Native Witchcraft Beliefs in Acadian, Maritime and Folklore

Native Witchcraft Beliefs in Acadian, Maritime and Folklore
© Photograph by Margarita Semirage

In an article about Catherine Jolicoeur’s vast collection of Acadian traditional legends, I chose the theme of supernatural narratives referring to the Aboriginal population of the Maritimes as an example of the many topics that can be explored thanks to her fieldwork (Greenhill and Tye 1997: 28-38).

A survey of the approximately 400 recorded narratives dealing with Native people revealed that about 350 of them told of how the Mi’kmaq had the power to curse or to “witch” people and animals, causing them serious harm.

In most of the narratives, contacts with the Natives take place when they stop at people’s houses, either to sell baskets or other wares, or to beg for food. A small number of stories tell of how Natives supplied Acadians with various cures for their physical ailments, but in general, the Natives are seen as potential witches.

One of Jolicoeur’s informants even said that the first prayer a Mi’kmaq woman taught her children was the secret of witchcraft [le secret du sorcelage] (Greenhill and Tye 1997: 36). I would now like to examine in more detail the issue of belief in Native witchcraft, not only in Acadian folklore, but also among anglophones of the Maritimes and Newfoundland, in order to point out similarities or differences in their traditional belief systems, and also in their attitudes towards Native groups.

It is difficult to establish an exact equivalency between English and French terms relating to witchcraft. In the collection edited by Peter Narváez entitled ‘The Good People: New Fairylore Essays’, Richard P. Jenkins refers to the distinction made by anthropologists between witchcraft and sorcery, the former depending on an innate power within the individual’s body, and the latter relying for its efficacy on the manipulation of medicines and spells (Jenkins 1991: 302).

It would be equally difficult to determine clearly whether magical practices in Atlantic Canada correspond more closely to the definition of witchcraft or to that of sorcery, as this article demonstrates.

In the anglophone tradition, witches are considered to have the power to harm people by casting spells, but it is not clear whether their power is innate or whether it has been acquired through learning, for example by obtaining a book of magic. There are occasional references to “wizards” in Maritime folklore, but this term may be used simply to distinguish male from female practitioners of witchcraft.

In the Acadian tradition, there are many narratives explaining that a sorcier or sorcière obtains power through a transaction with the devil where he or she sells his or her soul in exchange for the knowledge necessary to bewitch people or animals.

Acadians often use the expression jeteux de sorts to refer to an individual known to cast spells, while the term sorcier or sorcière is more commonly used to refer to a person who has acquired a wide reputation over time as a practitioner of witchcraft and who is closely identified with the practice.

A jeteux de sorts may possess the knowledge necessary to cast spells, while otherwise leading a normal life. These individuals may sometimes redeem themselves through a rejection of the devil and acceptance of Roman Catholic doctrine, while the sorcier or sorcière is seen as the agent of the devil on earth, and is considered to be damned.

Narrators who tell of spells cast by Natives rarely point to specific individuals as sorciers. Rather, they express a general belief that the Mi’kmaq people who came into contact with Acadians possessed a shared supernatural knowledge giving them potentially dangerous magical powers.

As historian Robin Briggs has pointed out, in Christian societies of the past, the world was thought to be full of hidden and potent forces that ultimately referred back to the two great antagonists, “God and the Devil” (Briggs 2002: 2).

In North America, Native populations were easily suspected of being devil worshipers because of their shamanistic religious practices.

According to historian Mary Beth Norton, English settlers everywhere on the continent viewed the shamans as witches (Norton 2003: 59). Attitudes were hardly less antagonistic in New France, wherein 1632, Father Le Jeune, the Superior of the Canadian Jesuit mission, described his territory as “Satan’s Empire” (Maxwell- Stuart 2001: 96).

The generally peaceful relations that existed between the Acadian and Mi’kmaq peoples may have prevented the supernatural beliefs of the former provoking hysterical witch hunts, the likes of which happened in New England.

Recent studies of the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts in 1692 have shown that the residents of Massachusetts were living in constant fear of the Wabanaki tribes to the north, whom they considered to be the allies of the Devil.

They also believed some witches would go into the woods, the domain of the Natives, in order to meet with Satan. One of the most dominant figures in the witch hunt, Cotton Mather, explicitly referred to the Wabanaki as “Devils” (Norton 2003: 81-136).

The fact that the Mi’kmaq shared a common religion with Acadians may also explain in part why the latter did not go so far in their condemnation of Native witches as did anglophones.

In her study of witchcraft and religion in Acadian society, ethnohistorian Denise Lamontagne shows how Acadians and Natives even shared a common spirituality characterized by a strong devotion to Saint Anne.

As the grandmother of Christ, Saint Anne was perfectly adapted to the Native system of beliefs based on ancestor worship, where she embodied the figure of the grandmother/midwife/healer. She was also a powerful traditional figure in Acadian spirituality, despite efforts by the Church to replace her with the cult of the Virgin Mary (Lamontagne 2005).

The topic of witchcraft was one of eighteen included in Catherine Jolicoeur’s collection of Acadian legends published in 1981, Les plus belles légendes acadiennes.

In the eleven narratives presented in the chapter entitled ‘La sorcellerie,’ the identity of the witch is not revealed, and few details are given regarding the cultural background of the people held responsible for casting spells, apart from a few references to the fact that they were strangers in the community.

In eight of the narratives, the witches are male, while only three are female. Gender is perhaps the principal factor differentiating witchcraft legends in English and French-speaking cultures.

Although the English term “witch” has not always referred specifically to female practitioners of witchcraft, the common usage has long been to associate the term to a female figure.

In French language terminology, witchcraft is not primarily associated with women, and both masculine and feminine forms of the French term sorcier/sorcière are used in the Acadian tradition, depending on the person’s gender.

According to Helen Creighton, the term “witch” is applied to male or female without distinction in Nova Scotia (1968: 18). Her published collections of witchcraft beliefs indicate, however, that female witches were far more numerous. For example, the chapter on witchcraft and enchantment in Folklore of Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia contains twenty-six texts mentioning the gender of a witch. In twenty-one of them, the person responsible for casting spells is female.

In Bluenose Magic, Creighton’s major work on the supernatural, there are approximately eighty narratives dealing with female witches, and only twenty where men are considered to be responsible for acts of witchcraft. Jenkins reports that in Irish folklore, witches were believed to be more often women than men.

He explains the fact by stating: “Witches were commonly at their busiest stealing milk or blinking churns, both feminine spheres of responsibility” (Jenkins 1991: 326). The word “blinking” is used here as a transitive verb meaning to trick, signifying that the witch causes the churn to malfunction through trickery.

In her article dealing with violence expressed against women who are considered to be witches in Newfoundland, Barbara Rieti suggests that magical attacks on a witch’s person are almost always used by men against women, even though “men may sometimes be witches” (1997: 79). She also states that male witches do not seem to be subject to bodily harm.

In one case where the aggression against a female witch is perpetrated by another woman, Rieti explains that the attacker was White, while the victim was a Mi’kmaq woman, and was, therefore, lower in status, just as women are the targets of men.

Helen Creighton’s research seems to support Barbara Rieti’s contention that magical attacks on witches are generally perpetrated by men against women. Bluenose Magic contains two references to a man considered to be a witchmaster.

One informant adds that he was called the “Father of Witches,” and that he “could control them all if they went too far” (21, 34-35). It seems that, in the field of witchcraft, as is the case in many other spheres of activity, there existed a traditional hierarchy where a small number of men had the power to exert authority over female subordinates.

In almost all cases where an individual is called upon to free a victim of witchcraft from a curse or spell, it is a man who performs an act of magic destined to reverse the effects of the spell by attacking the witch, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Just as Barbara Rieti’s Newfoundland informants referred to the Bible in order to justify deaths supposedly resulting from counterspells (1997: 78), so Helen Creighton’s Lunenburg informants quoted the passage from Exodus 22: 18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” in order to defend the actions of witchmasters (1968: 25).

It is possible that in predominantly Protestant areas of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, awareness of the biblical references to witches may explain the common image of the witch as an evil woman, while in Acadian communities, suspicions of witchcraft did not necessarily lead to accusations pointed at women: the guilty party could be a sorcier just as easily as a sorcière.

Acadians, who are traditionally Roman Catholic, tend not to use literal interpretations of the scriptures as a basis for their actions. In the Bible de Jérusalem, the most widely used French language translation of the Bible, the passage quoted above from Exodus expressly refers to female witches: “Tu ne laisseras pas en vie la magicienne.” However, the passage never appears in the Acadian witchcraft narratives consulted.

It is worth noting that in the numerous Acadian legends involving people who are possessed by the devil or under the evil supernatural influence, the local priest is generally the person to whom the victim or their family turns for help, while in the case of Native witchcraft, the priest is rarely consulted.

One narrative from New Brunswick involves an Acadian man who was taught a magical Mi’kmaq word that could cause injury or death when muttered in the presence of an animal. After he went home, the man tried the magic word three times, pointing each time at a chicken.

In each case, the chicken dropped dead. The man immediately went to find the parish priest, who exorcised him, asking him to repeat prayers as he held a Bible over his head. When the man then returned home, he realized he had already forgotten the magic word thanks to the intervention of the priest.

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