Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/February 1894/Superstitions of French Canadians



THE folklore of Canada is the more interesting that it has its origin in various sources. The Canadian transported with him from fruitful Normandy, from poetical and superstitious Brittany, a wealth of popular myths, traditions, legends, and beliefs which are almost as firmly held in French Canada of to-day as ever they were in the ancient days of faith. Civilization has scarcely invaded the sanctity of earnest faith, or broken its spell.

In the legendary lore of Canada the devil plays a prominent part. He does not appear as the strong angel, who fell through pride, the enemy of God, but as the mediæval devil of monkish legend, the petty persecutor of man. In the rural districts of Canada, Satan is supposed to be very active. His company may be looked for on all occasions. The accidental appearance of a little child in the room often betrays the presence of the evil spirit, as the poor innocent is sure to bewail itself vigorously. The Prince of Darkness may be met at a ball, in the guise of a handsome young man who excels all the rustic gallants in appearance. He wears gloves to conceal his claws, and disregards the trammels of conventionality by keeping his hat on his head to hide his horns. He selects the prettiest girl in the room as his partner, but his choice is usually the village coquette, whose vanity or levity has exposed her to the evil influence. In the midst of the gayety a piercing cry is heard. A strong odor of brimstone becomes perceptible, and the attractive cavalier is wafted out of the window, carrying with him some useful domestic utensil, as, for instance, a stove or the frying pan. The girl may escape with a sharp scratch of a claw, particularly if she should happen to wear a cross or a crucifix. Canadian rustics never answer "Entrez," when a knock is heard at the door; they invariably respond "Ouvrez." This is founded upon an old legend of a young woman who replied "Entrez" to such a summons, when the devil came in and carried her off.

When one is starting in a hurry to bring the priest to the sick, the devil is stimulated to the most lively activity, for then it is the question of the loss and gain of a soul. On such occasions an endless variety of the most unforeseen accidents are sure to happen. The horses are found unharnessed, or the harness breaks without any reason, and strange lights flash before the horses' eyes. Prudent persons guard against such contingencies by providing themselves with two vehicles; then, if an accident happens to one, the other remains available.

The werewolf legend constitutes one of the most somber of the traditionary beliefs existing in French Canada. The story of a human being assuming a wolf's shape is certainly one of the most generally diffused throughout the world, and the werewolf story comes down to us from old Roman times. The French Canadian believes that if a person does not partake of the sacrament for seven years, he will turn into a loup-garou—a shapeless animal without head or limbs; the loup-garou might also appropriate the form of a wild cat, a hare, a fox, or even a black hen, but at night he was obliged to range through woods and desert places. At dead of night the loup-garou steals from his bed; climbing the highest tree in the neighborhood, he hides in its branches, and is instantly transformed into bestial shape. He is endowed with supernatural speed and strength. A fierce creature, with appetites exaggerating those of the animal he resembles, his especial delight is in slaughtering and devouring little children. When he returns to human semblance he may be recognized by his excessive leanness, wild eyes, and haggard countenance. In order to regain his estate of humanity, it is necessary that the blood of the monster should be shed. This kindly office being performed by a friend, a complete restoration results.

The wandering Jew legend in various forms was also very popular in Canada. In many parts of the country cats of three colors were considered lucky, therefore the fortunate possessor of a puss mottled with black, white, and gray should preserve the animal carefully. When a Canadian lumberman is sufficiently fortunate to shoot a deer, he wraps himself at night in the skin, in order to keep off witches.

The souls of the lost, or spirits in purgatory, naturally occupied a prominent position in Canadian folklore. The dead frequently returned to the world; among old-fashioned persons there were few who had not held converse with a spirit or revenant. In punishment for sin, the dead were often detained on the scene of their past misdeeds. One dead person could not help or relieve another; the wrong committed on earth could only be righted by the intervention of a living being. The evil spirits were unable to cross the blessed waters of the river St. Lawrence without the help of a Christian. These haunting spirits were numerous, and of various descriptions.

The aurora borealis, called les marionnettes, les éclairons, les lustrions, are supposed to be lost souls. It is a common habit among the country people to sing aloud to keep off evil spirits as they express it, "Lorsqu'ils ne sont pas trop assurés." They believe that the sound of an instrument, or the human voice raised in song, will cause the marionnettes to dance. However, dire misfortune threatens the reckless being who adopts this method of amusing himself: unless the precaution is taken of touching him in time with a palm that has been blessed, he gradually yields to a weird fascination, his eyes dilate, his voice grows feeble, and before morning dawns his body lies stiff and stark in death, while his soul has flown to join in the giddy whirl of les lustrions.

Fireflies, known as feu-follets, called by country people fi-follets, are also considered to be lost souls, whose goblin lights lure the unwary to destruction; a sad prerogative possessed by fireflies in common with other lights of the century less brilliant, perhaps, but whose seductions are quite as much to be dreaded. A simple charm will curb the malicious designs of these airy, glittering imps. If the object of their persecution can retain sufficient presence of mind to thrust either a needle or a sharp knife into the nearest fence, the fi-follet is obliged to stop short in his course. One of two things must then happen: either the fi-follet will impale himself upon the sharp instrument, and thus find deliverance; or else he will exhaust himself in frantic efforts to pass through the eye of the needle, an attempt which proves quite as difficult to the fantastic spirit as to the most substantial of mortals; this gives the traveler time to seek the shelter of a dwelling.

The Lutin is a tricky spirit, delighting in mischief. How often may it happen that, on entering his stable in the morning, the habitant finds his best horses exhausted! One must be stupid indeed not to guess that this is a trick played by Lutin, who enjoys a ride at other people's expense, and is not at all likely to spare the animals of which he takes possession. A remedy for this imposition exists. Lutin is most orderly in all his ways and methods, and is forced to leave everything in its place exactly as he found it. To prevent the horses from being taken out, it is only necessary to scatter a quart of bran before the stable door. The imp will be obliged to step on the bran, the grains of which will naturally become disarranged by the pressure of his footsteps. In scrupulous fulfillment of his obligation, he must replace them one by one; the night passes in the fulfillment of this tedious task, and, when once morning dawns, farewell to Lutin's hope of a gallop.

The early French missionaries ascribed a very diabolical character to the sorcery practiced by the Indians, and many traditional beliefs held by the French Canadians can be traced directly to the influence of these heathens. It is said that the taking of Canada by the English was predicted by an Indian witch many years before the event actually happened. The French believed that several different descriptions of sorcerers existed among the savages, and that various degrees of magic were practiced among them. It was always agreed that savage magic could exercise no power over a baptized Christian except when that person happened to be in a state of mortal sin. One kind of Indian wizard was called an adocté—that is, one who had made a secret compact with a mahoumet. It is difficult to find the origin of this term, which the French colonists applied to the familiar spirits of the Indian wizards. A Canadian writer (Dr. J. C. Taché) offers the explanation that, considering the founder of Islamism the incarnation of all evil, the French applied his name, slightly altered, to these diabolical spirits. The mahoumet was a species of goblin, who devoted himself to the service of his votary on the condition that the latter should obey him in all things and should offer him frequent sacrifices. This mahoumet is described as a little man, about two feet high, having a skin gray and shining, like that of a lizard, and eyes that glowed like living coals. The adocté bound himself by a solemn oath, and it was only the sacraments of baptism, confession, and absolution that had power to break the compact. Treachery between the contracting parties was not rare, neither being deterred by any scrupulous delicacy from striving to outwit the other; but as the adocté was the slave of his tormentor, he usually got the worst of the bargain. The mahoumet counseled his adocté, and, when not restrained by the power of magic superior to his own, aided him in his difficulties. Feuds were frequent between these wizards; through the powers of their mahoumets they played each other many tricks. The conflicts between them might continue for a long time, but in the end one must perish. Unless a wizard abandoned his evil practices he never died a natural death.

The Canadian sailors and fisher folk have superstitions peculiar to themselves. A belief in mermaids is very general. There are certain fishes which the fisher folk never touch; for instance, a certain kind of haddock, commonly called "St. Peter's fish," which legend declares to have been the first fish taken out of the net by the apostle on the occasion of the miraculous draught of fishes. The back of the fish is said to bear in black marks the imprints of St. Peter's fingers.

The Abbé Ferland, a well-known Canadian writer, gives an account of flames which are said to be seen dancing upon the waters of the Bale des Châleurs, and which the fishermen declare are caused by the souls of sailors who have perished on that spot, and who send this weird appearance that the living may be reminded to pray for their souls. "According to the reports of those who have examined them," he observes, "they rise from the sea between Caraquet and Paspebiac. Sometimes no larger than a torch, then again like a vast conflagration, they advance, retire, rise, fall. As a boat approaches they disappear; then, as it retires the light acquires fresh brilliancy."

The sailors and fisher folk are also firmly persuaded that Admiral Walker, with his phantom fleet, appears occasionally in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The sight of this weird spectacle invariably presages disaster for mariners. A very terrible shipwreck, which took place at Isle aux Œufs many years ago, was believed to have been caused by this ghostly appearance. Before it appears the sea is smooth as glass; suddenly the waters are agitated, the waves rise mountains high, rolling wildly one against another; then a vessel appears, striving against the force of the raging billows. The deck is crowded by soldiers and mariners whose ancient uniforms date from another century. On the main deck stands the commanding officer, who is pointing out the somber heights of Cape Despair to the pilot, while a beautiful woman in white draperies clings to his arm. The ship is driving straight on to Cape Despair. Then, as the shattered vessel is ingulfed, piercing cries are heard mingling with the growling of thunder and the hoarse roar of the tempest; then, abruptly as it appeared, the vision has vanished; the sunshine dimples on a sea like a mirror, and the waves ripple softly to the foot of Cape Despair.

The word ignolée designates both a song and a custom imported from France by our ancestors. Both flourished for many years in Canada; though now, even in the most remote country districts, they have fallen completely into disuse. M. Ampére, chairman of le Comité de la langue, de l'histoire et des arts de la France, calls this song "a chorus which is perhaps the only actual fragment left of the Druidical epoch." The custom is believed to have come down from the time of the Gauls, and is said to have originated in the habit practiced by the Druids of going out on New Year's eve to gather the mistletoe which clung to the oaks of their sacred forests, and the rejoicing cry uttered by the pagan priests as the hallowed plant fell beneath their golden sickles, "Au gui, l'an neuf!" ("Mistletoe for the New Year!").

Christianity accepted the pagan rite, and sanctified it by charity. In Canada, a party of men, called les ignoleux, went, on New Year's eve from house to house, collecting for the poor of the parish, or in some localities begging wax to make tapers for the altar. They sang a chorus, in which the term ignolée frequently occurred, the term assuming slightly differing forms according to the dialects of the various provinces of France from which the colonists had originally come, as ignolée, guillonée, la guillone, aguilaiden. Troops of children, shouting "La ignolee qui vient!" preceded the procession. A table was immediately prepared for those who cared to partake of refreshments, as well as gifts for the poor. When the ignoleux reached the house, they beat time upon the door with long sticks as they shouted the chorus; but they never entered until the master and mistress, or their representatives, pressed hospitality upon them. The invitation was accepted with great state and ceremony, compliments of the season were exchanged, and the charitable donations were placed in a bag, which was emptied into a sleigh that followed the serenaders. In begging for the poor, request was always made for a chine of pork with the tail attached, called l'échignée, or la chigné. In high good humor, heralded by barking dogs and shouting children, the whole party started for the next house.

Tradition constitutes the archives of a people, the treasures of their faiths and beliefs, the landmarks of their past history. The people's superstitions are, in truth, the people's poetry—crude, grotesque, but surely most pathetic efforts to find shape and substance for images cast by their own innate emotions, fears, and aspirations. These blind searchings after truths that lie beyond the confines of the senses, and outside the domain of logic, possess a deep significance from a human as well as from a literary point of view. These strivings are themselves phenomena to be taken into account before we can solve the problem of life.