Creatures of the Breton Night

The windswept moors and uncultivated lands of Brittany have long been linked with the ghostly activity of the dead. However, the beings that traditionally inhabit these areas in Breton folklore are the malevolent children of the night. For it is not only the dead who inhabit the gloom; dangerous and evil beings, who are not of the race of men, roam abroad during the hours of darkness and to encounter them could be fatal for us mortals.

Many stories, from across the region, warn of the dangers that await those traversing the lonely places after dark. The Breton nights belonged to the black dogs and to the korrigans; a race of capricious magical dwarves who emerge from their subterranean domain to haunt the moors and the ancient sites between dusk and dawn. They amuse themselves by disturbing the peace of the countryside and playing tricks on passing travellers, never missing an opportunity to entice them to join in their dance, never suffering them to stop until, overcome by fatigue, they fall dead of exhaustion. Should a man offend them, he might be forced to dance to death or even consigned to an underground dungeon without any hope of deliverance.

korrigans
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Although heard of less than the korrigans, the tall, spectral women known as the phantom washerwomen of the night (kannerez-noz in Breton) were far more feared and to encounter them was often fatal. Condemned to forever haunt the washing places and wash their linen at night to atone for their past sins, they entreated unwary men for help in wringing-out their washing. If given reluctantly, they were said to break the man’s arm; if help was refused, they pulled the unwilling man into the water and drowned him. It was believed necessary for those who aided in wringing the laundry to turn in the same direction as the washerwomen; for if the assistant turned in an opposite direction, he had his arms crushed in an instant.

The origins of the creature known as Yann Gant y Tan (translated as John with the Fire) are far more obscure than those of the korrigans or the Phantom Washerwomen. Found only in the west of the region, Yann Gant y Tan is usually described as a hairy demon who roams the nights with lighted candles burning like torches on the five fingers of his right hand which he constantly spins to create a virtual wheel of fire. Unfortunately, it is unclear why he engages in such nocturnal activity, save for the pleasure of frightening any poor soul who may chance to meet him.

One popular tradition speaks of him running away, with all speed, until stopping suddenly only to leave, amidst howls of derisive laughter, the unfortunate wretch who followed him, alone in utter darkness. However, he is not always portrayed as malicious; it was said that he might appear and provide candles to those travellers who had none, thus lighting the way home for those at risk in the night. It was once believed that a sure way to ward off the appearance of Yann Gant y Tan was to leave a gold coin or chain on a travellers post; this offering was thought to distract his attentions, at least until another day.

Yann Gant Y Tan
Yann Gant y Tan

Perhaps the most numerous nocturnal creatures found in the folklore of Brittany are those known as night criers (hopper-noz in Breton) who typically scream out to travellers in order to cause them harm or else to warn them of imminent danger. The criers seem to possess a multitude of forms; sometimes described as demons, korrigans or the ghosts of the dead, or, being shape-shifters, able to assume the form of more fantastic spectres loosely resembling human or animal shapes.

The night criers are rarely seen but they can be heard howling on the moors, sometimes they imitate the call of the farmers or take the voice of a young girl. Their whistles at night were said to beguile the traveller hastening for home; whoever dared to answer was fatally confronted by the creature after three answers. Although usually portrayed as a lumbering giant, the hopper-noz could surprise the unwary. Near the town of Saint-Goulven, local legend tells of a farmer, walking alone with his dog one night, who was startled as his dog suddenly recoiled, growling fiercely. He then realised that he was surrounded by the legs of a gigantic being whose body was lost in the shadows: the hopper-noz.

Like the korrigans, the hopper-noz was often blamed for entangling the manes of horses during the night or was a scapegoat to explain why some horses in the barn were found sweating in the morning. To protect their animals from the mischief of the hopper-noz, it was once customary for farmers to place a cross made of rosehip branches in the stable.

bugul noz
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Another nocturnal wanderer is the spectre known as the bugul-noz (shepherd of the night in Breton) or bugel-noz (child of the night); the words have been used inter-changeably for so long that we will never know which was originally applied or whether two, once distinct, traditions have merged over time. Many tales say the bugul-noz is clad all in white and that he carries a lantern; he appears, at first, the size of a korrigan, as small as a child but as you look at him, he increases in size until he becomes of a gigantic stature before disappearing. It was said that he never presented himself before people who carried a light; the eyes of the bugul-noz were wounded by the light made by the hand of man. The only way to protect oneself from him was to take refuge behind a door whose horizontal and vertical bars formed a cross, or else to stand in a ploughed field sown with blessed grain.

Other stories surrounding the bugul-noz describe him as wearing an enormous hat and tell that he is only encountered near a crossroads or ford between midnight and two o’clock in the morning. If one heard it whistling in the darkness, one had to guard against whistling back upon pain of death. Its cries lured lost men and children into deadly traps but sometimes warned of dangers. When the weary traveller calls to him for aid, he appears dressed in a long white cape, which he throws over the suppliant; who, safe beneath its folds, becomes invisible to the passage of the Ankou, the servant of death and harvester of souls.

As with most of the supernatural beings that inhabit the Breton night, the bugul-noz cannot be definitively described. That after all is the nature of supernatural beings. To perhaps explain away the many attributes once attributed to it, the bugul-noz was known as a shape-shifter and is depicted in some tales as a werewolf who snatches young shepherds. Some have suggested that as an involuntary werewolf the bugul-noz was once a man condemned to expiate his earthly sins. A more sympathetic interpretation of the old legends tries to portray the bugul-noz as a benevolent spirit who guides the shepherds safely home after dark but this overlooks its long connection to the demon known as Teuz, recorded here in the 18th century, which bears a remarkable similarity to the bugul-noz.

hopper noz
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Another noted shape-shifter, more commonly noted in the north and east of the region, is the mourioche; a malicious spirit able to transform itself into any animal that it chooses. Although it often presents itself to people in the form of a cow, pig or sheep, it is most often noted in the guise of a horse, particularly a yearling colt with a pair of muscular arms. The mourioche appears at night, waiting at a crossroads for the unwary traveller, its spine stretching to accommodate as many people as necessary. It took those foolish enough to mount it, straight to their doom; propelling them into a river or an abyss. At other times, it wrestles passers-by, grappling them with its strong arms and throwing them into water-filled ditches.

Like other creatures of the night, one should never speak to the mourioche lest it mistreat you cruelly and drown you in a river. The mourioche’s only weakness is that it is confounded by anyone who does not fear him. One story tells that it took a tailor into a lake but when the tailor threatened to cut its ears off with his scissors, the mourioche immediately returned him to dry ground and safety.

During the nights of the new moon, it was said to follow people along the road, changing shape every time they turned to look at it, before jumping on a man’s back until he collapsed from exhaustion. However, one of the cruellest pranks the mourioche would play was to possess the body of a recently deceased relative to scream insults at the grieving family and chase the children present at the wake.

mourioche
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Legends differ regarding the origins of the mourioche. Some tell that it was once a person, versed in the dark arts, who sold their soul for a magical potion; others that it was a person afflicted by a curse similar to that of the werewolves, having the ability to change shapes but without control of his actions, and there are even those who claim that it is the Devil himself.

Similar attributes were once attached to werewolves here; creatures that have formed a part of Breton folklore since the earliest times. While the werewolf’s reputation remains well-known, there are a few intriguing old references to sinister creatures that share some of their characteristics but who have now effectively disappeared from the popular consciousness. An account from the 13th century tells of a vampire who appeared at night as an old woman riding a wolf in search of the blood of a one year old child to drink. Some sources from the 17th century talk of chimeral beasts known as barbaous which were used to frighten little children in order to keep them away from dangerous places. Some early 18th century works also mention witches known as graguez-vleiz or wolf-women who, under the guise of beautiful women, dismembered and tore little children to pieces; a trait also shared here with evil creatures known as lamies.

Breton ghosts
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In Brittany, there once existed a widespread belief that the drowned whose bodies were not found and buried in consecrated ground, raged forever along the shores, begging for a Christian burial. It should therefore be no surprise that the coasts also featured their own criers known as the krierien-noz (night screamers); the lost souls of the drowned, wandering and lamenting among the rocks and treacherous coastal reefs.

One of the most popularly found coastal criers was Yannick an Aod (Little John of the Shore) whose calls were heard all along the Breton coast at night, imitating the cries of people in distress in hopes of attracting people into the water and their doom. The Bretons of the coast took a typically stoic approach to the howl of Yannick an Aod; telling their children to leave Yannick in peace and, on no account, to tease him by answering his plaintive cries; those impudent enough to do so, risked certain death. It was said that if you answered him once, Yannick an Aod jumped half the distance separating you, in a single leap. If you answered him a second time, he would jump half the remaining distance. If you answered a third time, he snapped your neck as if it were a twig.

A distinctly localised night screamer was once noted on the Quiberon Peninsula. Here, the spirit of a young man known as Pautre Penn ar Lo (the boy of Penn ar Lo) offered those travellers, trapped by the tide, the opportunity to cross the water on his back but invariably threw his passengers into the water; his mocking laughter ringing out loud. A slightly less malicious crier was noted across the Bay of Quiberon on the Île d’Arz where the bugul an aod (shepherd of the shore) was said to cut the moorings of boats at harbour.

Flying witches
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On the nights of a red moon, the jibilinen-noz (widows of the night) were said to adorn the graves of widows whose husbands were lost at sea with a sprig of boxwood. Reputed to be half-korrigan and half demon, they served as familiars to the witches of the Île de Sein. On the same island, the begou-noz (night mouths) were said to repeat, at night, the words spoken on the wind.

Some 50km to the south, on the Île d’Ouessant, the danserienn-noz (night dancers) were reported to invite passers-by to join in their cliff-top dances, in exchange for fabulous treasures. It was said that the only way for a good Christian to survive the dance was to stick a knife into the ground and graze against it at each round of dance but never to go beyond it. If one succeeded, any wish they made was granted but failure resulted in broken kidneys! On the other hand, the Diaoul-ruz (red devil) of Ouessant was said to be benign, its calls warned sailors of approaching storms and told them to secure their boats.

Some of the creatures that once formed part of the family of criers were clearly designed to explain away the inexplicable sounds carried on the night winds, such as the c’hwiteller-noz (night whistler), the beker-noz (night beater) and the biniou-noz (night bagpipes). It was especially important to resist the temptation to return the whistle of the c’hwiteller-noz as it invited misfortune and risked summoning the Devil himself. The appearance of the, wonderfully named, pilour-lann (moor crusher) was especially noted in the days preceding a storm when it was said to strike the gable end of houses with a large wooden mallet.

Will o' the wisp
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The spectral illumination known as tan-noz (night fire) was often attributed to the korrigans or to witches but it was sometimes portrayed as a maleficent spirit in its own right. The tan-noz, effectively acting as a wreckers’ fire lit on the cliffs, attracted ships, fighting for survival on the stormy sea, to meet their destruction on the deadly rocks off shore. On Brittany’s southern coast, the tan-noz was also said to indicate the location where a sinister black boat, laden with ghosts, was moored. Once the korrigans had lured passers-by aboard, the ship raised sail for unknown lands, condemning its passengers to forever roam the waves.

In some Breton tales, the tan-noz was sometimes used to explain the nocturnal lights, known as Will-o’-the-wisp in English, which beguile and mislead the hurried traveller. Usually, these lights were called the letern-noz (night lantern) and were often credited to lamps carried by the korrigans to lure the unwary to some treacherous bog or concealed abyss. However, some tales tell that the lights are in fact the candles carried by the ghosts of women condemned to walk the nights of eternity to expiate their sins. In some regions, the goulou-noz (night lights) were said to be spectral hands that held candles to warn the traveller of dangerous quagmires.

Only misfortune awaited those people who foolishly followed the flickering lights of the letern-noz but in southern Brittany it was said that anyone who gazed too long upon such ethereal lights would soon go blind. On the northern coast, the lights seen around the Île de Batz were supposed carried by korrigans, attempting to lead astray those who had the imprudence to follow them in hopes that they would drown in the sea. In eastern Brittany, wisps were generally said to be elves who helpfully illuminated the feet of those walking near streams and ponds.

White Ladies
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The phenomena of ghostly White Ladies are noted in almost a dozen sites across Brittany and while their appearance might frighten the night time traveller, they differ fundamentally from the other creatures of the night highlighted here; they are the ghosts of dead people unable to pass on to the afterlife due the tragic circumstances of their death.

Here in Brittany, it was thought that the dead did not immediately reach the otherworld but stayed in the vicinity of the living for nine generations. Such ghosts did not carry any connotations of good or evil, as their behaviour in death was thought to mirror their behaviour in life. Bound to their former haunts, the ghosts of the dead continued to tread the byways of Brittany during the hours of darkness; even if they could not always be seen, the sound of their passage could be clearly heard. However, it was said that a moonstone allowed you to see the ghosts of the dead but it was not advised, for it would risk their wrath; the dead feared being seen as it would require them to restart their penance from the beginning.

While some accounts of the Phantom Washerwomen portray them as supernatural demons, most accounts identify them as the spirits of women once known in the locality or as anonymous ghosts condemned by God to wash the same laundry over and over again. Despite looking and sounding like ordinary women and not possessing any special supernatural powers, their treatment in folklore is markedly different from that of other ghosts. Perhaps, as some have suggested, they are the distorted spirits of ancient water deities long demonised under the forces of Christianity?

Phantom Washerwomen of the Night
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Similar ancient origins have been postulated about some of Brittany’s other supernatural creatures, such as the korrigans and the fairies. However, establishing the development and characteristics of these beings throws up its own challenges; traditions about the nature of the magical family of korrigans and fairies differ, sometimes markedly, between localities. Similarly, the naming conventions are wildly inconsistent from place to place; well over fifty distinct names for these creatures were noted in popular use in the late-19th century in Lower Brittany alone. Such variability makes identifying the core features rather difficult, especially when distinctions can be further blurred when korrigans, fairies and the spirits of the dead are often interchangeable characters in the same tale.

Creatures such as the hopper-noz, the bugul-noz and the mourioche were said to possess similar attributes and haunted the same ground. Perhaps these fantastic beings once had very distinct natures whose boundaries became merged over time. If one sets aside the tales of shape-shifting, they seem to have no more supernatural power than the spirits of the dead.  They are thus not as clearly distinguishable from the dead as are the korrigans or the fairies and yet it seems that, according to tradition, they never once lived the life of men; it seems they have always been wandering spirits and while they never possessed a human body, like the Phantom Washerwomen they nevertheless assume human form.

Possibly all these supernatural beings were originally of the dead and it was only the individual names they received or the particular functions with which the popular imagination invested them that first separated them from the host of the dead. Over time, this gap widened, more and more deeply, until people no longer thought of them as souls of the dead but as supernatural spirits. It is not too much of a leap to see, in Yannick an Aod and Pautre Penn ar Lo, the folk memories of real drowned men who, over time, became separated in the local consciousness from the other dead souls. Eventually, they came to symbolise all drowned men and slowly morphed into supernatural spirits that haunt the shores and claim the unwary fisherman.

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Despite their different origins, features and appearances, all the creatures of the Breton night seem to share several characteristics: they should be avoided at all costs; if confronted, they must be accorded due respect; they should not be taunted and will not suffer insults in any way. Forgetting any of these precepts risks exposing oneself to their wrath. Of course, the surest way to avoid these creatures was to stay indoors and not venture out at night, and perhaps they were once nothing more than tall-tales told by anxious parents keen to dissuade their children from wandering outside after dark or from approaching the water’s edge. Whatever their genesis, the creatures of the Breton night, transmitted, distorted and exaggerated from generation to generation still provide an intriguing mix of the real and the supernatural.

Births, Babies and Brittany

At a time when the rural population believed that disease and misfortune were manifestations of divine judgement or else produced by a spell cast by a jealous neighbour, relief was available only from the priest or the sorcerer; people turned to the old saints, miraculous fountains and the ancient stones in their attempts to gain better favour.

As elsewhere, here in the Brittany of yesteryear, the blessing of children was the biggest hope of newly married couples; being unable to meet these expectations was a major concern. To guard against infertility which was often believed to have been the result of sins committed during a woman’s lifetime, young women would invariably devote themselves to prayer and superstition, such as performing certain rites against special menhirs or making devotions and ablutions at sacred springs in hope of a pregnancy or safe childbirth.

Several superstitions once surrounded conception here in Brittany. Local tradition rather than Church dogma claimed it was necessary to abstain from sexual relations on certain sacred days at the risk of deformity or handicap in the child conceived then; to prevent procreation, it was advised that the couple drink the blood of a hare or sheep urine.

Medieval lovers
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If newlyweds accepted hot wine, it was a sign that the couple had consummated their union before marriage and a child was already conceived. However, spouses who ate or drank before the celebration of their marriage were believed to produce dumb children. It was said that when the woman was on top of the man in coitu, the child she delivered would become a priest and that male children were conceived during a rising tide, girls when it was in retreat. If a pregnant woman carried her baby forward, the child would be a girl, similarly, a well-rounded stomach heralded a boy would be born.

Belief in the power of the moon to influence childbirth, not altogether absent today, was once well entrenched in the popular mentality here. Young women who answered a call of nature at night were careful never to turn to the moon when they did so, especially if it was a waning moon. Otherwise, they risked conceiving by virtue of the moon.

The circumstances of the birth were thought to wield an influence on the child’s future life and the behaviour of the moon served as a particularly powerful omen. If a child was born with the new moon, it was thought destined to die a violent death. Girls born to the old moon and boys under the new moon were fated not to live long. Those born under a half moon and those whose mothers died in childbirth would inevitably be evil and made the most powerful sorcerers.

Deliveries under the last quarter of the moon were believed to be more laborious than others. Those children who were born feet first would inherit the gift of diskanter, that is to say they could lift spells and cure certain diseases such as rickets. Children born in the new moon were said to be more erudite than others, while those born under a waning moon were said to speak less but to reason better. Girls born under a crescent moon were thought to become precocious in everything they did but those children born between eleven o’clock and midnight were destined to never find happiness.

Medieval childbirth
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When a child was born at night, it was once the role of the oldest woman present to move to the threshold of the house and examine the state of the sky. If the clouds surrounded the moon as if to strangle it, or they spread over its face as if to cover it, it was thought that the child was destined to be hanged or drowned. The star that seemed to sit, at that moment, above the main fireplace was also consulted; if it shone brightly, the new-born would be happy but it was a bad omen if it was pale.

The notion that everyone was born under their own star was once quite widespread here. The ability to distinguish between benign and malign stars was said to be a gift possessed by priests and wandering beggars and tales tell of such people urging delivery or advising delay until the propitious star’s appearance. Children were cautioned, when admiring the stars, never to count them because anyone who happened to count their own star would immediately fall dead.

Childbirth was and remains a formidable adventure and certain omens were once believed to allow us the means to know in advance how it would unfold. Typically, pregnancies were not immediately announced, this being done when it was no longer possible to hide its signs; such caution was to keep, to a minimum, the amount of time that one’s unborn child was vulnerable to malicious spells.

Young mother nursing child by Jules Breton
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There were a great many other superstitions surrounding childbirth; if a pregnant woman left her washing barrel empty on the tripod, it was a sign that she would be a long time in labour. A pregnant woman should not see a priest dressed at the altar and especially not when he puts on his cincture and stole, lest her baby be strangled by its umbilical cord while being born. Likewise, a pregnant woman should avoid being in a room where someone is dying: the child she is carrying could be born marked with a spot above its nose; a sign that the child would not live long.

To prepare for a happy and painless childbirth, it was necessary for the expectant mother to remain seated while reading the Gospel during the last mass that she attends before childbirth. The same outcome was assured if, at some point before the end of her pregnancy, she wore her husband’s trousers. Moreover, if her husband was unfaithful, it was he who would endure the pains of childbirth.

However, it was believed to be critical that the mother-to-be had the will-power to control her cravings or, at least, the ability to satiate them. If a pregnant woman scratched herself out of frustration, her craving would imprint itself on the corresponding part of the child’s body in the form of dark coloured patches of skin such as birthmarks. To prevent these forming, it was necessary to consult a witch but only one born during the month of May was thought able to avert the transference from mother to child. To do so, the witch applied a paste made from ground heath bedstraw onto the mother’s body and recited a charm of expulsion.

Similarly, it was once thought that when a pregnant woman looked upon a deformed object or some monstrous beast, the child she carried would sense it. It was therefore important that she refrained from visiting fairgrounds and menageries, for fear she could give birth to a monster. It was a bad omen if a woman gave birth to a deformed child and such children were usually denounced as changelings, magically substituted by the mischievous korrigans.

Virginie Demont-Breton_
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During childbirth itself, the baby was said to be delivered sooner if the mother put on her husband’s sabots or if she held, in her right hand, the words of a special prayer that has been recited beforehand. A quick delivery was also certain if someone climbed onto the roof of the house and invoked a certain charm.

Until the early 20th century, midwives were rare in rural Brittany; births took place with the help of women from the neighbourhood or a local ‘wise woman’ renowned for her expertise. Such women were practiced in the use of medicinal plants and their application as well as in the manipulation of the body. When the crucial moment arrived, a fire was lit in the fireplace, linen strips for the swaddle were put to heat and a vat of water prepared. While many people might have surround the parturient at this point, childbirth was a woman’s business and men and children were excluded from the delivery room.

To help assist childbirth, a combination of massage and ointments were applied by the woman acting as midwife. If it was feared that the baby was too big, the parturient would be given a warm bath in hopes of aiding delivery. To facilitate the birth, the parturient was encouraged to breathe into the palms of her joined hands or else she held coarse grains of salt in one hand and, in the other, a bottle into which she blew until delivery. Sometimes, the woman’s belly was rubbed with a mixture of camomile oil, gelatine and butter foam and plants such as laurel and wormwood were also applied.

The treatment of pain seems to have been marked by a feeling of fatality: the woman was held condemned, by original sin, to give birth in pain, so, few serious attempts were made to alleviate it. One peculiar practice to relieve labour pain called for the parturient to sit on a flask of hot water that had been mixed with a little powder of dried toad.

Lhermitte_La Famille _1908
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At a time when one in ten women died from childbirth-related causes in rural France, particular care was taken to make certain that the placenta was fully expelled so as to avoid infection and potential sepsis. Childbirth complications such as puerperal fever were one of the biggest killers of women of childbearing age. Indeed, a married woman would become pregnant, on average, six times. Given that up to ten per cent of labours proved fatal to the mother, a woman had a sixty per cent chance of dying during her childbearing years.

To help ensure the expulsion of the placenta, the new mother was made to swallow a mixture of figs boiled in water. If that proved unsuccessful, another treatment called for her to urinate upon warm horse-dung, provided only that the horse was not fatigued at the time of its evacuation. The placenta and umbilical cord were carefully treated; the latter was thought to develop the mind and was often kept by the mother as a powerful lucky charm. Otherwise, they were buried so that they could not be subject to any evil spells or used in magical acts.   

The midwife typically cut the umbilical cord at a length approximate to the width of four fingers and tied it. Sometimes, the full width of five fingers was left if it was a boy. The child was then washed and its lips moistened with a little alcohol in order to make it wince so that it would not be dumb. In some parts of the region, it was traditional for one of the women present to remove the new mother’s wedding ring and put it in a glass of wine before applying some onto the lips of the new-born to protect it against the evil eye. In western Brittany, the new-born was passed through the fire in order to protect it from evil spells and great care was taken to avoid passing the new-born over the table, as this was said to bring on bad luck.

Virginie Demont-Breton_L'Homme est en mer
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The newly born baby’s hands and feet were routinely rubbed with a little cold water so that it would not be sensitive to the cold.  If the child exhibited any skin stain or birthmark, this was immediately rubbed with the still warm placenta in hopes of making it pass. Another once common ritual involved cleaning the new baby’s face with the first cloth that it had wet; a procedure said to guarantee the child would possess keen eyesight and a fresh complexion.

It was at this stage that the midwife performed a small but important ritual; pinching and massaging the baby’s nose, skull, limbs and nipples, if it was a girl. Some old accounts say that this procedure was performed for several hours as it was believed to ensure the child would grow well formed; the new-born being thought incomplete until moulded by the midwife. Such practices were still noted in Brittany at the turn of the 20th century. The woman who acted as principal midwife was not usually paid for her services during the delivery, her efforts often being considered a mark of female solidarity. However, she was always nourished and given gifts as a token of gratitude by the family.

As elsewhere, infant mortality was once was very high in Brittany; in the 19th century, one in four children died before their first birthday and only two reached adulthood. If a woman gave birth to a stillborn child, the body could not leave the house through the door but had to be taken out through the window, otherwise it was said that any mother who subsequently passed through that door would give birth to only dead children. The milk of a mother who has just lost her child was passed by soaking the baby’s linen in the husband’s urine and applying these to the unfortunate mother’s breasts.

Gustaf Theodor Wallén_ The Mortuary Room
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The baptism of babies generally took place as quickly as possible, within a few days or birth and sometimes even on the same day; an unbaptised child being considered extremely vulnerable to the evil eye. The very real risk of a child dying within a week of birth must also have been a factor as not only were the souls of stillborns and children who did not live long enough to receive the sacrament of baptism deprived of the grace of God but their bodies were also excluded from the right to burial in consecrated ground amongst their forebears. The crushing reality of this dogma, especially in close-knit communities, may help to explain why deeply religious Brittany typically reported 30 per cent fewer stillborns than other parts of France.

Baptism was celebrated with much aplomb and was a joy shared with the whole community; the church bells were rung as loudly as possible to help ensure the child would never fall deaf. The baby was dressed as splendidly as possible and the one who carried the precious charge to church also carried a small piece of black bread, sometimes this was even hung in an amulet from the child’s neck. In western Brittany, a morsel of black bread was once a widely used talisman to protect against evil spells.

By tradition, the godfather and the godmother were always chosen from the wider family, with one from each side but it was said to bring on bad luck to choose the godparents before the child’s birth. A pregnant woman was never chosen as a godmother as it was thought that to do so would condemn her unborn child, or the one to be baptised, to an ugly death within the year. The choice of the child’s Christian name was left to the godfather for a boy, to the godmother for a girl. Although they kept their choices secret, the godparents usually proposed their own name for the infant; the priest being the first to hear it.

It was said that if the candle used during the baptism remained lit throughout the ceremony, it was said that the godfather and godmother would soon marry; if it died before the end before the end of service, it was a sign that no such marriage would take place. Once, it was customary to put a small floral wreath on the child’s head after the service of baptism was over. This wreath was said to bring good luck to the new-born throughout his life. So that it also brought good fortune to the mother, it was hung above the bed; tradition declared that it be hung very high if another pregnancy was to be avoided.

lhermitte_pay harvesters
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The mother was absent from the baptism of her child; she was, in the popular imagination, effectively considered unclean, as if childbirth had sullied her. Sometime after giving birth but usually forty days later, the new mother would go to church to undergo a ceremony of re-admittance into the congregation known as relevailles or the churching of woman. While official Church teaching saw this as a ceremony of thanksgiving, many priests and churchgoers associated it with purification and Old Testament notions of uncleanliness associated with childbirth. In Brittany, the new mother was forbidden to cook and care for the animals until she had been churched as it was believed that she cast a curse on everything she touched except for her child.

The churching rite was fairly straightforward: the mother, dressed in white, presented herself at the porch of the church and knelt there with a lighted candle. Many mothers also carried about their person, the linen cap with which her baby’s head was covered after having been anointed with holy chrism at its baptism. The new mother had to avoid taking holy water from the stoup in the porch, instead, the woman who accompanied her to church took some for herself and threw a few drops on the forehead of the new mother; death within the year was said to befall any woman who, even out of habit, forgot this precept. 

The priest came out to the porch and blessed the mother with holy water before leading her into church where she knelt before the altar and was again blessed with holy water in front of the congregation. New mothers in yesterday’s Brittany were not allowed to go to church for this ceremony alone, else all the potential curses she carried befell her. Leaving church at the end of the ceremony, many mothers took pains to carefully observe the first people met: of good character or bad, her child would infallibly hold the same traits. Similarly, whether the first person met was a man or a woman foretold the sex of her next child. However, nursing mothers needed to avoid meeting the eyes of a dwarf; otherwise they risked losing all their milk immediately.

Breton Mother and Child
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It should come as no surprise that many superstitions once surrounded the earliest years of a child here in Brittany. Children born with hair on their head were thought predestined for happiness, those born lame were said to be bawdy while those with a hunchback were thought cleverer than others. When a baby suffered from regular hiccups it was taken as a sign that it would be prolific but those children who, from an early age, were endowed with a prodigious spirit were said destined to die young. Those children who were born with impetigo were said to have been chosen by Providence to remain celibate and without another sign of vocation, they were sent to the arms of the Church.

Children who drooled were said to have been born to parents who attended mass on the day that their marriage was announced. To keep a child from drooling, the godfather provided a pierced penny or one marked with a cross, which was then hung around the child’s neck. To make teething easier, children were usually given a piece of apple to suck. It was believed that if the mother did not touch her baby’s gums, its teeth would grow crooked and a mole skin placed on the fountain of the child’s head was said to facilitate teeth growth; subsequently, children chewed radish leaves to keep teeth in good health. Great care was also taken when a child lost a tooth; if a dog were to swallow it, it would be replaced in the child’s mouth by a dog’s tooth. Throwing the tooth into the fire was thought to be the safest course.

If a child’s fingernails were cut before they were a year old, it was said that their mind would be cut off forever but no nails could be cut on a day of the week containing the letter R, as this was thought to invite misfortune. Another curious belief said that a small child should not be placed in front of a mirror for fear that they might be struck dumb.

Virginie Demont-Breton_ Femme de pêcheur venant de baigner ses enfants
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The health of children, so threatened on all sides, was also the object of certain prescriptions. Swinging an infant nine times over the Midsummer bonfire was said to make it immune to fear. If a child was afflicted with night terrors, it was dressed in its father’s shirt, which was then put on an altar dedicated to Saint Gilles. To treat abdominal bloating in children it was necessary to put oil in the lamp that burned in front of the Blessed Sacrament: if the lamp cast a brighter light, the child would heal.

To cure children of worms, an amulet made of white linen containing a mixture of nine cloves of garlic, salt and oil was hung around their neck. A less pungent remedy recommended they drink an infusion of mint leaves. A little roasted mouse, eaten in the evening, was said to stop children wetting the bed at night but in neighbouring Normandy, mice were fed to children to cure whooping cough.

If a mother wanted her next child to be a boy, it was thought necessary to teach her youngest child to pronounce the word tad before the word mam. Conversely, if she longed for a daughter, the child was taught to pronounce the word mam before tad. Perhaps of more realistic help to a new mother was a remedy for stretchmarks that called for a marinade of snails and rosemary; the juice squeezed from this mixture was then rubbed into the skin so that it again became as smooth as it was before marriage.

A-Sunny-Door-Step_Jules Trayer
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For childless couples, adoption was not an option in France until 1804 and even then it was restricted to people over 50 years of age only being able to adopt adults. However, the 1625 Breton edition of the Jesuit theologian Robert Bellarmine’s Great Catechism makes a curious observation about adoption in Brittany. It notes: “The common people, in the bishopric of Leon and Tregor, affirm by ancient tradition that in Lower Brittany the places to adopt children were the fair of La Martyre and the pardon of Treguier.” An intriguing reference to a market for children that has not been found recorded elsewhere and one that raises many questions that, alas, we cannot now hope to answer, four hundred years later.

Islands of Brittany II

Home to some seventy per cent of the island bodies of metropolitan France, the 800 islands and islets that surround the coast of Brittany offer something for everyone. Some support vibrant communities while others are home to only seabirds and the occasional visitor. Here is a brief sketch of some of the main inhabited islands that were not looked at in an earlier post, starting with those off the south coast and moving counter-clockwise along Brittany’s northern coast.

Île aux Moines

On Brittany’s southern coast, the beautiful inland sea known as the Gulf of Morbihan is peppered with 42 small islands; fifteen of which are permanently inhabited. There are many choices available for those wanting to cruise around the Gulf during the summer months, with regular boats departing from the ports of Arzon, Auray, Locmariaquer, Port Blanc and Vannes.

The largest island in the Gulf, the Île aux Moines, is most easily reached with a five minute ferry crossing from Port Blanc, about 8km south of Vannes. The island is almost 6km long and over 3km wide and you are never more than half a kilometre from the sea at any point. Several marked trails offer some wonderful walks and these are also two well-established cycle paths; the coastal path is about 17km long and bikes are readily available for rent.

Gulf of Morbihan
The Gulf of Morbihan ©Alexandre Lamoureux

Whichever way you choose to explore the island, you will discover life lived at a leisurely pace, roadside calvaries, ancient fountains, little chapels and small whitewashed cottages. The island’s mild climate allows fruit, palm and eucalyptus trees to flourish. Walking around the island is a treat for the senses and, if the breeze is in the right direction, you will catch the smell of the sea along with the fragrance of the mimosas and camellias that seem to dominate the island. There are half a dozen small beaches to enjoy; the charming beach at Anse du Guéric being perhaps the least visited.

The island has several prehistoric monuments, the most well-preserved of which are the cromlech at Kergonan, the largest stone circle in France, located in the north of the island and the dolmen of Pen Hap in the south of the island. This latter megalith is thought to be all that remains of a much larger structure; the massive stones having been taken away and re-purposed by the island’s builders over time.

One local custom recorded here in the late 19th century would not merit a mention nowadays. It was noted that after Vespers on a certain Sunday, young mariners would gather on the parapet in the port and watch the unmarried girls who, dressed in their most beautiful clothes, passed and re-passed with their downcast eyes. When a young man saw a lady that he liked, he dropped down and approached her!

One tradition that does still retain an exotic air today tells that, in the 19th century, local fishermen claimed to have sighted, between the island and the western coast, a shepherd dressed in a black cassock, walking on the crests of the waves and leading a large herd; he was said to be the old rector of Baden, whose soul was in pain for want of masses and prayer.

Breton girl looking to sea
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Almost 1,800 inhabitants were noted in the mid-19th century. Today, the island boasts the highest house prices in Brittany and is home to about 600 permanent residents.

Île d’Arz

A local legend tells that the Gulf of Morbihan was born from the tears that the fairies shed when they were forced to leave their lands under the relentless march of Christianity. Upon this new sea, the ancient fairies threw their garlands of flowers, which turned into beautiful islands.

Although the Île d’Arz lies under 700m away to the east of the Île aux Moines, there are no direct connections between the two isles. However, there is a tale that tells the two islands were once connected by a causeway. A young sailor from the Île aux Moines fell in love with a girl from Arz, to the great despair of his parents who had him confined with the monks. Every day, the lovesick girl crossed the causeway in order to sing under the walls of the monastery. The exasperated prior appealed to the korrigans who submerged the road, drowning the young girl and separating the two islands forever.

Today, the island can be reached in about twenty minutes by ferry from Vannes or Séné. It typically sees fewer visitors than its larger neighbour but it certainly has as much to offer. A permanent community of over 225 people live on the island, a significant reduction from the 1,250 recorded in the 1880s.

The highest point on the island is just 13m above sea level which means that even occasional walkers will find no difficulties admiring the island on foot. There are two marked hiking trails as well as a decent cycle path around the island and, given the nature of the landscape, at certain points you could be forgiven for imagining yourself floating on the sea. The 17km long coastal path takes you through a surprisingly varied landscape of small creeks, vast mudflats and sandy beaches; the best of which is possibly the Plage de Brouël on the island’s southern coast.

Berno Tidal Mill
Berno Tidal Mill ©Xavier Dubois

For those interested in the built heritage, two sites are well worth seeking out; the 12th century church known as the Church of the Nativity and the restored 16th century tidal mill of Berno which milled the island’s grain right up to the years preceding the First World War. Arz also has its share of megalithic monuments, the best examples being the dolmen of Pen Raz and the three Neolithic dolmens of Pen Lious, one of which retains traces of ancient carvings. The many scattered stones nearby are likely the ruins of other megalithic structures, long since destroyed.

On the Île d’Arz, it was once believed that husbands’ shipwrecks were announced to their wives by the sound of water falling near their beds. During stormy nights, the noises that were heard on the wind blowing in from the ocean were said to belong to the Ankou; harbinger of death, walking on the waves in his quest for fresh souls or crossing the island on a chariot of fire. Other island legends talk of ghostly women who, at night, left the island and crossed the sea as if it were dry land.

Île de Houat

Lying just 14km off the south coast town of Quiberon, the island of Houat stands proud from the clear turquoise sea with its granite cliffs and sweeping sandy bays. Stretching almost 4km long by 1km wide, this delightful island offers some 17km of coastal paths for you to explore. The main settlement with its blue shuttered whitewashed houses is a mix of new and old buildings and a good spot to dine before heading off to visit Tal ar Han beach and its impressive panorama. The nearby fine sandy beach of Treac’h ar Goured with its crystal clear water is worth visiting; stretching as it does for almost two kilometres and backing onto grassy sand dunes.

Houat

To the south and west, a more rugged coastline is revealed, concealing pretty sandy coves between the folds of the cliffs. On the southern promontory, you can see several of Houat’s larger islets with the Île aux Chevaux in the distance; this large islet once served as a common pasture for the people of Houat and neighbouring Hoëdic. To the west, the lovely beach known as Treac’h ar Vénigued enjoys a wonderful view of the Sènis and Guric islets, both accessible at low tide. The northern part of the island contains the best preserved of the island’s three defensive forts and the best of its megalithic monuments, the Menhir de Bar-Kreiz. Visit the headland of Beg Run ar Vilaine for a great view along the north coast of the island and out over Quiberon Bay.

The island is currently home to some 240 permanent residents; about half the number recorded in the mid-1960s when the island was electrified. Fishing and tourism form the backbone to the island’s livelihood but even in high season, the island never feels busy. For those interested in more than a day-trip, a range of accommodation options are available as well as a number of bars and restaurants.

There are daily ferry crossings from the mainland at Quiberon although other services also operate between April and September. Depending on the boat, the journey from the mainland takes about 40 minutes before continuing on to Hoëdic; the duckling to Houat’s duck, according to their Breton names.

Houat
Houat

Hoëdic

The 8km of blue waves separating Houat from Hoëdic is covered in about twenty minutes and if you are not soon charmed by this island, please have someone check your pulse immediately – you might be dead. Lying just 16km off the Breton coast, this small island is only about 2.5km long and 1km wide but its diminutive size belies its massive appeal. The island is a pleasure to wander around, particularly when tracing the 8km of coastal paths which allow you to discover so many picturesque coves laced with soft white sand. The views off the southern coast being wonderfully fringed by the half a dozen islets lying off the coast.

The island contains many Neolithic monuments including dolmens, stone alignments and menhirs, such as the Dolmen of the Cross and the Menhir of the Virgin which was once venerated by those women seeking to bear a child. Hoëdic also boasts one of the very few known Mesolithic sites in Brittany; shell mounds having preserved ten graves containing the bones of some fourteen people who lived about 8000 years ago. The dead were buried with flint and bone tools, shell necklaces and with deer antlers framing the heads of some bodies. Similar burials have also been discovered on nearby Téviec, a small island off Quiberon.

Mesolithic grave
Grave Reconstruction at Muséum de Toulouse

Given its strategic position in Quiberon Bay, the island was the scene of several confrontations between the forces of Great Britain and France; having been captured, re-fortified and re-captured on many occasions between the mid-16th and late-18th centuries. Reminders of these turbulent times can still be seen in the landscape today and while little remains of the English Fort at Beg Lagat on the north of the island, the impressive Vauban-style fort in the centre of the isle is in good order; built in 1853 to house 200 men, the fort was never commissioned.

A population of 425 was noted in 1920 but no more than a hundred permanent residents remain today. The dynamics of the island never really recovered from the aftershocks following the sinking of the passenger ship Saint-Philibert, about 40km to the south-east. This small coastal steamer, over-loaded with some 500 day-trippers from Nantes, capsized in rough seas during its return approach to the mouth of the Loire in the late afternoon of 14 June 1931. A lack of life-jackets and insufficient life-boats saw only eight survivors, yet the official inquest into the sinking subsequently absolved the ship-owners of any responsibility.

 Hoëdic
Hoëdic

The tragedy was turned into a drama by the press with sensational and unfounded allegations of drinking and violence amongst the passengers. The morbid reporting also stoked an atmosphere of mistrust among the population of Nantes towards the region’s seafood; suspected by them of having been contaminated by the bodies of the drowned. Demand for seafood, the islanders’ primary livelihood, slumped and in a few months, a third of the islanders were forced to flee to the mainland to escape destitution.

Today, there are just a few settlements on the island but you will be able to find all you need for the day or even a short stay and several accommodation options are available. The island is served by daily ferry crossings that take about an hour from the mainland at Quiberon, with other connections also available between April and September.

Hoëdic

Belle-Île-en-Mer

Brittany’s largest island is located about 13km south of the Quiberon Peninsula and is a veritable magnet for tourists drawn by its mild climate, magnificent coastline, gorgeous beaches and internationally renowned opera festival. The island has always attracted artists, including Courbet, Matisse, Maufra, Vasarely, Russell and most famously, Claude Monet, who painted over three dozen works here. The celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt also loved the island and its “wild, harsh and soft lands of granite and moor”.

Bernhardt kept house in a converted fort at the Pointe des Poulains, on the island’s northern tip, for almost thirty years. It was near this point that a merman was sighted in the 17th century, described as possessing a body the size of a barrel of wine, covered to the shoulders with rather white hair. The creature was captured with a net but managed to escape and for the next fortnight showed himself in inaccessible places, before disappearing.

Sarah Bernhardt in Brittany
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The island has a turbulent past, which included occupations by the Vikings, Dutch, Spanish, British and Germans. The British held the island for two years before it was returned to France in exchange for Menorca and the lands abandoned due to this upheaval were subsequently offered to the deported Acadians; about 300 were initially resettled here but only about a quarter of them stayed to put down roots on the island.

Unlike other Breton islands, it is possible to rent a car on Belle-Île but I would not recommend doing so. Instead, hire a bike or use the public bus service which runs throughout the island between April and November. With about 90km of marked hiking trails, this is not an island that you will be able to explore in a day or two. If time is at a premium, you might want to consider hiring a bike in the main town of La Palais and traversing the island to view the striking coastline that so captivated Monet at Port Coton before returning via either of the pretty beaches of Plage de Kérel or Plage du Donnant. This part of the island’s coast was once said to be populated by the ghosts of the drowned.

Claude Monet : Rocks of Belle-Île (1896)
Claude Monet : Rocks of Belle-Île (1896)

Those who prefer walking might want to head to the island’s wild southern coast and follow the clifftop trails from the town of Locmaria; now famous for its association with the death of Porthos in The Man in the Iron Mask. Starting at the beautiful sandy cove of Port Maria, the trails to the east will allow you to discover the fine beach of Port Blanc and the striking views from the Pointe d’Arzic, the Pointe du Skeul and the Pointe de Pouldon, before cooling down in the clear water of the little sandy cove of Grand Cosquet. This is about a 10km hike, so, worth considering if you want to experience the island but are pressed for time to do so.

Belle-Île’s permanent population is now about 5,300; over half that recorded in the 1870s. There are many accommodation options available and plenty of activities to help keep you amused on the island. A regular 45-minute ferry service connects the island to the mainland at Quiberon and other connections are available from April to September.

Belle-Île
Belle-Île

Île Grande

Lying off Brittany’s northern Pink Granite Coast, Île Grande is just 1km long by 2km wide and is connected to the mainland by a bridge. It is during periods of high tide, when the mudflats are covered, that the island with its sandy beaches and numerous islets is displayed at its finest. Despite being home to almost 800 people, the island retains a wild and natural atmosphere. The author Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), stayed on Île Grande on the occasion of his extended honeymoon between April and August 1896.

A 7km long coastal path offers you the opportunity to go around the island in about two hours but part of the joy of this island is stopping to explore the sandy beaches of Pors Gwenn, Pors Gelin and Toul Gwenn or hiking to the very tip of the island at the exposed Pointe de Castel Erek. A short climb to the granite outcrop near the Neolithic dolmen provides a wonderful panorama of ocean and islets.

Île Grand
Île Grand

Two of the largest islets, Île Aganton off the east coast and Île Aval off the west, can be reached on foot at low tide. In the grounds of the old monastic cemetery on Île Aval stands an ancient menhir and it is under this megalith that local legend attests that King Arthur lies awaiting his re-awakening which will restore peace to the Celtic lands. It was here, in 1878, that a local farmer is reported to have discovered three dozen skeletons with markedly elongated skulls. Be aware that today, the islet is private property.

Two other sites worth visiting include the Saint Sauveur fountain which was once visited by couples about to be married. According to tradition, the couple knelt opposite each other and each cast a piece of bread onto the surface of the water; if the two pieces met, it was a good omen and they could face marriage without fear, otherwise it was thought best to cancel the wedding. The fountain was also visited by mothers concerned that their children were slow to walk; the recommended ritual involved immersing the child three times into the waters of the spring. Inside the Church of Saint-Marc, you can see one of the very few extant old statues of the Ankou, the Breton personification of death and gatherer of souls.

Île Callot

Only accessible by road at low tide, Île Callot in the Bay of Morlaix barely extends over 3km in length and, at its widest point, is just 500m wide. Non-residents must leave their cars on the mainland in Carantec and cross to the island on foot or bike. The island is a delight with a few scattered farmhouses and fields full of cabbages and artichokes; a green finger pointing out into the turquoise sea. This is certainly the effect noted from the highest point on the island, the Notre-Dame chapel. Thought to date back to the 6th century, the present building mainly dates from the 17th century when its steeple provided a navigational aid to mariners in the Bay of Morlaix. Local legend insists that the chapel protects the hiding place of a great treasure stored on the island by marauding Danes in the 5th century.

Île Callot
Île Callot ©Thibault Poriel

The island boasts about a dozen sandy beaches where one might happily pass the time between tides; those on the eastern side of the island look out over the many islands that guard the approaches to the Morlaix Bay. Wandering the island today, reminders of the island’s economic past can still be glimpsed in the remnants of old seaweed ovens. Like many other coastal and island communities, gathering seaweed was once an important activity on Île Callot; families would collect seaweed which was then dried in the open air and burned in one of the island’s fifteen kilns to make soda, which was used as a fertilizer or else sent to factories where iodine was extracted.

As recently as the end of the 19th century, the islands of Brittany inspired only indifference and aversion.  The travel guides of the period are punctuated with remarks announcing that the islands have no attraction and are not worth the effort of visiting; a position that began to change at the turn of the 20th century and one that seems positively ridiculous to us today.

Armchair Travelling – Thailand

Another winter week in what is effectively a national lockdown here in Brittany and the mind invariably wanders towards the departure gate, heading for sunnier climes. With the current restrictions on travel, a leaf through the pages of the memory bank must suffice for now; another vicarious journey.

Buddha in the mist
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Statue in tree
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Garlands on tree
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Royal Palace Bangkok
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Temple roofs
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Ayutthaya
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Phranang
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Koh Muk
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Krabi
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Koh Poda
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unset
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sunset
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Thank you for visiting!

Prayers, Pancakes and Paintings

Candlemas, or la Chandeleur in French, is celebrated on the second day of February, forty days after Christmas. Announcing the end of winter, the festival was, for centuries, closely associated with traditions related to purification, fertility, prosperity and light and is popularly known here as le jour des crêpes or Pancake Day.

Candlemas is one of those Christian festivals whose precise origins remain obscure. Many ascribe the establishment of the feast day to the 5th century pope, Gelasius I, but it seems that the celebrations were observed in Jerusalem well over a century before his time. The feast of Candlemas honours the presentation, in the Temple, of the infant Jesus, born forty days earlier on Christmas night, and the purification of the Virgin Mary. Its name is said to derive from the blessed candles that were carried in solemn procession to the church.

Candlemas by Jozef Israels
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In establishing its liturgical year, the early Church took care to divert the popular feelings associated with the significant seasonal pagan festivals by supplanting these with Christian ones. Assigning Candlemas to the second of February was likely an attempt to displace the Celtic festival celebrating the end of winter known as Imbolg which was typically held on the first day of the month. Like Candlemas, it too was a feast of purification but also of rebirth and light.

It is believed that for the ancient Celts the year began on 1 November with the festival known as Samhain, which inaugurated the start of winter, while six months later, on 1 May, the feast of Beltane marked the start of summer. Two intermediate festivals, Imbolg on 1 February and Lugnasad on 1 August, divided the year into four equal seasons, the middle of which roughly corresponding to the Midsummer and Midwinter solstices. However, we should not get too fixated on precise dates, especially given the changes wrought by the adoption of the Gregorian calendar that mean we are today almost two weeks ahead of the dates known at the end of Caesar’s reign.

The Crepes by Pieter Aertsen
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Candlemas heralded the end of winter and thus the beginning of the agrarian season; by February the days are noticeably lengthening and new shoots begin to make an appearance. Its significance is highlighted in many once popular Breton sayings, such as: When Candlemas comes, put away the spinning wheel and take the plough; At Candlemas, hide the candlesticks and break the distaff; At Candlemas, daylight for all workers, except the tailor and the loafer.

Tradition, rather than history, says that in order to relieve the weary pilgrims arriving in Rome, Pope Gelasius I arranged for them to be comforted with simple pancakes made from flour and eggs. We will never know the truth of it but it is likely a tale designed to provide a pseudo-historical link between pancakes and Candlemas with the pope once believed to have instituted the festival. Pope Gelasius I did however institute a festival that succeeded in finally suppressing the ancient Roman purification and fertility festival of Lupercalia; displaced by the Feast of Saint Valentine at the end of the 5th century.

Pancakes by Gabriel Thurner
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It is difficult to say how far back the custom of eating pancakes on Candlemas extends but the practice was noted as traditional here in the 16th century. For centuries, the people of rural France believed that if they did not make pancakes on Candlemas, their wheat would spoil. The pancakes were prepared from the wheat of the previous harvest, which was used in quantity because future harvests were almost in sight now that the agricultural year was restarting. An old Breton proverb notes: Candlemas, the year half-passed, the grain half-consumed.

Abel Hugo, elder brother of noted French author Victor Hugo, wrote in his work, Picturesque France (1835): “At Candlemas, if the peasants did not make pancakes, their wheat would rot. The one who turns his pancake with skill, who does not drop it in the ashes, or who does not catch it in the pan, in the heart-breaking form of some crumpled linen, that one will have happiness – money, this tangible form of happiness – until Candlemas of the following year.”

Pancake flipping
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Readers will not be surprised to learn that a number of other superstitions once surrounded the feast of Candlemas here. Some people believed that in order not to run out of money during the year ahead, it was necessary to bake pancakes at the time of the mass. In eastern Brittany, it was said that to have money all year round, one needed to hold a coin, preferably made of gold, in your left hand, while the first pancake was thrown from the right. This pancake was then carefully wrapped around the coin and carried in procession by all the family to the main bed where it was left until the following year on the top of the closed bed. The remains of last year’s pancake were then recovered and the coin it contained given to the first deserving beggar that called upon the house.

Across Brittany, it was regarded a good omen if the candle, blessed and lit in church, arrived home unextinguished and whoever carried it was believed sure not to die before the next Candlemas.  Once home, the candle was carefully stored away; at least until its many virtues were called upon by the household.  The Candlemas candle was considered a precious talisman against evil spells; it was re-lit to invoke God’s protection from them and to repel evil spirits. It was also lit to ward off potentially catastrophic lightning strikes during a raging storm. In some areas, it was said that in order to be protected from lightning and all evil spells, it was necessary to turn three times around a stool while holding a lit candle blessed that day.

Making pancakes
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The power of the candle was also invoked at life’s key moments and was popularly lit to bless first communicants, engaged couples about to be married and people close to death. Sometimes, the candle was even lit in the hope of shortening the suffering of the dying. However, care was taken to ensure that three candles were not lit in the same room as this was said to announce a painful death and foreshadow the three death candles of a wake.

The Candlemas candle was also once held to possess curative powers here; three drops of its wax, dripped into their drinking trough, cured sick animals and a few drops placed on hatching eggs was said to ensure that they hatched properly.

Pancake maker by Brekelenkam
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Candlemas was also a festival devoted to lovers. For unmarried girls, the tradition was to bake six pancakes in a row and drop them back into the pan to ensure a wedding within the year. Other young ladies, who wanted to know what the future held for them, made a novena in a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. During the night of the last day, the young lady, once asleep, was said to see in a dream the face of her true love and vice versa. Candlemas was also a day that allowed one to forecast the weather; it was said that if the weather is fine on Candlemas, forty days of winter will surely follow.

While candlelit processions are an increasingly rare sight nowadays, other old Candlemas traditions are still observed stronger than ever and in Brittany – the home of the crêpe – you might be hard-pressed to find a family not celebrating the day with a meal of crêpes together. Although, how many of them will remember that in western parts of Brittany, before leaving the house after a meal of pancakes, it was once thought important to eat a small morsel of bread first, otherwise one risked being taken by the mischievous korrigans!

Brittany and pancakes
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Here in Brittany, two main types of pancake are popularly baked nowadays. The designation crêpe being applied to those made using white flour, eggs, milk and butter, and usually containing a sweet-filling such as salted butter, lemon juice or jam. The term galette is used for heavier pancakes made with buckwheat flour and water, which typically contain a savoury-filling such as cheese, eggs or slices of pork sausage.

To continue the virtual feast, here are a few more images of pancake making through the centuries; with not an electric crêpe maker in sight!

Pancake baking outside
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Pancake Baking Woman by Willem van Mieris
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Making pancakes
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Crepes by Pieter van Slingelandt
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Making Pancakes by Giraud
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Crepes by Desplanques
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Crepes in Brittany

Visions of Love in Brittany

The novena of Candlemas, covering the period from 24 January to 1 February, was a devotion once particularly performed by those young Bretons who wished to know who they were destined to marry and it was believed that there was no devotion more agreeable to the Virgin Mary than this novena which rewarded, with extraordinary favour, anyone paying her this special tribute.

Once far more commonplace than popularly found today, a nine day period of devotional prayers, known as novenas, are sometimes observed in preparation for a Christian feast day. Such prayers, typically offered at the same time each day, are made to petition for special favours or to ask for a sign from God.

Perhaps best known for his 1820 adaptation of John Polidori’s tale The Vampyre, French author Charles Nodier described the novena of Candlemas in his Souvenirs de la Jeunesse (1832) and La Neuvaine de la Chandeleur (1839). He tells us that the novena started on 24 January with eight hours of prayer in a chapel dedicated to the Virgin, where, with a piety that did not diminish, one needed to hear the first mass said every day and attend the last prayers each night until 1 February. On the eve of Candlemas itself, it was necessary to attend all the masses in church and to hear all the evening instructions without missing a single one. It was also important to have made a full confession and received absolution; it was crucial, for any hope of success, to return to one’s home in a state of grace, prepared for an evening of devout prayer and fasting.

Devotions in Brittany
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Once alone and closeted away in one’s home, it was necessary to ensure that all was arranged in such a way as to be appropriate to receive a guest of some distinction. Particular care needed to be taken with the dining table which was decorated with clean white linen, as fine as could be obtained. The table, set for two, was garnished with two full dinner services except for the knives, which were to be avoided at all costs.

The meal served consisted of two pieces of blessed bread brought back from the last mass attended and two small measures of unadulterated wine divided equally between the two place settings. In the middle of the table, separating the two placings, only a single porcelain or, if available, silver serving dish was called for, containing two blessed sprigs of myrtle, rosemary or any other green plant except boxwood; carefully placed one next to another so as not to cross.

Such formalities completed, the door was reopened in anticipation of the expected guest. Taking a seat at the table, one recommended themselves devoutly to the Virgin and drifted to sleep while waiting for the effects of her protection which, it was said, never failed to appear. In the comfort of sleep, strange and wonderful visions were revealed.

A young Breton couple
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Those girls for whom providence had intended the happiness of marriage were believed to see the image of the man who will love them, if he finds them, or the man that would have loved them if he had found them. It was said that a particular privilege of this novena was to give the same dream to the young man of whom one dreamt and to inspire him with the same impatience to join the lady made known to him in a dream.

It was said that those who were destined not to marry were tormented by alarming forecasts. Some, intended for the convent, saw a long procession of nuns slowly pass, singing prayers; the others, whom death must strike before their time, attend their own funerals and awaken with a start to the light of funeral torches and the sounds of their family weeping over a coffin draped in white.

A procession of nuns in Brittany
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A story tells of the daughter of a Breton noble who, on the eve of Candlemas in 1794, during the height of the Terror, visited the Fontaine du Coq in Bulat-Pestivien. This sacred spring, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was once a popular site of pilgrimage; its water being said to hold therapeutic virtues that cured the sick. It was also said to be an oracular fountain that allowed believers to read their fate in its water. According to legend, it was on the eve of Candlemas that the waters revealed to young women the face of their future husband.

Born the only child of the Marquis de Kergoat, Catherine Glomel celebrated her eighteenth birthday at the family’s ancestral home; an old granite manor nestled in the countryside a short distance east of the village of Bulat-Pestivien. She would, of course, have preferred to have been near her friends in Nantes or Paris, where her family kept houses but those cities held nothing for her now; there had been no word from her friends for almost two years and her father’s city properties had been seized by the authorities.

The majority of the marquis’ vast estate in central Brittany had been confiscated by the new republic but the old manor house, being in a poor state, had, so far, escaped sequestration. To avoid any untoward official attention, the old marquis lived as a recluse surrounded by only his oldest, most trusted servants and his beloved daughter. As an additional precaution, he had also assumed the name of a commoner, Jean Glomel.      

A Breton household
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On the evening of the first day of February, clad in thick woollen shawls to guard against the biting south wind, Catherine set out to offer her devotions to the Virgin at the ancient fountain with its ornate 16th century edifice. As ever, she was accompanied by her trusted maid, Marie Anne; a family retainer of longstanding and a lady known throughout the canton for her deep familiarity with the old beliefs.

The women had skirted the small Chapel of Saint-Blaise when the moonlight broke through the trees to illuminate a pyramidal wall of dressed stone adorned with fine pinnacles and carved figures; its niches sadly devoid of the statues that the women had long been used to seeing there. As Catherine descended the few steps into the fountain, she caught the sweet smell of damp moss in the air and turned towards the source once thought to have been home to a fairy venerated by the Celts of old.

Catherine made her ablutions as she softly uttered the mysterious incantation taught to her, in return for a very modest donation, by the old woman whose wild hair, wrinkled features and mumbling lips were well known in the cottages and castles of central Brittany: “On the surface of the fairy mirror, Good Lady, show me, for a moment, the one who will be my love.”

The Rooster fountain in Bulat
The fountain was very badly damaged in the aftermath of the Revolution

Almost immediately, the charm began to weave its special magic. In the middle of the water, a small mist suddenly formed and slowly lifted; a form took shape then melted into a single appearance. In the gloom, Catherine distinguished the smiling face of an old man with greying hair, ruddy cheeks and a thick white beard. Catherine swiftly hurried away; her head reeling in anxious confusion. The notion that the Good Lady intended for her, a husband in his sixties, frightened Catherine so much that when she returned home she could not sleep all night.

Two days later, still overwhelmed by her vision, she could not help raising the matter with her father over dinner. The old gentleman pushed his bowl of kig ha farz aside and gently teased his daughter, he laughed at her evocations of Candlemas and reminded her that she had no need of the old superstitions and indeed had she not been engaged for some time to her distant cousin, Hervieu de Gourmont, who was far from having a single grey hair on his head.

A young Breton woman
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Their simple meal, a far cry from the fine fare that they had once been accustomed to, was almost over when they were interrupted by an unexpected commotion in the hallway. Suddenly, the door crashed open and there, on the threshold of the dining room, stood five men dressed in long grey cloaks, their long hair tied at the back of the neck by a large ribbon, their faces concealed behind black velvet masks.

One of their number stepped forward: “Citizen Jean Glomel” said a young voice with a clear air of authority, “we are here to search your home. You have been hiding the old priest of Bulat here. Your daughter was seen two nights ago skulking near the presbytery and leaving with him, disguised in women’s clothes. There is no need to try to pretend otherwise or any point in resisting. Come along, quickly now, show us your attics and your cellars.”

“Citizen,” replied the old marquis, rising to his feet: “I give you my word of honour at this time when, I accept, the notion carries little weight, that there is no shadow of a cassock in my house. The person who accompanied my daughter in Bulat the other night was none other than her old nursemaid, Marie Anne. Both had been to the old fountain to evoke the superstitious and naive visions of Candlemas. Go ahead, search my home as you think fit.”

Stepping towards the masked man who had spoken, Jean Glomel mustered his manners and graciously asked if he would care to share their meal. The man, clearly the group’s leader, sent his men to search the house and gladly accepted the hospitality offered. To the marquis’ surprise, the conversation and wine flowed easily with his Jacobin guest, especially as no words touched upon the upheavals wrought by the revolution.

The French Revolution in Brittany
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Throughout dinner, the official’s mask remained fast and it was impossible for the marquis to distinguish the features of his uninvited guest. However, there was something in the man’s voice particularly its inflections, which told him that he was not in the company of a stranger. Alas, he could not be certain and was unable to retrieve any memory that would help identify his guest although he was convinced that the stranger’s language and manners revealed him, at times, to be a man of his own world, now lost.

Catherine maintained a respectful interest in the evening’s exchanges but found her mind worrying over the fate of Father Jean.  She had been assured by her father that the priest had escaped overseas so as to avoid the doom that befell the rector but perhaps he was still hiding in the area; these men clearly thought so. She wondered whether these were the same men who had desecrated the church a few years earlier. Was she perhaps, even now, sitting at table with one of the men who had stripped the church of its gold and silver thus robbing the community of its most sacred relics in the name of ridding them of the vain tinsel of fanaticism?

It was very late at night by the time the masked official gathered together his men and left the old manor. His last words, spoken softly, were to reassure the family of their safety. However, morning brought an unexpected and disturbing discovery; a small, grubby piece of card was found, discarded, in the vestibule. It bore just three words but they tore the soul out of both father and daughter: Hervieu de Gourmont. Catherine was stunned to silence while the old marquis cursed as he felt tears of shame well in his eyes for the man who was to have become his son.

Old Breton woman
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The years of turmoil endured and eventually eased but the marquis did not live long enough to see the return of kings. Catherine never married; she refused any alliance, being unwilling to again embrace the blue dreams of her youth and replace the image that had once filled all her heart. She invested all her energies in the farm that her father had managed to carve from the rump of their, once fine, estate and spent much of her days caring for her trusty maid, Marie Anne, now approaching ninety one years of age.

As always on the eve of Candlemas, that of 1830 found Catherine’s memories return to settle, briefly, on the events that changed her life so long ago. No sooner had she sat down for dinner than suddenly, just as thirty five years earlier, the door to the hallway opened with a crash and a stranger stood at the threshold. The light of the high oil lamps illuminated a man dressed in the manner of a Parisian, with greying hair and ruddy cheeks framed by a fine white beard: indistinguishable from the appearance in the mirror of the Bulat spring.

“I have come, as I once did before on such an evening, to requisition your supper, my dear cousin,” said the newcomer with a slight bow, “but this time as an honest man, as a gentleman.” The brief moments of tenderness, once glimpsed in her young girl’s dreams and dashed so cruelly long ago must have still lingered in the depths of her heart, for Catherine indulged her visitor and it was with an earnest wish of welcome that she invited her former fiancé to stay.

An old Breton man
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The years fell away as Viscount Hervieu de Gourmont and Catherine dropped into easy conversation over dinner. The viscount regaled her with many tales of his emigrant adventures and showed himself to be a good and attentive guest; an amiable man and amusing conversationalist. He recounted, with great wit, how he had been obliged to assume a false identity in order to save the Marquis de Kergoat, whose presence had been noted and reported to the Revolutionary Committee in Guingamp.  With a little quick thinking and some judiciously applied gold coins, he had been able to secure, from the military commission of Port Brieuc, leadership of the party sent to Bulat that Candlemas.

Hervieu laughed heartily when he heard that his search party had unwittingly been within feet of discovering the famous statue known as Our Lady of Bulat; a large silver statue of the Virgin that had, for years, been sought by the authorities as the main instrument of superstition in the region. This treasure of Brittany had been buried by the priest of Bulat in the corner of the marquis’ barn, where it had remained safe and undetected for ten long years.

Reconciled and reunited, the couple parted company in the small hours and, as the poets tell us, love recalled is love reborn and so it was on that Candlemas. Later that day, Catherine told Marie Anne of the night’s events and the old lady was delighted to celebrate the return of one to accompany the joy of the other. A wedding was arranged for the Tuesday following Easter and as the fairy mirror had predicted, Catherine would marry the old man whose image had smiled at her thirty five years before in the fountain of Bulat. Truly, the vision of Candlemas did not deceive.

An old Breton couple

Pages from a Breton Spell Book

Books of magical spells and incantations have existed for as long as the written word; some well-known examples, known as grimoires in France, contain fairly benign formulas for finding love while others feature deadly curses and charms for summoning demons. Some books are reportedly so cursed that they reap catastrophe upon any who possess them and it was once believed that a grimoire had to be burned after the death of the witch or sorcerer who wrote it.

Filed away in the Departmental archives of Finistère in western Brittany lies a small, slim volume containing seventy six handwritten charms, conjurations and formulas. A practical handbook of witchcraft set down sometime in the 18th century representing a varied collection of spells and enchantments to be used in order to gain good fortune, riches or love. These spells provide a fascinating insight into the popular mentality of the rural population of Brittany before the French Revolution.

At a time when very few Bretons understood French, it is perhaps surprising that the grimoire was not written in Breton, suggesting that the work was intended for a certain strata of society that could read French or for some literate village witch or sorcerer. The work contains a mixture of French and Latin; the former used as the operational language for functional spells, while Latin, the liturgical language, was devoted to the more incantatory, mystical formulas. Mysterious runes and strange characters are also scattered throughout the text.

Azoth
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Much of the book contains variations of spells and conjurations found in some of the more popular grimoires published in France in the 18th century, such as Le Dragon Rouge and the Grimoire of Pope Honorius, and interspersed with charms once commonly found in witchcraft rituals across Brittany.

A significant proportion of the book focuses on spells that allow the caster to gain possession of something or even someone. To win at games, the book recommends writing a certain formula on a previously unused parchment of sheep skin at noon on the day of Jupiter (Thursday) during a waxing moon. 

In order to acquire a certain memory, one is required to draw two crossed circles on a new parchment made from the skin of a fox, killed when the sun is in the houses of Mercury which are Gemini or Virgo. More often than not, in witchcraft, the act is the verb; the right magic word or symbol being the source of enchantment. To bewitch a sword or dagger, it was necessary to recite: “I command you to remain in the scabbard of Agrippa; Obo, obe, ober puero”. To enchant a firearm, one proclaimed: “I charm you with stone, powder and lead in the name of Beelzebub, Satan and Lucifer; Pala, Zela, funa, diabolis”.

Mercury in Virgo and Gemini
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In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, commoners were prohibited from hunting game under the laws of the Ancien Régime. Penalties for those caught poaching were often severe, so, we should not be too surprised to find a spell that allows one to escape the rigors of the law and obtain game without hunting. To achieve this marvel, the grimoire proposes an incantatory formula: “I beseech you Leonis, by your master and mine, to expose and muster all kinds of game, furred and feathered, all good to eat. Bring me game that can be caught by hand before the sun has risen”.

In a time when incessant hard work did not always offer the reward of a full table, some people might well have been tempted by the allure of easy money. The book tells us that to receive one hundred crowns (high value pre-Revolutionary coins) a week, it was necessary to walk between four paths while holding a coin between the thumb and second finger of the left hand, reciting, in a robust tone, the charm: “Beelzebub, ego me nobis trado”. In casting this spell, which was sealed by drawing a magical rune with one’s own blood, it was crucial that one was not in possession of anything holy or that had ever been blessed. This done, one needed to throw their coin onto the ground before them. Returning to that spot on the following day, one could expect to discover one hundred crowns; if not, it was necessary to re-cast the spell three times.

Almost a quarter of all the spells in this grimoire are devoted to what can loosely be called love; formulas talk of winning, catching or gaining the affection or love of a girl or woman.  Magic could be called upon to break through the societal barriers caused by rank and riches but such spells were not for the fainthearted. To gain the friendship of a girl of any quality, one needed to note when a mare was born of a foal and immediately cut a piece of flesh straight from its forehead and dry it, from noon precisely, in the sun on Jupiter’s day. After collecting the dried flesh at the death of the sun, one needed to grind it to a powder and feed it to the object of one’s affections.

A spell caster
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For those anxiously seeking a woman’s love, a more wholesome recommendation contained in the grimoire advised visiting the lady for three days in a row, taking her hand while solemnly declaring: “I beg you X to love me and no other, and to grant me the same friendship that the Virgin Mary bore to Our Lord Jesus Christ”. Another, seemingly innocent sounding, spell involved taking a hair from the front of a lady’s head and knotting it with one’s own hair between the two elevations during a Friday mass while invoking the charm: “Deus dixit quae ligatum”.

Another spell to win the love of a girl or woman required one to collect the intimate secretions of a mare on heat and somehow convince the lady to drink these fluids – the grimoire is silent on whether the liquid can be diluted or whether subterfuge can be used to encourage the lady to drink. Having swallowed the drink, the lady was said to immediately want to join the spell caster. The charm was said to be effective on any day of the week, save Friday.

Many of Brittany’s traditional folk remedies and old spells ascribe a mysterious, magical power to knots of hair and finger nail cuttings; in the Côtes d’Armor region, nail cuttings absorbed in water were once believed to cure a fever. Our grimoire attributes another power to such a potion; a lady will return your affections if she consumes a drink containing the cuttings of your finger nails. Such examples of the power of contact form, alongside those of similarity and contrast, the key foundations of many concepts of practical witchcraft.

Witches brew
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The desire to become invisible at will was clearly a power popularly sought in the Brittany of yesteryear as witnessed by the gift said to have been provided by the regions many magical grasses. The grimoire does not fail to provide several spells said to grant the caster the ability to make themselves invisible. In one, it is necessary to cut off the head of a male black cat and remove its eyes. A bean must then be inserted within each socket with further beans placed inside each ear and in the cat’s mouth. At midnight, the head should be buried in a dung heap and not retrieved until midnight on the following day. It is then that you will encounter a man who will ask what you are looking for. You must answer by telling him that you are seeking what you have hidden and he will tell you to take it.

However, before you bow to take it, you must ask the stranger whether it is safe for you to do so. If he answers that all is well and again tells you to take it, you must do so immediately and take it straight home. Having regained possession of the head, you then need to buy, without any haggling, a new mirror. Once home, remove the beans from the cat’s head and, facing the mirror, place them, one after the other, under your tongue until you can no longer see your reflection.

A slight variation to this ritual is offered in another invisibility spell found in the grimoire. This calls, once again, for the head of a black cat whose eyes must be removed and replaced with two beans and buried.  When the beans are ripe, one amongst them will differ to the others; this bean, when placed under your tongue, will grant you the elusive power of invisibility.

Uriel
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Finding something hidden or lost was another popular concern addressed by the folk magic of old Brittany but the rituals contained in this grimoire call upon the divinatory power of angels. That which was lost would be uncovered if a virgin child, whose palm was greased with a mixture of walnut oil and soot, faced west and recited certain formulas invoking the fallen angel Assyriel. To identify someone who was guilty of murder, the child had to face north and call upon the angel Gediel; to know who had wronged you, the child needed to face south and invoke the angel Uriel. Similar rituals are found in Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia and in the anonymous 17th century grimoire known as The Lesser Key of Solomon.

The formula to predict the future blurs the opaque distinction between superstition and traditional witchcraft quite nicely. For instance, in order to know if one will have a good trip, the grimoire recommends that the traveller asks the name of the first person sighted on the day of the voyage. A good trip was assured if the name did not begin with a vowel but danger lay ahead if the name began with a C, D or F.  One’s undertaking would be difficult or time-consuming if a person whose name started with N, R or S was met; if an F or G were encountered, you could expect to receive a judgement against you.

Death of Ego
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The grimoire does not contain any spells to bring about death; perhaps the author did not wish to divulge curses likely to involve death and for which he refused to take responsibility? However, there are a number of spells whose evil nature are explicitly noted by the author and while spells intended to prevent a woman from conceiving or to bring on uterine pain might have been called upon by people anxious not to have any more children, they could equally be used out of malevolent intent. Other spells are clearly intended to do no harm, such as extinguishing a house fire or relieving toothache but the incantation to make a woman wet the bed is unlikely to be anything but malicious.

Such ambivalence was at the heart of traditional witchcraft; benign or malign spells inhabited the same space, a duality recognised by the sorcerer or witch and their wider community. Belief in the effectiveness of these spells as recently as a few centuries ago may surprise us today but might seem less improbable if we consider the mentality of a largely uneducated rural population living in a land of legends and superstitions and little inclined to distinguish the natural from the supernatural.  Spell books, such as this one, generally reflect the desires and fears of the people of the time or perhaps just offer us an insight into the obsessions of the author.

A Breton Sorcerer
Breton Sorcerer

The Red Monks of Brittany

The Knights Templar were traditionally known, here in Brittany, as the Red Monks. Their evil deeds and cruel reputation survived in the popular imagination long after their medieval heyday; cruel ghosts, condemned to forever wander the lonely places to atone for their terrible and abominable crimes.

Following the success of the First Crusade, a number of feudal domains were established in the Holy Land by European Christian knights. However, these realms lacked the full military resources necessary to maintain little more than a tenuous grip on their territories; most crusaders returned home after fulfilling their vows. Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem and the other holy sites therefore continued to remain subject to peril and attack.

Battle of Tyre
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It was to alleviate the plight of these pilgrims that a band of French knights led by Hugh de Payns vowed to devote themselves to the pilgrims’ protection and to form a religious community for that purpose. Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem, was quick to grant them quarters in a wing of the royal palace, said to have been the site of the former Temple of Solomon, from which they took their name: The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Jesus Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, more popularly known as the Templar Knights.

To gain the support, supplies and manpower necessary to deliver on their vows, de Payns embarked on a major fund-raising tour of the kingdoms of western Europe in 1127. His efforts were well rewarded; the new order received significant donations and political backing from many of Europe’s most noble families and also secured the Church’s official sanction at the Council of Troyes in 1129. It was during this first European tour that the Templars received their first donations within the Duchy of Brittany; lands in the country of Retz.

In 1139, Pope Innocent II granted the order special privileges: the Templars were allowed to build their own oratories and were not required to pay tithes; they were also exempt from episcopal jurisdiction, being subject to the pope alone. This was also around the time that the Duke of Brittany, Conan III, whose father had fought in the First Crusade, ceded property to the Templars on the outskirts of the cities of Nantes and Rennes. The Duke also granted the order an exemption from taxes and awarded them lucrative market rights in Nantes.

The first Templar Grandmaster
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The rule of the order was modelled after the Benedictine Rule, especially as applied by the Cistercians. Renouncing the world, the Templars swore an oath of poverty, chastity and obedience, just as the Cistercians and other monks did. Like other monks, the Templars heard the Divine Office and were expected to honour the fasts and vigils of the monastic calendar. They were also required to live in community but, unlike other monks, were not strictly cloistered nor were they expected to perform devotional reading.

The Templars were originally divided into two classes: knights and sergeants. The knights came from the aristocracy and were thus trained in the arts of war and generally assumed leadership positions in the order. Only the knights wore the Templars’ distinctive regalia of a white mantle emblazoned with a red cross. The sergeants, usually from lower social classes, served as both warriors and servants and dressed in black. A third class was eventually added, the chaplains, who were responsible for holding religious services, administering the sacraments and addressing the order’s spiritual needs.

With increased resources, the Templars swiftly expanded their remit in the Holy Land; from protecting the pilgrim trails, the order moved to staging a broader defence of the Crusader States, building and garrisoning castles and fortified settlements. Now a full military force, the Templars formed an important part of the military infrastructure of the Holy Land and gave much useful service in support of the Christian cause there.

Knights Templar cavalry charge
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While the Templars were sometimes opposed by those who rejected the notion of a religious-military order, their growing wealth and influence was also criticised by other religious orders such as the Benedictines and the Cistercians. However, the order enjoyed the support of powerful secular leaders and the full protection of the Church whose anathemas struck against any who opposed them. For instance, in 1213, the Bishop of Nantes obliged the Lord of Clisson to compensate the Templars for the damages he caused them and for a murder committed in their cemetery; in 1222, the Lord of Assérac was excommunicated for having refused to release Templars detained in his prisons.

Over time, the Templars amassed great riches, thanks, in part, to the lordships, manors and estates gifted to the order by the nobility of France, England, Italy, Portugal and Spain. By the mid-12th century, the Templars boasted an extensive property portfolio scattered throughout western Europe and the Holy Land. Giving land and property rights to the order was seen as a pious duty that some benefactors hoped would help secure the salvation of their souls and those of their loved ones. In Brittany, Duke Conan IV donated dozens of properties and good lands which would form the nucleus of the Templar presence in the region.

Making good use of their extensive privileges, the Templars constructed hundreds of structures, including churches, castles, farms and even entire villages such as Vildé-Guingalan. While the full extent of the Templar domains in Brittany might never now be known for certain, documents suggest that they once had holdings in around a hundred Breton localities. Many local traditions represent them as prolific builders and they were sometimes even honoured with constructions that pre-dated the founding of the order. Indeed, since the 18th century revival in interest in the Templars, there is hardly an old church or ruined castle whose foundation the locals here did not attribute to the Templars.

A Knight Templar
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Perhaps the most famous Breton ruin associated with the Templars is the 12th century octagonal tower of Montbran which was, for a time, thought built by the Romans. Dominating the Frémur valley, this strong tower might have been built to guard against Norman incursions into Brittany but was more likely built to protect and control the ancient northern road that connected the east and west of Brittany and traffic headed to and from the great annual fair at nearby Pléboulle. Many Templar buildings were carefully sited near main traffic routes, coastal approaches or river crossings; all lucrative sources of revenue.

Initially, the Templars had eschewed the ties of the feudal hierarchy, wanting to remain free to answer the first call of the Holy Land but, over time, they accepted fiefs with all their charges. Their estate management eventually extended beyond simple farming; they cleared vast tracts of land in northern Brittany for growing cereals and breeding animals; they cultivated the vine and branched out into highly profitable processing activities such as producing wine and operating community ovens and mills. It is believed that they created, or at least promoted, great fairs and public markets such as those at Pléboulle and Les Biais.

Just as important as their vast country estates, a presence in major cities such as Nantes, Quimper and Saint Brieuc was vital to the order. Not only were these centres of trade and commerce where they could sell their goods or rent out their warehouses, they were also important communication hubs. The Templars’ military and political power allied with their broad geographic coverage allowed them to safely collect, store and transport goods and bullion across Europe and the Holy Land. Their international network of warehouses and secure transport links thus made them attractive as bankers to kings as well as to more humble pilgrims.

Templar possessions in Brittany
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The fall of Acre, effectively the last crusader stronghold, in 1291 removed much of the Templars’ reason for being and the pope was keen to see the order merge with their great rivals, the Knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, better known as the Hospitallers. Having rejected the pope’s proposals, the order’s arrogance, great wealth and extensive landholdings inspired increased resentment towards them. While an ex-Templar had accused the order of blasphemy and immorality in 1305, it was on Friday 13 October 1307 that King Philip IV of France acted; ordering the arrest of every Templar in the country and the sequestration of their property.

The king accused the Templars of heresy and immorality; specific charges against them included idol worship (of a cat and a male head), homosexuality and numerous other errors of belief and practice. It was claimed that during the order’s initiation rite, the new member denied Christ three times, spat on the crucifix and was kissed on the base of the spine, on the navel, and on the mouth by the monk presiding over the ceremony. The charges, now generally recognized as without foundation, were seemingly calculated to stoke the contemporary fears of witchcraft.

The motives behind Philip IV’s desire to destroy the order are unclear; he may have feared their power and been motivated by a pious duty to destroy a heretical group or he may have seen an opportunity to seize their fabled wealth. Outside France, news of the charges levied against the Templars was greeted with incredulity, particularly in Brittany, England, Portugal and Aragon. However, the pope finally suppressed the order in March 1312 and the Templars’ property throughout Europe was slowly transferred to the Hospitallers or else confiscated by secular rulers. Knights who confessed and were reconciled to the Church were sent into retirement in the order’s former houses, which were now nominally run by the Hospitallers.

Saint Catherine Chapel in Lizio
On the pilgrim route to Compostela, the St-Catherine chapel in Lizio was said to have been built on the site of a Templar priory and contains this painting.

Here, as elsewhere, the Templars were arrested and their property sequestered but their downfall left little trace in the annals of Brittany, leading some to question the degree that each of the nine Breton bishoprics implemented the pope’s orders. One of the few claims made against the knights in Brittany alleged that, in Nantes, wheat from Templar warehouses was given to pigs rather than the poor. Sadly, only three depositions from Templars serving in Brittany at the time of the arrests have been preserved in the records of the papal commission sitting in Paris in 1310: each of the brothers attested that they had initially been heard in Poitiers where they had been absolved and reconciled to the Church.

A tradition of the 15th century records that when the French king’s men arrived in Nantes on 10 August 1308 to take possession of the Templar properties there, they were driven out of the city by a mob who declared that the Templar possessions did not belong to the king of France but to the Duke of Brittany and no other.

In Brittany, the Templars were popularly known as the Red Monks; a moniker unconnected with the colour of their costume but rather the dress of the Devil. Most local tradition here depicted them as ungodly; arrogant and debauched, leading a lifestyle that marked the public consciousness with once popular phrases such as “Drink like a Templar” or “Curse like a Templar”.

Templar Knight
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Around the town of Guingamp, the Templars were said to have spied on the young girls in the washhouses and to kidnap those that took their fancy. Like many other characters whose lives were said to have been sullied by evil deeds, the Templars cannot find rest, even in death. In some areas, the people believed they saw the ghosts of Templars wandering at night, mounted on skeletal horses covered with dirty funeral shrouds. They pursued travellers, attacking young women whom they kidnapped and that were never seen again.

According to local legend, the ancient chapel of Trioubry, about 25km south of Rennes, was originally built by the Templars. It was reported that, one stormy evening, a man from a nearby village took shelter in the ruins of the chapel which was suddenly illuminated on all sides. Adjusting his eyes to the light, the man noticed the knave of the chapel was filled with skeletons, and a tall monk, dressed in red, began to bear down on him. The man rushed out into the night and having covered several hundred metres, he turned to see the red monk retrace his steps and disappear under the rocks of the hill. It was said that this red monk, a former Templar, returned every evening in search of sinners to share with them his torments in hell.

On Brittany’s north coast, the Château du Guildo was said to be visited each night by the restless spirits of Templars who wandered the castle ruins, their backs bent under a crushing burden. These souls were believed to have been condemned, as punishment for their crimes, to carry, for eternity, the weight of all that they had stolen in life. A local farmer, having counted his sheaves after harvest, found a hundred more the next day; he believed that the Templars had returned to him a part of what they had once stolen from his parents. Nearby, at Ploubalay, the Templars were held to have had such a bad reputation in the locality that the rectors of the neighbouring parishes rang bells to warn people to guard their livestock and their daughters when the knights were abroad.

Knights Templar in Brittany
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Just 13km to the south, an old manor house in Quévert is said to be haunted by a Templar who walks slowly along the avenue, stopping fleetingly at the manor’s well before moving off quickly in all directions. It is believed that the well conceals a stash of gold once taken by the knight, who died without being able to return it.

In Belle-Isle-en-Terre, local legend tells of a Red Monk, mounted on a horse of the same colour that threw lightning bolts through its muzzle, that is seen to descend from a granite outcrop outside the village before launching into the Guic river: whoever sees this apparition was thought certain to die within the year.

Returning to the north coast, a reputed subterranean passage linking the Templar chapel outside Pléboulle to the old watchtower of Montbran, some 700 metres away, was said to be home to a knight who had redeemed his wicked ways while still a serving brother. Some people claimed, on the darkest of nights, to have seen the red monk at large, he having left his eternal retreat to walk again amongst men. His beard was said to be so long that, in order to walk without hindrance, he had to lift it over his shoulder. Often the old chapel was seen surrounded by strange lights; thought to be the spectres of the knight’s former companions come to beg him piteously to intercede for them.

Montbran Tower
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It was said that near the tower of Montbran lay a Templar cemetery where the knights buried there were as tall as in the time Noah. Local legend claims that one of these knights kidnapped a Norman princess and imprisoned her in the tower, where she slowly died of grief. The knight, to keep a memory of his prize, cut off one of her hands. Every year, on the anniversary of her pitiful death, she emerges from her tomb and walks in the old cemetery to the plot where the knight was buried; she goes to claim her hand that the wicked Templar had ordered buried with him.

In Brittany, the unfavourable memory of the religious orders that once peppered the land was not confined to the Templars alone. Many old stories accuse other monks of kidnap and keeping women captive, sometimes even of murder. In Béré, it was said that a young girl entered the priory of Saint-Sauveur and never reappeared; it was rumoured that she had been slain and buried within the church. Her vengeful spirit returns to terrorise the land under the guise of the monster popularly known as the Beast of Béré.

Unlike priests, sorcery was rarely attributed to monks here but several tales about the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Boquen talk of spell casting and magical, crop-destroying, potions and even that one of the last priors was a levitating sorcerer able to foretell the future.

Three Red Monks
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An old Breton ballad, The Three Red Monks, collected from the oral tradition in the 1830s tells of a young girl, Katelik Moal, abducted by three Templars near the town of Quimper. Taken to their commandery in nearby Locmaria, the girl was held captive and subjected to the most abominable outrages. Her torment endured for eight long months, at the end of which the knights resolved to rid themselves of young Katelik and the baby she now carried; as they had done before for seven other girls from the area. They decided to bury her under the high altar of the commandery chapel and dug a pit as Katelik begged for her life while a hailstorm raged outside. It was at that moment that a lone traveller seeking shelter noticed the lights burning in the church. Reaching the door, he looked through the keyhole and saw a bound Katelik thrown into the pit, pleading for the holy oil of baptism for her child.

Rushing to Quimper, the witness roused Bishop Morel who quickly agreed to attend the commandery in all haste. Once there, the bishop had the flagstones lifted and the ground under the high altar dug up; he wept as the lifeless forms of young Katelik, who had torn her breast to her heart, and her child, were uncovered. Faced with this appalling scene, the bishop fell to his knees. For three days and nights, dressed in only sackcloth, he remained bent in prayer bowed towards the cold earth, surrounded by all the Templars of the community. At the end of the third night, the body of the child began to move; he opened his eyes, got up and walked directly towards the three knights, declaring: “These are they!”

Justice was soon served; the three culprits were tried, found guilty and burned alive; their ashes scattered to the four winds. However, earthly punishment was seemingly considered insufficient because since that day, these knights were condemned to wander the roads of southern Brittany, where, according to tradition, they continued their vile activities, kidnapping children who were never seen again.

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It is difficult to assign, with any degree of accuracy, a timeframe for the many legends surrounding the red monks in Brittany but it is unlikely that they really date from the medieval period; chroniclers from that time make little mention of them. The traditions recorded in the 17th century seem to have been more ambivalent than negative but in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Templars are nearly always popularly portrayed as evil, self-serving figures.

Much has been written about how quickly the Order of the Temple was eradicated and in Brittany there were many legends that tell of the suddenness of their demise. The manors and castles they owned around Moncontour were all said to have collapsed in one night. Likewise, in nearby Yffiniac, their commandery was held to have been completely destroyed in just one night, while the Templar contingents at La Baussaine and Carentoir were all believed to have been killed overnight.

Many believe that such legends are allegorical, as the order did effectively collapse in the course of a single day. However, as with many of the myths surrounding the Templars, the truth is slightly separated from the folklore and it was not until May 1313 that the Breton assets of the order were eventually transferred to the Hospitallers; another religious-military order of knighthood founded some twenty years before the Templars and whose successor bodies remain very active to this day.

The seal of the Knights Templar
Templar Seal

Armchair Travelling – India

Tired of the current covid related travel restrictions and the winter weather here in Brittany, I took a leisurely amble amidst the shades, shrines and shadows of India; a little vicarious journey on Wordless Wednesday.

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In response to a few questions, the locations are: Qutub Minar; Humayun’s Tomb; Safdarjung’s Tomb; Qadam-e-Rasool, Bhul Bhulaiya, Lucknow;  Neemrana Palace; Fatehpur Sikri; Galta Temple; McLeod Ganj; Saint-Thomas Cathedral, Chennai;  Golden Temple, Amritsar; Amer Fort. The header photo is the view from Mukteshwar looking over the Kumaon Hills towards Nanda Devi.

New Year’s Mistletoe in Brittany

Sacred plant of the ancient druids, mistletoe has, for centuries, been highly prized for its supposed medicinal virtues. Here in Brittany, this pretty parasitic evergreen has traditionally been associated with love, luck and the promise of the New Year.

The first century Roman author Pliny wrote that the druids held nothing more sacred than oak mistletoe and that they never performed their religious rites without employing branches of it. Gathering the mistletoe was done with much solemn ritual; it was cut down with a golden billhook by a druid clad in white and received by others upon a stretch of white cloth. These rites were said to have been immediately followed by the sacrifice of two white bulls. Pliny tells us that this ceremony took place on the sixth day of the moon, the day which, in the Celtic calendar, marked the beginning of their months and years. On this day, the waxing moon was considered particularly auspicious.

Ball of Mistletoe
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Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant that, in addition to utilising photosynthesis, grows by taking water and nutrients from its host. Unusually, the plant grows in all directions at once and forms a fairly spherical ball that can reach up to one and a half metres in diameter. Its leaves are thick and quite tough; small flowers give rise in autumn to sticky white berries. The seeds contained in these berries are spread on the branches of trees by birds regurgitating or excreting the undigested fruits. Mistletoe can be found on any tree but mostly prefers soft woods such as apple, sycamore, ash and poplar; rarely is it found on oak trees.

Pliny claimed that the druids believed that everything that grew on an oak had been sent directly from Heaven and that the mistletoe that grew upon it was proof that the tree had been selected by God as an object of His especial favour. We cannot be certain of Pliny’s source for this claim nor who this deity might have been, nor indeed do we know whether the mistletoe gathering ritual was but a part of a much broader ceremony.

Druid with mistletoe
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Similarly, we do not know why mistletoe was regarded as a sacred plant by the druids. Some have suggested that a ball of mistletoe mimics the celestial orbs or that, as an evergreen, its ability to grow in winter and survive on dead trees might have symbolised eternal life. Others have thought it significant that it was likely the only flora then known by the Celts that could grow and thrive without being rooted in the earth or that it was the only native plant that produced white fruits.

Pliny’s account of the druids is not a first-hand testimony but likely drawn from lost works by the Greek polymath Posidonius who, like Julius Ceaser, actually visited the Celtic domains over a hundred years before he started writing. Pliny tells us that the Romans also collected mistletoe on a stretched canvas and believed that it cured female infertility. It is therefore worth highlighting that the word mistletoe has been used to refer to a large number of plants from the Viscaceae and Loranthaceae families and that, for a Roman, mistletoe was not the Viscum album (white mistletoe) of Gaul and Britain but Loranthus europaeus (European yellow mistletoe); both plants look alike but Viscum carries white berries while those of the Loranthus are yellowish. The latter is a common plant in the warm climes of Italy and regularly found on chestnut and oak trees there.

Botanical print of mistletoe
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The mistletoe gathering ceremony described by Pliny contains several interpretable elements, particularly if we accept that the oak was regarded as a sacred tree by the Celts; the mistletoe that grew upon it was thus sanctified by its life-giving host. Even today, the oak rightly symbolizes longevity; the trees can live for a thousand years or more. Oaks are one of the most populous trees in France but a study in the last century found just fifteen mistletoe bearing trees across the whole nation; a ratio of roughly one mistletoe oak per 10,000km² of forest. Oaks are special trees and those upon which mistletoe has been able to flourish are the rarest of specimens and it is perhaps this scarcity that made oak mistletoe so magical.

The druids cut the mistletoe with a golden billhook but gold is a soft metal with which it is almost impossible to cut anything. Possibly the billhook was made of polished bronze or brass or some other alloy that merely contained a trace of gold. Only secondary twigs of mistletoe could reasonably be cut with such a tool and as long as a few leafy branches were left, the mistletoe could regrow and be re-visited in later years. It seems that the use of iron was prohibited in the religious and magical practices of the Celts; the proscription is noted in later writings. Perhaps because it was the metal of weapons but possibly because it is a very variable metal which blackens and contaminates the plants that it cuts.

Druids gathering oak mistletoe
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A white cloth was used to prevent the plant from touching the ground; this helped to maintain the purity of the mistletoe and thus its all-important magical properties. Pliny tells that the harvesting was done at night and one cannot but note the symbolic resemblance of the golden billhook with the crescent of the moon at this period of its cycle.

These few details from Pliny are the basis for our popular image of Celtic druids as men clad in white Roman togas gathering mistletoe in sacred groves. It is an enduring myth but could just as easily be the imaginative writings of a Roman armchair geographer transposing local practices onto the mysterious northern savages of legend. Let us not forget that the Romans of the time also collected mistletoe on the new moon without letting it touch the ground. The widespread notion that these rites were only undertaken during the winter or summer solstices is purely the speculation of recent centuries.  

Druids cutting mistletoe
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According to Pliny, the druids called mistletoe by a Celtic name which meant ‘the all-healing’ – the plant, when taken in drink, was believed to make barren animals fertile and to be a most effective antidote for all poisons.  In today’s Breton it is known as uhel varr, literally ‘high branch’ but in some areas it was once known as uhel vad or ‘high good’. Perhaps an etymological echo of the veneration once accorded this plant which was also known here as dour derv or oak water?

Oak mistletoe has always been considered a plant with powerful therapeutic properties. In Ancient Rome, mistletoe berries were typically boiled in water and drunk, or else de-skinned and eaten in the belief that it helped disperse tumours. Such berries were also used as a poultice to heal inflammations, suppurating sores and even for rectifying malformed nails. 

The Mistletoe Gatherer by John Everett Millais
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The plant is found in traditional folk medicine across the world, particularly in relation to treating problems with the female reproductive system and menstrual difficulties; in some cultures it was used as a cure for excessive menstruation and in others to treat amenorrhea (the absence of menstruation). The bark, leaves and berries of the mistletoe were also used in remedies to combat diseases of the immune and nervous systems. To treat jaundice in 18th century Brittany, nine balls of mistletoe were soaked in the urine of a male child and put into a cloth sachet placed on the patient’s head. Mistletoe taken from a hawthorn was believed to alleviate colic and cure a fever. The plant was also widely used to treat convulsions in children and epilepsy; belief in its efficiency was still strongly held at the turn of the 20th century. Interestingly, recent scientific research seems to indicate that the traditional use of mistletoe to treat epilepsy and other convulsions might actually have some merit.

The plant’s popularity with traditional healers and licenced apothecaries, coupled with a strong seasonal demand for it in London and, to a lesser extent, Paris ensured a healthy demand and price for this sought-after plant. The medicinal use of mistletoe extracts once again found favour in the 1920s when supporters of anthroposophic medicine explored its use in treating cancer with the subcutaneous injection of fermented mistletoe. As yet, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that mistletoe is any more successful in treating cancers than the more conventional therapies.

In some parts of Europe, mistletoe is still used to treat cancer, as well as a wide range of ailments from mental exhaustion to diarrhoea and from high blood pressure to haemorrhoids but in France it is now included in the list of traditional medicinal plants whose potential adverse effects are greater than the expected therapeutic benefit. The bark, leaves and berries of mistletoe are highly toxic and just half a dozen berries are enough to bring on serious stomach upsets in humans.

The Mistletoe Seller by Waller
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In Europe, the plant’s magical association stretches back to Virgil’s Aeneid where the eponymous hero carried a golden branch as a powerful talisman during his voyage to the Underworld. Mistletoe’s magical qualities are found scattered throughout the folklore of Brittany where some legends claim that the Celts of Gaul could not fight under a ball of mistletoe and that it was only cut during the winter solstice while making a certain invocation seeking a fruitful wheat harvest while others say that it was cut during the night of Midsummer.

The Breton author François-René de Chateaubriand evoked the importance of mistletoe in the life of the druidess, Velléda, in his epic tale The Martyrs. Some 150 years later, another Breton writer, Théophile Briant, beautifully wove the plant into the funeral of the enchantress Viviane: “Merlin had said it; the sting of the snake was without remedy. Viviane was dead. The fairies led by Mona-La-Cendrée, the fairy of heather and farewell, surrounded the coffin of the enchantress. The trees of the forest, silent, tilted their green plumes. At midnight, when the moon was in the middle of the sky, Merlin stripped a tuft of mistletoe from the clear water of the Druid’s Fountain, in the hollow of which Viviane’s body now rested.”

Mistletoe as a funerary garland was also noted as a custom in northern Brittany where twigs of mistletoe and laurel were traditionally pinned to the sheets of the funeral chapel. In times past, a sprig of mistletoe was often hung on the door of a house when a barrel of cider was drilled and in some parts of northern Brittany, a bunch of mistletoe betokened the door of a tavern. In the south of the region, a branch of mistletoe was hung from the door of stables to protect the animals against the mischief of the korrigans and contagious diseases. Even into the 20th century, sprigs of mistletoe were hung from Breton farmhouses and left there until time had changed the colour of the berries, leaves and branches to a golden yellow and thus converted the clutch of white mistletoe into a golden branch.

Hanging the Mistletoe by Rossetti
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The ability to bring on good fortune was another powerful attribute thought to have been possessed by mistletoe in Brittany. A branch picked the night before the draw for military conscription was said to have provided a good number to avoid the draft. However, to be effective as a lucky charm, the mistletoe must not have been in contact with iron nor have touched the ground or another person. Some even said that it was necessary for the plant to have been taken without the knowledge of the owner of the tree. In the east of the region, around Rennes, people believed that the plant’s sap brought on bad luck, regardless of the metal used to cut it, and so they preferred to tear off the mistletoe branches.

Near the northern town of Lamballe, it was once said that there was a plant which only grew in the hollow of oak trees. If one ate this plant while holding a bunch of mistletoe and verbena, they were immediately granted the power of becoming invisible at will and of being able to travel instantly from one place to another. Another strange legend from southern Brittany tells that the woman who ate the leaf of certain oaks was assured to have a child.

Here, in times past, mistletoe was cut and offered, on New Year’s Day, as a symbol of long life and prosperity, usually accompanied by a formula to assure their onset. Children would run joyously through the streets with a cry proclaiming: ‘On Mistletoe, the New Year’. Even into the early 20th century, beggars and children would call from house to house offering a little mistletoe and their best wishes for happiness for the household over the year ahead; being rewarded with a little food or some coins for their efforts.

Gathering mistletoe in the snow
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In several north European traditions, mistletoe was a symbol of fertility and in some places, young women once placed a sprig of mistletoe under their bed in expectation of seeing their future husband in their dreams. In Brittany, kissing under the mistletoe, as a mark of love and affection, was a New Year’s Day tradition and a ceremony that often announced a proposed marriage. Mistletoe was considered to be the plant of love and its harvest constituted a significant event. In its first edition of 1897, a French weekly magazine reported on the Feast of Mistletoe in western Brittany:

“Parisians may be neglecting the druidic flower but in the depths of Brittany it has always kept its faithful. I know of a small village around Quimper, where every year, at Christmastime, the mistletoe festival is celebrated with great pomp. Girls and boys, especially those who have a feeling in their hearts and who dream of marriage, put on big clogs and go off, arm in arm, in search of mistletoe. They get lost, two by two, in the dark forest and seek the mistletoe of the oaks; the only one that has the magical virtue of helping lovers and warding off evil spells.

Whoever first brings back a tuft of mistletoe to the village is proclaimed King of the Forest. He is led in triumph to his home and enjoys the right to kiss all the women and girls who pass by his door. Then we sit down, for all popular rejoicing is not without a feast; we cook chestnuts under the ashes, we sprinkle them with cider, we dance. Everyone goes to bed with the awareness of a great duty accomplished. The superstitious young girls, who desire marriage, keep the ashes of a branch of charred mistletoe in a sachet; they expect that this talisman will bring them love.”

Mistletoe seller in Brittany
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These days we tend to regard kissing beneath the mistletoe as one of those slightly strange Christmas traditions whose origins are lost in the mists of time. Perhaps, fittingly, it is now a custom likely destined to remain wonderfully obscure.

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