Sacred Springs of Brittany

In ancient times, the sources of that most important of elements – water – were widely venerated by peoples across the world, including the Celts of antiquity. To what extent the ancient Celts actively worshiped streams, fountains and springs is a matter of some conjecture but early writings and modern archaeological discoveries of votive offerings in and around such sources indicate that these were indeed places of significance for the Celts.

We know very little of the religious beliefs of the Celts but the evangelising saints of the 6th and 7th centuries found a pagan, mainly polytheistic society with an established water cult involving sacred springs and wells, each possessing its deity or nymph. These early Christian evangelists seem to have tolerated some of the native convictions and were careful not to abrogate all the ancient beliefs of Brittany immediately.

a sacred spring in Brittany

The importunate foreign priests recognised that establishing the Christian faith necessarily needed to precede teaching Christian doctrine and, over time, cleverly subsumed the natives’ traditional religious sentiment towards springs and fountains, attributing to them protective Christian saints. Often these saints were assigned the powers of the ancient deities who inhabited those sacred water sources that were traditionally held to hold curative powers. A Christian statue or symbol added to the rude structures that collected the water would emphasise that the power of the waters was due solely to the grace of God. The ancient deities were recast by the new religion as maleficent creatures and eventually reduced to the realm of stories and superstition.

The belief in the power of the water from springs and fountains remained so strong that in 743 the Council of Leptines ordered all bishops to see to the complete abolition of pagan beliefs, explicitly highlighting the oblations made to fountains; a charge reinforced by a capitulary of Charlemagne promulgated in 789.

Yet it seems that many of the old beliefs refused to die completely. Jesuit missions to Brittany in the first half of the 17th century were pained by the extent that distortions of the faith and primitive superstitions held sway; prayers were addressed to the moon and sacred springs considered the sources of healing.  A contemporary of the Jesuit evangelist St Julian described faith in Brittany at that time as being “as in the primitive age of the Church.” It must have seemed as if Christianity had adapted itself to a pagan mentality and strenuous efforts were therefore made to revive a purer Christian faith and mould a suitable Christian lifestyle in tune with the realities of rural life.    

It was around this time that small structures were built or re-built over the basins where water appeared. These edifices are quite charming and often took the form of a stone porch, some took on the air of small open chapels with carved decorations and a niche to hold a statue of the patron saint. Sometimes an oratory or a chapel was built nearby.

There is some uniformity in the architectural characteristics of those structures erected in the 17th and 18th centuries. In rural districts, it was common for the fountain to be reached by one or more sets of descending stairs. A large stone basin received the water, usually directly from the spring but occasionally via a spout. This basin was covered by a small porch with, at times, moulded arches and sculptured figures and escutcheons. This kind of fountain is frequently seen decorated with figures of the Virgin Mary or of saints and sometimes with the coat of arms of the local nobility.  Very often, the water itself provided the only ornament of the structure. A large number of these fountains are to be found in Brittany and indeed throughout most of France.

A form more common in the towns was that of a large open basin with a column at the centre, from the lower part of which were arranged channels or spouts that would flow into other basins. The columns took various forms, from that of a simple geometrical block, with plain or grotesque water spouts, to very ornate Gothic structures with elaborate carvings and religious statuary.

Many sacred fountains have long been ascribed miraculous powers that can be broadly categorised into three main groups which sometimes overlap.

Firstly, the healing fountains where it was necessary to either drink the waters or to splash or rub the water over the body.  While waters from all sacred fountains were regarded as possessing therapeutic or curative properties, many fountains were believed to hold qualities that tackled very specific ailments. For instance, Saint-Fiacre’s Fountain in Le Faouët was considered to heal leprosy and skin diseases, Saint-Mériadec’s Fountain in Pontivy to cure deafness, Sainte-Anne’s Fountain in Plonévez-Porzay cured rheumatism.

Pierre-Jakez Hélias, in his memoir of rural Brittany between the World Wars (The Horse of Pride, 1975), notes that the fountain at Treguennec was considered to cure leg problems such as limps and recalls that “On the day of the Pardon, around 1925, I saw groups of mothers waiting their turn to splash the sacred water over their babies from waist to toe. Still in 1969, some grandmothers rubbed their little children with this water. The last grandmothers who perhaps held the old beliefs and nourished a little of the old hope.”

At Notre-Dame de la Clarté in Combrit, a cloth soaked in the water of the fountain served to heal eye ailments  The fountain of Saint-Bieuzy in Pluméliau-Bieuzy cured headaches (the saint died from an axe wound to the head) and toothaches but only if the fountain was circled three times with one’s mouth full of the sacred water. Rheumatism could also be cured at the Fountain of Saint-Guyomard but it was necessary to rub your body against the great stones nearby immediately after drinking the water. The Fountain of the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-la-Fontaine-Blanche in Plougastel-Daoulas cured rickets if the child was immersed in the water three times.

In addition, therapeutic virtues were given to several fountains for healing abscesses, coughs, colic, stomach aches and, at the Fountain of Saint-Colomban at Locminé, even madness. Sainte-Anne’s Fountain in Plonévez-Porzay also remedied madness and warded off evil and others were held to cure haemorrhoids and to ease PMT.

Fountains possessing multiple benefits were not unusual. At the 17th century Fountain of the Seven Saints in Bulat-Pestivien the spring water falls into seven basins, each dedicated to one of the founding saints of Brittany and each with its own distinct beneficial quality. Nearby, the 16th century Fountain of the Rooster (named after a once-present carving) is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and had universal therapeutic properties but it was also said that, after performing the right ablutions, one could read their destiny in the water. Within the parish close is the 18th century Fountain of the Virgin whose waters were prized by expectant mothers and mothers who had difficulties expressing milk.

The 16th century Fountain of Saint-Gilles in Saint Gilles Pligeaux is actually two fountains, fed from the same source, dedicated to three saints; one structure has niches dedicated to Saint-Gilles and Saint-Loup and the other to Saint-Laurent. While the waters were widely regarded for their restorative qualities for rheumatics and epileptics, the saints individually were accorded special powers; St Gilles for protecting children, St Loup to dispel fear and St Laurent for curing burns.

One of the most unusual cures was noted in the far west of the region, where it was once believed that one could be cured of werewolfism if they drank the waters of a colonnaded fountain but only if they had approached the water from the east.

There were also divining fountains, the most well-known being the Fountain of Barenton in the heart of the forest of Brocéliande, famous for its association with Merlin and Viviane, which was said to possess a particular characteristic; whoever drew water from it and sprinkled the stones therewith, produced a terrific thunderstorm accompanied by thick darkness.

Merlin's Fountain of Barenton
Fountain of Barenton

At Saint-Laurent’s Fountain in Ploemel, seafarers and their families would throw pieces of bread upon the water; if they floated, it was taken as a sign of good weather ahead. At other oracular fountains, pins were considered effective mediums: if they floated, one’s wishes were granted. In other fountains, a shirt was dropped into the water: if it floated, the ills of the owner would be lifted. Saint-Diboan’s Fountain in Gourin was thought to foretell the fate of a sick person. For this, it was necessary to empty the fountain and allow it to refill. If the new water gushed gently, the patient would heal but would fatally succumb to their illness if the water level refilled in a convulsive fashion.

Saint Eloi’s Fountain in Plozevet seems to have had two divining rites associated with it. The shirt of a sick person was dropped into the basin; if the collar of the sodden garment remained floating, then the person would recover. Additionally, the shirt of a newborn was cast onto the water; if the collar sank first, it was a sign that the baby would not live long.

If a person was anxious (having not been cured of anxiety at Sainte-Barbe’s Fountain in Gouesnac’h) to know how much longer they were to live, they had only to look into the water of the Fountain of Death at Plouigneau at midnight on the first night of May. If an image of a skull was reflected instead of a face, they knew that death was near. There was another ‘fountain of death’ just five miles away in Plouégat-Guérand.

May Day was also the day to visit these fountains of divination with an infant under one year of age; their feet were immersed in the water, if the child removed their feet it was seen as a sign that they would suffer an early death.

Fountains of protection and good fortune were numerous, widespread and popularly frequented but perhaps most keenly by those seeking marriage or children. The power of many fountains was held to work best if pins, or occasionally coins, were dropped into them and they were often thrown into the water to attract the saint’s favour but it was not unheard of for disgruntled visitors to turn the saint’s statue in his niche if favour had been denied them. Pins also had other functions at some sites, for instance in Ploumanac’h, the 12th century Oratory of Saint Guirec is only accessible at low tide but if an intrepid and unmarried girl manages to put a pin into the statue’s nose without it falling out, she would be married within the year.

Probably the most impressive fountain related to those desiring a marriage is the Fountain of Quinipily. This monumental structure is topped by a nine foot stone pedestal on which stands a seven foot high statue of Venus believed to date from 50BC. It possesses a massive water basin, hewn from a single block of granite and originally also featured a basin of about 325 square feet where women bathed naked in the hope of securing a marriage. Childless couples also bathed together in the hope that they might be favoured with a child. To be sure of delivering a healthy baby, pregnant women would circle the fountain three times while touching their stomach; bathing in the basin after childbirth was also part of the ritual. The strong pagan undertones of these rites saw the statue broken down twice by the Church in the 17th century. It was retrieved on both occasions and re-sited on private land some miles away in 1701.

Given the crucial importance of agriculture to the region, it should come as no surprise that there are many fountains that were said to protect the health of animals. The waters of Saint-Anthony’s Fountain in Tressignaux fortified the health of pigs, while those of the Saint Eloi fountain near Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem were held to provide good health to horses, whose ears were doused in its waters. Nearby, the 18th century Fountain of Saint-Gildas in Laniscat preserved the health of cats and dogs, the fountain contains three stone basins; the dog fountain, the cat fountain and that of Saint Gildas.

The elaborate gothic fountain in Saint-Nicolas-des-Eaux is dedicated to three saints; Nicodème, Gamaliel & Abibon with the Fountain of Saint-Cornely just a stone’s throw away. The water from St Nicodème’s basin guarded against skin diseases but was also considered especially auspicious for protecting the health of horses while the waters from St Abibon’s basin were taken for protection against bad luck and death. Unfortunately, the qualities once attributed to St Gamaliel’s basin have been lost to us but the water from St Corneli’s fountain (built in 1790, almost 200 years after the monumental triple fountain) was given to cows to protect them against disease.

Healing fountain in Brittany
Fountain of St Nicodème

Horses are still blessed in the waters flowing from the Fountain of Notre-Dame de L’Isle in Goudelin during the Pardon but since the First World War such horse blessings have become rather tamer affairs compared to the spectacle recounted by Jean-Baptiste Ogée in his Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Brittany (1778)

Near Plérin is a chapel dedicated to Saint Eloi, whose feast is celebrated in June. The peasants of the surroundings made this saint the patron saint of horses. Every year, on the feast day, the inhabitants of the parishes of ten places around come there on pilgrimage. After their prayers made in the chapel, they go to the fountain which is near, draw water from it with a bowl and throw it in the matrix and on the ears of their mare, and water the testicles of their horse in the persuasion that this water has prolific virtues. This opinion is so engraved in the minds of these good people that it would be impossible to uproot it.”

As illustrated earlier, drinking the water was sometimes not enough; rituals were often required for some healing waters to be effective. The Fountain Notre-Dame des Trois Fountaines in Briec was said to cure problems with breast-feeding; after drinking the water it was necessary to wash one’s breasts in it and empty the basin. As the basin refilled from the spring, the breasts would fill with milk. In Baud, to cure colic, the sick were expected to rub their torso with stones and only then drink the water of the fountain. The water of the Fountain of Notre-Dame du Niver in Edern was thought to enhance a woman’s fertility if she offered three pins to the water before sprinkling it over her stomach and breasts.

Distinguishing a holy fountain from a profane one or a healing fountain from a divining one is only possible through an understanding of the historical foundations of a fountain, its function over time and the traditions surrounding the distinctive qualities of the water and any special rites performed there. The quality of the architecture and the presence or absence of a saint can be misleading determining elements; sometimes the traditional performance of a rite alone can qualify a fountain as special.

To date, there is no definitive list for the numbers of extant sacred or special fountains in Brittany but over 1,500 have been noted by the anthropologist Sylvette Denèflein in the territories of Léon and Cornouaille (roughly the western Department of Finistère) alone. We can only wonder how many existed just a few centuries ago when the sacred fountain was at the heart of life in Brittany. Unfortunately, thousands of fountains were filled in the 19th and 20th centuries; razed and buried during a period that saw widespread development, land consolidation and a levelling of the landscape. Changes that forever distorted the ancient places; the traditions and practices once so rooted there, slowly sank into oblivion for want of being transmitted and are now lost to us.

The Phantom Washerwomen of the Night

In a land rich in legend, myth and fable, the phantom washerwomen of the night stand out as one of the most striking and baleful characters in the folklore of Brittany; spectral women doomed to spend eternity labouring over their laundry from sunset to sunrise, terrifying unfortunate and unwary souls in the darkness.

Across the length and breadth of rural Brittany, there are many tales that feature the washerwomen of the night (known as kannerezed noz in Breton or lavandières de la nuit in French) and there are often quite marked differences in the, sometimes contradictory, characteristics attributed to them.

All accounts agree that the washerwomen – there are usually three of them, all tall and unnaturally strong – are condemned to forever haunt the washing places and wash their linen at night to atone for past misdeeds. Sometimes the washerwomen are the spirits of women once known in the locality, at other times, anonymous ghosts. Depending on the tale, they work noisily in silence or sing loudly, stopping only to address a passer-by, often by name, to ask for help in wringing out the washing. Although the women toil every night, some tales say that they can only be seen during the nights of the full moon or just on the night before All Hallows’ Day.

Phantom Washerwomen of the night

The washerwomen of the night mainly appear only to men, particularly the drunkards who meander their way home from the tavern at night following the path which runs alongside the river or past the wash-house. If an unwary man stops to help these washerwomen wring their sheets, they are inevitably found in the morning with broken bones and enveloped in this white shroud.

Anne Plumptre (Narrative of a Three Years’ Residence in France, 1810) relating some superstitions prevalent in Brittany during her stay, recounted that:

There are a set of washerwomen called ar cannerez noz, the nocturnal singers, who wash their linen always at night, singing old songs and tales all the time: they solicit the assistance of people passing by to wring the linen; if it be given awkwardly, they break the person’s arm; if it be refused, they pull the refusers into the stream and drown them.”

Rural washing points and communal wash-houses, known as lavoirs in France, were, of necessity, sited near a river or spring at the periphery of a village, sometimes at quite a distance from the nearest house. The lavoir was an important part of women’s lives and carried a significant social function; a woman-only domain, each with its own traditions and hierarchy. For instance, the spot nearest the captured water source was customarily reserved for the oldest washerwoman.

Washerwomen in Brittany

Pierre-Jakez Hélias (The Horse of Pride, 1975) recounts in his memoir of rural Brittany between the World Wars: “For the women, the big wash was a chore of great importance. Like all the really serious jobs, it lasted for three days, which corresponded to Purgatory, Hell and Paradise, in that order.” Soaking and drying were usually done at home but the hard tasks of scrubbing, paddling, rinsing and wringing took place in the communal lavoir.

Most of the structures that remain today were built between the 17th and early 20th centuries although some are hundreds of years older. With the coming of piped mains water and drainage, the lavoirs gradually fell into disuse in the early 1960s but the structures remain a familiar sight throughout rural Brittany today.

an abandoned wash house in Brittany

In some tales, the washerwomen of the night are harbingers of death as the time and manner of one’s death is always known to the washerwomen; others imbue them with the power to grant wishes but only to those who answer the three questions they pose truthfully. If a question is answered dishonestly, the washerwomen will know and violently strangle the liar between their wet sheets.

Most commonly, the phantom washerwomen are held to be the spirits of women expiating at night, the sins committed during their lifetime.  Such sins seem to vary by locality and encompass a very broad range of socio-religious transgressions; from working at night or during the sacred days of rest to murdering children.

Walter Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911) quotes a description of the washerwomen given to him by Goulven Le Scour:

The lavandières de nuits were heard less often than the korrigans but were much more feared. It was usually towards midnight that they were heard beating their linen in front of different washing-places, always some way from the villages. According to the old folk of the past generation, when the phantom washerwomen would ask a certain passer-by to help them to wring sheets, he could not refuse, under pain of being stopped and wrung like a sheet himself. And it was necessary for those who aided in wringing the sheets to turn in the same direction as the washerwomen; for if by misfortune the assistant turned in an opposite direction, he had his arms wrung in an instant. It is believed that these phantom washerwomen are women condemned to wash their mortuary sheets during whole centuries; but that when they find some mortal to wring in an opposite direction, they are delivered.”

In many accounts from Lower Brittany, they are the ghosts of women who were once washerwomen who skimped on cleaning agents and instead used rough stones to scrape clean the laundry in their charge, damaging the clothes and linen of those who mostly had little enough to spare. To punish them for their greed, they were sentenced to eternally wash clothes that were cursed to remain forever dirty.

the washer-women of the night

Some versions of the old tales say that the washerwomen of the night were the souls of washerwomen who had contravened the religious precepts surrounding Sunday rest, an observance that was followed quite strongly in the wake of the Catholic Counter-Reformation; as a result they were sentenced to work for eternity. Such prohibitions against working also applied to Childermas, New Year’s Day, Good Friday and Ascension Day; defying these prohibitions was said to bring death upon oneself within the year.

In central Brittany, the horrifying washerwomen were often thought of as the damned souls of women who had murdered their own children. The 19th century folklorist Paul Sébillot noted that, in some tales of the phantom washerwomen, the laundry that they presented to passers-by, sometimes contained the body of a screaming, bleeding newborn baby. To the author George Sand (Rustic Legends, 1858), they represented the ‘most sinister of visions of fear’, and she described them thus:

The real washerwomen are the souls of infanticide mothers. They incessantly beat and twist something that looks like wet linen but which, when seen closely, is nothing but a child’s corpse. Each has their own, if she has been a criminal several times. We must beware of observing or disturbing them; for, even if you were six feet tall with muscles in proportion, they would seize you, beat you in the water and twist you no more and no less than a pair of stockings.

Breton Banshee

While some stories identify the washerwomen of the night with the souls of the dead who were buried in a dirty shroud, others claim that they are in fact the spirits of widows who had buried their husbands in a filthy shroud; consigned to wash these shrouds until the appearance of a Christian saviour. It was sometimes believed the washerwomen were souls trapped in purgatory undergoing penance for having wilfully brought on an abortion by their work or for having strangled their own baby and it is interesting to note that the belief that the washerwomen had no power over mothers with young children was quite widespread.

Muttering a prayer and making the sign of the cross were said to offer protection for those people that ventured abroad at night and happened across the washerwomen. Ignoring them, even if one was the tormented spirit of a close relative, was sometimes not enough to avoid their deathly clutches; they were known to give chase but were unable to do so over freshly ploughed fields.

The origins of the tales of the phantom washerwomen of the night are lost to us but we should guard against immediately jumping to the assumption that they were merely Christian homilies about the need to respect the Holy Days, being dutiful to one’s family or not staying overlong in a tavern et cetera. In some tales, the washerwomen serve as both a warning and a lament but other tales are simply spooky fireside stories, perhaps first told to explain the unfamiliar nocturnal noises carried on the night wind.

The concept of ghostly night-women exists in other parts of France as well as in the old folklore of many Celtic nations. Whatever their genesis, they are perchance another reflection of water’s timeless association with the mystical.

The Little Folk of Brittany

One of the most commonly found creatures in the rich canon of Breton folklore are the korrigans; a race of capricious magical dwarves who now live underground surrounded by vast wealth and are variously described as blonde haired or black haired; benevolent or malicious; as household helpers but also as fiendish abductors of babies.

The world of magical creatures is notoriously inconsistent and irrational; tales about korrigans differ from place to place in Brittany and, as with all tales, the storyteller omits and embellishes thus altering the tale a little more each time. Such fluidity means that defining the nature and role of korrigans is difficult and even the nomenclature is not without issues. Korr is the Breton word for dwarf and igans are diminutive suffixes, so, literally a small little dwarf but the 19th century folklorist Paul Sébillot noted over fifty names given to korrigans and lutins (the French word for sprites) in western Brittany alone. In general, the names given to korrigans vary according to the locale and their particular traits and habitats but distinctions can be blurred further when korrigans and lutins seem interchangeable characters in essentially the same tale.

Some tales claim that korrigans share the same roots as fairies, some that they are the descendants of the giant first men of Brittany and others that they are tormented souls, condemned to wander in the dark through the lonely places of the world.

surrounded by the korrigans

It is said that in ancient times, mankind and the korrigans shared the Earth and lived together in harmony but the arrival of Christianity upset the balance between mankind and the korrigans and the other mysterious creatures of the country. To the korrigans, the spread of Christianity amounted to their being driven out of their ancestral lands and sacred spaces. Wounded by, what they considered, the betrayal of men who had turned away from them, some took refuge underground while others receded to hide in the remote corners of the world. Scattered and divided, the korrigans became sullen and resentful and now strive to repay man for their exclusion from their lands and seek to reclaim the scared places of the ancient deities.

All tales agree that the korrigans live underground where they guard the treasures of the Earth. Hibernating during the coldest winter months, they emerge with the first warmth of spring and roam abroad between dusk and dawn. Haunting the ancient sites, particularly the megalithic monuments known as menhirs and dolmens, fountains and springs; they amuse themselves by disturbing the peace of the countryside and the sleep of men, playing tricks on passing travellers and mocking the new faith with their raucous dancing around remote chapels and wayside calvaries.

As mentioned above, korrigans can be very broadly divided into several large groupings or tribes and classified according to their habitat.

korrigan dwarf fairy

The desolate moors of Brittany are home to the korrils who are said to live under the ancient menhirs and dolmens which serve as a gateway to their underground domain full of gold and jewels. They are usually described as small, unusually strong, lean men who perpetually carry a large stick and wear a mocking grimace. Some stories say that they are garbed in coarse cloth and have small horns, cat’s claws or even goat’s hooves and a long tail. The korrils emerge from their subterranean lair at night when they engage in long frenetic dances accompanied by much noise and revelry until just before dawn’s first light. They are said to be intelligent and mischievous, playing tricks on humans that punish greed and stupidity but often reward intelligence and humility.

The korikaned are the wildest of korrigans and their domains are the ancient forests that once covered most of Brittany. Renowned as marshals and protectors of wild animals, they are never without their sounding horn and are masters of the bow. They are a proud people who consider their culture to be closest to that of the first korrigans which may account for their intense hatred of mankind whom they strive to avoid. Jealous guardians of their domain, they are said to be able to control the weather in order to disperse human hunters. They are also noted shape-shifters!

Korandons live on the sea shore and harbour the same strong feelings of animosity towards mankind as their cousins, the korrils. They are feared because they are said to enjoy provoking storms to create shipwrecks and to light wrecker’s fires at night to lure boats to their doom on the rocks. Some accounts claim that they possess the legs of a goat, the hooves of which are made of iron. At night, the crashing of pebbles upon the beach, stirred by the waves, was said to be the trampling of their iron feet dancing wildly.

korrigans fairies of Brittany

At the bottom of the social order of korrigans are the poulpiquets of the marshes. Dark and hairy in appearance with small, gleaming black eyes and with broken voices that sound like old men, they are portrayed as compulsive thieves and notorious tricksters. They are often said to wear a leather purse reputedly full of gold but those who steal it will find nothing within but dirty horsehair and a pair of scissors. They like to prey upon human greed by showing travellers golden rings and shimmering jewels on the water’s glistening surface but when a person leans-in to pluck their unearned trophy, they are promptly seized and pulled down into the korrigans’ domain.

Some korrigans who originally dwelt in the meadows have long since put themselves in the service of men; cleaning houses, scouring cooking pots, rocking restless babies and finding lost objects. In some areas of Brittany these creatures are called teuz. It was once customary in parts of rural Brittany to leave a small flat stone in front of the hearth for the korrigan to sit upon to enjoy the warmth after his day’s work was done. While these korrigans work without reward, they are said to swiftly quit a house if they are mistreated or unappreciated.

At night, like the fairies of other Celtic traditions, the korrigans love to dance, particularly the circular dance which, in the morning, leaves a ring of mushrooms to mark the presence of their dancing circle. When the moon is clear, they are said to gather near the ancient standing stones and at crossroads and calvaries; never missing an opportunity to entice a passing man to join them. If he happens to be a good−natured sort and enters into their dance heartily, they treat him well and may even do him some good turn but if he is disagreeable they will make him dance until he collapses with exhaustion. Should the man offend them, then he might be forced to dance to his death or be consigned to an underground dungeon without any hope of deliverance. Other tales tell that only if a man carries a plough-stick – a stick that has been used for scraping the clods of earth from a plough – can he enter this dance with impunity.

korrigans dance

One way of saving yourself from the mischief of the korrigans was to distract them. They were said to be unable to pass a scattering of objects without resisting a compulsion to tidy them into a neat pile. Some people therefore overturned a vessel containing a large number of grains or positioned one in hopes that the nocturnal visitors would accidentally knock it over. Before they could re-start their mischief, the korrigans were said to be obliged to pick up the gains and count them but being unable to do so before the crowing of the rooster, they usually abandoned the task and retreated.

In parts of western Brittany, before leaving the house after a meal of pancakes, it was once believed essential to eat a small morsel of bread first; otherwise one risked being taken by the korrigans. Other practices were also said to help defend one against the mischief of the korrigans, such as wearing a sprig of flowering gorse or hanging an inflated pig bladder, containing nine grains of wheat, from a ceiling beam in the home.

There is a tale of a musician who, despite the protestations of his friends, decided to teach the korrigans a new dance and took his biniou (Breton bagpipe) to a particular dolmen one Saturday night. His friends feared to approach the dolmen and hid behind a gorse bush several hundred metres away and soon heard the joyful accents of the biniou drifting on the night air. However, the music became melancholic not long after midnight and as the night wore on, steadily descended into a confused series of inconsistent notes and incoherent frenzy, slowly dying out to sound like a fly trapped in a bottle. At dawn, his friends approached the dolmen and there on the moor, lay the cold dead body of their companion and it was, they said, impossible to pull the pipe of his biniou from his teeth.

The nocturnal dancing of the korrigans is often said to be accompanied by singing; a particularly favourite song being the days of the week: ‘Di Lun (Monday), Di Meurzh (Tuesday), Di Mercher (Wednesday), Di Iaou (Thursday), Di Gwener (Friday).’ It is claimed that they are unable to recite all the days due to the sacredness of the full week and there are many tales involving hapless men who have added days to the korrigans’ song with tragic consequences.

In one such tale, the keen man is seized and thrown into the sky with such force that he lands on the moon where he is cursed to remain until his place is taken by another victim. There is even a story of an over-excited korrigan adding ‘Di Sadorn’ to the song himself and being instantly cursed with a hunchback for his eagerness. Although another tale tells that the song was once completed by a woman with a hunchback; the korrigans were so delighted that, to thank her, they removed her bump.

Korrigans dance

It is clear from the old tales that the korrigans retain a festering hatred for the Church and this is likely an echo reflecting the strong views of the early evangelising saints of Brittany against the old deities and the difficulties the Bretons had in reconciling their beliefs in mysterious beings such as fairy folk with the new Christian religion. Thus, to some, the malevolent korrigans symbolise the early resistance of Brittany to Christianisation and it is perhaps noteworthy that one of the few ways to repel a korrigan is by the use of holy water.

Female korrigans are a quite distinct group; usually they are simply referred to as korrigans although sometimes the same stories refer to them as groac’h which is a Breton word that is also applied to witches and crones. In some later, French-language, tales they are, at times, referred to as fées. Whatever their appellation, these female korrigans are usually described as standing no more than two feet tall and beautiful, with sparkling red eyes and flowing blonde hair that they brush with a golden comb in the moonlit reflections of the water of the springs and ancient fountains which they inhabit. It is said that they are able to shape-shift into animals, foretell the future, heal any illness and can also travel from one end of the world to the other in the twinkling of an eye. Interestingly, these are all attributes that were once thought to have been possessed by the Gallicenae; the nine Celtic priestesses who dwelt on the Île de Sein.

Lest you start thinking that these are the sweetest of korrigans, be aware that they are given to stealing the babies of men and substituting them with ugly changelings. Paul Sébillot, in his Local Legends of Upper Brittany (1899), recounts how “They [the korrigans] also liked to kidnap children and put in their place ugly little beings who did not grow up, always suckled and had an old-fashioned figure. A woman had taken her son into the fields; the korrigans took him and substituted one of their offspring for him. As he was not growing, the woman went to consult a neighbour who advised her to put a dozen eggshells filled with water to boil in front of the fire. When the little boy woke up, he exclaimed: “I am ninety years old and never have I seen so many boiling pots“.

breton fairies

If disturbed, especially on a Saturday, the day of the Virgin, these female korrigans will not hesitate to breathe their lethal breath on the hapless human trespasser. They are also notorious for their attempts to bewitch and seduce any man who chances to pass by, cursing them to death if their advances are rejected. Lewis Spence in his Legends and Romances of Brittany (1917), tells us:

Many are the traditions which tell of human infants abducted by the Korrigan. But it was more as an enchantress that she was dreaded. By a stroke of her magic wand she could transform the leafy fastnesses in which she dwelt into the semblance of a lordly hall, which the luckless traveller whom she lured thither would regard as a paradise after the dark thickets in which he had been wandering. This seeming castle or palace she furnished with everything that could delight the eye, and as the doomed wretch sat ravished by her beauty and that of her nine attendant maidens a fatal passion for her entered his heart, so that whatever he cherished most on earth – honour, wife, demoiselle, or affianced bride – became as naught to him, and he cast himself at the feet of this forest Circe in a frenzy of ardour.

But with the first ray of daylight the charm was dissolved and the Korrigan became a hideous hag, as repulsive as before she had been lovely; the walls of her palace and the magnificence which had furnished it became once more tree and thicket, its carpets moss, its tapestries leaves, its silver cups wild roses, and its dazzling mirrors pools of stagnant water.

These seductive korrigans are also renowned for their hatred of the Virgin Mary and the celibate clergy who serve her. Indeed, their depiction as intractable enemies of the Church is possibly unique across the surviving body of Celtic mysterious beings. Many stories say that the female korrigans were once Celtic princesses who refused the Gospel brought by the early saints and were accordingly cursed by God. This Christianised gloss is, again, likely an echo reflecting the struggle the early Bretons had reconciling the different notions of the nature of the divine feminine inherent in their old religion and their newly adopted Christian faith.

The dance of the fairy korrigans

With the notable exceptions of the Lais of Marie de France and an Arthurian romance, the old folktales and legends of Brittany were not really set down in writing until the boom in interest in regional folklore took hold in France in the early 19th century. It is therefore difficult to definitively establish the age of many of the korrigan legends. Happily, the tales continue to be told and new tales created and today’s weary parents still caution their children against misbehaving with the cautionary refrain that ‘…the korrigans will get you!’

The Dry Bones of Brittany

Containing the bones of the dead within an ossuary – a receptacle which could range from a simple stone casket to an entire elaborate chapel – was an ancient practice once quite widespread in the Near East and Europe; the role and nature of an ossuary being heavily influenced by a combination of social factors and religious beliefs. In Europe, they were a simple solution for handling the problem faced by having limited burial space for the dead and served as a useful marketing tool for the teachings of the Church.

In the early Middle Ages, burial grounds were established against and around parish churches but inevitably, given the relatively short life expectancy of the time, these plots, most of which contained large common graves, were soon filled. Sometime around the 14th century, it became common practice for local churches to clear their burial grounds to create much needed space for new burials.

Typically in the western European tradition, bodies in these places would initially be interred for several years to allow the body sufficient time to decompose. The skeletal remains would then be exhumed, the bones cleaned, dried and sorted according to type; skulls, small bones and long bones, before being  placed in an ossuary where they were stored together in stacked groups. These could be sited in a crypt or in the loft inside a church but spaces here too were limited and usually reserved for the clergy or privileged nobles, so, other solutions were needed.

Inside the ossuary

Some parish churches chose to create special niches set within or against their churchyard walls which, over time, often developed into quite elaborate affairs. Some created annexes contiguous to the south wall of the church whilst others constructed discrete purpose-built buildings close to the church or graveyard with window openings faced to the east.

Modest ossuary near Rosporden
Attached ossuary at Gouarec

Stone-built monumental ossuaries (known as garnals in Breton) began to appear in Brittany in the 15th century and were relatively widespread within a hundred years or so. It has been estimated that over half of the surviving monumental ossuaries were constructed between 1550 and 1600. After a period of steady monument construction in the first part of the 17th century, a second notable phase of building occurred between 1630 and 1680. After about 1700, there was little new monumental construction here; of the ossuaries erected in the 18th century, some were second or even third ossuaries for the same churchyard.

This boom in construction in the 16th and 17th centuries coincided with a prolonged period of economic prosperity in Brittany, largely based on mercantile shipping, commercial fishing and a thriving trade in canvas, linen and flax. This increased wealth gave rise to a broader flourishing of ecclesiastical building activity with new churches built and older ones extended and embellished. It was during this period of increased wealth and religious fervour that arguably the most beautiful parish enclosures were built and by the end of the 17th century, most parishes in western Brittany boasted some, if not all, of the features of a monumental parish enclosure.

Whether also serving as a funerary chapel or not, many ossuaries benefited from the same degree of architectural richness and detail as their associated churches, becoming ecclesiastical masterpieces in their own right, perhaps most notably at Ploudiry, Pleyben, Saint-Thégonnec and Sizun. The ossuaries at Guimiliau and Kermoroc’h are particularly noteworthy as both contain external preaching pulpits.

It is the abundance of such well-designed and strongly built stone structures within a relatively small region that sets the ossuaries of Brittany, particularly to the west of the Saint Brieuc-Vannes axis, apart from those seen elsewhere in Europe.  While the use of ossuaries was widespread throughout western Europe in the Middle Ages, the practice was in terminal decline by the 17th century but not in Brittany.

Monumental ossuary at Sizun
Monumental ossuary at La Roche Maurice

However, this was not the case in Brittany where 18th century moves by Church and State to shift burials from churchyards to edge-of-town cemeteries were quite strongly resisted; the use of ossuaries remained widespread here long after such practices had died out elsewhere, much to the consternation of some visitors.

‘A very strange practice reigns in Brittany. The kinfolk of the deceased unearth the dead after several years, when they believe that the soil will have absorbed all of the decomposed flesh. The recovered bones are then placed in a small building constructed near to the church, the ossuary. Sometimes one takes the head of the dead, puts it in a box and places it in the church inscribed “Here lies the skull of N.” It is impossible to imagine nothing more repulsive …. Often, great zeal does not allow time for the complete de-fleshing of the corpse and shreds of putrefying flesh attract dogs which no-one cares to chase away.’ Notes d’un voyage dans l’Ouest de la France (1836), Prosper Mérimée

inside an ossuary in brittany

The author Gustave Flaubert toured Brittany with Maxime Du Camp in 1847 and, noting a very crowded village cemetery near Quiberon, observed the ossuary ‘contains skeletons that have been exhumed in order to make room for other corpses. Who has said: “Life is a hostelry and the grave is our home?” But these corpses do not remain in their graves, for they are only tenants and are ejected at the expiration of the lease.’ He continued:

‘Around this ossuary, where this cluster of bones resemble a jumble of faggots, is arranged, man-high, a series of small black boxes, six inches square, covered with a roof surmounted by a cross and pierced in front in the shape of a heart to reveal the skull inside. Above the heart are painted letters: “This is the head of –, died such year and such day.” These heads did not belong only to persons of a certain rank and he would pass for a bad son if, after seven years, he did not give his parents’ skulls the luxury of one of these little chests. The rest of the body is sent to the ossuary and 25 years later the head is thrown in. Some years ago they wanted to abolish this custom. A riot ensued and it remained.’ Par Les Champs et Par Les Greves (1886), G Flaubert & M Du Camp

It is difficult to pinpoint when the practice of placing skulls in decorated boxes began in Brittany, although the earliest written references are from the late 18th century and the practice seems to have continued up until the First World War. The procedure began, at least five years after burial, with the exhumation ceremony which was usually a collective affair with the procession to the ossuary accompanied by prayers and song: ‘Let us go to the charnel house, Christians! Let us contemplate the relics! Of our brothers, our sisters, our fathers, our mothers! Here, no more nobility, neither riches nor beauty. The earth and death have confused all.’  

skull boxes
Skull Boxes in St Pol-de-Leon

The skull would then be separated from the other bones and placed in a wooden box, known as a ‘boîte à chef’ (skull box), decorated with the individual’s name and age at death. These boxes were then placed in the church or ossuary, often on special ‘Étagères de la Nuit’ (Shelves of the Night), or sometimes in a niche in the churchyard wall but always in view.

Aside from providing a long-term storage solution for the remains of the dead, the ossuaries of Brittany were designed to provide the people with a visible display of the dead. Ossuaries attached to the wall of a church were usually colonnaded or arcaded and the windows of the grand chapel ossuaries left unglazed for the same purpose – the illumination and exhibition of human remains. The sight of such earthly remnants was meant to serve as a vivid reminder of the inevitably of death the leveller and to encourage the faithful to reflect on the transience of human life and the consequent need to commit to a permanent Christian existence to secure salvation through the Church.

Ankou Brittany
This Ankou once decorated the ossuary font at La Martyre but now stands in the south porch

The iconography associated with Breton ossuaries shared the same themes and designs as other parts of Catholic Europe such as portrayals of death, judgement, repentance and salvation but there were quite distinctive Breton elements too, such as the depiction of the Ankou – the Breton personification of death who guides the souls of the dead to the Otherworld. A figure also sometimes represented on and inside many churches in western Brittany.

Ankou Brittany
Ankou set above the ossuary font at La Roche Maurice

The ossuaries of Brittany are a key part of the region’s unique religious heritage; they are distinct, in part, due to their abundance and the sheer longevity of their functional use by the people. Hundreds of these buildings, of all sizes, survive to this day and can be visited freely.

Most ossuaries were cleared of their bones during the last century but you can still encounter ones that have clung tightly to their precious charge, for instance at Lanrivain, Trégornan, Gouarec and the half a dozen skulls in the ossuary at Plouzélambre. Similarly, most skull boxes have been removed from the churches and ossuaries or are now hidden away in vaults but you may still chance to happen upon some on display, such as those in Saint-Pol-de-Léon, Saint-Fiacre, Kermaria-an-Iskut and La Méaugon.

monumental ossuary in brittany
Monumental ossuary at Pleyben

The ornate ossuary at Pleyben dates from around 1560, making it one of the oldest monumental ossuaries in Brittany, and serves as a useful example of how some of these buildings were used over time. After restoration in 1733, it was used as a mortuary chapel and subsequently to house a school, the Town Hall and a Post Office. It now serves as a museum, as does the beautiful, two-storey ossuary at Sizun – both are well worth visiting by those keen to explore Brittany’s built heritage. However, take care not to visit during the night of Christmas Eve as that is when the bones in the ossuaries are said to talk to one another and list those who will die in the year ahead!

Death Lore of Brittany

In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, All Saints’ Day is known as La Toussaint and is widely celebrated as both a religious holiday and a secular Public Holiday.  Although All Souls’ Day, more formally known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, falls on the following day, the majority of people here tend to honour their dead relatives on the day before. Thus, Toussaint is the day when families gather together and visit the cemeteries to tend graves, pray and lay flowers (usually chrysanthemums or heather) on the graves of their loved ones. Consequently, the distinction between All Saints’ Day, which is dedicated to those who are in Heaven, and All Souls’ Day when prayers are offered for the dead who have yet to reach Heaven, are blurred.

Having been observed on different days in various places, the precise origin of All Saints’ Day can not be agreed definitively. During the 7th century it was celebrated on 13 May which has caused some to suggest its origins are pagan and hark back to the Roman festival of Lemuria which was held to pacify the dead. In the 8th century, the date was fixed to 1 November and some see this as an attempt by the Church to co-opt the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which marked the shift from summer to winter and celebrated the harvest.

If it is difficult to pinpoint the origins of All Saints, establishing the roots of All Souls’ Day is doubly so. What is known is that around the turn of the 11th century, Odilo, the Benedictine Abbot of Cluny, established 2 November as an especial date for prayers of intercession on behalf of the faithful departed undergoing purification in purgatory; a convention that was steadily embraced and adopted throughout Europe.  In addition to putting the Church’s stamp on the importance of honouring the humble dead, this day was significant as it endorsed the link between the living and the dead, in the prayers of the former for the latter. 

a funeral in Brittany

Of course, the broader practice of celebrating the dead stretches back thousands of years before Odilo and transcends geographic and cultural lines but this conflation of the celebration of All Saints and All Souls allowed plenty of scope for the ancient traditions associated with death and ancestor worship to survive in a Christian world-view as le Jour des Morts (Day of the Dead) or, in Breton, Gouel an Anaon (Festival of the Dead).

At the turn of the 20th century, ethnographers noted a number of traditional beliefs relating to death then prevalent in Brittany. They found that, to some, earthly life was only a passage between an earlier eternal life and a subsequent eternal life. There was a significant absence of separation between the living and the dead, both seen as existing or living in two discrete worlds. In the Breton tradition, the world after earthly death – the Otherworld – is called Anaon and is a word for both the dead and the place where they reside.

The community of the dead were always close. Those buried in the cemetery were thought to live there under the protection of Saint Yves, retaining their earthly personalities, sympathies and aversions for their fellow dead. Earthly feuds and disputes would continue beyond the grave, so, care was taken not to bury two quarrels side-by-side.  As for the living; they would help or harass them according to the love or disdain they brought.

Day of the Dead Brittany

In his Book of Brittany written in 1901, the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould noted that: “The graveyard is as truly the centre of the commune as the dolmen was of the prehistoric tribe. The dead who lie there are by no means cut off from the world; the voices of the living reach them in muffled tones; they know that they are not forgotten; they are associated with every event of importance in the family. Nowhere else, and at no period, have people lived in such familiarity with death. The consciousness of the presence of the dead never leaves the people. The evening of a wedding is like a funeral wake. The betrothed meet at the graves of their dead ancestors to seal their vows over the tombs.”

The dead were thought to return to their villages after midnight to see their homes and watch their families but – importantly – not to plead with or to frighten them. Thus, it was customary to let a little fire burn under the ashes overnight, just in case the dead were to visit the hearth of their former home. On the eve of All Saint’s Day, the fire would be kept burning overnight by a large log known as the ‘log of the dead’. The dead were always considered to be cold; a notion that also applied to Hell.

In some areas of Brittany, this veil of separation between the living and the dead was at its most vulnerable on those feast days when the dead of each parish congregated, namely; Christmas Eve, the eve of Saint John’s Day (Midsummer) and the eve of All Saints’ Day (Hallowe’en). At these times, the dead were thought to wander freely in the land of the living.

Similar notions were recorded by Walter Evans-Wentz in his influential study, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911): “On November Eve the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them (the dead) of milk, pancakes and cider, served on the table covered with a fresh white cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors.”

Ankou, Ploudiry ossuary

Such beliefs survived the massive social upheavals of the First World War. Writing in 1919, Ruth Kelly, in her Book Of Hallowe’en noted that in Brittany, on Halloween: “… milk is poured on graves, feasts and candles set out on tables and fires lighted on the hearths to welcome the spirits of departed kinsfolk […] The poor who live on the mountains have only black corn, milk and smoked bacon to offer but it is given freely. Those who can afford it, spread on a white cloth, dishes of clotted milk, pancakes and cups of cider.”

Similarly, the Breton scholar Pierre-Jakez Hélias recounted that during his childhood, some twenty years after Kelley’s book, that: “On the evening of All Saints’ Day, we prepared food (cake, bread, milk, cider), to welcome the neighbours of the cemetery and we left for them in the hearth, a big log.” People would also leave food outside for the pitiful dead without a home to go to.

After Vespers on the eve of All Saints, people would visit the cemeteries to kneel, bare-headed, at the graves of their loved ones to pray and anoint the hollow of the gravestones with holy water or milk (small cup-like holes can be found in many old gravestones) before hurrying home. Interaction with the Anaon was to be avoided at all costs. Once at home, people would go to bed early so that they would not chance to see the dead feasting. However, those who went to bed too early might be awakened by neighbours urging them, in song, to pray for the souls of the dead. Others would fear to go outside at all during Allhallowtide.

Grave cups Brittany
Breton ‘grave cups’

Yesterday’s Bretons did not fear death, for it was seen as simply part of the natural order of things and the beginning of a new and better life but they did fear An Ankou – the Breton personification of death. Master of the afterlife, the Ankou is omnipotent. He is always portrayed as a skeletal figure, sometimes draped in a shroud, holding an arrow, spear or very occasionally a scythe whose blade faces outwards; this blade was said to be sharpened on a human thigh bone!

Standing on a cart whose axles creak, the Ankou roams at night, gathering souls to guide towards the Otherworld. He is often spoken of as being accompanied by a screeching owl and attended by one or more assistants. To hear the squeak of the Ankou’s chariot signified that someone close to you would soon die. In coastal areas, the Ankou was believed to steer a black boat. In The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Evans-Wentz noted the belief that: “The Ankou, who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths over which they travel in great sacred processions; the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve.”

Ankou, St Mark’s Chapel, Ile Grande

In some parts of Brittany, the Ankou’s persona was rather fluid – the first or last death of the year would become Ankou. Thus, he would be renewed each year and could be imbued with some of the characteristics of the soul once living – if he had been an evil character in life then, as Ankou, he would search relentlessly for fresh souls to gather. In these traditions, the Ankou is assisted by the second on the list of the deceased of a parish. It is he who guides the Ankou’s skinny black horse by the bridle, opens the gates and loads the dead souls onto the cart. Rather than draped in a shroud, the Ankou of the 19th century was often depicted as dressing contemporaneously while hiding his face under a black felt hat with a wide brim; a style then popularly worn in Brittany.

In the Brittany of yesteryear, the dead were never far removed from the living. It was more than being at ease with the idea of death it was almost a comfortable familiarity with it; death and birth were commonplace, natural happenings.  However, by the mid-1980s, anthropologist Ellen Badone discovered that, due to the rapid social and cultural changes in Brittany since the Second World War, the customs and traditions associated with death highlighted just fifty years earlier had all but disappeared.  

In her book, The Appointed Hour (1989), Badone notes that she found that repression of the idea of death and marginalisation of the act of dying were increasingly evident here and postulated that this culture change was likely a result of a complex mix of factors. Particularly the shift from an agricultural economy based on shared labour to one of mechanisation and solitary working; the rise of retirement homes and the migration of young Bretons to work in the cities, creating a rarity of multi-generational families; and the growing prestige of science with its opposition to the supernatural.

Ankou, St Noyale’s church, Noyal-Pontivy

As the passage of time dims the old traditions, the relentless Ankou warns us against forgetting him. His image, carved deep into timeless granite edifices, continues to adorn countless churches and ossuaries throughout Brittany. These are well worth visiting and, if you do, take time to contemplate his words at the church in La Roche-Maurice: “Remember You, Man, That You Are Dust!”

The Devil, the Miller and a Milestone

In yesterday’s Brittany, the miller enjoyed a rather ambivalent reputation in society. His trade brought him into regular contact with a wide range of people across the community; guaranteeing any visitor would leave the mill with all the latest news of any importance. Admired for his hard-work and often his skill at resetting broken or dislocated bones, the miller was also viewed with some suspicion and a once popular saying told that nothing was bolder than a miller’s shirt because every morning it caught a thief.

In the south of Brittany, on the road between the town of Guérande and La Roche-Bernard, lies the restored 15th century mill of Crémeur. Today, the mill no longer grinds but it still retains its long-standing popular nickname of the Devil’s Mill; the site of one the region’s most well-known legends of reputed interactions between the Devil and hard-working Breton peasants.

While the master miller of Crémeur could boast of owning the mill, he could make no claim to providing security for his family because his mill steadfastly refused to grind little more than a few ears of corn; the winds from the south coast blew strongly across his little plateau but the blades of his mill scarcely turned. It was therefore unsurprising that no customers came to grind their grain; forcing the miller and his family to rely on the most meagre of existences.

Moulin Cremeur Mill

One autumn day, while the miller lamented his wretched situation to no one in particular, a richly dressed stranger passed along the nearby road and walked over to speak to him, asking the reason for his obvious distress. With a heavy sigh, the miller unburdened himself to the stranger; telling him that the mill was so poorly positioned that even the March winds were not enough to turn its wings. The mill should have been a source of wealth and pride but it contributed so little to the family table that he was now thinking of abandoning it and leave to beg elsewhere for some dirty work to feed his family.

“It is possible that I can help you,” said the traveller. Upon hearing these few words of hope, the miller wondered if it was not the winds of Providence which had sent this stranger to deliver him from his problems; perhaps this was a wealthy man who would, as an act of charity, buy his mill for a good price.

“I see that you have a hill on your land, to the west of your house. I can build a new mill there which will have all the wind it needs and will grind so well that all the people of the country hereabouts will bring you their custom and make you your fortune. All this I can do for you in one night.”

Miller and the Devil

“In just one night but that is impossible,” exclaimed the miller; “only God or the Devil could do such a thing.” In this, the hapless miller was not mistaken because it was the Devil himself who had come to offer him a bargain.

“Of course,” said the Devil carefully, “such an undertaking cannot be done without due consideration. I will require possession of your soul when you die but fear not, for all the years that you have left to live will be free of worry for you and your family.” The miller, a pious man, immediately refused the deal for he could not to accept to condemn his soul to the torments of Hell.

However, a moment of reflection reminded him of his family’s misery and so, he accepted the bargain. “Then it is agreed,” said the Devil; “you grant me your soul in exchange for a mill built entirely on top of that hill and before the rooster crows tomorrow.”

devil and the miller

The miller returned home but was so heavily weighted with shame for his diabolical pact that his wife, seeing her husband even more unhappy than usual, asked him what could have happened. Hesitantly, he confessed all that had passed between him and his infernal visitor.

Stunned by his tale, the miller’s wife was, in equal measure, aghast and angry at her husband’s weakness and his wanton betrayal of God and His saints. To safeguard her children from any of the Devil’s mischief, she left with them, in all haste, for the house of her mother, just one league distant. However, the good lady felt herself compelled to return to the mill for she could not willingly abandon her husband to the Devil.

Miller and the Devil

The darkness had descended by the time she reached home but the noise of furious activity nearby confirmed her darkest fears that the Devil was at large; delivering his part of the bargain. Anxious with worry, the miller’s wife prayed throughout the night but stopped a little before dawn in order to prepare three lanterns. She moved quickly and noisily through the yard, waking-up the slumbering pigs as she did so, and set-up her lanterns around the hen-house. At the sight of all these lights, the deceived rooster began to crow with such fervour that the Devil, believing himself at dawn, swiftly deserted his site.

Roused from his torpor, the miller now prepared to face the day. He had walked but a few yards from home when he saw, upon the hill, a mill so beautiful and so large that he felt even more desperate; the Devil had kept his promise. His wife, taking pity on her husband’s despondency, quickly revealed her subterfuge to him and showed him a point, a little below the wings: a single stone was missing! The contract had not been properly fulfilled and so the miller kept his precious soul.

The Devil was so enraged at having been duped that he unleashed a violent storm throughout the peninsula but the miller was alert and placed a small statue of the Virgin in the empty space in the wall. This talisman defeated the demon and helped revive the prosperity of the miller; a man whom Providence had protected by choosing for him a bride of such keen intelligence and piety.

Devil and the Miller

Across the peninsula, in the far west of Brittany, the Devil is also a character that features in several old local legends. Some of whom contain no moral messages to reflect upon but rather the kernels of a story one can easily imagine being told around the fireside at night. One such tale tells that, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, two men had travelled to the Kerharo mill near Cléden to play some hands of cards with the miller while the millstone was grinding their wheat.

As dusk turned to dark, a stranger entered the mill and offered to play a few games of chance with the trio. The offer of another hand was warmly accepted but the men’s good humour struggled a little in the face of the newcomer’s complete dominance; he won every hand convincingly. At one point in the evening, one of the players, having dropped a card, stooped to pick it up. It was then that he saw the stranger’s feet under the low table: they were the feet of a cow! He barely had time to cry out: the devil, for it was he, had already disappeared.

Once, small mills such as those at Crémeur and Kerharo were to be found in almost every Breton commune; these buildings were more than mere economic processing centres and once carried out an important role at the centre of community life. Villagers, most usually only the men, would gather at the local mill, even when they had no real business there, to share the latest news and gossip. Often, the miller’s wife operated a small cafe for their clients and other travellers, heightening its role as a hub of the community.

Devil and the Miller

For centuries, life in rural Brittany remained little touched by the industrial and agricultural changes that swept across Europe and right up to the turn of the last century, most people still practiced a means of farming designed to satisfy just their own needs. People grew what they needed or were conditioned to need only what they could grow; they kept what they could store and bartered or sold what they could, as best they could. Poor communication networks meant that no market other than the local one really mattered.

As road and later rail communications improved towards the end of the 19th century, so, the lifestyle of the Breton country dweller changed, forever, beyond measure. The small-scale cottage industries, such as spinning, weaving and embroidery that had long supplemented the family income were the first to disappear; unable to compete with the industrially manufactured goods now becoming widely available. Domestic enterprises such as making clothes or processing food also began their relentless decline; a process exacerbated by the appearance of the humble sewing machine and industrial canning.

The demand for faster travel eventually brought about the demise of the wheelwrights, carters and the grooms, relay-stations and inns that supported them. Even coopers and blacksmiths soon found their hard-learned skills unable to contest the demands made by new, improved agricultural machinery and their intricate machine made components.

Devil and Miller

At a time when the majority of rural transactions were conducted by barter, the removal of even one trade from the community pool risked the long-term survival of communities that, for centuries, had been almost completely self-sufficient. Few rural artisans could earn a living from the practice of a single trade and it was not uncommon for the local butcher to also keep a tavern or for the miller to do some bone-setting or barbering on the side. While this might portray a community living close to the bone, it also indicates one that was remarkably independent; a self-supporting society in which everyone could contribute, as only a few trades required specialist but learnable skills.

The inevitable march of progress seems to have cast its darkest shadow over Brittany’s smiths and millers in the years immediately prior to the First World War. These years witnessed the final dominance of industrial production; a state of affairs cemented during the war years and from which rural communities, bereft of suitable manpower, could never hope to recover.

At the end of the 19th century it was recorded that bread was the staple diet for the peasants of central Brittany. Bread soaked in salt water with a little butter in it, followed by a piece of dry bread, being the most common meal for breakfast and dinner. Lard was a treat reserved for Sundays and meat for only the most important festivals and celebrations. Otherwise, the typical diet consisted of a pottage of buckwheat, millet or corn, chestnuts, cabbage and turnips or potatoes with a little bread made of rye or barley.

Mill Brittany Gauguin

So, demand for the miller’s services remained strong but the economies of scale offered by the new, industrial mills posed an overwhelming threat to their survival. Improvements in transportation meant that many large farms increasingly took advantage of the rates offered by the new mills for their grain or its resultant flour. It was at about this time that white bread became increasingly fashionable here, relegating rye bread to the status of mere peasant food. Improvements to agricultural practices, such as the adoption of scythes over billhooks and the introduction of mechanisation into the harvest routine also took their toll. With gleaning steadily becoming uneconomic, the local mills saw another once vibrant part of their customer base disappear forever.

The windmills were the first to fade away here, gradually but inexorably followed by the more populous water mills. Their disappearance has left the Breton countryside peppered with picturesque ruins and restored homes for families now used to supermarket shopping. Sadly, the old mill stones no longer grind corn or wheat but still excite conversations, as quaint rustic features in the gardens of suburban Paris.

From millstones to milestones; this is my two year anniversary with WordPress and also my one hundredth post! I would therefore like to thank all who have taken the time to read any of my ramblings about this little corner of the world over the last two years – your kindness and generous support has been much appreciated by me! Thank you so very much. I wish you all the very best of health and sincere happiness for the future!

Bonjour from Brittany

More Magical Plants of Brittany

Mysterious magical plants can be found scattered throughout the folklore and popular superstitions of Brittany. Noted for their extreme rarity; long and patient efforts were required to locate these mystical growths. A quest that would only have hopes of success if performed by certain select people or on the most propitious days of the year. The diligent seeker could hope to be rewarded with such elusive wonders as good fortune, vigorous health or true love.

Brittany’s magical plants did not boast magnificent colours with pretty blooms and majestic stems. They were mostly anonymous, flowerless grasses and herbs that confused the searcher by their rarity and their changing habits. They were said to be found everywhere and yet nowhere; chimeral spirits that only revealed themselves according to their whims at certain hours of the night. However, some nights were believed more favourable than others and the most auspicious times often varied from region to region. Sometimes, local legends tell that only the enchantments of the sorcerer could discover such special growths.

Magical Plants Sylvie

Along the shorelines of north-eastern Brittany were said to be found bewitched herbs that enjoyed the virtue of curing all diseases. They were once cultivated there secretly by the fairies who employed them to make the ointment which was used in many of their enchantments, although some tales tell that the fairies also ate these herbs. More commonly, fairies were said to feed on Sylvies; a delicate plant whose downy seeds were sensitive enough to disperse at a fairy’s breath but highly toxic to humans and animals. In this region, fairies were renowned as skilled healers whose remedies were believed to contain many compounds from plants that possessed yellow and blue flowers, such as Flax, Garlic, Pimpernel and Witches’ Grass.

The plants of the fairies were reputed to thwart the devious designs of men and to sharpen the keenest blade but those who did not enjoy their benevolence were said to be seized with madness and condemned to wander if they came into contact with such plants. However, the forests had other marvels to discover; in the woods near Lamballe, those who ate a plant which grew only in hollow oaks would gain the ability to become invisible at will and of being instantly transported from one place to another. Such gifts were only granted to those who also held in their hand, sprigs of Mistletoe and Verbena.

Magical Plants Sundew

One of the most benign of Brittany’s plants was the Sundew; a rare carnivorous plant often known as Morning Dew whose leaves always appear graced with water droplets which, unlike dew, do not dry in the sun. The principle virtues of this plant were said to have been its ability to cure almost all the diseases of animals and humans, while the person who possessed it was believed to exercise an irresistible attraction to the opposite sex. Rubbing one’s body with a Sundew, while walking backwards on Midsummer’s Day, was held to provide one with exceptional strength and made walking tireless. Placed in the stables, the plant protected the animals from fevers and even into the latter half of the 19th century, some here granted to the Sundew, magical and supernatural properties such as that of cutting iron.

The woodpecker has always been very common here in Brittany. Feeding on insects that live in the bark of trees, it is armed for this particular task with a beak suitable for attacking the bark. The habits of this bird seem to have preoccupied the minds of the Bretons of yesterday: how could such a modest creature make such perfect cavities in very hard trees? Clearly, it required recourse to the marvellous and observation of the bird’s habits showed that, in the course of its labours, it often flew down into the meadows. Eager to formulate a conclusion, the Breton peasants thought that the woodpecker would thus sharpen its beak on a special plant; the legend of Woodpecker Grass offered a reasonable explanation.

Magical Plants Woodpecker Grass

This plant was said to be extremely small and rare and found in damp meadows and in the trunks of ancient trees. Whoever finds it can use it to sharpen any metal for it defies the best grindstone; a sickle sharpened by it, cuts like a razor. Some local traditions conflated Woodpecker Grass with the rarest and most wonderful of all Brittany’s magical plants, Golden Grass but they are usually portrayed in the region’s folklore as two quite distinct plants.

Sometimes found noted amongst the magical plants of Brittany is the Hazel which does not necessarily present, by itself, anything particular. However, the plant was widely associated with magic and was said to produce the very best wands, especially for those seeking underground springs and seams of silver. Handled properly, hazel wands could also confirm whether one was truly loved by their partner. Additionally, hazel was the only wood said able to handle new honey which was never stirred other than with a stick of this wood.

It was once believed that each hazel bush possessed, within its folds, a branch that turned into pure gold. This branch made a wand that was reputed to equal in power those of the great fairies of old. However, this prize could only be gained if cut between the first and last chimes of the bell announcing the Christmas mass but, lest you be tempted, be aware that whoever tries and fails, was thought lost from this world forever.

Magical Plants Hazel

The supernatural virtues attributed to certain plants were sometimes benevolent, sometimes malevolent. Plants that cast a malign shadow were numerous, if one is to believe a once popular saying from the region south of Nantes that claimed “for 700 plants friendly to man, 800 are conjured against him.”

Perhaps the most renowned sinister plant here was that known as Sorcerer’s Herb but details of how the plant was used in witches’ brews or applied as part of a bewitching spell are, unfortunately, obscured to us today. In the far east of the region, two plants seem to have borne the label of Sorcerer’s Herb; these were Ground-ivy and Mugwort and in localities where one was deemed to be Sorcerer’s Grass, the other was not and vice versa. In order to be most effective, the plant needed to be gathered during the night of Midsummer.

When used to dry-up the milk of a rival’s cows, it was thrown over the grazing pastures before sunrise but small packets of these wicked herbs were also placed under the roofs of houses and stables in order to attract misfortune to people and their animals. Similarly, clusters of five or seven hazelnuts, passed under the door of a barn and dragged to the spell caster’s home, were also believed to dry the cows in this barn. The same result could also be assured with an armful of hay instead of hazel clusters or by washing the cows’ udders with an infusion of green peas. To combat such malicious behaviour, small bunches of Tansy were hung from the beams in order to dispel evil spells and to ensure plentiful milk that produced the finest butter. White Wormwood and Houseleek were also said to have been similarly efficacious.

Magical Plants Spellcaster

Maintaining the health of one’s herd and livelihood was a constant concern to the Breton farmer. Confronted with setbacks, suspicion quickly fell upon those who might wish to hinder one’s efforts or harm one’s livestock; jealous neighbours, witches and shepherds were all accused of spreading deadly epizootics at will. The magical power of certain plants was called upon in the struggle to neutralise such evil spells; small packets containing the root of Water-hemlock were hung in the stable to protect cattle from foot-and-mouth disease. For the farmer, a branch of Medlar, cut before dawn on the morning of Midsummer, was thought to provide excellent protection against witchcraft.

It was said that some witches and sorcerers, out of boredom or simply sheer malice, sometimes threw a spell upon the cattle at market by mixing the powdered liver of a wolf with their tobacco. In smelling this smoke, the animals recognised their enemy and suddenly went beserk, breaking their ropes in their efforts to flee. To combat the influence of such a spell, an amulet of Greater Periwinkle was slipped around the left horn of the beasts. Bewitched animals were also more widely treated by being adorned with an amulet containing nine cloves of Garlic mixed with a handful of salt.

Other plants seem to have possessed some kind of innate power. The most infamous was the Grass of Oblivion that caused all those who stepped upon it to immediately lose their sense of direction. Another was the Chestnut tree whose harmful shade was said to causes diseases of languor to those who fell asleep under its shade; the Ash also once carried the same reputation. However, the wood of the Beech was hung or laid in front of the house and stable in order to, by its presence, bring-on good fortune and protect against evil over the year ahead.

Magical Plants Brome

Field Brome was once the scourge of cereal crops such as Rye and it was thought that only some malign influence could have caused it to seemingly multiply in the field overnight. Likewise, it was believed that the crops had been bewitched when Wild Oats tended to dominate over cultivated oats in the field.

Misfortune was assured if certain plants were not treated appropriately. For instance, it was important that Parsley was sown and not planted at the risk of bringing bad luck and unhappiness upon the household. The planting of the Bay Laurel was also surrounded with danger as it was claimed that whenever it was planted, someone in the house would die before the end of the year. Bay Laurel was therefore commonly planted on the last day of the year and by someone who was not part of the household. In certain parts of the region, people refrained from making any tool handles or pegs from Broom in the belief that only accidents would befall those who used this plant for any utilitarian purpose.

Sometimes, a plant’s danger was only manifest when eaten. For instance, it was recommended to only eat Scallions in the morning because the same plant consumed in the evening, would cause an incurable migraine. Consecutively consuming seven green corms was said to cause one to change sex and it was even claimed that green corms had the power to reconstitute a lost virginity. In the early 20th century, a bizarre variant to this was noted that claimed it would be more certain if one swallowed a mixture of seven crushed corms with seven resin candles.

Magical Plants Medlar

Of the plants that were believed benevolent to humanity, none enjoyed a greater reputation here than Mistletoe; a growth that seems to have retained strong traces of its ancient reputation as a sacred plant. Picked on the first day of the year, it was said to exert a favourable influence throughout the year, while that gathered on Midsummer was also considered to possess almost the same virtues. This plant was never so beneficial as when it was found growing on an oak tree and was used in a wide variety of folk remedies to treat all manner of ailments but especially epilepsy. Given the scarcity of oak mistletoe, it offered hope that the mistletoe found on Hawthorn also had properties similar to those of oak mistletoe.

The Privet was also once endowed with the power to cure many ailments here. Three branches placed in the fireplace were thought to cure children of thrush. To treat toothache and all complaints of the mouth, a branch, cut before sunrise, placed in the fireplace without the knowledge of the patient, was believed to bring about an effective cure. Stag horn plantain was also said to cure certain diseases by its mere presence.

While Broom was often associated with bad luck, the plant’s dual nature was such that it was also viewed as a precious aid to the harvest; beans and cabbages were seldom sowed without their seedlings being brushed with a branch of broom in the belief that its touch killed all pests such as caterpillars and aphids.

Magical Plants Broom

Not all of Brittany’s magical plants owed their position to superstitions long since lost to us, several seem to have accrued their marvellous properties as a result of religious beliefs. Planting a branch of Boxwood in a field on Palm Sunday was said to prevent sorcerers from casting a spell on the future harvest but it was also a symbolic way of asking for God’s blessing on the crops sown there; it was believed granted if the boxwood took root.  A branch of boxwood was also placed upon each bee hive on Good Friday in order to ensure a fruitful year ahead.

However, evergreen shrubs, such as Boxwood, were believed to be one of the preferred locations for the souls of the dead here. To plant a branch of it in a field was therefore to involve the spirits of one’s ancestors in the fertility of the land and one’s future well-being. It is therefore likely that these practices were echoes of ancient traditions likely transposed to the Christian festival of Palm Sunday from the pagan celebrations surrounding May Day.

Many people once collected the flowers thrown during the procession of the Blessed Sacrament on the Feast of Corpus Christi in the belief that they would bring protection against storms. Similarly, charcoal from the Midsummer bonfire and the Yule Log were also believed to possess the ability to protect crops or houses against lightning strikes. Preservation against the latter danger was also assured by the presence of a Houseleek plant grown near the roofs of buildings.

Magical Plants Boxwood

These last examples might be vestiges of ancient beliefs now lost to us or could simply be poorly understood religious practices that transformed into popular superstition; the plants being attributed with virtues that they only possessed through their religious association. We will likely never know for sure.

Dragons and Dragonslayers of Brittany

Deified and demonised across the world throughout the ages, the dragon of yore also left its footprints upon the lives, legends and landscapes of Brittany. Indeed, Breton lore once held that the peninsula of Brittany itself was the body of the enormous dragon slain by the archangel Michael; the beast’s backbone formed the Monts d’Arrée and the wild coastline of Finistère, its head.

In the Breton tradition, the dragon only emerges from its subterranean lair to feed its appetite for destruction. It is usually of gigantic size, often with several heads featuring one, or more, horns. Its body is armoured with scales and boasts bat-like wings, strong feline claws and long, sharp teeth. Along with its ability to spit fire, these attributes present it as master of the four fundamental elements and thus the mightiest of adversaries.

The 1st century Roman author, Pliny, tells us that dragons drain the blood of elephants, their greatest enemy, by biting behind the animal’s ear, while the late 1st century Book of Revelation describes the apocalyptic battle between the angel Michael and a “great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns.” Michael and his angels prevailed and “the great dragon was cast out [of Heaven], that old serpent, called the Devil, which deceives the whole world, was cast out onto the earth.”

Dragon Dragon Slayer

Isidore, the 7th century scholar and Bishop of Seville, described dragons as “the largest animal on earth. When it comes out of its cave, it disturbs the air. It has a crest, a small mouth and a narrow throat. Its strength is in its tail rather than its teeth; it does harm by beating, not by biting. It has no poison and needs none to kill, because it kills by entangling.” These descriptions remained little changed in the medieval bestiaries. Writing in the 12th century, Hugo de Fouilloy announced that “the greatest of the serpents is the dragon; it deals death by its poisonous breath and by the blow of its tail. This creature is lifted by the strength of its venom into the air as if it were flying and the air is set in motion by it.”

To the medieval Christian chroniclers, the dragon, as the greatest of serpents, was synonymous with the Devil: “As it deals death with its poisonous breath and the blow of its tail, so the Devil destroys men’s souls by thought, word and deed. He kills their thoughts by the breath of pride; he poisons their words with malice; he strangles them by the performance of evil deeds, as it were with his tail.”

Similar sentiments were later echoed in the pages of the 13th century Harley Bestiary and it is this image of the dragon that predominated in the literature and legends of Europe down into the modern era. As a symbol of evil, the dragon features as the enemy of noble knights seeking to prove their mettle or to rescue a chaste woman held captive by the beast. As the embodiment of evil, it was the most powerful of foes and thus could only be defeated by an even mightier adversary.

Dragon Dragon Slayer

A Breton legend tells that, one day, Saint Michael was called to fight against the Devil who had taken the form of a fearsome dragon. The battle began on Mont Dol in eastern Brittany and was fiercely fought, across the skies, for several days before Saint Michael eventually triumphed atop Mont Tombe, 20km to the east. It was even said by some that Michael did not kill the beast but imprisoned it in a vault deep within the mountain. Those looking for Mont Tombe on a modern map should note that the name changed in the 9th century when the emperor Charlemagne adopted Saint Michael as his patron saint.

There are many old stories here of dragons that once terrorised a region whose inhabitants were only delivered thanks to the intervention of angels, saints or knights. Local toponyms attest that many caves throughout Brittany were once believed to have been the lair of dragons and scattered across the topography of the region are rocks, cliffs and islets whose features bear the indelible imprint of dragons and the struggle to defeat them.

An Iron Age stele in the churchyard of Landouzen chapel in Le Drennec features a deeply scored notch around its circumference. This was said to have been caused by the fierce struggles made by the dragon that had been tied to it by a length of chain by Saint Ursin who had captured the beast to end its terrorising of the countryside. This otherwise obscure saint was then reputed to have drowned the dragon in the neighbouring marsh.

Dragon Dragon Slayer

The land surrounding Janzé, in eastern Brittany, was once reputed to have been in thrall to a terrifying dragon that lay waste to the area’s crops; devouring sheep and cows and attacking anyone who foolishly crossed its path. The early 6th century saint, Armel, decided to confront the dragon and was able to defeat it by throwing his stole around its neck; once subdued, Saint Armel cast the dragon into the Seiche River. It was claimed that the grass never again grew on the ground that the dragon tumbled over en route to its watery grave.

However, the townsfolk of Ploërmel, some 70km westwards, also claimed that their district was the site of Saint Armel’s dragon slaying exploits. According to local lore, it was in the vicinity of Ploërmel that the saint volunteered to rescue the people from an enormous green dragon that devoured sheep, cows, foals and even farmers. Having overpowered the beast, Saint Armel bound it with his stole and, now docile as a sheep, flung the dragon into the Yvel River. A scarred rock near the river was said to have been caused by the dragon’s claw during its struggle with the saint and, just as near Janzé, the grass was reputed to have never grown back on the site of their fight. One account tells that the dragon did not die but fell asleep at the bottom of the water where it still lies to this day.

Local legend attests that Pointe de Saint-Marc, on the south coast of Belle-Île, was the scene of another terrible fight with a murderous dragon. It is said that in ancient times, the nearby cave was the refuge of a nine-headed dragon that sowed disaster across the surrounding villages. The inhabitants had no other resort but to pray to Heaven for deliverance; a call answered by Saint Mark who, riding his fearless steed, battled the dragon which he eventually overcame before throwing the defeated beast into the sea. On his return to Heaven, his horse kicked back so violently against the rock that the mark of his iron shoes can still be seen at the entrance to the cave.

Dragon Dragon Slayer

Not far from the south coast town of Quimper lies Ergué-Gabéric; another area once noted to have been terrorised by a dragon. According to legend, the beast lived in a cave in the Stangala Gorge and each month demanded that the locals deliver a young woman for him to devour. However, the dragon was eventually killed by a knight, Caznevet de Kerfors, who could not bear the thought of his intended bride being delivered to the rapacious creature. This knight is known to have lived in the 15th century and may have supplanted an earlier but now unknown hero of the tale.

Tradition attests that the 12th century Daoulas Abbey was founded on the site of a much earlier building and the history of Saint Tadec and Saint Judulus, recorded by Albert Le Grand in his monumental Lives of the Saints of Armorican Brittany (1637), also notes an earlier foundation. His hagiography notes that the lord of Faou attacked a meeting of the abbots of the region who had gathered near his lands; Saint Tadec was killed at prayer and Saint Judulus beheaded as he fled to Landévennec. To avenge the murder of His servants, God sent a dragon to ravage the lands of Faou. The pagan lord was felled by the dragon and it took all the power of Saint Pol, Bishop of Leon, to defeat the beast and heal the murderer. The latter, having become a Christian, in reparation for his crimes, founded the monastery of Daoulas in the very place where he had slain Saint Judulus.

Having conquered the dragon of Faou, Saint Pol had travelled as far as the village that now bears his name, Lampaul, when he was approached by two men who told him of a little dragon, more ferocious than its father, who devastated their neighbourhood, devouring the cattle and the inhabitants. The saint then untied the dragon, which he had trained like a docile dog, and ordered it to fetch his offspring. The beast immediately obeyed and Saint Pol, having led the two dragons into a remote wood, drove a stake into the ground to which he tied them, forbidding them to ever leave this place. The dragons obeyed the saint’s order until they eventually perished for lack of food.

Dragon Dragon Slayer

Saint Pol is also said to have rid the north coast island of Batz of a dragon. Local legend says that in the early 6th century Saint Pol was welcomed to stay on the island on condition that he delivered it from a ferocious dragon that terrorised the place, devouring its people and cattle. After a night of prayer, and accompanied by a local warrior, he set off for the dragon’s lair. At the saint’s command, the dragon emerged in a terrible fury but Pol was unmoved and immediately wrapped his stole around the beast’s neck and led him towards the far end of the island. There, he cast the dragon into the sea, at the spot that is now called Trou du Serpent (Dragon’s Hole).

Similarly, a contemporary of Saint Pol, the evangelist Saint Maudez, is said to have expelled the serpents from the island that now bears his name a few kilometres off the north Breton coast. Back on the mainland, the 7th century Saint Thuriau was believed to have freed the country from a ravenous dragon by casting it into the sea at the mouth of the Léger River. While to the east of the region, near the mouth of the Rance, lies another Trou du Serpent, said to have been the den of a dragon that Saint Suliac threw into the water from the top of Mont Garrot in the 7th century.

Returning home from a pilgrimage to Rome, the 6th century Breton saint, Meen, passed through Angers, where his preaching impressed a lady of the city who pleaded with the saint to rid her territory of a monstrous dragon. Saint Meen drove the beast from her lands and was rewarded with a grant of land where he founded a monastery near the Breton border.

Dragon Dragon Slayer

In neighbouring Normandy, the crimson tint of the cliffs around Granville were said to have been caused by the blood of the victims that a dragon once devoured there. While a little north along the coast, a spot under the cliff of Flamanville was also reputed to share the same origin but this dragon’s indiscriminate destruction had been appeased by the people who offered it a child to devour each week. Legend tells that following one sacrifice to the beast, the villagers noted the approach of a man, holding a bishop’s crook, standing on a plough wheel which seemed to glide over the waves. This was Saint Germain who confronted the dragon immediately upon landing on the beach. The dragon tried to retreat into its cave but the saint struck it with his staff whereupon the beast writhed in convulsions and froze before becoming encrusted in the rock.

Dragon Dragon Slayer

Many of these tales of dragon slaying feature shared motifs, such as driving the beast into the sea rather than immediately killing it and subduing its violent nature with a stole that marked the grace of holy orders and symbolised the bonds of Christ.  As the embodiment of evil, the dragon symbolises the pagan beliefs that existed here before the evangelisation when the early saints “found Brittany ravaged by beasts and dragons, most savage, that wreaked havoc everywhere.” Defeating the dragon therefore represented the triumph of the early Celtic saints over the ancient practices and beliefs. Whether those practices involved child sacrifice is still a matter of some debate.

It is therefore unsurprising that dragons feature in the hagiographies of several Breton saints. The dragon is the emblem of the patron saint of Trégor, Tudwal, one of the seven founding saints of Brittany who was said to have defeated a dragon on his arrival in Treguier. Others among this select band of saints include Saint Samson who drove out a dragon from a cave near his hermitage in Cornwall before his arrival in Brittany; Saint Malo who is said to have chased away the dragon that once roamed the area now known as the island of Cézembre (then attached to the mainland); Saint Pol, who defeated the dragons of Faou, Lampaul and Batz; and Saint Brieuc who exorcised a demon that appeared in the form of a dragon and is sometimes represented as treading on a dragon.

Dragon Dragon Slayer

In the 6th century, the Rhuys peninsula on Brittany’s south coast was the site of a monastic settlement established by Saint Gildas but it was also a region tormented by a dragon who the locals placated with the offering of a child each week. Hearing that his godson was due to be sacrificed to the beast, the saint resolved to tackle the dragon; described as six hundred feet long with a girth that measured sixty feet, two large wings and teeth as long and sharp as spindles.

Having mounted his white horse, the saint approached the dragon’s den but instead of throwing his godson into the creature’s open jaws, he threw in a ball of wool that had been imbedded with iron hooks. The jaws of the dragon became bound together with the hooks and Saint Gildas dragged it to the headland of the Grand Mont and commanded his horse to leap to the island of Houat, 13km away. The horse leapt with such force that, despite the passage of time, the imprint of its hooves remains visible in the rock today. Realising the saint’s plan, the dragon also leapt for the island but while the saint’s horse safely made the leap from the mainland, the dragon fell short and smashed its head into the Er-Yoc’h islet before falling into the sea.

Very little is known about the obscure 6th century saints, Neventer and Derrien. They are believed to have been two British knights who, returning from pilgrimage to the Holy Land, promised the local ruler, Count Elorn, to deliver his lands from the dragon that was due to be given his son, Riok, on condition that he agreed to convert to Christianity and raise his son in the new faith. It was said that Elorn’s desperation was because his suzerain had decreed that, in order to contain the dragon’s devastating raids across the country, the lords of the region would, every Wednesday, choose one of their house as a human offering to the beast or else offer-up themselves.

Dragon Dragon Slayer

The two saints tracked the dragon to its lair and commanded it to appear in the name of Christ. Hissing and snarling, the dragon emerged from its cave; five fathoms long, it stood as big as a horse. Its eyes threw thunderbolts that killed birds and children, its jaws opened so wide that in one mouthful it devoured a sheep. The saints did not hesitate to advance towards the beast who became docile in their presence and willingly accepted a halter. Thus subdued, they led the dragon to the north coast where they commanded it to throw itself into the sea.

A hagiography composed sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries tells that, in the 5th century, all infants who died without baptism were delivered to the dragon of Grand Rocher, near the north coast town of Plestin, but every year, on Christmas Eve, it demanded human prey of royal blood. The dragon was as cunning as it was terrible and was said to have walked backwards so as to confound any that sought to track it to its lair. It is noted that King Arthur fought this human-headed beast, whose neck was as thick as the necks of seven bulls, for three days but was unable to defeat it with his simple club and shield.

An acquaintance of Arthur, Saint Efflam, asked that he might quell the dragon and, after a night of prayer, he stood before the dragon’s cave and demanded its appearance. Subdued by the prayers of the saint, the dragon vomited much blood before rushing into the sea whose waters consumed it. However, in the 19th century, the people of the surrounding area claimed that the dragon was not dead and that, at certain times of the year, during a wild storm, it could be seen sitting on a rock, beating the water with its tail and shrieking cries that shook the shore. 

Dragon Dragon Slayer

A later version of the legend tells that Saint Efflam was forced to use a ruse to bring out the dragon but that once he had made the sign of the cross, the dragon could not return to its cave. Subdued by the air of a biniou (Breton bagpipe), the dragon was led to a chasm that opened into the reef known as the Red Rock, which it agreed to enter upon a promise that it could play the biniou. In another rendering, the dragon was chained to the submerged stones of the reef, from where it vomited the blood that stained the rocks red.

However, a Breton ballad set-down from the oral tradition in the 1830s provides yet another account of the defeat of the dragon of Grand Rocher. In this story, invigorated by the water that Saint Efflam had caused to spring forth, King Arthur drove the blade of his sword straight through the mouth of the dragon; the dying beast tumbled into the sea and was lost to the waves.

The earlier notion that the mighty King Arthur had been unable to defeat the dragon that only God’s servant could subdue is also noted in the life of Saint Carantec who is thought to have lived in the 5th century. Before his arrival in Brittany, the saint was travelling through what is now western England when he was called upon by King Arthur to subdue a colossal dragon that was ravaging the region. Carantec was able to pacify the beast by wrapping his stole around its neck and led it like a sheep to the king’s court.

Dragon Dragon Slayer

During his time in Brittany, Saint Carantec is reputed to have again faced a dragon that had long menaced the inhabitants of the northern peninsula that now bears his name. It seems that, unusually, this beast refused to meekly submit to the power of the saint; legend tells that the saint took the dragon by its tail and threw it against a rock that split in two under the force of the impact. Carantec then threw the creature to the south wind and it landed in a bottomless pit through which it fell into the fires of Hell.

The dragons of Brittany might have simply been mythical beasts created by some pious scribes to highlight the power marshalled by the sauroctone saints but some could be the Christianised versions of far older tales once told of local heroes that battled against the last of the region’s great saurians. Although the age of dragons has long since passed, in the west of Brittany it was said that if you put a chicken feather and red and black rooster feathers in a bowl of milk, you would get a little eight-legged white lizard. However, nobody dares to do it anymore because this lizard is insatiable and quickly grows into an uncontrollable dragon.

Dragon Dragon Slayer

Brittany’s Street Art II

Whether you choose to call it street art or simply common graffiti, the walls of several Breton towns have been enriched by some wonderful examples of the craft in recent years. In an earlier post, I highlighted some works from the north coast Breton city of Saint-Brieuc and this post features many new murals that now adorn that town as well as a few that were painted over. Additionally, some works spotted in the towns of Morlaix and Brest were just too good not to share here too.

Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art.
Brittany, Graffiti, Street Art

Whether you regarded these as fine pieces of urban poetry or just bits of colourful vandalism, I hope that you enjoyed seeing these few daubed walls of Brittany – formerly blank canvasses that now carry the gift of a smile for the passer-by or, at the very least, the potential for one. Surely, that is something to be welcomed by us all!

The Quick and the Dead

To talk of the soul is, to many, to touch on the very essence of existence. First century authors noted that the ancient Celts believed in the indestructibility and inevitable transmigration of the human soul and, despite the march of Christian dogma, such beliefs remained in the Breton tradition where there was no significant separation between the living and the dead; both dwelt in discrete worlds that were in perpetual relation with one another. The souls of the dead surrounded the living, wandering the skies and sunken paths of the land as black dogs, petrels, horses or hares.

The Bretons once counted kinship over nine generations and it was said that the dead did not immediately reach the afterlife but stayed in the vicinity of the living for those nine generations. The souls of the damned were thought lost forever, confined to Hell for eternity although a soul might fleetingly return to the land of the living to reproach a loved one or to claim the fulfilment of a vow or even honour one. Similarly, those who had secured a place in Heaven stayed there, rarely visiting the corporeal world. Although, it was traditionally believed that the dead were doomed to return to the land of the living three times.

Those people who died of violent death were thought forced to remain between life and death until the time that they would have naturally lived had elapsed. Those trapped between Heaven and Hell were believed to roam the land at will; the hedgerows and seashores were heavy with wandering souls awaiting divine judgement. It was said that there were as many grains of sand on the seashore as there were wandering souls and that their numbers were mightier than the drops of rain in a downpour.

Soul Death Brittany

A curious expansion of this state of being, which is no longer life but not yet death, features in a legend noted near Lannion that tells of a drowned girl who, thanks to the protection of the Virgin, continued to live for six years in a kind of limbo. She was nourished by the bread her mother gave to the poor and dressed in the old clothes that she distributed as alms. Her husband was not quite a widower and did not become so until the passing of these six years.

Traditionally, it was considered most imprudent to sweep the floor or to throw out any dust until the body of the deceased had left the house; otherwise, one risked throwing out, at the same time, the newly departed soul. Pitchers of liquids, such as water or cider, were covered for fear that the unsteady soul might drown in them but milk was considered to offer no risk. Indeed, it was said that the soul thirsted for it and imbibed plentifully in order to draw new strength from it.

Similarly, it was also popularly advised not to sweep the house after sunset because this again risked sweeping away the souls of the dead who, at that hour, were said to return to their former homes. Such piteous souls were welcome visitors and it was thought only proper to leave a little fire smouldering in the grate in case the dead returned to the hearth of their former home and people took care to remove the tripod from the fireplace overnight, lest the dead sat on it and burned themselves.

Soul Death Brittany

Many legends tell of souls that congregated in certain places to await their deliverance. In the far west, the waters of the Baie des Trépassés were believed to teem with the souls of dead mariners. Those who had drowned without the stain of sin were thought carried by the sea to a cave near Morgat. Here, their souls stayed for eight days before leaving for the afterlife. On the north coast, those who lived around the mouth of the Couesnon River claimed that on All Souls’ Day a white fog rose at nightfall. This was said to have been formed by the souls in purgatory which, being innumerable, created a fog that spread over the entire Baie du Mont Saint-Michel. In the morning those who walked along the shore heard a whisper on the wind: “In a year! In a year!” – the voices of souls bidding their farewells until the next feast of the dead.

The souls in purgatory were often believed heard wailing on the crests of mountains at night and it was also on these high places that old maids were said condemned to do their penance. It was held that those women who, having found a marriage, had refused to wed, were cursed after death to grow their fingernails to scratch the earth and dig for themselves a second tomb. However, around Châteaubriant, it was believed that spinsters were transformed into owls after death; condemned to wail in woe at night.

In western Brittany, priests were believed to have had the power to see the soul separate from the body and some even knew the fate of the deceased in the afterlife. When the priest threw the first handful of earth onto the coffin, he was thought able to see the fate of the deceased soul but was forbidden from divulging this secret, under penalty of taking the place of the departed. Priests were also thought able to discover the fate of souls by consulting the Agrippa; a mysterious living book, the size of a man that was said to have been written by the Devil himself. Using the book to evoke the demons of Hell, the priest consulted each in turn to ascertain whether the soul of his recently buried parishioner was damned or saved.

Soul Death Brittany

In Breton tradition, the road to Heaven was rough and covered with brambles and thorns. The weary traveller was served by ninety-nine wayside inns where each had to stop at least once but those who had no money to pay for their stay were forced to turn back and take the road to Hell. The inn located at the road’s halfway point was called Bitêklê and it was here, every Saturday evening, that God came to collect those travellers who were still sober. Three rows of clouds were said to be traversed before finally arriving in Heaven; the first was black, the second grey and the last pristine white. According to some, the 3rd century evangelist Saint Mathurin was responsible for leading the souls, who had completed their penance, to Heaven. In some Breton tales, Saint Michael, not Saint Peter, kept the gates of Paradise; it was he that weighed souls to see if they could be received there.

Conversely, the road to Hell was said to be wide, well paved and bordered with beautiful flowers; inviting the traveller to take it. Along the way, there were ninety-nine inns where one had to spend a hundred years. Good food and drink were served as desired and the taste became sweeter and better as you approached the gates of Hell. If the traveller arrived at the last inn without being drunk and had been able to resist the many temptations of the road, they were free to turn back and the Devil had no power over them. However, if they had succumbed during their journey, the last inn would serve only a toxic draught mixed from the rancid bloods of a snake and toad; their soul forever owned by the Devil.

Soul Death Brittany

About a dozen kilometres east of the northern town of Lamballe, a field in Landebia contained a pit so deep that any stones thrown into it were never heard to strike the bottom. Only unexplained noises and sometimes vapours escaped the deep hole which was believed by the locals to be an entrance to Hell. Some 120km west, the forlorn Yeun Elez bog in the heart of the Monts d’Arrée was also said to have been one of the gateways to Hell, while 25km east, the Menhir de Thiemblaye near Saint-Samson was held to cover another portal to Hell.

For the Bretons, Hell was located in the bowels of the Earth, always at a great distance from its surface; in the 18th century, it was said that it was to be found in the centre of the planet, some 1,250 leagues below the surface. Extraordinary beings were thought to live there in close proximity to the deepest domains of the korrigans. According to a belief noted in the 19th century, the interior of the Earth was riddled with tunnels where enormous rats lived; even a man on horseback could easily pass through their runs. Eventually, these rats will have bred so much that they will eat away the earth; a great chasm will open and we will all be swallowed by the void.

Soul Death Hell

Some accounts from eastern Brittany speak of the journey made by the souls of the dead to reach their ultimate destination by way of “the sea beneath us.” This notion may have more to do with the old belief that Brittany sat atop a vast subterranean ocean rather than any connection with the crossing of the River Styx of Greek mythology. Possibly the idea was once related to the beliefs, noted in the west of the region, surrounding boats of the dead that ferried souls to mysterious faraway lands.

Usually only the priest celebrating the funeral was considered able to see the separation of the soul but it was a gift that others, such as powerful witches, were also said to have possessed. Sometimes the soul was thought to escape, not at the instant of death, but at the moment when the body was interred and it was claimed that the person who could set their foot upon that of the priest at the moment when he threw a handful of earth upon the coffin would see the soul of the deceased soar into the air.

There are many Breton stories in which the soul escapes from the body to take on the form of a bird, such as a crow, an owl or a petrel. Most popularly it was in the form of a lark that the soul, freed from the bonds of the flesh, ascended to Heaven to receive its judgement; the soul of the just entered without difficulty, while that of the outcast fell into the pit of Hell. Around the northern town of Tréguier, it was believed that, at the time of the giant first men of Brittany, the lark was responsible for opening the door of Heaven to the souls of the dead; the bird was said to have made two trips each day, in the morning for those who died at night and in the evening, for those who died during the day. Unfortunately, when Christ ascended to Heaven, He no longer wanted the lark due to its frequent blasphemies and so replaced it with Saint Peter.

Soul Death Brittany

The belief that the soul separated from the body and moved away from it in animal form was once quite widespread here. In a legend collected in central Brittany at the turn of the last century, a white mouse was stymied by the edge of a river but was able to cross thanks to the aid of a kindly man who bent willow branches so as to create a bridge for the creature. The passer-by noticed the mouse disappear into the mouth of a sleeping man, who having been awakened, related that he had dreamt that when he was about to drown in the river, someone threw him a branch that saved his life.

A tale from the north of Brittany also tells of a man whose soul appeared in the guise of a white mouse. On the death of his master, a servant saw such a creature escape his lips as he died. The mouse accompanied the servant to collect the funeral cross from the church, then bade farewell to the ploughing instruments by walking on each in turn. Having allowed itself to be shut inside the coffin with the dead body, the mouse re-emerged immediately after the coffin had been sprinkled with holy water and led the servant to a withered tree where it slipped through a crack in the bark. In that instant, the servant saw the face of his dead master fleetingly appear in the tree.

In another legend from the same region, the soul took the form of a gnat that emerged from the mouth of the dying person and flew around the room before returning to rest on the dead body. Like the mouse, it allowed itself to be sealed inside the coffin but quickly escaped to go and rest on a gorse bush where it was compelled to remain for five hundred years in expiation of its earthly sins.

Soul Death Brittany Judgement Day

In these two latter tales we can see examples of the once popular tradition that the soul departed the body at the moment of death to receive God’s judgement. As soon as that judgement was delivered, the soul returned to the body from which it had separated and was said to remain there for the duration of the burial. It is worth noting that the soul did not however re-enter its former host.

In the far east of the region, bats and butterflies were often believed to be hosts for the souls of the dead but it was also said to appear in the form of a large white flower, whose beauty increased as one approached it. The souls of those who had lived a wicked life were sometimes said to have been trapped in a pile of stones, while the souls of girls who had been deceived by their lovers were believed, after death, to haunt them as hares.

Others were condemned to undertake their penance in the form of a cow or that of a bull. The souls of the rich stayed in barren fields where only thorns and a few thin reeds grew while the souls of the poor enjoyed abundant grazing in rich pastures. They were separated from each other by a low dry-stone wall and the sight of the poor so well-treated added to the bitterness of the rich, just as the misery of the latter increased the joy of the former. Around the southern town of Quimperle, the notaries and lawyers who had not been fair in their accounts wandered, after death, in the form of old nags.

Soul Death Brittany

The souls of those who had formerly cut short their prayers were believed to wander the abandoned paths, murmuring Pater Noster prayers but when the last sentence was reached, they stopped, unable to find the words that end the prayer. Their soul would not be delivered until the day when some living person kindly completed their prayer. Some souls were said condemned to do penance until an acorn, picked up on the day of their death, had become an oak fit for some purpose. Other souls were condemned to gather enough sods of peat to provide sufficient fuel for three years or to cut gorse for a certain number of years to feed the fire in purgatory.

Some that had lived bad lives, such as thieves, were doomed to wander until the wrongs they had done in life had been righted. They stayed close to their old haunts, spitefully taking revenge for their distress by bringing trouble to the living. It was therefore not unusual for the spirits to be exorcised to reduce them to silence and calm; typically into the body of an animal, usually a black dog. Those souls most popularly believed to have required exorcism were not the murderers and drunkards destined for Hell but cheats and swindlers, particularly those whose wealth had been ill-gotten and guardians who had cheated their charges of their inheritance.

The bare circles without vegetation found in the field were said to mark the place where the souls of the wicked had been confined by an exorcist. It was claimed that these souls could, for one hour each day, torment the living and harm anyone who set foot there. Unfortunately, the time in question altered every day and so farmers never let their animals graze around them.

Soul Death Brittany

Uncultivated land and evergreen shrubs, such as boxwood and laurel, were considered the preferred abode of the souls of the dead but the hawthorn tree and gorse bushes, with nine souls resting on the tip of each thorn, were also noted domains. Many travellers therefore took pains to cough or shout to advertise their presence before crossing an expanse of heath thus allowing the souls in purgatory thought to reside there, time to move away undisturbed.

Sometimes, people whose animals fell sick were convinced that it was due to the influence of the tormented soul of a deceased relative and that it was necessary to pay for nine consecutive masses to placate them. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the clergy themselves often encouraged such beliefs and persuaded their parishioners that offering a novena was the only way to appease the dead and thus heal their sick animal.

In western Brittany, the toad was despised and frequently impaled on a stick to suffer under the sun but it was said that if the toad did not die it would search for you and suffocate you in your sleep and if you had died before the toad found you; it would throw poison onto your grave. However, a contrary belief was also noted in the same region, around the town of Quimper. This held that one should never kill a toad because within its body lay the soul of an ancestor who had been assigned there by God to atone for their sins; when toads came to annoy people, it was simply because they were pleading for masses to be said for their salvation.

Soul Death Brittany

It was once believed that children who died without baptism roamed the air as birds until the Day of Judgement when they would receive salvation and fly directly to Heaven. However, in eastern Brittany, the souls of such children were also said to appear near rivers and lakes, pleading to passers-by for the grace of baptism. A variant of these traditions was noted around Dinan where the souls of children gathered on the edge of a pond whose surface they beat in an attempt to splash water onto their heads in order to be baptised. Sadly, their little feet are unsteady and they can never balance long enough to succeed.

In eastern Brittany, the leaves of the aspen tree were said to be home to the souls of children. Those that were coloured white underneath were believed to indicate that treasure was buried at the foot of these trees but the exact place to dig was only revealed at midnight, on a Friday, by a ray of moonlight which illuminated it for only one second.

Another tradition from the same region held that if you caught a ladybird, you had to release it quickly as it was thought to then fly directly to Heaven, where it transformed into an angel that would hold a place in Heaven for the one who had spared its life. This would always have been the best course of action as it was said in the same region that those who killed or even trapped a ladybird were liable to die on the following day.

Soul Death Brittany Carved beam

In several Breton legends, the souls of the dead are trapped in other forms; one story tells of two old oak trees endlessly battling each other, said to have been the souls of a married couple who had continuously fought whilst alive and condemned to suffer this torment until a man had been crushed between them. Another tale tells of two boulders that constantly collide with such fierceness that sparks and stone splinters fly; the souls of two brothers who had relentlessly fought each other while they lived.

Sometimes, it was not just a person’s soul that was considered to live on, wandering in pain upon moor and heath; the corpse too retained a vitality in the grave. If one was foolhardy or stupid enough to enter an ossuary at night, it was not the souls of the dead who would strike you with a mortal blow but the bones themselves which launch at you and tear you apart. Thus not only was the separation between the living and the dead thin, so too was the dual existence enjoyed by the deceased after death.

According to Breton tradition, it was within everyone’s grasp to know whether a soul was damned or not. If the flowers placed on the bed where a dead person lies wither as soon as they are placed there, it is because the soul is damned; if they fade only after a few moments, it is because the soul is in purgatory. Alternatively, it was said to be enough to go, immediately after the burial, to a high place nearest the cemetery. From this vantage point, the name of the recently departed was shouted three times, in three different directions. If the echo prolonged the sound only once, it was because the soul of the deceased was not damned.

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