What is a Rougarou, Exactly?
We take a wild ride through the folklore of Louisiana as we try to determine just what a Rougarou (or loup garu) is! Cryptozoology reports throughout the area point to several possibilities all ending with monster tales of fantastic creatures. Let’s see what we can discern from this mayhem.
No matter how you spell it, the Rougarou, Roux-Ga-Roux, Rugaroo, Rugaru, or Loup Garou is a werewolf type creature living in the folklore of Cajun French Louisiana. The story was born in France in medieval times, when they actually believed in werewolves. These stories were used to keep children in line and out of the woods.
Later in the 16th Century version, people viewed the phenomenon of the Rougarou as a genetic disorder rather than something you could “catch” from someone else, or be cursed into by a witch. According to this genetic version, a person’s life would be normal until whatever happened to trigger the condition turned on. The person’s body then enlarged and they developed a craving for raw meat. In order to complete the final transformation, the person/Rougarou had to take a bite of human flesh.
As the French set sail and settled Quebec in Canada and later Louisiana in the American South, the story came with them and mutated.
In modern times throughout Cajun Louisiana, the beast has developed several consistent characteristics: it’s described as standing between 7-8 feet tall, has horrible sharp teeth, and glowing red eyes.
It becomes its animal form on the night of the full moon. It could be anyone – neighbor, librarian, dentist. With all the storms and flooding in recent years, it’s thought the beast made its way into the city (New Orleans) because some city residents claim they have heard terrifying growls at night. (Cited on the TV show, Destination Fear.)
According to Professor Barry Jean Ancelet, an expert in Cajun folklore at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, the legend of the Rougarou is common throughout the area. He reiterated that the story originated in Medieval France and was thought to be a tale told to children to keep them away from the woods. The story followed the French settlers to Louisiana, and was further buoyed by French Canadians migrating down to New Orleans within the last couple hundred years.
Professor Ancelet indicated that the Rougarou is said to prowl the swamps and bayous of Louisiana as well as the areas around New Orleans itself. He added that it has the body of a man and the head of a wolf/dog. Besides using the tales to keep children in line, it was also used as a way to keep Catholics in line. There is a story that goes if you don’t observe the strict rules of Lent for seven years in a row, you’ll automatically turn into a Rougarou.
In one article, Professor Ancelet mentioned that sometimes a person became a Rougarou voluntarily, while at other times, the person was cursed.
Another source claims that the eyes must be avoided because if you look into them the curse is passed onto you, and you become a Rougarou.
Yet another version of the legend states that the person is under the spell of the Rougarou for 101 days. If/when the Rougarou draws the blood of its next victim, the curse transfers to that victim and the current person is released from the curse. They remain weakened and a bit sickly from the experience, and they never speak of it for shame as well as the fear of being killed.
Still other versions describe the Rougarou as a type of “headless horseman” resulting from the curse of a witch. In this scenario, only a witch can make a Rougarou by either turning into a wolf herself or cursing others with lycanthropy (where one believes oneself to be a werewolf).
American screenwriter and film maker Glen Pitre has another version of how one becomes a Rougarou. In this scenario a person commits a transgression of some sort and then they become a Rougarou. He also stated that outcasts in the community or somewhat eccentric people often became objects of suspicion, the idea being that they are probably Rougarou.
How do we get all these variations? Oral tradition. The problem with oral traditions is that they can be altered over time, and they seem to change from region to region. Hence we get 101 versions of the (more or less) same story.
The same is true when we consider the legends of the Native Americans.
The native Americans had a legend of a creature called the wendigo (artist’s rendition on the right – probably not accurate!). The story goes that these beasts had been human at one time, but they resorted to cannibalism and transformed into wendigo. A fictionalized version of this story (by Algernon Blackwood) asserts that one only has to see a wendigo to turn into one. But the Native Americans maintain that one must resort to cannibalism to turn into a wendigo. (It’s interesting to see that even fiction can alter an oral tradition and get some of the details wrong, thus adding to the confusion.)
Over time the Indian tribes developed their own story of the Rugaru through oral tradition, whose characteristics ranged from a Bigfoot type creature all the way to a full blown wendigo cannibal.
According to an article on Wiki in unnaturalworld, “It is important to note that rugaru is not a native Ojibwa word, nor is it derived from the languages of neighboring Native American peoples. However, it has a striking similarity to the French word for werewolf, loup garou. It’s possible the Turtle Mountain Ojibwa or Chippewa in North Dakota picked up the French name for “hairy human-like being” from the influence of French Canadian trappers and missionaries with whom they had extensive dealings. Somehow that term also had been referenced to their neighbors’ stories of Bigfoot. Author Peter Matthiessen argues that the rugaru is a separate legend from that of the cannibal-like giant wendigo. While the wendigo is feared, he notes that the rugaru is seen as sacred and in tune with Mother Earth, somewhat like bigfoot legends are today.”
Also in that article was a very interesting table of Abilities and Weaknesses which I’d like to share with you:
- Shapeshifting: Once the person takes a bite of human flesh, they transform into the Rougarou.
- Superhuman Strength: They are stronger than men, easily able to crush bones.
- Speed: Like animals, they can move extremely fast; a necessity when one is hunting prey.
- Flesh Eating: It’s what’s for dinner, and its primary motivation.
- Fire: Some say these Rougarous can only be destroyed through fire.
- Decapitation: Despite that, many feel decapitation is the only way to kill them.
- Severe Destruction of the Body: In addition to decapitation, people will mutilate their bodies so there is no chance for the Rougarou to come back.
Seriously, no one can even decide how to kill it!
According to retired English professor and folklore specialist at Nicholls State University in Louisiana, Patricia Perrin, “The most common motif is of a night time exposure to the Rougarou. The person who encounters the Rougarou draws one or three drops of blood, that person then has the spell, and from there, the tale can be either light or dark. In the darker tale, usually the person who encounters the Rougarou commits suicide. The darker tale is almost always associated with a person who told of the encounter in less than a year.”
In an article for The Nicholls Worth website, Brandon Folse quotes sources found in the archives of Ellender Memorial Library that report in Louisiana, because wolves are scarce, the Rougarou is associated with local animals like dogs, pigs, cows and even chickens. Regardless of the form it takes, these animals supposedly pester its next victim until they draw blood somehow from the animal (injury or stabbing).
In most cases, the next victim knows the Rougarou in their human form. At that point, after the bloodletting, the former Rougarou tells its attacker that they must not mention this encounter to anyone for one year and one day. If they do tell someone else, they themselves will turn into a Rougarou. So here we have another version of how this curse is passed on.
In the past, people tried to avoid encountering a Rougarou altogether. Men would place a leaf (unspecified) in their wallets to ward it off, while women often painted a hexagon in the center of their floor and said prayers to keep the Rougarou away.
Professor Perrin adds, “[Nowadays] the Rougarou plays a similar role to the boogeyman in other cultures. People of Louisiana want to hold on to the story, but people with an education don’t want others to think they are crazy. The Rougarou plays as significant a role in continuing the Cajun culture as crawfish boils do.”
In another article for The Courier newspaper (shared on dailycomet.com) by Laura McKnight, she shares Glen Pitre’s view of oral tradition.
Mr. Pitre’s experience with these tales isn’t simple. He claims people don’t just rattle off tales of these beasts. Instead, they go through a whole prolonged story, building up the tension as they go, scaring their listeners, until, as he said, “You had the frissons [excitement & thrills] by the end of it.”
Oral tradition is storytelling, pure and simple. Here are some more citations from this article that I think are valuable in pointing out how entrenched the oral tradition is in this area of the country:
- Trisha Hukins (of Thobodaux) grew up in Larose. She said her family always warned her to be home before dark so she didn’t get caught by the Rougarou. Hukins added, “They would say to go home before the Rougarou gets you. We just knew about it. Just a part of life.”
- Ms. Hukins shared one of their family stories wherein her great-uncle orgrandfather encountered a mad dog on his way home one night. He stuck the dog with a pocketknife and the animal immediately turned into a man, who then ran off into the night.
- Wenceslaus Billiot (of Isle de Jean Charles) was told the same stories as a child, but he doesn’t believe in the Rougarou anymore. He said, “They had some rougaroux back in the old days, usually during the full moon. I never did see one.”
- Juliet Henry (of Houma) uses this expression to describe a sleepless night: “I made the Rougarou all night.” She too heard the same stories and warnings as a child that the others had heard. This expression has been passed onto her children as well.
As if this all wasn’t confusing enough, there are actually more versions of this cryptic story.
According to Daryl Holmes, a Nicholls State University assistant professor and folklore specialist, there are some southern Louisiana tales that concern other “were-creatures.” If you can stand it, there are supposedly “were-cows” in those areas, and in an area rich with lakes, there is even a “were-crane.”
Professor Ancelet further confirms these variations by sharing this story, “[There is] a hibou-garou, or were-owl, including one from a deer hunter who shot an owl with an arrow. The next day, the hunter said he found a man suspected of being a hibou-garou lying in the same spot as the fallen owl, with an arrow stuck in the same place the owl had been pierced.” (Yes, that is a tatoo of a hibou-garou, left.)
Glen Pitre adds that there is a tale of a were-pig around Grand Isle, as well as stories about a Bigfoot style Rougarou.
Former resident of Cut Off, LA, Windell Curole reports that he has heard tales of the Rougarou appearing as other frightening creatures such as leopards, panthers, and bears.
So basically, ANYTHING that scares you at night is a Rougarou? What these stories DO have in common is that they are all vague, with no proof or evidence whatsoever, and are probably just hear-say.
Somebody pass the Excedrin please.
This is the biggest mess of a legend that I’ve ever heard. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now and have come to my own conclusions based on the research, but also my “gut” feeling.
Clearly oral tradition has fanned the flame of this legend throughout the Southern Cajun culture and geographic area. I think nowadays, we don’t realize the power of oral tradition since we are so electrified with TVs, phones, tablets, computers, you name it. But in an era when that stuff wasn’t available, all they had was each other to entertain themselves. And so these stories grew and seemed to have literally taken on a life of their own.
The fact that there are so many variations and each from a different locale seems to indicate that for whatever reasons, the original basic story was altered by communities over time.
When there is a lack of education, as happens in some areas, particularly poorer areas, superstitions get deeply entrenched in the psyche, usually not for the better.
On the other hand, if you’ve read my articles about Bigfoot, then you’ll know I absolutely believe Bigfoot and his many cousins around North America and beyond are real. As far as I’m concerned they are just great apes waiting to be definitively discovered by science.
I think the Rougarou encounters that some people have are really Bigfoot. He’s big, hairy, can be menacing, and in that area of the world, they might be more bad tempered than say, their cousins in the Pacific Northwest. Bigfoot reports around the country state that Bigfoot has large, glowing red eyes at night – something he has in common with many other animals long known to science.
The Native Americans see their Rougarou as a peaceful part of nature, stronger than men, able to run fast like an animal, hunters of prey. That sounds a lot like Bigfoot.
There’s also another element to this story. That is the human element. We know there are psychopaths in the world and always have been. Some are outcasts and some are people who engage in evil things, all because of their own troubled nature and personality. It’s probably fair to say that a lot of these stories about people “disappearing” and bodies being found mutilated in the swamps and bayous could be victims of their own kind, humans.
Bottom line: I think the Rougarou lives in the hearts and minds of the Cajun people, while Bigfoot is the one actually roaming the swamps and bayous scaring people. Beyond that, I think other humans are the ones who perpetrate the unspeakable crimes that are occasionally uncovered throughout that area.