This question has been debated since Classical times, and there is still no clear answer today. Back in the 16th century, the future King Henri IV of France thought he knew why. These mountains were called the Pyrenees because one of his ancestors had ravished a princess. Earlier this summer, I explored the story by following Henri’s footsteps deep inside the cave of Lombrives.
Inside the Grotte de Lombrives
The cave entrance is a vast hole in the cliffs above the main road from Tarascon-sur-Ariège to Ax-les-Thermes in the central Pyrenees. I was the only visitor, so for once I did not feel guilty about plying the guide with so many questions. Although the cave is lit, each of us carried a lamp to help us pick our way through a succession of galleries named Teat, Crime, Amphitheatre, Ladders and Cemetery. After just over a kilometre, we reach the tomb of Pyrene, the central figure in the legend that brought Henri to Lombrives in 1578.
Bebryx had a daughter who was so beautiful, her hand was sought by an army of noble suitors. Pyrene rejected them all until, one day, a young and handsome hero arrived in the kingdom of the Bebruces. Pyrene could not keep her eyes off him, and she was entranced by tales of all the labours he had performed from one end of the earth to the other. Hercules could never resist the charms of a pretty person of either sex, and he soon fell under the charm of Pyrene.
Love or lust?
The princess and her hero soon became lovers. Pyrene spent her days and nights in the mountains, using the excuse that she was caring for her flock of sheep and goats. Hercules roamed through the surrounding countryside, bringing back gifts of wild berries for Pyrene, and if it was hot, the young lovers bathed in mountain streams or took lingering walks in the forest.
Silius Italicus was not a romantic poet. In his account, he simply states that one night at court Hercules drank too much wine and raped his host’s daughter. Either way, love or lust led to the same result. When Hercules was called away by the gods to perform yet another labour, Pyrene found she was pregnant. Terrified of her father’s fury, she fled into the mountain wilderness where a fearsome bear mauled her slender body and tore her face and flesh to shreds. The pain was excruciating, and Pyrene’s screams echoed around the valleys and over the peaks and far away.
Henri Bourbon and Hercules
Many years later, this legend reached the ears of another young hero. Henri Bourbon was the third king of his name to rule the Pyrenean kingdom of Navarre, and ten years later he would become the fourth Henri to rule the whole of France.
Royal families have often sought to gain legitimacy and respect by grafting heroes or deities onto the roots of their family trees. Henri’s house was no different, and the kings of Navarre had long cultivated the legend that they were descended from Hercules. For Henri, Lombrives was a family mausoleum.