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Myths and Legends
Throughout their history, Acadians will often be deprived of medical services for lengthy periods of time. To treat injuries or illnesses, or for other types of medical treatment they used resources at their disposal. First and foremost, experienced midwives were always available to assist during births. Some, called « rabouteux » or « ramancheux » became specialists at expertly setting disjointed and broken limbs which healed without leaving traces of the break. There were also bleeding stoppers who are still consulted to this day to stop an injury from bleeding or for nosebleeds. Other healers are capable of causing warts or toothaches to disappear. It was commonly believed that a family’s seventh child possessed the gift of healing. Priests are held in great esteem as it is believed their prayers can lead to healing.
Acadians possess a large quantity of popular remedies for all types of ailments. Brought here from France and enriched by their own experience in North America and the remedies of the Aboriginal people, these remedies are handed down through generations. Some of the remedies, such as the action of rubbing a sore tooth with a nail and planting the nail into a tree, are pure superstition. Others, like linseed poultices to heal an abscess are both natural and effective. Most of these remedies are made of plants or herbs. In south-eastern New Brunswick alone, some 80 species of plants and trees were identified as being used in popular Acadian medicine. Tansy, yarrow and absinth are among those plants of European origin which were widely used. Labrador tea and gold-thread, or cankerroot, are among the most commonly used indigenous plants, while the Acadians also learned from the Micmacs how to prepare remedies from branches from trees such as the hemlock, the larch or « fiddle » and the Canadian yew tree. Each well-prepared family always had a supply of appropriate herbs, leaves or bark for use during the long winter months.
Farm animals could also become ill with ailments such as barbs, worms, oestrus, sprains or strangles for which the Acadian farmer had a popular remedy.
In certain crafts such as fisheries and agriculture, it is very important to know the art of predicting the weather. The experience gained from this tradition of popular science is faithfully transmitted from father to son. Many people read the skies like an open book and are able to predict, often at least one day in advance, what the weather will be like. Sometimes the signs may be vague and unclear and the weather remains uncertain. Other times, there is absolutely no doubt, such as when skies take on the appearance of mackerel scales, a sure sign of rain within 24 hours.
Predictions concerning winter are particularly plentiful, no doubt because of the many preparations required to face this rugged season. It is believed, for example, that the higher the wasp nests, the greater the amount of snow. Also, the thickness of onion skins and corn husks indicate the severity of winter. Finally, when killing the farm animals in the fall, farmers examine the pig’s spleen: the greater its curve, the greater the amount of snowstorms during the winter.
Generally, Acadians are Catholic and profoundly religious. But this does not mean they have rid themselves of all traditional beliefs of a superstitious nature. Numerous legends have always been and continue to be a part of oral folklore. The largest collection is that of Sister Catherine Jolicoeur, who, between 1973 and 1982, collected some 20,000 legends from more than 1,500 people in New Brunswick. Some are remains of ancient beliefs in supernatural beings such as elves and mermaids. These beliefs seem to be completely disappearing nowadays. Others, such as legends of hidden treasures and extraordinary beings, are linked to specific locations. Legends which have a tendency of remaining in our traditions are those which can be linked to popular religious mentality. Fear of the devil’s malicious powers has encouraged legends about him, while the fact of often referring to souls in purgatory may have influenced beliefs in ghostly apparitions.
Generally, legends are facts or events that possess a measure of truth, but that are told in such a way that they become larger than life because of the various deformations caused by popular imagination.
In ancient Acadie, strange and inexplicable behaviours by persons or beasts are attributed to sorcerers who, through a pact with the devil, are capable of influencing behaviour or casting spells. Blood in cow’s milk, smelly butter, a sick animal, and abnormal behaviour by certain people, all of these are thought to be the work of sorcerers. These may be mysterious-looking strangers or Acadians who are marginal and who live apart from society. In New Brunswick and in Prince Edward Island, it is common to fear the Aboriginals, especially the female who is thought to have the power to cast spells.
Persons considered to be sorcerers will manage to exploit people’s beliefs to their advantage, often going door-to-door and asking for food and clothing which they invariably received. It is believed that sorcerers cast spells by reciting statements contained in the « Petit Albert »,
a mysterious book considered to be the devil’s bible and feared by many. It is also said that priests are attempting to gather all copies of the Petit Albert in order to burn them.
In popular beliefs, there are also those who possess powers to counter and remove sorcerers’ spells. Generally, these anti-sorcerers use one of the following methods. The first consists in heating the sorcerer, i.e. boil water in a cauldron containing needles and something from the affected person or beast (urine, hair or other element). It would appear that the sorcerer cannot resist this method and usually appears on the spot to remove the spell that was cast. The other method consists in reciting magic formulas or incantations. The following was used in Cheticamp, Nova Scotia to remove the spell cast on a cow:
Trotter Head I forbid thee my house and premises; I forbid thee my barn and cow stable. I forbid thee not to breathe on me nor upon any of my family until thou have painted every fence-post, until thou hast crossed every ocean, and that thus dear day may come in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Another form of sorcery in Acadie is that of the werewolves. These are sorcerers or ordinary persons who have sold out to the devil and who become dogs or bears during the night, rummaging through villages and frightening residents. Almost everywhere, legend has it that these poor beasts can only be delivered if someone injures them and causes a drop of their blood to flow. At the Baie Sainte-Marie in Nova Scotia, however, this action would have the opposite effect.
The Dancing Devil
It is said that this legend has over 200 different versions in Canada. Each has a local style, but the same message. Dancehalls were considered places which attracted devils. According to priests of the time, these places were prone to excesses of the flesh and other forbidden pleasures. The version that I remember was told by Maurice Comeau of Brantville, which was told to him by his mother.
One fine night, a young girl decided to go dancing, despite being forbidden by her parents. She said to her parents: “I will go even if I have to dance with the devil himself!” The dance was held and the beautiful young girl went. A violin filled the air, the spirits became heated, and dance took over the room. The beautiful young girl had no escort, when suddenly the most handsome young man entered the room. His clothes were extraordinary, she could not resist this stranger. Dressed in a top hat, coat and gloves, he turned and turned his partner without breaking a sweat. Strangely enough, he still had his gloves.
The girl was becoming dizzy, and she begged her partner to stop, but he possessed her. She felt something in her back, which felt like claws... Fear took over her, and she thought back to the words she had spoken to her parents. She started to scream when she noticed the claws which began to poke out from the gloves of her escort. The men ran over to the stranger right away, and he was off as quickly as he had come. It was like a devil in holy water... It is said that the beautiful young woman wore the mark of the devil’s claws throughout her whole life.
There are numerous legends concerning the apparition of mysterious animals such as dogs, cats, horses or wild animals. There is, for example, the legend of the ungodly person who, while out hunting on Sunday, meets a deer with a human face. Following this experience he resumes practising his religion. There are also many legends concerning a large black dog or a black beast which has become a quasi-legendary animal in New Brunswick fauna. There is also a link that can be made between the legends of the long-tailed beasts and the appearance of the panther.
Apparitions of deceased people are the source of innumerable and varied legends in all regions of Acadie. Because of the importance given to death, purgatory and hell in religious mentality, it is not surprising that ghost sightings are as common in traditional verbal stories. These apparitions always ask for prayers or masses, righting wrongs made and sometimes changing the behaviours of certain living beings.
In most legends, the deceased either appears in a mute human form or remains invisible and manifests its presence through noise. The living person, frightened by the spectacle, promises to accomplish certain things if the ghost disappears, after which the manifestations cease.
The Ghost Ship
In this corner of the world, from generation to generation, the famous ghost ship will continue to be talked about. When we start researching the subject, we find more than simple local history. This is a global phenomenon, each country located along a body of water has its own version. From Dalhousie to Miscou, the stories vary, and the accounts are numerous. However, all versions have some points in common: the warning of bad weather, drowning and the triumph of good over evil.
Following a number of readings on the subject, Francis Savoie’s version ignited my imagination. His text in “L'Île de Shippagan anecdotes tours et légendes” coincided with my vision on the subject, included here: “It was the beginning of the past century. Large sailboats from unknown places travelled along the Chaleur Bay and penetrated into its deepest estuaries. We were making a stop. Approaching the shores, the boats lowered their sails, and raised the pavilion to call over the dory that would bring them as close as possible to the shore; because in this period, there were no lighthouses, no buoys or any other indication for navigators, not even a pier or landing stage. After having thrown down the anchor, they reached the shore in a dory to search for furs.
Native reserves were especially targeted by these marauders. Having exchanged their precious pelts for objects of no value, they would also get them drunk then pillage all their furs. The most hated of these pirates was without question Captain Craig.”
This is the story told to me by the last surviving pilot from Miscou Island (L'Île de Shippagan anecdotes, tours et légendes - page 61):
To sum up, the pilot boarded the boat to explain the way home to the Captain. The pilot heard a noise in the hold, and went to investigate. To his surprise, he found two Indian women. He ordered the men to drop anchor, and to set them free. The men wanted to have their fun, before throwing them in the sea later on. The pilot brought the women back to shore, and they warned him not to return to the ship, since they had put a curse on it. He still returned to the ship, the storm rose, and with great difficulty he managed to swim to shore. The Captain and his crew all perished. It is said that the pilot married one of the two Indian women. A few years later, the same boat was seen on fire, requesting permission with its flags, but this time the pilot ignored it... Since then, this boat is condemned to travel, and it is visible just before a storm.
The Haunted House
There are many legends of haunted houses everywhere in Acadie. While such legends are usually associated with rural settings, haunted houses seem to be as frequent in cities as in the countryside. In the city of Moncton, New Brunswick alone, Sister Catherine Jolicoeur has listed 14 houses which appear to be haunted and at the Université de Moncton, students share each year the legend of a building apparently haunted by a nun who died there as a result of a fire around 1950. Houses often become haunted as a result of a murder, a suicide or other disaster. The ghost of the deceased can sometimes be seen in the haunted house, but in most cases, inhabitants hear noises such as crying, chains or shuffling feet.
Among the figures from Acadian legends, elves are without a doubt at the forefront because their belief is so widely held. It would appear these minuscule human-like figures are especially interested in horses. They enter stables during the night and braid the animals’ manes to make stirrups. Then, they sit on their neck, take them outside and ride them in the fields for hours. Elves take great care of the horses they choose, feeding them and giving them something to drink. That is why horses chosen by elves were always very fat.
Will-o’-the-wisps constitute another category of legendary entities. They are small fires or flames that travel during the night a few metres from the ground, preferably in marshes or swamps, where they try to lure passers-by who become lost. Will-o’-the-wisps try to blind their victims by passing in front of their eyes and by throwing them into a panic by making a cry resembling a mocking laugh.
Some legends, while taking on a local flavour, can be traced back into time and shown to have existed in ancient times. While mermaids were present in Homer’s Odyssey, legend has it that Acadians also have known these part-fish, part-female beings with an enchanting voice. There have been stories of mermaids all along the coasts of the Maritimes, but legend has it that Acadians from the Magdalene Islands have heard them, seen them and even spoken to them.
It is probably quite possible that treasures may have been buried along some shores of the Maritime Provinces by pirates or other persons wishing to temporarily hide their fortune. However, legend has taken over these stories to multiply the treasures on all our shores and shroud them in fabulous stories. It has been said that pirates would have cut off the head of a member of their crew and buried it with the treasure to ensure it was well-guarded. It was also said that treasures were sometimes vowed to the devil who then ensured their safeguard.
Popular tradition subsequently invented a complete ritual to outsmart these guardians and take possession of their loot. Treasures may only be found and removed at midnight, and complete silence must be observed during the operation. Should a member of the team of searchers utter a single word, the treasure evaporates or changes location and is lost. Fear must also be overcome. The decapitated devil or pirate, though incapable of hurting the searchers, possesses the power to create frightful situations such as men without heads, terrible monsters, noises made by chains and terrifying howls or unbearably strong odours. The telling of legends of this type usually end with the terrified searchers running from these diabolical phenomena.
Acadian oral literature is filled with stories of extraordinary beings, most of which tell of the exploits of strong men. Men blessed with superhuman strengths are greatly admired in their communities. They act as defenders of the people in minority situations where Acadians are subjected to the intolerance of Anglophones. In New Brunswick forest camps where workers often take part in tests of strength, strong men are feared and respected by all.
In oral tradition, these people have become giants whose strength and appetite are enormous. Stories are still told today of the exploits of a certain “Gros Jean” Doiron who lived in Saint-Anselme in south-eastern New Brunswick at the beginning of the 19th century. Doiron could not only kill a bear with his bare hands, but he also ate large pots of bear meat.
There are other local legends in Acadie such as that of the Antercri of the Baie Sainte-Marie in Nova Scotia, a legend inspired by the Antichrist from the Apocalypse of Saint John, but these are less common.
In addition to legends there are also superstitious beliefs that are not accompanied by stories but that consist in observing signs indicating the future. These are called predictions. Contrary to those about weather, these are not based on fact and are but pure superstitions. Yet they abound in Acadie and they are rather similar to those found elsewhere. Finding a horseshoe or a four-leaf clover means good luck; a crow that sits on a house signals death; dropping a dishcloth on the floor means company is coming; if two people accidentally hit their tools against one another’s while working, they will work together again the following year, and the list goes on.
Acadian fishermen are particularly prone to superstitious beliefs, maybe because of the dangers they face. Some of these are: never turn the cover of a ship’s hatch upside down; never whistle on water; never bring a live pig on board a boat or even utter the word « pig »; never wear mittens that are a colour other than white or grey on a boat.
There are many superstitious practices aimed at helping young girls find out who they will marry. They may, for example, place a mirror under their pillow to see if he will appear in their dreams, or they may eat a salty cake before going to bed so that their future husband will bring them a drink in their sleep.
Finally, it can be said that superstition is not just a thing of the past when one considers how people buy lottery tickets by choosing « lucky numbers », for example. It is therefore easy to understand the power of popular beliefs in an era when rational thinking was even less prevalent than it is today.
How many times did we have to return home because of this figure? No one had actually seen or heard him, but his name would give us the chills. I always imagined this famous “Bonhomme sept heures”, my representation was fairly close to what I found in various writings. Different versions refer to a hat, a long cape, a cane and the infamous bag. In certain regions, this bag contained sand that this evil gentleman would throw in the eyes of children that disobeyed. However, this same bag, in other regions, was large and was used to hold the children still wandering outside after seven o’clock...
In regard to the origins of this story, the French version refers to France and the bedtime is eight o’clock. The English version would be the equivalent of the village “bonesetter”, who was generally an older person with grey hair, a cane and a bag for his remedies. There could also be a parallel with the famous “sandman” of our English neighbours, who walked around with a bag of sand. Despite the popularity of this character, there exist very few representations. I felt I had to imagine him in a way that would maintain his anonymity, since no one has ever seen his face. People’s reactions to this painting are strange, since some will say to me: “You saw him too?” By pure coincidence, I imagined this image, which seems to be the same that others have seen. Is it coincidence or the legend that guided my paintbrush? That is the mystery...
The Mysterious Wagon
A long time ago, a strange phenomenon haunted the inhabitants of the Island of Lamèque. They would hear the rolling sounds of a wagon. This was a daily occurrence for the inhabitants of the Island, and they would move out of the way to let this mysterious wagon pass. On a lovely night, Octave, son of Fabien Haché, was returning home when he heard the sound of the wagon behind him. The sound became so menacing that he stopped at a nearby house, regardless of the late hour. He eventually gathered his courage and left. Upon his return home, he quickly entered and went to bed. He once again heard the sounds, and went out to investigate.
The days that followed became increasingly calm. The wagon seemed to have disappeared. Some time later, a newly arrived citizen to the Island, named Henry Sormany, was followed and pushed over by something while, on a nice night, he was walking to the village. He was so afraid that he stopped to see Octave, knowing the strange experience he’d had in the past. Octave promised to take care of the problem once and for all, which he did at that very moment. He went to pray on the grave of two brothers who had died a few years earlier, and had not resolved their differences on the purchase of a wagon. The brothers’ souls had never been at rest. It seems that the wagon and the two brothers may have since left the Island... but others say they have heard these noises again recently. Could this be a warning? Or the legend that wants to continue...
The Snow Queen
This painting represents Christine who is with her nine-year-old son, Georges, and her 18-month-old baby, Anna, under the red blanket. This woman was left on her own by her husband, who had decided to go to the neighbours for supplies that morning, with the 40-day old baby. It was never explained why he had brought the baby. On his way, he got lost and ended up at Joseph Michon’s place, where he left the baby before going to Pierre Boucher’s. The husband, William Comeau, stayed to play cards. Meanwhile, Christine had run out of firewood, and had burned the chairs and anything else that she could find. The storm worsened, and seeing death approaching, decided to go to the nearest neighbours. She covered herself with a very light coat, dressed Georges, and wrapped Anna in a red blanket. The wind and cold were soon felt. Christine was not able to reach the neighbours place, and settled in next to a fence. The next day, William returned and found the door to the house open. He sounded the alarm. It was Cordule Michon and Lange Noël who noticed the red fabric sticking out of the snow. The mother and her son Georges were frozen to death, while little Anna slept peacefully in the red blanket.
In the right-hand corner, we can see the silhouettes of Christine clutching her son, and the two shapes representing the cold and death trying to get a hold of Anna, but she resists, which results in the name Snow Queen. This happened on March 20, 1907 in Pokesudie.
Appeared in « Caraquet Village au soleil » by J. Antonin Friolet.
Gabriel and Evangeline
This painting represents a new chapter in this classic Acadian tale, written by Longfellow. The lovers jump out of the story, so that they can finally be reunited, thus ending centuries of suffering. In a way, it is the end of the darkness in l'Acadie. Even the deported return in the boats, in the shape of clouds, which accompany the silhouettes of colonists and horses blended here and there within the sky. It is the new beginning, the rebuilding, and the positive future of l'Acadie which are married with the light.
The offspring of this reunion will perpetuate the history and spread the Acadian identity, the new identity of tomorrow.
In l’Acadie, we find a bit of everything: we also have monsters, or rather a horrible, gigantic ogre. It is the famous “Gougou”, which Samuel de Champlain details in the “Travels of Champlain.” “There is something strange, worth mentioning, that many savages have sworn was true: it is that, near Chaleur Bay, toward the South, there is an island where there lives a terrible monster that the savages call “Gougou.” They told me it had the form of a woman, but very scary and of such a size, they said that the tip of the masts of our vessel would not reach her waist; she had also often devoured many savages, which were put in a large pouch, when she was able to catch them, and then ate them; those who had escaped the peril of this terrible creature said that its pouch was so large that it would fit our vessel inside of it. This monster made horrible noises on this island, that savages call the Gougou.”
It is a Micmac legend that the first inhabitants of Miscou Island passed down. When the sky darkened, fisherman blamed “Gougou” for hiding the sky, when the wind blew strong, “Gougou” was on her way. Luckily, little white boys had nothing to fear, only little Micmacs could satisfy her appetite.
There have been very few renditions of Gougou, despite her popularity for frightening children who went out at night. While researching the subject, I imagined her with something very typical of Miscou Island, its lighthouse. The same lighthouse which reassured many a mariner at night, and the same seamen who escaped the clutches of Gougou in the dead of night, often on a turbulent sea. One had to look forward, find the light and leave the Gougou to the night...
Voyage in the Night
This story takes place on a full moon, the night before All Saints Day, on October 31, 1901. Doctor François Xavier Comeau of Caraquet was visited by a neighbour, David Jean of Morais Office, who asked him to come see his wife, since she was not feeling well. The doctor’s wife told him to be careful of werewolves. Then, in the moonlight, he set out on his own from Caraquet, with his mare Nellie and a bottle of brandy. As he went along, he thought of frightening stories. Marionettes danced, will-o’-the-wisps flew across the marshes, and all of a sudden Nellie was spooked, and the doctor fell from the coach. A large black beast jumped on him. He fought the best he could, and finally struck the beast which rolled off. The latter finally got up, and wanted to pounce on the doctor, but in the moonlight, it seemed to take on human form. The beastlike form fled, but reminded the doctor of something, even though he was bewildered. The doctor finally managed to return to his horse. Taking a shot of brandy, the doctor started back on the route to Morais Office. Fear was in the air, the creaking was horrible, he needed more brandy. Luckily, the doctor met with Richard Jean along the way, who accompanied him to David Jean’s. He was able to tend to Mrs. Jean who suffered from severe pneumonia. In the warmth, sitting in a rocker, he fell asleep. Suddenly, someone woke him. Surprised, he recognized David’s neighbour, his face scratched, clothes torn, happy and as though relieved. The doctor asked him where he had come from, and who had done this to him, but he answered: “I don’t know!” The doctor did not believe his eyes. For him, this night remained unexplained... He died in 1944 at the age of 82.