By Nathan J. Rabalais
In my LSU Press book on Louisiana folklore traditions, I ran into a challenge: How can we best portray, both in words and in images, characters with a wide variety of cultural depictions? I explored this question with visual artist Jonathan Mayers.
What I consider to be the most fascinating and confounding aspect of folklore is its ability to be almost universal in terms of the morals and story structures found throughout the world, and yet so specific to each region and culture. My main goal in writing Folklore Figures of French and Creole Louisiana was to better understand how characters, motifs, and morals have adapted to the sociocultural context of Louisiana and how they compare with figures in similar tales from regions such as West Africa, France, and Canada. While this kind of comparative approach is indeed quite common in folklore studies today, most of the work on folklore in Louisiana in the past has been in the form of collections of folktales, songs, and proverbs. Analysis was largely relegated to the commentary in the collections or articles on specific tales or characters. In this project, I set out to produce the first book-length analytical study of the oral tradition of French- and Creole-speaking Louisiana.
From the beginning of this project, I was fortunate to work with the uniquely talented artist and recently named Baton Rouge poet laureate Jonathan Mayers, who contributed the original painting for the cover as well as six black-and-white interior drawings depicting some of the figures analyzed. This kind of large-scale undertaking meant examining variants of some very recognizable folklore figures, like Cendrillon (Cinderella), Snow Bella (Snow White), and the animal characters Lapin (the wily hare) and Bouki (whose name is derived from the Wolof word for “hyena,” although that meaning has largely been lost among storytellers over time). For most people, these characters are relatively easy to visualize when reading about them or listening to a story. Other folklore figures, however, brought on unique challenges and a need to reimagine the physical appearance of these elusive beings.
For numerous reasons, creatures such as the rougarou, the feu follet, and the cauchemar required some deep reflection on the part of Jonathan (as a visual artist) and me (as a researcher), but the main issue was simply the variability in the descriptions I found in archival sources and testimonies. Jonathan and I were in agreement that it shouldn’t be a matter of just picking one over others—in part because many of these variations seemed to be specific to the communities in which they were found. For example, in the Lafayette area, the will-o’-the-wisp or feu follet is often compared to a small candle on the water giving off a bluish light. However, residents of Houma describe a large ball of fire that moves quickly and swirls around its observers.
I asked Jonathan to create the artwork for this book not only because of the quality of his work but also because of his deep knowledge of Louisiana and its folklore. He had already curated and contributed to a fascinating exhibit at the Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans that I think everyone should check out: Mythologies louisianaises. I could see that he was interested in reinterpreting the region’s folklore and experimenting with innovative imagery and techniques.
One of the most intriguing images in the book is Jonathan’s portrayal of the rougarou or loup-garou. As you might be aware, loup-garou is simply the French word for “werewolf”; however, you would be hard-pressed to find a description in Louisiana that resembles a wolf. When considering how folktales adapt to new contexts, this isn’t surprising since wolves are not native to Louisiana. It’s also worth noting that the stories of the rougarou are generally not “folktales,” but rather first-person accounts from individuals who purportedly saw the creature (or know someone who has). While many of the encounters and interactions with the rougarou resemble one another, the creature’s physical characteristics range from those of a dog to an owl to more of a ghostlike being. Jonathan describes his approach:
“With so many facets of storytelling that exist about the rougarou, I made an effort to marry various physical forms and descriptors of it in one figure emerging from the darkness. Its eyes, large and vast like an owl’s, its snout and fangs like the wolf, and horns that could he considered devilish or more like a horned owl come together to create a curious variation on a familiar folklore figure.”
Another interesting figure is the cauchemar (“nightmare” in modern French), which actually refers to the physiological phenomenon of sleep paralysis, where one is mostly awake but unable to move due to problems transitioning between stages of sleep. In the past, a plethora of folk beliefs were commonly used to explain this state, including some form of a demon or incubus. Because this is a real condition that can affect anyone, you will find many different names and explanations throughout the world. Koushma, as it is known among Louisiana Creoles, is also deeply intertwined with Catholic beliefs. The frightening spirit was often said to appear as a kind of punishment for one’s sins or for misbehaving earlier that day.
In my research for this book, I looked into some scientific studies done on this phenomenon, which is considerably more common among adolescents. This condition would understandably be exacerbated during a stage in life where young people are coming of age and navigating significant changes in their lives. Much like the rougarou, descriptions of cauchemar/koushma are extremely varied. From male to female, a black cloud to invisible . . . perhaps it represents each individual’s own fears? This obviously presented an obstacle to Jonathan, but I really appreciate the way he depicted koushma in the end. He explains:
“Creating ‘Koushma’ was especially fun because of the challenge it presented. The weight of its amorphous, dark, dense shape was interesting to consider while reflecting on my family’s experiences with sleep paralysis and night terrors. The way Koushma presents itself—smothering, smearing, tearing away from, and attaching to the bed and child, with various stretching grimaces—embodies its existence as an extension of the mind. Visually, I can’t deny that I was also influenced by various demons and ghouls found in the Diablo video game franchise.”
I encourage readers to check out all of the fascinating images in the book and also to discover Jonathan’s other work.
Born in Eunice, Louisiana, Nathan J. Rabalais is the Joseph P. Montiel Assistant Professor of Francophone Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He earned a PhD in French studies at Tulane University and a Doctorat en lettres et langues from the Université de Poitiers. He directed Finding Cajun, a documentary film on cultural identity in Louisiana.
In Folklore Figures of French and Creole Louisiana, Nathan J. Rabalais examines the impact of Louisiana’s remarkably diverse cultural and ethnic groups on folklore characters and motifs during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Establishing connections between Louisiana and France, West Africa, Canada, and the Antilles, Rabalais explores how folk characters, motifs, and morals adapted to their new contexts in Louisiana.