Rougarou: What makes this local lycanthropic legend a cursed beast from the Louisiana Bayou? Voodoo, Catholicism, or something darker? TAP TO GET PODCAST
Louisiana is rich in cultural history, and its eclectic city, New Orleans, has much to offer. Whether you think of Mardi Gras, king cakes, or crawfish, it’s easy to envision yourself in these bustling streets. But be aware this city may also be hiding a dark secret, one that, if not taken seriously, might unveil a nasty curse.
France had already been an established presence in the new world for decades, but on May 17, 1673, explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette began their exploration of the Mississippi River. Assuming they would ultimately end up in the Pacific Ocean, they set off to find new western trade routes, but when they reached the mouth of the Arkansas River, they had to re-plot their course. This miscalculation and years of further exploring ultimately led to rounds of ships making their way into the Gulf of Mexico. And by 1683, French Settlers had established a new colony, “La Louisiane,” Named so in honor of King Lois XIV.
This land was a strategic stronghold, offering trade roots from the Mississippi, across the delta, and into the Gulf. With such economic prowess, the people of La Louisiane quickly established a city rich in their French roots, and in a short 17-year span, New Orleans became ground zero for French culture in Southern North America.
But unlike the Puritan settlers before them, the French brought a flair for the fabulous. Their Catholic roots, while still religious per se, gave them a more relaxed gospel that allowed for the growth of fine dining, luxurious living, and a love for fun. Mix this over time with the African and Hispanic influence that also began to call this land home, and you get the Louisiana we know now. A swampy, humid place inhabited by a rich culture that has grown over generations. But if you harken back to episode 31, it might not come as a surprise to you that when the French came to the New World, they brought more than pastries and art. Because if the legends that have risen out of Louisiana’s swamps are true, the French might have just brought over a monster in their midst.
Now, just as a prerequisite, I need to do a very minor dive into a bit of religious practices. I promise that very quickly, this will all connect, but just humor me for the next few minutes.
As someone who spent their life growing up in a church setting, I can say firsthand that sometimes, you just want a break. A Sunday spent chilling on the couch with a cup of coffee and a cozy book or TV show is all too appealing after a 5-day grind, and a Saturday is spent catching up on house chores. But for many devout religious practitioners, this is an absolute no-no. Now, Catholics have often been accused of being anything but strict in many of their practices. Many would say that the catholic faith if for those who follow the guiding principle, “Forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission”. I mean, just look at modern Mardi Gras celebrations.
But if there is one thing most Catholics take seriously, it’s lent. Now, for those unfamiliar, Lent is a 40-day period of fasting before the Easter Holiday. Officially formalized by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, This time-limited alcohol, media, and sweets to symbolize the time Jesus Christ spent in the desert before beginning his public ministry. This is actually where the Mardi Gras festival comes from, giving Catholics time to over-indulge before the fasting season.
But what if you, hypothetically, of course, were a catholic who decided not to worry about lent? I mean, who wants to give something up for 40 days? Maybe you just don’t really see the point in having to add one extra rule to your daily routine.
The honest answer is that other than disappointing your parents or faith leaders, you’ll probably be fine. After all, these traditions are more about the mental observance than the physical sacrifice. If you choose not to participate, that is ultimately your choice. But just know that to many, especially those who are more superstitious, and especially if you live in the deep south of the Louisiana Bayou, you might not be as safe as you’d like to believe.
The Rougarou, spanning from the French Loup Garou, which means “Wolf lycanthrope”, is yet another French werewolf legend brought into the New World. But this werewolf isn’t your run-of-the-mill infected farmhand let loose on the village. No, this cryptid beast has a more holy mission to pursue.
According to Louisiana legend, Practicing Catholics who knowingly and willingly refuse to participate in Lent in any way or those who choose to hunt a living creature during this time (for meat or sport, mind you) run the risk of attracting a Rougarou. These werewolves of God’s Holy army transform around the Easter season to hunt down and prune off the less formal practitioners and to send a ripple of fear throughout the faith that the traditions are to be followed.
But if Rougarous are werewolves, that must mean that these were once people, right? And if that is the case, how does one become a Rougarou?
According to the legends, If one decides to ignore Lent for seven consecutive years and ignores the warning encounters of Rougarou sightings from years past, then in the seventh year, they themselves will shift into a Rougarou and instinctually join the hunt for other non-practicing Catholics, um, “encouraging” them to fall in line with their religious practices. There is even a tale of a young boy who was out for an evening stroll for oysters along the gulf when he was approached and attacked by a Rougarou. The monster lunged for the boy, and in his defense, he swung his oyster knife at the beast, slashing its arm. In an instant, the act of violence against another living being transferred the curse onto the child, turning him into a Rougarou and freeing the man previously infected.
The good news is, barring physical violence against one other living thing, you have seven years to practice Lent at least once, and then that countdown resets. And if you are a big enough rebel and end up becoming a Rougarou yourself, no worries! You will only be stuck transforming into a lycanthropic state every night for 101 days. After that, you will recover from your lycanthropy and revert back to being a normal, everyday human – albeit with a much deeper respect for the faith you so carelessly ignored. But if 101 days seem too long to stalk around the countryside as a wolf-man, not to worry. Because if you, being a Rougarou, happen to find and bite another non-lent-observing catholic, then you can instantly transfer the curse off of yourself and onto the next poor soul who didn’t heed to the practices of their faith.
Oh, and don’t think that after this whole bout as a werewolf, you’re going to go bragging to your friends. Because those who have previously been inflicted with this form of lycanthropy dare not speak of the terrible deeds they had done in this state of mind. After all, admitting to crimes like those would surely land you a lifetime behind bars… or worse.
The tale of the Rougarou has taken on many different shapes through the years, intertwining with different cultures and beliefs along the way.
Some Rougarou accounts vary, stating that wicked men choose to take on the form of a Rougarou, while other tales claim that simply looking into the eyes of those inflicted with lycanthropy can spread the curse to you.
Then there are the tales that the Louisiana werewolf is a result of witchcraft. Witches would perform a ritual of sorts against those that offended or threatened them, causing a lycanthropic state to overtake their victims in the middle of the night – often, leaving the recipient of the curse with large gaps in their memory during the time the prowled about as a dog-man.
Interestingly, on par with these religious traditions, many have also claimed that the Rougarou is a result of New Orleans’s Voodoo – A form of ritualistic shamanism. This form of magic is a mix of traditional African religious practices brought over by the first African slaves in 1719. Over time, these African practices blended with Roman Catholic traditions to form an entirely new system of magical practice.
There are even tales of the Ojibwa people referencing the Rougarou, though it is important to note that most likely, the native Americans picked this word up from French trappers and associated it more with a Bigfoot-like being or “Hairy human of the woods.”
So, with so many different verbal accounts of this cryptid, what is it that we are really dealing with?
Have you ever played the game telephone in grade school? The game where you make up a phrase, whisper it to the next person, and then they whisper it to the person after that, etc., and by the end, you see how dramatically everything changed. The Rougarou is like that. Despite the rich oral history we have of the creature, pinning down where this legend came from and what the original story was is next to impossible. Every mouth that retells the story shapes it a little more into something ever-so-slightly different than it was before. Every verbal account throughout history has done this. Every article I researched for this episode did the same. Even I did it. Because we always put our own spin on things.
Now, I will say that with some cryptids, this can at least in part be circumvented with sightings. Sasquatch is the golden child of those ideas. Many people across many places who never contacted one another report a similar thing: Large, hairy, smelly, ape-man of the woods. Heck, the Roougarou shares turf with one of these: the Honey Island Swamp Monster, which we will be covering in a future episode. But the Rougarou doesn’t really have sightings.
Okay, I am sure there are people who claim to have seen this beast. If I say there are NO sightings, someone inevitably will hop in the comments and tell me how dismissive I am being. And by the way, I encourage you to do so! Please tell me your stories in the comments or email. Because all across the internet, I can’t find ANY modern sightings of this thing. I found a few more Bigfoot-ish sightings that CLAIMED they were Rougarou, but that was more so because of the location of said sighting more than because it fit the description.
Oh, and I found article after article stating, and I quote, “And sightings continue to happen to this day” – which is a copout way of saying, “Yeah, I’m sure someone still claims to see this thing, but I can’t find where they are, and I want to make the story still sound relevant”. Sorry to spoil one of those little secrets of the cryptid world.
So what is the Rougarou? Well, from what I can tell, at least, it seems to be a beautiful piece of oral history that spans the globe. A tale used to keep children away from the woods. A story used to bolster a faith in trying times. A fun campfire story on a crisp autumn night. Or, possibly, it is a piece of folklore layered over top of other unexplainable events. A way to rally a town stricken with the loss of a child to the clutches of the woods. A boogyman to blame a tragedy upon
Or maybe there’s something to it. Maybe these stories have been shared for centuries and have traversed continents because, historically, this has been something to watch for. And while I have my doubts that humans transform into wolves to carry out vengeful acts against folks who don’t cross their spiritual T’s and dot their religious i’s, I do believe that humans are capable of devolving into monsters. Who knows, maybe somewhere throughout history, they bore the teeth to match.
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Thanks for touring Cryptids Across the Atlas. Until next time, keep your eyes open. You never know what you might see just on the edge of the road.