Perceptions and Misconceptions in James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux Novels

By Patricia Gaitely


In 1987, a relatively unknown author put out a detective novel titled The Neon Rain. It featured a detective named Dave Robicheaux, a complex, flawed character who seemed to spend as much time struggling with his own inner demons as he did battling the criminals who frequented his decidedly sleazy New Orleans landscape. By the end of the novel, Robicheaux had returned to his native New Iberia, a small town in rural southwestern Louisiana that is situated in one of the twenty-two parishes making up Acadiana, or Cajun country. James Lee Burke writes Robicheaux as a character whose Cajun identity is as strong as his identity as a detective. It is a major factor in the popularity of the books.

Burke emphasizes Robicheaux's "Cajun-ness" in several different ways, using a variety of cultural markers. One way is his inclusion of folk beliefs in the novels, beliefs not necessarily unique to the Cajuns but written in such a way that they both fit in with and identify the culture. For Burke, folk belief is an essential element of Cajun culture that is needed to emphasize the ways in which Cajun culture is different from mainstream American culture. He includes examples of superstition, of belief in the supernatural and supernatural healing, and of phenomena that cannot be explained rationally. Some of Burke's characters believe in ghosts, some in voodoo, some in faith healing, some in miracles, and some in figures such as the loup garou, the Louisiana French term for a werewolf. By including these beliefs when creating different characters, Burke not only establishes folk belief as an essential part of the culture, but also emphasizes that there is not necessarily one common type of folk belief that links all the members of the community, neither is it necessarily those lacking in education who hold these beliefs. Robicheaux himself has experienced other cultures and is something of a pragmatist (at least at times). However, he is aware both of the nature and the power of folk belief in the community and is also open to its inclusion as a part of life.

David J. Hufford describes folk belief as "unofficial belief" and adds, "Official beliefs are those that are promulgated through official social structures invested with executive authority, while the beliefs themselves are generally based on claims to cultural authority" (1995: 22). According to Hufford, folk or unofficial beliefs are those that "develop and operate outside powerful social structures" (22). As an example, he asserts that the belief that ghosts of dead people can come back is not an official belief in modern American society and, therefore, it would not be taught in public schools. However, says Hufford, "The belief is, nonetheless, culturally transmitted through unofficial channels. It is an example of a spiritual folk belief" (23). The belief in unofficial beliefs is certainly one with which Robicheaux would be forced to agree. Hufford goes on to say that "one person's miracle is another's coincidence, one person's mystical experience is another's sense of awe at the beauty and majesty of the universe, one person's visit from the dead is another person's dream" (27). Hufford sums up his findings:

Life experience must coexist and share authority with technical expertise in order for a society to develop and maintain a rich and human view of itself and the world in which it lives. Folk belief traditions are an enormous and invaluable resource for this process. (40)

Clearly, to have some understanding of a culture or a community, it is important to have some insight into the "unofficial beliefs" of that group. Burke includes many elements and examples of folk belief in his Robicheaux novels in order to help paint a picture of the people and the culture he is trying to portray. Unfortunately, he sometimes seems to cause confusion with the terms he uses and the ways in which he uses them. It should be added, though, that this confusion is also prevalent in the "real world," especially as different cultural groups understand the terms differently.

Lawrence Levine, when discussing folk belief in slave communities in his work Black Culture and Black Consciousness, cites a tendency which he describes as "usually imprecise and ethnocentric" (1977: 55) that has tended to separate superstition from religion. Although the predominant religion in Acadiana is Catholicism, this is by no means the only influence on belief among the Cajuns, Creoles, African Americans, Native Americans, and others who make up the region and who inhabit Burke's novels. Traditions such as that of the traiteur (healer), which has its roots in European tradition, and voodoo, with its roots in African tradition, not only exist side by side but, according to Burke, can also be different facets of one person's belief system.1

When Burke incorporates folk belief and supernatural occurrences in his Robicheaux novels, they serve two main functions. First, they demonstrate the role that these beliefs play in a community and in the lives of individuals within that community; they also demonstrate another element, along with foodways, music, and language that make the Cajuns, and Acadiana, distinct from other parts of the United States. If Burke's representation of the traiteur differs from that researched by many folklorists, then it may be that he portrays some of the complexities of folk beliefs, which are, to say the least, fluid. What one person might consider a traiteur, another might consider a "quack," and a third might consider a witch, depending on the person's viewpoint. Certainly, there are norms with which Burke's characterizations can be compared, but the way in which he uses certain terms provokes consideration.2

There are two specific folk belief systems that Burke uses in his novels and which sometimes seem to be present in the same character, particularly in the case of Gros Mama Goula, who appears in the novel A Morning for Flamingos. The first is voodoo, a belief system that some would consider superstition and that others (including most folklore scholars) would consider a valid religion. Voodoo combines elements of African religions and Catholicism, so it is not surprising that it would play a part in stories set in an area with a large African-American community and where the Catholic religion has been a mainstay since the eighteenth century and the arrival of French and Spanish settlers. Levine attempts to explain the link between Christian and non-Christian elements in slave religion by describing a voodoo rite in which his informant's grandfather had participated during the time of slavery:

In the midst of the ceremonies a potion thrown into the fire by an old crone explodes: "And it was a sign to them, and they set to clapping and shouting. Everyone came up to my grandfather and wanted to touch him to get hold of some of the power that was going to work for him. And then they started singing a praise (spiritual)." (388)

Levine suggests that there is no clear distinction between what is Christian and what is of other belief systems. A ceremony or rite can even begin based in one system and end up celebrating another. It would be fair to say, though, that voodoo, or hoodoo, or voudon, or any variety of such is typically more closely associated with New Orleans than it is with Acadiana; this would explain why Burke's inclusion of voodoo-like activities usually take place in a New Orleans setting. Just to clarify distinctions between the terms, voodoo tends to refer to an organized religion, while hoodoo implies practices outside of a religious framework. Vodun or voudun refer to African or Afro-Caribbean religions acknowledged as a root of voodoo in Louisiana.

The second type of folk belief that appears in Robicheaux's world is the belief in the traiteur. Although Burke is well versed in the beliefs of those in the New Iberia community about which he writes, there are discrepancies between his interpretation of this aspect of folk belief and the findings of scholars who have researched the traiteur. To most contemporary folklorists, and to most French Louisianians, traiteurs are folk healers who "believe their gift of healing is a blessing from God" and who "sometimes use herbal medicines as well as prayers and rituals to heal" (Gaudet 2000:10). These rituals, though, may incorporate a variety of techniques, including magical practices. Generally it is the narrower practices of Cajun traiteurs that receive the most scholarly attention.3

Often it seems that Burke implies some kind of link between the traiteur and voodoo, or other similar practices. At times, Burke doesn't directly use the term voodoo when describing specific practices or beliefs, but the assumption is implicit. At other times, it is more explicit. Burke never suggests that Robicheaux believes in any specific kind of superstition or folk religion, although his experiences and his reactions to them demonstrate that he is open minded regarding things that cannot be rationally explained. Robicheaux is Catholic, although he does not always find the answer he seeks in highly organized or institutionalized religion and often seems to find more direction for his own life by using a combination of the tenets of the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step program and advice from relatives, both living and dead. In the novel Dixie City Jam, which is arguably the darkest of the books featuring Dave Robicheaux, his friend Batist finds himself a suspect in a series of gruesome New Orleans murders in which the heart of the victim is removed.4 When Robicheaux is confronted by Nate Baxter, an old co-worker from his days in New Orleans Homicide, he is asked if Batist has ever been into voodoo. Batist is a black (Creole) man, and Baxter informs Robicheaux, "'Your friend wears a dime on a string around his ankle. He carries a shriveled alligator's foot in his pocket. He had bones in his suitcase. The murder has all the characteristics of a ritual killing. If you were in my place, who would be your first suspect?'" (1994: 35)

There is, however, more than one way to interpret these suspicious contents found in Batist's luggage that Baxter misinterprets as signifying that he might have some involvement in voodoo. Robicheaux finds an enormous catfish skull in Batist's suitcase and recalls when Batist had caught this particular fish. He explains:

Now when you held up the skull vertically, it looked like a crucified man from the front. When you reversed it, it resembled an ecclesiastical, robed figure giving benediction to the devout. If you shook it in your hand, you could hear pieces of bone clattering inside. Batist said those were the thirty pieces of silver that Judas had taken to betray Christ. It had nothing to do with voodoo. It had everything to do with Acadian Catholicism. (40)

Robicheaux has enough knowledge of Batist's practices and beliefs to recognize the meaning behind the symbol. To the uninitiated or the uninterested (in this case, a less-than-agreeable homicide cop) they simply suggest voodoo practices, a suspicion compounded by the fact that the owner of these props is a black man of limited education. Burke locates the incident in New Orleans, although Batist is a lifelong resident of New Iberia, showing how symbols can be open to different interpretations depending on the belief system prevalent in that locale.

practices also takes place in New Orleans, this time in A Morning for Flamingos. Robicheaux refers to it as gris-gris, a kind of black magic by which an object can either warn of, cause, or prevent harm. In this instance, Robicheaux returns to his apartment in New Orleans and finds a large bullfrog nailed to the back of his door, its "puffed white belly split open and its mouth stretched open" (1990: 237). Again, the local police appear totally ignorant of what this might mean, seeing only the obvious and not looking beyond the external. They ask Robicheaux jokingly whether he might be in a cult.

Dave informs his future wife, Bootsie, who is with him when he discovers the frog (coupled with the ransacking of his apartment), that the person who nailed the frog to the door was trying to relay a message by putting on, in his words, a "gris-gris show" (240). Robicheaux sees through the show, though, and associates the graphic warning with a person who has "spent some time in a southern jail. A frog with a nail through it means a guy had better jump or he's going to have a bad fate" (240). In this story, Robicheaux has crossed the path of Gros Mama Goula, a black woman from Breaux Bridge. Burke refers to Gros Mama Goula as a traiteur, but the characteristics with which he endows her would be more easily recognized as those of a practitioner of voodoo, and the two are usually seen as distinct, separate practices. Usually, a person acknowledged as a traiteur would not want to be associated with practitioners of voodoo or hoodoo.

Gros Mama Goula is seen as a powerful woman in her community, but her influence comes not from political or economic power but from the ability to manipulate the people who believe she has supernatural powers. It is said of her, "She's a traiteur. She's got power" (34), but the power associated with her is not that usually associated with the traiteur, as it is claimed that she has put a gris-gris on Jimmie Lee Boggs, a man who shot Robicheaux and almost killed him. The scars caused by this incident are, for Robicheaux, both physical and psychological. Robicheaux does not believe in Goula's supernatural power, but he knows human nature well enough to know that her power lies chiefly in what others believe about her. If they believe that she has power, then she does, at least over them. When he meets up with escaped convict Tee Beau, Robicheaux tells him that "Gros Mama's a juju con woman" (91). Tee Beau is unconvinced by Robicheaux's disbelief, though, and tells Dave, "She put the gris-gris on Hipolyte. When he in the coffin, his mouth snap open and a black worm thick as my thumb crawl out on his chin. It ain't no lie, Mr. Dave" (91). Tee Beau has obviously grown up believing in the power of the traiteur and in her ability to have an influence on people's lives, even beyond the grave.

It is surprising that when Burke's characters talk about the traiteur, it is usually with negative connotations. In another passage from A Morning for Flamingos, Robicheaux recalls how he has heard stories about Gros Mama Goula from local blacks. The stories describe her as a juju woman who could, reportedly, "blow the fire out of a burn, stop bleeding by pressing her palm against a wound, charm worms out of a child's stomach, and cause a witch to invade the marriage bed" (38). While some of these might seem to be positive attributes, and ones that might be associated with the traiteur of today, it needs to be noted that Mama Goula is a character feared and someone who is recognized as having the power to cause tremendous evil to befall a person.

Various studies into the tradition of treating share similar findings when it comes to the practices of the traiteur. Seraphia Leyda, a Cajun journalist who uses the spelling "treateurs" to describe the healers, talks about various people, predominantly Cajuns, whom she interviewed in and around the Eunice, Louisiana, area who have had experience of the tradition. According to Leyda, who conducted her research in the 1960s, "only certain people can treat. These treateurs receive their power when they are ‘given' the prayers [by another treater] . . . One treateur may possess several prayers and thus be qualified to treat for several different things" (1961: 22). She adds that traiteurs "usually had two or three ailments that they had the power to treat, that real treateurs were not paid for their services, and that their help must be sought, never offered" (23). She also asserts that the success of the treatment is dependent upon the faith of the one asking to be treated; if a person is not cured, it is their lack of faith that is at fault (23). The problem with this, of course, lies in the fact that Leyda also talks about a horse being cured of a snakebite. Presumably, the horse would not be expected to have faith, although perhaps the emphasis is then on the faith of the horse's owner who requests the treatment. For Leyda, the origin of the tradition is French. Her Cajun family also ridiculed the idea of magic or witchcraft being involved when asked about that possibility, witchcraft being forbidden by the Catholic Church. However, Leyda does acknowledge that her uncle, a traiteur, was asked by his priest not to treat people anymore because it was at odds with the religion; he continued to treat believing that, on this matter, he was more informed about God's wishes than the clergy (25).

When describing Goula, and ascribing to her the reputation for being a traiteur who also puts spells on people, it would appear that Burke is either unclear about the meaning of the term or that he wants to write a character who is representative of the "exotic" culture that he attempts to create. Had she been written purely as a traiteur, one who heals based on religious faith and given a gift for healing, she would be an interesting character, but not nearly as colorful or powerful as the person Burke makes her into. Had she been a traiteur in the narrower recognized understanding of the term, she would have been seen more as a servant of the community than as one who wields power. By endowing her with certain characteristics not commonly associated with the role of the traiteur, Burke makes her a far more interesting, but less authentic, character who has influence in the community because she provokes fear. However, he is still using a term that is connected with Cajun, Creole, and Houma Indian communities in rural French Louisiana. Had he labeled her a voodoo practitioner, he would probably have had to locate her in New Orleans, given his propensity for linking location with cultural expectations, and that would not have worked in this instance. What Burke basically does is take a term known and understood by those in French Louisiana, then embellish that term in order to make it fit the image he is trying to portray in his novels.

Along with the healing powers ascribed to Goula is a reference to a witch invading the marriage bed, possibly a reference to what is commonly known as hag-riding. David Hufford describes this experience as having the following features: waking during the night, hearing and/or seeing something come into the room and approach the bed, being pressed on the chest, strangled, or feeling suffocated, and being unable to move or cry out (1995: 12). According to Hufford's research, the attacker could be either male or female. His research was primarily carried out in Newfoundland, but he found that "what Newfoundlanders call the Old Hag comprises a cross-culturally stable experiential pattern underlying many belief traditions in widely separated places" (12). Hufford put hag-riding under the umbrella term of "supernatural assault traditions;" in the Cajun and Creole communities the tradition is known as cauchemar. A poem by Darrell Bourque picks up on some of the same terms when describing the experience written about by Hufford. He begins, "The children say it is mostly young Blacks here who are still caught by her. When she rides them, they all become victim, without voice to call for help, without legs to flee" (1994: 42). Whereas the assumption is that the majority of Hufford's informants from Newfoundland were white, the tradition of cauchemar seems to exist most strongly in Southwestern Louisiana among African-Americans and Creoles. Writing in 1961, Patricia Rickels states that accounts she recorded "demonstrate that the belief is still both wide-spread and deeply entrenched among the Negroes in the French-Catholic culture area of southwestern Louisiana (1). For the majority of her informants, the purpose of the cauchemar was to "scare Catholics who need to go to Communion," and they believed that the cauchemar is "the spirit of an unbaptized person who chokes you in the night" (9). According to one of Rickels' informants, the spirit or cauchemar takes the form of an old grey-haired woman (10), but in many of the accounts she records, the cauchemar is referred to as "him," bringing into question the supposed gender of the spirit. Her informants also saw a link between cauchemar and voodoo, and Rickels associates this with the African tradition of the loa, a spirit "which possesses a human being, though usually with his consent and when he is awake" (14). Rickels differentiates between the older and younger generations regarding the interpretation of cauchemar, saying that for the older generation the purpose of a visit is to "punish or to warn against wrong doing" whereas for the younger generation the experience is seen as lacking any real meaning (15).

Writing thirty-seven years later on the same phenomenon, Katherine Roberts determined to find out whether, as Rickels predicted, the tradition had died out altogether in southwestern Louisiana. She notes that in modern French, the word cauchemar means nightmare, and that it is derived from two words: cauquer, meaning" to press," and mare, the Dutch term for "phantom," thus the whole word presents the image of the pressing phantom (1998: 15). All of the informants who responded to Roberts' initial inquiry about the experience of the cauchemar, or an awareness of the term, identified themselves as "either African American, (Black) Creole or French Indian" (17). According to Roberts' research, and the accounts she relates, "the cauchemar is still visiting people throughout southwestern Louisiana. The cauchemar tradition is firmly planted in the present" (24). So, at the time that Burke was writing his early Robicheaux novels, hag-riding or witch-riding was a known phenomenon in the area about which he writes, but it was most prevalent in the African American and Creole communities. The ability to cause someone to believe they have been "hag-ridden" is not one usually associated with the traiteur whose gifts are usually used for positive purposes, not harmful.

In Burke's A Stained White Radiance, Lyle Sonnier tells Robicheaux that his (Lyle's) father was a "traiture." The spelling is changed in this novel, and does not seem to imply a male, because the same spelling is later used to describe a female. Although the term traiteuse indicates a female treater, most people call both men and women healers "traiteurs." When I asked him in a telephone interview about the change in the spelling, Burke says that he only "got it right" in the later novels, and that he had misspelled it in earlier ones. Lyle claims that his father could cure warts, stop bleeding in cut hogs, blow the fire out of burns, and influence the sex of an unborn child. He also believed in Indian spirits (1992: 22). The description of Sonnier senior's skills overlaps with that used to describe Goula.

Ancelet, Edwards, and Pitre state, "The folk beliefs and practices of the Cajuns are a response to a number of specific problems, many of them not unique to Acadians" (1991: 94). Isolation and cultural hegemony meant that professional medical help tended not to be readily available, but traiteurs were found in every community (96). Ancelet explains:

Their treatments combine elements of the mystical and the spiritual with the practical and well-proven wisdom of the ages. Powerful agents, such as Catholic prayers, candles, prayer beads, and the full moon, were employed in order to effect a cure. (1991: 96)

The objects and symbols used drew upon the beliefs held by the Catholic Acadians, so were already imbued with meaning.

According to Ancelet, Edwards, and Pitre, there are different classes of what they refer to as Cajun folk medicine. Traiteurs (and this is the commonly used spelling) practice a kind of faith healing which they see as an integral part of their religion. They add that, typically, a traiteur might specialize in only one or a few specific kinds of treatment. One might treat sunstroke, another bleeding, although some treat almost anything; a typical cure might be accomplished through "the laying-on of hands, the sign of the cross, and mumbling of secret prayers drawn from passages of the Bible" (96). Traiteurs typically learn their trade from other traiteurs, the gift being generally passed on from one generation of a family to the next (97). However they insist that, while these healers might be known in the community as doctors, they were never associated with voodoo doctors (97), and it is on this point that Burke's characters seem to deviate from the understanding of the traiteur in the modern Cajun community as well as the majority of the Creole community. Goula's brand of traiteurism includes the ability, and the willingness, to inflict harm as well as good, while this would go against both the Catholic faith and the practices of the traiteur as described by Ancelet. He states that traiteurs were often not paid for their services, although sometimes they might be rewarded in kind with some kind of foodstuffs. Many traiteurs consider even simple thanks to "lessen the charitable nature of their deeds" (97) and, therefore, prefer not to be thanked.

One common factor connecting voodoo with the practices of the traiteur is Catholicism, with the traiteur often being a devout Catholic and voodoo combining elements of both the Catholic and African religions. However, there does not usually appear to be significant overlap between the two practices. Ancelet, Edwards, and Pitre also mention that some Cajuns used magic to facilitate cures, but that Catholics and practitioners of other denominations "played no roles in this form of treatment" (98). They mention using plants for cures, which would then be used in the form of "salves, greases, teas, or poultices" (98). They refer to those practices used by the Cajuns who were, in the main, of white European descent. When Burke writes about Goula, he is referring to a black woman not of the Cajun community, yet he still calls her a traiteur, and it is this term by which the community identifies her. Here the racial identity of the character is not especially problematic as the Creole community also recognizes this term and the practice of treating. In her research of the folklore of St. John the Baptist Parish, a parish in southern Louisiana near New Orleans with a significant Creole population, Marcia Gaudet found several people who considered themselves traiteurs and who "treat" for various conditions. Gaudet finds that "home remedies and cures are still part of the folk culture in the towns of Lucy, Edgard, and Wallace, especially among the black people" (1984: 58). She adds that most of these people would not consider themselves superstitious, although they "still believe that certain things will cause ‘good luck' or ‘bad luck,' and many can relate tales of supernatural beings or happenings" (58). Their belief in folk medicine, and the practice thereof, has brought some of them into conflict with the Catholic Church. Gaudet quotes Mrs. Grace Populas, who stated that the Catholic priest had refused to give her mother absolution if she continued to treat people (58), but as far as she was concerned, there was no conflict between treating and healing and the teaching of the Bible. "If you read the Bible, God and his apostles didn't cure with medicine. They cure with prayers," Gaudet cites Populas as saying (58). Various conditions such as warts, moles, snakebites, sprains, and swellings, were cited as examples of the kinds of conditions that could commonly be cured by a traiteur (58-61).

Given this evidence, the problem with Goula being identified as a traiteur has less to do with her race than her practices. She is also referred to as a juju woman, or a conjure woman, terms more often used in the African American community but terms that are, again, not generally interchangeable with that of traiteur. Burke's description of Lyle Sonnier's father more closely conforms to Ancelet's description of the traiteur although Sonnier seems to have a gift for many kinds of cures rather than being limited to one.

It may be that racial differences are being alluded to here. Lyle Sonnier's father is credited with doing works of healing, not harm, while it is the black women whose actions are more closely associated with the darker arts. Batist does not associate his beliefs with voodoo, and when he is found with questionable objects in his luggage, Robicheaux associates them with Catholicism and the signs and symbols attached to that religion. However, Batist still wears a dime that he believes has power to protect him from evil spells. He may not be a believer in conventional voodoo (if such a thing exists), but there are elements of superstition in his belief system that are not based on the Catholic faith and which have more in common with magic, such as the wearing of a "lucky charm." Levine discusses this issue that might seem like an inconsistency by quoting Anthony Dawson, a former slave from North Carolina, who stated, "we all knowed about the Word and the unseen Son of God and we didn't put no stock in conjure. “Course we had luck charms and good and bad signs, but everybody got dem things, even nowadays" (56). For Dawson, and for others before and since, the wearing of good luck charms did not seem inconsistent with Christian belief and faith.

So, in Burke's accounts of superstitions and traditional or folk beliefs, it would appear that he takes a variety of each and combines them in the figure of the traiteur. Traiteurs in Burke's Acadiana can be either black or white, either male or female, and can use their gifts and power for either good or evil (or perhaps a combination of the two). Here he deviates from the common understanding of what the traiteur represents.

The effect, though, is to provide a sense of a community in which folk belief still plays a functional part. Robicheaux is aware of the power that folk belief can have over those who believe in it, even as he hides his impatience with what he perceives as ignorance.

One superstition that pervades Burke's Robicheaux novels is that of the wearing of a dime on a string, either around the ankle or the neck, in order to ward off evil or sickness. In A Morning for Flamingos, Robicheaux recalls how Tee Beau Latiolais' grandmother raised her grandson after he was born prematurely. The baby was "so small it fitted into the shoe box she hid it in before she put it in the bottom of a trash barrel" (3). He recalls, "She raised Tee Beau as her own, fed him cush-cush with a spoon to make him strong, and tied a dime around his neck with string to keep illness from traveling down his throat" (3). That Tee Beau survived was probably perceived as proof of the dime's power. In the first of the novels, The Neon Rain, Robicheaux is describing a scene where he discovers the body of a young woman while out fishing in Bayou Lafourche. He describes her thus: "She wore a man's shirt tied under her breasts, cut-off blue jeans, and for just a second I saw a dime tied around her ankle, a good-luck charm that some Acadian and black people wore to keep away the gris-gris, an evil spell" (10). In this instance, he is describing a young black woman, suggesting that it is not merely the older generations who still give some credibility to voodoo and charms and magic and evil spells. Batist also "wore a dime on a string tied around his neck to keep away the gris-gris, an evil spell" (1989: 12). This is a practice that was probably more common in past times than now in either the Cajun or the Creole communities. In her research on cauchemar, Rickels discusses the attitude of the Catholic Church towards such phenomena, and cites an informant who told her:

Those priests don't like hoodoo! They're always talking against it. They say if you fool with hoodoo, you're fooling with the devil. Just last week the priest said, when he preached the Gospel, . . . All you peoples that got a dime in your leg . . . that's hoodoo!' All the people laughed, because plenty of them got a dime in their leg right then! (9)

In certain communities a generation ago, it does seem that the wearing of a dime was something of a tradition in Creole communities, but it is less prevalent today and probably largely unknown among modern-day Cajuns. Batist is a friend of Dave's, but has never been outside the state, and his cultural frame of reference is much more limited than Robicheaux's. In a scene from Heaven's Prisoners, Robicheaux notes:

Batist was obsessive about understanding any information that was foreign to his world, but as a rule he would have to hack and hew it into pieces until it would assimilate into that strange Afro-Creole-Acadian frame of reference that was as natural to him as wearing a dime on a string around his ankle to ward off the gris-gris, an evil spell cast by a traiteur, or conjuror. (1988: 58)

Here, once again, Burke has blurred the lines between the terms traiteur and conjuror, and ascribed to the traiteur not only the ability but also the willingness to cause harm to a fellow human being. This description does not match that given by Ancelet of a healer who does not accept even thanks for their healing deeds. Burke also talks of the traiteur putting a gris-gris on someone, again a deed that would seem incompatible with the actions of the traiteur but one that would, admittedly, seem exotic to readers, especially those whose only frame of reference for the culture is Burke's novels. Certainly, a traiteur who would cast spells or attempt to harm someone would be an anomaly, not representative of traiteurs as a whole. However, as with most aspects of human behavior and belief, there are variations and deviations from the recognized form. Goula may not be written as a traditional traiteur, but she is written as an interesting and exotic character, and one who adds an element of mystique to Burke's storytelling.


1. It is generally accepted that treating has also incorporated some elements of Native American and African beliefs.

2. Another helpful resource to help clarify the way in which the term traiteur is familiarly used can be found in Julia Swett's essay from this issue of LFM.

3. Two exceptions are Wonda L. Fontenot's book Secret Doctors:: Ethnomedicine of African Americans and Glen Pitre's documentary film Good for What Ails You.

4. The notion that cutting out a human heart is associated with voodoo rituals is based on popular misconceptions perpetuated in films such as Angel Heart; it is not part of actual voodoo practice.


Ancelet, Barry Jean, Jay Edwards, and Glen Pitre. 1991. Cajun Country. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Bourque, Darrell. 1994. Plainsongs. New York, NY: Cross- Cultural Communications.

Burke, James Lee. 1989. Black Cherry Blues. New York, NY: Avon Books.

_____. 1994. Dixie City Jam. New York, NY: Hyperion.

_____. 1988. Heaven's Prisoners. New York, NY: Pocket Books.

_____. 1990. A Morning for Flamingos. New York, NY: Avon Books.

_____. 1987. The Neon Rain. New York, NY: Pocket Books.

_____. 1992. A Stained White Radiance. New York, NY: Avon Books.

Fontenot, Wonda L. 1994, Secret Doctors: Ethnomedicine of African Americans. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Gaudet, Marcia. 2000. Cultural Catholicism in Cajun-Creole Louisiana. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 15: 3-19.

_____. 1984. Tales from the Levee. Lafayette, LA: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana.

Hufford, David. 1995. Beings Without Bodies: An Experience-Centered Theory of the Belief in Spirits. In Out of the Ordinary: Folklore and the Supernatural, ed. Barbara Walker. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

_____. 1982. The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Leyda, Seraphia. 1961. Les Treateurs. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 2: 18-27.

Levine, Lawrence. 1977. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pitre, Glen and Nicole Falgoust. 1989. Good for What Ails You: Healing Secrets of the Cajuns, Creoles, and Bayou Indians. 57 minute video documentary film. Côte Blanche Productions, Inc.

Rickels, Patricia K. 1961. Some Accounts of Witch Riding. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 2: 1-17.

Roberts, Katherine. 1998. Contemporary Cauchemar: Experience, Belief, Prevention. Louisiana Folklore Miscellany 13: 15-25.

Patrica Gaitely teaches folklore and English at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. This article was first published in the 2009 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.