The bayou country of Louisiana is a strange, dreamy place. Back in the swamps the cypress trees are draped with long streamers of silvery gray Spanish Moss, and you have to walk carefully on the flotons, floating islands of plants and peat that look solid, but might split open when you step on them, plunging you up to your neck in the pungent black water. The air is steamy, with an earthy musk and the stray scents of exotic flowers. Normally, the swamps are full of sounds from a myriad of insects, birds or even the deep rumbling call of a bull alligator. Sometimes, however, the swamp suddenly goes so silent you can hear your heartbeat. Then, at the edge of a clearing, something casts a shadow like that of a man – but with the head of a wolf. The most fearsome creature of the swamp, the Rougarou, has made its appearance.
The Rougarou, or Loup Garou, is one of the strangest creatures of Cajun country. The Cajuns, descendants of French Canadian immigrants driven out of Nova Scotia by the British in the 1750s and 1760s, live in 22 parishes in southern Louisiana, especially Acadia, Iberia, St. Landry, St. Martin, Vermillion, Evangeline and St.Mary.
When I visited the rural areas of southern Louisiana many years ago, I met many Cajuns who would work long hours through the week, often toiling on the shrimp boats or performing the dangerous work of the Gulf oil rigs, then spend the weekends feasting on crawfish gumbo, spicy boudin sausage or Jambalaya and drinking and dancing at their family Fais do-dos on Saturday night.
In my youthful visits to Cajun country, I learned a little of the strange phenomena of the area, including the Fee Folay (Le Feu Follet), the ghostly light like a Will, o’ the Wisp that leads the unwary into treacherous swamps, and heard tales of an unusual Cajun occupation, alligator wrestling, a dangerous (and sometimes very wet) sport favored by young Cajun men. My early visits to Cajun country, however, included only a very brief introduction to the Rougarou.
The Rougarou is a human who has shape-shifted into a creature that looks like a man (or woman) with a wolf’s or dog’s head. The name rougarou is another version of the French loup garou, or werewolf, and in part of Cajun country it’s still called the loup garou. It seems that a few loup garous snuck in with the French immigrants to Quebec in the 1600s and in 1767 a famous loup garou terrorized the citizens of Quebec City. “Rougarou” or “rugaru” is also sometimes said to have been originally of Canadian Metis (tribes of mixed European and Indian ancestry) origin. Rougarous have been found in several areas settled by the French in North America, including Missouri, but they are most frequently found in southern Louisiana, where many French immigrants finally settled.
In his fabulous book on Louisiana folkways, Gumbo Ya Ya (1945) Lyle Saxon quotes a great introduction to the Loup Garou (page 191).
A Cajun will explain: 'Loup-garous is them people what wants to do bad work, and changes themselves into wolves. They got plenty of them, yes. And you sure know them when you see them. They got big red eyes, pointed noses and everything just like a wolf has, even hair all over, and long pointed nails. They rub themselves with some voodoo grease and come out just like wolves is. You keep away you see any of them things hein? They make you one of them, yes, quick like hell. ‘
In most European werewolf traditions, you don’t become a werewolf by being bitten by one –but in some of the loup garou stories, this is just what happens. The loup garous are also not shy about paying you a visit.
Loup-garous have bats as big as airplanes to carry them where they want to go. They make these bats drop them down your chimney, and they stand by your bed and say 'I got you now, me!' (Gumbo Ya Ya, page 191)
Someone who has become a loup garou is only in the bestial form by night. At dawn, they shape-shift back into totally human form, although they are often sickly during the day. Like the werewolf, they’re especially active on full moon nights.