I have always known that a Hudson’s Bay Company voyageur would refuse to start a journey on a Friday. This was a tradition that was probably also true for the voyageurs who worked for the earlier companies — the North West Company and those that came earlier. Why these Canadien men had this voyageur superstitions I did not know, as the voyageurs’ traditions were accepted by the gentlemen of the trade and cannot always be explained. Or so I thought.
However, I recently had a visitor from Washington State, who is interested in the history of the Columbia fisheries. As she is also minister at her church, she has a strong interest in religion as well. While she was here, she told me of a conversation she had with a Columbia River fisherman, who told her that no fisherman will ever start a fishing trip on a Friday. “Why,” she asked. He told her it was the day that Jesus died.
The fishermen in that area come from two major world zones: they are either Scandinavian, or they come from the Mediterranean. The tradition appears to be common to both groups and, perhaps, to any other fisherman who works the area. At any rate this statement piqued her curiosity — and mine, too. As I already said, the Voyageurs are known to have had the same superstition.
So I wondered where this “voyageur superstition” came from, and I asked the question on Twitter’s #FolkloreThursday. I almost immediately got a response — from a Scandinavian who told me there is a traditional song that tells the story of two brothers who went to sea on two different days. The first left port on Wednesday and returned home; the second did not come home. However, the Scandinavian told me, there was nothing in the song to indicate on which day the second brother had left port.
Still, it was very interesting that this was a Scandinavian folk song.
I had already begun to look at Catholic beliefs, as all of these voyageurs were French and Catholic. I learned that the Friday before Easter Sunday (called Good Friday), was a day of mourning in all Catholic homes, a time when fasting and abstinence are observed. My minister friend had tied her story to Good Friday and it appears the fisherman had done that, too. But it did not seem to be enough for me to conclude that the voyageurs in the wilderness of the North American continent would refuse to begin a journey on any Friday of the year, for the same reason.
I stumbled on this article, which was an interesting read on Catholic beliefs but added nothing to my story: http://catholicism.org/why-do-catholics-eat-fish-on-friday-2.html
Next I stumbled on a page that listed superstitions about setting out on a voyage on Friday. Here it is, and its a fun read: http://www.superstitionsof.com/superstitions-about-journey.htm “Never start traveling on Friday” it says. But it didn’t answer the question — why?
Then from a Maritime Superstitions page [Odyssey in Depth: Strange at Sea – Maritime Myths and Superstitions] I learned that “Starting voyages on certain days is considered bad luck.
These days include any Friday, December 31, the first Monday of April or the second Monday of August. Most of these superstitions originate from Biblical stories: Christ was crucified on a Friday; Judas Iscariot hanged himself on December 31, Cain slew Abel on the first Monday in April; and Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed on the second Monday in August.
The page will not pop up, but in case you want to learn more about maritime superstitions — this one, and others, try this: http://dtmag.com/thelibrary/seafaring-superstitions-marine-myth-rituals-explored It seems that sailors are a very superstitious group of people! (I was an offshore sailor for a few years, and knew nothing of all this).
Someone on Twitter then suggested to me that this began in Ancient Rome, and I discovered that was true, too! In Lord Macaulays Essays: And Lays of Ancient Rome, I found it written that Ancient Romans would never begin a journey on Friday. Even today Italians follow some of the same rules or superstitions, as you will see by this page: http://tuscantraveler.com/2014/florence/italian-life-rules-superstitions-familiar-and-strange/
So I found this story confirmed, both in sailing traditions, and in religious posts — though I was unable to connect it directly to France. Still, this tradition did make it from France onto the rivers of North America, and to forts spread far and wide across the continent. How did this happen?
The answer is fairly simple. The ancestors of the Canadien voyageurs had come from the coastal ports of France: from Norman ports such as Perche in the north, and Saintonge, Nantes, and LaRochelle to the south. The Frenchmen who lived in these coastal cities always had a strong sea-faring background. Like all other sailors, the French adopted the sea-faring superstitions of the Mediterranean and elsewhere. They carried these traditions west with them, to New France. The descendants of the original Canadien coureurs de bois (travelers of the Woods) carried their ancestors’ songs, their stories, and their voyageur superstitions even further — south to the Illinois River and Louisiana, to Detroit, to the rivers north of Lake Superior. The stories and superstitions spread across the continent with the Canadien voyageurs and their descendants: these men even carried their stories to the west side of the Rocky Mountains. Rarely did a journey begin on a Friday in the west: the York Factory Express almost always began on the Monday after March 20, and the brigades rarely if ever departed their home post on a Friday.
My Twitter question brought me one more answer, and here it is — the story of La Chasse-Galerie, or the Flying Canoe. As the footnote says, the story is “founded on a popular superstition dating back to the days of the coureurs de bois, under the French regime, and perpetuated among the voyageurs in the Canadian northwest. The shanty-men of a later date have taken up the tradition, and it is in the French settlements, bordering the St. Lawrence River, that the legends of la chasse-galerie are specially well known at the present time…” To find the story in its various versions (You-Tube and others), you can google “La Chasse-Galerie,” or click this link: http://www.ragandbone.ca/PDFs/chasse_galerie_1892.pdf
Needless to say, when you check the date in the story, their return journey was made on a Friday!
Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2016. All rights reserved.
On Twitter: @Marguerite_HBC
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- York Factory Complaint
- York Factory Express: Cumberland House to Carlton House