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NOLA Lore: The Rougarou

The Werewolf of the Bayou



Each week, J.A. Lloyd will take readers through the secret and unexamined legends, myths, and folklore of New Orleans past. This week, learn about the Rougarou, the werewolves of France and Louisiana. 

 

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The colonist’s boot sinks into the vegetation, rotting wood and soupy mush of the swamp floor. It makes a slopping sound when he pulls his foot from the sucking muddle of the ground. He grumbles and shakes the mire and debris from shoe. His lungs feel heavy and his clothes stick to his back and chest. He is uncomfortable and wishes for a breeze. It’s nighttime in the bayou, but it’s not dark. The gray sky makes the land reflective and it is easy to see even though the hour is past midnight. He catches movement out of the corner of his eye. His vision scans to the left and he sees it immediately. It looks like a wolf. It strikes him as odd; he didn’t think the animal was native to the area. His brain catches up to his vision a second later. The wolf’s teeth are bared and its eyes glow red. It stands upright as a man would. The beast towers over the colonist and he realizes the creature is not the likes of wolf after all.

 

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The werewolf is well acquainted with folklore. Myths of the shapeshifter emerged independently in several cultures spreading to all corners of the globe. Depending in which corner the story resides, the history of the creature has created a myriad of diverse tales. For example, in Icelandic myth, a father and son came across two magical wolf pelts that cursed the pair and turned them into werewolves. Further east in Ireland, the werewolf sought the help of a priest to abolish his wife’s sins before the woman met her death. In Mexico, a version of the werewolf, also known as a Nagaul, is a powerful man that can transform into the beast if he means to inflict harm on another. Within the US, the most popular interpretation of the werewolf belongs to the Native Americans who passed on the story of the Wendigo. It is said that the Wendigo was originally a human who participated in cannibalism and one could only transform into the beast if they ate human flesh.

 

The Native Americans story, though, shares a very common theme with another story. The story being the oldest known account of the werewolf and the tale belongs to Roman myth. The legend speaks of a king who had offended the Gods. His offense was that of serving the Gods raw human flesh. As punishment for the offense, Jupiter transformed the king into a werewolf so that he would live out his days neither as a man nor beast. The king was allowed to continue feasting on the flesh of humans but he spent the rest of his years living as a disgrace to humankind. The king’s name was Lycaon and so the werewolf’s original name was born: Lycanthrope.  

 

As the werewolf evolved over the years, stories of the beast sprang up throughout Europe and spread with a vicious force. Much like the persecution of the witch, those accused of being a werewolf were questioned and faced trial. The trials were especially prevalent in places where Christianity was the dominating religious belief. Christians generally damned those suspected of being a werewolf because the creatures were associated with the devil. The belief of the creature’s evilness was so fierce that the werewolves were hunted just as commonly as witches during 1400s-1700s. Those that confessed to being part man and part beast were executed. Some theories suggest that at the height of the craze in Europe the killing of werewolves can be linked to an overwhelming execution of supposed serial killers. This notion suggests that the creature was born as a way to explain the horrible acts individuals are capable of committing. The cross between the wolf and the human served as a powerful symbol of man still being animalistic in nature.  

 

Originally, the tale of Louisiana’s own Rougarou dates back to at least the 16th century. The story was born in France where the creature was known as the Loup Garou. During the 1700s the myth of the werewolf arrived in Louisiana carried to the South in the mouths of the French. The story became widely popular in Cajun French folklore gaining momentum spurred on by the dark and mysterious swaps of Louisiana. Even today the name Loup Garou is still used in areas with heavy Cajun influence and is interchangeable with the term Rougarou.

 

The legend of the Rougarou, apparently, began much like many other legends. Its purpose was to keep curious children from wandering into the woods unattended. More importantly, it became a tried and true method of keeping kids in line when they threatened to misbehave. Similarly, some believe that the story of the Rougarou was also used to ensure the good behavior of Catholics. The religiously fueled legend of the Rougarou stated that if one did not follow the rules of Lent for 7 years straight that the disobedient offender would turn into a Rougarou as punishment for their sins.

 

Over the years the tale has expanded and morphed so much that naughty children and sinning Catholics are not the only ones who need fear the werewolf. Everyone within the state of Louisiana is believed to be at the mercy of the Rougarou with a bit of misfortune on their side. Additionally, according to the legend, anyone in the surrounding area of New Orleans could be a werewolf as there are no telltale signs of their animalistic identity when in human form. Depending on the storyteller, the ways and means in which one becomes a Rougarou vary greatly.  Cajun folklore, unfortunately, leaves the transformation a bit of a mystery because so many different word of mouth stories exists. While one version claims a person must be transformed at the hands of another, others say that the ability to turn is simply in the individual’s blood.

 

While most believe that the Rougarou dwells in the swamplands of Louisiana, stories have also emerged claiming that the beast has migrated into the city of New Orleans. The story of the Rougarou prowling the city streets became even more popular after Hurricane Katrina. The idea is that the creature was forced into the city due to serve flooding in its environment. Since then, people have reported seeing a wolf-like person lurking around abandon houses and buildings in the city. Residents also claim to hear strange howling in the area during full moons.

 

In any case, perhaps the howl heard the other night wasn’t the neighbor’s dog. Maybe it never was the neighbor’s dog.  

 

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Contributors

Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde

Photographers


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.

Editor


Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

Alexis Manrodt


B. E. Mintz


Stephen Babcock

Published Daily