Looking for Love in Brittany

For centuries, marriage, whether motivated by romantic idealism or social necessity, was a key concern for rural societies across Europe. In Brittany, where traditionally an early wedding was expected and the unmarried viewed with suspicion, a number of unusual customs and superstitions once surrounded marriage and the quest for a worthy spouse.

Across Brittany, many sacred springs and fountains were widely believed to have possessed divinatory powers and it seems that pins were considered the most effective medium for consulting these oracles. Different pins were used at different fountains; mostly silver hairpins were used but sometimes the ritual required a wooden pin or one taken from the bodice of the dress. The most auspicious pin to use was widely held to be one of the pins used for a bridal crown or wedding dress and such pins were highly prized by those wishing to get married.

The omens drawn from the behaviour of the pins cast into the water also differed according to the site. Whether a pin simply floated or sank was often not enough to draw meaning; in some locations it was important that the pin sank without making a whirling motion or that it turned on itself before hitting the bottom of the fountain.

With many thousands of sacred springs scattered across the Breton countryside, deciding on which source to consult was no trivial matter; something as important as a happy marriage could not be left to mere chance. Unmarried women therefore routinely visited the local witch in hope of securing her recommendation as to the right fountain to be consulted. This was typically done by a ritual known as ‘the pull of the saints’; the bent branch of a hazel tree was burnt over a container of water while the names of propitious saints were recited. The name pronounced at the moment the first piece of charcoaled residue fell into the water, signalled the saint’s fountain to be visited.

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In Brittany, the 3rd century Christian martyr Laurent or Lawrence, who was said to have been roasted alive, was popularly invoked for burns, shingles and difficulties in walking. However, many fountains dedicated to him were also ascribed miraculous powers of prophecy. Near Pleyben, on the day of the Pardon of Saint Laurent (10 August), young women would visit the saint’s fountain in an attempt to float a pin on the water in hopes of being married within the year; a ritual that was also popularly observed there on May Day. Similar rituals were undertaken at the Saint Laurent chapel in Yffiniac and at the fountain of Saint Laurent, just north of Plémy.

The Saint Laurent fountain at Stivell features a spring encased by a circular stone basin, reminiscent of a well, from which the water is channelled through a culvert for about six metres before emerging at a spout carved into a granite wall from which it cascades two meters down into a stone basin. This basin fed a large stone pool that accommodated bathers while stones, sealed into the wall, allowed pilgrims to be seated while making their ablutions.

On the night before the saint’s Pardon, it was traditional for the devout to circle the 15th century chapel on their knees before enjoying the evening festivities; boisterous drinking, energetic dancing and bouts of bloody wrestling by the light of consecrated candles being the norm. After sunset, the men bathed naked in the pool; the waters were believed to strengthen the body. At sunrise, the women took their turn to bathe together. Those who did not want to appear naked in public would send a beggar to perform this ritual on their behalf. The practice was clearly an echo of some ancient belief but we can only speculate as to what that might have been. Perhaps the association of sacred water and fire was related to pagan notions of the sun regaining its vitality and strength in the underground waters before being reborn with the dawn. 

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The religious authorities finally managed to get such practices proscribed in 1855 when an official decree prohibited night fighting and excesses of all kinds; the temporary drinking tents set-up for the Pardon were henceforth forced to close at the same times as the licensed taverns in town and displays of nudity were branded offensive to public decency and expressly forbidden. However, old traditions die hard and the timeworn practices were still reported in 1864. Having failed to eradicate the belief, the Church focused on making the site irrelevant and abandoned the chapel in 1879.

Sainte Barbe’s fountain in Le Faouët was once a popular site for those in central Brittany to visit in order to find out if they were to be married in the year ahead. Here, it was traditional to throw a pin into the basin of the fountain while one’s back was turned. If the pin fell into the small vertical cavity at the base of the fountain, a suitable marriage within the year was assured. Young girls also visited another fountain dedicated to Sainte Barbe some 30km away in Pont-Augan near Quistinic but the ritual here appears to have involved simply making an invocation and throwing a pin into the water in hopes of being married within the year.

Sainte Barbe’s Fountain : Henri Baronin (1921)

Saint Lawrence was one of the most widely venerated Christian saints; the cult of Saint Barbara, another 3rd century martyr, was also fairly widespread, so, we should not be too surprised to see sacred springs devoted to them in Brittany. However, the majority of such ancient sites were successfully Christianised by being devoted to local saints not recognised by the Vatican.

The fountain attached to the 16th century church at Saint-Servais was consulted by young girls seeking to know when they would marry; if the pin floated it was taken as a fortuitous omen. However, at the fountain of Saint Alor, a little south of the city of Quimper, the pin had to sink directly down with its head pointed upwards. When the pin thrown into the fountain of Saint-Gobrien sank upside down through the water, the unmarried girl was said to find a husband before the end of the year.

Those seeking a marriage in the far west of Brittany would visit the fountain of Saint Ourzal’s chapel near Kervézennoc. Here, it was necessary to offer a pin to the water before invoking the saint with the words: “Mr Saint Ourzal, please, give each a wife, Mr Saint Ourzal, once again, give us each a husband.”

If the pin thrown by a girl into the waters of the fountain of Saint Vio at Ploneour-Lanwern did not quickly sink through the water, she was said to be guaranteed to marry within the year. While at the saint’s fountain in nearby Tréguennec, it was necessary for those seeking marriage to throw a coin into the circular depression found in the middle of the fountain’s outer basin.  Coins were also the medium used at the fountain of Saint-Gouesnou where they were thrown into the waters of the spring while asking for the saint’s favour in securing an early marriage. The grace of this saint was considered most auspicious given his reputation for forbidding women from entering his monastic territories in 7th century Brittany.

Saint Vio’s Fountain

In the forest of Brocéliande, the fountain of Barenton, long famous for its association with Merlin and Viviane, is one of the few sacred sources in Brittany not to have been successfully Christianised by the Church. Unmarried women visited the fountain to offer it a pin; if the waters of the spring bubbled, it was a sign that she would be married before Easter. If fate was favourable, those seeking marriage were said to see the image of their intended reflected in the waters if they visited the fountain alone, at midnight, on the night of a full moon.

It was not always pins that were cast into the waters. At the fountain of Saint Drien in Penmarc’h, girls traditionally threw pieces of broken pottery into the water; the number of air bubbles that rose to the surface foretold how many years separated her from marriage. Nor were pins used at the fountain of Saint Efflam in Plestin-les-Grèves; a source reputed to have been raised by the saint to quench the thirst of King Arthur, weary after having spent three days fighting a dragon in the vicinity. This fountain was once the scene for several special divination rituals; the young woman threw a piece of bread onto the water, if it floated, it was taken as a sign that she would be married within the year.

Another rite involved placing two small pieces of bread, representing the prospective bride and groom, on the water channel that flows from the fountain’s basin. This channel widens and a slight eddy is formed in the water; if, during this journey, the two pieces floated side by side, the marriage was assured within the year. However, if the pieces, caught in the eddy, separated, the wedding would not take place soon, possibly never.

Fountain of Saint Efflam

Probably the most impressive fountain related to those desiring a marriage is the fountain of Quinipily. This monumental fountain is topped by a nine foot high pedestal on which stands a seven foot tall statue of Venus thought to be a relic of the Roman occupation and to date from 50BC. The fountain possessed a massive water basin where women bathed naked in the hope of securing a marriage, much to the consternation of the local clergy.

In Ploumanac’h, on Brittany’s Pink Granite Coast, the 12th century Oratory of Saint Guirec is only accessible at low tide but if an intrepid and unmarried girl managed to put a pin into the statue’s nose without it falling out, she was thought to be married within the year.

It was not only the sacred sources that were visited in hopes of influencing the future; certain monoliths and megaliths were also the scene for a variety of rituals designed to effect a marriage. In the eastern Breton village of Maen Roch, the large quartz-rich boulder known as Le Rocher Cutesson was climbed on the morning of May Day by unmarried people, of both sexes, each carrying a bowl full of water. Holding their bowl, the young folk allowed themselves to slide down the rock face; those who managed to reach the ground with their bowl intact were said to be married within a year. A little over 3km away in Saint-Étienne-en-Coglès, a similar result was said to be achieved if a young woman climbed the large boulder in the churchyard of Saint Eustache’s chapel on Good Friday and stood on its summit in front of the congregation without blushing.

Menhir de la Thiemblaye

Just 20km away at Monthault, unmarried women would slide down an enormous inclined ashlar, leaving behind a piece of cloth or ribbon, in the expectation that they would be married within the year. However, it was important that no one witnessed this rite as it was thought that only the stone could keep the secret of the maiden’s heart. Similar practices were known to have taken place on other stones, such as the inclined Menhir de la Thiemblaye near Saint-Samson-sur-Rance.

Near the north east coast, in Plouër-sur-Rance, young women would climb to the top of the rocky outcrop known as La Roche de Lesmont to take position on the highest block of quartz. This abuts a large pyramid shaped boulder which, over the years, has been rubbed quite smooth by the elements and human action. It was on this angled face of rock that girls would slide down in the expectation of gaining a marriage within the year. For the ritual to be effective, it was necessary that, before commencing her slide, the young lady rolled up her skirt so that her bare flesh was in constant contact with the stone (underwear not being commonly worn until the turn of the 20th century). If the girl reached the bottom without scratching herself, she was said to be sure of securing a husband within the year. Some reports claimed that the slider also needed to urinate in a cavity in the stone.

The symbolic importance of flesh against stone is quite ancient and was often noted in archaic societies who practiced an element of stone worship; bodily contact with that to which they attributed power was crucial. A bared bottom was also a requirement for sliding down the broken blocks of the Great Menhir at Locmariaquer on Brittany’s southern coast but to succeed, the ritual had to be completed on the night of May Day. A scratch deep enough to bleed augured a future marriage. The menhir was recorded as still standing at the beginning of the 18th century thus this custom, which could not have been observed when the stone stood vertical, twelve meters in height, must have been relatively modern. Most likely, the unmarried women of the area followed, on the broken pieces, an ancient custom which was formerly held on another stone in the neighbourhood.

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The Neolithic dolmen of Cruz-Menquen in nearby Carnac was popularly known as Pierre Chaude (the hot stone). During the nights of a full moon, young women seeking marriage would sit atop the capstone with their skirt lifted above their waist. It was, no doubt, to counter such pagan practices that the local clergy decided to Christianize the megalith in the early 19th century. Accounts from the same time relate how young women seeking husbands, undressed completely and rubbed their ‘navels’ against another menhir near Carnac that was especially devoted to this usage. Similar practices were also recorded at the megalith known as La Roche-Marie near Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier.

Further along the coast, near Guérande, the French diplomat Charles Coquebert de Montbret noted the presence of many pieces of red cloth pushed into the clefts and cracks of the dolmens of Kerbourg during a visit in the early 19th century. He was assured that these were favours entrusted to the stone by young girls in the hope of being married within the year, such secret deposits being made far from the watchful gaze of the local clergy.

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The interpretation of omens and the practice of specific rites to ward off misfortune or to encourage good fortune was an important part of everyday life in the rural Brittany of yesteryear. It was said that if a young girl danced around nine Midsummer bonfires, she would marry before the next Midsummer Day; a similar outcome was assured if she found, on Midsummer’s Eve, a vantage point that allowed her to see nine fires burning at once.

A marriage, within a year, was also thought assured if one found, first thing in the morning, a flowered thistle. Similarly, anyone who saw a star between nine and ten o’clock in the morning was believed to marry within the year. However, if an unmarried woman wore her petticoat in such a manner that it exceeded her outer skirt, it was a sign that she would not marry for a long time.

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A thistle was also used by young women to identify the suitor that loved her the most sincerely. Taking as many heads of thistle as she had suitors, she would remove the tips and assign each thistle a boy’s name before placing them under her bed. The plant that decayed the least told her whose sincerity was the strongest. In some parts of Brittany, aspiring suitors placed a hawthorn leaf on the door of the object of their affections; if their attention was unwelcome, the young lady replaced the leaf with that of a cauliflower.

Finding a four leafed clover, when one had not been looking for it, was a widespread omen of good fortune here but it was said that if it was discovered by an unmarried girl she would soon be married. When a bramble clung to a woman’s dress, it was another sign that love was near and that she would marry within the year. In the east of the region, if a young girl wanted to see who she was destined to marry, it was necessary for her to place three bay leaves under her eyes before going to sleep on Christmas Eve while reciting: “Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior, tell me while I sleep, who will be mine for life.”

If a woman wanted her partner to love her dearly, it was recommended that she put a walnut leaf, picked on Midsummer’s Eve, in her left shoe while the Nones bell was ringing. An equally bizarre ritual was advised for the girl whose love for a boy was unrequited; it was said that she had only to make him eat some bread that she had baked with a little of her menstrual blood. Alternatively, the lovelorn lady could take a lock of the boy’s hair and offer it three times to the altar of the local church with a lighted candle and then plait it with a lock of her own hair. Another procedure said to have been effective was a love potion composed of water or cider infused with the powder of a bone taken from a fresh grave or ground cantharides.

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The broader animal kingdom was also called upon to throw light on matters of the heart; young girls consulted the ladybird to draw some omen from its flight. In eastern Brittany, young women would take a harvestman or daddy long-legs and pull off its legs; if the dismembered limbs twitched when placed in the palm of the hand, a marriage was near.

In yesterday’s Brittany, a woman seeking a husband needed to avoid treading on the tail of a cat; in the west of the region, it was said no marriage would follow for seven years but in eastern Brittany it was held that she would remain unmarried for as many years as the cat had shrieked. Likewise, the call of the cuckoo was said to indicate how many years a young woman would have to wait until marriage. The bark of a dog could also be auspicious as young shepherds, whose dogs barked while seemingly asleep, once believed that their future husband would be sighted on the following Sunday; approaching from the direction indicated by the dog’s head.

A white doe that was said to wander the moors of Kerprigent near Saint-Jean-du-Doigt served as another animal progosticator. The beast was described as docile but agitated, seemingly searching for something and was quick to follow those who chanced across its path. If she met a young girl and blocked her path, the girl was sure to marry within months but was destined to die within the year. If she followed or walked alongside an unmarried girl, it was a sign that she would never marry. If she showed herself to a married woman, it was to announce the imminent death of her husband. If the doe met a young man, he would marry within the year but if he was under twenty years of age her appearance foretold the death of a close relative.

The course of true love never does run smooth and such are the vagaries of love that sometimes folk felt it necessary to seek affirmation of their partner’s devotion and fidelity. Many superstitious practices were once widely thought to pronounce on the sincerity of a lover. For instance, a piece of magnetite or magnet stone placed under the bed was thought to have the power to repel unfaithful lovers from the marital bed.

One way to attest to the virtue of one’s future bride was to present the young lady with a lighted tallow candle; if she managed to extinguish the flame by blowing on it once and succeeded in relighting it in the same fashion, blowing on it only once, the result was decisive; the lady’s virtue was intact. Sometimes portents were taken from the most everyday occurrences; a woman whose hair remained askew after she had prepared her headdress was said to be subject to the temptation of adultery, while the appearance of rain on laundry day indicated that the man of the house was not a faithful partner.

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Near the south coast town of Concarneau, the massive boulder at Trégunc known as Men Dogan (the stone of the cuckolds) was visited by men to verify the fidelity of their partners; tradition held that a deceived partner could not make the 50 tonne stone move but those whose partners were true could move it with just one finger. The behaviour of another balancing rock nearby was said able to answer any question put to it; the rock could only be moved if the answer was in the affirmative. Those men who feared betrayal by their wives visited the rock at Combourtillé, hopping around it under the light of the moon in an attempt to retain marital faithfulness.

Many young people traditionally came to consult the fountain of Saint Thivisiau at Landivisiau before their wedding: a pin from the girl’s bodice cast into the waters of the fountain indicated whether the prospective bride had retained her innocence. The pin was laid on the water with the greatest care; if it floated for a moment, the young girl’s virtue was confirmed. Only recognised in this location, nothing is known of the life of the, possibly mythical, Saint Thivisiau whose name is attached to this fountain. However, the site’s importance stretches back millennia, as attested by the Iron Age steles uncovered here during excavation work in the 1980s.

Some 40km to the east, the fountain of Saint Efflam in Plestin-les-Grèves was the site of three distinct rituals. Consulted by men eager to secure affirmation of their partner’s faithfulness, it was necessary to visit the fountain without being seen, on an empty stomach, on the first Monday in May. Three small pieces of bread, representing the couple and the interloper, were thrown on the water, if the latter piece moved away from the other two, it was because any suspicions were well-founded.

In another rite, a woman threw a piece of bread onto the water; if it floated, it was a sign that her fiancé was faithful to her. The fountain was the site of one more practice, observed by those men anxious to know whether their wife was faithful to them. For this to be effective, it was necessary for the man to steal the pin worn closest to his wife’s heart and place it on the water; if the pin floated, his wife’s virtue remained intact.

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The Breton writer Yann Brekilien once uncovered a most unfortunate episode in this fountain’s history: A young couple visited the fountain to offer to the waters a beautiful silver-headed pin that the boy had bought for the girl as a gift to mark their engagement. Neither were worried; both confident of their devotion to each other. Alas, the pin swiftly sank to the bottom of the basin. We can only imagine their devastated dreams as, heads bowed in silence, they turned away from the fountain. The following morning, the young girl’s lifeless body was found on the beach.

It is commonplace in our modern world to laugh at the superstitions of old but it is important to remember that, whether right or wrong, people once had faith in their power and effectiveness.

Brittany’s Milk Snatching Sorcerers

As with most other rural communities, considerable importance was once attached to milk in Brittany; it played a vital role in the people’s diet and livelihood. It is therefore not surprising to find a number of once popular superstitions and beliefs surrounding it; including special practices to preserve one’s cows from the evil spells thrown at them by jealous neighbours.

For centuries, it was commonly believed that milk production could be influenced, for good and especially for ill, by acts performed outside the cowshed. In Brittany, a silver coin held in the hand or hidden in the stable insured good luck for the dairy. Similarly, certain plants and herbs were thought to have an influence on the production of milk: to ensure one’s cow gave as much milk as those of your neighbours, it was thought beneficial to place in the byre, every day, an amulet of ground herbs picked on the night of Midsummer, reciting a short prayer while the Nones bell was ringing.

To preserve the health of milk cows, their hooves were rubbed with a paste of ground herbs gathered before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day and in the southern Breton Marches, cows’ udders were rubbed with the early morning dew on May Day in hopes of the same result. In order for the cow to deliver ample milk without difficulty, it was often made to drink the first milk or colostrum after it had calved. Many farmers also put their faith in religion and regularly made offerings of butter at one of the many churches dedicated to the protector of cows, Saint Herbot, invoking the saint’s favour for full churns. Likewise, butter was offered to Saint Hervé to keep cattle safe from wolves; the saint, stricken with blindness, was once led about by a wolf.

If a cow’s milk dried-up unexpectedly or for no apparent reason, it was not long before the farmer suspected the influence of witchcraft; causing the udders of asses and cows to dry-up was one of the misdeeds often attributed to witches from at least the 17th century onwards. An amulet containing certain dried herbs, placed inside the chimney-breast of the barn was thought to bring-on the drying of cows’ udders. However, it was also believed that the same circumstances could also be produced if the cows chanced to be milked over their litter or if they were put in a blessed house.

Milkmaids
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A sympathetic bond between the cow and its milk was thought to exist even after the milk had left its body. It was believed that certain people possessed the ability to cast the evil eye, causing cows to lose milk simply by looking at them in a certain way; enchantments that could only be lifted by the intervention of a witch or sorcerer.

It was thought that the best milk was vulnerable to thieves able to draw the cream of others to their barn; before sunrise on May Day it was said that one’s enemy needed to attach a string to the filter of their milk churn and drag it in the direction from which they wanted the cream to come while reciting the charm: “Milk and butter, come all to me and nothing to my neighbours.”

To dispel this enchantment and chastise the one who cast it, the owner of the bewitched cow was required to boil a few pins in the animal’s milk; these were then thought to wound the one who cast the spell who, to alleviate the pain, hastened to lift the curse. In the north west of the region, another way to lift such a curse was to stick several pins into the heart of an ox which was then put into an iron pot hung over the flames of the farmhouse fire; the spell caster was now believed to feel compelled to present themselves to the accursed party.

 Breton farmhouse
A typical Breton farmhouse

Around Quintin in central Brittany, it was said that milkmaids ran naked at night, filling their churns with dew collected in their neighbour’s fields in order to steal the cream. Similar nocturnal naked expeditions were also reputed to have been undertaken by milkmaids in eastern Brittany. It was said that they stole milk by walking naked around the stables of the neighbouring farms, dragging behind them the rags used to clean the oven. This was thought to draw the cream from the milk of all the cows included within this circuit and pass it instead into their stable, so that even with just one cow, they would produce butter in abundance. This good fortune was held to last until another person, more powerful in the dark arts, again diverted the cream.

In western Brittany, it was thought that such an enchantment could be broken if the affected cow was walked around a three sided field. Indeed, one was believed to be able to turn the tables on the spell caster if, while walking the cow, one threw salt over their shoulder, chanting: “Cream for me and milk for my neighbour.” Salt as a preservative against drying-up also featured in the traditional beliefs of neighbouring Normandy, where, to counteract any possible bewitchment that had been cast on a new cow, molten salt was rubbed on the udder and around the base of its tail.

A more elaborate ritual for lifting this type of curse involved cutting some hairs from the cow’s head, the withers and its tail, soaking them in the animal’s water trough before sunrise on each day of Holy Week before wearing them to mass on Easter Day.

Witches and cows
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In southern Brittany, May Day was believed to be the day when cows were particularly susceptible to the power of sorcerers and their evil spells. In order to protect them against such misfortune, an elaborate ritual was performed; the cattle were taken from the byre which was then cleaned thoroughly. The leaves of a number of plants, namely bay, bramble, elderberry and laurel, collected that morning, were then burned with scraps of old leather in all the corners of the building.  Branches of elderberry were hung from the walls inside the barn and a bramble, with a root at each of its ends, fastened in the form of an arc above the barn door. This ritual complete, the cows were then returned to the barn, being led backwards through the doorway by the farmer.

The belief that sorcerers could steal milk by diverting its output is quite ancient and was specifically condemned by the Council of Paris in 829: “Among the very pernicious evils of pagan origin and which divine law orders to fight, it is necessary to announce the action of magicians, diviners, enchanters and interpreters of dreams. It is reported that, by their evil spells, they can disturb the air and send hail, predict the future, take away from some the fruit and milk and give it to others.”

In addition to its beneficial qualities, milk was said to possess other virtues in yesterday’s Brittany as it was thought effective against all deadly fires. It was also said to influence the physical abilities of infants and even adults. It was claimed in eastern parts of the region that children raised on goat’s milk were particularly nimble and jumped in the manner of the beast that fed them. In times past, this belief was quite common; the 16th century French physician Laurent Joubert wrote of a girl who, for this reason, always wanted to climb and jump and that those adults, who drank too much goat’s milk, became so restless that they only danced, jumped and ran.

Breton milkmaid
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A number of ill omens were once connected with milk here; it was considered that misfortune would befall the person who happened to drop a pail of milk. Another sign of impending bad luck was received when milk that had been put on the fire did not come to the boil quickly and it was also a bad omen if the milk boiled over. It was also said that giving away milk on May Day was to invite misfortune upon the household. However, milk was reputed to be the only thing that could break the terrible power of La Main de la Gloire or the Hand of Glory.

Some animals were thought to cast a sinister shadow over the health of cows and their milk. It was once believed that a cow bitten by a snake would give bloody milk; a notion that was refined in the south of the region where it was said that milk that was tinged red indicated that the cow had been suckled by a snake. Pouring the cow’s milk into an anthill was thought the only way to effectively destroy the offending ophidian.

Hedgehogs were also claimed to suckle the milk of cows and thus steal their milk and, in doing so, they caused the fatal cattle disease known as blackleg. It was also thought that those cows who ate the grass upon which a female hedgehog on-heat had previously walked fell ill. In eastern Brittany, a pregnant cow that ate the grass on which a hedgehog had walked was said to be cursed to calve painfully.

Cow and milkmaid
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If a farmer with only one cow often succeeded in getting her to give him more butter than some neighbours could get from two or three cows, neighbourhood gossips lost little time in attributing such results to a pact with the Devil. However, in some instances, it might have been more proper to assign the honour to Saint Herbot, a semi-legendary 6th century Breton saint who was popularly invoked in order for cows to produce milk and for butter to take. Protector of horses and horned animals, cows’ tails were regularly hung by the altars of churches dedicated to him into the 20th century. The Saint was usually invoked in the following terms: “Blessed Saint Herbot, from the depth of my heart I beg you to pour out your blessing on the milk that I take, so that the cream rises abundantly to satisfy my masters and next year, if I live, I promise you a calf.”

Wearing a silver ring while churning was reputed to cause the butter to take quickly and to successfully churn when it was cold, it was once recommended to place a silver coin at the bottom of the churn. In some parts of Brittany, it was traditional to turn the crank of a butter churn in only one direction, that of the sun. A more widespread belief held that it brought bad luck to lend a churn to a neighbour as it was thought to reduce your fortune in making butter thereafter.

Like milk, butter was also the target of sorcerers and evil spells; it was believed that people could prevent it from taking by striking the churn three times with a stick and reciting, backwards, a verse from Psalm 31: “My times are in thy hand: deliver me from the hand of mine enemies and from them that persecute me”, or by reciting a verse from the Gospel of Matthew known as nolite fieri: “And when you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say, they have received their reward.”

Churning butter
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Mendicants and tinkers who chanced to call at the farm when the butter was being churned were almost always guaranteed to receive some consideration from the household, if only out of fear that, if rejected, they would cast the evil eye over the butter. The sighting of a hare while churning was a cause for alarm as it was believed that butter stealing sorcerers had the ability to turn into hares to escape their potential pursuers. In western Brittany, the milkmaid whose butter was slow to take, averted the possible machinations of the sorcerer by changing her churn immediately.

Several unusual superstitions were once closely attached to dairy products here; for instance, it was considered especially bad luck to bring foxgloves into a room where yogurt was being made. In parts of eastern Brittany it was thought a menstruating woman could not make butter and it was more widely claimed that those with red hair made bad butter. Similarly, it was once believed that the cheese made by an adulterer did not keep and was quickly invaded by worms.

Many once claimed that the best butter was formed if it was churned during the time of the turning of the tides. According to the time when it was made, butter enjoyed several special attributes; in the west of the region, it was believed that the butter made during Rogations (the three days of prayer preceding the Feast of the Ascension) never corrupted and constituted a most effective balm for healing wounds. Similar attributes were applied to butter made in May which was also used to treat the injured hooves of cows and goats.

Girl with eggs
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A number of superstitious beliefs also surrounded eggs here in Brittany where it was once common for those who kept chickens to place a piece of iron, such as a horseshoe, inside the henhouse in order to protect the brood from the disastrous effects of storms and lightning.  It was also believed that foxes would never enter a henhouse that had been sprinkled with the water in which chitterlings (pig intestines) had been boiled. However, the ermine was thought so bold that it was said to enter the coop while the hen was laying and slip under her, ready to swallow her eggs. Another enemy of the chicken was the toad whose presence in the henhouse signalled that no hens would lay there anymore.

One of the biggest concerns of the Breton farmer revolved around choosing the most favourable moment for setting the hen on the eggs. This was thought important to ensure maximum success; factors such as the day of the week were said to influence the number of chicks born or cause the hatching of more males than females. It was said that a hen must never be put to set during a waning moon or when the wind was in the east. Fridays were to be avoided as the day would deliver mostly male chicks and misfortune was said to follow if a hen was set on a Sunday. Nor was a hen put to set on an even number of eggs, it was usually an odd number and most commonly a multiple of three.

It was popularly held here that eggs ought only be gathered in the morning and it was considered unlucky to gather eggs after sunset and at any time on a Sunday. Duck eggs brought into the house after dark were said never to hatch. Similarly, eggs brought into the house having been carried over running water were said not to hatch. In some parts of Brittany, even crossing a dry water course was held to bring on similar bad luck. To protect against such misfortune, it was necessary for the person who owned the eggs to crumble some morsels of bread over the eggs and the basket being used to transport them. Additionally, the basket containing the eggs which had passed over water was not to be placed on a table, chair or any other item of furniture; it could only be placed directly on the floor. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind these last two practices has long been lost to the mists of time.

Rooster and Hens
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Breaking a newly laid egg whilst collecting it from the roost was regarded as an omen of some misfortune ahead but breaking egg shells over a child was thought to bring on good luck and to protect them against witchcraft. The eggs laid on Good Friday were said to bring good luck to the household and were carefully kept as talismans to guard the house against fire. Easter was also a period when many people traditionally abstained from eating eggs throughout Holy Week only to eat a dozen on Easter Day; an observance that was held to be most effective in ensuring the fertility of one’s animals.

The small eggs that were sometimes found in chicken roosts were once attributed a most sinister reputation; a widely held belief said that these were eggs that had been laid by roosters. It was said that when a rooster reached seven years of age, it laid an egg during the hottest day of the year formed from the rotten excrement of its seed. If hatched, this cursed egg would deliver a small serpent that grew into a basilisk; the product of the coupling of a rooster and a toad, brooded by a snake. To avoid unleashing a basilisk on the land, the rooster was therefore routinely killed before it had reached the age of seven.

Basilisk
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Haunted Brittany

Said to be one of the most haunted regions of France; the windswept coastlines, bleak moors and uncultivated lands of Brittany have long been closely associated with the ghostly goings-on of the dead. Let us explore some of these haunted sites, beginning our journey in the far west of the region and traversing the land in a great clockwise arc.

Located on a lump of bare rock between the Île de Sein and the Pointe du Van on Brittany’s Atlantic coast, sits the lighthouse of Tévennec. Long reputed to have been haunted by the ghosts of drowned mariners, this lonely rock’s lighthouse has an accursed history that lends itself well to any list of haunted sites. Commissioned in 1875, the light was automated just 35 years later; it having proved impossible to recruit anyone willing to live there. Due to an administrative aberration or optimistic fancifulness, the lighthouse was initially placed in the same category as similar lighthouses situated on land, meaning a single keeper was assigned to it.

Working on an isolated rock without relief and relying on a monthly supply boat that depended on the infrequent appearance of a calm sea was not for the fainthearted. The first keeper, an experienced lighthouse-man, descended into madness within a few years, claiming that voices in the wind harassed him with the constant cry of: ‘Go away, go away, this is my place’. Local superstition attributed this to the soul of an unfortunate castaway who died of hunger on the rock having been unsuccessful in attracting the attention of the boats that regularly passed nearby. The replacement keeper remained in post for six years but he too fell into insanity; a development that saw the local priest called upon to bless the rock and exorcise its restless souls.

Tevennec Lighthouse
Tévennec Lighthouse © B. Stichelbaut

In an attempt to alleviate the hardship of working on Tévennec, the authorities made it an accompanied posting and one benefiting from a fortnightly supply boat – weather permitting.  However, with the notable exception of a couple who stayed for five years and had three children on the rock, the lighthouse cast an unhappy shadow over its occupants; seeing twenty keepers in twenty years and, alarmingly, some ten deaths before its early automation in 1910.

Off the Quiberon peninsula on Brittany’s southern coast, lying between the mainland and the islands of Groix and Belle-Ile is the rocky plateau of Birvideaux; at times covered by less than three metres of water. The lighthouse here is well known as having been the most expensive to construct in France; a process that lasted almost 55 years. A local legend tells that this mile-long plateau is the sunken island of Aïse; a land that was said to have been attached to the mainland as recently as the 13th century when a causeway allowed the inhabitants to attend Sunday mass at the chapel of Saint Clément in Quiberon.

As the sea gradually claimed the land to the west, the people of Aïse adjusted to island living and, for as time, thrived as successful fishermen. However, the rising waters steadily encroached upon the mass of the island but these were a proud people who stubbornly refused to surrender their homes to the relentless sea. One night, a terrific storm saw the total submersion of the island and ever since, the people of Birvideaux have haunted the seabed, feeding on mussels and limpets.

It is said that, to avenge their fate, the ghosts stir the sea to unleash angry waves upon the descendants of those who abandoned them. Sometimes, on a clear night, if you walk along the wild west coast of the Quiberon peninsula, it is said that you can still hear their dreadful lamentations.

Ship wrecked by storm
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In the 14th century, a monk from the Priory of Saint Sauveur in eastern Brittany fell in love with a pretty, young peasant girl. To avert a damaging scandal, the Prior arranged for the monk to be transferred to another monastery and persuaded the young girl to move away to the city. However, this version of events was said to conceal a ghastly truth: the Prior, jealous of his monk, lured the girl to a nearby convent where she languished and died alone. She is reputed to lie buried under the steeple of the church of Béré and, to ward off any prying eyes, the legendary Beast of Béré has been charged to watch over her bones until the Day of Judgement. At midnight, the candles in the church are said to light themselves and a priest from the Otherworld appears to celebrate a funeral mass alone.

The Beast of Béré is a monster of some repute that once terrorised the Breton borderlands; sometimes reported to take the form of a dog, boar, horse or even a sheep. Of immense size and strength, the beast was said to be immortal although no sightings have been reported for some time. A melancholic variant of the legend tells that the beast is, in fact, the spirit of the unfortunate girl who died in captivity.

Beast of Béré
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Just 12km north, the forest of Teillay is haunted by a spectre held to be the Lord of Coetenfao; a Huguenot nobleman once renowned for his cruel nature and dissolute lifestyle. Said to have terrorised the peasants of Brittany during his life, his damned soul continues to spread fear in death with the wild hunts he has been condemned to lead as punishment for the cruelties he once exercised on his vassals. The phantom lord has been reported on foot, on horseback and even riding a carriage driving on his baying hounds and even passing them like lightning. Sometimes, only the cry of his voice or the sounds of his horse’s bridle are heard.

The forest is also home to a small grave known as ‘La Tombe à la Fille’ (the Girl’s Grave). One local legend says that during the Revolution, the National Guard of the area massacred a troop of anti-revolutionary forces who had been hiding in the woods; their presence having been betrayed to the authorities by a young woman named Marie Martin. In retaliation, she was seized by the rebels who tied her, by the hair, to the tail of a horse and dragged her into the forest where she suffered various outrages before being hung from the branch of an oak. Having been buried under this tree, the site became a place of pilgrimage; the humble Marie becoming popularly known as Saint Pataude (a French word that can be roughly translated as awkward or clumsy and a sobriquet once applied towards the Republicans). Her grave was often visited by those seeking deliverance from fever, sterility and paralysis of the limbs, particularly children having difficulty walking. Such invocations are still made there today.

Tomb of the Girl, Teillay
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In an earlier post, I related the tale of a haunted oak in the forest of Loudéac in central Brittany and it is worth recounting another haunting reported in that same forest. An entry in the parish register from 1710 records how a twenty-one year old blacksmith named Yann was convicted and subsequently hanged for the murder of his friend, Pierre. It was said that the two men were rivals for the love of a local girl and that Yann lured his friend into the forest and there, in a fit of jealous rage, stabbed him to death. Pierre’s body was discovered at the foot of an oak tree deep within the forest and local tradition asserts that five small basins found in the forest floor thereabouts were created by Pierre’s lifeless body; the depressions tracing where his head, hands and knees lay, waiting to be discovered. Some say that Pierre’s ghost still haunts the forest today. Local legend warns us that the five small hollows should never be covered; any stones put in them disappear the following night and whoever places any stones in the cavities will die within the year.

A more recent urban legend says that some years ago, two young men ended their day-long drinking spree in the forest. One of these, in a moment of boldness – or madness – scorned the old legend by filling the depressions with small stones. His friends and family blamed Pierre’s curse when he was unexpectedly found dead shortly afterwards.

Forest of Loudeac
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There is barely a stretch of road in Brittany that is not watched over by a carved stone cross but one in the centre of the region has gained a most supernatural reputation. Outside the village of Gomené are the Tertre-Feuillet; three isolated small stone roadside crosses. It is said that the oldest cross was erected in the Middle Ages to ward off evil, the others being added later to compound the power of the trinity. It is said that every full moon night, since the end of 1870’s Franco-Prussian war, the site is visited by a ghostly figure wearing a long coat and the wide-brimmed hat then popularly worn by Breton peasants.

This debased phantom of the night is said to be the malevolent spirit of a soldier, returned from battle to haunt the crosses. Legend tells that a local poacher once decided to confront this ghost with fatal consequences. Now, the spirits of both men haunt the crosses; the full moon illuminates the unlucky poacher, trapped in the moment of his departure, doomed to linger for eternity alongside the dark entity who stole his life.

Tertre Feuillet
Le Tertre Feuillet, Gomené

Just outside the north coast town of Morlaix, a 17th century manor house has long been haunted by the ghost of a nun. It is said that, in life, this woman was overly proud of her well-turned ankles and would reveal them to men by raising her habit coquettishly as she walked. Punished by God for her vanity, the nun is condemned to wander the halls until the Day of Judgement; displaying not shapely calves but one that is gnarled and emaciated and another covered in suppurating ulcers. Legend tells us that one day, exasperated by the ghastly appearances of the nun, an old woman, armed with holy water, confronted the phantom and commanded her to remain in her grave. She heard but a solitary sob and since then, the nun only appears once a year; on the night of New Year’s Eve.

Phantom Nun
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A little further along Brittany’s northern coast, a local legend relates that between the ruins of Beauport Abbey and the Poulafret mill on the coast at Paimpol, there sat a three-cornered field that was said to contain a great hidden treasure. Over the years, many people had tried to locate this prize but none met with any success. However, a young miller who had grown-up on tales of the treasure committed himself to finding it but months of diligent searching were to no avail.

Returning home late from work one evening, the miller was surprised by a heavy downpour and took shelter under a large oak. In the half-light, his eyes slowly discerned, in the neighbouring field, a pale glow around which several small children were gathered in a circle. Despite his uneasiness, the young man crept closer to this mysterious assembly but his courage almost deserted him when he realised that he was spying on a meeting of korrigans. Transfixed, he watched as one of their number moved out of the circle to stand next to the radiant light but was unable to clearly hear the few words uttered by the korrigan, who suddenly stabbed the ground with a pitchfork and pressed his gnarled finger to his lips.  

This gesture was taken-up by all the other korrigans who immediately launched into an energetic ronde or circular dance. Their dance ended as abruptly as it had begun and seemed to coincide with the exact moment the light went out; within the blinking of an eye, the korrigans had all disappeared. Seizing his opportunity to investigate, the miller ran to where the pitchfork staked the ground and stood aghast as the object disintegrated at his touch.

Beauport Abbey
Beauport Abbey with the Poulafret Mill to the left rear of photo

Placing a large rock to remember the spot, the excited miller returned the following day in order to better mark the precise location. He took only his closest friend into his confidence and the two agreed to return to the field on Christmas Eve. Under cover of darkness, they silently dug the hard ground for a long time before striking the famed treasure trove. Faced with such fabulous riches, the miller’s friend was trembling with emotion and could not help shouting out: “The fortune is ours!”

No sooner had these few words been uttered than the gold coins turned into brittle dead leaves. The stunned miller then remembered the korrigan’s gesture: the silence had been broken. The night also broke, forever, the friendship of the two men. Since then, it has been reported that around midnight on Christmas Eve, the ghost of the miller has been seen wandering between the ruins of the abbey of Beauport and the Poulafet mill.

Battle of Auray 1364
Battle of Auray, 1364

Other fields in Brittany have long been said to be haunted by the restless dead; souls of those who died without receiving absolution for their sins.  Near the south coast town of Auray, at the end of September 1364, a vicious pitched battle took place between the Anglo-Breton forces of Jean de Montfort and the Franco-Breton troops of Charles de Blois. Unusually for the time, this battle was fought on a Sunday and no quarter was given by either side. This bloody encounter was the decisive battle of the Breton War of Succession and helped guarantee Brittany’s continued independence for almost the next two centuries.

The battle of Auray left behind several thousand fatalities; a contemporary chronicler described the scene: “… strewn with the homeless dead, blood flowed in a great stream, banners shot down, brains outstretched, daggers, swords, axes and people stretched out like cows.” The battlefield and surrounding marsh are reputed to be haunted by the spectres of combatants who died in a state of mortal sin; they wander the ground at night and strike down anyone foolish enough to stand in their path.

Sadly, the ground around Auray was again soaked with more blood some four hundred years later. The failure of the royalist landings at nearby Quiberon in support of the Chouan counter-revolution in the summer of 1795 saw over 6000 rebels captured by Republican forces. Regrettably, promises surrounding the treatment of captives as prisoners of war were not honoured and while most of the women and children were released, over 950 anti-Republican prisoners were systematically slaughtered in cold blood.  It was said that the bodies were barely buried, so that the rotting bones quickly rose to the surface.  

Battle of Auray 1795
Chouan irregulars

Twenty years later and just three days after the battle of Waterloo the area was the site of another battle between Republican and anti-Republican forces which saw several hundred dead bodies again litter the fields of Auray. The tragic and bloody history of the area perhaps allows us to better understand the myriad ghost stories that circulate locally. The restless spirits of the dead combatants are sometimes said to be condemned to relive their last moments every night, although some tales tell that these same souls are constantly seeking new victims to satiate their bloodlust.

Brittany’s Most Haunted Castles

Brittany has long been a land of lore and legends, seeped in the supernatural. The region is said to be one of the most haunted parts of France and any journey around the castles of Brittany weaves a dark path between legend and rumour; fear and fright. Unsettling tales of lost innocence and tormented souls condemned to forever haunt the old stones lest they be forgotten.

One of the most haunted sites in Brittany is surely the medieval Château de Trecesson whose grounds are reputedly haunted by the ghost of a white lady sporting a muddy wedding dress. Legend tells us that this is the spirit of a woman who was buried alive on her wedding day; murdered in 1750 by her brothers for having agreed to a matrimonial match they felt dishonoured the family. The ghost of an unknown monk – sometimes described as headless – is said to wander nearby; along the meadow that borders one of the lanes leading to the castle and the roadside calvary there.

Trecesson cstle
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A room on the first floor of the castle has long had a reputation for being haunted. The local legend says that some hundreds of years ago, a guest at the castle asked to spend the night in this room to prove that there was nothing to fear but the superstitions of chambermaids. Having gone to bed, our guest found sleep difficult, having been kept awake by a tremendous storm outside and the noise of the wind whistling down the chimney. Sometime before one o’clock, he was startled to see candlelight illuminating an open doorway to the left of the fireplace; as his eyes adjusted to the light, he could make out a flight of stone steps leading upwards. Thinking this a servants’ staircase that he had somehow overlooked earlier, he called out but received no response. Two liveried servants crossed to the centre of the room carrying not water and a clean chamber pot but two chairs and a gaming table. No sooner had they set down the furniture, than two well-dressed gentlemen appeared, seated themselves and began a game of cards.

Some versions of the tale say that the house guest immediately reached for his pistol and fired-off a shot before falling into unconsciousness. Others say that he sat watching the stakes quickly rise to giddying heights before firing his shot and being overcome with sleep. When he awoke, there was no evidence of his nocturnal visitors, save for the table and a significant stack of gold coins. After rousing the owner of the castle and relating his tale of the ghostly gamblers, our guest thought himself entitled to the abandoned stakes. Alas, his host considered them rightfully his and an ugly dispute ensued that was carried all the way to the Parliament of Brittany.

The castle is also said to be haunted by the ghost of a young knight who had been forced by his father to represent the family honour on the crusade of 1249. He was killed in battle the following year and his young widow died of grief a few wretched months after receiving news of his death. Since then, the spirits of the ill-starred lovers have often been sighted replaying the scene of their final farewell near the castle’s gateway.

Combourg castle
Château de Combourg

The magnificent 14th century Château de Combourg was the childhood home of François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) one of Brittany’s most acclaimed writers. In his memoirs, he evokes his lonely childhood and nights spent tormented by nightmares of an ancestor with a wooden leg who haunted the staircase of his turret chamber. Sometimes, he dreamt that the wooden leg alone wandered the flagstones accompanied by a sinister black cat. In a curious twist of coincidence, some thirty years after Chateaubriand’s death, renovation work to the tower’s walls uncovered the skeleton of a cat that was sealed into the fabric of the building during its initial construction.

Noted as the building that effectively sounded the death knell for the independence of Brittany, the Château de Châteaubriant was once home to Jean de Laval, sometime Governor of Brittany. His wife, Françoise de Foix, was a noted beauty and, for a decade, a mistress of the King of France. Having lost the King’s favour, she returned to Brittany and died, aged 41, just nine years later in 1537. A number of legends attribute her death to the resentful jealousy of her husband who is reputed to have locked her in her chamber where he had her bled to death. Her ghost returns to haunt the place at midnight every 16 October; the anniversary of her death. Some variants of the story have her appearing alone; others have her being joined by her husband and even appearing as part of a courtly procession through the sumptuous chamber known as the Golden Room; a place not built until a century after her death.

Chateaubriant castle
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Just outside Châteaubriant, the chapel of the old Manoir de Bois-Briant was said to be visited by three beautiful young ladies, dressed in white. These apparitions always appeared from the neighbouring woods and walked arm-in-arm towards the chapel singing with ‘so much sweetness that we were all delighted with it’. In the 19th century, these ladies were reported to make themselves known every Christmas Eve and sometimes on the eve of other sacred festivals. Their lament was said to be a reproach to the populace for their ingratitude in forgetting the martyrdom of a priest murdered at the chapel’s altar by Republican forces during the religious purges of the Revolution.

Nearby, the ruins of the 13th century Château de Pouancé, which once guarded the border between Brittany and Anjou, is said to be haunted by a former mistress of the castle. This late 14th century lady is reputed to have been desperately in love with a Breton knight and one night, at his behest, opened one of the doors to the fortress. Alas, her suitor was not alone in the darkness; the gate was rushed by the Bretons who quickly overwhelmed the castle’s garrison.

Pouance catle
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With the departure of the Bretons, legend tells us that the lord of Pouancé had his wife walled-up alive within the castle for her treachery. Since then, many people have reported seeing a lady, dressed in white, walking the ramparts; her finger pressed close to her lips. Another tale says that in the 18th century, renovation work at the castle uncovered a sealed chamber where the body of a woman was found, tied seated at a table upon which rested silver cutlery; inside her mouth was a single gold coin.

White Lady ghost
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Today, little remains of the Château de Vioreau near Joué-sur-Erdre but it was a significant site in the Middle Ages and was, for a time, part of the powerful Barony of Châteaubriant. A tale tells that a lady of the castle once had a brief love affair with her husband’s favourite page; a liaison that ended badly and saw bitterness soak the lady’s heart. One day, she sent her former lover on an important errand; to deliver a letter to her kinsman, the governor of the castle of Nantes. He was promptly clapped in irons after the governor read the message: “Hang, without delay, the bearer of this letter”.

Fortunately for the page, the lord of Vioreau had been concerned by the sudden departure of his servant on a secret errand and had followed him to Nantes. In the dungeon of the city’s castle, he confronted his page: “Tell me all and I will save you”. Having already betrayed his master, the wretched man now betrayed his mistress.

Some weeks later, the lord and lady of Vioreau attended a great celebration at the nearby Château de Blain. As the music began, the lord took his wife to dance and danced with such enthusiasm that all remarked how joyful was the lord of Vioreau. The lively dancing went on late into the night and the attentive lord insisted that his wife dance with him without any interruption. Having danced for hours, the lady eventually collapsed exhausted, hot and breathless; her husband lost no time in tenderly escorting her to rest on a window seat nearby.

As he had hoped, the treacherous coolness of the stone seat served his vengeful designs better than any more violent means; the lady of Vioreau contracted a harsh cold that quickly proved fatal. The lord duly rewarded his former page with a generous gift of land. Betrayed by the only two men she had ever loved, the ghost of this lady roams the castle ruins to this day.

Rustephan castle
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In ruin for the last 250 years, the 15th century Château de Rustéphan near Pont-Aven is reputed to be home to the ghost of a young girl from the 16th century who is said to have died of grief after her fiancé renounced their marriage to become a priest. Legend tells us that the lord of Rustéphan did not consider the prospective groom a good match for his daughter and pressured him to take holy orders and leave the parish. After midnight, during the nights of a full moon, the unhappy lady, wearing a green dress, has been seen weeping while walking along the castle’s walls. Sometimes, the ghostly figure of an old priest has been sighted at the windows, longingly gazing of the apparition of the green lady of Rustéphan.

Largoet castle
Château de Largoët

Near Elven, the 14th century Château de Largoët boasts the highest keep in France; rising some 57 meters above the fortress’ massive moat. We have already been introduced to the castle’s resident white lady who is said to wander the surrounding forest in a bloodied dress; the ghost of a former lady of the castle who killed herself upon the death of her lover, a knight who had been slain defending her. There is another tale of ghostly goings on; sometimes between the hours of eleven o’clock and midnight, the spectres of the former lords of the castle are said to feast rowdily together in the keep. The ghost of an otherwise unknown crippled man is also said to haunt the border of the castle’s moat.

Suscinio castle
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A former residence of the Dukes of Brittany and, for a dozen years, home to the exiled Jasper and Henry Tudor, the 14th century Château de Suscinio on the Rhuys Peninsula of Brittany’s southern coast is steeped in history. Alas, the Lancastrains’ departure in 1484 marked one of the last times the castle was officially used by the rulers of Brittany. Duke Francis II died in 1488 and was succeeded by his 11 year old daughter, Anne; the last ruler of an independent Brittany and subsequently twice Queen of France. After 1532, the castle passed to the French crown and was sometime home to Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Médici before being slowly abandoned by the aristocracy.

After the Revolution, the castle was sold to a local merchant for use as a stone quarry and remained in ruins until the late 1960s. The castle is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young boy, reputed to be the son of a former Captain of the Guard, who seems to play hide-and-seek with those who chance to catch sight of him. Sceptics might note that sightings of this ghost appear to coincide with the major restoration works carried out to the building since the 1970s and its eventual opening to the public.

I would like to end this post with a sincere note of gratitude to those of you who have taken the time to read it and the 46 others that I have posted since joining the WordPress community a year ago! Thank you! Thank you for your kindness and encouragement throughout the year – it has been very much appreciated!

Ghosts and Revenants of Brittany

Tales of ghosts and ghostly apparitions form a rich vein in the folklore of Brittany although, in the Breton tradition, there was once no significant separation between the living and the dead; both were seen as dwelling in two discrete worlds that were in perpetual relation with one another. While the dead might have been feared, so too was a lightning storm, and people were no more surprised to hear the sound of the dead rustling the fallen leaves as they walked than they were to hear the lark sing.

It was traditionally believed that the dead were doomed to return to the land of the living three times. The souls of the damned were thought lost forever, confined to Hell for eternity although sometimes a soul might fleetingly return to the land of the living to reproach a loved one, beseeching them to change their ways in order to avoid a particular fate. Similarly, those who had secured salvation and a place in Heaven stayed there, rarely visiting the corporeal world. However, a few legends do contain spirits who seem to have returned from Heaven for the sole purpose of guiding or protecting the story’s hero or heroine through the myriad perils that are placed in the way of their quest.

Those people who died of violent death were said to be forced to remain between life and death until the time that they would have naturally lived had elapsed. The spirits trapped between Heaven and Hell were believed to freely roam the land; the hedgerows and seashores were heavy with wandering souls awaiting divine judgement. It as once thought that the dead did not immediately reach the Other-world but stayed in the vicinity of the living for nine generations. These were thought of as tormented souls and regarded with a veneration that combined feelings of fear and pity. Such spirits were said to enter, at will, the dwellings of those they loved and acted as beneficial protectors of the home. They were welcome visitors and it was thought proper to leave a little fire smouldering in the grate in case the dead returned to the hearth of their former home for a little warmth and people took care to remove the tripod from the fireplace overnight, lest the dead sat on it and burned themselves.

Charles Cottet - In the land of the Sea
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In the Brittany of yesteryear, the dead were never far removed from the living but it was commonly held that the veil of separation between the living and the dead was at its most vulnerable on those solemn days when the dead of each locality congregated, namely; the eve of Midsummer’s Day, Christmas Eve and the eve of All Saints’ Day. On these nights, after vespers, the dead wandered freely in the land of the living, returning to their former homes and haunts. On Halloween, the table was especially covered with a white cloth and food was left for the dead to enjoy overnight. The household would retire early so that they would not chance to see the dead feasting as any interaction with the dead was to be avoided.

During the hours of daylight, the land belonged to the living but nightfall heralded the dominion of the dead.  In some parts of Brittany, the hours of darkness were further refined; in the west of the region, the ghosts of the dead were said to favour the hours between ten o’clock at night and two in the morning but coastal regions held that the dead reigned between the depths of midnight and dawn’s first glow. It was believed that the power of the dead peaked at midnight and it was at that hour that the dead were said to open their eyes. In eastern Brittany, the dead, for some reason, seemed to have had a particular affinity for the nights that fell on a Tuesday.

If one was foolhardy enough to be abroad during the hours of darkness, certain activities were ill advised. For instance, it was said to be dangerous to whistle at night as it attracted demons as well as the dead and there is a tale from Upper Brittany that relates how a man travelling home one night whistled, to keep up his spirits, only to hear a distant echo of his tune. However, his ears soon distinguished that the echo was nothing of the kind; the tune being whistled back to him was clearer, sharper and getting steadily closer. Thinking someone was playing a trick on him, our nocturnal wanderer was struck dumb with terror when he discovered the Devil himself on his tail.

A Breton ossuary
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In the west of Brittany, whistling was also to be avoided at night, lest one expose themselves to the wrath of the dead. It was also crucial to resist the urge to turn your head if you chanced to hear some noise behind you, for you risked seeing a ghost and your own misfortune. The ghosts of the dead trod the byways and paths of Brittany; the sound of their passage or even their murmurings could be clearly heard, even if they could not always be seen. However, the dry patches on an otherwise wet road always betrayed their presence.

Working in the fields after dusk was also an activity likely to bring unhappiness upon the farmer; it was said to attract the Devil and to anger the dead. In Upper Brittany, one tale told of a man who, anxious to complete his task, continued to sow buckwheat during the setting sun. He wisely heeded the warning of the dead not to encroach upon the time reserved for them when he heard their cautionary cry: “Leave the night to whom it belongs!”

If one had no option but to travel at night, it was necessary to follow the path and not deviate from it and on no account be tempted to follow the flickering lights of the will-o’-the-wisp. It was said in southern Brittany that anyone who gazed too long upon such spectral illuminations would lose their sight. In another part of the region, it was said that such ethereal lights were candles carried by white-clad girls who were cursed to walk the nights of eternity for having utilised the candles blessed at Candlemas in a profane manner.

Moonrise
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To protect oneself from ghosts, several practices were once traditionally advised. In addition to carrying a rosary, a lighted lantern was said to deter the spirits of the dead from approaching too closely as their eyes were thought wounded by light made by the hands of the living. Although, the most powerful weapon that one could carry to safeguard oneself against a malevolent ghost were the trappings of your labour; it was thought no evil could befall those who carried the instruments of their work.

Another way to shield oneself from ghosts was by challenging them directly with the formula: “If you come from God, tell me your desire; if you come from the Devil, go on your way as I go mine.” However, a solo traveller was said to have no right to address a ghost; this might only be attempted if there were three of you. It was said that even the most ill-intentioned ghost was powerless to act against three people travelling together, all of whom having been formally baptised. In some parts of Brittany, this provision was further refined to say that the three travellers needed to be of the same sex and age group; if all these conditions were not met, the ghost retained its power. Anyone foolish enough to insult a ghost could expect to feel, before their quick death, the wrathful supernatural power they possessed.

Many of the ghost tales that have come down to us from the oral tradition were collected throughout the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Often, these stories are of a strikingly personal nature, covering events witnessed by the narrator or some other reliable local witness whose testimony was beyond reproach.

White Lady
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One ghost story that is found throughout Brittany, albeit with slight variations, is that of a man encountered on the road, struggling under the weight of a large stone he is carrying. This is a man who, in life, had cheated his neighbours and moved one of the marker stones that, in times past, delineated the boundaries of a landholding. For improving his lot at the expense of his friends, this farmer is forced, in death, to carry the offending stone on his back until he returns it to its rightful place. Unfortunately, he cannot remember where that should be and assails any living soul he meets with a cry of: “Where will I put this?” A question he is doomed to ask until he is met with the response: “Return it where you found it!”

Some of the marked variations of this tale say that the farmer can only hope for the curse to be lifted in the hundred and first year after his death; or that the cheated landowner alone could deliver him by personally indicating where the stone should be set. Still another version says that the ghost’s burden could only be lifted if the stone was replaced in the presence of a witness, such as in the legal act of demarcation.

In northern Brittany, ghostly priests, with faces as pale as the white garb they were said to wear, were sometimes sighted at night in the neighbourhoods of Plancoët and Pléven but only by unmarried women. Perhaps such reports were manifestations of mass-suggestion associated with an over-active imagination and the trunks of birch trees; perhaps not. The 14th century castle in nearby La Hunaudaye is also said to be haunted by a spirit popularly known as le soufflou (the blower) while the ancient forest that surrounds this ruined castle contains a much older legend; it is reputed to be home to a man, dressed in red, who haunts, in death, the spirit of a former lord of the castle who had, in life, murdered his family.

Forest of Loudeac
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An oak, long since fallen, in the forest of Loudéac was once said to have been haunted by a young woman. The legend tells that a local lad promised a maid a pair of beautiful shoes if she would meet him under the tree at midnight. The girl left for her rendezvous but failed to return; a search the following day discovered her blood-stained headdress and clogs at the foot of the tree. From that time onwards, sometimes, at midday, a plaintive voice could be heard coming from the depths of the tree crying: “Give me my shoes!” Another forest in the south of Brittany was reputed to be the home to a ghostly deer but any young man who happened to see it was fated to die on his wedding day.

The bridge over the Elorn River at Plougastel is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young woman wearing a wedding dress. The legend tells that this is the spirit of a lady abandoned by her prospective groom on her wedding day; in her despair she took her own life by throwing herself off the 30 metre high bridge. At midnight, she is said to display her disgust for the fickleness of men by distracting those driving over the bridge or appearing inside their vehicles and screaming in order to cause an accident. This is not a ghost of any antiquity; the bridge was opened only in 1930 and was then the largest concrete bridge in the world.

Plougastel Bridge
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Brittany also has its share of more traditional but no less tragic, ‘white lady’ ghosts; at the ruined Château de Montafilan near Corseul, a white lady walks the battlements at night before disappearing into the subterranean passages where she can be heard counting coins and crying. This sorrowful shadow is reputed to be that of a lady once sold in marriage who has returned from the grave to claim the blood money that was exchanged for her happiness.

About 50km to the south, the woods surrounding the medieval Château de Trecesson are the haunt of another white lady who is reported to sport a muddy wedding dress. Legend tells us that this is the ghost of a noble lady who was buried alive on her wedding day in the autumn of 1750; murdered by her two brothers for having agreed a match that they felt dishonoured the family. A poacher is said to have witnessed the deed which was soon reported to the lord of the castle; disinterred, the lady was found alive but sadly never regained consciousness and died shortly thereafter.

Continuing our southward journey, the stunning Château de Largoët, whose imposing keep is the tallest in France, once saw the future King of England, Henry VII, held captive within its walls in 1474. However, it is not the ghost of a vengeful Tudor monarch that haunts this place but a white lady wearing a bloodied dress. Said to stalk the surrounding forest, the ghost is thought to be a former lady of the castle who killed herself upon the death of her lover, a knight who was slain defending her. The white lady is sometimes reported in the company of another ghost, so, perhaps the lovers are reunited in death.

Tonquedec Castle
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Returning to the north of Brittany, the majestic ruins of the once mighty Château de Tonquédec are home to a white lady who walks balefully around the summits of the medieval towers at night. Little is known of this spectral figure; some say that she is the ghost of a watchful Huguenot who once took refuge in the castle and is warning those who would listen of some impending disaster.

In many Breton tales, the appearance of ghosts is often motivated by a request that they have to make to the living; they often appear to claim the fulfilment of a vow or to honour one. There are also people who are condemned to return to earth for a determined period of time to expiate their sins by a posthumous penance such as the farmer carrying the marker stone or the ghosts of priests begging for alms, condemned to wander the land until they have collected the money for masses for which they were once paid but did not say.

The nocturnal apparitions are often harbingers of death; such as in the tale of a woman whose brother was ill. Returning home from the market one evening, she saw her brother dancing in front of her on the road. She called out to him but receiving no response, she said a prayer and he promptly disappeared. Approaching the doorway of her house, she again saw him dancing whereupon she prayed and he again disappeared. On entering the house, she found her brother dead.

A warning from death
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Sometimes the dead have other messages to deliver to their loved ones. One story tells of a young woman who lost her infant son to sickness; inconsolable with grief, she mourned his passing fiercely for many years. Concerned at her declining health, her neighbours successfully convinced her to speak to the local priest who advised her to sit outside her house at midnight on a certain night so that she might see the parade of the dead and speak again to her beloved son.

On the prescribed evening, the woman waited anxiously and was mesmerised as the dead of the parish slowly shuffled down the abandoned path near her house. This long chain of ghosts paid her no heed as they passed by, gradually fading from sight. Alas, she had not been able to catch sight of her son and the distraught woman was about to return home when she heard the fall of unsteady feet. Rounding the corner, far removed from the body of the main procession, she saw a solitary figure struggling to walk under the weight of the two heavy pails of water it carried. Recognising this poor wretch as her son, she noticed that he was shivering violently and was drenched from head to toe: “My dear boy, what has happened to you, why do you walk alone in this state?” “Mother, the tears that you shed for me, I am doomed to carry them all. Please release me from this; please stop crying for me!”

Many legends tell of vast frights of ghosts that congregate in certain places to await their deliverance from the confines of the earth. In the far west of Brittany, the waters of the Baie des Trépassés are full of the souls of drowned mariners who, on Christmas Eve, are said to raise their heads above the water and with outstretched arms, beg the living for a proper burial. Inland, it was said that you could hear the wails of the dead near the Yeun Elez bog in the heart of the Monts d’Arrée; a forlorn place traditionally held to be one of the gateways to Hell. Sometimes, at midnight, the baleful sounds of the biniou (Breton bagpipe) were reported hereabouts but with no sign of any musician, the ghostly notes were held to be a call from the dead, inviting you to join them.

Vapours of the Night
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While the deserted islands, desolate moors and uncultivated lands of Brittany have long been closely associated with the ghostly activity of the dead; the beings that traditionally inhabit these areas in Breton folklore are the malevolent children of the night. For it is not only the dead who inhabit the gloom; dangerous and evil beings, who are not of the race of men, roam abroad during the hours of darkness and to encounter them could be fatal to mere mortals such as we.

Death Omens of Brittany

In the minds of yesterday’s Bretons, the world around them was swarming with signs that, if interpreted correctly, predicted the future. Being prepared for the unknown future and warding off misfortune were constant concerns for our ancestors. Natural phenomena, abnormal behaviour and other irregularities were carefully noted for the favourable or unfavourable shadow they cast over daily life. Deciphering these signs allowed our ancestors the comfort of a thin veneer of some control over their destiny.

Omens were not confined to the spectacular natural phenomena like meteors and whirlwinds or significant abnormalities such as sheep born with an extra limb. Sometimes, the most mundane sights or occurrences were held to be ominous; seeing a wolf or a toad in the morning were considered auspicious omens, while sighting a snake, salamander or boar were all taken as ill omens. Putting on one’s shirt inside-out brought on misfortune but seeing a spider in your barn was a favourable sign, especially if it was weaving its web.

Often, it was the first sights seen in the morning that were important to note; an overturned bench; grains of salt on the table or crossed knives were all said to herald misfortune. A knife resting on the table with its sharp side pointing upwards indicated an upcoming marriage but you could soon expect to go into mourning if the knife was resting on its sharp side.

Calamity was also close at hand if you saw someone killing a dog or a cat or spitting into a fire. Similarly, you could expect some imminent misfortune if the lady of the household spoke louder than her husband but if thirteen people were seated at the same table, one of them would be dead within the year. This was a fate that was also said to lie in store for those who had discovered an undeclared treasure.

Wheel of fortune engraving
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While such omens were manifested for all to see, some people were reputed to be more attuned at noticing them, particularly the precursors of death, than others. This gift was said to be held by those who had entered holy ground and left it before having been baptised. The gift could be temporarily acquired by those in possession of a four leafed clover, a stalk with seven ears of grain, or grain that had passed through the millstone without being ground.

Birds of ill omen once filled the skies of Brittany; the sparrowhawk was considered the bird of death and it was said to fly around a house and knock on the window to announce an impending demise. To hear the call of an owl near one’s house also signalled the approach of death. The croaking of a crow flying about you heralded the death of a family member. Likewise, a magpie landing on the roof announced that someone would die in the house, while two magpies flying away to your left heralded misfortune but three magpies jumping together on a road presaged the passing of a funeral cortege in the near future.

To hear a rooster crowing in the afternoon was thought to herald great joy or great sadness but crowing at night was a sign of impending misfortune or death. Similarly, a rooster crowing all around you was taken as a warning that your last hour was approaching. Hens too were once seen as augurs; if the hen sang before the rooster, bad luck would soon fall upon the household but if, after being entangled in straw, the hen had a strand remaining attached to its tail, it was taken as a sign of imminent mourning for the people of the house. Likewise, the sight of small white butterflies flying into a house in the evening was a sign that one of its inhabitants would die soon but whoever saw a weasel was said to die within the year.

Medieval painting of magpie and owl
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In Brittany, a number of traditions once surrounded the three main stages of rural life: birth, marriage and death. The conditions at birth were thought to bear an influence on the child’s future life. When a child was born at night, it was the role of the oldest woman present to examine the state of the sky at the precise moment of delivery. If the clouds surrounded the moon at that moment or were masking its face, the child was thought destined to one day be drowned or hanged. If a child was born under the new moon, it was fated to die a violent death but a girl born under a crescent moon was destined to be precocious in all things.

An old Breton superstition held that if your left ear tingled or your left nostril bled while undertaking a journey, you would meet with disaster. Conversely, good fortune lay ahead if your right ear tingled or your right nostril bled or you met a debauched woman in the morning.

In undertaking any important business, it was essential to take account of any signs encountered along the way as these would indicate whether your enterprise was likely to be successful or not. Misfortune was sure to strike if you chanced upon a dishevelled woman, a pregnant woman, a nun, a priest, a monk, a one-eyed man, a lame man, a blind man, a hare, a cat or a stag. However, you could draw great encouragement if you happened across a courtesan, a pigeon, a goose or a goat.

Return from the fields - Jules Breton
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When a wedding procession encountered a funeral cortege on the way to church, the sex of the deceased was thought to indicate who, of the husband and wife, would die first. Similarly, during the ceremony itself, the relative strengths of the flames of the candles that were typically placed in front of the bride and groom were said to indicate which spouse would live longest. However, if one of the candles went out before the end of the service, it signalled the death of that spouse within a year.

If the church bell chimed to the same time as the bell that the altar boy rang at the moment of the elevation of the Host, it was a sign of death for one of the congregation attending that Mass. If the sound of the bell vibrated long after the bell had finished ringing, death was said to be hanging over someone nearby.

All misfortunes were thought announced by some omen but the most common related to death.  If someone was taken, without cause, of a sudden shiver it was because death had just passed. If you were startled by a sudden sound or unexpected touch, it was because death, which had fallen on you, had just left you in order to take another.

Death and the Woodcutter
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It was once thought that no one died without someone close to them having been previously warned by some omen or other. These precursors of death were there for all to see but were disregarded or unremarked because they were not recognised for the warnings that they were. The person who was perceptive enough to recognise the omens of death was rarely the one threatened with death but had no way of knowing exactly whose death was being announced. If such an omen were noted in the morning, that indicated that the death would occur soon, within nine days. If noted in the evening, death might not call for as much as a year or more.

The noises of the night, for those that took care to listen, carried warnings for the wise. The clamour of dogs howling to each other, from one farm to another, was regarded a bad omen but if dogs howled alone at night it was to warn you that death was trying to approach the house. Sounds of creaking timber from the attic meant that one of your closest relatives was dying; a sudden noise on the table or on the walls of the boxed bed warned of a sudden death in the family. To hear falling crockery was a sign that death would fall upon a relative or friend while travelling. The sound of dripping water indicated that a seafaring relation was drowning. The creak of an axle in the road at night heralded the approach of the cart of death coming to take away the soul of the dying; if the sound passed, you had but a temporary reprieve from misery as to hear the squeak of death’s cart meant that someone close to you was fated to die soon.

Forgetting to sow all of the furrows in a field was another powerful omen. If the unseeded furrow was the longest in the field, death would strike the head of the family; if the furrow was the second longest, the mistress of the house would be claimed; if it was short, one of the children would be taken; if it was unremarkable, one of the labourers or one of the maids would die.

The Prodigal Son painting Box Bed
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Dreams also had a role in forewarning of an impending death. To see someone carrying a load of dirty laundry in your dream was a sign that you would soon lose a loved one but if the laundry was white in places, it was a sign that this death would cause you little sorrow. If one dreamt of water, someone in the family would soon fall ill. If the water was clear, they would recover but they would die if the water appeared cloudy. If someone dreamt of losing a tooth at night, it was a sign that one of their loved ones had died or would do so soon. To see a horse in your dreams was another omen of death but not if the horses were white.

If someone in the house was sick with fever and demanded, despite their weakness, to change bed, they were not expected to live long. To learn whether someone sick was fated to die, some people put salt into the hand of the afflicted: if the salt melted, it was taken as a sign that they would inevitably succumb to their disease.

Even the freshly-cut flowers, placed on the bed where a dead person rested, had a silent forecast to make to those that paid attention. If the flowers withered once placed there, it was thought the soul of the deceased was damned; if they faded after a few moments, it was because the soul was in Purgatory and the longer the flowers took to fade, the less penance was necessary. If the eyes of the deceased, having been closed for the wake, reopened, it was to tell the mourners that the last hour of one of their number was approaching. If the left eye alone reopened, it was a sign that it was one of the near relatives that would soon follow to the grave.

Emile Renouf - The Widow of Sein painting
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In northern Brittany, wives who had, for some time, been without news of their sailor husbands, made a pilgrimage to the chapel of Petit Saint-Loup where they would light a candle at the saint’s statue. If the husband was well, the candle burned happily but if it glowed with a weak, intermittent flame and went out, it was a sign that the husband was dead. The death of a sailor at sea was said to be announced by gulls and curlews flapping their wings against the windows of his house.

Other omens announcing death were once closely associated with certain rituals here. In the far west of Brittany it was customary at New Year to butter as many pieces of bread as there were members of the household. The head of the family would then name each person and toss the bread into the air or upon the water of a sacred fountain. Whoever’s bread landed on the buttered side was sure to die within the year. On the morning of Midsummer’s Day, those people who, the night before, had jumped over the communal bonfire, would customarily visit the site to examine the ashes; a discernible footprint there was said to indicate who, if any, of these people would die within a year.

If a person was anxious to know how much longer they were to live, they had only to look into the water of the fountains of death in Plouigneau or Plouégat-Guérand at midnight on the first night of May. If an image of a skull was reflected by this magic mirror instead of a face, they knew that death was near. May Day was also the time to visit these fountains with an infant under one year of age; their feet were immersed in the water, if the child removed their feet it was taken as a sign that they would suffer an early death.

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In other fountains, a child’s smock was placed in the water; if it sank it was said the child would die within the year. Another ritual performed at some fountains involved placing a cross, made of two sticks of willow, upon the water. If the cross floated, death was near but distant if it sank; the faster it sank indicated how much further that time would be.

We do not know how consistent or selective people once were in taking notice of omens and portents. Of course, each day any number of omens could remain unfulfilled but this did not discourage our ancestors who did not consider this fact a failure of the omens’ functioning mechanism. Any number of plausible explanations would have been offered to help interpret the situation; perhaps a contrary omen had been missed or the omen was meant for another, possibly the time of its fulfilment was more distant than thought. The absence of death itself would be but a temporary reprieve attributed to divine intervention or other powerful forces. The memories of the unrealised omens would fade and new omens carefully received in the time-honoured manner.

The Islands of Brittany

With over 800 islands and islets, Brittany boasts almost 70 per cent of the island bodies of metropolitan France. Some support thriving local communities while others are home to only seabirds and the intrepid traveller. Here’s a brief sketch of some of the main inhabited islands, starting with those off the north-west coast and moving counter-clockwise around the peninsula to the south coast of Brittany.

Île de Bréhat

Just a mile or so off the charming north coast town of Paimpol is Bréhat, perhaps one of Brittany’s prettiest islands. Bréhat consists of two main islands that are linked by a bridge at low tide, surrounded by nine much smaller islands and scores of islets once said to have been populated by the dead.

No cars are allowed on the island, so you will need to be prepared to walk or rent a bicycle to fully explore; the striking pink granite rock formations and Guerzido beach are well worth discovering. The north west tip of the south island offers a wonderful view of the coast and its surrounding isles. The 18th century cross there is named after Saint Maudez who is thought to have had an oratory on l’île Maudez, a small island 2km offshore. Legend has it that the saint was chased away with rocks when he first tried evangelising Bréhat in the 6th century; the inhabitants invoking the Devil to rid themselves of his preaching. Maudez promptly took-up one of the island’s menhirs and sailed it across to his island where he set it into the ground. This was not his only miraculous deed; he is also said to have rid the isles of snakes.

On the north island, the impressive rocky chasm at the Pointe du Paon once served as an oracle for young girls; casting a stone into the abyss, the number of bounces on the rocks was said to indicate the number of years separating them from marriage. Local legend says that some of the boulders in the field nearby were once men, shepherds who neglected their flock by paying too much attention to a mermaid of great beauty; they were turned to stone for their effrontery.

This picturesque island became quite fashionable in the 1890s and was, for a time, home to a small artists’ colony and has inspired such renowned artists as Marc Chagall, Paul Gauguin, Auguste Matisse, Henri Rivière and Paul Signac. A population of almost 2000 was noted in the middle of the 19th century but this has since dwindled to about 400 permanent residents. The island has several options for overnight accommodation and is connected to the mainland by a regular 10-minute ferry service from Ploubazlanec.

Brehat and its islets
A view of Brehat ©Jordi Carrió Jamilà

Île de Batz

The Île de Batz lies just off the northern coast from the port of Roscoff and is well worth visiting for its wonderful white sandy beaches. The island enjoys such a mild micro-climate that, at the turn of the last century, a wealthy Parisian was encouraged to establish an exotic garden here with plants from all over the world. The years following the Second World War saw the garden neglected until the site was rehabilitated in the late 1980s. It now boasts a collection of over 2,500 exotic plant species native to Africa, America, Asia and Australia, including many rare palms and is open to the public most of the year.

If you want to view something equally unusual, the church in the main settlement contains the stole used by Saint Paul Aurelian to subdue a marauding dragon. Local legend says that in the early 6th century Saint Paul 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 Paul was unmoved and immediately wrapped his stole around the animal’s neck and led him towards the far end of the island. There, he cast the beast into the sea, at the spot that is now called Trou du Serpent.

Prior to the First World War, almost 1,400 people lived on Batz but the number of permanent residents is now closer 460. Nonetheless, the island possesses a thriving community and offers a number of accommodation options for today’s visitor. Bicycles can be rented here but, as it is only a little over three square kilometres (1.2sq miles), the best way to explore the island is on foot. You will discover beautiful coves and sandy beaches on most of the tracks that lead off the main, pedestrian only, coastal pathways particularly on the southern coastline. A few small islets and large rock formations lie close off the northern coast, giving a most picturesque view of the sea but for a magnificent panorama; climb the stairs to the top of the lighthouse. A regular ferry service connects the island to the mainland at Roscoff in less than 15 minutes.

Saint Paul and the dragon
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Île d’Ouessant

Lying some 20km off Brittany’s north-west coast, the Île d’Ouessant, known as Ushant in English, is the westernmost point of metropolitan France. A stony and relatively flat outcrop of some 8km by 4km (5 miles x 2 miles), the island is surrounded by a number of smaller islands, the largest of which being the Île de Keller. Bereft of trees and battered by the Atlantic winds, the island has little cultivated land and in times past offered a very challenging way of life.

Historically, the majority of men were seafarers and were usually absent for months if not years at a time; a state of affairs that fostered a strongly matriarchal society. It was the women of the island, typically when in their mid-twenties, who asked for a man’s hand in marriage and afterwards retained their maiden name. It was the women who worked the land, looked after the animals and collected the seaweed for burning, while maintaining the home and rearing a family.

The isolation of the island saw it retain endemic breeds of horse and sheep characterised by their dwarfism; the native horse died out in the late 19th century but thankfully the sheep, the smallest breed in the world, managed to survive. The island is also home to a species of black bee that has been virtually wiped out by pesticides and parasites on the mainland and is highly regarded for the quality of its honey.

The island seems to have been continuously occupied for over 6000 years and was first noted by Himilco, the 5th century BC Carthaginian navigator about a thousand years before the arrival of Saint Paul Aurelian who is said to have sailed here from Great Britain in a stone boat. Given its strategic position marking the southern entrance into the English Channel, the area witnessed a number of major naval battles between the 16th and 20th centuries. The treacherous reefs that surround Ouessant, coupled with the strong Atlantic winds, made travel to and from the island notoriously difficult until the early 20th century. Over the years, hundreds of ships and lives have been claimed by these same rocks and generations of islanders have selflessly risked their lives to aid those in distress.

Cottet Ouessant Ushant
Charles Cottet : Ouessant (1913)

An old Celtic tradition held that the bodies of the dead were borne to the island whence the souls flew to the sacred isle of Albion; the themes of death and loss predominate throughout the island’s legends that contain dark characters such as the malevolent korrigans of the Pointe de Pern, vindictive mermaids off the seashore and the sinister seagull of death.

Home to almost 3000 people in the early years of the 20th century, the island has a permanent population of little more than 820 today. It is possible to tour the island by mini-bus or taxi but if time is not at a premium, I recommend exploring one of the many marked hiking trails that cross the island but be aware that the coastal paths are reserved exclusively for pedestrians and therefore prohibited for bicycles. A daily ferry service from Le Conquet connects the island to the mainland in about an hour.

Île Molène

Nine kilometres to the south-east of Ouessant, sitting just 15km from Brittany’s west coast, Molène is the main island of the Molène archipelago; a group made up of 19 islands. These islands are peppered with megalithic monuments although, as is the case on other Breton islands, the ones that we see today are but a fraction of what Neolithic man left; the ready availability of cut stone having proved too much of a temptation to the island’s builders over the years.

Like those of Ouessant, the people of Molène once had an undeserved reputation as wreckers. However, they also shared a much merited reputation for their unfailing assistance to any unfortunate enough to come to grief on the submerged reefs that surround their island. Of the many shipwrecks that have occurred near Molène, that of the SS Drummond Castle, on the night of 16 June 1896, has left an indelible mark on the island.

Having inexplicably sailed between Ouessant and Molène, rather than taking the established route to the English Channel via the north-west of Ouessant, the 4,500 ton steamship, en route to London from Cape Town, struck a set of reefs known as the Pierres Vertes. The ship, carrying 245 passengers and crew, sank in less than 15 minutes just after 23:00hrs and it was not until 07:30 the following day that the first two survivors were found by a fisherman from Molène. Three hours later, the only other survivor was found by a fisherman from Ouessant. Sculling for home, he found the bodies of a two year old girl and a crewman who had survived the night but lost his grip on a makeshift raft around 09:00. Eighteen bodies were found that day and taken to Molène where they were washed and sewn into sheets. Honouring the custom of the island, crucifixes and candles were placed near each body and the islanders took turns to keep a vigil for the dead overnight.

People of Ouessant Mourning a Dead Child by Cottet
Charles Cottet : Ouessant people mourning a dead child (1899)

Other bodies were found over the next few weeks and eventually, in total, about a hundred victims were recovered from the waters around Molène and further afield. The consideration shown by the islanders in the search operations as well as their dignified treatment of the dead were highly regarded in Britain. Solemn declarations of gratitude were sent by Queen Victoria and the Archbishop of Canterbury and these were soon followed by the bestowal of official medals and awards. Other tokens of appreciation included a processional cross, a remarkable vermeil chalice adorned with precious stones, and a gold paten for the island’s church. With only two watches on the island, a large clock striking the hours was also commissioned for the bell tower of the church, overlooking the last resting place for 29 victims of the disaster.

At the time, the only source of drinking water on the island was an unreliable well that often delivered brackish water. A legend attributes this well to Saint Ronan, who, discovering no water on the island, struck the ground with his staff, causing water to appear. Addressing the water supply problem on Molène was seen as a practical mark of gratitude and a large impluvium and cistern was installed in 1897 which remained in use for some 80 years.

The decline of the local fishing industry was an important factor in the population shift on the island; dropping from over 670 permanent residents in the 1920s to around 140 today. Managed tourism is important to Molène and there are several accommodation options available for those looking for more than a day-trip. While it essentially a vehicle free island, the roads and paths are well maintained, allowing you to visit the sites of interest with relative ease. Be aware that the museum dedicated to the Drummond Castle disaster is only open in the afternoon; if it is closed, just let them know in the town hall and they will arrange access. A daily ferry service runs from Molène to Le Conquet and Brest on the mainland; it is the same boat but catching it at Le Conquet will cut your crossing time to just 30 minutes.

Île de Sein

About eight kilometres (5 miles) off the Pointe du Raz on Brittany’s Atlantic coast lies the Île de Sein; reputed birthplace of the wizard Merlin and sacred burial place of the druids. The island was described by 1st century Roman geographers as home to a group of nine female virgins known as the Gallicenae. These were said to be Celtic priestesses and powerful seers who only shared the secrets of the future with those pilgrims who made the dangerous journey to personally consult them. Ascribed great magical powers, the Gallicenae were able to dominate the elements; conjuring great storms, exciting or calming the winds according to their wishes. They were also said to be able to shape-shift into animals and to possess the ability to cure the most impossible of diseases.

Velleda last of the nine priestesses of the Isle of Sein
Chateaubriand’s Velleda: last survivor of the nine priestesses of Sein

Man’s links with this island stretch much further back than the ancient Celts, as attested by the two menhirs known as ‘the talkers’ which stand near the church dedicated to Saint Guénolé. A local legend tells how this holy man helped to keep safe the islanders’ souls: Saint Guénolé, weary of making the difficult journey between the island and his abbey at Landevennec, decided to connect the island with the mainland; a plan that was met with much joy by the inhabitants. Contemplating on how this might be achieved, he was approached by a handsome young man but noting his sweet tongue and cloven hoofs, Guénolé recognized the Devil himself and asked: “What do you want from me, Polig?”

“I want to go to that island I spy in the far distance. It is known that you are planning a bridge and, so, I shall borrow it when it is built,” said the Devil.

“You shall not pass to there! If such is your intent, I shall not build the bridge!” replied the saint.

“Then you will be denounced as a liar, for you gave the people your word. You will lose your holiness and will inevitably become my disciple because the lie will stain you.”

Saint Guénolé was at a loss; if he honoured his commitment to build the bridge, the Devil would cross to the island and take the souls of its people but if he abandoned his obligation he would become a liar and thus a fisherman of the Devil.

As ever, God was watching and seeing the saint’s dilemma, offered him the chance to perform a marvellous miracle. Whereupon Saint Guénolé threw a bridge of ice across to the island and waited for the Devil, who soon appeared. Gloating in triumph and already enticed by all the souls that he would be able to corrupt, the Devil rushed onto the bridge but with his first few steps, his burning hooves melted the ice and he was cast down into the swirling waters below. The Devil’s violent reaction at being tricked accounts for the fierce currents that separate the island from the mainland.

Sein lighthouse
Pascale Gonzales : Ile de Sein … le Phare (2003) ©Pascale Gonzales

Sein barely emerges above sea level and in the 19th century was almost totally submerged on several occasions, necessitating the folk of the island having to take refuge on the roofs of their houses. Like other island communities, the inhabitants once had a reputation as ship-wreckers and looters and while there is scant evidence for the former, it is important to remember the grey area between the latter and exercising the rights of salvage. What is beyond doubt is the fortitude and bravery generations of islanders have shown in rescuing the victims of the many deadly shipwrecks that have taken place amidst the 25km of reefs that stretch away from the island.

A population of 1,300 was noted in the 1930s but this has, over time, reduced to about 240 permanent residents today. The island is car-free but being only 2km long and half a kilometre wide at its broadest point, is easy to get around on foot. The ocean views are wonderful and you will soon appreciate why this area is well known for its seabirds and lighthouses. If you are feeling energetic, the panorama from the top of the Goulenez lighthouse is worth climbing its 250 steps for. It can be reached from the mainland by ferry from Audierne in about an hour.

Îles de Glénan

The Îles de Glénan are an archipelago of nine islands and a similar number of islets lying about 16km (10 miles) off the south coast of Brittany. The islands are achingly picturesque and offer a tropical scene of  fine white sandy beaches surrounded by clear turquoise water. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, the islands were a known haunt for the pirates and privateers that plundered the merchantmen plying the Bay of Biscay. Many of the islands once supported fishing communities; 70 permanent residents were noted at the end of the 19th century. The islands’ meagre resources would have been stretched to sustain such numbers, especially when swelled by the transient fishermen and kelp gatherers who typically stayed for three months of a year.

A local legend tells that the islands were part of the mainland until relatively recently but their separation likely dates back thousands of years. That they were once part of the mainland is attested by the many megalithic monuments scattered across the islands; the sea level having risen about ten metres in the last 6000 years. At the end of the 18th century it was reported that a large submerged dolmen could sometimes be seen some three kilometres (1.8 miles) west of the Île aux Moutons.

the Glenan isles
Aerial view of the Glenans ©Vedettes de l’Odet

Similarly, the lake in the centre of the Île du Loc’h was reported to contain “druidic stones”. This small lake was also said to be the home of a malevolent fairy whose great wealth surpassed that of all the kings combined. Here, she seduced hapless men, turning these unfortunates into fish and serving them as a meal for her guests. While this may technically be the largest island of the group, the main island is Île Saint-Nicolas and it is here that you will find the archipelago’s only restaurants.

At low tide it is possible to walk across to the island of Bananec which is home to a renowned sailing school. Contrary to what you might read in some guidebooks, it is possible to stay on the Glénans; you can either book a bed in the hostel near the jetty or enrol for a short course in the diving school. The islands are only accessible between April and September when there are regular sailings from Bénodet and Concarneau; the journey taking about an hour and a quarter.

Île de Groix

The Île de Groix, measuring around 7km by 3km (4 miles x 2 miles), is Brittany’s second largest island and lies 14km (9 miles) off the southern coast. The island once dominated France’s tuna fishing industry; about three quarters of the nation’s catch being landed here for almost a century. While the canneries have disappeared, fresh fish continue to dominate the menus of the island’s many bars, cafés and restaurants. The decline of the fishing industry is mirrored in the island’s demographics; home to some 6000 people before the First World War, Groix has a population of about 2,250 today.

While it is possible to take your car to Groix, I suggest that you save yourself the cost and hassle and hire a bicycle if you not happy walking. The island has many hiking trails that allow you to easily discover the local sights particularly the many fine beaches, of which there are about a dozen worth exploring. The beach known as Les Grands Sables is definitely worth visiting; a large expanse of soft white sand and crystal clear water. It is also said to be the only convex beach in Europe, slowly moving westwards with the currents. La Plage des Sables Rouges is another beach worthy of a look; it is so named because of the predominantly red sand found there. If you want to avoid any crowds and are sure-footed, the small sandy beaches at the Baie des Curés on the south coast and at Poulziorec on the north coast will reward the effort with their rugged charm and clear turquoise waters.

Les Grands Sables beach Groix
Les Grand Sables

Groix also has its share of megalithic monuments, albeit four less that at the turn of the last century, one of which, the menhir of Kergatouarn, is reputed to the stone boat that Saint Tudy used to cross the sea from the mainland. This would have been only a few hundred years before the Viking ship-burial took place at the harbour of Locmaria; to date, the only such grave found in France.

There is some debate as to the derivation of the name Groix; many claim that it is a euphonic attempt to render the Breton word groac’h. If so, that produces the enigmatic name of “island of witches” and is perhaps the remnants of some old folk memory regarding powerful women living there at one time. Possibly this is the “small island, not very far out to sea, situated off the outlet of the Loire River; inhabited by women … possessed by Dionysus [who] make this god propitious by appeasing him with mystic initiations as well as other sacred performances” mentioned by the 1st century Greek geographer, Strabo?

Popular belief in the presence of witches was still found in Groix around the turn of the last century when it was said that they sometimes kidnapped fishermen. It was also claimed that, at night, they would tell terrible things to the wives of absent husbands and hold a Sabbath in the house.

The island’s folklore is deeply imbued with its landscape; the striking cliff chasm known as Trou de l’Enfer (Hell’s Hole) was said to be the home of a sea monster, a thickly furred beast with the head of a man displaying disjointed teeth and fingers of abalone shells. Further along the coast, the jagged cliffs of Pen Men concealed the lair of a vicious mermaid who crushed children against rocks for sport. Happily, the locals are far more welcoming and the island is a wonderful place to laze away a few days. A 45-minute ferry ride connects the island with the mainland at Lorient and runs several times a day.

Blessing the tuna fleet at Groix by Signac
Paul Signac : Blessing of the Tuna Fleet at Groix (1923)

In case you think the island’s lore is all doom and gloom, there is one I know with a happy ending. A fairy’s breath is usually lethal in Breton lore but there is a tale of an impoverished leper on Groix who was visited one night by an old crone. Discovering the poor man very near to death, the wizened fairy promptly recited some charms and breathed on the man’s sores, leaving him miraculously cured.

The islands of Brittany all enjoy unique seascapes, landscapes, legends and identities and give the lie to the early representations of them as a bland cordon of islands strung regularly around the Breton coast. The islands were generally ignored up until the end of the 19th century, inspiring only indifference in the travel writing of the period; how times have changed!

If you want to know more about other beaches to visit in Brittany, you may be interested in this earlier post.

The Magical Grass of Brittany

Scattered throughout the folklore of Brittany are references to secret, magical plants possessing extraordinary properties. Grasses that allow you to understand the languages of beasts or to find hidden treasures; grasses that cut iron and upon which woodpeckers sharpen their beaks, even a grass that confounds, causing a total loss of sense and direction to those who happen to trample upon it.

The magical plants mentioned in the folk tales and legends of Brittany broadly fall into two categories; those we can clearly identify today and others that remain stubbornly obscure and whose identity thus remains open to boundless speculation. The first group consists of plants such as the white clover, the green fern and mistletoe, while the latter group contains such magical flora as the grass of oblivion and the grass of gold; mysterious plants that elude firm identification and which may ultimately have been mythical.

In yesterday’s Brittany, certain plants were traditionally ascribed to the Devil; most notably buckwheat, couch grass, dodder, ryegrass, sedges and thistle. Others were said to have been the work of God, particularly; carrots, oats, rye, sorrel, stonecrop and wheat. Outside these fields of demarcation lay the special magical plants, able to help or hinder man in his daily struggle for survival.

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Like other European traditions surrounding the picking of magical plants, such as mandrake, the Bretons of old seem to have absorbed elements of the early rituals regarding the picking of such plants, which were well known in the ancient world, for their own special plants. The magical plants of Brittany are linked by similar gathering rituals and appear to have assumed marvellous properties that, over time, overlapped at several points.

These special plants were also used in the herbal remedies of traditional healers and in more sinister witches’ brews. However, the common white clover is a notable exception here, even when found with an extra and rare fourth leaf. Nonetheless, the noted rarity of this mutation saw the plant credited with unique powers. It was thought that a four leafed clover could help a man win bouts of gouren or Breton wrestling.

First, it was necessary to locate a stem of four leafed clover; traditionally held to be found on the spot where a mare had given birth to her first foal. Returning at night, one had to pick the clover using only one’s teeth while never allowing the clover to touch the ground. The plant needed to remain in one’s mouth overnight and until the start of the tournament for it to be effective. Another property once assigned to the four leafed clover was that whoever carried one unwittingly was able to understand the artifices of the sorcerer.

The green fern or, more accurately, the spores of the eagle fern were also attributed particular virtues. In Brittany, the fern spores collected on the night of Midsummer’s Day were held to be effective in helping one find hidden treasures and to read the secrets in the hearts of men. Like the four leafed clover, it was said to ensure victory in a struggle but also to grant invisibility to whoever held it in their mouth. Belief in the supernatural power of the fern, particularly its supposed ability to resist all magic spells, was widespread enough in Europe for the practice of collecting ferns during Midsummer to have been proscribed by the Synod of Ferrara in 1612.

Fern
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In Brittany, the fern seed was a powerful ingredient for a witch’s spell. One version of the Breton ballad that tells the tale of the noted medieval lovers Héloïse and Abailard, features the enchantress Héloïse declaring: “The first drug I shared with my gentle clerk was made with … the seed of the green fern, plucked from the bottom of a well a hundred fathoms deep”. Other versions of the story make no reference to her collecting ferns from a well but simply that they were collected at midnight on Midsummer’s night.

Fern spores are minute, individually invisible to the naked eye. They are produced in little capsules on the underside of fern fronds called sporangia, each typically containing about 64 spores. When spores are ready for release, the protective membrane covering the clusters of sporangia shrivels to expose the sporangia thus releasing the spores; a process very sensitive to the level of humidity in the air. A piece of new white linen was held under the fronds in order to capture the spores as they were released. This clean cloth crucially also helped to preserve the purity of the plant’s spores by preventing them being despoiled by touching the ground; a symbolism that also featured in gathering the four leafed clover and one that was also important in gathering golden grass.

The Breton ballad, Jeanne the Witch, first set down from the oral tradition in 1849, relates the confessions of a young woman sentenced to death for witchcraft. When asked how she was able to cast a spell that spoiled the wheat crop for seven leagues around, the condemned witch replied: “You need the heart of a toad, the left eye of a male crow, and fern seed, collected on the night of the fire of Saint John. I collected a handful with my silver dish. Yes, between eleven o’clock and the stroke of midnight”. The doomed witch closes her description with a tantalising: “There is yet another herb, which I will not name, and without it, the others have no virtue”.

Herbarium
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Golden Grass, known as aour iaotenn in Breton, is the rarest and most wonderful of all Brittany’s magical plants. Its properties are numerous: it reveals treasures; whoever possesses it is never sick again; it allows the possessor to become invisible at will and increases a man’s strength tenfold. It is also the most elusive and although it is said to glow like a candle in the night, when you approach it, its light fades and quickly disappears.

In his collection of traditional Breton ballads published in 1839 under the title Barzaz Breiz, Théodore Hersart, vicomte de La Villemarqué, records three old songs that reference golden grass. The first involves the wizard Merlin who is asked where he is going with his black dog, to which, he replies: “I am going to look for the green watercress and the golden grass in the meadow”. The Tribute of Noménoë proclaimed that: “The golden grass is cut; suddenly, it rained”. Finally, in the tale of Héloïse and Abailard, Héloïse declares: “The first drug … was made with the left eye of a crow and the heart of a toad; and with the seed of the green fern, plucked from the bottom of a well a hundred fathoms deep, and with the root of the golden grass plucked from the meadow”.

According to La Villemarqué, golden grass was a medicinal plant upon which the Breton peasants bestowed a great deal of miraculous qualities. He noted their assertion that it shines from afar like gold but that it is a far rarer substance. If someone happened, by chance, to trample upon it, they immediately fell asleep, awakening with an understanding of the language of dogs, wolves and birds. It was said that only the virtuous could find golden grass and that it could only be gathered at dawn, by hand without the use of any iron, taking care to ensure that it did not touch the ground. To pick the grass, it was necessary to approach it walking barefooted, clad only in a shirt.

Gathering herbs
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This ritual bears remarkable similarities to those noted by Pliny when discussing, in his Natural History written around 77AD, the remedies derived from the forests by the ancient druids: “Similar to savin is the herb known as selago. Care is taken to gather it without the use of iron, the right hand being passed for the purpose through the left sleeve of the tunic, as though the gatherer were stealing it. The clothing must be white, the feet bare and washed clean, and a sacrifice of bread and wine must be made before gathering it: it is carried in a new cloth. […] The same druids have also given the name of samolus to a certain plant which grows in damp places. This too, they say, must be gathered fasting with the left hand, as a preservative against the maladies to which swine and cattle are subject. He, who gathers it, must be careful not to look behind him, and must not lay it down anywhere but in the water troughs from which cattle drink”.

La Villemarqué’s observations dovetail with those of Jacques Boucher de Perthes, who wrote in his Chants Armoricains (1831) that: “The golden grass is found only in Lower Brittany: the aour iaotenn grows on the plains; you can see it from far away, it shines like gold but as soon as you approach it, it stops glowing and you cannot find it. When it is in the river, it swims against the current. Whoever manages to get hold of it becomes invisible at will, discovers hidden treasures, and is never sick”.

Golden grass was also said to have been used by cunning folk to help them find lost objects. For this to be effective, it was necessary for the grass to be picked on a Friday from a field with three corners, lying as close as possible to the parish church. Golden grass was notoriously difficult to find and was believed to only grow in the middle of hay and never covering an area greater than two square feet. In order to successfully locate this grass, it was crucial to know how many Fridays had passed since the field last saw haymaking. Armed with this knowledge, the witch or sorcerer approached the field from the west side. Heading east, they would count as many steps as there had been past Fridays before stopping at the exact spot to which they had been led; they were then able to pluck as many stems as their hat could hold.

This done, one had to throw their harvest into the nearest water course; the worthless grass being carried away downstream while the golden grass rose upstream. Having re-gathered the precious haul, a short incantation was offered aloud after which one needed to turn successively towards each of the three corners of the field, pronouncing aloud the name of the object one wished to recover. It was said that the person who was at that moment in possession of the missing item was then mysteriously compelled by an unknown force towards the carrier of this magical grass.

Collecting leaves
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However, some local traditions seem to offer a simpler way to locate golden grass: one need only to study the flight of a green woodpecker and when we see it stop near a grass against which it rubs its beak; we have discovered the precious plant. Thus fortified, the woodpecker can then cut through wood with ease, for this grass has the power of cutting even iron.

In addition to helping recover that which was lost, golden grass was popularly ascribed many other remarkable qualities; it could increase a man’s strength by tenfold so that he might cut an anvil with a scythe. It was also said that it ensured victory in a fight and provided its possessor with immunity from fatigue. In parts of eastern Brittany it had the gift of turning everything it touched into gold, except perhaps the beaks of woodpeckers.

Over the years, many people have striven to botanically identify golden grass. Some believe that it shares some characteristics with the carnivorous plants of the sundew family, more sinisterly known as the Devil’s ear in eastern Brittany. In his 1857 description of plants found near the River Loire and its tributaries, the botanist Alexandre Boreau recorded that “our peasants grant to the sundew magical and supernatural properties, such as that of breaking iron”. Others have found it suggestive that the aquatic herb known as dorine in French or golden saxifrage in English can sometimes give the appearance of resisting the current of small streams.  While many believe that the grass is most likely a member of the clubmoss family whose plants have long been utilised in traditional folk remedies and are still widely used in a broad range of homeopathic treatments today.

clubmoss
Clubmoss

The French folklorist Paul Sébillot noted that the belief in a grass which bewilders and beguiles people was once quite widespread in Brittany and the neighbouring regions of Anjou and Normandy. In Brittany, this grass was popularly known as the grass of oblivion and it was said that, when walked upon, it had the power to make one completely lose one’s sense of direction and there are several stories told of people who became imprisoned for long hours in their fields after having stepped on this grass through ignorance or accident.

The first written record of this plant is found in one of the earliest Breton-French dictionaries produced by Grégoire de Rostrenen in 1732. He describes it thus: “A creeping plant that looks like twisted green moss and which, they say, misleads those who walk on it at night, making them bewildered so that they forget their way”. The Breton scholar René-Francois Le Men, writing in 1870, called it ar ioten or the lost, reporting that: “after stepping on this grass you will turn all night long in an impassable circle and only at sunrise will you be able to find your way again”.

In his monumental work, Folk-Lore de France (1904), Sébillot notes a tradition from central Brittany relating to “the royal grass, which grows on the moor of Rohan near Saint-Mayeux. Although no one has ever seen it, it makes you lose the road, day and night, even for a man who is on horseback, if the hoof of his mount but rests on it”. In this same part of Brittany, if you thought that you had accidentally stepped on this magical grass, swiftly touching a piece of iron would help you to regain your way.

breton girl walking at dusk
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It has been told that, sometimes, an unfortunate traveller, hurrying home at sunset, unknowingly steps on the grass of oblivion and immediately loses their way. Ever alert, the mischievous korrigans, relishing the plight of this hapless soul, soon surround them and drag them into one of their endless circular dances. Sadly, daybreak will find our ill-fated traveller lying in the field, dead from exhaustion.

The grass of oblivion shared many of the magical attributes associated with other plants; like golden grass, it made it possible to understand the language of animals and to find lost items, and like the four leafed clover, it made it possible to thwart the tricks of sorcerers and was also said to grow where a mare gave birth to her first foal.

Some tales tell that the grass is sown by lightning or spontaneously emerges on Midsummer’s night. Several 19th century botanists noted the popular traditions surrounding this plant; some even going so far as to suggest that it is wolf’s-foot clubmoss, a vascular plant whose dust-like spores are highly flammable and were once used as a photographic flash powder. However, it is impossible for us today to determine with any certainty which plant is hiding behind the grass of oblivion.

Picking herbs
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Popular superstitions were once attached to other plants, often medicinal, that should not be stepped over or trampled upon. For instance, in south eastern Brittany, it was said that a pregnant woman who stepped over or even touched the common rue with the bottom of her dress would induce an abortion. The roots to this belief must surely lie in the fact that the plant, when ingested, has been widely noted as a powerful abortifacient since the writings of Pliny.

The legend of magical grass does not really need an actual plant to function and it is likely that the roots of such proclaimed magic lay in the observation of an unusual but nowadays likely explicable property in particular plants. Over time, fantastic properties were introduced which served to reinforce their unique magic and added to the plants’ celebrity; the myths becoming richer as their features merged or borrowed from one another. Perhaps the locations where the plants were noted were once important as fairy lore contains many examples of those who trespass upon certain places or commit some other transgression which sees them punished with sudden bewilderment, forgetfulness or vanishment; all states once thought brought on by these magical plants.

The Black Cat in Brittany

Mankind has a long and inconsistent history with the humble cat; venerated as a god in ancient Egypt but denounced as a servant of the devil by the Church in the 13th century, a sign of good luck in some cultures and an evil omen in others.

It is perhaps an obscure papal bull issued in 1232, condemning devil worship in Stedingerland, which helped to entrench in the popular imagination an association between the black cat and occult power. During the Middle Ages, in Europe, black cats were often believed to serve as a witch’s familiar – a demonic imp able to take on any animal form who acted as a witch’s close attendant, having been given to her by the Devil or gifted by another witch. Witches were also believed to be able to interpret the wails of a cat.

At the time, it was also commonly believed that witches could shape-shift into black cats to escape peril but witches could only change into a cat eight times before remaining forever in a feline form. Whether this is the source of the popular saying about cats having nine lives or its origin is something more prosaic concerning the animal’s uncanny ability to survive great falls; we will never know but nine has long been a ritually symbolic number.

Medieval cats
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The black cat as a symbol of a nocturnal, lunar beast associated with evil and death is found in many cultures across the world and in Brittany it was said to be one of the Devil’s many guises. Sometimes one might meet the Devil in this form at a crossroads but to enjoy a token of the Devil’s wealth it was necessary to sell him your soul, signing the contract with a little blood taken from the forefinger of your left hand. According to the terms of this pact, you would, after death, belong to the black cat; a creature popularly known here as Paolig, a Breton nickname for the Devil that literally translates to little Paul.

Some Breton tales expand on this theme and talk of the black cat as ar c’hazh arc’hant (a money cat) that was given to a witch as a gift from the Devil in exchange for her soul. To secure such a cat it was said to be necessary to visit a crossroads at midnight and there invoke the Devil. The witch’s supplications would be rewarded by the appearance of a large black cat who would be accompanied by another smaller cat which would be given to the witch along with a purse containing a few gold coins. If well cared for, the cat would start wandering at night; returning each morning with a gift of gold coins for its witch but upon the expiry of the contract period, the cat immediately takes the witch’s soul to the Devil.

However, one was said to have eight out of nine chances to escape his clutches; odds that perhaps explain why many folk were thought tempted to sell their eternal souls for temporal riches. All contracts, awarded by the black cat, were held to be written down in chronological order on his ledger but he had an undisputed right only to every ninth entry. One could never know one’s ranking in the Devil’s account book and so it was always necessary to take care to avoid his claws as the hour of your death drew near.

Malevolent cat
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One Breton tale relates the story of a weaver from Quintin who, as a teenager, sold her soul to the Devil in exchange for a chest full of new clothes made of the finest linen. When she died many years later, the pallbearers at her funeral were embarrassed to find themselves unable to lift her diminutive coffin from the table. These men were millers; healthy and strong but they could not envisage how they might carry such a weight to the church. Imagining some trick was being played on them, they opened the coffin and were startled as a big black cat jumped out and ran away through the open doorway.

Another tale concerning the capture of a ‘money cat’ says that a person who wished to possess such a beast should stay several nights at an intersection of five roads with only a dead hen in a sack for company. One’s patience would be rewarded by the appearance of the cat which you would lure towards you with the dead hen. Once captured, the cat was to be placed in the sack which needed to be tied securely with white twine. It was then necessary to travel immediately and without deviation to what would become the cat’s new home but on no account were you to look behind you, no matter what noises you heard following you. Only once home could the cat be let out of the bag and transferred to a chest where it would be kept until tamed. When fully tamed and comfortable, the cat would reward its owner with a gift of gold; new coins appearing in the chest every morning.

These black cats were said be tremendously loyal to their temporary custodian but only if they were treated as the master of the house and fed with the first morsels of food at mealtimes and succoured with milk from the breast. However, one tradition holds that this cat serves not one but nine masters and takes only the soul of the last of these. For those owners who wished to renege on their agreement with the Devil it was vital that the cat be passed on to someone else before their death. It is said that there was once a market, held each year at Christmas in Gourin, central Brittany, which was established solely for the trading of black cats. Alas, this market eventually became a victim of its own popularity; deluged with throngs of people from across Brittany and further afield, the commune banned the market to save the town from chaos and the gaze of the evil eye that fell upon it as a result of the presence of so many diabolical cats.

Witches' familiars
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Breton tales often like to portray a balance in nature and stories involving the black cat are no exception, for the animal brings not just wealth but also misfortune. There are many versions of such tales that typically follow a pattern similar to this:

Barely scraping a living from his meagre plot of land, a poor but decent man reluctantly concludes that the only way that he can be sure to feed his ever-growing family is by selling his immortal soul. One night, he walks to a desolate spot where five roads cross and there makes his deal with the Devil. In return, he secures a black cat which he takes home, giving it a place of honour near the hearth. The family treat the cat well and always ensure it gets the first taste of their pottage and is breast fed before their baby son. Settled and content, the cat very soon starts disappearing at night, returning each morning with a purse full of gold coins. It is not long before the once impoverished family are richer than they ever imagined possible.

However, the Devil’s bargain only lasts for one year and with the deadline looming, the now wealthy farmer turns his mind towards settling his account and surrendering his soul. Suddenly, the bargain does not seem as appealing as it did a year ago and the man anxiously searches for a solution to his plight. He tried to sell his cat but no one was willing to take it and the market in Gourin had not been staged for many years. Seemingly, his only hope was the parish rector who, to his great relief, agreed to rid the household of the cat in exchange for a portion of the Devil’s gold.

Late the following night, accompanied by two other priests from the parish, the rector arrived to perform the exorcism. The cat was not expected to return to the house until a little before daybreak and so the priests readied themselves, earnestly praying as they donned their surplices and stoles. The cat must have returned sometime around four o’clock because shortly after that hour, the house trembled with the noise of harsh shouts, terrible screams and appalling blasphemies. Suddenly, a frightful crash of thunder shook the house and an eerie silence descended across the farm.

Bowman and cat
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The priests, whose faces and vestments were now as black as soot, had succeeded; the Devil had been cheated and the black cat was gone. They bade the mistress of the house prepare them a hearty lunch and relayed a little of how they managed to capture the cat and the fierce struggle that had ensued. They told of how they had bested the Devil and that as he returned to Hell, in his rage, he broke wind with such ferocity that the priests were knocked to the ground. The rector explained that it was this sulphurous miasma that had blackened their garments and fouled the air.

Unhappily, the story does not end there, for it is reported that the poisoned air spread across the land contaminating the potatoes and giving them mildew. Denied his bargain, the Devil took his revenge on the farmland; the leaves of the potatoes were as black as charcoal, so, could only have come from the fires of Hell. Similarly, the stench of the diseased crop could only be the smell of a roasting from Hell. It is unsurprising that the story is usually set in 1845-6, the years of a ruinous potato blight in Brittany.

There were several ways to outwit the Devil and emerge unscathed with a little of his wealth. In one example it was necessary to take a pitch fork, a completely white feathered hen and some golden grass to a point where two roads intersect. When the black cat appears at midnight it is crucial to immediately release the hen so that the cat chases after it. The hen while running away will scream that the cat has better things to do than chase her. The golden grass will allow you to understand the languages of the beasts, so that when the cat responds to say that he can stop watching over the treasure buried in such-and-such a place for a few minutes, time enough to catch a chicken, you will learn where the treasure is hidden and need only to quickly dig it up with your fork. Even assuming the animals obligingly followed the anticipated script, securing the semi-mythical golden grass would likely have made this a most challenging enterprise!

Sometimes, folklore offers us contradictory advice for it was once said that those who owned a black cat should not allow it to leave the house else it would attend a witches’ sabbath and no longer bring home any gold. Although most Breton folk tales seem to indicate that closed doors will not contain a cat as it is often said to be the form most favoured by fairies and witches; two notoriously nocturnal anti-social groups held to be able to assume the form of almost any animal and travel at will.  

Witches and black cats
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It was once believed that, on certain nights, witches liked to congregate in secret at the ancient dolmens and circles of standing stones that pepper the Breton landscape. If anyone happened to stumble upon their circle or was caught spying on these nocturnal meetings, they seldom lived long. Others, terrified at the sight presented by the gleaming eyes of these witches cum cats, fled in terror and found that the hair of their heads had turned white as snow from dread. Long afterwards, they would sit by the fireside trembling visibly at nothing and when asked about their very evident fears would only groan balefully.

A popular story was told of Yann Foucault, who one moonlight night, was returning from a successful day at the fair in Rostrenen where he had celebrated the sale of his crop a little too robustly in the town’s many taverns. The cool night air was as invigorating as the lambig he had been drinking and he walked merrily at pace along the road that crossed the high moor towards home. The moon emerged from behind a thick cloud just as Yann rounded a bend illuminating a sight that instantly dropped the song from his throat and made the blood freeze hard in his veins.

Before him, ranged in a circle around an old wayside cross hewn from a block of cold granite were at least two dozen cats, all of immense size and of all colours and hues. Yann began to tremble as though he was caught in the grip of a terrible fever, for the cats were wailing, hunching their backs high and shaking their tails. The poor man was frozen in fear, mesmerised by the spectacle of the cats’ hairs bristling on their backs as though being pulled upwards by the very moon itself and their eyes, like hot coals, darting fire across the night. The dreadful caterwauling rose to a crescendo as the cats sprang towards him and it was at this point that Yann gave himself up for lost.

Fully expecting to be torn to pieces, he closed his eyes tightly and began reciting a prayer but instead of feeling claws scratching at his flesh, he felt an animal pushing against his legs. Yann opened his eyes and immediately recognised his own cat, now purring loudly, stroking his leg with her tail and fawning over him with clear affection. He was dumbfounded as the animal looked up at him, saying: “Pass, my master, Yann Foucault”. A great silver tomcat, whom Yann supposed to be the leader, nodded in agreement and also spoke in the language of men to say: “It is well, go on your way, Yann Foucault.”

Cats dancing at witches sabbath
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Fairy lore in Brittany sometimes directly connects cats and fairies, such as in the legend of the fairies of the Emerald Coast. In that tale, the fairies manage to attract a group of fishermen to join them in their nocturnal dances under the light of the full moon. Having gone willingly, the men were soon bewitched and transformed into six black cats and six white cats. Their only hope of regaining human form was to weave a golden mantle and silver robe for the fairies using only the sand of the seashore. Once their task was accomplished, the men regained their human form but history does not tell us how many years had passed by then. In another tale, a fairy changeling is unmasked having betrayed himself by uttering a most curious exclamation: “I was born in Pif and Paf, in the country where cats are made, but I never saw anything like it!”

Like the fairy folk, the black cat is often representative of nocturnal intrusions and stealthy movement, both qualities closely aligned with witches who were thought to assume feline form to better access the hidden world of magic. Some Breton traditions held that black cats themselves were witches but only when they had not had the end of their tails cut off.

Witches and their cats
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Black cats were sometimes ascribed supernatural powers independent of their association with witchcraft. For instance, it was thought they could prevent the bread from rising if they entered a bakery and could spoil the catch if they crossed the path of fishermen. Other superstitions abounded, such as no cat that had been purchased would ever catch mice, and that the pupils of a cat’s eyes were so linked to the moon that they changed colour and dilated during a rising tide.

Finding a black cat with only one white hair was considered most auspicious as it was said that anyone who could pluck a white hair from a black cat without getting scratched would receive great riches or else great love. One belief from southern Brittany warned against accidentally swallowing a cat hair as it could turn into a snake in one’s stomach and cause a most painful death.

In yesterday’s Brittany, a woman seeking a husband needed to avoid treading on a cat’s tail – in the west of the region the bad luck was said to last for seven years but in the east it was held to last for as many years as the cat had shrieked. If a cat left a house or stopped jumping on its owner’s bed, the person was thought likely to die soon although a cat lying on the bed of one who was dying was quickly moved away for fear that it might be the Devil waiting to carry away a soul to Hell. To kill a cat was to bring grave misfortune upon its owner or their household.

Le Chat Noir
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Many traditional Breton folk remedies involved cats; to recover quickly from a bad fall, one needed to suck the blood from the freshly amputated tail of a male cat. Similarly, blood from the tail of a black cat was said to have healing properties if rubbed on the affected area; while stroking the tail of a black cat across a wart during the period of the new moon in May was said to be a sure way to make it disappear.

An invisibility spell from an 18th century Breton grimoire or book of spells called for a completely black cat and a brand new cooking pot that was filled with water and brought to the boil. Once boiling, the unfortunate cat was introduced to the pot and boiled alive until totally defleshed. It was then necessary to pick the 250 or so bones out of this unholy broth and taking each, one at a time, put them between your teeth until you could no longer see your reflection in a mirror. The bone that you held between your teeth at that moment was said to be the one that could make you invisible every time you held it between your teeth thereafter.

Similarly, eating the warm brain of a freshly killed cat was also said to grant one the power of invisibility and several other Breton spells of invisibility involved replacing the eyes of a cat with beans and burying the animal’s carcass in a dung-heap for a day. The beans then needed to be placed under one’s tongue for the spell to work.

Cat from medieval manuscript
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The power of cats could be contained and turned to one’s advantage if certain rituals were followed, such as applying butter to their paws or cutting off their tail when first homed. Similarly, burying a dead cat in an apple orchard was thought to make diseased trees bear fruit again. Enclosing live cats within the walls of buildings seems also to have once been regarded as a powerful talisman as cat bones have been discovered in many sites across Brittany, including the 14th century Château de Combourg; childhood home of François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) one of Brittany’s most important authors. In his memoirs, he evokes his lonely childhood and nights spent tormented by nightmares of a man with a wooden leg who haunted the staircase of his turret chamber, sometimes he dreamt that the wooden leg wandered alone accompanied by a black cat. Some 30 years after Chateaubriand’s death, the skeleton of a cat was found inside the tower’s walls during renovation work.

The belief that the cat possessed an innate power, usually malevolent, seems to have once been quite widespread in France and other European countries. How else might we explain the common instances of the torture and slaying of cats in the literature and history of the 17th and 18th centuries? Perhaps these were manifestations of a popular desire to protect against the malevolent power of witchcraft; destroying the cat, destroyed its power and that of its associates?

Medieval scene hunting a cat
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In some parts of France during this period, festivals were held that revolved around roasting live cats over bonfires or throwing the animals high into the air to smash into the ground. Even as late as the middle of the 17th century, when the practice was officially proscribed, live cats were tied up in sacks and thrown onto Midsummer bonfires although the practice was still reported in the east of France well into the following century. The persistence of this practice may have been related to the once popular belief that cats, witches and other disciples of the Devil participated in grand sabbaths on Midsummer’s Eve. I have found no record of similar practices taking place in Brittany and feel confident that they would have been noted had they existed or even been hinted at.

Perhaps this suspicion of the black cat is rooted in a fear of the cat’s fiercely independent nature and its ability to move with effortless grace in the hours of darkness. Whatever the reason, cats possess a quality that has fascinated mankind since the dawn of recorded time and the animal has long held significant symbolic weight in the folklore of Brittany and other parts of the world. Even today, we here probably make more symbolic use of cats than of any other animal and the language remains rich with cat related idioms and proverbs.

The Druids of Brittany

The druids of antiquity remain an enigma and a constant source of, sometimes, fanciful speculation. Their roles in Celtic society were as broad as they were integral to daily life; story-teller, sage, teacher, priest, judge, sorcerer and keeper of the tribe’s laws and traditions. Yet, very little is known for certain about them; they did not share their knowledge with the uninitiated and kept no records of their own but their influence lingered longest in the remotest realms of the Celts, such as in Brittany.

The little that we know about the mysterious druids comes from comments made about them in the writings of the Greek historians Strabo and Diodorus of Sicily who drew upon earlier works by Timagenes of Alexandria and Alexander of Miletus. Unfortunately, these earliest sources are now lost but the writings of their Roman contemporary, Julius Caesar, remain in print to this day. His account of the Gallic Wars of the 1st century BC recorded several observations on the customs and religious practices of the Celtic tribes of Gaul and Britain; to which we can add a few additional details recounted in works by the Roman authors Pliny and Tacitus about a century later.

From these fragments, we note that the Celts of antiquity possessed a distinct aristocracy of bards, priests and judges who exercised considerable power among the populace. Accounts differ as to the rigidity of the boundaries that separated these three groups; Caesar noted only two privileged classes in Celtic society, warriors and druids. Later authors suggested a discrete druidical hierarchy of poets and story-tellers, soothsayers and diviners, and at the apex of this elite class; the philosophers cum sorcerers known as druids, who themselves constituted an organized group under an Arch-druid who would rule until his death, when a successor would be chosen by vote or through force of arms.

Whether functions were so clearly divided or not, the druids represented a powerful grouping of respected religious leaders. Their activities and responsibilities appear to have encompassed all aspects of daily life; from politics and justice, both as counsellors and judges, to administering the sacred side of Celtic life supervising divine worship and sacrificial ritual. Druids were custodians of the tribe’s history, the crucial genealogies of its leaders and curators of its oral traditions and culture. They were also involved in foretelling the future through the interpretation of sacrifices and augurs from the natural world such as the flight and calls of birds.

A Druid
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The Druids were an essential bridge between the people and their gods and were believed to stand between the mortal world and the Otherworld. This link to the divine, coupled with their profound knowledge of magic and healing, likely saw them feared as much as venerated by their communities. While there is evidence to suggest that some Celts were literate, the druids’ knowledge was not committed to parchment but only ever transmitted orally. Caesar tells us that the island of Britain was the home of druidism and that, aspiring druids, usually men of rank and nobility, travelled there for as many as 20 years of instruction in poetry, history, law, healing, religious rites, magic, divination and philosophy. According to one 1st century Roman author, such instruction was secret and carried out in sacred caves and forests and required the precise learning of at least 700 poetical sagas alone.

The writings of Caesar also tell us that the druids took a keen interest in astronomy, geography, theology and natural philosophy but, beyond this, very little is known of the secrets into which new druids were initiated. However, you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, as many authors attribute all manner of beliefs to the druids, confidently replacing speculation with certitude. Unfortunately, the neo-druidic movement of the 19th century and its later manifestations has helped confuse the waters regarding the popular perception of the roles and beliefs of the Celtic druids of antiquity.

The 1st century writers contemporaneous with the druids noted that they believed in the indestructibility and inevitable transmigration of the soul; a powerful belief that made the Celts fearless warriors in battle.  The druids were also said to believe in a tribal spirit who was the first of men; ancestor of all the tribe and its guardian spirit. It was said that all orders of society accepted their authority and that they were held in such regard that their intervention could stop battles between warring factions. Furthermore, druids held the power to banish anyone from any religious celebration thus making them total social outcasts from the life of the tribe.

Druidic teaching
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Any private sacrifice to the gods required the attendance of a druid as they were the only recognised intermediaries between the domains of the mortal and the divine. Some writers claimed that they sacrificed both animals and humans to the gods and foretold the future by observing the death convulsions and blood flow of the victims. Caesar’s account notes that human sacrifices usually involved criminals such as thieves and that victims were often burnt alive within a large effigy made of wooden branches and wickerwork, now popularly known as a Wicker Man. There is much debate as to the veracity of the claims that the ancient Celts practised human sacrifice to their gods; some historians regard such claims as Roman propaganda projecting what they viewed as barbarian traits onto foreign peoples.

The popular image of venerable white-robed, bearded old men gathering mistletoe is primarily one that we owe to Pliny and the romantic engravings of the 18th century. Pliny tells us that the druids held nothing more sacred than mistletoe and that they never performed their religious rites without employing branches of it. The plant was also believed to make barren animals fertile and be an effective antidote for all poisons. Gathering the mistletoe was done with much ritual, it being said that it was cut down with a golden sickle by a druid clad in white and immediately followed by the sacrifice of two white bulls. This ceremony took place on the fifth day of the moon, the day which, in the Celtic calendar, marked the beginning of the months and years. On this day, the moon was considered particularly auspicious, being hailed as all-healing.

Caesar also noted that senior druids congregated to meet annually at a sacred place in the region occupied by the Carnute tribe between the rivers Seine and Loire. This idea of a brotherhood that transcended tribal differences – druids could cross tribal boundaries and conflict zones without fear of hindrance or harassment – directed by an Arch-druid who effectively wielded pan-national control was likely a key consideration behind the Roman effort to suppress druidism. Some authors have even gone so far as to suggest that cutting the head off the druidic movement was one of the key drivers behind the Roman invasion of Britain in 43AD.

The Wicker Man
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The Romans clearly viewed the druids as a real threat to their control over the newly subjugated Celtic tribes as Druidism was one of the very few religious movements banned by them, being heavily proscribed under several emperors. This is significant because the Romans were generally tolerant of indigenous beliefs and their practitioners or else adopted a policy of Romanising local deities, supplanting them with gods from their own pantheon; an approach subsequently adopted by the Christian Church (another religion once banned by the Romans) a few centuries later.

Roman suppression was so successful that by the seventh decade of the 1st century, Pliny was able to note that: “The Gallic provinces were pervaded by the magic art, and that even down to a period within memory; for it was the Emperor Tiberius that put down their druids and all that tribe of wizards and physicians. At the present day, struck with fascination, Britannia still cultivates this art.” Writing a little later, Tacitus provides us with one of the last contemporary accounts that we have of the druids when he describes the Roman invasion of the British island of Anglesey, ‘a refuge for fugitives’, in 60AD.

“On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with dishevelled hair, waving firebrands. All around, the druids, lifting up their hands to heaven and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if paralysed, they stood motionless. Then urged by their general’s appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was next set over the conquered and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed.”

Druids and Romans
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We do not know how important Anglesey was for the Celts and their druids but some have suggested that the island was at the very centre of druidism or that it was the location where the druids had withdrawn in order to escape the relentless march of the Roman invaders. Whatever the truth, the defeat at Anglesey represented a crushing blow to the power of the druids who quickly disappear from the historical record thereafter.

Given what we know of druidic organisation, it is unlikely that all the druids were slaughtered in Anglesey in 60AD; surely some, possibly most, would have been at home with their tribes spread across the Celtic world, albeit one that was shrinking under the weight of Roman occupation. Perhaps druidism continued in the remoter Celtic fringes of Roman rule for some time, slowly dying away as the culture that had sustained it changed forever? With no real military or political power, the Celtic tribes steadily lost land and leadership to their Roman overlords; tribal kings and chieftains were either removed or replaced with a candidate acceptable to the Romans and thus, over time, the old aristocracy, of which the druids were an integral part, lost its command and relevance. However, it is not inconceivable that the druids retained their importance by focusing on particular skills that were valued in their communities, such as story-telling or healing and that their re-badged existence remained hidden behind designations such as poet, physician or magician.

Another body of evidence concerning the druids can be found in the mythology of Wales, Ireland and Brittany and in the hagiographies of some early Celtic saints but even here allusions are scant with just a few Irish myths containing references to druids and even less in the myths of Wales and Brittany. These ‘early’ accounts were set down during the Medieval period but likely derive from much earlier oral traditions and it is, of course, possible, that many other tales were lost to history before anyone thought to transcribe them for posterity. However, we should remember that these Medieval sources were set down by Christian monks and thus predominantly portray druids as seers and wizards, never as priests.

Druids and Mistletoe
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One of the unique legends associated with the druids of Brittany comes from the writings of Strabo referencing the work of Poseidonius of Rhodes, a man who had actually spent some time amongst the Celts in the early part of the 1st century BC. Strabo tells of a community of women who were devotees of a secret cult of Dionysus. These women lived on a small island not far from the mouth of the river Loire and upon which no man was permitted to set foot upon. Once a year, it was the custom of these women to un-roof their temple and re-roof it again on the same day before sunset. Each woman brought her load to help add to the new roof but if any of them allowed their burden to fall to the ground during the ceremony she was instantly torn to pieces by her companions who bore her remains around the site in great frenzy. Strabo notes wryly that someone always jostled the woman who was to suffer this fate.

Strabo writes that the women were ‘possessed by Dionysus’ which probably means that they worshipped an unidentified Celtic deity with many of the same attributes as the Roman deity Bacchus; god of wine and fertility. Although he does not equate them with the druids, it is most likely that they were; they were said to be the guardians of the oracle of a Celtic god and only druids could perform such a role. It is worth noting that roofed temples were almost unheard of amongst the Celts before Roman influence dominated and some have suggested that the temple of these women might have been within a dolmen or circle of standing stones.

Sacred Grove of the Druids
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The Roman geographer Pomponius Mela, writing around 43AD, talks of another island off the west coast of Brittany; the Île de Sein. This island was described as the dwelling place of a group of nine female virgins known as the Gallicenae. These virgins were said to be Celtic priestesses who worshipped a god of prophecy whose shrine they guarded on this windswept island buffeted by the Atlantic Ocean. Many magical powers were attributed to these women; their voices charmed nature so that they could dominate the elements, conjuring great storms; exciting or calming the winds and waves according to their whims. They were said to be able to shape-shift into animals and to possess the ability to cure even the most impossible of diseases. The Gallicenae were also held to be most powerful seers but would only share the secrets of the future with those pilgrims who made the dangerous journey to consult them personally.

These ladies of the island do not appear in any other ancient accounts nor were they recounted by Pliny who based much of his work on that of Mela. We should therefore be a little cautious before assuming that these priestesses were obviously druids. They might have been but they could just as easily have been a fanciful geographical transposition of a cult of Apollo, the Greco-Roman god of prophecy and healing; an oracular god closely associated with the nine muses who also spoke only through chaste women. It is interesting to note that these priestesses possessed the very same attributes that were later given to Brittany’s fairies, who were often described as the damned spirits of Celtic princesses who had been cursed for refusing to accept Christianity.

The Gallicenae appear in several Breton tales and in some versions of the legend of Ker-Is; a sunken lost city which is traditionally purported to lie between the Breton mainland and the Île de Sein. In these tales, the pagan Princess Dahud visits the nine priestesses on the Île de Sein to ask them to raise the towers of her city and to build a massive dyke in order to better protect the city from the ocean. Some stories say that the Gallicenae sent the korrigans to construct the city’s formidable protective walls, while others add that the korrigans were also despatched to tempt the city’s Christians away from their faith.

Druid Priestesses
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Another interesting association between the Gallicenae and the magical korrigans is found in Ar Rannou, an old Breton folk song portraying a dialogue between a druid and an inquisitive child. One of the druid’s mysterious answers tells that: “There are nine korrigans, who dance, with flowers in their hair, and robes of white wool, around the fountain, by the light of the full moon”. The reference to dancing in the moonlight may be more than just poetic imagery as some have suggested that this verse actually references dancing in honour of the moon. The archaic Celts venerated the moon and this tradition was still extant in the 17th century when the Jesuit missions noted, with alarm, that it was customary for the people of the Île de Sein to kneel before the new moon and to recite the Lord’s prayer in its honour and on the first day of the year, to make an offering of bread at the fountains in honour of the moon.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to date this seeming conflation of two traditions concerning magical beings as the song we know today was first collected from the oral tradition and set down as recently as 1844. However, it has been argued that the song is of great antiquity, possibly containing fragments from as early as the 5th century although others suggest the 15th century. Those who argue for the earlier date see strong traces of druidic teaching in these verses. Caesar tells us that the druids were public instructors and taught the doctrines of natural and moral philosophy to the young and the song contains many of the general characteristics one might expect of druidic doctrines on divinity, metaphysics, history, geography and cosmogony; delivered in the enigmatic and obscure phrasing ascribed to them by the Greek writer Diogenes Laërtius.

Female Druid
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Some tantalising glimpses of the beliefs of the ancient Celts and their druids survived, albeit much debased, into the modern era, surviving in superstitious practices such as the observances connected with Midsummer and Halloween; harvest rituals including corn dollies; and the tradition of auspicious or unlucky birds and animals. Even today, some folk still ‘touch wood’ without realising its likely association with the ancient Celtic practice of making solemn vows in front of trees while stretching out a hand upon the tree trunk.

Given their deep attachment to hidden knowledge and secret teachings as well as their aversion to the written word, it is perhaps fitting that the druids retain their aura of mystery, even to this day.

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