“The Wondrous Scarab,” an Alsatian folktale

Strangely enough, I’ve encountered many Alsatian folktales about scarab beetles. I say strange, because when I think of scarab beetles I immediately picture Ancient Egypt, but here we are instead in the liminal forests between France and Germany, encountering many forms of wondrous scarabs1. This particular folktale is pulled from the collection Révue des traditions populaires. 1901.


A foreign knight left the monastery of Murbach one day, garbed in the robes of pilgrimage. He passed through the valley and, in order to expiate his sins, went in search of other prayers.

He arrived on the hill where later the village of Bühl would be built, and weary from his journey on foot, reclined beneath a linden tree to rest. He fell asleep, and when he awoke near evening, he perceived an exquisite fragrance. The scent was emanating from an unknown species of scarab clinging to the stem of a flower. Examining it more closely, he discovered that the insect bore, beneath its closed fore-wings, the image of a black cross.

He saw it as a sign from heaven2 and swore an oath to construct a little chapel on this very spot. He kept his word and erected the church of Bühl3 surrounded by a cemetery, from where one can behold the whole valley and the plain up to the Rhine and the Black Forest.


1. One of the first Alsatian scarab folktales I encountered featured golden scarabs, or scarab beetles turning into living gold. Such a wondrous image was entirely folkloric, I thought, until I saw this tweet showing off the species chrysina resplendens found in Costa Rica.

2. I really enjoy tales where the pattern of religious–in this case Catholic–legends intersects with faerie and folkloric themes. For example, a righteous man encounters a sign then builds a church on that very location is a fairly common story behind many churches scattered throughout Europe. A traveler encountering a wondrous creature that asks him for something or that changes his perspective is just as common in faerie folklore. And so here we have the tale of “traveler encounters wondrous scarab” intersecting with “man searching for greater holiness finds what he seeks.” It’s like an early “cross-genre” tale.

3. According to wikipedia and Bühl’s own website, the medieval town’s earliest church was actually built starting in 1514. That century to me doesn’t invoke the image of a knight on pilgrimage and feels a couple hundred years too late. Is this an instance of a 19th Century tale mistaking the dates of a historic location? That has certainly happened before. Or is this seeming discrepancy due to Alsatians not knowing as much about the German town of Bühl as they thought? (Strasbourg and Bühl share a historic connection through a feud in the 14th Century).


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