Louisiana Cajun folklore, superstitions, spells and legends are known around the world. Learn more about the unique Southern culture they come from.
You may have heard spooky Cajun legends around the campfire like the loup-garou (Cajun werewolf), or the père malfait (Cajun boogeyman). We’ve all tasted zesty Cajun cooking, or heard stomping Cajun music. But did you know Louisiana Cajun folklore is heavily French influenced, with a dash of African, Native American, Spanish and other cultures? Talk about a cultural gumbo!
Before we treat you to some Cajun superstitions, spells, legends and myths, you may be curious where Cajuns actually come from. So let’s find out!
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What Does Cajun Mean?
Louisiana Cajuns are an ethnic group with French roots. They originated in the colony of Acadia in eastern Canada, in what is now the Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edwards Island). Acadia was part of the broader New France colony in North America, existing from the 16th-18th centuries.
But the Acadians were separate ethnically and geographically from the rest of New France, holding on to distinctive folklore that would eventually make its way to Louisiana.
Acadians to Cajuns
When New France fought Great Britain during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the British Army deported thousands of Acadians as suspected French allies. This was known as the Great Expulsion (1755-1764). As a result, many Acadians died of disease or were forced into hard labor. While the British resettled others in the Thirteen American Colonies. Some Acadians eluded capture and remained in the colony – the reason why Acadian culture still exists in eastern Canada today.
The British deported other Acadians to Europe. Consequently, Spain recruited them to colonize their territory of Luisiana (present day Louisiana). Hence, Louisianans refer to the original Acadian settlers as “Cajun,” derived from the French term les Acadians. While these settlers’ descendants are known as “Creole.” Although “Creole” is often applied to those of mixed European, African and Native American descent.
Generally speaking, the geographical heart of Cajun culture are the farms and swamps of South Louisiana, though some Cajuns reside in New Orleans or other urban areas. The difference between Cajun and Creole can be very confusing to outsiders (not to mention Louisianans!). So to keep things simple, we will simply discuss “Cajun” folklore.
Louisiana Cajun Folklore
Louisiana Cajun folklore is a perfect example of how cultural traits can cross an ocean and transform. Indeed, what we identify as Cajun is often French in origin (and heavily Catholic), by way of Acadia. Many Cajuns speak in a regional French dialect known as Louisiana French, or Cajun French.
Cajun cuisine combines French, West African and Spanish influences. Cajun music combines Acadian fiddles with accordions, plus African or Native American rhythms (the Creole version is called zydeco.)
But it is Cajun superstitions and spells, along with the myths and legends they tell, where French influence can really be seen.
Cajun Superstitions and Spells
Here are some Cajun superstitions and good gris-gris (that’s “charms and spells” for you non-Cajuns). Famed Cajun storyteller J.J. Reneaux shared these with The Moonlit Road:
- Beware of sleeping in the moonlight. It will make you go moon mad.
- To protect against the devil: Hang a mirror on your porch by the door. M’su Diable is very vain. He is so attracted to his own image that he can’t move from the spot until the sun rises and he has to scat.
- To protect against the Cajun loup-garou (werewolf) : Lay 13 small objects such as pennies, beans, or broom straws by your doors. The werewolf is not too bright. She cannot count higher than 12. When she comes to the 13th object, she gets so confused and has to start over. The poor thing will be there counting all night until the dawn when she must flee the sun.
- For good fortune: Never eat both ends of a loaf of bread before you’ve eaten the middle – if you do, you’ll have trouble making ends meet. Also, be sure to eat cooked cabbage (and lots of it) on New Year’s Day for good fortune in the coming days. And, like many Southerners, Cajuns also eat black eyed peas on the first to have good health in the New Year.
- If an alligator crawls under your house, be extra careful – it could be a warning of someone’s impending death.
- To find a treasure: The fifolet is an eerie burning light that is seen often in the swamp, gently floating and beckoning all to follow. Some say it is swamp gas. Some say it is a spirit which may or may not be evil. Treasure hunters believe that a fifolet will lead you to treasure. Just hide and watch to see if it hovers over a certain place. Come back in the daylight with a shovel and you may find a treasure. But beware – many have tried to follow the fifolet, and few have returned.
- Just for fun – a love potion: Mix a little orange flower water, rose water, three small bottles of honey together. Add nine lumps of sugar on which the man’s and woman’s initials have been scratched. Pour around the house of the intended love. Then, burn a pink candle for 9 days.
- Finally, to ward off evil: Drill a hole in a dime and wear it about your neck under your clothing. You can also spit three times (this will ward off just about anybody!)
- And – never, never, never, try to make bad gris-gris (a bad spell on somebody). Remember, what goes around, comes around. The best revenge is to live a good, happy and long life!
Cajun Myths and Legends
Tales of monsters, ghosts and other unexplained phenomena are common in Cajun folklore. To hear a couple of tales from J.J. Reneaux, try the creepy “Knock, Knock, Who’s There?” For a Cajun devil story, try “Marie Jolie.”
But three Cajun legends are perhaps best known: The Loup-Garou, Père Malfait and Feu follet.
Loup-Garou – Cajun Werewolf
The loup-garou, or rougarou, is a Cajun werewolf. According to legend, it has a human body with a wolf head, razor sharp teeth and glowing red eyes. The loup-garou is a shapeshifter, easily transforming from human to wolf, or perhaps another animal (especially in areas where wolves aren’t common).
The loup-garou lurks in Louisiana swamps and, naturally, howls at the moon. Sometimes a human becomes a loup-garou after a voodoo queen’s curse (often for 101 days!), or from looking into a loup-garou‘s eyes.
Rather than just scare people, the loup-garou antagonizes them to attack and draw blood. Thus turning the loup-garou back into a human so it can tell the attacker its real identity. But if the attacker shares the tale within a year and a day, the attacker becomes a loup-garou.
Loup-garou stories stretch back to 16th century France. Like witches, early French society blamed loup-garous for much that went wrong – bad crops, dead livestock, missing children, spiritual doubt. They put people suspected to be loup-garous on trial.
The Catholic Church (unofficially) used loup-garou stories to keep parishioners in line. Many believed if you didn’t observe Lent – either permanently or for 7 years straight, depending on the storyteller – you would become a loup-garou.
These stories eventually made their way to Louisiana, where some changed the creature’s name to rougarou. The Catholic warnings persisted, but adults also used loup-garou tales to scare children into obedience.
Père Malfait – Cajun Boogeyman
The pere malfait is another swamp creature. Its name translates to “father of mischief.” Though it’s also known as “Father of the Bad Leaves,” or Moss Man. Pere malfait is a large humanoid creature covered in Spanish moss, or other swamp foliage, with glowing eyes.
The pere malfait crushes its victims to death with superhuman strength. The only way to kill it is to drive a stake in its heart, made from a swamp gum tree. Sometimes the pere malfait vanishes after its spotted, leaving a pile of moss/foliage behind.
Like the loup-garou, the pere malfait originated in France. Parents told stories about the beast to keep their children in line.
The pere malfait is best known in popular culture from the 1970s TV show: Kolchak: The Night Stalker (a precursor to The X-Files). In its episode “The Spanish Moss Murders,” a sleep deprivation study subject creates the pere malfait from his subconscious mind.
A close cousin of the pere malfait is the Honey Island Swamp Monster, or Cajun Sasquatch. This giant, ape-like creature has webbed feet, matted gray hair and yellow eyes. Cajun storytellers claim it is the offspring of swamp alligators and chimpanzees from a wrecked circus train. It is more difficult to spot since it blends with its surroundings, and feeds on animals instead of humans.
Feu follet – Will-o’-the-wisp
Finally there is the feu follet (also fifolet), or will-o’-the-wisp – mysterious lights seen in the swamp. Cajun folklore is filled with stories about dancing lights enticing doomed people into the swamp, where they become disoriented and drown.
Some believe the feu follet are a naturally occurring phenomena known as “swamp gas.” Others believe they are the souls of dead loved ones, trapped in purgatory. Still others think they imitate lantern light, again to tempt you.
Often the feu follet has no sinister purpose at all, but dances for a time along unsuspecting travelers, only to vanish.
Stories of the feu follet are certainly not limited to Louisiana. Europe is filled with folktales of such lights. The Scots-Irish portrayed the will-o’-the-wisp as fairies or elves. They would later bring these tales to Southern Appalachia to explain mysterious lights in the hills. The famed Brown Mountain Lights of North Carolina are thought to be will-o’-the-wisp, either swamp gas or spirits.
These Cajun superstitions, spells, myths and legends only scratch the surface of what you will hear, even today, in Louisiana. Much like the people themselves, Cajun folklore crossed continents and oceans on its way to Louisiana. Echoes of Ireland, Africa, France and other areas can be heard in Cajun folklore. But Louisiana’s beautiful yet sinister swamps have made many of these tales and superstitions positively Cajun.