Southwest Provence, around Arles and the Camargue, has a very distinctive culture: it’s a horse and bull culture. This marshy area, unsuitable for development, has been of little interest to humans over the years. Thus, it was a perfect place for herds of wild white horses, black cattle, and a multitude of birds, including pink flamingos.
Even though the origins of the Camargue horse are uncertain, it is considered to be one of the oldest breeds in the world. Many compare it to the short, stocky, prehistoric steed painted on the walls of the Lascaux caves in the Dordogne region of France. Could the modern Camargue horse be the descendant of the one that lived alongside those cave people?
Wherever this horse originated, it’s a mysterious creature. For one thing, it changes color. The colts are brown when they’re born, and when they are four or five years-old, they turn white – well, actually, light gray, but that’s close enough.
These amazing horses once roamed free, but now they live a semi-wild existence. Some of them carry gardians and work with bulls, and others carry tourists around. They all belong to someone are fenced, but when they get back from their day’s duties, they are free within their enclosure. There are usually no barns or stables, they sleep in the fields, eat whatever is growing there, and they deal with reproduction on their own.
At one-year-old, the colts are branded and separated from their mother, then at three, they start being tamed and trained. The males are taught to work with bulls, and the females are raised for breeding.
The fearsome Camargue bull is short and thin with a black coat and horns in the shape of a lyre. He’s intelligent, agile, and long-lived, reaching 30-40 years of age. Like the horse, he lives a semi-wild existence on the Camargue ranches. Bulls are raised mainly for the bull games that are very popular in these parts, and cows are kept for breeding. A few, however, do end up as steak.
The gardians are basically Provençal cowboys who ride the white horses and round up the black bulls. They show off their riding and herding skills at events held throughout the year.
Of course, there is a legend about these three beings and how they came to cohabit in the Camargue marshlands…
Poseidon in the Camargue: A Legend
One day, Poseidon, the great god of the sea, was surveying his kingdom from the shores of the Camargue. As he was riding along in his majestic chariot pulled by nine powerful, white horses, he spotted a human floundering around in the water. The mighty Poseidon approached and slammed down his trident, causing the earth (and the man) to tremble.
“What are you doing here in my domain?” Poseidon demanded.
“I live in this area,” the frightened man explained as he made his way to the shore. “This beautiful region is my home, but I have a terrible problem. There is a fearsome animal that also lives here. It’s a huge black bull with horns shaped like a lyre. This bull is always chasing me and the only way I can get away from him is to run into the sea.”
The god of the sea, who had a fondness for the frail human race, decided to help this poor, desperate man. He unhooked the lead horse from his chariot and offered it to the astonished human saying, “This magnificent horse will help you subdue the black beast. He will always be your friend, but never your slave. You must allow him to live free and smell the sea, from which he was born.”
The man graciously thanked Poseidon and spent the next three days and nights with the high-spirited horse, that had never been around a human. Every day, the white steed became tamer. Soon, the man was able to climb onto the horse’s back, and as soon as he did, the horse took off galloping in the direction of the big black bull.
The poor human was shocked and more than a bit apprehensive. But remembering the trident that Poseidon carried, he broke off a three-pronged tree branch, as they galloped past, and used it to subdue the bull. From then on, the man on his horse controlled the bull.
This is why, even today, in the Camargue, you can see the gardians on their white horses carrying their trident to control those black bulls.
*You can read even more about the Camargue and the rest of Provence in my book, Curious Histories of Provence: Tales from the South of France.
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Image Sources: Image 1&2, Image 3: Painting on building in Arles – photo (and enhanced by me), Image 4: Public domaine