The Devil in Folklore

Below is the first draft on the second paper that I will be presenting on the Devil compared, French Canada and Russia. Tomorrow, I will revise it, hopefully it is coherent. It is not my area of expertise, but I am having a lot of fun writing these papers.

         The French in Canada settled in North America in the 17th and 18th century bringing with them their folk beliefs, but it is in the Americas that they forged their own culture, integrating elements of indigenous culture and adding folkloric innovations to the common French culture. I will argue that to understand the contemporary culture of French-speakers in Canada, it is necessary to examine folklore and that the shared folk beliefs shared a contemporary culture that is quite distinct from the neighbouring populations. While in Russia, there is a folk belief in the Russian Soul and a Russian character that shapes the behaviour of individuals, making them according to their beliefs hardier than the Germans, more generous and hospitable than others. This belief in a shared essence that shapes the collective Russian identity as much as that of French-speaking North Americans. Likewise, French-speakers, first the “Canadien” living in New France, followed by the French-Canadian and finally the modern Québécois also see themselves as fundamentally different from the English-speaking “Other” that surrounds them. Ironically, some of the traits that define the Québécois and Québécoise mirror many of the self-stereotypes of Russian-speakers. Both emphasize a certain “joie de vivre,” both put a greater premium on being thinner and more fashionable, and all would certainly see themselves as more hospitable than their neighbours and while both are portrayed as being religious, in both countries one finds a largely symbolic attachment to religion as opposed to a strict following of canon. I will examine the portrayal of the Devil in French-Canadian folklore and will explore whether past folk beliefs could have set the stage for the present folk culture.

In both regions, religion was used to distinguish the folk from the “Other,” but the official religion was also blended with folk beliefs that would color perception and define identity. In the case of Russians, their Orthodoxy distinguished them from Catholic and Muslim neighbours, among others, while the Catholic French-Canadian was theologically opposed to the Protestant “Other.” However, both there and here, the respective Churches certainly strived to stamp out inconvenient folk beliefs that were not tied to the faith, while trying to promote practices that were truly faithful to the doctrines of the Church. The end result was a popular faith that blended both popular beliefs and religious doctrine that promoted a collective identity that was founded on a religious worldview that promoted collective action and when necessary suffering to ensure sanctity, but the Devil was never truly a worthy foe, too easy to foil. I shall be reviewing some of my favourite folklore tied to the Devil and will put forward an exploratory analysis as to how the Devil of French-Canadian folklore would have shaped the folk culture that is ancestral to contemporary culture. I will then seek to see if enough is known of the Devil in Russian folklore to draw some comparisons or at least to justify continuing research to give the Devil his due in the genesis of identify in French North America and Russia.

Luc Gauthier (2009) in his analysis of fantasy in the French-Canadian folktales of the 19th century argues that the legends involving the Devil can be categorized according to a trinity of basic tale types. The first type is the “beautiful dancer,” the second is the “builder of bridges and churches” and the final is the “instigator of pacts” (Gauthier 2009:74). I will be examining the first and the third more closely, but suffice it to say that in the second version of the Devil tales that it involves the Devil being tricked and put to work for the good of humanity, generally under the watchful eye of a priest. The most common version involves a black horse with limitless force that is the Devil. In the folktales, the Devil as horse hauls the stones needed to build churches in Quebec, but the Devil does not finish the task as the instructions that were given not to unbridle the horse, even to let it drink, were not followed.  In most of the legends involving the Devil, the nemesis of God comes across as less than fearsome. He seeks souls, yet rarely succeeds; rather he can be easily tricked. The end result is that the Devil of popular French Canadian popular and folk Catholicism is certainly not one that would have inspired the faithful to hell.

The Devil Comes to Dance

One of the popular motifs of French-Canadian folklore is the tall, good-looking devil that frequents the parties of the recent past, partaking in the sinful actions of the French-Canadians expressing their joie de vivre. One of my favourite tales is the Devil at the danse. There are many variations of this same tale as they are localized, carried with French-speaking settlers as they move across the continent. In one version of the legend, the dance that attracted the Devil’s interest was in a locale called Guilletville in Ontario, known as “Half Way” in the past (Deschênes and Courchesne 1996:24). The former name is appropriate, it is the epitome of liminal, situated in the between of betwixt. Here, the young would gather to dance, to drink and where one could even find prostitutes. The debauchery certainly riled the priest in the legend who warmed them in their sermon that harm would fall upon those who danced during the Lent or more precisely after midnight on the Mardi Gras when the day of festivity becomes the period of fasting prior to Easter (Deschênes and Courchesne 1996:24). Warned, the young nonetheless disobeyed the priest and at the dance a dashing young man entered the room. Some say he was dressed in red, others in black, but the handsome young man was said to be an exquisite dancer, though some said flames would appear from beneath his feet. However, when he came close to baby at the dance, the child would start to cry. The mother, seeing her child’s reaction finally go up and got some holy water and she sprinkled the entire room. Furious, the beautiful young man dug his claws in the back of the woman he was dancing with and left running away in fury. In this particular version of the legend, the hall burns to the ground and the space becomes unclean as all the businesses that are built on the location go bankrupt in a year or two. Though there are many variations of this same legend, some elements remain largely unchanged across different iterations of the legend from different regions. The first is the being untouched by the sin who recognizes the devil: in this case it is the child, pure as the baby is too young to sin and is of course pre-sexual, who recognizes the true nature of the devil. In other versions of the legend, it is an old saintly woman who sees the true nature of the dancer, the old woman, serving as the useful opposition to young woman, saintly as she is understood to be lacking the young woman’s carnal sexuality that attracts the Devil to her. The second reoccurring element is the magical power of the holy water sprinkled around the room or onto the young man revealed as the Devil, and the final element is the building or location that becomes unclean, unfit for human use after the Devil’s departure.

Anthropologically, a few elements jump out in terms of analysis. The first is the fashion sense of the Devil. He is handsome and well dressed. Also, it is not clear whether the Devil had any intentions other than to dance. If he was seeking souls, he clearly was in no rush. Also, in the legend, there is no indication that the participants suffer any repercussions whether physical or spiritual. The wounds of the young woman clawed by the Devil are healed the next day and there is no moral outrage at the end or indication that the participants are destined to suffer for their sins in Hell. Let us contrast this with a virtually identical story, one being a Mexican American folktale from Texas. The structure is close to identical, but in this tale inspired from the folk beliefs of Mexico and the Spanish-speakers of the American Southwest, instead of the priest warning the parishioners, it is the preacher who warns the mother not to allow her daughter to go to the Devil’s dance. The daughter disobeys, but the consequences are quite different. When the Devil is revealed, he leaves and takes the young woman with him: “The devil had come to his party and he had spun the girl all the way to hell.”[1] As was the case with the French versions, the Devil is depicted as a dashing figure, but unlike the French telling of the tale, the emphasis is on the sinful nature of the young woman as she went to the dance is a red dress and succumbed to the implied carnal temptation. In the Spanish versions of the tale, the young woman, when she is not immediately whisked to Hell by the Devil, suffers greatly after the experience—going insane, left burned and scarred or seeing the Devil in windows and mirrors—before dying an early death as punishment for not following the teachings of the Church (Madrid 2012:18).

Though both the French-speakers and the Spanish-speakers of the American Southwest and Mexico share a common Catholic heritage, the consequences of dancing with the Devil and disobeying one’s parents and priests are much more severe. I will note, tying this to the my earlier discussion of urban legends, that the legends of the Devil going to the dance live on in urban legend, so much so that the popular urban legend debunking site features a discussion of such urban legends.[2] However, in some versions of the French tale the young woman does disappear or in one version, that of Rose Latulipe who danced with the devil, she is sometimes transported to hell, sometimes she is saved by a priest, becomes a nun and dies a few years afterwards. Jeanne Demers and Lise Gauvin (1976) document five versions of this folktale that certainly originated in France. Aurélien Boivin (2000:87) in his analysis of different versions of the legend notes that the versions from French Canadian literature are more moralistic than the ones that were transmitted orally by the folk: in the oral folk tales, as the one analyzed, the young woman does not have to expiate her sins and transgressions as is generally the case for the versions recorded in literature. I would hypothesize that this is indicating a schism between the popular folk beliefs and the more dogmatic beliefs of the clergy; the oral versions can be told without having to concern themselves unduly with reprobation from the Catholic Church, while printed forms leave a permanent record to be read by priests and bishops.

Other French-Canadian folktales also feature the Devil appearing, being driven away, and no souls going to Hell. In the same collection of folklore form French Ontario, one legend features the Devil going to play cards and dance. The priest, as priests must do, warns the parishioners that they must not dance after midnight. The Devil makes his appearance, and sits down to play cards. One woman drops a card, notices horseshoes and hooves instead of feet and promptly waves a cross and prayer beads in front of him. Distressed, the Devil runs away, passing through a brick wall. As in the other legend, no participant in the card game goes to hell, and once again the place becomes and unclean location, the owner of the house never being able to fill in the hole that the Devil had left in his wake. The Devil is thus much more terrifying and Hell a greater threat to the Anglo-American folk than is the case with the French in America, though there are cases of souls being sold in French Canada. Also, unlike the Protestant tale, the symbols of the faith offer protective forces to the believers: whether holy water or crosses, these amulets can be used effectively against the Devil.

What’s a Devil to Do

In addition to dancing, having a penchant for cards, occasionally being saddled to build a church or bridge, the Devil is often portrayed as making deals for the souls of French Canadians. Such pacts can be classified in three general genres: the Devil succeeds, thus a tragic ending; the ones where the results are mixed, thus being ironic; and finally the ones where the Devil is always duped, often in ways that are comic (Lemire 1985; Voldeng 2001:287-288). As is often the case in other folklore traditions, the Devil is always in the details. In one legend from Ontario, an old man falls in love with his nurse. Méphisto appears to him and offers him this pact: I will give you youth to marry the nurse. The old man agrees and the Devil gives returns to him his youth and the old man, now young, courts and marries the nurse. After the wedding, the young man ages, not knowing why, and dies. The corpse is found with the legs of a horse and the nurse realizes that he was the old man that she had nursed. The Devil, here, kept his promise as he gave the old man his youth to marry, then immediately after the wedding gave him his rightful age to die. (Deschênes and Courchesne 1996:28-29) Thus, the old man not paying attention to the exact promise of the Devil met his tragic end. In other folktales, the deal is annulled through the actions of a priest or by deceiving the devil in turn.

One such folktale that illustrates the ways in which the Devil can be tricked involves a man fishing, his dog, his son and his wise wife. I must confess that I do not remember where I heard this tale or where I read it, but having integrated it into my oral tradition, I shall recite it from my memory, though I confess it is certainly one part plagiarism, one part family lore and perhaps one part fabricated memory. One day, a man was unsuccessfully fishing at the shore when the Devil comes to him and tells the man that he shall fill his nets with fish if he gives to him the soul of the next creature that comes to him. The man, knowing that his dog would certainly be running up to him soon, agrees to the pact, and soon his nets are filled with fish. To his horror, it is not his dog but his son that runs to him, and clearly overjoyed, the Devil gives him until nightfall with his son. The man, saddened by his foolish deal, goes to his wife and tells her what he had done. Grimly, the wife sits down, and then tells her husband that she will go with her son and will greet the Devil. At the shore, the Devil comes to collect his due. She asks him, “Will you grant me some time to say goodbye to my son. Give me the time it takes for this candle to burn out before you take my son.” The Devil, in no hurry, agrees and promises to not take the boy until the candle burns itself out. The woman lights the candle and then begins to pray, and then she prays some more. Just as the candle is about to burn out, she extinguishes the candle and throws the stub of the candle as far as she can in the lake. Surprised, the Devil then asks the mother to hand over her son. The mother says, no as the candle did not burn itself out. Understanding that he had been tricked in turn, the Devil disappears in the darkness.

Anthropologically, the folk tales highlight the ways in which the popular legends presage the rise of a secular society in the century that would follow. While the literature, following more closely the teachings of the Catholic Church tends to present the tales of the pacts of the Devil with a tragic ending, the popular legends are more likely to feature the ones where the Devil presented as easily tricked and fooled (Voldeng 2001).

The power of folklore nonetheless remains. Three musical groups in Québec joined forces to record a song and video to protest “fracking” to drill for gas in Québec as it is feared that it will lead to the pollution of aquifers. Using the theme of the pact with the Devil, the resulting song The Devil and the Farmer presents a modern telling of a folk tale where the Devil negotiates with the farmer and the Devil agrees the first year to keep all that grows at the surface. The farmer plants potatoes, carrots and turnips. Triumphant, the Devil proposes a new deal, whereby the Devil keeps what will be in the soil, and the farmer keeps what is on the surface. Somewhat smugly the farmer agrees and plants tomatoes, melons, peas and squash. The Devil, true to his word, takes water, gas and iron from the soil, leaving the soil polluted, where nothing will grow and leaving behind only cement, the Devil disappears. In this modern telling, the Devil to be feared is unrestrained exploitation of the environment.[3]

Hoodwinking Satan

One of the most popular of French folktales involves a canoe, a pact, and the Devil, is a folktale known as “la chasse-galerie.” Variations exist, but they always feature men away working in distant camps unable to travel across the frozen forests to return home to their girlfriends and wives to celebrate the holidays, notably celebrating New Year’s eve and night with family and friends. A deal is struck that will allow the men to fly home, usually in a canoe, and spend the night celebrating back home. Nothing is offered in exchange, but the men who will be flying in the magical canoe are warned not to touch a cross or say the Lord’s name. In the version that was first published in 1891 by Honoré Beaugrand (2012), the men never actually see the Devil, but get into the birch bark canoe and recite the incantation that sets them on their way flying through the air to their home village. The men invariably succeed in flying home, they celebrate with gusto and invariably one of the men drinks too much and comes close to swearing or otherwise causing the downfall of the group. The other men invariably stop him, and they end up falling in the snow, found by the men at the camp who had stayed behind, and thought merely to have passed out drunk. Coyly ashamed of having made a pact with the devil, they do not reveal their secret and let the men think that they had simply had celebrated too strongly the coming new year. Again, no souls are carried off to hell and the lesson learned is that they should avoid such offers in the future, though I would say that anybody hearing the tale would be convinced that they would nonetheless take up the Devil’s deal in a heartbeat as which French Canadian would sacrifice the opportunity to spend an evening dancing with the women in the village. It is certainly not a tale of the Protestant work ethic or Protestant moral probity.

This particular legend is telling because the evolution of the legend can be traced back in time. Jean Du Berger (1979) provides a comprehensive analysis and he details the earlier version of the legend that was collected in the Detroit region in what is now the United States, but was once an important fort and center for French settlers active in the fur trade. Here, the legend involves not only a canoe, but quite often a pack of dogs chasing the canoe or simply a solitary hunter and his pack of dogs traversing the sky at sunset (Du Berger 1979). This older version of the legend in French North America can be traced back to a legend in France, that of the Lord “de Gauery” who committed the sin of hunting on a Sunday and was thus condemned to hunt at night in the sky, like many others condemned to live in the liminal space between the living and the dead until Judgment Day. Gauery was transformed into “galerie” and this was accompanied by an ideological shift as well. Du Berger (1979) describes a process whereby ancient Germanic gods lead the souls of the dead across the sky, to that of the condemned hunter, to vessels carrying sinners to hell to finally a magical canoe carrying drunken revellers across the sky. The punishment of sin is thus vacated from the legend and the brave heroes of the tale succeed in tricking the Devil, no worse for wear.

The Devil in Russian Folklore

When comparing the Devil in French Canadian folklore with the Devil in Russian folk tales, the main difference is the secondary role of the Devil in the traditional folk beliefs of the Russian peasant as compared to the French in North America. The Russian peasant as well as other neighbouring populations live in a countryside inhabited with spirit, unclean forces (nechistaia sila). There are spirits in the forest (leshii), spirits in the water (rusalka, vodianoi and bolotnik), spirits in homes (domovoi), spirits in banya (bannik), and even spirits in barns (ovinnik) and stables (koniushik). As Faith Wigzell  writes: “Peasants’ attitude to the unclean forces was one of profound fear coupled with the recognition that respect offered protection.” (Wigzell 2000:63; 2001:47) There were nonetheless some similarities between the French Canadian peasant farmers and their Russian counterparts. In Russia, there were dangerous places and liminal times of the day and year when unclean forces roamed the earth (Wigzell 2000:63). However, while the French-Canadian Devil did seek out souls and was not interested in punishing sin: the leshii was known “for leading peasants astray in the forest to amuse himself” and the domovoi “smashed crockery when in a bad mood” (Wigzell 2001:64). Faith Wigzell’s description of the spirits and their actions corresponds to the beliefs of the Izhma Komi of the Komi Republic. The main difference between the Devil and these unclean forces was the need to know the correct rituals to either ward them off or to undo the damage they wrought. A person lost in the woods, suspecting the leshii, should turn their clothes inside out according to some accounts that were told to me while doing fieldwork and also noted by Wigzell (2001:45). The symbolic inversion of the clothing serves to break the leshii’s power of confusion and thus allows people to find their way back home. Likewise there were a variety of rituals to drive out unclean forces and amulets to keep travelers safe.

For both Russians and French Canadians, dangerous forces populated the world. As Wigzell (2001:45) highlights, “For Russian peasants, whose world centred on home and village community, everything outside presented a potential danger.” However, the danger involved a ubiquitous array of spirits permeating the landscape that could lead to death, whether by getting completely lost in the forest or being drowned by water spirits (Wigzell 2001:45). Even the relatively benign domovoi could cause harm if the rules of conduct were not followed. Likewise, children left in the banya at night could be replaced by the spirit world by an imperfect copy with the real child being taken to the other world. As is the case in French Canada, there is an attempt to modify folk beliefs and literature draws upon folk custom, reshaping it in the process. Unlike the case of French Canada, Wigzell (2000:62) argues for a process of “demonization” whereby the spirits inhabiting the world are tied to the Devil. The Russian Orthodox Church had always seen the popular mythology as demonic, tied to pre-Christian beliefs, but it took time for the Church to begin to impose its view: “It then took until the eighteenth and, more particularly, the nineteenth century before diabolization began to affect peasant views of the activities of the unclean force.”

The very different trajectory of folk beliefs in Devils and spirits certainly shaped both the Russian and French-Canadian populations. In Russia, the late appearance of the Devil was I would argue easily shed off in Soviet times. Not having had much time to take root in the folk beliefs, the transplanted demonization did not take root. However, I would argue that the resulting consequence of this abandoning of the Devil as overlay over unclean forces was the continued strength of Russia folk beliefs otherwise known as superstitions. As these folk beliefs could not be easily targeted by Soviet forces. Whereas Russian Orthodoxy had churches that could be blown up or converted in the Houses of Culture, granaries, barns or small factories, the spiritual forces of the forests and fields could not be quickly extirpated. Thus, I would argue, that many of the beliefs tied to everyday life were transformed, but maintained under new guises to the present. This is in contrast to what was happening in French-Canada where the popular tales concerning the Devil saw Satan transformed into a somewhat less than frightening figure that could be beguiled. Thus while forces pushed towards a greater secularization in French Canada and a decline in folk beliefs, the war on religion likely helped to maintain folk beliefs as it stripped away the Devil as an explanatory factor, leaving the unclean forces untouched. All told, the larger cultures of both peoples were shaped by folklore and folk beliefs, but greater research would be required to fully understand the processes that shape contemporary folk beliefs and customs and how to tie them to the past.






Beaugrand, Honoré

2012   La Chasse-Galerie. Légendes Canadienne. La Bibliothèque électronique du Québec, ed. Collection Littérature québécoise, Vol. 2.

Boivin, A.

2000   Le Diable À La Danse. Québec français (116).

Demers, J., and L. Gauvin

1976   Documents: Cinq Versions De «Rose Latulipe». Études françaises 12(1-2).

Deschênes, Donald, and Michel Courchesne eds

1996   Légendes De Chez Nous : Récits Fantastiques De L’ontario Français. Sudbury (Ontario): Centre franco-ontarien de folklore (CFOF) et Centre FORA.

Du Berger, J.

1979   Chasse-Galerie Et Voyage. Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature canadienne 4(2).

Gauthier, L.

2009   Le Fantastique Dans Les Contes Canadiens-Français Du Xixe Siècle.

Lemire, M.

1985   Le Pacte Avec Le Diable Dans Le Conte Littéraire Au Xixe Siècle. Littérature québécoise: voix d’un peuple, voies d’une autonomie, Bruxelles, Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles:55-66.

Madrid, M.

2012   Dancing with the Devil and Other Stories My Mother Told Me. Association of Mexican American Educators Journal 3(1).

Voldeng, Évelyne

2001   Le Diable Dans Les Contes Bretons Et Canadiens-Français. In Entre Beauce Et Acadie: Facettes D’un Parcours Ethnologique: Études Offertes Au Professeur Jean-Claude Dupont. J.P. Pichette, ed. Pp. 283-293. Sainte-Foy (Québec): Presses de l’Université Laval.

Wigzell, Faith

2000   The Russian Folk Devil. In Russian Literature and Its Demons. Studies in Slavic Literature, Culture, and Society. Pamela Davidson, ed. Pp. 59-86. New York: Berghahn Books.

2001   Folklore and Russian Literature. In The Routledge Companion to Russian Literature. Neil Cornwell, ed. Pp. 34-48. London ; New York: Routledge.