January 14, 2019

Super Blood Wolf Moon: Science, Folklore, And A French-Canadian Werewolf

This month New England will experience the super blood wolf moon. 

Say it out loud: "Super blood wolf moon."

Howl it to the cold night sky: "Super Blood Wolf Moon!"

It sounds like the name of a metal band from the early 2000s, doesn't it? "Hey bro, I hear that Lustmord is opening for Super Blood Wolf Moon at the TD Garden. I need to get my tickets." It also sounds like dialogue from a horror movie. "If you kids know what's good for you, you won't go to the witch's grave during the super blood wolf moon!" Too bad no one ever listens to old geezers in horror movies...


Well, the super blood wolf moon is a real thing. It starts on January 20 at 9:35 p.m. Eastern Time and ends on January 21 at 2:50 a.m., and it shows you how amazing life is when science and folklore come together. It's as  amazing as heavy metal and horror movies combined but quieter and with a lot less gore. 

The super blood wolf moon is the official name for the full moon in January. I'll break the name down piece by piece:

1. SUPER: A full moon is called a super moon when the Moon is at its closest point to to the Earth. It appears larger than normal in the sky. There are often 3 or 4 super moons in any given calendar year. The most recent one was on December 22.

2. BLOOD: A super moon sounds kind of fun, but a blood moon sounds ominous. Don't worry though. It's not as bad as it sounds! Although the Moon will turn blood red on January 20 - 21, it is not an omen of doom. It is actually just a lunar eclipse caused by the Moon passing through the shadow cast by the Earth. "Blood moon" is a piece of folk terminology; astronomers just use the term "lunar eclipse." 


3. WOLF: The Moon has a different folk name each month. For example, November is the Beaver Moon, December is the Cold Moon, and January is the Wolf Moon. Here is the complete list of names used by The Old Farmers Almanac:

Wolf Moon (January)
Snow Moon (February)
Worm Moon (March)
Pink Moon (April)
Flower Moon (May)
Strawberry Moon  (June)
Buck Moon (July)
Sturgeon Moon (August)
Corn Moon (September)
Hunter Moon (October)
Beaver Moon (November)
Cold Moon (December)

These names are supposedly derived from those originally used by the Algonquin tribes of the Northeastern United States. Different naming systems are used around the world, but this seems to be the most common one in the U.S. and has roots here in New England. Each name refers to what happens in the natural world during that month. Worms become active in March, flowers bloom in May, and in January the hungry wolf howls. Game is scarce at this time of year, and the Algonquins could hear wolves howling outside their encampments in the icy woods. 

So there you have it - Super Blood Wolf Moon! Hopefully it seems less ominous to you now, although I find the idea of hungry wolves more than a little spooky. Which brings me to my special bonus story this week - a tale about a loup-garou, the French-Canadian werewolf. 

There aren't many werewolf stories from New England. It was said the local Algonquin shamans could send out their souls in the shape of animals, but they didn't specialize in wolf forms. The same was true of the witches in local Puritan folklore. They could assume the shape of birds, dogs, cats and even horses to torment their victims but they didn't usually turn into wolves. 

Still from The Howling (1981)
However in the late 19th century many French-Canadians moved to New England to work in the region's textile mills. They brought their folklore with them, including the following story of a loup-garou, or werewolf. It comes from Rowland Robinson's 1894 book Danvis Folks, which while fiction incorporates folklore that he heard in Vermont. Happy Super Wolf Moon!

*****

Many years ago on a dark snowy night a man left his warm house and hitched the horse to his sleigh. His wife was ill, and maybe close to death, so he was going to get the local Catholic priest.

As he rode down the forest road, all he heard was the hiss of the sleigh's runners and the thudding of the horse's hooves. The snow was good for sleighing and soon he was near the church.

Suddenly, the horse slowed down and the sleigh barely moved forward. The man whipped the horse, but to no avail. It was as if the sleigh was suddenly burdened with a two ton load.

Looking back, the man saw a large black wolf standing on its hind legs. It had its front paws on the rear of the sleigh and was preventing it from from moving forward. The wolf's yellow eyes burned bright in the darkness.

Fear gripped the man's heart. No ordinary wolf was strong enough to stop a sleigh. This was something far worse! It was a loup-garou, a man who had sold himself to the Devil in return for the power to transform into a wolf. Sometimes the loup-garous just ate corpses, but sometimes they liked their meat to be fresher. 

The creature jumped fully onto the sleigh, and the sleigh shot forward as the horse pulled harder than ever. The loup-garou walked to the front of the sleigh and put its front paws on the driver's shoulders. The monster was so heavy the man thought he would be crushed.

In a panic he searched his pockets for his knife. If he could cut the loup-garou its devilish magic would be dispelled and it would turn back into a human. But in the dark night, distracted by the monster's hot breath on his face, he couldn't find his blade. Death seemed imminent.

At this point the sleigh reached the church. Hearing the commotion the priest opened the front door. When he saw what was happening, he said a brief prayer. Instantly the monstrous wolf turned back into a man, who fled into the forest with a whimper.

Luckily the priest had a good supply of whiskey to calm the man's nerves. The priest returned to the man's house and prayed over his wife, who recovered soon afterwards. 

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