support the royalists during the French Revolution; in retaliation the Revolutionaries demolished its famous walls.
To Clark Ashton Smith, Averoigne was one thing above all else—the haunt of the werewolf. So too was Auvergne. It is only to be expected that a magic land which pours out healing spring waters might contain a few that are evil and lycanthropic. “The Enchantress of Sylaire” tells the story of one such Averoignian spring.
Shape-shifting was part of the wizard lore of the Druids. The haunted forests of Auvergne produced numerous werewolf legends. William of Auvergne, a bishop of Paris up to 1249, was something of a lycanthropy expert. A chapter of his De Universo treats diabolical werewolfism at length.
On July 8, 1764, commenced the most striking case of lycanthropy in the Central Massif. A werewolf, soon to be known as the “Beast of Gévaudan” initiated a rampage near Mende. So many children were slain over the following months that King Louis XV ordered out a troop of soldiers to deal with the menace.
On February 6, 1765, the troops cornered the creature, filling it with musket shot and pursuing it into a thicket, where they lost its trail. It had been a remarkable sight, running on two legs like a bear. Supposing that no beast could survive the wounds they had inflicted, the soldiers packed up and returned to Paris.
Soon the werewolf was back at work. The devastation continued until l767, a period known as the “time of death.” The parish records of the area contain long lists of victims. For three years the beast baffled and even spurned its pursuers. Modern demonologist Montague Summers relates: “The country folks were well assured that the monster was a warlock who shifted his shape and it was useless to attempt to catch him.”
But attempt they did. At last, in June 1767, a band of five hundred and sixty peasants formed a circle around the werewolf’s hunting grounds and closed in. They trapped the Beast of Gévaudan in a grove near Le Sorge d’Auvert, where a local hunter, Jean Chastel, slew it with a silver bullet.
Chastel reported that the beast he killed “had a strange appearance. It had peculiar hoof-like feet, pointed ears, and the body was covered with dark, tough hair.” Montague Summers estimates that more than a hundred children were murdered by the werewolf. Although two hundred years and more have passed, those days of terror have left their scars on the French landscape. Freda White found that the Mende area is today a bare land, although it had once been thickly forested. “The deforestation was done to clear the land of wolves, after the devastation of the ’Bête du Gévaudan’,” she reports.
This is the last reported outbreak of Auvergnian lycanthropy that has come to our attention. Perhaps the monster had been the last of the old Druidic wizards. Possibly the strange history of the Beast of Gévaudan inspired Smith’s tale “The Beast of Averoigne.”
Historians and anthropologists have theorized that the passing of the Age of Faith, with a concurrent social and economic change, led to the decline of both Christianity and the witch cults. Industry broke down the isolation of the old community as peasants found mill work in the cities. The Age of Reason was dawning.
If the werewolf of Gévaudan was an example of the old beliefs in their final form, we need not be sorry at their passing. But is it so? We have the testimony of travelers who suspect that there is much magic in Auvergne yet. It is this type of magic that Clark Ashton Smith wove into the marvelous saga of Averoigne.
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