Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Devil Went Down to Cahors

Le Pont Valentré, Cahors, France. Copyright and courtesy of Alec Blyth.

I recently made my annual visit to Loubressac, in the Lot (department), and took the opportunity this time to visit the nearby "goufre de Padirac", literally the "abyss of Padirac" or more simply, Padirac Cave.

It's an impressive and massive underground network of caverns, many of which can be navigated on a subterranean river.  The Underground Stream as it were.

Unsurprisingly, legends about the place abound:  flames sometimes erupt from the entrance, a fabulous treasure was hidden by the English soldiers who sought refuge there during the Hundred Years War.  Then, as is fitting for such a vast underground expanse, there's the Devil.

In one tale, the Devil actually formed the mouth with a kick of his heel, as a challenge to Saint Martin.  Like a double-dare ya kid, he told Martin that if he could jump across the cave mouth on his mule, he'd turn over the passel of souls he was in the process of herding into Hell.  Saint Martin, of course, made the leap....and the footprints where mule landed are said to be visible to this very day.  The chasm he jumped was 35 meters across and 75 meters straight down; talk about your Leap of Faith!

The Devil then disappeared and went off to sulk.

I was immediate struck by the similarity of this tale to one I'd mentioned in my post Staff of Life: 

This cookie is from Brittany and may recall a Breton legend where the Devil, jealous of St. Michael, challenges the latter to....a jumping contest. Ready, set, go! The Devil plummeted into a canyon, but Michael, borne by pinions of air, floated safely to a mountaintop that still bears his footprint (shades of the Dome of the Rock, said to bear Mohammed's footprint). Devil, as Jack Black said so wisely, You can't win!

I suspect that there are other variations of this kind of contest and consider significant this idea that Mohammed's footprint was left on the massive stone at the center of the Dome of the Rock (discussed on LoS in another context here), for it links this aspect of the Padirac legend away from the particular and towards the general, or from the local into a more universal mytheme.

The idea that Sts. Michael or Martin could leave their footprints in rocks also recalls Franco-Celtic legends about giants, specifically Gargantua.  Folklore has it that this giant created hills and caves with his feet, small dales with his body after lying down for a nap, rivers from having a pee, etc.  I was made aware of these legends in A l'aube de l'Europe, un saint friso-gascon : la légende dorée de saint Fris de Bassoues from the Bulletin de la Société de mythologie française ; 1999, no195 and referred to it in an earlier post.

When I mentioned the Padirac legend of St. Martin and the Devil to my host in Loubressac, she was surprised that she'd never heard tell of it because her father had been an avid fan of folklore.  She did, however, tell me the legend of the Devil's Bridge in nearby Cahors.

The bridge, or Pont Valentré, took 70 years to complete, from 1308 to 1378.  As my host related it, the river it spans runs quickly and the muddy bottom not ideal for building.  The length of time it took to build probably reflects this.  As it happened, the chief architect made a pact with the Devil:  help me and my men to complete this bridge and we will give up the first soul who crosses it.  Deal concluded, the work proceeded and when it was finally completed, the Devil showed up to claim his soul.  But the architect was a crafty fellow.  The first thing he sent across the bridge was a mule.  The Devil, tricked, left in a huff.

That said, other variants have it that the trick involved a bet that the Devil couldn't bring the architect some water in the container he chose....the architect chose a sieve, so the Devil lost.  My host seems to be relating a superstition that applies to any bridge.  I recall reading that animals were herded over a newly-built bridge because the Devil claimed the souls of the first to cross.  Perhaps this was conflated with the master architect story in Cahors and the animal was specified to be a mule.

When the bridge was restored towards the end of the 19th century, a small statue of the Devil was placed at the summit of one of the bridge's towers in reference to this legend.

The legends of Saints Michel, Martin and Cahors are linked--obviously the Devil and his defeat are common elements; furthermore, all of them speak about traversing large or dangerous spaces:  a swift river, a gaping hole, a valley.  Perhaps in this crossing over, there is an implication of transition, of a changing state...from temptation to victory, damnation to salvation?

The Padirac tale also features the mule, which may be a local element as Cahors is only a short distance away.

The "Devil's Bridge", however, is more than a local phenomenon.  There are so many bridges of technical mastery around the world that have a similar origin that they form

a special category in the Aarne-Thompson classification system for folktales (Number 1191). Some of the legends have elements of related folktale categories, for example Deceiving the Devil (AT #1196), The Devil's Contract (AT #756B), and The Master Builder legends.

I said around the world but I should more properly say around Europe.  It is also principally a medieval phenomenon but there are apparently similar tales dating back to the Romans.  I would venture to guess that tales of collusion with demonic forces to construct technically challenging structures predates Rome, but it is only a guess.

The Devil's Bridge is also clearly a subset of the Deal with the Devil legends.  Someone signs away his or her soul in exchange for wealth, power, guitar mastery, whatever.  When the hour approaches, the mortal is in total despair and desperately tries to save his or her soul from an eternity of suffering, usually in vain.  On some occasions the mortal is clever enough to get out of the deal in some manner or other.

The Christian prototype for this goes back the 6th century story of Theophilus of Adana.  The tale states that this cleric, having been screwed out of a job after humbly rejecting another, decides to seek the help of the Devil with the assistance of a wizard.  The Devil makes Theophilus a bishop after the latter signs a deal (in his own blood) rejecting Christ and the Virgin.

Years later he regrets his decision and after lengthy periods of fasting and prayer is granted absolution by the Virgin Mary.  Perhaps evoking the three days between the death and resurrection of Christ, and symbolizing the possibility of the freedom from Hell Christ's sacrifice offered, it is only after three days that the contract is destroyed and Theophilus free from its obligations.

When I first heard of the Cahors legend and the mule, I was tuned into this mule due to its role in the Padirac legend.  My mind wandered to the story of the Golden Ass.  I was therefore delighted to read that this novel is sometimes considered as a source of the Theophilus legend.  I can't say "aye" or "nay" to this, but it's not entirely without its merits.

In the Golden Ass....Apuleius is transformed into a donkey through his misguided experiments with sorcery. Apuleius escapes his predicament only through an appeal to Isis, whom he agrees to serve for the rest of his life.

The Theophils tale is considered important for its influence of the theology surrounding the use of sorcery, dealing with the Devil and in the long evolution of Mary as more than the Theotokos, or God-bearer, but a powerful intercessory in Her own right.

Finally, just the other day I was discussing the symbolic meaning of donkeys with a friend who is writing a paper on the topic.  We talked a little about The Golden Ass, the biblical story of Balaam, Shrek....  Which is probably what prompted me to write this now, despite the fact I'd conceived of it before I began my last two or three posts.

I'm still left with the question of whether or not the mule in the Padirac and Cahors legends are significant or incidental.  I'd also like to look at non-European tradition which involve saints leaving traces of their passage in rocks (a wonderful metaphor for the intransient nature of their messages, perhaps).  I'll try and take on these questions sometime in the near future.


All this reminds me of The Charlie Daniels Band's 1979 hit The Devil Went Down to Georgia, hence the title of this post.  I'd initially decided only to reference the song in the title and not mention it in the post itself, but I just came across something amusing, another wink from the universe.

In this song, the Devil challenges a young fiddle player named Johnny to a duel:  his soul against a fiddle made of solid gold.  After lots of fiddling about, Johhny accepts, and then wins the challenge.  What I'd never realized, not being very literate on musical terminology, is that "The performances of Satan and Johnny are played as instrumental bridges."

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