La Chasse-galerie: the flying canoe myth of French-Canada

French-Canadian settlers came primarily from the Normandy region of France. As such, they brought Norman myths with them, which themselves descended from ancient Norse myths brought by Viking colonists.

The original Germanic myth involves a hunt by supernatural-beings (such as Odin) nowadays called The Wild Hunt. Ordinary people would get sucked into the chaos of this supernatural hunt or be cursed by assisting in the hunt.

Celtic Europe often associated this sort of a wild hunt with great nobles like King Arthur in France and Britain or Finn McCool in Ireland.

This legend was adapted into Christianity through the Normans. The Normans would go on to become some of the more fervent Catholics and crusaders. But it’s worth noting that the first Norman king, Rollo (the great-great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror) and his band of Vikings arrived in France as Norse pagans and converted to Christianity to become vassals of the King of France in exchange for total dominion over Normandy.

In the French adaptation, a nobleman who regularly skips mass to go hunt is damned to be pursued by wild animals for eternity.

The French-Canadian version involves voyageurs, the chartered beaver fur traders of New France, mixed with the aboriginal legend of a magical flying canoe.

In the standardized version of the story, a celebrating group of lumberjacks on the Gatineau River make a deal with the Devil on New Years Eve (le soir de la Saint-Sylvestre) to be ferried home to their wives on a flying canoe.

The Devil’s rules for the journey were 1) no mention of God or 2) touching a cross (usually touching the bell tower on church steeples). Or the men would lose their souls.

The lumberjacks begin the journey back, but drunk and confused by the dark night, one of them blasphemes and steers into a steeple, breaking the rules.

The tale ends in different ways from different tellings. Sometimes they make it back, sometimes they hit into a tree, sometimes they roam the skies of hell for eternity, only to appear in the night sky on New Years Eve. Sometimes the Devil tries to sabotage their canoe and gets thrown off by the lumberjacks.

Here’s one interpretation of the tale through animation:

Here’s a song about the legend:

Trailer for a movie on the legend:

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