Healing Charms and Family Legends:
Passing on Beliefs Through Québécois Maternal Lineage1
Memorial University of Newfoundland
This article examines how emotions in fieldwork may both prevent and encourage the transmission of folklore. It illustrates a specific healing charm legend told by the author’s maternal family members in the province of Québec, Canada. Through her family members, Julie M-A LeBlanc examines the sense of sorority and the role of women in storytelling, a tradition mainly associated with men in Québec. This article also discusses bonding experiences as they are created amongst women when sharing family narratives as a cathartic response when faced with a family member’s fatal illness. She argues that a sense of urgency may stimulate spontaneous storytelling, such as the case with family members when death or the fear of losing memories is present.
In The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart, Ruth Behar wrote about the concerns of people who observe and the impact of emotional involvement on fieldwork. It seems so often that the detached approach is favored in research, but what happens when we turn and listen to our own families in the process? Grieving, memory, and joy, are tied to oral traditions, and may become emotional catalysts for the transmission of legends and beliefs within families.
Since the beginning of my doctoral studies in 2002, the year my mother, Micheline Giroux, was re-diagnosed with breast cancer, I was in Newfoundland taking courses in folklore while she was in Québec consulting a faith healer to cope with chemotherapy. After an initial successful breakthrough with the healer, Micheline found guidance and solace in belief in alternate and holy spiritual beings, in the supernatural and in self-healing. She became a born again Christian but in the nurturing sense, returning to what she believed in as a young woman, relying on Catholic talismans to heal. On December 26, 2003, I interviewed Micheline, her older sister Suzanne, youngest sister Marie-Andrée, and my Alzheimer’s-affected grandmother Agnès, to learn about their beliefs as well as my great-grandfather Edgar Pouliotte’s storytelling sessions. The stories that became family legends explained how some members of my family acquired healing charms passed down from a mysterious guenillou (traditionally known as a homeless man selling rags and possessing magical gifts). This would be the last time Micheline would share these stories with me; she passed away on June 13, 2004. Though she wished for me to continue interviewing her, I could not bring myself to record anything in her last waking hours. It was in these last days with her that I learned how much of an impact emotion has on memory, especially on narrative memory.
While this paper questions some of the methodological concerns about the role of emotion in fieldwork it focuses mostly on the illustration of a specific legend told by my maternal family members about folk-healing and the impacts of belief in healing. Amongst other topics, I discuss contextual storytelling, the sense of sorority, of female nurturing in folk-healing, and the less traditional role of women in storytelling in Québec. The bonding experience created amongst women when sharing family narratives in this circumstance created a cathartic response in the face of a family member’s fatal illness. I argue that a sense of urgency may stimulate spontaneous storytelling, such as the case with family members when death or the fear of losing memories is present.
This paper is both reflexive and ethnographic and illustrates the means by which we collect and share narratives to stimulate memory. The sense of self is implicit throughout the paper because I conducted research surrounding my own maternal family. Analytical observations of traditional narrativity are displayed much like Edward M. Bruner’s essay Ethnography as Narrative when I illustrate the emic and etic approaches to ethnographies and the selective process of research and memory as a postmodern method of looking at ethnography (Bruner 1997, 264-273).
Because we are often, if not always, told to listen with our intellect in “objective” research, we forget how to listen with our hearts. Stories shared within a family situation pushes new borders, from collecting the past for posterity’s sake towards listening with one’s heart to remember personal experience narratives. During the course of this research, I had many questions for Micheline, some of which I had refrained from asking in her final living days. I was struggling with the notion that narratives are often perceived as organic, living through the teller until their transmission. Like with Barre Toelken’s work on the Navajo Yellowman stories, I argue that the narratives as such do not die with the person, for culture is not possessed solely by the ones we select for study, but that in interpreting narratives as individual possessions, personified and given life by their teller (Toelken 1998, 381-391) the birth of a narrative can be personal, in that each teller composes their narrative individually. In the case of the Giroux family, there are some personal experience narratives that begin as the possession of the teller, but once they are shared are redistributed in the family pool of narratives. There is also an emotional angle to consider in collecting from close kin, such as what Toelken discovered with Hugh Yellowman who “adopted [him] in the 1950s” (1998, 384). When writing about objectivity, Toelken notes: “the objectivity scholarly stance is, presumably, that we are not obliged to share in the worldviews of those we study (…) But utter objectivity is seldom possible, even in the best of circumstances” (ibid.). There were specific restrictions as to when Toelken could listen and talk about the collected coyote stories and about hearing voices of the dead through a recording device, and therefore ethical concerns about the ownership of the material, once the main informant had passed away, were dealt with in the only feasible manner Toelken believed would respect Navajo culture and belief (1998, 383-386). Toelken returned the tapes to Yellowman’s widow and this action received mixed reviews from folklorists.
With views and expressions on ethical concerns attached to my research, I collected formally with permission, either through written release forms or verbal consent to record stories and opinions that would be shared with an academic audience. In the case of my personal family members, the narrative perspectives were recorded and recollected with the memories of both the collector and informant serving as the catalyst. Just as in Navajo belief where the voices of the dead should not be heard, the struggles I faced while listening to my mother’s recordings after her passing were further demonstrations of the emotional longing that occurs in fieldwork when one is a member of the group studied.
Healing and the Guenillou
I use the term legend to denote the type of narrative shared in the Giroux healing tradition which I define according to the criteria found in Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, where a legend is “used for a narrative supposedly based on fact, with an intermixture of traditional materials, told about a person, place, or incident (…) the legend is told as true” (Leach 1949, 612). The guenillou healing narrative is an example of a “local legend” which is to say about “ the origins of families or of family customs” (Leach 1949, 640). In this local legend lies a heritage of past beliefs in magical gifts offered by mysterious individuals in return for food and lodging2. The guenillou in my family transmitted a bloodstopping3 charm (a prayer or saying recited to stop bleeding) that was inherited by my uncle Denis, the eldest child of the Giroux family, and the burnblowing4 charm (a prayer or saying recited to extinguish fires or soothe skin burns) that was inherited by my mother, Micheline. Throughout Québec, these beliefs can be traced in various narratives of supernatural encounters and kind gestures just as they are found cross-culturally as tale and legend types5 found in Aarne-Thompson and Christiansen’s indices.
Micheline tells the legend of the guenillou by sharing how she received the inherited charm for burnblowing when she was between fifteen and seventeen years of age. To soothe her fears of evil spirits, her grandfather Edgar, in his storytelling tradition and religious devotion, began to tell her about the poor, wandering, guenillou that arrived on his doorstep many years ago, seeking food and accommodation for a few nights. Micheline explains that out of gratitude for Edgar’s generosity, the guenillou taught him healing charms. In her words, Micheline describes how Edgar transmitted the burnblowing charm to her saying:
‘Là’ i’ dit ‘j’suis pas mal vieux,’ pis i’ dit: ‘j’va te passer’ i’ dit ‘le don d’enlever le feu’ pis là i’ m’a dit la prière que j’dois faire, pis dans ma tête, j’le vois le guenillou passer (…) tu te rappelles de ce guenillou là (…), c’est lui qui a passé à lui, pis là i’ m’a conté ça, pis là j’me suis fait une image dans mon esprit de c’qu’i’ avait l’air, t’sais, pis j’le vois monter la côte (…) ‘quand t’enlèves le feu’ i’ dit: ‘faut tu leur demandes de dire trois Pater,’ ou deux Pater, en tout cas, c’est (…) le Pater, l’Ave Maria, pis le (…) Grâce Notre Père. (Giroux, Micheline, 2003).
‘Now’ he says ‘I’m pretty old,’ and he says: ‘I’ll pass on to you’ he says ‘the gift of taking away fire’ and then he told me the prayer I need to make, and in my head, I see the guenillou go by (…) you remember that guenillou (…), it’s him who passed it onto him, and then he told me this, and then I pictured him in my soul, what he looked like, y’know, and I see him climbing that hill (…) ‘when you take away fire’ he says ‘ you have to ask them to say three Pater’ or two Pater, anyways, it’s (…) the Pater, the Ave Maria, and the (…) Our Father. (Giroux, Micheline, 2003).
On the same night when Edgar transmitted the charm, he told her about how he donated his property for the building of the St-Jean-Bosco church in Gatineau (Québec). According to Micheline’s narrative, after praying intensely one evening, Edgar witnessed a white light shining over his land that was, in his perception, divine intervention (Giroux, Micheline).
These beliefs and narratives are a collective reminder of fraternity and goodwill within a community and that was the setting for healing narratives to be shared by Micheline with her sisters. These narratives share aspects of cultural belonging and beliefs that, in medical anthropology or ethnomedicine, are seen as “sociocultural systems” (Baer, Singer and Susser 2003, viii). In Hans A. Baer, Merrill Singer, and Ida Susser’s primer textbook Medical Anthropology and the World System, the authors describe medical anthropology as “concern[ing] itself with the many factors that contribute to disease or illness and with the ways that various human populations respond to disease or illness” (Baer, Singer and Susser 2003, 3).
In response to Micheline’s illness, I dealt with personal struggles of attachment. On the one hand, my mother was willing to offer as much help as she could to let me record even in her last living days, while on the other, I was considerably affected by the process of watching her die. Then there was Micheline’s own belief system that, once she passed away and after many months of reflection, returned in my thesis as a point of departure for learning about the people and reasons for requesting traditional and non-conformist alternative healing methods. These reflections brought me back to May 29, 2004, two days before leaving Vancouver (British Columbia) to pursue thesis research in Québec. I wanted to spend my last days absorbing what I could from the city before I left and was compelled to share with my husband how I was finally coming to terms with my mother’s impending death. While sitting on the University of British Columbia’s Wreck Beach, a middle-aged Caucasian man clad only in a sarong and holding a basket filled with sage bundles, offered me one saying in a soothing voice: “I’m a healer” (Jeffries). The coincidental meeting with this shamanic healer began an hour-long conversation about his apprenticeship with a Native healer from British Columbia6, the emotional draining that occurs when healing, and his own worldly travels and influences when he meets and heals people. Six days later, after traveling across half the country by car to arrive at my mother’s home in Cantley, Québec, I found that my mother’s state had rapidly deteriorated and the very next morning before sunrise, she was admitted to the hospital for the last time. From then on, the emotional took over the rational in my reflexive notes discussing the healing narratives.
Arthur Kleinman approaches a part of this phenomenon when he describes suffering as an ethnographic context in his work Writing at the Margin: Discourse Between Anthropology and Medicine (1995, 95-119). The needs to reaffirm one’s beliefs and share narratives of the experience of suffering is empathetically felt by the patient’s surroundings. “Faith healing” and the consultation of healers for alternative health care offer diversified opportunities for patients. A study by Statistics Canada found that: “in 2003, more than 5 million Canadians, about 20% of the population aged 12 or older, reported using some type of alternative health care in the past year. Women were more likely than men to use alternative care” (Park 2003).
To further exemplify the use of alternative care and spiritual connections, on November 20, 2005, I interviewed two employees involved in traditional healing methods at the Charme & Sortilège, a specialized boutique in white magic and traditional sapiences in Montréal. Although Geneviève and Kieran7 use different healing methods, both offered insights as to the types of consultations they offer and personal healing experience narratives. Where Kieran’s method touches on shamanic principles in healing, using natural resources and reflective meditation to harmonize the body, Geneviève’s training in osteopathy, kinetics, and dance offers a physical approach to self-healing (Kieran 2005; Geneviève 2005). Kieran follows his family tradition of acquiring healing knowledge transmitted by his mother and continued his apprenticeship with Montagnais8 shamanic healers. In his experience, there is a predominantly female presence in traditional healing, whether as practitioner or patient. Geneviève, however, believes that men might be more “discreet” and are seen as solitary practitioners in traditional healing circles, but she too has noticed that females are predominant and seem more receptive to traditional healing in groups. When I discussed the context of my research and the guenillou legend in my family, Geneviève shared a personal family narrative about her aunt using bloodstopping charms. Québec holds a rich folk-healing repertoire that may be revealed by sharing personal healing narratives with one another. This repertoire also coincides with spiritual re-awakenings.
In my mother’s case, both of her bouts with cancer, in 1992 and 2004, reawakened a dormant need to connect with the unknown and use any means of healing available from traditional to Westernized medicine. The family’s guenillou legend therefore reappears as part of this cycle of traditional healing when one rediscovers the oral charms that were “given” by a mysterious donor as the impulse to share further healing experiences.
Female Healers, Maternal Symbolism, and Spiritual Nurturing
In Barbara Kerewsky-Halpern’s essay on Serbian female healers, or the bajalica, she summarizes folk-healing as “incorporat[ing] the highly important elements of trust and familiarity and, through the charms, the soothing human qualities of talk and sound” (1989, 119). The roles of women in healing, as discussed in Carol Shepherd McClain’s introduction to a cross-cultural collection of essays, may be segmented into two role descriptions: the first being that “healing is interpreted as serving women’s economic or political self-interest or as an avenue for women to participate in central cultural institutions of significance to both sexes;” the second “seen to embody cultural images of femaleness as nurturing or as mediating between the realms of existence” (1989, 2). Ruthbeth Finerman describes the healing role as a female and maternal instinct in her research on Andean healers in the Saraguro region of Ecuador (1989, 25). William Wedenoja describes the Jamaican balm healer or shaman as “a ritualised extension of mothering” (1989, 76). The nurturing and soothing arguments used in these works are similar to the nurturing Christian healing rebirth Micheline went through. She consulted faith healer Mary Edith Blakeley9 who: used talismans (such as cards with the symbolic and sacred blood of Jesus, and shorter forms of scapulars), recited rosaries (as healing mantras), prayed with beads and crosses, and wore devotional medals (as magico-religious symbols). When I interviewed Micheline, Suzanne, Marie-Andrée, and Agnès, they all talked about their childhood talismans including the wearing of camphor cubes around their necks with scapulars or devotional medals to prevent catching a cold or to ward off the flu. Even in her advanced state of Alzheimer, Agnès remembered the devotional medals she placed on her children, on herself, around her household, as well as on appliances. These material objects imbued with tangible properties of healing, protection, and motivation were already a part of their belief system since a very young age.
In the prayer booklets, leaflets, and anecdotes my mother collected from 1992, I found a great influence of popular Christian symbolism in her healing journey. I therefore consulted books on healing and Christianity that could be categorized as popular self-help literature. One of these books, Guérir: Le stress, l’anxiété et la depression sans médicaments ni psychanalyse by David Servan-Schreiber, describes the emotional impact on human health, neuroscience, and the varied approaches towards alternative health care (2003, 14-33). Another work to consider is the Centre Théologique de Meylan’s publication Guérir that focuses on three main areas: personal experience narratives of religious healing, listening to patients (Doff, Chaluleau and Crotti 1984, 7-18), and both Western and Eastern philosophical and holistic perspectives (Saussus 1984, 2-35). The “alternative,” “traditional,” and/or “New Age” forms of healing help patients achieve some form of balance and peace of mind in their healing journeys. For cancer patients like Micheline, consulting a Christian healer is a way of controlling the uncontrollable, of trying to heal with and by all means available, even if it means the use of unconventional medical treatments. The more “traditional” aspect of her healing journey was through beliefs in popular Christian charms and talismans, especially with Jesus or the Virgin Mary as healing guides.
In On lui amenait tous les malades, Jean Perron writes about the perception of Jesus as a folk-healer even if his deeds were and are interpreted as “miracles” (1984, 74- 89). In essence, we have the story of a man predestined to live a supernatural divine and deified life, possessing gifts of healing (among others) and used as an image for healing. This brings up other issues, such as pilgrimages to sacro-religious sites for faith healing, as chaplain and nurse Jean Sève’s personal experience narratives illustrate in La Guérison et les Pélerins de Lourdes (1984, 123).
On Saturday, June 12, 2004, one day before Micheline’s passing, her brother Denis, and his wife Nicole, visited her sickbed. Nicole handed Micheline a plastic bottle in the shape of Lourdes containing holy healing water that we sprinkled on her. Micheline kept the bottle effigy next to her bed for the remaining hours of her life. Lourdes and the water from the sacro-religious sites are known for healing qualities and miracles in popular religious belief (Sève 1984, 124-125) and can literally be bottled up in a souvenir package and sent to immobile worshippers10. We all knew Micheline was in palliative care, that it was a question of days before her death and she knew herself that there was no recovery from her illness, but the act of offering talismans and praying alongside her sickbed was a familial effort to respect her reaffirmed beliefs even if the original attempts and roles of the miraculous healing objects were in vain.
That same day I called on a nun to pray over Micheline. The nun asked if Micheline had received her last rites. I was previously informed that she had while hospitalized weeks before, but the nun still performed a shorter version of the rites, reciting the Rosary and marking Micheline in a cross symbol over her head and chest area with a small box of incense oil. The nun then held Micheline’s left hand while I held her right and on both sides of the bed we recited the Rosary. Somehow, the nun managed to place Micheline’s hands together, to which she started reciting the Rosary with a labored and concentrated breath. It was as though in her last attempts to continue her belief in magico-religious healing Micheline had strength to follow. When she rested, the nun departed and said she would pray for her in the Chapel. I remained with my mother for hours afterwards and saw her rest sweetly as though content with her performance. This would be our last activity together.
The memory of the dead can help refresh a family tradition, and remind us of our immediate identity. Dealing with issues of personal family struggles from my grandmother’s Alzheimer to my mother’s death, the threat of memories and identities lost pressed a sense of urgency to share narratives.
This paper may have drawn on preservationist folklore, that is, urgency stimulating the need to transmit stories in fear of losing them, but this is valuable as a means by which to collect from memory and reflect upon oral history. We are reminded of the importance of transmission and recollection. With storytelling, even with improvisation, the structure of the stories, the way in which they are told, and some of its elements are re-enactments of a recollected past. Because we often find ourselves returning to our grassroots, it is human to dance with memory, it is our gift to share with others. In this case, my mother’s death and healing narratives are now shared in another setting. Finally, Behar’s comments on the vulnerable observer are sincerely felt as she wrote:
Loss, mourning, the longing for memory, the desire to enter into the world around you and having no idea how to do it, the fear of observing too coldly or too distractedly or too raggedly, the rage of cowardice, the insight that is always arriving late, as defiant hindsight, a sense of the utter uselessness of writing anything and yet the burning desire to write something, are the stopping places along the way. At the end of the voyage, if you are lucky, you catch a glimpse of a lighthouse, and you are grateful. Life, after all, is bountiful (1996, 3).
1This paper was presented at the 14th International Oral History Association Conference in Sydney, Australia, 2006.
2For further Canadian beggar narratives see: Richard M. Dorson, Bloodstoppers & Bearwalkers: Folk Traditions of the Upper Peninsula (86-87).
3For further bloodstoping narratives see: Dorson 150-165.
4For further magico-religious fire stopping charms see: Dorson 82-84.
5Rewards for kindness and grateful donors: AT 150, 156, 610, 613, 750; ML 6020.
6For shamanic healing practices in British Columbia see: Wolfgang G. Jilek, Indian Healing: Shamanic Ceremonialism in the Pacific Northwest Today.
7Informant wishes to use a pseudonym.
8The Montagnais are an indigenous tribe part of the Innu Nations, settled in the province of Québec.
9I was unable to locate the healer for a formal interview; all references of Mary Edith Blakeley are made by informants who were in contact with her.
10For the commodification of traditional charms see: Carolyn Morrow Long, Spiritual Merchants: Religion, Magic, and Commerce (99-126).
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Julie M-A LeBlanc is a Ph.D. candidate in Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland and a part-time professor for the Chair of Celtic Studies at the University of Ottawa. She has taken cultural management courses at the École des hautes études commerciales in Montréal and has worked for various museums in Canada and Ireland. Her research interests include the commercialization of folklore, the politics of representation, folklore and the media as well as the study of folk genres such as foodways, beliefs and traditional storytelling events. Ms. LeBlanc’s most recent research project involves cultural diversity in Canada and gendered politics.