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. This is 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 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 boasts 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 and untended 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 palm trees 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, in 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 privately owned 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 they were 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 since around 4000BC 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 to the island in a stone boat. Given its strategic position marking the southern entrance into the English Channel, the area witnessed a number of significant naval battles between the 16th and 20th centuries. The treacherous reefs and currents 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 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 a little after eleven o’clock at night 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, another 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 had lost his grip on a makeshift raft sometime 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 Ouessant, 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 Great 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 virgins 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 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!

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.

The Standing Stones of Brittany

Brittany is said to have the greatest concentration of megalithic sites in the world. These megaliths range from single standing stones to complex alignments stretching for miles and massive man-made tumuli the size of a small hill. Older than the written word, their meanings remain clouded in mystery, shrouded in superstition and folklore.

The epoch known as the Neolithic, towards the end of the Stone Age, saw primitive man emerge from his cave dwellings and create fixed purpose-built settlements. It was a time when mankind turned from reliance on nomadic hunting for subsistence to the cultivation of crops; animals were domesticated for the first time and rudimentary but effective tools and earthenware vessels developed. In Europe, as elsewhere, one of the greatest reminders of the technological and cultural development that took place in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age are the megalithic monuments that still pepper the landscape.

Here in Brittany, it is virtually impossible to travel more than a few miles without seeing some form of ancient megalith. Many sites are well cared for or have been fenced but most stand mute in forests or heathland, or else surrounded by crops of maize or sit rather incongruously amidst a carefully manicured lawn.

The megaliths here were mainly erected between about 4,500BC to 1,500BC and range from single standing stones known as menhirs (Breton for long stone), some as tall as eight metres, to careful alignments of stones that stretch for miles; from a simple dolmen (Breton for stone table) to more complex passage tombs. In its most basic form, a dolmen can consist of just three stone slabs; two set upright supporting a flatter slab that formed the roof of a burial chamber. The whole structure would originally have been covered by stones and earth forming a small mound and where such mantles survive they are called cairns or tumuli. Finally, when a series of dolmens are built side-by-side, effectively forming a covered passageway to one or more burial chambers, the structure is known as an allée couverte or gallery grave.

Dolmen
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With such a richness of megalithic sites, it would be impossible to do justice to Brittany’s Neolithic heritage in a blog post, so, I shall simply highlight a few of the monuments that have impressed me here the most.

The world’s largest dolmen, or more correctly allée couverte, is known as La Roche-aux-Fées (the Rock of the Fairies) and stands near Essé in eastern Brittany. Constructed from 32 upright stones with nine roof slabs, this structure is almost 20 metres long by five metres wide and at its highest point inside is over four metres high. The massive stones were likely quarried about 4km (2.5 miles) away and dragged to this site some 5,000 years ago. As with many megalithic tombs, it is aligned to catch the sun’s first rays at the winter solstice.

Local folklore ascribed the construction of this dolmen to the fairies who, according to some accounts, completed the work in just one night. However, 13km (8 miles) away at Saulnières is another monument said to have been built by the fairies, La Table aux Fées (Table of the Fairies). This was apparently built by them to serve as a table where they could eat and rest after carrying the giant rocks from the quarry to La Roche-aux-Fées. The presence of many of the neighbourhood menhirs were once explained away as discarded building stones; at the precise moment the structure was completed, the fairies carrying their now superfluous stones, one under each arm, simply dropped them where the stood. It was also said that the fairies had placed a spell of confoundment upon their erection so that no count of the number of stones would consistently tally.

Another tale tells that the structure was built by the fairies to shelter the souls of the just but that these fairies disappeared with the retreat of the forest. Since then, the whistling of the wind between the stones was held to be the lamentations of souls no longer visited by the fairies.

Roche aux Fees
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It was once a local tradition for couples wishing to marry, to visit the stones on the night of a new moon and to walk around them in different directions; the women going clockwise and the men counter-clockwise, counting the stones as they did so. If the lovers agreed on the number of stones, not necessarily the correct one, it was said that their marriage would be a happy one.

While the trees surrounding the stones at La Roche-aux-Fées might have dwindled over the ages, it took a fierce wild fire in Brocéliande to expose a major megalithic site that had long been lost to memory and the forces of nature. Prior to 1976, it was thought that just three menhirs, the tallest of which was 5 metres high, existed at Monteneuf but the fires that ravaged the countryside that year uncovered many more fallen stones. In fact, an archaeological survey undertaken in the 1990s identified over four hundred, including an alignment of seven rows of standing stones oriented east-west. Carbon dating of deposits in the holes used to site the stones has shown that the first stones were erected around 4,500BC and that construction of the site continued for at least 1,500 years. Sadly, the stones were toppled in the Middle Ages, likely at the behest of the religious authorities of the day seeking to rid the land of symbols of paganism.

The alignment at Monteneuf with its 42 standing stones is an impressive testament to the perseverance and industry of prehistoric man but even this pales a little when you visit the Carnac Alignments, where the main sites contain over 3,000 menhirs arranged in about a dozen rows over 4km (2.5 miles) long; the largest concentration of megaliths in the world and first erected some 5,500 years ago. As you head east away from the site of the alignments at Menec, the site’s largest menhir – the Giant of Manio – looms seven metres tall.

Some archaeologists believe that these alignments once served as ceremonial avenues leading to a large enclosure where ritual gatherings took place and that the original, simple avenues were distorted over the millennia by people superstitiously adding new stones each year. Others have suggested that the alignments possibly once extended to twice the length of what we see today; we know that until the 1960s people would regularly dig out stones to re-purpose elsewhere, so, it is difficult to image what might have been lost over the millennia.

There are many legends surrounding the alignments of Carnac; some say that they were produced by Brittany’s little folk, the magical korrigans; others tell of the wizard Merlin cursing a Roman legion to stone or that they are the remains of ancient Bretons so determined to stand fast against the invading Romans that their resolution turned them to stone. Yet another legend tells us that Saint Korneli, the patron saint of horned animals, having been pursued to the edge of the sea by a pagan mob resentful of his evangelising activities, changed his pursuers to stone.

Carnac Alignments
The Carnac Alignments.

Carnac also boasts several dolmens in addition to the Tumulus of Kercado, erected in 5,700BC and thought to be the earliest stone construction in Europe and the awe inspiring Tumulus of Saint Michael, a structure that offers a stunning example of the degree of effort that primitive man put into building 6000 years ago; shifting 35,000 cubic metres of stone and earth to form an artificial hill covering a tomb for just one person. However, an excavation at the turn of the 20th century discovered a second dolmen within the tumulus, indicating that a later burial took place at this auspicious site. A small chapel dedicated to the Archangel Michael now stands atop the tumulus on the site of an earlier 17th century structure.

In times past, women, whose husbands were at sea, used to sweep out the chapel in the direction that they wanted to see a favourable wind blow. They would then pray at the sacred fountain near the base of the tumulus and drink its water. This fountain was also held to have divining powers; to know who had stolen from you, it was necessary to visit the fountain on a Monday having not broken one’s fast and cast pieces of bread into the water while reciting a list of suspects. The name of the thief would be identified when a piece of bread sank immediately after their name was called.

Just 13km (8 miles) east, the town of Locmariaquer is home to a number of impressive megaliths. Three are particularly worth noting, such as the remarkable Table des Marchands; a large dolmen erected some 5,800 years ago that features wonderful prehistoric decorations, and the Great Menhir of Er Groac’h (Long Stone of the Fairies in Breton), at 21 metres high and weighing 280 tonnes, this was the largest monolith ever erected by humans at this time but it is now broken into four pieces.

While the finds from the first excavation of the Table des Marchands have disappeared, those discovered at the nearby Tumulus du Ruyk, which was found to be intact and undisturbed when explored in 1863, are safely housed in a local museum. Immediately on entering the chamber was found a large pendant carved from green jasper and in the centre, a large ring of jadite and the head of an axe, also of jadite, its point resting on the ring. Nearby, were three large jasper pendants and an axe-head of white jade. Clearly, these valuable objects were deliberately placed and formed a straight line that coincided exactly with one of the diagonals of the chamber. Other pendants were found in the main chamber as well as 104 other axe-heads – a noted symbol of power. Jadite axe heads were also found in the Tumulus of Saint Michael and carved representations exist in several megalithic sites across Brittany. Interestingly, no traces of bone or cinders were found; the structure must therefore likely have been a cenotaph. At the entrance to the rectangular chamber is a sculptured slab, on which is carved a mysterious rune, perhaps the totem of a once important chieftain?

The engraved stones at Gavrinis

Another stunning Neolithic structure, known as the Gavrinis Cairn, is located just a few kilometres east across the Auray estuary on a small island; the sea level having risen about ten metres in the 5,500 years since its construction. The structure boasts a 14 metre long passageway that leads to a large circular chamber that served as a tomb, although some suggest it might have been used as a temple. The chamber is made up of about 50 slabs of rock which support the largest stone, the ceiling slab, estimated to weigh about 17 tonnes but it is not their size that makes these stones so special but their decoration; the majority feature remarkable carvings of men, cows, axes and bows as well as stunning geometric patterns in spirals and concentric lines.

Some have suggested that these designs are evidence of prehistoric palmistry; the hand being a symbol of power. Others have interpreted the designs as a map of the fabled lost city of Atlantis. The decoration on one of the stones matches exactly those found on the ceiling stone of the Table des Marchands, suggesting that both stones once formed part of a single block that had been part of an earlier monument and subsequently re-purposed.

In 2006, builders clearing a piece of wasteland in preparation for the construction of a housing development in Belz, just a few kilometres west, struck an enormous block of granite; the rump of a buried menhir. An archaeological excavation uncovered another 60 fallen menhirs, all approximately some two metres in length and indicative of a once significant alignment. Experts believe that the stones were erected and then deliberately toppled sometime around 2,500BC.

Unlike other important Neolithic sites where the soil of the period has generally been corrupted by man or eroded by the passage of time, at Belz the Neolithic sub-soil on which the stones were erected has been preserved. This has allowed researchers to uncover traces of the original earthworks and the methods used to assemble and position the menhirs. The fact that the stones were erected and then deliberately toppled was an important discovery, suggesting a significant cultural or religious shift towards the end of the Neolithic period.

It is in the north of the region that Brittany’s second tallest standing stone is found, a few kilometres south of Dol-de-Bretagne. The Menhir de Champ-Dolent stands over nine metres high and was long regarded as the tallest menhir in Brittany until one in the west of the region was confirmed as standing just 20cm (8 inches) taller. Estimated to weigh about 100 tonnes, this block of granite was Christianized in the early 19th century when it was surmounted by a wooden cross but this has since been removed. According to local legend, the menhir fell from the skies to separate two feuding brothers and their armies who were engaged in a great battle at the site. Another legend tells that the menhir is slowly sinking into the ground, and the world will end on the day when it disappears completely.

Cairn
Cairn de Barnenez

Overlooking the Bay of Morlaix, the Cairn de Barnenez is the largest megalithic tomb in Europe, measuring some 75m x 25m, and also one of the world’s oldest structures, predating the pyramids of Gizah by some two thousand years. Just as in the Tumulus of Saint Michael, the cairn contains burial chambers from differing periods, the initial five chambers dating to around 4,500BC and a second group of six that were added about 400 years later. This massive structure dominates a little peninsula and would have made a considerable impact on our prehistoric ancestors. Today, we can be just as impressed by the commitment of those same people to have moved over 7,000 cubic metres of stone, weighing in excess of 14,000 tonnes to build this monument.

Sadly, the presence of all this stone saw the site used as a quarry as late as 1955 when some of the cairn’s dolmens were exposed. Excavations in the 1960s found Neolithic pottery, axes and arrowheads as well as pottery from the Bronze Age and several of the passageways and chambers were found to be decorated with carvings similar to those seen in other megalithic sites in Brittany; predominantly axes, bows, wavy lines and horseshoe shaped designs.

Another site worth noting for its concentration of megalithic monuments is Plouhinec on Brittany’s Atlantic coast. Known locally as Menez Korriged (Mount of the Korrigans), the Pors Poulhan dolmen is one of the region’s largest and is composed of two rows of 16 upright stones supporting three ceiling slabs. Dating from around 3,000BC, the site clearly remained a significant one as archaeological explorations in the 1980s unearthed several funeral urns from the Gallo-Roman period in the burial chamber. The dolmen was noted as being used as a barn in the 19th century but the structure we see today is the result of renovation work undertaken in the 1980s; much of the structure having toppled and collapsed when it was dynamited to improve the line of sight of a German coastal battery during World War Two.

Dolmen in Brittany
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Nearby, on the Pointe du Souc’h, five dolmens and a Neolithic tomb mark the end of the world with only the remains of the 42m by 11m stone cairn, which once covered the site, now present; the site was used as a quarry into the 1970s. The site was in use for many years; the first burial chamber dates to around 4,500BC and the last to around 2,800BC. Archaeologists have identified six distinct phases of development and finds from the site have included flint blades, polished axe heads and over 100 tiny pearls as well as an earthenware vase of a style unique to this location.

The cliff on which this site is situated contains a cave some 15m deep that shows traces of hominid occupation dating back almost 500,000 years. To date, excavations have unearthed thousands of objects such as cut stones, worked flints and fragments of mammal bones but perhaps the most interesting discoveries have been traces of almost a dozen hearths. These have been found in all the various layers of occupation between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago, making this one of the world’s oldest known examples of controlled fires.

It is commonly believed that prehistoric man worshipped celestial bodies as well as trees, springs, mountains and stones and all remained objects of veneration among the Celtic pagans of Brittany. Some have suggested that primitive man built dolmens to mimic the cave dwellings from which he had but recently emerged and that later the pattern of stones within the tombs was uncovered and expanded to create stone circles.

passage grave
An allée couverte in Laniscat

However, if these stone circles carried ceremonial significance and were used for communal gatherings such as feasts and funerals rather than burials, it raises the question of why people of significance no longer merited massive mausoleums. There are myriad theories concerning the role of standing stones and stone circles in primitive culture; centres of sacrifice, astronomical observation posts, sites for communal gatherings and sacred venues for worship or celebrating the solstices among them. Perhaps, over time, a combination of all the above or possibly none; we will never know with any degree of certainty.

The worship of stones into the common era is not so easily explained as the worship directed toward objects possessing vitality and movement. Perhaps the mysterious nature of these massive blocks of stone retained ancient associations with death and the afterlife or possibly the stones held a ritual significance in the religion of the Celts. Whatever the reason, the worship of stones endured in Brittany and elsewhere in northern Europe.

This is witnessed by edicts from various Church Councils, such as that of the Council of Arles in 452 which expressly forbade the worship of stones; the Council of Tours in 567 ordered that ‘all those who worship stones or ruins and on which they make vows and oblations’ be excommunicated; in 658 the Council of Nantes ordered bishops to dig-up the stones and the Council of Rouen in 692 denounced all who offered vows to stones. Yet it seems that many of the old beliefs refused to die under the onslaught of Christianity because a capitulary of Charlemagne in 743 again explicitly forbids the worship of stones and oblations made on them. 

Christianised Menhirs
Christianised menhirs

Thankfully, there appears to have not been any systematic programme of destroying the megalithic monuments of Brittany so as to purge the landscape of its pagan reminders. Perhaps the local priests charged with carrying out any removal orders feared alienating their parishioners? However, hundreds of menhirs were toppled or else dug-out, moved and re-worked as building or paving stone between the 17th and 20th centuries. In many cases, Christianity simply transferred, to its own uses, the ancient religious feeling concerning stones, as many are explained away as existing due to the intervention of a Christian saint.

Sometimes, a chapel or shrine was erected nearby in an attempt to transfer the devotion attached to the stones to a Christian site such as at the Tumulus of Saint Michael in Carnac. Not only were tumuli thus transferred by re-dedication from pagan gods to Christian saints but dolmens and menhirs too. Sometimes this was done by topping the menhir with a wooden crucifix, as at the Menhir de Champ-Dolent, or by carving a Christian cross onto the face of the stone.  An early 18th century chapel in Le Vieux-Marché was even built incorporating an ancient dolmen into its very structure. This is a most curious building and the only chapel in France dedicated to the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. Local legend says that this structure dates from the beginning of time, having been shaped by God on the sixth day of creation.

The traditional folk beliefs associated with the megaliths of Brittany are, as you might expect, numerous. Many believe that the ancient Bretons venerated the stones as the abodes of gods or as seats of divine power and that such sacred sites were places where the pagan priests once invoked the spirits of their ancestors. Perhaps this helps explain why the megaliths are so closely associated with supernatural beings such as korrigans and fairies; entities who are often said to be spirits from a time before the arrival of Christianity.

fairies and stones
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In Breton legends, fairies are often declared to live in dolmens or in the springs near menhirs, while dolmens were held to contain an entrance to the subterranean world of the korrigans and their hidden treasure. This association has long since seeped into the region’s toponymy with many monuments known as the rock or grotto of the fairies and the house or castle of the korrigans. The old folk belief that only such supernatural creatures could have erected the massive stone monuments was widely found across Brittany, albeit sometimes with small refinements such as the stone blocks being carried in aprons, balanced on the heads of fairies or carried under each arm. The hours of darkness belonged to the fairies and one night was thought all that was needed to raise a dolmen. If the stone had to be brought from afar, the work was arduous and sometimes incomplete before dawn’s first light; as attested by the presence of many roofless dolmens in the landscape.

Other popular legends relate that menhirs go once a year or once every hundred years, usually while the bells of the Christmas midnight mass are being rung, to wash themselves in a river or the sea, returning to their ancient seats after their ablutions and before the sound of the twelfth bell has died. However, the stones of La Roche-aux-Fées dolmen are said to change their places continually.

Some Breton folktales tell that menhirs were once men who had the effrontery to insult a fairy and were turned to stone for their insolence, or were the discarded spindles that fairies had once used when making their clothes. Others say that they are monuments raised by the fairies to honour those mortal men and women who had made good use of their lives, while another legend tells us that the menhirs are powerful enchantments containing fairies who have been locked up by the power of magic. The presence of such a fairy shrine was seen as a guarantee of good fortune, spreading a subtle charm across the immediate neighbourhood. This belief in the benevolent charm of the stones can also be glimpsed in the old Breton practice of placing pieces of megaliths or Neolithic worked flint into the walls and roofs of houses as a protection against lightning.

Standing Stone monolith
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Numerous superstitious rituals connected with sacred stones were noted as still extant in Brittany at the end of the 19th century. For instance, young people would rub their loins against the stele set in the churchyard of Saint Samson in Pleumeur-Bodou in the hope of improving their strength, while men would rub their shoulders against the menhir in Landunvez for the same purpose. To ward off rheumatism, people would rub their backs against the leading stone of the dolmen at Guimaëc and on the menhir in the churchyard at Saint-Guyomard.

Given the obvious phallic significance of the menhir, we should not be too surprised that a number of superstitious rituals surrounding fertility were once closely attached to some stones. The Menhir de Kerloas, the tallest in Brittany at 9.5 metres, was visited by newly married couples who would rub their bare bellies against the stone in order to only have male children; the ceremony was also believed to ensure the woman became the absolute mistress of her household. Similarly, young couples would visit the menhir at Moëlan-sur-Mer and rub themselves against it in the hope of children. Childless couples and barren women would, under cover of darkness, also visit the broken menhir near Locronan and rub their abdomens against the stone in the hope of having a child.

At Monthault, unmarried women would slide down a massive ashlar, leaving behind a ribbon, in the expectation that they would be married within the year. It was important that no one witnessed this act as it was thought only the stone could keep the secrets of the maiden’s heart. Similar practices were known to have long taken place on other stones, such as those at Mellé and on the inclined menhir near Saint-Samson-sur-Rance. The latter stone was also reputed to be one of three stones that blocked the entrance to Hell. At the stone in Plouër-sur-Rance, it was necessary for the woman to slide all the way down the edifice with bare buttocks; the skin in constant contact with the stone. A bare bottom was also needed for sliding down the broken blocks of the Great Menhir at Locmariaquer but to succeed, the ritual had to be completed on the night of May Day.

a sliding stone
Menhir de la Thiemblaye , Saint-Samson-sur-Rance

There are also accounts from the late 19th century that relate how some couples yearning for children would visit the stones at Carnac during the period of the full moon; the men undressed and chased their naked wives around a menhir. Similarly, young women seeking husbands, undressed completely and rubbed their navels against a menhir in Carnac that was especially devoted to this usage. Similar practices were also recorded at the dolmen near Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier.

Brittany abounds in megalithic sites and you never need to wander far to connect with our prehistoric ancestors. Whether you wish to visit the world-famous sites or take the road less travelled and seek out hidden gems for yourself, you will be sure to discover something to make you wonder. Indeed, there are about a hundred megalithic sites within just 20km (12.5 miles) of where I sit writing this!

The Black Book of Brittany

In France, books of natural magic, spells and conjurations were commonly found under a variety of names and in Brittany the most infamous of such works was the Agrippa; a massive, mysterious book that was widely believed to have been used by priests to harness the elements, evoke demons and foretell the future.

Books of magic spells and incantations have existed for as long as the written word; some of the well known examples contain fairly benign recipes for treating illness while others are far more malevolent and feature deadly curses and charms for summoning spirits and demons. Such books were commonly referred to as egremonts or grimoires in France and the latter word has long since passed into the English lexicon.

In Brittany, the most famed grimoire was popularly known as the Agrippa, named after Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, a German theologian and astrologer who, between 1531-33, published some of the earliest works on the occult in his De Occulta Philosophia; a trilogy of books of occult philosophy which dealt with the relationship between natural magic, religion and ritual magic. Ironically, it is unlikely that Agrippa was the author of the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy which appeared under his name shortly after his death in France in 1535. This latter work, on the summoning of spirits and demons is likely the book lying at the root of the Breton myth of the Agrippa.

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The Agrippa was widely held to be a most dangerous book, particularly for the curious reader or those who had not been schooled in its proper handling. Reputed to be the size of a grown man, the mighty volume was said to have been written by the Devil himself in red letters on black paper although some accounts say that the pages were blood red and inscribed in black ink. The book was thought to be alive and when not being used it was necessary to restrain the binding with a stout chain and padlock. The locked tome then needed to be secured by an iron chain and hung from the strongest twisted beam in a room especially set-aside for the purpose of containing the Agrippa.

This notion that the book was alive may account for the name once popularly given to it in Lower Brittany, Ar Vif, which is Breton for ‘the lively’. Although some sources suggest that the book derived its name from its ability to imbue the written words with life in the form of fulfilled prophecies. The book was said to be reluctant to share its dark secrets and needed to be coerced and dominated as aggressively as one might tame a wild horse; the prospective reader needed to physically grapple with the book in order to win the opportunity to glimpse its secrets. Strength and patience were needed in order to tame the Agrippa and some tales tell of arduous battles that sometimes lasted for hours before the book yielded its mysteries. Only once the reader had established his dominance, would the Agrippa’s seemingly blank pages reveal their written words.

It was believed that only consecrated priests rightfully owned Agrippas; each having their own copy which had been mysteriously gifted to them. Apparently, the newly ordained priests awoke on the morning after their ordination to find the book inexplicably standing by their bedside with no indication of how it came to be there. The priests were thought to have studied the book and learned how to use it during their time at the great seminary in Quimper. It was also said that the priests who studied at the seminary of Pont-Croix were initiated into the secrets of a less dangerous book of dark magic which nevertheless gave them the power to perform many of the same extraordinary acts or magical deeds known as Ar Fizik (a Breton word covering the physical sciences). However, anti-clerical sentiment and the massive programme of dechristianisation that followed the French Revolution saw thousands of priests forced into exile or imprisoned and in the chaos many Agrippas were said to have been lost.

Grimoire
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Over time, these lost Agrippas found themselves into the hands of laymen who were unable to control the book or interpret its writing correctly. The priests knew that the owner of an Agrippa needed to possess not only physical strength but also mental fortitude. It was crucial that one knew when to stop reading; reading too much at a time, the reader ran the risk of being dragged to hell by demons. Evading the clutches of the ever-watchful fiends was said best done by reading the book backwards.

The knowledge contained within the pages of the Agrippa was commonly thought to give priests the power to control the weather, to evoke demons and force them to hell, to discover the fate of souls in the afterlife and even to see the secrets of the future. Such terrifying powers were not attributed to a gift from God or the Devil but regarded as an inherent force contained within the very words themselves. This belief in the power of the word was commonly held in Brittany in the 19th century and is a tradition that stretches as far back as the Celts of antiquity.

Frequently the only formally educated man for miles around, priests were often viewed by their predominantly uneducated congregations as sorcerers in the rural Brittany of yesteryear. They were popularly endowed with supernatural powers such as the ability to control the weather, to ride the whirlwind and to possess the power to transform unbelievers into werewolves and to be able to shape-shift during Advent.

occult
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At a time when the division between the natural and the supernatural was, at best, opaque, sorcery and witchcraft were accepted as reasonable explanations for natural effects. Concepts such as holy miracles and transubstantiation, coupled with the ability to interpret the wonders of the words of God and his authority over many of the ancient sacred sites added an aura of mysterious otherworldliness to the local priest who was often called an fizikar (a practitioner of science).

For those people uninitiated into the secrets of handling an Agrippa, reading but a little of the book could bring a great deal of danger and there are several stories told of people, who, having entered the book out of curiosity, were only torn from the very threshold of hell by the extreme intervention of a learned priest. The morals behind such tales are strong in their implication that meddling with this book results in harsh punishments for the imprudent and curious.

However, a knowledgeable layperson able to read and interpret an Agrippa might become a most formidable sorcerer or witch; the book being said to contain the names of all the demons of Hell with instructions on how to successfully evoke them. It was by consulting each demon in turn that the priest was able to ascertain whether the soul of his recently buried parishioner was damned or saved. Having been summoned, the demons were dismissed by the priest calling them again by their names, starting aloud with the name of the demon who appeared last and working backwards.

It was said that anyone, other than a priest, who possessed an Agrippa felt constant pain because they dealt too closely with the Devil and his demons. Such a person was thought to be identifiable by their smell; the odour of sulphur and smoke betraying them. Those people believed to be in possession of an Agrippa were dreaded and shunned, likewise those who were dreaded in the community were often accused of owning such a book.

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Priests were thought able to sense the presence of lost or illicit Agrippas and knew the names of those parishioners who secretly held them. Some stories tell of priests working desperately to recover Agrippas held in the wrong hands, while others speak of priests intervening only when the undisclosed owner was near death. The heavy burden of possessing the book was said to continue after death and the owner would be forever doomed; unable to ever reach Heaven on account of the tremendous weight they were cursed to carry.

Similar to other traditions concerning grimoires, in Brittany the Agrippa was thought only able to be destroyed by fire lit by a priest. Those who possessed an Agrippa were traditionally thought to be unable to rid themselves of it’s grip without the help of a priest and often only when on the very cusp of death.

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There is a story of a farmer who had inherited an Agrippa and was anxious to dispossess himself of it. Pleased to have found a man, who farmed in a neighbouring parish, happy to accept the gift of the volume, the farmer spent several hours one night leading his ox along the dark pathways, pulling the book by its chain to deliver it to its new owner. His duty discharged, he returned home happily but his joy was short-lived and his heart sank when he discovered that the Agrippa had already returned to reoccupy its former place.

Sometime later, the farmer prepared a massive bonfire and summoned all his strength to lift the book into the flames but instead of devouring the Agrippa, the flames moved away from it. Seeing the book was feared by fire, he therefore resolved to drown it in water and dragged it to the nearest stretch of coast. Taking a boat, he rowed half a league out to sea and, having attached several heavy stones to the Agrippa’s chain, cast it into the depths of the ocean.

Finally rid of the book, he rowed hard for land and just as he had finished dragging the boat ashore and securing its anchor chain, he heard the rattle of another chain and turned to see his Agrippa shaking loose the big stones that he had so recently attached to it. The farmer was stunned cold as the great book swept past him as fast as an arrow. At home, he found the book hanging from its usual beam; the binding and pages were as dry as though water had not even touched them. Reluctantly, the unhappy man was forced to resign himself to keeping his Agrippa.

Red Dragon Grimoire
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Perhaps the origin of the Agrippa myth, which was still reported as being widespread in western Brittany at the end of the 19th century, lies not with Cornelius Agrippa’s books of occult philosophy but with the Malleus Maleficarum; a practical guide to identifying and confounding witchcraft and its practitioners popularly known as The Witches’ Hammer, first issued by Dominican Inquisitors in 1487. This was a work that was heavily drawn upon by the leaders of the 17th century Jesuit missions to Brittany and thus might have entered into the popular consciousness and eventually folklore as a magical book.

Alternatively, the myth might have arisen out of the boom in interest in books on the occult which were a feature of the Age of Enlightenment in France and elsewhere; the evolution of cheap printing techniques in the early 18th century saw many grimoires gain wide popularity. The two most popular being the works known as the Petit Albert and the Dragon Rouge; the first was noted for its spells for healing and instructions on how to make oneself invisible while the latter was held to be a reworking of the infamous Grand Grimoire and was notable for including an invocation of the Devil and his demons.

The Grand Grimoire, sometimes called the Gospel of Satan, is often cited as one of the darkest occult books in print and is believed by some to have been written in the 16th century by a man possessed by the Devil. The book is noted for its focus on black magic and like the Lesser Key of Solomon contains incantations for evoking demons and raising the dead. However, such terrible powers come at a price and it is said that anyone reading this volume is, by such an act, freely offering their eternal soul to the Devil.

Portents and Prediction in Brittany

Mankind’s uncertain struggle for food and shelter saw our ancestors constantly battle against the forces of nature. Sometimes nature could be brought under a degree of control but often humanity found itself in a position of incredible weakness. Despite their best efforts, the labours of our ancestors offered no guarantee of success against the whims of the uncontrollable weather. Faced with their own powerlessness, they could only identify what helped or hindered their efforts and try to forsee their influence.

Forecasting the weather has always been one of mankind’s most vital concerns and this was particularly so in Brittany, a country totally reliant on working the land and harvesting its extensive coastal waters; activities that were highly susceptible to the effects of severe weather. Based on the close observation of weather patterns, monitoring the effect of seasonal changes and correlating events with particular weather phenomena, the people of yesterday’s Brittany attempted to make sense of the world around them, sometimes with supernatural explanations. As you might expect, such practices gave rise to a great number of folk beliefs and superstitions.

In many parts of the world, celestial objects were often thought to foreshadow weather events but in Brittany scant attention was paid to the constellations or to the sun; the principle heavenly influence was that of the moon; an orb that seemed to show some sympathy to the affairs of man with its perpetual cycle of death and rebirth across the night sky. The importance attached to the moon by the people of this part of Europe is attested by the edicts of several 6th and 7th century Church Councils seeking to suppress traditional rites and practices associated with the appearance of the new moon such as: refraining from work; lighting fires in front of houses; waiting for the new moon to contract a marriage; and shouting at the new moon to help it regain its brilliance. Even as late as the mid-17th century, it is reported that Bretons popularly prayed to the moon especially on the appearance of its first quarter phase.

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Perhaps the mysteriousness of its constant cycle was associated with supernatural powers as its influence on events on earth was almost always held to be malign. It was, for instance, thought to cast a venom into well water at night and that potatoes, left in the field, would stain under its light. A waning moon was regarded as particularly malignant: childbirth was thought to be more laborious and those born under a new moon destined to die a violent death; to castrate a pig or sow a crop during this lunar phase was to invite misfortune.

It has been noted that the Celts of antiquity observed a lunar calendar, counting the beginning of months and years by the moon. In their world-view, night preceded day and solemn festivals such as Midsummer began not at sunrise but on the appearance of the moon. The phases of the moon were more than merely a simple and effective way of measuring time but also likely carried powerful connotations of birth and death, growth and decay.

Each new moon was thought to possess its own characteristic effect on the land and a significant number of these traditional declarations have survived to this day as proverbs, such as: January’s rain fill the ditches with water into February but March can dry all in one night; When April is shaken, May will be warm and cloudy; Sow your wheat whenever you wish but on the full moon in July you will find it.

Certain meteorological phenomena were closely observed and held to be useful signs for predicting forthcoming weather. For instance, the types of clouds were seen as offering a strong indication of the types of rains one could expect: A black cloud in the west brought heavy rain while a thinning cloud to the southwest heralded the approach of a spell of poor weather. The appearance of cloud formations around the moon were also thought significant; a close halo of clouds announced future rain while a distant halo meant that rain would arrive soon.

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A rainbow was often regarded as a symbol of bad weather and its appearance in the evening was a sign that there would be rain or winds in the morning but a rainbow in the morning indicated a forthcoming strong wind that carried little rain. In Brittany, farmers would fend off this bad omen by way of cutting it; spitting in the palm of the left hand and cutting the spit with a quick strike from the side of the right hand or by tracing a cut across the sky with a piece of wire or string, reciting: ‘Cut, cut, rainbow or I will cut you with my thread’.

Similarly, the direction of the winds were regarded as important as they were thought to announce a particular weather pattern: the northeast wind was held to be dry, making for very hot summers and freezing winters; a northwest wind brought storms; the southeast wind was particularly unwelcome as it marked summer storms and very cold winters; wind from the southwest heralded rain. Winds from the south were said to be more benign than those that blew from the north. Sowing a crop was thought to be best done with the northeast wind and avoided at a time of the east wind.

While some of these meteorological proverbs might be linked to empirical observations, they are, of course, generalisations and represent the Breton’s attempt to impose order and a degree of certainty in his ever-changing uncertain reality. Accepting that nature often fails to conform to the designs of man, yesterday’s farmers could maintain a veneer of order by calling upon other omens that could be bent to justify any seasonal irregularities. For instance, the weather during the first twelve days of January was said to be an indicator for the forthcoming weather in each of the following twelve months. Similarly, the direction of the wind during the Palm Sunday procession pointed to the wind that would be dominant throughout the remainder of the year.

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Sometimes, specific dates were popularly associated with the weather: If it rains on Mardi-Gras more rain will follow; If the sun shines for Mardi-Gras, it will stay for Lent; Snow for Mardi-Gras, midges for Easter; Easter rain is a bread giver; On Palm Sunday tether your cows, On Easter Sunday bring-in your cows. The latter sayings implying that the grass is now good for grazing and that the mid-afternoon sun is getting hot. Rainfall on the Feast of the Annunciation was an unfavourable omen as it was said to lead to cows yielding only the milk of a goat, while rain on May Day was thought bad for the yield of fruit trees but rain on Midsummer’s Day was held to be good for the development of wheat: ‘Good rain on the Day of Saint John makes the girl as tall as her mother.’

Other particular times of the year were also said to be auspicious for forecasting the weather, depending on whether it was inclement or fine on Saint Vincent’s Day (22 January), the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul (25 January) or the Feast Days of Saints Gervais and Protais (19 June), Saint Urbain (25 May) and Saint Médard (8 June). The weather experienced on these days was said to determine the state of the weather for the proceeding twenty, thirty or forty days.

In the minds of our ancestors, the world was teeming with signs and portents that had only to be deciphered correctly. When a child was born at night, it was the role of the eldest woman present at the birth to check on the state of the sky; if clouds were surrounding the moon or were masking its face, it was taken as an omen that the new baby was fated to one day be hanged or drowned. Magpies were said to chatter a great deal before a coming wind and in the summer, swallows flew nearer to the trees. Similarly, a scarcity of bees, increased croaking by toads or a large gathering of seagulls inland were taken as signs of approaching bad weather.

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In the Brittany of yesteryear, the concept of the natural world was not restricted to things corporeal and observable but included the incorporeal and unobservable. It was not considered irrational to believe in the existence of spirits causing natural effects and it was accepted that witches acted according to the natural laws; the activities of witches were thus regarded as natural phenomena. Witchcraft helped some to explain the unusual in the uncertain world around them, such as a summer hailstorm or a sudden whirlwind.

These freak wind occurrences also played a part in forecasting the weather; a whirlwind was sometimes taken as an indicator of an impending rainfall that would last for three days and a whirlwind headed to the southwest was said to be fetching rain.  Sudden gusts of wind that carried away stalks of hay or straw were taken as a sign that the coming winter would be a harsh one; the straw being carried heavenwards to help God prepare for a cold winter. The notion that the wind is actively fetching and carrying possibly implies that supernatural associations were once popularly attributed to these phenomena.

One group often blamed for such occurrences were the rural priests, men who were often viewed by their predominantly uneducated congregations as sorcerers. The suspicion that priests were interfering with the weather was most widely found in western Brittany where young clerics were said to practice their skills by raising whirlwinds or were testing the knowledge that they had gained at the seminary by performing magical changes to the weather. A 19th century priest in Cancale was even said to possess a rope that could control the wind; the art of tying-up the wind in three knots, so that the more knots that are loosened the stronger the wind will blow, is noted as having been attributed to sorcerers and witches in other parts of the Celtic fringe. The belief in the power of the priest to raise a whirlwind extended beyond simple creation; like witches, they were thought to be able to control and even travel on the wind. The belief in the power to travel in whirlwinds is culturally widespread and even features in the Holy Bible when ‘Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.’

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The witches and sorcerers were believed to have been taught to travel in this way by the Devil himself. In eastern Brittany, it was once said that it was in such winds that the Devil carried immoral women to hell with him; so desperate was the struggle of the abducted soul that a whirlwind was created. Others believed that the whirlwind contained a damned soul doomed to spend eternity crossing the world from one end to the other, destroying people and crops in its frustrated rage. While others maintained that such a wind contained a witch who, having given her soul to the Devil had disobeyed him and was condemned to forever wander the earth without hope of rest.

While freak winds such as whirlwinds were feared because of their potential to destroy crops, the possible harm they could cause to those labouring in the fields was not underestimated. It was popularly believed that those unfortunate enough to be caught-up in the path of such a wind were chilled to the bone, to the point of paralysis. It was therefore commonly held that the best course of action on the appearance of a whirlwind was to lie flat on the ground until it had passed, lest the power of the wind forever freeze one’s body in the position that it was in when encountered by it. Thus avoiding a permanently stooped back; a particularly unhelpful affliction for an agricultural labourer.

Yesterday’s Bretons were not passive spectators in the face of the power of the whirlwind. Countering the supernatural forces thought to be behind the creation of such winds was thought best achieved by casting an open knife, scythe or iron pitchfork into the wind; it being popularly supposed that supernatural beings and witches were repelled by iron. It was also believed that the person whose sorcery had caused the wind to rise might receive the blow and be hurt.

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In the event that the whirlwind contained a person who had been abducted, it might be the victim who would receive the blow but this would have a favourable effect. According to a tale recounted by the French folklorist Paul Sébillot, the consequence was that it could save the person who had been taken by the Devil:

“One day, some folk were haymaking when a gust of wind arose suddenly. A girl who happened to be holding a knife at that moment threw it into the midst of the whirlwind. The whirlwind vanished instantly, to the great satisfaction of the haymakers who were shouting that the Devil was inside it. Everyone looked for the knife but it could not be found, so, they thought it was likely stuck in the body of someone being carried away by the Devil. One day, as the same girl was washing clothes at a local farm, she recognised her knife in the hands of a young washerwoman. She asked where she had got it and the laundress explained that she had sold herself to the Devil for riches because she was fed up with working but the Devil had carried her away in a whirlwind: ‘Without your throwing a knife into that wind, I would have become a lost soul’, she said.”

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In Brittany, storms at sea were once thought to be an occasion when the souls of those who had drowned and for whom no funeral Mass had been held, announced themselves to their loved ones, seeking to be remembered. Similarly, the sound of crashing waves was sometimes thought the cries of the drowned who were doomed to be denied rest for as long as their bodies remained unburied in consecrated ground. The Virgin Mary and Saint Houarden were popularly invoked to calm the fury of a storm while Saint Budoc was called upon to change the direction of the wind. In some communities, sea winds were said to be a manifestation of the inhabitants of the ocean who had been cursed on account of their revolt against the sea; condemned to blow until the Last Judgement.

Additionally, it was thought that favourable winds could be summoned by a whistle but if the wind proved recalcitrant it was necessary to invoke the intervention of Saint Clement. If the saint appeared slow in responding to one’s pleas then he was considered asleep but it was thought that he could be roused awake and into action if he was cursed or sworn at. However, whistling during a breeze was frowned upon lest the breeze became a storm and seafarers would not whistle when the weather threatened for fear of increasing the force of the wind.

Dangerous winds and storms were also associated with the sight of a rainbow at sea, the ends of which were said to terminate in a maelstrom. The rainbow marked the passage between the realm of the living and that of the dead and was avoided as far as possible; a boat passing under the arch of a rainbow was thought at risk of being taken by the sea. Pointing directly at a rainbow was also avoided as it was considered to bring bad luck.

While many of these traditional beliefs and superstitions might seem incredible to us today, the basic principles of understanding the relationships between observed weather events and what preceded them remain. It is merely that our knowledge and technology have improved, over time.

Brittany and the struggle for American Independence

The terms of the treaties that concluded the complex conflict known as the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) were regarded as something of a national humiliation for the kingdom of France which saw its global empire shorn of the greater part of its colonial possessions in what are now the USA, Canada and India. The fractious times were not long in providing the kingdom with an occasion to exact a measure of revenge; the opportunity being provided by the unrest developing in the British colonies in North America, partly as a result of taxation imposed to pay for the massive costs of the Seven Year’s War.

Simmering unrest and isolated outbreaks of lawlessness and rebellion inexorably led to armed conflict in 1775 and the following year saw the colonies, excluding East Florida and West Florida, supplant the authority of the crown with local autonomous powers and their political assemblies vote for independence from Great Britain. On 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence; the Articles of Confederation took a little longer to be agreed before being approved on 15 November 1777 and eventually coming into force on 1 March 1781.

One of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence and former representative of Pennsylvania in London was the noted polymath Benjamin Franklin; one of the key figures of the 18th century and a man whose wide-ranging accomplishments it would be impossible to do justice to in a few sentences. In September 1776, Franklin’s diplomatic skills saw him selected by the Continental Congress to plead their case for support to the court of King Louis XVI.

British and French colonies in North America
North America before the Seven Years’ War

While France had tacitly endorsed the sale of arms, ammunition and gunpowder to the separationists from the outbreak of the revolution, it was reluctant to enter into another war with Great Britain while there remained a strong prospect that the rebellion could be quelled. By the summer of 1776, significant amounts of arms and material had been supplied to the American forces thanks, in part, to the efforts of Silas Deane, the Continental Congress’ secret envoy to France. However, more money and material were needed for the war effort and Deane’s position was formalised and strengthened by the appointment of Franklin and Arthur Lee to the official American delegation to the French kingdom.

On 4 December 1776, Franklin arrived in France, disembarking at the small Breton port of Auray; strong headwinds having forced his ship to abandon its original destination, the major Breton city of Nantes. He stayed a few days in the town, recovering his strength after almost 40 days at sea and noting sight of ‘the most beautiful woman’ he had ever seen, before continuing his onward journey by road to Vannes, Nantes and thence to Paris. Here, efforts to negotiate and secure a formal alliance and treaty were begun in earnest.

Franklin’s august reputation saw him widely feted in Parisian high society but although his personal achievements were celebrated, diplomatic success was slow in coming; a position that changed rapidly following news of the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777. Confident that an American victory in the war was indeed possible, France now formally aligned itself to the independence of the American states and on 6 February 1778 signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance with Franklin and the other American delegates. The impact of the French assistance guaranteed under these agreements was crucial to the eventual outcome of the American War for Independence.

Benjamin Franklin in France
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A discussion about the importance of the French intervention in the war or the results of Arthur Lee’s activities in Spain and John Adams’ efforts in the Netherlands, although of considerable interest, are outside the scope of this post focused on the Breton connections with the conflict, of which there are many.

The Breton port of Nantes was one of the most active channels used for the distribution of military aid to America. It was also here that John Paul Jones, aboard his ship, the USS Ranger, brought news of the victory at Saratoga on 2 December 1777 having captured two British vessels en route. Following the signing of the Treaty of Alliance, Jones left Nantes and on 14 February came across the squadron of Breton nobleman, Commander La Motte-Picquet, laying at anchor in the Bay of Quiberon off Brittany’s southern coast in preparation for a convoy run to North America. This was the scene of the very first salute of the ‘Stars and Stripes’ by a foreign vessel when La Motte-Picquet’s flagship fired a 9-gun salute in response to the USS Ranger’s 13-gun greeting. La Motte-Picquet also featured in the first major naval engagement of the war, when a French fleet of 45 ships fought an inconclusive battle with 36 British vessels off the Breton island of Ouessant on 27 July 1778. The area was also the scene of another Anglo-French sea battle in December 1781 and again in April 1782.

However, it was the Breton port of Brest that served as Jones’ base for his raids into British waters during 1778; a time of high adventure aboard the USS Ranger which in addition to harassing coastal traders, was involved in an attempt to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk as well as an assault on the port of Whitehaven (a previous home port of Jones) before capturing the British sloop, HMS Drake. In June 1779, Jones took command of the USS Bonhomme Richard, a 42-gun vessel gifted to the Continental Navy. In August, together with a small fleet, the USS Bonhomme Richard sailed for northern Britain to carry out diversionary raids in support of the planned Franco-Spanish invasion of southern England. Although the invasion failed to materialise, Jones’ fleet captured several vessels including the frigate HMS Serapis during their fighting circumnavigation of the British Isles.

As the largest military port in France, Brest played a key role in the deployment of the French forces that participated in offensive operations in North America; the fleets of Admirals d’Estaing, La Motte-Picquet, de Suffren and the Comte de Grasse all operated from the city. The majority of the 32,000 men of France’s Royal Navy who fought in direct support of the American Revolution were mustered here. Similarly, the bulk of the 12,000 or so French troops who served in America embarked from this thriving city on the west coast of Brittany.

Anglo-French naval battle during the war of American Independenc
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Other Breton ports also played their part, with privateering ships regularly striking against British vessels from the harbour towns of Saint-Malo and Morlaix in particular. One of the most notable being Charles Cornic from the northern port of Morlaix who came from a family of corsairs and was an experienced mariner by the time he saw his first action towards the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1747. The outbreak of the Seven Years’ War saw him command a small privateer vessel with some success; a distinction which saw him given the captaincy of a 30-gun frigate in 1758 and whose masterful handling, in combat off the Breton coast, saw Cornic further distinguish himself. In 1778, Cornic returned to service as a privateer, harassing British merchantmen and capturing many vessels during his years roaming the Atlantic Ocean until the declaration of peace in 1783.

Another naval officer from Morlaix, Nicolas Anthon, also spent much of the war as an active and successful privateer. The American sailor Nathaniel Fanning, who had previously served as a Midshipman under Jones aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, served as Anthon’s Second-in-Command during some of his deadly raids in 1781 and 1782. Another naval officer who sailed a privateering vessel out of Morlaix was the future Minister of the Navy and Colonies, Jean Dalbarade, who captained a frigate there in 1779 before shifting his home port to Saint-Malo later in the war, after he had been freed in an exchange of prisoners with the British. He too was a successful privateer, capturing a score of prizes in 1780 alone.

The role of the wealthy French aristocrat, the Marquis de La Fayette, in the American War for Independence is well-known. Volunteering – unpaid – into the Continental Army in April 1777, he was appointed major-general at just 19 years of age. In January 1779 he returned to France to lobby for additional resources for the American cause and pushed for an invasion of Great Britain. Although more likely down to broader French strategy rather than La Fayette’s lobbying, an additional French expeditionary force of almost 6000 soldiers under the command of General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau was readied for America; reaching there some months after La Fayette’s own return in April 1780. Buoyed by the arrival of this latest French force, La Fayette, at Washington’s urging, wrote to the French authorities urgently seeking additional men and material and was rewarded with the arrival of a French fleet.

Washington and Lafayette
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Following his participation in the decisive Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, La Fayette returned to France, in glory, in 1782 but the costs he had incurred in waging war in the Americas required the liquidation of many of his assets and he therefore sold some of his estates in central Brittany where his family held extensive landholdings. He subsequently enjoyed a troubled relationship with the post-revolutionary government of France who, for a time, confiscated his remaining lands in Brittany.

While La Fayette remains the most famous of the French soldiers and sailors who fought for American independence, many Bretons, both notable and anonymous made important contributions to the cause.  While history might remember the contributions made by the noted Breton cavalry officer the Marquis de la Rouërie or the Breton naval officer de Beauverger, it is sobering to reflect that a significant proportion of the French naval forces that engaged the British on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean were from Brittany and records show that over 1,300 Breton sailors died in fighting for the American cause between 1778 and 1783.

With the signing of the peace agreement in September 1783, many seasoned campaigners returned to France influenced by the ideals of freedom and democracy espoused by their American companions; contagious ideas that would not take long to spread throughout the kingdom.

The Breton Bluebeard and his Bride

One of the strongest claims to be the source for the legend of Bluebeard is probably the 6th century Breton warlord Conomor, popularly remembered as Conomor the Accursed; an ambitious tyrant who is reputed to have murdered all his many wives.

The first widely available compilation of French folk tales was published by Charles Perrault in his 1697 book Histories or Tales from Past Times with Morals or Tales of Mother Goose. Although only partly derived from traditional folk tales, the collection included such now-familiar stories as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots and Bluebeard. Amongst the stories of fantastic beings and magical enchantments, the tale of Bluebeard – an ugly mass-murderer who keeps his victim’s corpses in a ghoulish trophy room – sits a little incongruously; if it were not for the magical key there would be little to merit its inclusion in any list of fairy tales. Yet the story continues to exercise a peculiar fascination over readers today, as it has done for the last three hundred years.

Unfortunately, we cannot be certain of the source that Perrault used to build his tale upon and there are several suggested candidates; from a reworking of the classical myth of Eros and Psyche to the life of King Henry VIII of England. However, the two potential sources most commonly proposed for Bluebeard are the story of Gilles de Rais, a 15th century Breton nobleman executed for sorcery and the multiple murder of children, and an oral folktale concerning Conomor, a mid-6th century chieftain often styled as a prince or count of Poher, a district in central Brittany.

A Breton Bluebeard
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Of the two, the stories surrounding Conomor have far more points of similarity with the tale of Bluebeard than do the exploits of de Rais. There are several versions of the story of Conomor but essentially it is this:

Towards the end of one warm summer’s day, weary emissaries from the court of Conomor (Comorre) entered the Kernow stronghold of Gwened seeking an audience with its overlord Guerech (Waroc’h), whose realm shared a long and relatively trouble-free border with Conomor’s domains to the north. A formal meeting was duly arranged for the following day when Guerech graciously received Conomor’s tribute of flax, honey and a dozen suckling pigs. However, Guerech’s effusive thanks were soon halted as he heard his visitors relate how their master had visited the city’s summer fair disguised as a common soldier and had caught sight of Guerech’s daughter and was totally smitten with her; he was now desirous of her hand in marriage.

Now, Conomor might have seemed a strong suitor for Guerech’s only daughter, the virtuous Triffin (Tréphine); he was powerful, wealthy and ambitious but alas he also carried a reputation for wickedness and cruelty. The common folk shared many tales of Conomor’s brutality; as a boy, his mother was reputed to have sounded a bell to warn the people of the neighbourhood that he was at large and when he was unsuccessful in a hunt, he would satiate his bloodlust by setting his dogs on the farmhands in order to tear them to pieces. Most terrible of all the rumours that circulated about him was that he had been married four times and each wife had died suddenly, without receiving the last rites. Some even whispered that Conomor himself had dispatched his wives with the knife or else with fire, water or poison.

Although he was not a man who listened to gossip, Guerech could not countenance giving his daughter, unsullied by a single mortal sin, to this brute of a man and was steeled to sacrifice his kingdom for her honour and happiness. He therefore thanked Conomor’s emissaries and bade them to return with his highest regards to their master but Triffin would not be leaving his court as she was too weak in health to even think of marrying. Unfortunately, Conomor’s men were prepared for such a rebuff and demanded Triffin join them, saying that they were instructed to declare a state of war against Guerech if the young princess was not sent back with them. Unmoved by their aggressive stance, Guerech simply responded that he would not be swayed on the matter and that they need do as they must.

Dismissed, Conomor’s envoys vowed to return as they made their way through the city’s north gate. They had travelled but a short distance when the four men drew out across the road and turned back to face the city, whereupon the eldest of the men set light to a thick handful of straw and grass they had collected from the roadside; pointing the burning embers towards the city, he cast the flames to the winds while declaring that thus would the anger of Conomor pass over the land.

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Guerech did not allow himself to be disheartened by the threat from Conomor but wasted little time in summoning his vassals and men-at-arms to prepare for the defence of his realm. Before a week had passed, news was received in Gwened that Conomor was advancing upon the city at the head of a powerful army. Guerech readied his troops and after bidding his beloved daughter farewell, set out to meet the forces of Conomor.

When the venerable Gweltas (Gildas) witnessed the preparations for a bloody battle he sought the princess Triffin whom he found at prayer in the castle’s oratory.  He pleaded with her to halt the slaughter that was to come; that so many men should die because of her decision could not be right and so he implored her to save bloodshed and consent to the marriage with Conomor. Weeping softly, Triffin seemed to resign herself to her fate, saying: “Alas, that God demands of me the death of all my peace and happiness. Would that I was but a mere beggar, for then at least I could marry the beggar of my choosing but if it is God’s will that I espouse this dreadful brute, then please read for me the Office for the Dead.”

Moved by the distress caused by her self-sacrifice, the wise saint counselled her and seeking to assuage her fears, said: “Fear naught, dear Triffin. Take this ring whose silver shines as white as milk; it shall serve you as a warning for it will become as black as a raven’s wing should any danger approach you. Take courage and have faith.” Reassured by the saint’s words, the young princess consented to his request and agreed to wed Conomor. It was therefore with the utmost speed that Saint Gweltas hurried to the opposed armies to announce the good tidings to their chiefs. However, Guerech remained opposed to the union but was eventually persuaded to accept it by Conomor’s earnest entreaties.

Amidst great rejoicings, the marriage took place and such celebrations have never since been seen in Brittany. The first day saw six thousand guests feast at table and on the second day as many poor people were fed; the bride and bridegroom themselves serving at their tables. Musicians came from throughout the land and the dancing and merry-making lasted for three full days. Finally, the revelries over, the guests departed and the families of these two noble houses of Brittany, now united in marriage, returned to their own lands and Conomor carried off with him his young bride; as a sparrowhawk that had proudly snatched up a little songbird.

Medieval wedding
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For some time all went well and it seemed as though Conomor’s affection for Triffin had softened him more than might have been expected; his bouts of rage were rarely seen and his dungeons and gibbets remained empty. The marriage was far from miserable but despite his kindness towards her, Triffin remained in dread of Conomor and was forever ill at ease. Every day she visited the castle’s private chapel where she prayed at the tombs of his four wives, beseeching God to preserve her from a violent death.

At the next Candlemas festival, Conomor made preparations to attend a formal assembly of the Breton princes that had been called at Rennes and which he was obliged to attend. Before his departure, he gave into Triffin’s safe keeping all the keys to the castle’s chambers and cellars, desiring her to amuse herself as it pleased her in his absence.

It was almost five months before he returned, full of anxiety to see Triffin, of whom he had thought often during his long absence. Unwilling to lose any time by announcing his arrival, he immediately hastened up into her room, where he found her busy trimming an infant’s cap with fine silver-lace. On seeing the little cap, Conomor turned pale and asked for whom it was designed. Thinking to rejoice his heart, Triffin joyfully told him that they would shortly be blessed with a child but on hearing this news, Conomor recoiled in horror and rushed from the room.

Triffin might have taken this for one of her husband’s frequent caprices, had she not noticed that her silver ring had now turned black; which signalled danger. Although she knew not why or how she might escape it. Confused as to the reason for her husband’s sudden displeasure and anxious about her silver ring’s portent, it was with a heavy heart that she went to the chapel to pray.

Here, in this hallowed space, she found peace and it was some hours before she rose from her prayers to depart. The hour of midnight struck just as she was leaving and a sudden sound of movement in the silent chapel chilled her to the bone. The grating sound of grinding stone echoed around the small room and her eyes beheld the eerie sight of the tombs of Conomor’s former wives slowly opening; from which, all silently emerged, swathed in their rotting funeral shrouds. Faint with terror, Triffin tried to flee but the phantoms cried out to her: “Take care, poor lost one! Conomor desires your death.”

Conomor's wives
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“Me but what evil have I done and how have I offended, that he seeks my death?” stammered the frightened Triffin.

“You have told him that you will soon birth his child. The Evil One once revealed to him that his first child will be his destroyer and thus it was that he took our lives when we too fell with child.”

“Have I truly fallen into hands so cruel? If so, what hope, then, remains for me?” cried Triffin.

“Return to the safety of your father’s house,” chorused the spectral wives.

“How can I possibly escape when Conomor’s giant dog guards the door?” responded Triffin.

“Give him this poison which killed me,” said the first wife.

“But how might I ever descend the castle’s high wall?” asked the young wife.

“Lower yourself down by means of this cord which strangled me,” replied the second wife.

“And who will guide me through the dark?” asked Triffin.

“Take this burning fire that consumed me,” said the third wife.

“Gwened is so far to the south, how can I make such a journey?” returned Triffin.

“Make good use of this staff which crushed my skull,” rejoined the fourth spectre.

Trephine
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Now armed with the poison, rope, torch and staff, Triffin resolved to set out for her father at once. Having silenced the guard dog and safely scaled the wall, she headed southwards, the thick blanket of night penetrated only by the torch she carried aloft.

It was shortly after breakfast when Conomor called on Triffin; unable to find her in her chamber or in the chapel, he instructed his servants to search for her in every room within the castle grounds and it was some time before all returned to confirm that his wife was no longer in the castle. On hearing this, Conomor quickly climbed to the top of his castle’s keep and searched not the land before him but the sky about him; to the north he saw a croaking raven; in the direction of the sun, a swallow on the wing; to the south, a wailing gull; and to the west, a turtle-dove that sped away. Taking the latter bird as an omen, he promptly set off in pursuit with his finest hunting dogs.

His unfortunate wife was now upon the border of the mighty forest which surrounded Conomor’s castle near the Blavet River. Warned of his approach by seeing her silver ring grow black, she immediately turned off the track that she had been following and almost at once came upon the miserable cabin of a poor shepherd, whose sole possession was an old magpie trapped in a cage hanging by the door. Here she hid herself the whole day, bemoaning her lot and praying for her urgent deliverance. As the darkness of night drew in, she set forth once more along the rough paths that skirted the fields of flax and corn.

After almost two days of fruitless searching, Conomor was returning home to change his horse when he chanced upon the same shepherd’s cabin. Such is the fickle hand of fate, for what else could have caused him to pass the hut just as the magpie began to mimic the melancholic complaints it had so recently heard, calling out “Poor Triffin!” Surmising that his wife had passed this way, Conomore once more set his dogs upon her scent.

Not far away, an exhausted Triffin lay down to rest and promptly gave birth to a son. As she clasped the baby in her arms, she saw overhead a falcon wearing a golden collar, which she recognised as one from her father’s mews. The bird responded to her call and landed on her knee whereupon she gave him her silver ring and bade him deliver it to her father who would be sure to send men to her aid. The bird understood his charge and taking the ring, it flew like a flash of lightning towards his master in Gwened.

Conomor and Triffin
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No sooner was the falcon out of sight than the air was filled with the commotion of baying hounds and the harsh yells of Conomor driving them onwards. Unfortunately, without her magical ring, Triffin had gained no vital warning of his approach and barely had time to wrap her baby in her cloak and conceal him in the hollow of a tree before Conomor appeared. Seeing his wife, he uttered a savage cry like that of a wild-beast and furiously threw himself upon her and with one mighty blow from his sword, severed her head from her body.

While Conomor sheathed his sword and prepared to turn for home; the falcon arrived at the court of Guerech. Entering the great hall through a roof window, it hovered over the table and dropped the ring into the cup of his master, who, recognizing it, cried: “My daughter is in danger! Saddle the horses and have Saint Gweltas accompany us.” Following the flight of the falcon, Guerech and his party were not too long in reaching the spot where Triffin lay dead. Upon sighting her prostrate body, Guerech leapt from his horse but there was nothing to be done. His beloved daughter dead, all that he could do was scream in anguish until Saint Gweltas silenced him with a call to prayer.

As the party rose from their knees, having completed their fervent prayers, the saint separated himself from the others and stood over the princess’s prone body and called upon her: “Arise, take up your head and your child and follow us.” Triffin’s body obeyed the saint’s command as the men readied for the pursuit of Conmore. However, no matter how hard they forced their horses, the headless body of Triffin was always ahead of them, carrying her son on her left arm and her pale head on her right. In this manner they reached the castle of Conomor, who, witnessing their approach, ordered the closure of the castle gates and the raising of its drawbridge.

Saint Gweltas dismounted near the castle’s moat and called out to Conomor saying: “I return your wife to you, such as your wickedness has made her; and your son, as God has given him to you. Will you receive them under your roof?” Receiving no response, Saint Gweltas repeated his question a further three times but all to no avail. The saint turned and took the new-born child from Triffin and set him upon the ground where, to the astonishment of all except Gweltas, he stood proudly upright and strode to the very lip of the moat where he gathered a handful of earth from the ground. Throwing it against the castle, the baby uttered “Let God serve His justice!” At that instant, the castle’s towers shook and fell with a great crash; the once mighty walls gaped open and collapsed in complete ruin, burying Conomor and all who had abetted him in sin.

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With the air thick with dust and rubble, Saint Gweltas replaced Triffin’s head upon her shoulders and laying his hands upon her, restored her to life; to the great joy of her father and all those who were present.

Several versions of this tale exist; some attest that Conomor had five previous wives rather than four (the spectre of the fifth wife gifted Triffin a horse to aid her escape) and that their relics were kept in a secret room rather than in the dignity of an oratory but all agree that it was fear of a prophecy, claiming that he would die killed by his own son, which drove him to take the lives of his wives once he learned of their pregnancies. Some versions of the tale, particularly that painted in 1703 on the wall of a small chapel in central Brittany, feature a quite different chronology claiming that Guerech brought his daughter’s dead body back to his castle in Gwened and then sought out Saint Gweltas at his remote hermitage to remind him of his earlier oath to keep her from harm and demand restitution.

This is in keeping with a variant of the story that tells how it was Conomor who had made a solemn oath not to mistreat Triffin and pleaded with the saint to convince Guerech to sanction the marriage of his daughter. Shocked by Conomor’s broken oath, Saint Gweltas first travels to Conomor’s castle where he is rudely rebuffed but after the castle falls before him, he hastens to Guerech’s castle where he restores Triffin to life. Once restored, Triffin gives birth to Conomor’s son, Tremeur, who is raised by Saint Gweltas in the monastery he founded on the Rhuys Peninsula. Tremeur learned well from the wise saint and became renowned for his virtue and miracles, ending his life in holiness. Triffin subsequently entered a convent in her father’s domain where she devoted the remainder of her life to God and herself attained sainthood. Saint Triffin was commonly invoked for sick children and by expectant mothers who were overdue.

Tremeur and Trephine
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According to an account written by Albert le Grand in his monumental Lives of the Saints of Armorican Brittany (1637), Conomor survived the destruction of his castle by the forces of Guerech and managed to escape to his principal stronghold at Carhaix about 30 miles to the west. Frustrated by his attempt to escape justice, Saint Gweltas devoted the next three years to traversing Brittany denouncing Conomor for his crimes and eventually managed to convene a conference of the bishops of Brittany “to cut off this rotten branch from the body of the Church.” Meeting near Guingamp, the bishops excommunicated Conomor and condemned him to the loss of all his rights, spiritual and temporal and the forfeiture of his civil and religious goods and chattels.

Another story relates how, upon hearing of the birth of his son, Conomor dispatched men to kill the infant but the child could never be found. However, by chance, some nine years later Conomor was travelling through the forest near his old estate at Castel Finans when he came across Tremeur at play and instantly removed his son’s head with a blow from his sword. One story claims that father and son engaged in a bout of Breton wrestling and that Tremeur was slain because he bested his father. Legend has it that Tremeur allowed his father to flee and promptly picked up his head and walked a few miles along the old Roman road to repose at his mother’s tomb near the village of Laniscat.

The intertwining of history, legend and myth that has happened over the last fifteen hundred years or so makes it impossible for us today to clearly separate the disparate threads that constitute the story of Conomor. However, we can be fairly certain that in the mid-6th century there was a man named Conomor who, through conquest and alliances, eventually ruled much of western Brittany, from Carhaix in the west to Dol in the east and from the north coast as far south as Locmine. He is described as a foreigner and thus, like Saint Gweltas, was probably a first-generation settler from one of the Celtic communities of Great Britain; some people have even speculated that he might be one and the same character as King Marc of Cornwall although this is unlikely.

This Conomor is said to have extended his initial domain by having had a hand in the murder of a neighbouring ruler, Jonas, and marrying his widow, while exiling the heir apparent, Judael, to the Frankish domains far to the east. Likely his desire to subsequently marry the daughter of the ruler who held sway over much of the land south of the Blavet River was driven by a vision of extending his domain still further. Whether he actually killed his new wife or mistreated her, we will never know. Similarly, whether the historical Conomor killed his son is unknown although it seems to stand against reason that a man seemingly so desperate to carve out a kingdom for himself in Brittany would murder his only heir and one that was crucial to consolidating his southern alliance.

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Clearly, at some point, Conomor’s rule reached a point where his relationship with the early Church leaders and neighbouring lords broke-down irrevocably and it is said that several Breton bishops were behind the plot that orchestrated the return of the exiled Judael to Brittany. Anathematised by the religious and secular authorities, Conomor and those loyal to him found themselves hounded by Judael’s forces until finally brought to battle near the Arrée mountains where two mighty but inconclusive battles were fought. A third and final clash, said to have lasted for three full days, saw the total defeat of Conomor; killed by his onetime stepson.

The Midsummer Fires of Brittany

Once common throughout most of Europe, the arrival of midsummer was celebrated from time immemorial by the lighting of massive communal bonfires, covering the countryside with a multitude of glowing points of light; an ancient practice that continued in Brittany well into living memory.

It is believed that the calendar of the ancient Celts was built around the equinoxes and solstices and the relationship of them to the key points of the agrarian year such as the times for sowing and harvesting and seasonal transhumance. The summer solstice, when the sun reaches its highest point before slowly starting its retreat was an auspicious event for our ancestors and one that was widely marked across Europe; from Spain to Greece, Russia to Ireland, communities came together on Midsummer’s Eve to celebrate the occasion with mighty bonfires, imparting to the heavens, in all directions, the pale glow of a man-made sunset.

Fire, as an emblem of primeval power and benevolence aside, served as a beacon between disparate communities that were united, in that one moment, in common celebration. Fire also carried strong purificatory overtones that were more practical in nature rather than symbolic, such as in the preparation of land for cultivation or undertaking prescribed burns to promote growth and cleanse a field of weeds and pests. Some anthropologists have suggested that the ancient fire festivals of Europe, such as Midsummer’s Eve, were in fact rites aimed at cleansing the land of curses and the malevolence of witchcraft in an attempt to secure a fruitful harvest and ensure healthy livestock. There is even debate as to whether these bonfires were actually aimed at burning the witches, whether physically or symbolically, in the flames of the fire.

The wide prevalence of the Midsummer’s Eve fires across such an extensive geographical area indicates that belief in witchcraft as the cause of failed crops and sick animals was quite commonly held before the ascendancy of Christianity in Europe. That the fires and their associated rites remained popularly practised is evidenced by the various Church Councils in the late 8th century ordering all bishops to see to the complete abolition of pagan beliefs, explicitly citing: ‘Let no one, at the feast of Saint John or at any other solemnity of the saints, practice observing the solstices; do not engage in dances, carols and evil songs.’

Saint John's Eve
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The infant Church organised its liturgical cycle in order to co-opt and thus absorb the old pagan festivals, seeking to replace them in the popular consciousness with Christian festivals. Thus ancient observances such as the summer solstice were dispossessed by the new religion to become St. John’s Day; Samhain became All Saints’ Day and Christmas Day appropriated the winter solstice. Yet it seems that many of the old beliefs refused to die completely. As late as the 17th century, Jesuit missions in Brittany struggled to suppress ‘shameful relics of paganism such as Mayday processions and the Fires of St. John’.

In Brittany, popular traditions celebrating St. John’s Day enjoyed far more importance than its liturgical significance might have merited. Here, the custom of the communal Midsummer’s Eve bonfire continued well into living memory, particularly in the western rural parts of the region. With the approach of darkness on the eve of St. John’s Day, large fires were lit in each village. Typically, these were set-up in an area of open ground near a chapel dedicated to Saint John but if one did not exist, they were lit in a high area facing the parish church or at a nearby cross-road. The pyres were usually built-up around a central pole but not pre-prepared to any significant degree, as each family in the village was expected to bring some fuel for the fire; faggots, logs or even armfuls of tree branches, dry grass and gorse. A durable fire that produced a great deal of smoke was popularly aimed for. The pole which formed the centre of the pyre was often surmounted by a crown of foliage generally provided by a man named John or else a woman named Jean. In many accounts, the honour of lighting the tantad or bonfire also fell to this person although in some communities it was a role reserved for the parish priest.

It seems that each village maintained its own traditions and this should not really surprise us, no matter how geographically close they were. After all, it was impossible to attend two ceremonies at the same time and the stability of the population that existed then meant that the traditions of one village had little influence on those of another. In some parishes, the villagers would walk in procession from the church to the site of the bonfire. In others, the procession immediately followed vespers and was led from the church porch by the priest himself. Sometimes, the pyre was solemnly blessed, prayers were recited and Breton hymns sung before the pyre was lit.

The Fire of Saint John
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The pyre was usually surrounded by a circle of nine wooden stakes that were collectively known as the Kelc’h an Tan (circle of fire). The fire was introduced at each of these nine points beginning with that which marked east, the principal cardinal point. Once this had been done, groups of young men, armed with torches lit at the stakes, alternated with young women, clutching a bunch of ‘Saint John’s plant’ (this was stonecrop not, as might have been supposed St. John’s wort), in a procession nine times around the fire. After these ceremonious circuits had been conducted three times, the women held out their verdure towards the centre of the fire while the men used their burning torches to describe a series of three flaming circles above their heads.

The last round of dancing completed, the men jumped three times over their stake and threw the young women over the fire nine times while shouting “an nao, an nao” (Breton for the nine, the nine). This accomplished, the men spread out over the surrounding fields, brandishing their torches while continuing to shout out the same invocation. Meanwhile the women passed their clutched bunches through the fire and circulated amidst the crowd, as the smoke from the smouldering plant of St. John was believed to fortify one’s eyesight.

Once the flames of the fire had begun to die down, it was customary for the assembled onlookers to kneel so as to encircle the bonfire, when they would then be led in prayer by an elder of the village. Devotions completed, the entire congregation arose and proceeded in silent procession three times around the fire. Upon completion of the final circuit, all the participants would take a stone from the ground and cast it into the fire; this stone was called An Anaon, and with the completion of this rite, the crowd gradually dispersed.

Midsummer Fire
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In the Breton tradition, the world after earthly death – the Otherworld – is called Anaon and it is a word for both the dead and the place where they were said to reside. 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 Saint John’s Day, Christmas Eve and the eve of All Saints’ Day. At these times, some believed that the dead wandered freely in the land of the living, returning to their former homes and haunts. As the dead were always thought to be cold, it was once customary to place a stone near one’s hearth to serve as a seat for the souls of one’s ancestors who might visit, thus allowing them to warm-up at ease.

The same superstition lay behind the stone cast into the midsummer bonfire; attracted to the fire, the dead took their places and sat upon those stones to enjoy the warmth of the smouldering embers. In one part of south west Brittany, the villagers used to place stools around the bonfire for the souls of the dead overnight.

On the morning of St. John’s Day itself – a day when the young women of the village were forbidden to work – the villagers returned to the site of the fire and it was taken as an ill omen if an anaon stone had moved out of the fire; the return of a stone offered to the dead was believed to signify that the one who cast it could themselves expect to meet death within a year.

People also looked for other things amidst the debris of the bonfire. For instance, pieces of charred wood were taken home as a protection against lightning strikes; a defence thought to last until St. John’s Day the following year. Although some maintained that in order to be truly effective, the charred embers needed to be kept under one’s bed between a piece of cake baked on Twelfth Night and a sprig of boxwood that had been blessed on Palm Sunday. Charred sticks from the bonfire were also thrown into wells to improve the quality of the water.

The Feast of Saint John
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The bunches of stonecrop, known in Brittany as the plant of St. John, that had been used by the dancing young women were usually retained by them as a charm against maladies and pain. They were often hung from the ceiling beams; if they continued to grow, it was taken as a sign of life but if they withered, an omen of death. In the traditional medicine of the region, stonecrop was commonly used as a purgative and also for the treatment of burns. It is worth noting that stonecrop is not one of the seven sacred plants of St. John; these were herbs which needed to be gathered on the morning of St. John’s Day whilst walking backwards barefoot through the dew in a state of grace. When combined appropriately, this blend of herbs was thought to be able to counteract fever and be powerful enough to repel witchcraft.

Other superstitions were once closely attached to the midsummer bonfire: in some communities, farmers drove their cattle through the fire’s embers in order to preserve them from sickness and the malice of the korrigans until St. John’s Eve the following year; if a young girl danced around nine midsummer fires, she would marry before the next Midsummer Day; a similar outcome was assured if she found a vantage point that allowed her to see the flames of nine separate fires at once; and if a baby was swung before the flames of three midsummer bonfires, they were thought to be forever protected from fear.

Some of the accounts written of rural Brittany towards the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries suggest that, in some areas, the high ritual noted above had reduced to the young people of the community simply dancing around the blazing fire and leaping over the embers once the flames had subsided. In the port city of Brest, pyres were replaced with burning torches which were swung in circles and thrown into the air but the city of Rennes maintained its traditional pyres into the 1960s. By the years between the two World Wars, midsummer bonfires and particularly the ancient practices associated with them had become increasingly uncommon.

St John's Eve
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However, certain elements of the complex ritual attached to the old bonfires of midsummer were still reported in some villages as late as the 1970s. For instance, one writer notes that one bonfire took place without any special rites except that bunches of St. John’s plant were passed through the burning embers and were subsequently taken home by the onlookers to be hung from the ceiling as a charm to protect against ailments of the eye.

In another village, the fire was lit by a man named Jean and everyone was gathered around the flames in silence until a young child began playing with stones and casting them about. Whereupon an elderly lady approached the boy, telling him “That’s not the way it is done, watch …” and picked-up a stone from the ground and threw it into the flames. As if waiting for the cue, the majority of the adults surrounding the fire picked up stones and, pretending to amuse the children, threw their stones into the fire; the ancient rite was thus observed while maintaining appearances that the old superstitions were a thing of the past.

On another occasion, it was a group of young women who took the initiative to throw stones into the bonfire and everyone followed their lead. This was followed by a seemingly impromptu call from the oldest woman present who led the crowd in a recitation of the Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers in honour of Saint John and then for all those who had once lived in the village but were now dead. After which, she passed bunches of St. John’s plant over the burning embers, distributing sprigs to those who wanted them.

The custom of roaming the countryside, brandishing lit torches continued in parts of Brittany at least until around the time of the Second World War. Setting aside the phonetic similarity between the  invocation ‘an nao’ cried out as the men ranged their fiery and smoking torches amidst the fields, and the word for the dead ‘anaon’, it is worth noting that the same call was once used in western Brittany in rituals marking a clearing of the land and a first sowing.  

A burning torch
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Without stretching credibility too far, it is interesting to contemplate whether these are the vestiges of some ancient rites invoking dead ancestors to help ensure the fertility of the earth and thus the well-being of the living. Anthropologists have identified many archaic societies who hold seasonal ceremonies that serve as a symbol of an exchange between the world of the living and the world of the dead, particularly amongst those who practice the shifting cultivation technique known as slash and burn (plots of land are cleared, worked until exhausted of nutrients and then allowed to be re-claimed by nature and thus regenerate). Many of these societies held the belief that the spirits of the deal dwelt in the land or in the trees and a similar belief existed in Brittany where, as late as the turn of the last century, many traditions were recorded that identified the fields of gorse and other uncultivated land as the domain of the dead serving their penance.

It is therefore reasonable to wonder whether this rite of taking fire and smoke – from the main bonfire – to the fields while calling upon ‘the nine’ was a way of calling on the dead who dwelt there to intercede and aid in the regeneration of the land; the cycle of the land entwined with the cycle of life. The number nine is a significant one, both on its own and as a multiplier of three, in many cultures, and in Brittany kinship was once counted over nine generations and certain prayers addressed accordingly. Nine was therefore a number that was not only associated with the ancestors and the generations passed but with the human gestation period and thus the generations of the future, so, a symbol of all fertility. Furthermore, it is not too fanciful to suggest that the burning torches themselves are symbolic of the fires once used to burn the land in order to ultimately propagate new growth.

We will never know for certain the extent to which these old rites were survivors from antiquity nor of their proper place in the religious views of the ancient Bretons; the basic beliefs that underpinned them have long since been lost to us. Nevertheless, even if the rites have become corrupted or obscured over time and have lost their original meaning, their survival is no less remarkable and while the midsummer bonfire was commonly found in other areas of France, it was in Brittany that it remained burning most visibly into recent times.

The Fires of Saint John
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Many midsummer fires still take place in Brittany nowadays; some are recent attempts to rekindle the old traditions or are attached to a seasonal Fest Noz gathering. However, the majority of the traditional fires take place under the guise of a Saint John’s Fire – a communal bonfire that marks the end of a pardon dedicated to that saint. The Pardon of Saint-Jean-du-Doigt, sometimes known as the Pardon of the Fire, on Brittany’s north coast is perhaps the most well-known pardon to feature a massive bonfire. The village is said to have possessed a relic of St. John since before the new church was built in 1440 and a solemn pardon has been celebrated there for the last five hundred years.

The relic, a finger bone, is reputed to have been brought inadvertently to the village by a Breton who had visited the shrine of St. John in Normandy during the Hundred Years War. After seeing the relic, the young man suddenly felt compelled to return home and by all accounts enjoyed an unusually swift and trouble-free journey back to Brittany. As he approached his hometown, the bells of the church of St. Meriadec immediately began to ring of their own accord and the trees bowed down before him and no sooner had he reached the church, than the cause of these marvels became apparent. For, in the same instant that he prostrated himself before the altar, the holy relic was seen lying there; it having dropped from his coat sleeve. The joy at receiving St. John’s grace saw that saint supplant St. Meriadec as the patron saint of the village and his 12th century church rebuilt to the honour of St. John.

Contained in a reliquary donated by Anne of Brittany at the end of the 15th century, the church is said to hold the forefinger of the right hand; the digit that the Baptist used as he announced the Lamb of God to the multitude assembled on the banks of the River Jordan. The same finger bone is claimed by a monastery in Montenegro and other bones from the saint’s right hand are said to be held by monasteries in Greece and Egypt as well as the Topkapi Museum in Turkey.

Since its appearance in Brittany, the sacred relic has been an object of veneration and pilgrimage for the highest and lowest throughout the land. The relic and the sacred fountain near its associated church have long been accorded miraculous qualities and both were especially renowned for curing all diseases and imperfections of the eyes.

A Breton Pardon
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The author Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his travel narrative, A Summer in Brittany (1840), describes his visit to the pardon at Saint-Jean-du-Doigt thus:

“During its celebration the relic of the Saint … is wrapped in the finest of linen and one by one the congregation files past the abbé for the purpose of touching, for one brief moment, the relic he holds. At the same time another cleric stands near the choir, holding the skull of St Mériadec, and before this the pilgrims also promenade, reverently bowing their heads as they go. The devotees then repair to a side wall near which there is a fountain, the waters of which have been previously sanctified by bathing in them the finger of St Jean suspended from a gold chain and into this the pilgrims plunge their palms and vigorously rub their eyes with them, as a protection against blindness.”

“Fireworks were to be let off first and when this had been done, the firing of a cannon gave the signal that the bonfire was about to be lighted. This, however, was to be accomplished in no ordinary way, but by fire from heaven or by a contrivance intended to resemble it in effect, as nearly as might be. A long rope was attached to the top of the church tower, the other end of which communicated with the fuel. Along this a ‘feu d’artifice,’ in the form of a dove, was to be launched which was to run along the line and ignite the dry brushwood.

Soon after the pile was lighted, the clergy, with the banners, the relics, and the principal part of the procession, left the bonfire and returned down the hill to the village. This appeared to be the signal that all semblance of a religious ceremony might now be dropped. The remainder of the evening was given up to unrestrained merry-making and carousing.”

Saint-Jean-du-Doigt
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Similar scenes are related in other later accounts although the references to the blessing of the participants are clear that the relic remained in its reliquary and it was this that was applied, in rapid succession, to the eyes of the pilgrims lining the altar. The pyrophoric dove was replaced by a dragon sometime prior to 1893, before itself being retired in the middle of the last century. Despite renewed efforts by the Church in the mid-19th century to put a stop to the bonfires associated with pardons, they remain a popular feature of many pardon celebrations although, in several locations, religious authorities insisted that the fires burn in daytime and that is now the case at Saint-Jean-du-Doigt.

While the nocturnal dancing around the bonfire is a scene missing from the pardon ceremony that you can witness today, so too are the crowds of drunken brawlers, mendicants, peddlers, hawkers, healers and charlatans that characterised the pardons of old. The pardon of Saint-Jean-du-Doigt remains both a religious and secular festival that continues to attract the devout and the merely curious in large numbers today. Unfortunately, this year’s event has been cancelled due to the coronavirus related restrictions surrounding social gatherings but, for those interested, the pardon is celebrated on the last Sunday of June.

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