Totemic animals

In Hérault, from the sea to the countryside, they are an essential part of traditional festivals and a fun spectacle for friends and family.

These fantastical animals can be found all over the Hérault valley, and they’re given pride of place at local festivals and other cultural events.

Tales and legends

The story of these animals can be traced back to medieval legend. Some are harbingers of ill fortune. For example, the Pinet caterpillar that happily munches away at vine leaves is a symbol of the pests that attack the vineyards. But other totemic animals represent good fortune, such as the Gignac donkey, celebrated for having saved the villagers from a night-time attack by pillaging Saracens. As for the Bassan toad, his main claim to fame was that he provided nourishment for an inhabitant who was lost and starving. Legend has it that the toad could still be heard croaking from inside the stomach of the man who had swallowed him!

Comedy animals

Animal totémique - Hérault, le Languedoc © J. Debru
Their shapes and colours are often very imaginative and fantastical. They usually consist of a wooden framework covered with painted canvas. The bearers hide inside and make the animal walk along any way they like or in time with the music. It can sometimes be best to stand aside to let them pass!

The Béziers Camel

Its origin lies in the legend of Saint Aphrodisius. He was believed to be the first Bishop of Béziers and arrived from Egypt on a camel back in the 3rd century AD. Following his martyrdom, the camel was looked after by a noble in the town. When it died, the inhabitants built a wooden, mechanical camel which was supposed to walk around Béziers every 28 April (the feast-day of Saint Aphrodisius). During the middle ages, this tradition came to be seen as too pagan and it was abandoned. At the time of the French Revolution, the camel was burnt, along with all symbols of feudal rule. It was not until 1895 that the camel (which has only one hump, so strictly speaking it’s a dromedary!) arose from its ashes to resume its destined role.

The Gignac Donkey

Back in the middle ages, there lived in Gignac a very small donkey. Everyone in the village laughed at him because he was so tiny. Despite this, he was full of courage. One evening, he alerted the rest of the village with his spirited kicking and succeeded in frightening away the pillaging Saracens who were besieging Gignac. Ever since that night, Martin the little donkey has been the symbol of the village.

The Pézenas Colt

Animal totémique, Le poulain de Pézenas - Hérault, le Languedoc © Jacques DEBRU
On his way to the crusades, Louis VIII made a stop in the lovely town of Pézenas. His mare was sick and so he decided to entrust it to the people of the village to look after until he returned. After long months of crusading, the king returned to Pézenas where he discovered, to his great surprise, not only that his mare was still alive … but also that she had given birth to a magnificent colt. To thank the townspeople for the care they had given to his mare, Louis VIII had them build a wooden statue of a colt. Ever since then this statue has taken part in the town’s festivals.

The Ox of Mèze

Le boeuf de Mèze, animal totémique - Hérault, le Languedoc © J. Debru

The story of the ox of Mèze goes back to the year 59 AD. A poor family, arriving from somewhere near Béziers, came to set up home on the shores of the Thau Lagoon (Étang de Thau). This family earned its living by fishing in the lagoon and also by agriculture. To help them in their work, they had a pair of oxen. Thanks to this family deciding to live there, the beginnings of a settlement grew up, eventually becoming the harbour village of Mèze. But the first ox died, soon to be followed by the second. They decided to keep the skin of the second ox, probably because it was more beautiful. So the skin was kept as a relic, stretched over a wooden frame.

The Montagnac Goat

Around the year 1200, the wife of the consul of Montagnac, was suffering from some strange malady that no physician could cure. A man arrived in the village – a man who was always cheerful although dressed in rags and accompanied by a pretty white goat. It was not long before the inhabitants asked him why he was always in such a good mood. The man explained that the milk from his goat was magical and could cure any ailment. The consul of Montagnac promised a large reward to the tramp if he could cure his wife. The man handed the goat to the consul on condition that it was fed on nothing but vine stems and grapes to retain the miraculous powers of its milk.

Other totemic animals in Hérault

Hérisson de Roujan - Hérault, le Languedoc © J. Debru

•The Abeilhan magpie

•The grey mullet of Balaruc-les-Bains

•The toad of Bassan

•The Bessan donkey

•Le octopus of Boujan-sur-Libron

•The Loupian wolf

•The Pinet caterpillar

•The Roujan hedgehog

•The black pig of Saint-André-de-Sangonis

•The ram of Saint-Jean-de-Fos

•The Servian stag


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