The Mermaids of Brittany

The bestiaries of the Middle Ages included fantastic beasts such as the unicorn, mermaids and dragons but popular belief in such creatures did not entirely die away after the Age of Enlightenment. Along Brittany’s wild coastline, stories of sailors and seashore gatherers encountering mermaids remained commonplace well into the 19th century.

In May 1636, the Duke de Retz, Marquis of Belle-Île, reported the presence of a merman seen seated on a rock near the Pointe des Poulains on his island’s north coast, the creature’s “body appeared to be the size of a barrel of wine, covered to the shoulders with hair, very big and rather white. His beard was similar and went to his stomach. His eyes were very big and rough.” Credible witnesses claimed “they could not see for sure whether the legs and feet were of a man or of a fish tail, although some assure the latter,” and said that “the arms and hands were very well proportioned, for the hands which he had were extraordinarily large and white on the inside and the arms a little short.”

The following day, boats were sent out to try and capture the creature; it broke the pursuers’ nets without any difficulty and even overturned one of their vessels. Eventually caught in a net, the merman managed to escape and for the next fortnight showed himself in inaccessible places around the island’s north coast. It was shot by an arquebus but no one was sure whether the creature was wounded as it plunged under the waves and was never seen again.

mermaid of Belle Ile
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The French poet Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant, who was then staying on the island, also related this episode but described a creature with green eyes, azure hair and a body covered in scales. Having added further poetical flourishes such as a mother-of-pearl horn, coral plumes, pearl scarf and amber perfume, Saint-Amant’s account sadly owes more to his imagination than anything seen by genuine witnesses.

The same summer that the creature was sighted off the coast of Belle-Île, fishermen and merchants travelling from there to the south coast city of Vannes, on the Breton mainland, reported something similar on rocks near the Chaussée du Béniguet: “he had no beard and very long hair, and assuredly, instead of legs, he had two fish tails shaped like a salmon.”

Off Brittany’s west coast in 1725, the thirty-two man crew of a ship from Brest reported that for two hours their vessel was taunted by a merman some eight feet long, who possessed human ears, black hair and webbed hands and feet. However, the sighting might have carried more weight if the creature was not also said to have been overly enamoured by the ship’s figurehead of a shapely woman.

Mermaids 18th century illustrations
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In June 1761, a respected physician announced the beaching of a mermaid on the shore of the Île de Noirmoutier just six miles off the south coast of Brittany in Vendée. He recounted that two local girls had been collecting shellfish on the seashore when one came across an “animal in human form” lying in a small cave. The November 1761 edition of the magazine Mercure de France noted that: “As soon as he saw her, this animal stood straight and leaned on both hands. She called her companion, who being armed with a dart, pushed it into the heart of the animal, which made a moan similar to that of a person. Both girls cut off his hands, which had well-formed fingers and nails with fins between the fingers. The island’s doctor was called and he reported that this sea monster was the size of the biggest man we can imagine; that his skin was white, of a colour like the flesh of a drowned man; he had a very well formed female breast, a flattened nose, a large mouth whose chin was adorned with a species of beard formed of delicate scales, and that he had similar scattered clumps all over his body. His tail was that of a fish and at the end there were a kind of feet.”

A few years later, in January 1763 a naval officer from Brest reported a stranded merman near the west coast town of Le Conquet and in the following year a naval doctor from the same port described two “sea monsters” discovered stranded near Brest which he described as the “devil of the sea.”

Writing of his tour of the province in the mid-1790s, Jacques Cambry in his Voyage dans le Finistère (1799) noted: “There are few sailors on this coast who do not say they have heard the wail, the cry of the mermaid.” He also recounts a tale of the mermaid of the Pointe du Raz that an ill-advised fisherman from Douarnenez tried to capture. Seeing him approach with nets, she rushed into the sea and immediately invoked a terrible storm that threw twenty broken boats ashore.

Mermaid Brittany
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The rocks lying off the Pointe du Van on Brittany’s Atlantic coast were said to be a preferred haunt for mermaids as late as the end of the 19th century. The Breton ethnographer Hyacinthe Le Carguet reported the first-hand testimony given to him by a fisherman in 1886: from the cliffs of Kerbesquerrien, he had seen with his own eyes a mermaid frolic not far from shore, disappear and then reappear again. She let her long hair float on her back and from time to time uttered a veiled call as a song. He assured Le Carguet that he had been able to observe the creature for a long time over two consecutive days before it disappeared, heading north towards the Basse-Jaune reef.

Le Carguet tried to convince the fisherman of another explanation for the observed phenomenon; the maritime authorities had recently reported that a buoy topped with a foghorn had broken its chain and carried by the current, must have drifted into the bay before being caught by the ebb. The mermaid’s song was the muffled sound of the foghorn and a mass of entangled seaweed, her beautiful hair. Unfortunately, Le Carguet’s scepticism displeased his interlocutor, who, like many others at the time, believed in the existence of mermaids.

Other witnesses, whose sincerity cannot be doubted, also claimed to have seen mermaids, most often in the classic posture of sitting on a rock while combing their long golden hair. One account collected in the 1950s recounts how, in his youth in 1890, the Dean of Goulien was in a rowing boat, sea-fishing with friends when deteriorating weather forced them to return to port. As they were doing so, a mermaid approached and swam around their boat. The young men first tried to catch it but succeeded only in antagonising the creature who then became threatening, diving several times under the boat as if to capsize it. The fishermen then tried to strike her with their oars and the waves picked-up markedly thus making it impossible for them to access the small cove that served as their harbour.

The mermaid followed the boat for more than an hour as the men struggled against the waves to bring their vessel into another anchorage. “I saw it well, she had a fishtail and her upper body was like that of a woman; a beautiful woman with red cheeks and black hair that floated on the water,” described the Dean who was unable to report on the creature’s chest and hands because they remained constantly submerged.

Mermaid Byrne Jones
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This account corresponds to the well-established belief once widely held by the fishermen of western Brittany, that before a storm, mermaids were often sighted; foreshadowing a drowning. It is, of course, likely that the creature the men encountered was a seal but the power of the imagination, coupled with popular tradition, evoked in them the image that custom dictated they should see: a mermaid. The authentic flavour of the story comes from their unconscious efforts to reconcile the reality that was before their eyes with the ready-made image conjured by the tales they had grown-up with. 

In Breton folklore, mermaids (known as “sirènes” in French) are usually portrayed as small, mischievous creatures well-versed in the dark arts of magic and evil spells. Like the sirens of antiquity, their beautiful songs were said to possess the power to bewitch any man that heard them and they are often depicted taunting young fishermen with their amorous solicitations. These traits appear little changed from the many descriptions noted in the bestiaries of medieval Europe where mermaids symbolised lustful, faithless women.

Richard de Fournival’s mid-13th century Bestiary of Love noted: “There are three types of mermaids, two of which are half-woman, half-fish and the third is half-woman and half-bird. All are musicians: one plays the horn, another, the harp, and the last sings with a female voice. The mermaid’s melody is so pleasant that there is no man who can hear it, no matter how distant, without being compelled to come to her but when he draws near, he falls asleep and when the mermaid finds him, she kills him.”

Mermaids medieval bestiary
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Writing at about the same time, Dante’s guardian and tutor, the philosopher Brunetto Latini, claimed they were “harlots who deceived travellers and reduced them to poverty. If history says that they had wings and claws, it is to symbolize love, which flies and strikes; and if they dwelt in the water, it is because lust is born from the wet.”

Clearly, physical descriptions of mermaids have varied over time; the one depicted in the early-12th century Cambridge bestiary possesses a fish’s tail, the talons of an eagle and a skirt made of bird feathers and fish scales. However, the late-7th century Liber Monstrorum or Book of Monsters, says that “from the head to the navel they have a maiden’s body and are most like the human form but they have the scaly tails of a fish which they always hide in the sea.” This image of the mermaid is the one most commonly found in Breton lore into the 19th century when “the sailors of Trégor assure that they have seen it sometimes and more often heard it: it has the head and breast of a woman, the rest of the body is a fish.”

Cambridge bestiary - mermaid
© Cambridge University Library (MS Ii.4.26)

Just as described in the 7th century, Brittany’s mermaids were believed to use their beauty and enchanting songs to lure hapless men to their destruction and damnation. Calling out to the men aboard the vessels at sea, the mermaids were said to sing so marvellously that no mortal could resist the temptation to join them in their undersea domain; inevitably resulting in shipwrecks and the deaths of sailors. Their beauty and fatal sensuality personified not so much the wantonness of women but the allure and dangers of the sea itself.

In Breton lore, mermaids were rarely encountered in the open sea; they were believed to prefer staying close to the coast, particularly near the mouths of rivers or the entrance to grottos. Breton sailors once claimed that the appearance of a mermaid always announced bad weather. In western Brittany, it was believed that it was enough to see a mermaid, or even to accidentally touch one, to start a fierce storm. On the coast of Finistère, mermaids were often known by the name of Mac’harit an gwall amzer or Margaret Foul Weather; their voice was said to possess the power to make the sea rage or to reduce the wind to dead calm. An old proverb warned that: “When Mac’harit starts to sing, the sailor starts to cry.”

Legends from the south east of the region tell of mermaids’ warning fishermen not to touch their hair; to do so would risk calamity and death, while other legends equated the mermaid’s touch with certain death. As a creature that had rejected God’s word, the touch of a mermaid was sometimes thought enough to condemn a man to suffer the saddest fate faced by a Christian; condemned never to rest in the trough of the waves and with the mark of baptism forever effaced from his forehead. Never would the unfortunate know the joy of resting in holy ground; never will he have a grave where his loved ones might come to pray for his salvation.

Mermaid Brittany
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Mermaids here were also widely believed to have the power to take their victims to the depths of their underwater lair by a single touch. Indeed, even the slightest touch of a part of her body was thought enough to force a man to rush irresistibly into the sea. It was this magical ability that once explained how the mermaid of the Pointe de la Latte was able to abduct a large number of young men: as soon as she had managed to touch only one of them with the tip of her finger, they could not avoid following her into her underwater palace.

A late-11th century account of the life of Saint Tudual tells of religious students walking along the banks of the Tréguier River, when the last of their group, who was remarkably beautiful, stopped talking in the middle of a sentence. When his companions turned around, they could see no trace of him. After having searched in vain, they invoked Saint Tudual and a moment later the young man emerged from the water, his right foot tangled in a silk belt.

Once calmed, he explained: “Mermaids seized me and dragged me under the waves of the ocean. Although abducted by them and far away, yet I still heard your voices. Then before me, a venerable figure, dressed in priestly garb, appeared. With a mighty arm he tore me from the mermaids and through the mighty waves he brought me back to the shore. When they saw him, the nymphs fled but one of them forgot to unfasten the belt she had wrapped around me; it is here as proof of my abduction.”

Mermaid Brittany
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It was said that an inaccessible sea cave on Brittany’s west coast, near Crozon, was once home to a group of mermaids. One evening, a local lord was travelling home along the cliff top path above this cave when he came across a baby girl, seemingly abandoned in a basket. He took her home to his castle and he and his wife raised the child as though she had been their own daughter. However, the girl was a mermaid and often, at night, disappeared from the crib where she had been laid, without anyone knowing what had become of her.

When she reached her teenage years, the people of the castle often heard, at dusk, the sound of a horse in the courtyard; it was a ‘folgoat’ (water horse) calling the young mermaid who seemed to answer its cries with a dazzling light before disappearing, sometimes for weeks on end. Those who had raised her tried in vain to hold her heart to theirs but one day she left and did not come back. According to local legend, she still lives in the cave at Crozon; home to the last mermaid.

On Brittany’s north coast, the mermaid of La Fresnaye was said to have preferred spending her time in the little cove watered on each side by the two rivers that flow into the sea there. It was in that spot that, on the rising tide, one could see her gliding on the waves and hear her soft melodious voice floating over the water; wherever she passed, the sea shone like a ray of sunshine. One day, having fallen asleep, rocked by the waves, the mermaid was floating a short distance from shore when she was captured by a clog-maker. She was the size of an eight year old girl; on her head floated golden hair and her polished white body resembled that of a woman but instead of feet she had fins and a fishtail. Ignoring her pleas to be returned to the water, the clog-maker took his prize home to his wife who was minded to eat the poor creature.

mermaid of La Fresnaye
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After reminding the clog-maker’s wife of the instant death that befell anyone who desecrated the flesh of a mermaid, she again pleaded to be put back in the ocean and offered to grant the family their hearts’ desire, for she possessed the power of the fairies. The clog-maker and his wife eventually carried the mermaid back to the sea and soon their wish for food, good clothes and gold was granted. After a year, the gold had all been spent and the clog-maker once again asked the mermaid for a full purse, which she duly granted before forever leaving Brittany for India. Another legend tells that a once stranded mermaid gave a flute to a fisherman as a reward for returning her to the water; whenever he played this magical instrument, the mermaid would quickly appear and deliver whatever aid she could.

Another tale tells that two women of Ouessant were collecting shellfish when they encountered a mermaid drying her treasures in the sun, spread out on two beautiful white cloths. The curious girls reached her without being seen and the mermaid, surprised to see that the girls were gentle, gave them each a gift wrapped in her fine cloth, on condition that they did not to look at them until they had returned home. One of the girls, too impatient to discover what she believed to be some marvellous treasure, unwrapped her cloth and found only horse dung. The other girl went home and opened her cloth before her parents’ eyes to discover fine pearls, precious stones, gold and rich fabrics. The family became fabulously wealthy and, according to legend, their descendants still live on the island in comfort thanks to the mermaid’s treasure.

Some Breton tales tell that mermaids are grateful to mortals who return any stranded beauties to the sea, offering favour and fortune to those who have shown them consideration and kindness. The mermaid saved by the mother of the Breton hero Rannou had given her, for her son, a conch shell filled with a magical potion; thanks to her gift, Rannou became the strongest and most powerful of men. However, in the folklore of western Brittany, such benevolent mermaids are exceptional; most tales represent them as treacherous, evil or cruel creatures.

Brittany and mermaids
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On the Île de Groix, the sea-cliff chasm known as Trou de l’Enfer (Hell’s Hole) was said to be the home of a fierce merman; a thickly furred beast with the head of a man displaying disjointed teeth and fingers of abalone shells. This beast was reputedly the instigator of shipwrecks because his voice allowed him to imitate those of boat captains and to give fatal counter-orders to their crews. Thankfully, it was said to only be active between November and March. Further along the coast, the jagged cliffs of Pen Men concealed the lair of a vicious mermaid who crushed children to death against the rocks for her amusement.

In The Mermaid’s Blood (1897), the Breton author Anatole Le Braz tells of a young man’s trip to the Île d’Ouessant to collect the legends of the island. Whilst there, he meets the beautiful and charismatic Marie-Ange, known as the Flower of Ouessant and hears tales of the twelve virgins; a colony of mermaids as beautiful as angels but as perverse as demons, who once lived quietly in one of the island’s coves. A local fisherman had caught one in his nets and the unlikely couple fell in love and even married. The mermaid made her husband a commander of the sea and the winds and waves obeyed him, bringing him fish and wrecks aplenty. Unfortunately, the other mermaids, jealous of their sister’s happiness, cursed her and all her descendants. Since then, each girl born of the mermaid’s bloodline would be the most beautiful of her generation but would be cursed to lose her husband to the sea which would never return his body for a Christian burial.

When the folklorist François-Marie Luzel visited the isles of Ouessant and Molène in 1873, he found that the oral tradition of the islands had preserved the memories of mermaids who had once frequented their shores. Interestingly, the people of Ouessant believed that a distinct tribe of merfolk lived, until relatively recently, just a short distance from their island. These creatures were held to have been more benevolent towards humanity than other mermaids and counted both males and females amongst their numbers; the mermen were called morgans, the mermaids morganes – Breton for sea-born. They were frequently to be seen frolicking amongst the seaweeds near the shore or drying beautiful treasures under the afternoon sun. Such marvels could be seen provided only that the onlooker did not move their eyelids, for everything vanished at the first blink of an eye. Sadly, it was said that the increase in the number of strangers visiting the island since the advent of the steam ferry from the mainland, exposed the merfolk to the malice of humanity and since then, they were rarely seen.

Mermaid family
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The cold ocean depths around the Île d’Ouessant were thus home to the morgans; a tribe of merfolk of great beauty. Only Mona Kerbili, a young girl of the island, could equal their beauty and grace. One day, the King of the Morgans, dazzled by her beauty, seized the girl and carried her to the bottom of the ocean. In his brilliant palace, surrounded by magnificent riches, Mona’s beauty shone brightest and the old king fell desperately in love with her.

Unfortunately, the king’s son was also captivated by Mona and begged his father to give her to him in marriage but the king forbade such an alliance and instead forced his son to marry a morganes, daughter of one of his counsellors. While the folk of the palace attended the wedding ceremony, Mona was ordered to stay in the kitchens and prepare the wedding feat but she had been given only empty pots and a promise of death if an excellent meal did not await the party’s return. Having been made aware of Mona’s plight, the groom returned to the palace on some pretext and recited some charms as he touched the cooking utensils which soon produced a marvellous meal. The wedding feat was well received by all but the king realised that Mona had received aid from some unknown quarter and resolved to be rid of this daughter of the soil.

When the newlyweds eventually retired to their bridal chamber that night, the king ordered Mona to accompany them and to stay near the door, holding a lighted candle in her hand; the death of the light would signal her own. The king stood in an adjoining room and from time to time asked: “Has the candle burnt down to your hand?”

“Not yet,” answered Mona. The king repeated the question several times until, when the candle was almost entirely consumed, the prince said to his new bride: “Take, for a moment, the candle from Mona’s hands and hold it, while she lights us a fire.”

Merfolk
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Completely oblivious to her stepfather’s intentions, the newlywed duly took the candle just as the king once more repeated his question: “Has the candle burnt to your hand?”

“Answer yes,” demanded the young prince of his wife, who willing did so. Hearing this, the king burst into the room and threw himself upon the girl holding the dying light and with one mighty blow from his sword, separated her head from her body.

The following morning, the prince told his father that he was now a widower and begged permission to marry Mona. When the king’s anger had abated, he reluctantly consented to the marriage of his son with the daughter of the soil. The wedding duly took place and the young couple lived in happiness in the palace under the waves. The prince treated his wife with kindness and consideration but Mona missed her Breton hearth and begged her husband’s permission to return to the land to visit her family but the prince was reluctant to allow Mona to leave as he was afraid that she would not return to him.

However, seeing his wife grow sadder each day, he eventually relented and promised to lead her back to her father’s house. The prince spoke a magical incantation and immediately a beautiful crystal bridge appeared; a glass arch that led from the bottom of the sea to the land above. Mona’s husband advised her to return at sunset and to take pains to not to let any man kiss or even touch her hand. In the excitement surrounding her return, Mona forgot this one recommendation and the wind soon chased away all memory of everything that had happened since her departure for the land of the morgans. At night, she often heard cries on the wind and during one stormy night, she distinctly recognized the voice of her husband, reproaching her for having abandoned him. Mona instantly remembered everything and found her husband moaning behind the door of her father’s house. She threw herself into his arms and has not been seen by human eyes since that moment.

Mermaids Breton art deco
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The tale of Mona and the King of the Morgans presents an image of an alternate world existing on the sea-bed and other tales tells that beneath the waves there lies an enchanted world containing well-tended fields where strange plants grow and long avenues lead to beautiful castles made of mother-of-pearl and crystal; it is so pleasant a place that mortal visitors find that years pass there no longer than days.

Such is the domain where mermaids held their victims; those men that had attracted their fancy or sometimes even those who had been shipwrecked at sea. Some tales tell that these men married the mermaid who had kidnapped them and that, apart from the freedom to return to land, they had everything they could wish for; living a long, happy, pampered life at the bottom of the ocean, losing all memory of their earlier lives. Typically, it was men who were held in this enchanted realm because it was believed inhabited only by mermaids; the notable exception to this tradition being the merfolk off Ouessant.

A legend collected on Île Molène, talks of mermaids as eternally young seducers driven to despair by their insatiable passion. Living in rich palaces on the sea-bed, by day they display the splendour of their unveiled beauty while slumbering amid the coolness of grottos. By night, they allow themselves to be lulled by the waves breaking over the rocks. At their touch, sea-foam crystallizes into gems as dazzling as that of her body. By moonlight, they caress their hair with a comb of fine gold and sing a plaintive song whose charm is irresistible. The sailor who listens to it feels himself drawn toward the mermaid, without power to break the charm that pulls him to his destruction; his craft is broken upon the reefs: the man is in the sea and the mermaid shrieks in pure joy.

Dahud first Breton mermaid
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In some Breton legends, the first mermaid was Dahud, the damned daughter of King Gradlon who ruled the city of Is which Dahud had surrendered to the Devil, causing its devastation to the waves. Since that time, the fishermen of Douarnenez Bay often reported seeing, in times of rough weather, the cursed princess sitting on the rocks, exciting the storm. A Breton ballad collected from the oral tradition in the 1830s ends with some verses depicting Dahud as a mermaid, having been cursed by God to assume that form as punishment for her wickedness: “Did you see, fisherman, the mermaid combing her golden hair by the shore, when the sun shone bright? I saw the white girl from the sea, I even heard her sing, her song was as sad as the waves.”

Dahud’s transformation into a mermaid is sometimes attributed to God as a punishment or to the Devil as a reward, while another version tells how Saint Guénolé took pity on her as she fell from her father’s horse while escaping the waves, saying: “You will live as one of the merfolk, living in the sunken palace of Ker-Is for eternity.” This ties-in with another tale which says that Ker-Is was not destroyed by the sea but merely submerged and that it is now populated entirely by merfolk.

In addition to merfolk, other legends of fantastic fish are found in the folklore of Brittany where it was said that the lumpfish was once a fisherman. A tale tells that one evening, a fisherman was walking along the seashore at nightfall when he heard a voice announcing that the Fairy Queen’s feast would take place on the following day and that any fisherman who set his nets that day would be punished. The man ignored the warning and when he touched his nets, a voice cried out and cursed him to forever assume the form of a fish.

Mermaid
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The northern coasts of Brittany were once the playground of the Nicole; mischievous water nymphs believed to tangle or tear fishermen’s nets and loosen the anchor cables of the honest fishermen who worked the bays of Saint-Brieuc and Saint-Malo. It was said that these creatures often waited until the fishermen were about to draw-in their nets before leaping all around them, freeing the fish. They were also blamed for entangling the boats or even moving them whilst the sailors were absent or asleep. The Nicole most often displayed itself in the form of a large fish that sometimes appeared above the waves to laugh at the struggles of the fishermen. Some legends say that its name derived from a naval officer who, at one time, commanded a company of conscripted fishermen whom he treated harshly. His brutal reputation had long lingered in these coastal communities who said the troublesome spirit was none other than Nicole, transformed into a fish, who still amused himself by torment them.

For others, the Nicole was a lost soul, a former fisherman who had always been too hard on his fellows and who continued to torment them after his death; still others regarded it as the Devil himself. It was in this capacity that he was apparently exorcised by the rector of Saint-Jacut, although some say it was the priest of Saint-Cast, who mounted its back only letting him go after having made him sign a pact by which he undertook not to torment his parishioners any longer.

Similar to other supernatural beings such as the korrigans and fairies, mermaids once held an important place in the popular Breton imagination; mysterious, magical beings who willingly abandoned their parallel world for regular incursions into the daily lives of our ancestors. Little wonder therefore that some have suggested that, like the korrigans and fairies, the mermaids of Brittany might have been the final echoes of ancient sea-divinities worshipped here in days of yore.

Medicinal Plants of Brittany

In the rural Brittany of yesteryear, where doctors were exceptionally rare, the populace were happy to utilise the healing power of plants and other natural remedies. Sometimes, the intervention of the local healer or witch was sought but often people were content to apply the ancient wisdom that had been transmitted within the family from generation to generation. The remedies needed to treat the most common diseases and ailments were well known and families had long learned what plants were essential to cultivate near the home.

In Brittany, healers were generally believed to have been bestowed with their curative powers at birth although certain circumstances were thought more auspicious than others. The most powerful healers were held to be found amongst those born on Good Friday afternoon or on the first day of August or on a Friday in March, provided that day was one of the odd days of the month. Similarly, the seventh child born of a family where all six siblings were of the same but opposite sex, was considered destined to be a great healer.

Medication was typically administered here according to the complaint to be treated. The most common remedies involved herbal infusions and decoctions which were either drunk or poured over the seat of the disease. For external ailments and wounds, parts of the plant were directly placed on the body or else the remedy was applied as an ointment in a plaster or as a poultice.

Gathering plants
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Some healers never applied healing ointments directly to the seat of the disease in the belief that to do so would ‘push’ the ailment deeper inside the body. Instead, the salve was applied to an unaffected part of the body; the healing power of the remedy was thought to enter through the skin and circulate via the bloodstream before attacking the disease which was eventually overwhelmed and expelled in the sweat and excreta of the patient.

Sometimes, plants were worn about the body to cure or protect against illnesses; a Horse Chestnut carried in a pocket was said to protect against rheumatic pains and prevented haemorrhoids. An amulet containing Wormwood or nine cloves of Garlic, worn at night, was said to repel intestinal worms in children; it being popularly believed that worms could travel up to the throat, causing a cough in the patient. There was therefore some method behind the apparent madness of wearing a repellent around the neck to chase away worms.

Diseases were often believed able to be transferred to a plant which, in decomposing, allowed healing in the patient. In other cases, the plant was believed to act as a simple poultice and drain the disease from the patient, such as Garden Heliotrope leaves for abscesses; the smooth face of the leaf was said to extract the disease causing it to dry-out, the rougher side was then applied to dry-out the wound itself.

Heliotrope
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Some disorders were associated with notions of corrupted blood in the body which had to be removed or purified. For instance, hematomas were considered indicative of bad blood because they could develop into an abscess and a draught of Myrtle leaves macerated in white wine was drank, on an empty stomach, for three consecutive mornings as a means of removing the tainted blood. Boils were often seen as the visible manifestation that one’s blood was tainted and it was then held necessary to drink a decoction of Dandelion roots whose diuretic action purified the blood. Similarly, a decoction of Walnut leaves drunk at the onset of spring and autumn was thought a powerful depurative that refreshed one’s blood.

To cure eye ailments, bunches of Stonecrop that had previously been passed through the smoke of the Midsummer bonfire fire were lit and the resultant smoke was used to fumigate the diseased eye. Similarly, an eye-bath made from Elderflowers picked on the Feast of Corpus Christi were also believed to heal eye complaints, due more to their mystical association with an auspicious day rather than any particularly beneficial chemical ingredient.

To treat an eye disease popularly thought to betray the presence of an evil spirit, a compound consisting of the leaves of Lesser Celandine and nine grains of salt was applied to the little finger of the hand opposite the infected eye. Another remedy involved making the sign of the cross with nine grains of Wheat which were then thrown, one by one, into a bucket of water, while reciting certain charms. The bubbles which then appeared were said to be the evil leaving the patient.

To cure a sore throat, a poultice made of ground Agrimony fried in lard was put on the throat and massaged into the skin with six drops of vinegar. A poultice of crushed Leeks worn against the patient’s neck was also thought effective although the same remedy, placed hot on the lower abdomen, was used to help those who experienced difficulties urinating. Another treatment for a sore throat involved a plaster made from Wheat flour, milk and pepper; the hot dough was wrapped in a cloth and applied to the throat for two hours. To treat swollen glands, Bugleweed root cooked under hot ash with a little salt was eaten twice a day as a remedy.

Houseleek
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An infusion of Wormwood and Sage in water was applied directly, twice a day, to treat earache. However, the juice of the Houseleek, sometimes called Wild Artichoke, was the most popular remedy used against earaches here. The plant was thought to possess other wonderful qualities; many Breton farmers cultivated one or two Houseleek plants on the lower parts of their farmhouse roof to preserve their homes against lightning strikes. The plant was also said to immediately wither whenever a sorcerer or witch entered the house.

Hearing difficulties were often confronted with a potion made from equal quantities of Onion juice, ant egg juice and fresh water. Having been left to stand overnight, three drops of this liquid were introduced into the ear canal of one ear before breakfast; three drops were applied to the other ear on the following morning, the treatment being continued for a fortnight.

Two of the most common treatments for toothache involved the application of hot poultices. The first was made solely from Walnut leaves while the other consisted of a compound made from Figs, milk and breadcrumbs applied to the cheek. However, one daring remedy for toothache involved the prolonged chewing of Sea Holly while the healer recited, nine times, a special charm that ended with an invocation to Saint Apollonia, the 3rd century Christian martyr whose teeth were shattered during her torture in Alexandria. A less vigorous remedy was noted in eastern parts of the region, where a Privet branch, cut before dawn, was placed in the fireplace without the patient’s knowledge, in expectation of bringing-on a cure for toothache and other oral maladies such as thrush in infants.

Sea Holly
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Once cooled, a compound made from crushed Bay leaves that had been cooked in boiling bacon fat, was applied as an ointment to heal burns. The petals of Lily flowers, macerated in vegetable oil, were also used to treat burns but the plant’s petals macerated in lambig (cider brandy) were believed able to heal even the most malignant wounds when directly applied for three consecutive days. This treatment was thought effective in preventing infection and promoting healing.

One cure to treat a cold called for a hole to be carved into an Onion which then needed to be filled with mutton fat and cooked in the ashes of a fire. Once cooked, the burnt skins were removed and the onion applied, as hot as possible, as an ointment to the patient’s feet and stomach. Another unusual remedy against the common cold called for a hot poultice made of boiled Barley flour be placed on the patient’s neck and roasted bacon fat in their ears.

Chest colds and acute bronchitis were treated by drinking a herbal tea made of Apples, Figs, Mallow flowers, Plums and Raisins along with two spoons of honey; the whole boiled for an hour before being filtered and the resultant liquid drunk between meals. This treatment needed to be augmented by rubbing the patient’s neck and chest with a piece of zinc for two minutes, twice a day.

The carnivorous Sundew plant has long been reputed to possess multiple medicinal properties and it was once used against warts, burns and even syphilis. However, it was most widely used to make concoctions that were recommended against painful or incessant coughs, whooping cough and asthma. Many of today’s pharmaceutical drugs and cough syrups contain active components found in Sundews and extracts from the plant are also found in commercial wart treatments. The juice of a Dandelion leaf was also popularly applied directly onto warts in the belief that they would soon disappear.

Dandelion
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Tuberculosis was treated with a mix of dried and ground Couch Grass, Marjoram, Mint, Nettle and Thyme that had been macerated in white wine overnight. This concoction was then filtered through a cloth and the resulting liquid drunk in the morning for four consecutive days, followed one hour later with a breakfast of a freshly laid egg.

To rupture boils and abscesses, a plaster containing a compound made of soap, boiled cream and a handful of Sorrel leaves was applied direct to the seat of the disease. A plaster made of Duckweed leaves was also used for the same purpose. The Sorrel’s tender leaves were thought to possess purifying and diuretic properties and laxative broths were often prepared from an infusion of them. Likewise, the boiled root of the Yellow Dock plant was commonly used as a purgative and laxative. Kelp was another plant that was popularly boiled and eaten as a laxative.

Although poisonous when eaten fresh, many remedies for easing the symptoms of gout involved concoctions derived from the petals and leaves of the Buttercup. However, here they were most popularly ground to make a plaster that was worn over the pulse of the wrist. The plant’s leaves were also used to treat headaches; a piece of cloth soaked in vinegar in which Buttercup leaves had been macerated for a fortnight was worn across the forehead as an effective cure. 

Buttercup
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For those suffering from anaemia or a loss of appetite, drinking an infusion of Gooseberry leaves in hot water was recommended; as much as half a litre, taken on an empty stomach, daily. A more frequent dose of this same drink was used to relieve diarrhoea and dysentery. To ease the pain of a very sore throat it was held necessary to boil the plant’s leaves in water for a third of an hour; while still hot, the patient would then gargle with this water and prepare a plaster, to be worn on the neck, with the boiled leaves. Drinking a herbal tea made from an infusion of the plant’s bark was advised for those people who experienced difficulties urinating.

Growing children were fed Radish to help calcify their bones and to fight rickets and eating the plant’s leaves with a little salt was recommended in order to keep teeth healthy. Similarly, Garden Spurge, also known as Mole Grass, was chewed in the belief that it strengthened teeth. The plant is toxic and when swallowed burns the mucous membranes of the mouth and oesophagus before inducing severe stomach pains. Nevertheless, the plant’s seed capsules were often placed on or in a decayed tooth to ease cases of severe toothache.

To protect against night terrors, children were often given an amulet to wear containing a compound made from Ground-Ivy and lard. Additionally, in the north of the region, Water Arrow, also known as Arrowhead, was put under the beds of boys and balls of Oats under those of girls to help preserve them against such discomfort. To cure children of incontinence, a spoonful of Nettle seeds was mixed into a handful of bread dough; once cooked, the child had to eat a third of the bread each morning before breakfast for three consecutive days.

Broom
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Weak children, particularly those experiencing difficulties in walking, were sometimes taken to the sacred spring dedicated to Saint Idunet just outside the village of Pluzunet. Here a curious ritual was performed; the ailing child was made to lie on a stone slab popularly known as ‘the saint’s bed’ – local tradition held that this stone was an old druidic altar that the saint had once repurposed as a bed – and restrained there whilst prayers were said for its recovery. The child’s back was then beaten with branches of Broom which were then used to sweep the surface of the stone bed but only after the child’s body had been sprinkled three times with water taken in a cupped hand directly from the fountain. After rubbing the child’s kidneys, the surrounding earth was also sprinkled three times with the fountain’s water. These rites and their focus on two of the primary elements were believed to magnify the healing power of the fountain.

Another curious ritual was also once recommended in the folk medicine of western Brittany; to be rid of ringworm it was said necessary to capture a grey crow while it was building its nest. The bird was tied to a length of string and lowered to the bottom of a dried-up well where it was kept captive for three days. Each morning, before sunrise, it was essential to challenge the crow with a formula that essentially demanded that it reveal the cure in exchange for its freedom. It was said that the remedy would be found at the end of the third day, having been left near the well by the captive’s kinsfolk to secure its deliverance. This plant was Frogbit; a small floating plant resembling the water lily and it was rubbed on the patient’s head for seven days each morning before breakfast as a cure. However, the treatment was believed only effective if delivered to the patient by birds.

Breton well
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In eastern Brittany, it was said that a pregnant woman who touched or even stepped over Common Rue would induce an abortion. The roots to this superstition likely lie in the fact that the plant, when ingested, has been widely noted as a powerful abortifacient since Ancient times. In other parts of the region, an infusion made from Rue was thought to quell nosebleeds. Sometimes an abortifacient medicine, such as a decoction made of Laurel, Mint and Peony, was used to treat epilepsy.

Aurone, also known here as Lemongrass, was another abortifacient that was also used to ease abdominal pain, particularly menstrual pains. The plant, boiled in salt water for ten minutes, also produced a potion that was used to wash infected wounds and external ulcers. A plaster made from a mixture of ground Hemlock and coarse salt was also applied in the treatment of abdominal pain. A wash made from an infusion of Mistletoe berries was recommended for the treatment of female genital ailments. Mistletoe was regarded as a wonderfully versatile plant; made into a poultice, its crushed leaves and berries were used to treat sciatica and rheumatism. To treat jaundice, nine Mistletoe berries were soaked in the urine of a young boy and put into a cloth sachet placed on the patient’s head.

Dried Mistletoe leaves, macerated overnight in cold water, were drunk three times a day to relieve convulsive asthma, whooping cough and jaundice. The same tonic and dosage was also held effective against nosebleeds, haemorrhages, convulsions and epilepsy. One recipe against epilepsy called for Mistletoe leaves to be dried in the oven and ground into a fine powder. During the last three days of the new moon it was necessary, every morning, to drink a little of this powder that had been allowed to macerate in white wine overnight.

Mistletoe medicinal
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A variant of this treatment for epilepsy required a small branch of Oak Mistletoe, complete with berries and leaves, be dried in the oven and finely ground. A little of the resultant powder was taken in wine or cider each morning and evening during the three days before and the three days after the full moon. Thankfully, given its rarity, Oak Mistletoe could be substituted with Apple Mistletoe without any loss in efficacy. Belief in the plant’s efficiency against epilepsy was still strongly held here well into the 20th century.

To treat scabies and other skin diseases, a decoction made from Elderberry leaves, the stems and leaves of the Common Mallow and the root of the Marshmallow was blended with hand-crushed Marshmallow flowers, some Flax seed flour and a little ointment made from Hibiscus flowers; the resultant compound was applied as a poultice. Another poultice to treat the same ailments involved breadcrumbs boiled slowly in milk, to which was added dried and chopped Henbane leaves.

Sometimes, syrups made by boiling the juice of the Common Fumitory or the Wild Pansy together with a little sugar were taken against skin diseases. Another popular treatment involved fumigation or a steam bath of the vapours of boiling Agrimony, Knapweed, St. John’s Wort and Rupturewort together in a cauldron. Other diseases that manifested themselves on the skin, such as eczema, boils, scrofula and herpes, were treated by an infusion of Walnut leaves in water; three leaves were boiled for a third of an hour and the infusion drunk on an empty stomach each morning. However, to deliver a lasting improvement for the patient, it was believed necessary to continue treatment for a very long but unspecified time. Lining the patient’s bed with branches of Bramble was also undertaken as a treatment for eczema; the plant was said to absorb the disease as it wilted.

Walnut leaves
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The treatments for scrofulous diseases ranged from the straightforward to the elaborate. At one end of the spectrum, a strong infusion of ground, dried Acorns in hot water produced a kind of acorn coffee; two bowls of which were drank each morning and evening as a tonic. The roots of Horseradish and Gentiana were mixed with dried Spoonwort and Water Clover leaves as a treatment for scrofula. Having been macerated in white wine for three day, the medicine was ingested each morning before breakfast and in the evening, before dinner. Likewise, a decoction made from the crushed roots of Burdock, Elecampane, Soapwort and Horseradish was drunk three times daily against the same disease.

At the other end of the scale, a mixture of Fumitory flowers in Scabious juice was taken, before breakfast, in the water in which a chicken had been previously boiled. This treatment was supplemented an hour later by drinking a pint of a decoction made from the roots of Impatiens and Elecampane that had been poured, boiling hot, over a handful of Fumitory flowers and allowed to infuse. To this infusion, an anti-scorbutic syrup made from Spoonwort or Horseradish was added before being drank by the patient.

Another popular remedy for all scrofulous engorgements called for the juices of Sorrel, Chicory, Watercress and Soapwort to be blended in equal parts and mixed with a syrup made from a decoction of the roots of Elecampane, Impatiens and Horseradish with a little Barley; taken in the morning before breakfast, a cure within twelve days was expected.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo : Summer
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One remedy to dispel fevers required the patient to wear, on one of their pulse points, for two days a plaster made from five cloves of Garlic, five roots of Parsley, a pinch of coarse salt and a little soot taken from the chimney. Another treatment recommended boiling Horse Chestnuts in sweetened milk; the milk was drunk and the Chestnuts eaten every morning before breakfast for three consecutive days. Patients suffering from a pernicious fever were vigorously rubbed, over all parts of their body, with a bouquet of Wormwood while the healer recited certain charms. This done, the healer typically made the patient walk three times around the thorn bush nearest to the house.

While the seeds of the Eagle Fern were long held to possess magical qualities, the plant’s stems were also believed to possess medicinal qualities and these seem to have differed from place to place, for instance in Maël-Pestivien in central Brittany it was applied to treat injuries but just 10km west in Callac it treated skin disorders and another 40km west, haematomas.

Preparations made from Hawthorn Mistletoe were believed to alleviate colic and cure a fever. To treat renal colic, an Onion macerated overnight in white wine was ground to a pulp and passed through a loosely woven cloth before being drunk. Colic in children was thought calmed by an infusion of Cherry stems, Bran and honey while children suffering from hernias were relieved by the application of a Duckweed plaster. The taproot of the Carrot was fed to children in the belief that it made hair grow although a lotion prepared from Boxwood leaves was thought to encourage hair growth in adults losing theirs. However, rubbing one’s cheeks with ant eggs was advised for those who did not wish to have too thick a beard. Another peculiar remedy called for a concoction made from the bark of the Golden Willow that was held good for removing freckles from the face and for drying out wounds.

Lucien Simon : Breton healer
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If we have now abandoned the old medicinal practices which were once so deeply woven into daily life and popular belief, the use of plants for their therapeutic and curative properties remains. Today’s allopathic and homeopathic medicine are re-discovering and re-appropriating the old knowledge for the benefit of future generations.

Armchair Travelling – Bangladesh

With increasing signs that this month will see the lifting of the outstanding restrictions imposed on daily life here in the fight against the spread of Covid-19, this might be the last bit of armchair travelling necessary for a while. That being so, I thought a virtual visit to a country that does not often sit atop the Asian travel bucket-lists might be in order; beautiful Bangladesh.

Dhaka houses on stilts
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Dhaka boats
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Dhaka traffic
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Dhaka underpass
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Sonargaon Bangladesh
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Sonargaon Bengal
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Bangladesh fishing
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Sylhet
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Bangladesh water level
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Bangladesh well
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Bengali fishing
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Bangladesh bicycle
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Chai stall - Bangladesh
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Cox's Bazar Bangladesh
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Bangladesh boats
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Cox's Bazar - Rickshaw sunset
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Dhaka sunset
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Many thanks for joining me on this virtual journey through many different parts of Bangladesh!

A Book Tour of Brittany

Generations of writers, from across the world, have long drawn artistic inspiration from the unique atmosphere found in the small corner of Europe that is Brittany. Stimulated by these surroundings, locals and visitors alike have often put pen to paper with notable success; this post highlights some authors and their books not featured in an earlier literary tour of Brittany.

“I shall go to some quiet place in France to get right again; I don’t mean to live with anybody, even my own family but to occupy myself thoroughly.” These words were written by the English poet Robert Browning (1812-1889) not long after the death of his wife, the arguably greater poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Seeking solitude, Browning decided that Brittany offered the desired conditions. After his wife’s death, he stayed near Dinard for three months in 1861; the summer of 1863 was spent in Sainte-Marie, “a wild little place in Brittany,” a small coastal hamlet beside Pornic.

Here he wrote most of the collection that would be published as Dramatis Personæ in 1864; a volume that contained some of his finest work, including James Lee’s Wife and Gold Hair: A Legend of Pornic which carries all the flavour of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Browning spent the following two summers in Sainte-Marie and it was during his last stay that he saw the gypsy girl who inspired Fifine at the Fair; a reflective piece contrasting the exciting but ephemeral quality of lust with the steady permanence of love and the essence of truth in life and art.

Washing Beach, Pornic, 1850
The Washing Beach, Pornic , circa 1849

In June 1866, after a spell in Dinard, he moved to Le Croisic, a little town on a small promontory that protected the salt flats of Guérande from the Bay of Biscay: “a spit of sandy rock which juts spitefully north.” Here he took “the most delicious and peculiar old house I ever occupied, the oldest in town,” and enjoyed discovering the area of Brittany that Honoré de Balzac had immortalized in Béatrix (1839). He returned in 1866 when he wrote Two Poets of Croisic and again in 1867 when he penned a spirited tribute to the modest bravery of the French sailor in Hervé Riel. When it was published in 1871, he immediately sent his £100 payment to the Paris Relief Fund.

After a stay in Quimper, he spent the summer of 1868 in Audierne, on Brittany’s Atlantic coast, “a delightful, quite unspoiled little fishing town,” with the ocean in front and green hills behind. His son, Pen, joined him in Brittany on a few occasions but also visited on his own account; he was a successful artist at one time, studying sculpture under Rodin and painting in Brittany.

Born in the north coast town of Tréguier, Ernest Renan (1823-1892) left for Paris to continue his studies in late 1838. Noting the contradictions that existed between the metaphysics he studied and the faith he professed, he realised that a career in the Church was no longer for him. He instead became a biblical scholar of some repute but also wrote on archaeology, history, linguistics and philosophy. Perhaps not as well known outside France as he once was, Renan’s best known work is his seven volume opus A History of the Origins of Christianity (1863-1883) but his attachment to his native land features heavily in The Breton Soul (1854) and the autobiographical Memories of Childhood and Youth (1883). He spent each summer, from 1884 until his death, in Perros-Guirec, a small fishing village near Tréguier. The 1903 erection of his statue in the cathedral square of Tréguier was seen as a deliberate provocation by the staunchly Catholic populace whose protest descended into a melee.

Ernest Rean statue Treguier 1903
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In 1847, the author Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) and his friend and fellow writer Maxime Du Camp, toured Brittany, primarily on foot; it was a long trip which lasted around four months. The pair wrote an entertaining, if slightly condescending to modern susceptibilities, travelogue of their journey; the chapters written by Du Camp were published in serial form from April 1852, those by Flaubert were eventually published in 1881, the completed work being known as By the Fields and By the Strikes.

Flaubert was an exacting writer and known to have laboured over every word he used, often taking a week to write a single page of text. His most famous novel, Madame Bovary (1857), took five years to complete; a year longer than he spent on writing his second novel, Salammbô (1862); a marked contrast to the literary output of his contemporary Balzac, who regularly wrote for ten hours, or more, a day and published two or three substantial new works every year.

A similar tour of Brittany was undertaken at about the same time by the author Anthony Trollope’s elder brother, Thomas Adolphus Trollope (1810-1892). His travelogue, A Summer in Brittany (1840), is an easy read and shares many of the same impressions of delight and disgust at local customs and culture subsequently noted by Flaubert. Later that same decade both the Trollope and Browning households settled in Florence where the families were renowned for their generous hospitality and vocal support for Italian independence.

Peasant of Quimper from Trollope's Travels in Brittany
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The English novelist and playwright Jerome K Jerome (1859-1927) is today best remembered for his most successful work, Three Men in a Boat (1889); a humorous and almost timeless tale recounting a leisurely trip down the river Thames. In 1914, his latest play was taken off the London stage due to its celebration of German drinking songs and upon the outbreak of war, Jerome volunteered for military service. Rejected by the British Army on account of his age, the 56 year old writer volunteered as an ambulance driver with the French Army in 1915 and served in Verdun during the following year; this was one of the longest, bloodiest battles of the Western Front. “Those who talk about war being a game ought to be made to go out and play it. They’d find their little book of rules not much use,” he said.

It was during this terrible time that Jerome wrote the short story, Malvina of Brittany (1916). A charming tale about the fairy Malvina, onetime favourite attendant to the Queen of the White Ladies of Brittany, who was expelled from the realm of the fairies four thousand years ago only to reappear to a British flying officer who had landed to make some minor repairs to his aircraft in the depths of Brittany in 1914.

In 1891, T E Lawrence (1888-1935) and his parents moved to Dinard where the unmarried couple were able to live quietly for the next three years. In August 1906, Lawrence returned to Brittany with a school friend and spent the month touring the north-east of the region by bicycle, returning the next summer with his father to explore the castles of eastern Brittany and the Breton Marches. The following year, he completed a 3,500 km Tour de France, from Le Havre to Montpellier and the summer of 1910 saw him again return to Brittany and Normandy to visit the medieval battlefields and cathedrals, devouring French classics in their original text.

T E Lawrence and Brough Superior
Lawrence on his preferred cycle

Lawrence is one of those characters that almost defies being pigeon-holed and so, I shall not make the attempt. His most well-known works are Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), an account of his experiences during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 that the American diplomat Charles Hill described as ‘a novel traveling under the guise of autobiography’ and Crusader Castles (1936), his university thesis which was partly built upon the observations recorded during those many pre-war visits to Brittany and France.

Another noted author who made a point of visiting several castles during her time in Brittany was American writer Louisa M Alcott (1832-1888). Best known as the author of Little Women (1868) and its sequels, the financial success of that novel allowed the author, her sister May and their friend Alice Bartlett to visit Europe. The party stayed in Brittany for over two months in 1870 and a brief account of their sojourn is included in her collection of short stories, Shawl Straps (1872). As an artist of talent, May was particularly charmed by the province, subsequently describing it as a place where “an artist can rest with delight for many months” in her guidebook for women artists, Studying Art Abroad and How to Do it Cheaply (1879).

Louisa May Alcott sketched by her sister May Alcott, circa 1865
Louisa M Alcott sketched by her sister May, circa 1865

In 1875, Émile Zola wrote to his friend and editor that he wanted to discover Brittany and so, the following summer, the pair set off to explore the Guérande region and rented a house in Piriac where they were subsequently joined by their wives. The beauty of the wild coast captivated Zola almost as much as the ability to eat freshly-caught seafood; his friend even noting that ‘his nervous fingers so trembling with happiness when he had clams for breakfast, that he could not eat them at first.’

Inspired by his stay in Brittany, Zola wrote The Shells of Mr Chabre (1884) in which he tells the story of the bourgeois Mr Chabre who takes his wife for an extended stay in Piriac with hopes of ridding themselves of the curse of infertility in the belief that eating seafood would facilitate the birth of a child. A prodigious and versatile author; more than half of Zola’s novels were part of the twenty-volume Les Rougon-Macquart cycle, which detail the history of a single family over five generations and published between 1870 and 1893.

September 1895 found author Marcel Proust (1871-1922) staying on Belle-Île-en-Mer as a guest of the actress Sarah Bernhardt before moving on to Beg-Meil near Concarneau on Brittany’s southern coast, where he stayed until the end of October. The atmosphere and the beauty of the region inspired him and he wrote the first pages of Jean Santeuil (1952) whilst there. Unfortunately, following the critical reception of his first book, The Pleasures and the Days (1896), Proust gradually abandoned Jean Santeuil between 1898 and 1899. Nevertheless, this novel is regarded as a precursor to Proust’s most significant work, In Search of Lost Time, published in seven volumes between 1913 and 1927; often cited as one of the most influential novels of the 20th century. Many of the themes developed within In Search of Lost Time find their first articulation in Jean Santeuil, including the enigma of memory and the importance of self-reflection.

Joseph Conrad in Brittany
Joseph Conrad

The author Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) married at the end of March 1896 and almost immediately set-off to honeymoon in Brittany. After a few days in the north coast town of Lannion, searching for a suitable property to rent, the newlywed couple moved to a house on nearby Île Grande where they stayed until the end of August 1896. During his time in Brittany, Conrad began working on The Rescue, a novel that he would periodically cast-aside but which he eventually finished in 1920. He did, however, complete several short stories here; The Idiots (1896), The Lagoon (1896) and An Outpost of Progress (1896). The Idiots is not your typical honeymoon fare, featuring as it does a murder, a loss of mental reality, abandonment of faith and a suicide. Conrad is sometimes said to have been one of the greatest English language novelists and is perhaps best remembered today by Heart of Darkness (1899), Lord Jim (1900) and The Secret Agent (1907), all of which have often been adapted for television and cinema.

Pierre Souvestre (1874–1914) was born into a renowned Breton family; his father was sometime Prefect of Finistère, his mother, the daughter of the Breton artist Victor Roussin and his great-uncle was the noted Breton author Émile Souvestre. Pierre joined the Paris bar in 1894 but gradually focused most of his attention on writing for newspapers and periodicals, taking a particular interest in motor car racing and sports journalism. In 1907, he hired Marcel Allain as his secretary and a collaboration was born that saw the serial publication of a joint novel in L’Auto, the predecessor of L’Équipe, in 1909.

In 1911, they created their most memorable character, Fantômas, a ruthless, enigmatic criminal genius and master of disguise whose hand was behind almost any unsolved crime. Much like Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, the amoral, sadistic Fantômas is doggedly pursued by the one man capable of tracing his involvement in all manner of ghastly crimes and always remains one step ahead of his pursuer, often assuming the identity of his victims. With a flair for the dramatic, his crimes often involve bizarre and over-elaborate procedures, such as trained plague-ridden rats or rooms that slowly fill with sand. One of the most popular characters in the history of French crime fiction, Fantômas appeared in 32 books as well as in a number of film and television adaptations. Pierre Souvestre died in Paris in February 1914 but lies buried in the cemetery of his Breton hometown, Plomelin.

Fantomas movie poster 1947
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One of the founding members of the Society of Friends of Fantômas, Max Jacob (1876-1944) was born and brought-up in the south coast town of Quimper but moved to Paris as a young man, where in 1898 he became an art critic and a well-known figure amongst the artistic crowd of Montmarte. For a time, he shared a room with Picasso who subsequently became his Godfather on his conversion to Christianity in 1915. Abandoning journalism, Jacob took on a series of odd jobs and sold horoscopes, paintings and poetry to fund his rather itinerant lifestyle.

Jacob’s poetry was heavily influenced by Surrealism, Symbolism and Cubism as well as his life in Brittany and Paris. His prose poetry, especially The Dice Box (1917) is often cited as an important bridge between the Symbolists and Surrealists while his free verses, such as the collection published as The Central Laboratory (1921) have long been applauded for their inventiveness. Despite his reputation as a poet and writer, it was his painting that provided the main source of his income.

Tired of the Bohemian lifestyle, he returned to western Brittany to escape the excesses of 1920s Paris and later moved to a monastery at Saint-Benoit in 1936.  Having lost both a brother and sister to the Nazi death camps, it was perhaps inevitable that the Jewish-born, homosexual Jacob fell under the Gestapo’s gaze. He was arrested on 24 February 1944 and transferred to a holding camp where he was assigned a place on the next convoy for Auschwitz. Frantic efforts, coordinated by Jean Cocteau, were made to secure his release but he died of pneumonia the day before his scheduled deportation.

Washerwomen at the Flower Bridge, Quimperle by Max Jacob 1909
Max Jacob : Washerwomen at the Flower Bridge, Quimperle (1909)

The first four novels written by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, popularly known as Colette (1873-1954), were published under her writer husband’s pen-name ‘Willy’. Following their separation, she carved out a successful living appearing in music halls, often portraying characters from her own novels; a period she recounted in her novel The Vagabond (1910), which deals with women’s independence in a male-dominated world.

Following her divorce, in May 1910, Colette arrived in Dinard in hopes of finding a home which was as far removed from the literary circles of Paris as possible; by the end of the following month, she had found a magnificent house, set amongst “the most beautiful landscape on earth” just above the beach of Touesse in Saint-Coulomb, near Saint-Malo. Colette spent her holidays here until her third and final marriage in 1925; the new couple preferring the warmer climes of Saint-Tropez. By this time, Colette had become an established and successful author under her own name and is perhaps best known today for her novella Gigi (1944) which became an award-winning Hollywood musical in 1958.

Colette : presentation copy of her 1934 novel, Duo.
Author’s dedication in a copy of her 1934 novel, Duo.

Published almost 75 years ago, Albert Camus’ (1913-1960) novel The Plague (1947) became a publishing sensation again in 2020 thanks to its focus on the effects of a deadly epidemic. The book imagines an outbreak of plague in the Algerian city of Oran; the impact of which is, at first, downplayed by its inhabitants. As the plague’s grip tightens, people are forced to quarantine; such isolation feeding claustrophobia and fear. Each character in the book responds in their own way; some accept their fate, others seek to apportion blame but a few, like the narrator, have the courage to resist the fear that has enveloped the city. The book is widely regarded as an allegory for the Nazi occupation and the lives lived under an atmosphere of threat, separation and exile in which the occupied lived. 

Camus finished the book in Brittany in Les Moutiers-en-Retz, about 10km south of Pornic, in the summer of 1946 and considered his collaboration with Louis Guilloux of Saint-Brieuc so significant that he noted that his friend had “written this book in part.” Camus travelled to northern Brittany to stay with Guilloux in 1947 and during this visit discovered his father’s grave; he died in Saint-Brieuc as a result of wounds contracted on the Western Front during the First World War.

Camus was not overly enamoured with Brittany; the sun was too often absent and the size of the tidal ebbs made sea-bathing an uncertain affair for a man accustomed to the Mediterranean. He drew from the region an impression, an atmosphere that would nourish the writing of his unfinished autobiography The First Man (1994). His encounter with his father’s grave inspired a key scene in this book. In the chapter entitled ‘Saint-Brieuc’, the hero feels a shock in front of the grave: “He read the two dates 1885-1914 and made a mental calculation: twenty-nine years. Suddenly an idea struck him which shook him to his core. He was forty years old. The man buried under this slab and who had been his father, was younger than him. The flood of tenderness and pity which suddenly filled his heart was not the movement of a soul that carries the son towards the memory of his dead father but the upset compassion a man feels in front of a child, unjustly murdered.”

Saint Brieuc
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A native of the north coast town of Saint-Brieuc, Louis Guilloux (1899-1980) was himself a highly regarded author and his most famous work, The Black Blood (1935), was an immediate and international success when published. After the liberation of Saint-Brieuc in 1944, he returned from hiding to serve as an interpreter for the Allied military tribunals, an experience he recounted in his novel OK, Joe! (1976), which also highlighted the racism he witnessed in the US Army at that time.

André Breton (1896-1966) was born in Orne but spent most of his formative years with his grandfather in Saint-Brieuc and his grandmother in Lorient on Brittany’s south coast. In February 1915, he began his artillery training in Pontivy in central Brittany but transferred to the medical corps in Nantes where he worked as a neurological nurse. Breton never seriously pursued his early interest in psychoanalysis but his subsequent thinking was heavily influenced by psychological theories.

One of the founders of the Surrealist movement, Breton believed that poetry transcended reason and logic. His Magnetic Fields (1920) is usually regarded as the first work of literary Surrealism, while his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) was one of the movement’s defining texts. Other major works include the novel Nadja (1928) and Mad Love (1937), the latter, a celebration of love, being a particularly difficult book to categorise contains many references to southern Brittany. The Czech artist Toyen was one of the founders of the Surrealists Group in Czechoslovakia in 1934 and her meeting with André Breton the following year marked the start of a lifelong friendship. Having settled in France in 1947, she visited Brittany several times with Breton.

Toyen : Portrait of Andre Breton (1950)
Toyen : Portrait of Andre Breton (1950)

“As a child of Brittany, I like the heathlands. Their flower of pauperism is the only one not faded in my buttonhole,” wrote Chateaubriand, to whom Breton replied in Entretiens (1952): “I also embrace these heathlands, they have often shattered me but I love this flickering light they maintain in my heart.”

Not as well-known as some other 20th century French poets, the works of Danielle Collobert (1940-1978) seem born of the trauma she experienced in her home town of Rostrenen, central Brittany, during the German occupation. She left for Paris at eighteen years of age but appears never to have settled; a restlessness that saw her travel extensively and one that seems to have condemned her to always revisit herself. She destroyed all unsold copies of her first self-published collection of poetry, Chants des guerres (1961) and although her first novel, Murder (1964) received some critical acclaim, a subsequent volume was rejected by the publishers. A few further works were published, including Say (1972) and Survive (1978), in very limited numbers, before her thirty-eighth birthday, when she took her own life.

Collobert’s writing style was then quite unique; she used minimal punctuation and unorthodox grammar, particularly around pronouns and other gender markers to create a deliberate impersonalisation that can be unnerving for the French reader accustomed to strict assumptions based on grammar and gender. Her writing is steeped not in melancholy but in oppressive pain and the notion of death, from the personal experience to its impact on the human condition, transcends her writing. In an introduction to her work, the French writer Jean-Pierre Faye noted that it “presents a cosmology of pain. An incredible pain, majestic one would dare say, rooted in a helplessness to live. Pain that avoids pathos and that never shows a desire to strike a pose: we feel that Collobert is not lying.”

Danielle Collobert
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Brought-up on tales of being descended from Breton nobility, Jack Kerouac (1922 -1969) the American novelist and sometime post-war counterculture icon is best known for his novels On the Road (1957) and Big Sur (1962) whose hero roars to the ocean at night: “I am a Breton!” to which the darkness responds “The fishes of the sea speak Breton.” In his book Satori in Paris (1966), Kerouac recounts his, ultimately fruitless, visit to Brittany in the summer of 1965 in search of his ancestral roots. Undeterred, in 1967, Kerouac and Breton poet Youenn Gwernig agreed to return to Brittany together to make another attempt, based from Gwernig’s hometown of Huelgoat in central Brittany. Interestingly, over thirty years later, researchers managed to uncover the truth of Kerouac’s ancestry: accusations of theft had driven the son of a village notary from Huelgoat to escape Brittany for the anonymity of New France in 1720 and it was this de Kervoac that proved to be the elusive ancestor.

I have devoted a previous post to Jean-Marie Déguignet (1834-1905) and his autobiographical Memoirs of a Breton Peasant (1998). Born into rural poverty, Déguignet escaped a life of begging and drudgery by joining the French Army in 1854, and over the next fourteen years saw active service in the Crimea, Lombardy, Algeria and Mexico as well as attending Napoleon III’s coronation ceremonies and losing his religion. An autodidact, he read widely on history, philosophy and politics but returned home to make a bad marriage and enter farming, eventually falling back into dire poverty. Deguignet’s radical thinking often found him at odds with his contemporaries and his memoirs were only re-discovered in 1984.

Another view of life in roughly the same corner of Brittany can be found in The Horse of Pride (1975) by the Breton writer Pierre-Jakez Hélias (1914-1995). This entertaining book offers some wonderful insights into life in Breton-speaking rural Brittany between the World Wars and was adapted for the cinema in 1980. Hélias also wrote several books of poetry in Breton and produced numerous novels and collections of folktales in French. Thankfully, the English translation of this book retains the conversational charm of the French original.

The Horse of Pride _ Pierre Jakez Helias
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A Gift from Brittany (2008) by Marjorie Price (1929-2020) is the autobiographical tale of a young American artist who finds herself living in a hamlet in rural Brittany in the early 1960s where she discovers a world little-changed from the end of the Middle Ages but on the verge of disappearing forever. As her marriage unravels, she develops a deep bond with an elderly, illiterate neighbour who has never left the village. This seemingly unlikely friendship transcends the many boundaries that separate the two women; transforming and enriching both their lives.

An amusing, affectionate account of life in a small Breton town from the perspective of an outsider can be found in two books by the American writer Mark Greenside (1944-  ). Having made a snap decision over twenty years ago to buy a house in Brittany, the unique peculiarities of daily life in rural France continue to confuse and challenge him. I’ll Never Be French, No Matter What I Do (2008) and Not Quite Mastering the Art of French Living (2018) are set in Plobien, the fictional yet typical west Breton town where he happily spends his summers.

The first novel of Franco-English author Joanne Harris (1964-  ) in 1989 met with limited success but her third novel, Chocolat (1999) became an international bestseller and was subsequently adapted for the cinema. One of her novels, Coastliners (2002) is set on a small island off the coast of Brittany, Le Devin. A fictionalised island but loosely based on one that the author visited every summer for long stays in her grandfather’s house. It tells of the return of a prodigal daughter of the island and her battle to save the little village she once called home. Two rival communities having fought for generations over the island’s resources, it seems as if her ancestral home has lost all hope of survival until our heroine takes up the fight to stop the decay and breathe new spirit into the community.

Chocolat movie poster
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Her Mother’s Secret (2018) by Rosanna Ley is another book that deals with a prodigal daughter returning to her Breton island home to confront the secrets, lies and guilt that have cast a long shadow over her and her family’s relationships. Against the well-drawn and atmospheric backdrop of Belle-Île-en-Mer, our heroine peels away the many comfortable deceptions of the past to secure her future.

The prolific German author Nina George (1973-  ) now lives in Brittany and is, at present, best known for her novel The Little Paris Bookshop (2013); the English language edition of 2015 turned it into an international bestseller. Another of her books to have enjoyed an international surge in sales since the appearance of an English language edition is The Little Breton Bistro (2010). It tells the uplifting, life-affirming tale of a desperately unhappy woman’s suicide attempt during a trip to Paris. Recuperating in hospital, she becomes obsessed with a scene of the small Breton port of Kerdruc which she resolves to visit. Once there, she gradually finds new hope and a renewed passion for life, discovering a better version of herself but is eventually tracked down by her husband who expects her to return to her old life with him. An English translation has been available since 2017 but note that the US edition is titled The Little French Bistro!

Tirant lo Blanch (1490) Brittany
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Written while Brittany was still an independent nation and published in Valencia in 1490, the novel Tirant lo Blanch by Joanot Martorell (1413-1468) is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of Hispanic literature and was a major influence on the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. The book follows the many adventures of a knight from Brittany whose travels from England to the Holy Land and from Constantinople to North Africa reveal that chivalric tournaments, courtship, love and bloody conflict are not so very different from each other; cruel yet intoxicating for all protagonists. Martorell’s entertaining prose unfolds at an often frantic pace and makes great use of unspoken narrative to drive the plot forward.

Some commentators have claimed that the book illustrates the relationships between the Breton and Iberian peninsulas although I think that this is a little wishful thinking but I include it here nevertheless. After all, how else would I manage to cover almost 530 years of Breton literary inspiration in a single post? 😉

Yannick and the Golden Apple II

Yannick checked his pockets thoroughly as he regained his feet and was relieved that nothing had been lost or broken during his descent through the darkness. Looking around, he found himself in a small cave and having emerged into the daylight, he was surprised to discover that, apart from the rocky outcrop on which he stood, the surrounding land was a vast grassy plain, extending in all directions as far as he could see. He decided to head eastwards and after some hours walking, noticed that wild flowers increasingly dominated the pasture.

The flowers got thicker, taller and more beautiful as he strode onwards when one of them seemed to lean towards him as he passed. He bent down to look closer at this curious effect when the flower metamorphosed into a beautiful, almost translucent, woman right before his eyes. “Fear me not, I am the fairy Bon-Elen. Unhappily, I can no longer maintain my first form for long. I was cursed by the Queen because I was born with the gift of reading all the secrets of the heart. I know why you are here and urge you to return to your world before your presence here becomes known.”

“If you truly know why I am here then you must know that I cannot abandon my mission. I must bring my boy home,” responded Yannick.

Monet garden
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“Then know this. The Queen has your son and she means to keep him; not out of love but for spite. You will need to plead with her at her castle but it is very far away and you have nothing to offer her as tribute. I know what lies in her heart. I know what she desires most of all, the possession of which has long eluded her; the Golden Apple of G’mah. However, no one now knows where it grows or even if it still exists,” said the good fairy.

“But this is incredible! Then, I was right to come. I need only have this apple and she will surely return my son to me, in exchange for it,” said Yannick excitedly.

The fairy cautioned Yannick that there was often an impossible gulf separating desire from satisfaction and, speaking quickly, she advised him to keep heading east and search for a white donkey. This accursed beast had once been the human husband of a fairy but was damned for having betrayed her; he had grazed these lands for centuries and she was certain that he knew something of the golden apple. She offered the sabot-maker some final words of warning: “When you are in the presence of the Fairy Queen, keep your distance and no matter what you see or hear, do not utter a single unsolicited word, else you shall suffer the same fate as me.”

Fairy on flower
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Filled with renewed vigour, Yannick resumed his march east and, at length, came across a lush meadow quite distinct from the pasture that surrounded it; there, in the far corner he espied the white donkey. Approaching the animal, Yannick could see that a charm of fairies were playing on the beast’s back; sliding down its ears and running along its back before leaping and catching its tail which they swung on until they leapt high into the air to land on his ears, where they promptly began their circuit once again. Yannick remained out of sight until the fairies eventually left to find some new amusement.

“The fairy, Bon-Elen, sent me to you, for I seek the golden apple and she was sure that you would help me,” said Yannick. The old donkey sighed a slow heavy sigh before responding: “She did, did she? Then she is far too hopeful. I have trudged these lands for almost three hundred years and have never seen it but I have heard of it. Many years ago I knew a sorcerer who spoke of it but I have not seen him in such a very long time. I am sorry to say that your journey has been a wasted one.”

“But surely there must be some way of finding him?” cried Yannick anxiously.

“Oh, there is always a way but the challenge is to discover it,” said the donkey, “You could perhaps use the power of Golden Grass for it never fails to reveal all that is hidden. And, fortunately, I know just where it grows. Climb upon my back and hold tightly to my mane.” With that, the donkey set off at such a fierce gallop that Yannick had to close his eyes against the sharpness of the wind striking his face. It was some time later before the donkey slowed its furious pace and Yannick was able to open his eyes. In doing so, he immediately sighted a small patch of grass that looked quite different from the rest.

Degas dolmen
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Knowing that, to be effective, the Golden Grass could only be gathered at dawn, Yannick and the donkey settled down for the night but it seemed as though no time had passed at all when Yannick, clad only in his shirt, began to walk barefoot towards the mystical patch of grass. He stopped a few paces beyond the grass and waited until the first rays of the sun danced on the morning dew, whereupon he retraced his steps backwards, reaching down with his left hand to pick the grass as he did so.

With his back to the sun, clutching his staff in one hand and the bunch of Golden Grass in the other, Yannick raised his outstretched arms and slowly began to turn towards the sun. Suddenly, his staff began to tremble and he felt unable to control his own arm as it violently spun his body towards the south-east. Dressing hurriedly, Yannick thanked the donkey for his many kindnesses and having taken a little of his milk, set down the grass so that it pointed towards the south-east. He struck the ground twice with his staff and just as his third hit was about to strike, the golden grass burst into flames and he found himself standing inside a small grove of ash and oak.

“Why have you invaded my sanctuary? What mischief is this? Speak now or see out your days as the miserable toad you are!” commanded a thundering voice that seemed to emanate from all directions at once.

Embreis and Yannick
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“Please Sir, I mean you no harm, no harm at all. The white donkey said that you might know the whereabouts of the golden apple,” quavered Yannick, nervously removing his hat. Not knowing which direction to face, he kept turning slowly as he recounted the many adventures that had befallen him since the abduction of his son. His words met no response until he said that he had brought a gift of a little black bread and some well-smoked andouille.

“Thank you! Even a few morsels offering the taste of home will be most welcome,” said an old man, dressed in a white habit, who had now appeared behind Yannick. “I am Embreis, the sorcerer. I was a man such as you but I do not know what I am now, for I have been trapped here for over two centuries and the magic here changes a person. The old donkey did well to remember because I do know the golden apple, moreover I believe that the garden fairy was right; it is likely the only thing in this world or the other that the Fairy Queen will change her mind for.”

Embreis told Yannick all that he knew of the apple; not only was it made of gold but it was a singing apple that besides singing as sweet as a lark also cried out to warn of impending danger. In the distant lands, the apple sat atop a tree located in a small orchard that was to be found at the end of a misty valley populated only by monsters and ferocious beasts; its whereabouts now quite forgotten. If the problem of finding the magical tree had been solved, the difficulty of gathering it remained; for the tree was always laden with apples and if one of these other fruits were accidentally touched by the one who climbed to pick the golden orb, it would instantly turn to stone for one hundred and one years. However, the shrewd sorcerer proposed an ingenious solution that could be found in a valley not too far away.

Celtic sorcerer
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Eager to set off immediately, Yannick thanked the sorcerer profusely and left as soon as he deemed polite. Travelling south, it took almost two days before he reached the Valley of Caves described to him by the sorcerer. He knew that all the caves were set into the east side of the rocky valley and had therefore decided to travel along the western slopes in hopes of quickly identifying the cave he sought. It was not long before he spotted the first cave; looking through the moonstone, he could see that the net hung over the entrance was there to stop a large collection of Sea Woodpeckers from escaping. He moved on to the next cave, containing several Green Storks; the next, a pair of White Blackbirds guarded by a mean-looking korrigan; two entwined dragons slept outside the following cave, which seemed higher-set than the others and concealed a mighty Phoenix.

Yannick was concerned to see only two more cave mouths and hoped that the sorcerer’s information was accurate. The next cave was guarded by an ogre who must have stood sixteen feet tall and Yannick was quite relieved to see that it guarded a rare black Caladrius. His prey must surely be held in the valley’s last cave, he thought and he was pleased to discover that this was indeed the case. The cave was guarded by an enormous black dog whose flaming red eyes Yannick could clearly see from across the valley.

With darkness approaching, Yannick began to manoeuvre himself stealthily across the valley and was getting close to his target when he was halted by a most curious noise. Was there another guardian that he had not seen before, he wondered. Moving closer, he could have laughed aloud when he realised that the mysterious noise was nothing but the snoring of the guard dog. Yannick leapt onto the dog, managing to slip his rosary around its neck as he did so and in that instant of immobilisation, quickly tied a length of blessed twine around the animal’s muzzle. He made the sign of the cross to secure the knot and swiftly tied the struggling dog’s legs together. He was able to slip under the net and into the cave where he held out a piece of andouille, bewitched by the sorcerer, to the bird that would deliver the golden apple to him; a magnificent White Raven.

Wright of Derby
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So that he would be better able to move about in the darkness, Yannick had decided to carry the raven in a canvas sack. This precaution was soon proved necessary when, just a mile from the valley, he was suddenly attacked by a korrigan who hit him hard across the legs with a club; Yannick struck back and a furious fight ensued. Finally, Yannick, holding his staff in both hands, lunged at the korrigan who was propelled quite a distance into the gloom. Fearing that he might have made himself invisible before launching another attack, Yannick quickly rubbed his eyelids with the moonstone and slowly scanned the area for the dwarf. He saw nothing but thought that he heard the sound of something falling nearby.

Scouring the area carefully, Yannick noticed a large flat stone; seemingly the only piece of rock in sight. Remembering his discovery at Brobearh castle, he lifted it to uncover a hole big enough for a man to pass through; hoping that it was not too deep, Yannick let himself drop into the pit. He now found himself in a small cave which was empty save for a most singular feature: a large circular stone well, constructed from large blocks of cut granite. As befitted such a big well, half a barrel sat on its lip attached to a winch that held what he estimated to be about 25 feet of rope. Uncertain how the korrigan might have escaped and returned the barrel to the well-head, Yannick positioned the barrel over the opening, stepped inside and began to work the rope.

After half an hour, Yannick realised that he must have descended over 200 feet but the well proved so deep that he reckoned that three days and nights had passed before he finally reached the bottom. Stretching his legs after so long confined, Yannick lit the candle of his lantern and looked around; he was in a rough, square chamber with four doors set into the wall facing him. Remembering the korrigan’s advice, he immediately opened the door on the extreme left and stepped through to find himself in a room that looked exactly the same as the one he had just left. When confronted with a series of doors, always open the one on the left, the korrigan had told him and so he chose that door; this new room was the very image of the previous one. Once again, Yannick took the left-hand door and once again he found himself standing in a chamber that mirrored the others.

Cave in Brittany
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Trying a different tack, he lifted his staff and struck it against the door three times, passing through the now open doorway he could see that he was in the rear of a small cave; daylight streamed in through the opening to illuminate the wizard Embreis. “What? How, in the name of all the saints, can this be?” asked an incredulous Yannick.

“Now, it is my turn to reassure you,” smiled the sorcerer. “As you know, I am condemned to stay in this world because I did not leave its boundaries in time but I tried to leave with a grass fairy and such folk are forbidden to ever leave this world. For this transgression, the Fairy Queen split me in two; so that I might endure twice the punishment. One of me lives in the forest above and I keep to the caves here below.” Yannick nodded but did not understand any of this at all.

“You have the raven? Good. Give her to me and I will instruct her to meet you, with her precious cargo, at the Feunteun ar Grogez,” said the sorcerer as he recited a charm into the bird’s ear before casting it out of the mouth of the cave.

Brittany cavern
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Yannick stepped outside to watch the raven soar away but was taken aback by the panorama that was now spread before him. It was a sea of gently rolling, verdant hills skirted by fast flowing streams and deep, lazy rivers and everywhere, the graceful silhouettes of lofty towers and grand castles. He could see that fat cattle and large sheep roamed freely here; unfamiliar birds ranged across the sky; richly coloured butterflies and dragonflies swooped from flower to flower, whose thick scent hung on the warm breeze.

Together, Yannick and the sorcerer made their way down the hill and towards a small wood that lay to the south. After some time, they were close enough for Yannick to see that the wood seemed completely encircled by a well-disguised palisade and when, at length, they stood before it, he realised that it was quite impenetrable. Embreis led them westwards along the edge of the wood before stopping before two enormous chestnut trees. “Now, we must wait,” he said.

Yannick must have fallen asleep, for the moon was high in the night sky when he felt Embreis shake his shoulder, saying “It is almost time.” As if on cue, one of the stars overhead began to brighten noticeably, it’s soft white turning an electric blue. “We must enter the charmed wood separately; it is their way and besides, no visitor hears the same demands as another.” So saying, he got up and walked to the wall of roots that spread between the two chestnuts; he struck it with his staff, uttered something unintelligible to Yannick and swiftly passed through a doorway that disappeared as fast as it had appeared. Yannick followed immediately and struck the wall with his staff but nothing happened. He therefore struck it three times in quick succession, again to no avail.

Corot forest at night
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He was beginning to think that perhaps some other talisman was needed to summon the door, when he heard a low voice ask; “What goes into the fire and is not burnt?” Surprised to have been asked a child’s riddle, Yannick was about to question the voice when he recalled two other words of caution the old korrigan had given him; nothing is shown or said by chance and questioning is disrespectful in the realm of the fairies.

“A ray of sunshine,” he answered confidently.

“You took over long to answer,” said the voice. “What is made from wood but is not wood?”

Sensing an impatience in the dismembered voice, Yannick was quick to reply: “An apple?”

“Do not distract yourself by thinking about me or my questions and do not answer a question with another. What most resembles the head of a horse in a window?” the voice responded.

Yannick realised that he still retained too many narrow thoughts from the other world; he needed to guard against such thinking: “The head of a mare,” he replied. Whereupon a door appeared, through which he promptly passed. Embreis was waiting for him and laughed as Yannick related the words of the unseen guardian. Seemingly cut through a carpet of bright anemones, the path that they followed eventually led to a small glade of striking beauty, at the centre of which stood a monumental stone fountain of exquisite proportions, surrounded on all sides by a pavement of cut stone; the Feunteun ar Grogez.

Fairy Fountain
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“Alas, I cannot go with you to the Queen’s palace but be assured that, if truly needed, help will be close at hand. Now, wash yourself in the waters of the spring and, once re-dressed, drink a pint of its water.” Yannick did as he was bade and was almost dressed when the White Raven swooped down to stand on the floor in front of Embreis; in its mouth hung the golden apple from a long stalk. By dawn’s early light, the sorcerer wrapped the apple in a piece of linen, over which he cast a spell of concealment before handing it over to Yannick. “You know what not to do! Go now. I wish you and yours a happy life. Go!” he said as both men nodded towards each other in silent thanks.

Standing on a slab to the west of the fairy fountain’s basin, Yannick readied himself and struck the floor with his staff; being immediately transported to the gateway of a most magnificent castle whose massive doors swung open at his approach. He stood in a hallway lit by lights as dazzling as the sun, whose ceiling was as high as that of Quimper cathedral. Yannick passed from one splendid chamber into another; all sumptuous but all seemingly empty. He decided to test this and surreptitiously took out his moonstone which he rubbed quickly against his eyelids.

Having walked through six wonderful rooms, he now found himself in the most beautiful of all that he had seen. He could not see it’s ceiling due to its brilliance; an effect magnified by the mirrors that seemed to completely cover the room’s walls, reflecting light so bright that he could hardly look at them. All around the room, he could see crowds of fairies, fions, fadets, korrigans and other magical beings standing as still as if they were made of stone. Atop a mound of gold and silver, stood a fairy so dazzling that he could scarcely bear the sight of her.

Fairy Castle
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“I know who you are,” spat the Queen of the Forest, “but I do not know why you are here. I told the old witch that my decision was final; I will keep your child here where he will remain forever young, no matter how badly you dare treat the changeling. Leave my domain forthwith else you provoke my displeasure and you would not wish to do that … again!”

“Majesty, I have not come to plead with you to change your mind. The weight of my crime, albeit unintended, is great. I have made the arduous journey to your halls so that I might apologise, in person, for my wrongdoing. I am truly sorry for my offence and for my ignorance that occasioned it.”

“You have done so and it is now time for you to return to your world, Christian.” replied the Fairy Queen with an air of finality. Yannick bowed low and began to retreat from the room. In doing so, he put his hand in his pocket and pressed his auger hard into the fleshy part of his palm which he then wrapped around the apple.

“What was that? You dare to practice magic in my presence? I felt it! What magic can you weave, sabot-maker?” demanded the Queen.

Fairy Queen of the Forest
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Knowing that his blood had broken the concealment charm, Yannick spoke carefully: “I am no sorcerer, Majesty. I can no more cast a spell than I can fly. Perhaps, my little apple sang to you?” Having removed the package from his pocket, he unwrapped it and held the golden apple aloft at which point it began to sing a sweet and melodious refrain.

“How did you come by that? This is powerful magic indeed; that the apple allowed itself to be picked by you, a mere mortal, when hundreds of great fairies have failed to gain it down through the centuries.” The Fairy Queen appeared genuinely perplexed as to how Yannick might have been thought worthy to possess the fabled golden apple.

“This will make a fine gift to my wife and I feel sure my children will be delighted with it, Majesty” said Yannick, “Still, I would be willing to part with it but it would need to be a very rare bargain indeed.”

The Queen immediately understood and soon agreed to return Yannick’s son in exchange for the gift of the apple. She knew, as Yannick surely did, that possession of the apple could only be freely gifted; ownership of such a marvel could never be conferred by purchase or theft. However, although she had elected to change her mind and decided upon the exchange, she refused to confirm when she would return his son. Nonetheless, the Queen’s attitude had changed markedly and she arranged for Yannick to enjoy some refreshment before setting off for his world. He ate a little of the fairy bread, it was as light as a dandelion’s head yet as filling as a New Year’s meal, but gracefully declined the proffered juice of the white water lily.

The Golden Apples
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Realising that now he risked all by staying, Yannick soon made his farewells and began to quickly retrace his steps through the Fairy Queen’s palace. The korrigan and the sorcerer had both cautioned him against drinking water lily water, for it bewitched any man who tasted it. He needed to locate the exit from this world as soon as possible. Thankfully, he found the door where the Queen’s attendants had said it would be; set into the rear wall of the old stone bread oven that sat in the palace’s kitchen garden. It did not open, as expected, at his touch and so he struck it with his staff but nothing happened. He therefore struck it three times in quick succession but with the same result. Suspecting treachery, Yannick could feel the panic rising within him as he anxiously looked around him for signs of anyone’s approach.

“Do not despair, the Queen intends to honour your bargain. The enchantment that holds your son will break when the sun has left the horizon,” said a thin voice from somewhere close by. Yannick could see no one near when he noticed some kind of fairy floating near his shoulder. “I am Sandrin, an old friend of Embreis who asked me to guard over you while you were in the palace. Tell me all that you carry in your pockets.”

Yannick felt about in all his pockets and listed the items he found: his auger, flask, moonstone, piece of black bread and an amulet containing the eye of a wolf. “Are you sure that is all?” asked the grass fairy, half a moment before Yannick admitted to also carrying a piece of fairy bread that he intended to show to his family. “Return it to the palace,” she instructed. Yannick quickly ran back to the palace entrance and threw the bit of fairy bread inside before returning as fast as his legs could carry him.

Grass fairy
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To his great relief, the little silver door now swung open at his touch. He thanked the fairy for a kindness that he could never repay and she told him that his camaraderie with Embreis represented any payment in full. She also warned him that mortals can penetrate the domain of the fairies only once. Anyone who tried to return, even if they were to have waited a century, would instantly fall dead under the watchful gaze of the fairy who guards the observance of this ineluctable law. With these words of warning ringing in his ears, Yannick passed through the doorway to find himself standing in front of another silver door, concealed in the thick roots of a giant stump of oak and draped by a rich curtain of ivy.

Having extricated himself, Yannick immediately recognised the stump that had been the root of all his troubles but he felt no bitterness, only relief. He turned towards home as the rosy fingers of dawn began to stretch across the morning sky, bringing with them a new day full of hope.

Yannick and the Golden Apple

In the folklore of Brittany, fairies are rarely benevolent and when they are, it is usually under the tightest of conditions; the smallest infraction being punished severely. Perhaps aligned to their status as a cursed race, they are immensely powerful but fiercely proud and will not stand to be mocked or ignored. They sometimes appear seductive and protective but when provoked they can be malicious and cruel; to annoy a fairy was to expose oneself to their evil spells. There are many Breton tales of mortals battling against a fairy’s curse, one such is that of Yannick, a humble clog-maker. Here then is the story of The Clog-Maker’s Son.

Clog Maker Sabotier
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Yannick could not remember a single day when he had not made sabots or cut the choicest trees from which he crafted them. His father and grandfather had been sabotiers and he knew that his own children would, one day, be joining him in plying this trade. Poor light had put a stop to the day’s labours and so he was heading home for what he hoped would be a bowl or two of hot stew and thick slices of the andouille he had exchanged with the local farmer for a pair of fine sabots last week.

As he approached his makeshift house, he was surprised to see someone leaving his threshold; a decrepit little old woman who seemed to be walking away from him with a speed he would not have credited her capable. His two young daughters ran to him as he pushed the door open, they gripped his legs tightly as he walked the few steps to his wife who sat simultaneously stirring the cooking pot and rocking their baby son’s crib.

Clog maker's House
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“We are lost, my love, totally lost. The groac’h has spoken to the Queen of the Forest and she refuses to yield. She will keep our dear son forever; such was the gravity of your crime,” his wife spoke, her eyes red from crying.

“In the name of God, there must be something that can be done! Something, anything. I will give anything to regain our boy,” pleaded Yannick, “She really had no hope to offer us at all?”

“Alas, none. We could put him to the fire but that would just bring down the wrath of the fairies and I could not bear to lose Gwenaëlle and Alwena too. No, it would be too much. We must accept the fate God has chosen for us, we can do no other. Perhaps we might love him, in time,” his wife said hopelessly.

Dinner was a dour affair, nobody spoke, all seemed lost in their own thoughts and the girls, who did not understand why their parents were so tense, were unusually keen to get into bed and slide the door across to shut out the world that night. His wife busied herself washing the dinner bowls and setting the overnight fire but Yannick was barely aware of her presence; so lost in his thoughts was he. Hanging the spoons from the beam above the table, he caught sight of the little spoon that he had finished carving just two days ago. Two days, he thought; days that seemed like lifetimes.

Suddenly, he knew what he needed to do; he had to do something, he had to at least try his utmost. “I am going to see the groac’h myself,” he murmured to his wife who, roused from slumber, held his gaze with her own and nodded in silent acquiescence.

Moonlight painting
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Yannick could hear the comforting sounds of the midnight bell, carried on the wind from the village four miles distant, as he reached the moor of Kerhoc. Thankfully, there was enough moonlight for him to traverse this desolate place without incident and it was not long before he spotted the copse of chestnut trees that he had been looking for. The moonlight barely penetrated the canopy of these mighty growths and he stumbled twice in the gloom, narrowly missing a cat that ran past him in the darkness.

The one-roomed cottage was cleaner than he had expected, warmer too, for he could feel the heat of the fire on his face as he waited for the old woman to respond. She sat facing him with her back to the fire, a long clay pipe clamped in her bony fingers; she blew lazy smoke rings in the air as she studied his face. “You will waste your family. I have spoken to the Fairy Queen and she will not be moved. She will not. You risk all that you have left for one that is already lost,” cautioned the old woman.

“But I must try to make her see reason. I must. I shall petition her from the heart. I will plead, I will do anything she demands. I will offer my life to her; my life for his,” Yannick replied.

The woman’s face cracked into an earthy smile which exposed her three long teeth and she laughed hoarsely; much to Yannick’s annoyance. “You have understood nothing, nothing! She will not be swayed by you or any childish begging. If she had wanted your life, she would have taken it. She wants only your grief. If you provoke her, she will take your daughters too. She wants you to suffer for your crime. That is why she took your baby and left a changeling in his place; every day you will be reminded of your offence.”

Painting of a witch
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“But I did not know! Please, for the love of God, I truly did not know. I found the tree felled. I only cut two boughs, two! And only so that my family might eat,” implored Yannick in desperation.

“It is of no matter. You cut up her place of birth, her home for two centuries. She will have her vengeance and you must accept that,” explained the crone. “There is nothing to be done. She will no longer be seen by human eyes in this world and I will not chance her ire by imploring with her in the other.”

Yannick was crushed by the woman’s vehemence; the hope that he had kept kindled in his heart these last two days was extinguished. Tears welled in his eyes as he rose to leave. Embarrassed, he hurriedly dropped three sous coins into the woman’s scrawny hand and left. He retraced his steps through the silent wood, his mind unable to focus on anything but getting home and he barely noticed a cat speed past in the shadows. Having crossed the moor, Yannick took the trail that led home and it was in sight when his path was suddenly blocked; a cloaked figure stood before him. “One should never start a new day without hope, my son. So, I will gift you some words of the same; speak to the korrigan who lives under the dolmen of Merzhin.”

Korrigans' Dance of Death
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“A korrigan?” exclaimed Yannick, “What hope is to be found in such evil? They will take me for sure and drag me to hell. I will be killed or kept prisoner in their dungeons and never see my loved ones again. Madame, this is not hope you offer me but cold death.”

“Why so? Men are such stupid beasts; so narrow minded,” said the old woman. “Do not let the stories of old maids and children guide your fears. Men could learn much from the korrigans, if they would only take the trouble to talk but you, you might discover the only way to find the Queen of the Forest.”

“But they will drag me down to their lair and my doom,” Yannick responded indignantly.

“Let them! You will never gain access to their haunts, for they are well guarded and even better concealed. Nor will they ever invite a man such as you to visit them. So, let them take you to their underground domain. Be not afraid. There is much to fear in the dark places but the unknown is not one of them,” she said and with those words, the witch vanished as suddenly as she had appeared.

Sheepfold by Moonlight
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It was the night of the new moon, midnight was approaching and Yannick had used the days since his encounter with the witch to prepare himself for his confrontation with the korrigan. It was nearly midnight as he approached the massive stones of the dolmen of Merzhin but his courage did not fail him. Seeing no sign of movement, he walked around the ancient stones and cautiously entered the chamber. He did not know what he had expected to find within but was as relieved as he was disappointed to find it empty.

Yannick started to sing, not the comforting tones of something familiar but the discordant noise of a drunkard headed for home. He leant against the cold stone as if to steady himself and, singing loudly, meandered his way to the little pond that lay nearby. There, hidden amongst the heather, sat a korrigan who immediately leapt to his feet and began frantically skipping around Yannick’s legs. “We should dance! Such a fine night as this calls for a fine dance. Dance with me!” sang the little korrigan.

“Begone! In the name of the Blessed Virgin and of Saint Anne, begone little man,” Yannick cried. However, the korrigan would not relent and pulled Yannick towards the black waters of the pond and it was then that he saw it; a large gold pendant, glistening brightly through the shallow water. “Take it, it is yours. Take it. It is fairy gold and quite ancient,” urged the korrigan. Yannick was captivated by the gleaming jewel and found himself involuntary drawn closer to it. Tentatively reaching his arm into the water to grasp it, he was transfixed when two strong hands instantly gripped his limb and pulled him into the water as if he had been no more than a kitten.

A dolmen painting
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He must have fallen into unconsciousness, for when he opened his eyes he found himself in an enormous chamber cut entirely from the whitest quartz; the walls and vaulted ceiling sparkled and reflected into a thousand points of light, that given off by the candles nested in the golden candelabra that stood nine foot tall in the centre of the room. Yannick was struck by the fact that he could not see any doors but was completely felled by the immense heap of silver, gold and precious stones that glistened so much that he thought they could have changed night into day.

Without having noticed where he came from, Yannick was startled by the sudden appearance of the korrigan before him. Small and lean, wearing a dirty canvas smock and holding a large stick, he looked at Yannick as quizzically as a dog watches a kitten. “Why have you come? Did you think to steal my treasure? Are there more of you skulking about up there?” demanded the korrigan.

Yannick explained that he was quite alone and that he had meant no harm, indeed he had come to deliver a gift as a token of respect between neighbours. The korrigan seemed unconvinced; “Respect? It has been centuries since your kind showed mine any decency, let alone respect. Anyway, what could you have thought I needed,” he said mockingly as he turned to cast his stick over his pile of riches. It was then that Yannick noticed his tail; it was perhaps as long as that of a cat but covered in the soft down that boys like to think is the making of a beard.

“I have brought you these,” said Yannick as he reached inside his pocket from where he withdrew a small piece of grubby linen. Unfolding the cloth slowly, he revealed a very small pair of sabots which he set down before the korrigan. “They are made from the antlers of the great stag of Quénécan; a beast so fast and powerful that no huntsman ever got near him, for he outwitted them all.” The old korrigan nodded appreciatively as Yannick removed another package from his pocket, which he unwrapped saying: “I made for you another pair, these I fashioned from the tusks of the giant boar of the Blavet; he was a mighty swine, renowned in these parts for his daring spirit and elusiveness, he having never fallen to a hunter.”

Korrigan wearing clogs
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Taken aback by Yannick’s kindness, the korrigan thanked him for his thoughtfulness and the quality of his work. He took off his own sabots to try on his gifts and revealed his cat-like feet. It was now Yannick’s turn to be taken aback but he did not let his shock show; he merely took out an auger and began modifying the little shoes. He worked quickly and soon presented the korrigan with his craftsmanship; the ghost of a smile crossed the dwarf’s eyes as he tried on each pair with complete satisfaction at Yannick’s skill.

Now, Yannick pressed what he hoped was his advantage and extracted a final bundle from his pockets, which he offered to the korrigan who unwrapped it eagerly to expose a fine pair of sabots whose soles were studded with an arc of stout hobnails. After some swift re-working by Yannick, the korrigan put on the sabots and danced a quick jig; the clamour of iron against the stone echoed around the room, much to the dwarf’s delight. “These were crafted from the oak of the Fairy Queen herself. They are unique and always will be, for no more will ever be made from that magical bough,” explained Yannick.

“Remarkable, truly remarkable,” responded the korrigan. “Made from the Queen of the Forest’s tree you say? There is power to be marshalled in these, mighty magic indeed and for which I give you my sincere thanks. Please, as a mark of my gratitude, take whatever item that takes your fancy from amongst my trove. Only one, mark you, but any one.”

Korrigan's Cave
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Yannick cast his eyes over the dwarf’s treasure; there were diamonds as big as goose eggs, nuggets of gold as big as his forearm, golden torques worn by the princesses of old but the prize he sought was not amongst them. Taking a deep breath, he turned to the korrigan and having bowed lowly, said: “I am honoured that my humble gifts have met with your favour and greatly appreciate your offer but what I desire most is the return of my son, who has been taken by the Fairy Queen. If you know where I might find her or how I might bring my boy safely home, I beg you tell me,” he pleaded.

“You would really turn away from riches that would make you more powerful than the dukes?” asked the dwarf with no little surprise. “Very well then, listen to me and listen carefully. You will need more than courage and cunning to force an audience with the Fairy Queen for there are many hurdles to be overcome and many guardians to pass. You will need to uncover hidden gateways and know which to open and which to avoid. Even if you succeed in standing before her, you need to have something to offer her in exchange for your child and it needs be far more valuable to her than new sabots,” explained the korrigan.

Yannick listened intently as the old dwarf told him of the rigid etiquette to be followed when speaking to the little folk and of the ways to pass through the realm of the fairies without drawing attention. He often found himself repeating the dwarf’s words, to make certain that he had understood them correctly. Yannick had clearly underestimated the difficulties that lay head but was relieved that he now had an understanding of what to expect and the mind-set that he would need to adopt in order to progress.

Fairies Brittany
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“The entrances to the world of the fairies all change on the appearance of the blue moon, so, whatever happens, you and your son must quit those lands by the calends of Giamoni, lest you be condemned to stay there forever. Fortunately for you, the nearest portal is one of the most poorly guarded; it lies within the ruins of the castle of Brobearh and is guarded by a korikaned of prodigious strength who is, in turn, protected by the ghosts of two red monks.

Finally, you must, at all times, be in possession of two mighty talismans; without these, there really is no hope for you,” cautioned the korrigan. “Before setting out, you must, for three consecutive mornings at the first appearance of the sun, drink the milk of a white yearling in which you have boiled the heart of a swallow along with six acorns that have fallen from an oak on which a sorcerer was hanged. Carry this potion with you and be sure to drink of it every morning you are in the abode of the fairies.”

Staff of Power
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The korrigan paused to make sure that Yannick had understood the importance of this condition before moving on to share the secrets of the sorcerer’s staff. “This is no mere walking stick, so treat it with the reverence it deserves for it will serve you as a wand of great power. You must remove the pith from a branch of elder cut during the sounds of the midnight bell on the night of a full moon. Replace it with a compound made from the eye of a wolf, the heart of a dog, the brain of a sparrowhawk, the tongues of two mating toads and the stinger of a queen bee, all of which must have been dried by the heat of the sun between two parchments of moleskin sprinkled with saltpetre. On top of this, place seven leaves of vervain, gathered on the eve of Midsummer, together with a shaving from the type of moonstone found in the nest of a mouse. Lastly, cap both ends of the wand with iron ferrules made by a blacksmith born on a Friday.”

Yannick’s head was reeling with the knowledge of the ancients but his heart was now full of hope and he thanked the korrigan for this most wonderful of gifts. Whereupon, the little dwarf took hold of Yannick’s trouser leg with one hand and with the other, struck the ground three times with his stick. Instantly, they found themselves standing outside the mouth of the dolmen of Merzhin; the sun had set on another day and the moon was lying low in the sky. “Go now Christian, for you have much to do. Remember all I have told you and when you have found the moonstone, keep it with you always. As a man, you will need it and don’t forget what I said about the korikaned. Good luck to you.” And so saying, he vanished.

Moonlight in Brittany
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Having made his farewells and promised to his wife and daughters that he would return within two moons, Yannick finished his last mouthful of andouille as he lay hidden in the long grass, waiting for the sun to set on the castle of Brobearh. He knew timing would be key, he had to reach the gateway to the fairy realm when it could be opened; only while the church bells announced midnight. The distant sounds of the eleven o’clock bells signalled that it was time to act and Yannick stood up to better survey the ruins. He moved quickly through the heather and stopped behind a large gorse bush, breaking off a branch and several flowery stems that he attached to his coat. Taking the moonstone from his pocket, he rubbed his eyelids with it for several seconds before again studying the castle and then he saw them; two tall red monks with long beards and even longer swords but no sign of the korikaned.

Yannick had long steeled himself to be bold; he could be nothing less if he expected to rescue his son, and so, kissing his rosary, he walked straight to the biggest opening in the castle’s wall. “Return and leave the night to whom it belongs!” boomed a voice from the shadows. Yannick lit the candle of his lantern and looked around him saying; “I bring no trouble. I am gamekeeper of yonder estate and am tracking some poachers who would see me and my family without a home, if they are not stopped.”

“The night belongs to the dead. Leave this place and go home,” returned the voice which Yannick could tell was now quite close to him but whose owner was choosing to remain invisible.

Castle by moonlight
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“If you come from God, tell me your wish but if you are from the Devil, go your way as I go mine,” challenged Yannick who immediately flicked his small flask of holy water over each of the ghostly knights. Burned by their sins, the red monks recoiled in agony and in retreat seemingly passed into the very rock of the castle itself.

Now inside the castle grounds, Yannick ran towards the inner courtyard and quickly spotted his target; a large hawthorn near the west wall. Hurrying towards the tree, he stumbled over a clump of earth but turning around to look, he saw that it was in fact a hedgehog. No sooner had he noticed, than the hedgehog grabbed his ankle as hard as if a tree had fallen on it. Yelling in pain, Yannick tried to shake off the animal but it would not budge, so tight was its grip. As he struggled to free himself, he was able to press one of the stems of gorse onto the hedgehog’s spines; the animal’s grip weakened and so he impaled two more. The animal lost its grip but instead of rolling into a ball, it straightened into an enraged korrigan; the korikaned gatekeeper. Yannick struck the dwarf repeatedly with the branch of gorse that he had carried in his belt and thus subdued, quickly tied his legs together with a length of blessed twine.

The first chimes were sounding as Yannick ran to the tree and began examining its roots, pulling furiously at the undergrowth in his determination to find the entrance. Lifting a slab of schist, he grabbed at a large iron ring that seemed to have been buried in the earth under the stone but as he pulled it, he realised it was a handle. He heard the striking of the ninth bell as he frantically pulled the ring in every direction but all to no avail, when he had the idea of holding it upright. Once vertical, Yannick pushed down on the ring which slid seamlessly into the ground and as it did so, the tree split open to reveal a small door made of silver which opened to his touch. With no time to spare, Yannick pushed himself through the opening and found himself plunging rapidly into the darkness.

…. the conclusion follows here.

The Giants of Brittany

Found within the mythology and folklore of countless disparate cultures across the world, are stories of giants; sometimes described as mighty men and women of towering stature but sometimes portrayed as a distinct race of huge humanoids.

This is not the place to rehash the debate as to whether the giants of antiquity were really metaphors for meteorological phenomena, the wildness of nature or invading armies. Nor do I propose to get bogged down in the debate about what constitutes a giant. There are, of course, confirmed cases of gigantism in humans but people over 2.2 metres (7.5 feet) tall are very rare and this is supported by the archaeological evidence. However, there have been old bones found in the south of France that suggest some humans might have been considerably taller than this. In 1890, three bones found at a Bronze Age tomb near Montpellier suggest a human that likely stood 3.5 metres (11.5 feet) tall. Some years later, in 1894, further bones were uncovered a few miles away; skulls as large as 80cm (32 inches) in circumference that indicated people of between 3m and 4.6m (10-15 feet) in height. The bones were confirmed as human but it seems that, inexplicably, no modern scientific analysis has been undertaken on them.

In general, folklore and mythology present us with two distinct sorts of giants; the first is a normal person but unnaturally tall, sometimes said to be as much as twice the size of their contemporaries; the second are individuals of colossal proportions, 30m (100 feet) or more high.

Giants Brittany
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All cultures seem to carry tales of giants in their folklore and the global spread of such stories has led some to question whether in fact a race of giants did once share the earth with the ancient ancestors of today’s humans. Were the earliest myths based on reality or, over time, were the facts distorted into mythological legend? Perhaps, humanity, unable to explain certain topographical features invented a race of giants greater than man and powerful enough to have created clefts, mountains and other remarkable natural features; such explanations then entering mythology.

Like Great Britain, Brittany was said to have once been inhabited by a race of giants. There are a few references to giants in the hagiographies of the early Breton saints but they are fleeting and formulaic and most likely metaphors or medieval tropes rather than actual people. In Brittany, winds and storms were sometimes deemed to have been blown by mountain-dwelling giants but their activities here were far more popularly ascribed to shaping the landscape.

Many topographical features and megalithic monuments across Brittany are named after giants; by far the most commonly found is Gargantua. For many years it was thought that this character first appeared in François Rabelais’ satirical novel of 1532, The Horrible and Terrifying Deeds and Words of the Very Renowned Pantagruel, King of the Dipsodes, Son of the Great Giant Gargantua; the first of five books Rabelais wrote about the adventures of two coarse gourmand giants. However, some scholars have argued, unconvincingly, that Rabelais might have drawn inspiration from lost medieval legends about the Celtic god Gargan.

Giants and Megaliths
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One of the advantages of this theory is that it helps to neatly explain why so many sites and megalithic monuments bear Gargantua’s name. It is perhaps easier to accept that these structures were originally associated with a similarly named ancient Celtic deity than that they were all popularly re-named by illiterate peasants within two hundred years of Rabelais’ publication. According to some, the most likely explanation for the success of this massive rebranding programme is that the old sites were already named after some local legendary giant whose identity was, over time, supplanted by the popularity of Gargantua’s reputation. Sadly, these changes were so effective that no trace of the original names survive.

Gargantua has left his mark across the country’s toponyms and folklore but more traces of the giant are found in Brittany than in any other region of France. I had initially intended that this post would highlight these giant imprints but having, too quickly, discovered some 70 sites linked to the giant here, I will instead focus on just a few.

Local tradition credits Gargantua and other giants with modifying the Breton landscape in any number of marvellous ways and many features are claimed to be his chair, bed, bowl or spoon. The giant’s footprint is attested near Saint-Jacut while other sites claim depressions made by his knees and elbows. His sabots are said to lie in several locations across Brittany, including Pont-Aven, Saint-Brieuc and Treillières. A local legend asserts that, one day, he abandoned his wooden sabots which allowed the local villagers to heat their homes for thirty years.

Singing Stones of Brittany
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Several menhirs are reputed to have been Gargantua’s teeth; the stone in Saint-Suliac is said to be one that he accidentally swallowed before vomiting it. On the west bank of the Arguenon estuary, the strange basalt boulders known as the ‘Singing Stones’ of Guildo were also said to have been vomited by him. The giant’s vomit was likewise said to have created two promontories that strike out into the Bay of Saint-Malo; the Pointe de la Garde and the Pointe du Décollé. Similar origins were attributed to the nearby islands of Île Agot and Grand-Bé, the latter having been induced following a meal of 790 cows. Just across the Bay of Saint-Malo, the spit of land known as Rocher de Bec Rond is another feature formed by Gargantua’s vomit although another legend says that it was his excrement.

Many of the rocks and islets off Brittany’s north coast were also ascribed to Gargantua’s actions. Sometimes they were said to have been thrown by him from the mainland such as Île Louët and Île Noire in the Bay of Morlaix, while others were pebbles dropped from his pocket, such as the Grande-Feillâtre reef. One legend says that Gargantua’s parents, crossing Brittany on their way to Great Britain to aid King Arthur in his battle against Irish invaders, each carried on their head a rock brought from the East; one dropped rock is now Mont Saint Michel, the other became Tombelaine, an island about 3km away.

Spending time painting on Brittany’s north coast in 1879, Paul Sébillot learned of the long-standing rivalry between the inhabitants of Saint-Cast and Saint-Jacut: two fishing villages that faced each other across the Arguenon estuary. One of the bones of contention between these two communities was the fishing rights around a group of rocks known as the Bourdinots. The people of Saint-Jacut claimed the rocks because they had been thrown from their village by Gargantua. The folk of Saint-Cast acceded that the giant had moved the rocks but that he had placed them for their benefit as a mark of his disdain for the people of Saint-Jacut.

Saint Cast Brittany giant gargantua
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The story told in Saint-Cast was that Gargantua had been returning home to Plévenon when he came across a boat from Saint-Jacut loaded with fish caught around the Bourdinots. He devoured the boat, crew and catch but as he walked past Saint-Jacut, the stench of rotting fish made him vomit; the boat’s ballast stones being thrown out to sea, where they formed sundry rocky islets. Another version of the tale tells Gargantua did not eat the boat; the smell of its cargo alone was enough to make him retch.

The islets of Verdelet near Pléneuf-Val-André and Rocher de Bizeux near Saint-Malo, were reputedly pebbles shaken from Gargantua’s sabot, as were those off the beach at Sables-d’Or-les-Pins. Similarly, menhirs in Guérande and Saint-Aubin were other bothersome stones found in his sabots, likewise the many boulders scattered across the moors of Cojoux and Haut-Brambien.

Well-fed by the people of Plouarzel, Gargantua is said to have thanked them by clearing their fields of large stones but ill-treated near Plougastel, he scattered the ground between there and Huelgoat with boulders. The fertile soil around Roscoff was attributed to the peasants once having collected and spread the giant’s excrement over their fields. The origins of some rivers here were also attributed to Gargantua; he having watered the earth so fully that the Frémur and the Arguenon rivers began to flow. His urination was also said to have created a stream near Saint-Cast and even the harbour at Paimboeuf.

Gargantua Notre Dame Paris urinating giant
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According to Rabelais, Gargantua was born in the East, through the left ear of the daughter of the King of Butterflies, after she had carried him for eleven months. However, Breton legends tell that he was born of a dwarf who had carried him for two years and that she gave birth in Plévenon, although another legend says that he was born at the end of the world, on the Pointe du Raz overlooking the Atlantic ocean.

Gargantaua’s height is unfixed in Rabelais’ works and seems to vary according to the situation; he was 367 cubits (170m) tall at three years of age but was sometimes able to fit inside a normal house. In Breton legends, he is always colossal; able to cross to Jersey, 56 km (35 miles) away, in a single step and to reach Ouessant, some 212km (132 miles) distant, in two or three strides, even able to circle the world in eight days. He was said to have swallowed ships at sea between Saint-Cast and Saint-Malo and urinated in the ocean whilst standing with a foot in each town, which lie 16km (10 miles) apart. The giant was even believed to have swallowed the sea mist, keeping it all within him for three days. 

Gargantua's finger or penis giant
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Some tales say that Gargantua lies buried with his head at Cap Fréhel and his feet 27km (17 miles) away at Saint-Suliac; his tomb being marked by a menhir on Cap Fréhel known as the Finger of Gargantua. This 2.7m (9 feet) high granite megalith has, in the past, also been known as Gargantua’s Tooth and as Gargantua’s Penis. Another account tells that the giant is buried under a dolmen near Corlay in central Brittany.

A legend has it that the giant died at Cap Fréhel after a battle with the korrigans and the islets that litter the coast hereabouts are parts of his body lost during the bitter struggle. Although another tale tells that he is buried under Mont Garrot near Saint-Suliac and that it was necessary to fold the giant seven times in order to fit him into his valley tomb.  An alternate legend says that he lies buried between the Petit Bé and Grand Bé islands off Saint-Malo.

Yet another Breton tale of his death says that, one day, relaxing near the Rance estuary, Gargantua stretched his leg and accidentally knocked over a small boat from which issued a piercing cry. He bent down and picked up a little shape unlike anything he had seen before; it was the Fairy of the Waters. Gargantua was smitten, he fell deeply in love with her while regretting that she was so small. However, his voice frightened her and she fled. Happpily, she returned some time later and she coyly engaged his attentions for a century. At the end of this time, Gargantua wanted to wed but the fairy’s family only consented to the marriage on condition that the newlyweds should have no children.

Gargantua wife - giant and fairy
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The giant carried his wife on his thumb and they were happy together for a while but, one evening, the evil witch who had not been invited to the wedding, came to visit them with a gift of marigolds. The next day the fairy told Gargantua that she was going to be a mother and her husband declared that, in order not to violate his oath, he would have to eat their child.

While the giant was asleep, the fairy went to consult her old nurse who lived in a cave on Île Rouzic. The old fairy told her that she would make Gargantua swallow a kid goat and that her daughter would raise the child in a cave under the waters of the sea. Three months later, the fairy presented Gargantua with a heavily swaddled kid, which he swallowed in a single mouthful. Alas, the fairy had a second child and the giant devoured a piglet in its stead; there were four more children and Gargantua successively swallowed a dog, a doe, a calf and a young colt.

Then came a seventh child but Gargantua arrived home just at the moment of childbirth and asked for the newborn. The nurse, who had not prepared anything, found herself at a loss but thankfully espied a large rock which she wrapped in a blanket and presented to the giant. However, the stone was mainly quartz and caused Gargantua to break a tooth. Angry, he kicked-out at the nurse but she was too fast for him and his foot crashed into the earth, sinking the ground to form the basin we now call the Plaine de Mordreuc.

Gargantua Brittany giant
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Another version of this tale says that, furious at being tricked, Gargantua lashed out at the nurse and in his wild fury, his blow fell upon his newborn son who was killed instantly. Horrified by this spectacle, the townsfolk tormented the giant to such an extent that he became ill and died one year to the day after the death of his son.

The quartz block greatly upset the giant’s stomach and made him very thirsty. Being so close to the sea, he threw his head into the ocean and sucked in the water so furiously that, without noticing, he swallowed an English fleet that had been cruising there. Sometime later he felt pains akin to iron grappling hooks tearing his stomach; he returned home to consult his doctor and, following his advice, decided to go to the East. Unfortunately, the bewildered sailors, fearing themselves lost, lit their lamps and fired all their cannons in hopes of hearing a response. Gargantua was therefore very ill when he reached India. His doctor managed to make him vomit the fleet, which was now in a very bad state, but the giant’s health failed him and so his father’s friends built for him a suitable tomb; the Himalayas.

The fairy mourned the loss of her husband fiercely and went to join her children under the water. It is said that they are the ones who devour ships and men during storms, without ever being able to satisfy their infernal hunger.

King Arthur battles Giant
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Aside from Gargantua, one of the most infamous giants to terrorise Brittany is found in several medieval tales about King Arthur. These tell of a brutal Spanish giant, described as 30 feet (9m) tall, who had made his lair on the summit of Mont Saint-Michel where he held captive the Duke of Brittany’s niece. Many bold knights had tried to rescue the lady from the clutches of this man-eating giant but all had met their end before they could even gain a footing on the island; the giant sank all their ships by throwing massive boulders onto them. Undaunted by the sight of so many smashed ships and broken bones, King Arthur resolved to rescue the Duke’s kin and avenge the deaths of so many noble men.

Accompanied by his knights, Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere, Arthur crossed to the island under cover of darkness but decided to face the brute alone. After a fierce and lengthy battle in which Arthur managed to slash the giant between the eyes before being struck on the arm by his club, the king emerged victorious. Having killed the giant, Arthur instructed his knights to cut off its head for the men of Brittany to stare upon. Unfortunately, the Duke’s niece was already dead by the time Arthur landed on the island; her young body unable to survive the giant’s violation.

Another medieval story featuring Brittany’s giants is the 14th century Tale of Melusine, a fairy who grew up on the fabled Isle of Avalon and who was condemned to assume, from the waist down, the form of a serpent every Saturday. One of her ten sons, Geoffroy à la Grand Dent (Geoffroy with the Big Tooth), so named because of the solitary boar’s tusk that protruded from his mouth, beheaded the giant Guédon who had long terrorised and oppressed the people of Guérande in southern Brittany.

Geoffroy Big Tooth and the giant
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It was reputed that over a thousand knights had previously battled Guédon but each encounter had ended with victory for the 15 feet (4.6m) tall giant. Having left his retinue in the valley, Geoffroy’s horse climbed to the giant’s castle where he found an opening in the wall. Challenging the giant to duel, Geoffroy taunted him until he appeared armed with a massive scythe and long flail. Battle was commenced as Geoffroy charged at him with his lance but the first swipe of the giant’s scythe cut down his horse and a fierce fight raged. Geoffroy was wounded in the shoulder but was able to cut one of the giant’s hands off. Enraged, the giant struck his flail with such force that Geoffroy was able to bend beneath its arc and cut off one of Guédon’s legs and with his next blow, the giant’s other hand. Lying helpless on the ground, Guédon lost his head which Geoffroy kept as a souvenir of his victory.

Just 55km (34 miles) to the east, at the northern end of the Lac de Grand-Lieu, France’s largest natural lake, lies a small island on which stands a lonely menhir. According to local legend, this stone blocks the entrance to an abyss whose waters created the lake; this void contains an enormous giant whose efforts to free himself from this subterranean cell, create the storms that sometimes sweep the lake. The giant is condemned to stay imprisoned until a virgin maiden can remove the guardian stone. For this, she will need to hold in her right hand a blessed belt which she must pass around the giant’s neck, who, thus tied, will become docile and a devout Christian.

Found in the folklore of western Brittany is Hok-Bras, a giant who was said to have possessed the ability to grow at will but who was described as barely 15 feet tall on his ‘ordinary days’. Many marvellous acts were attributed to him: the Monts d’Arrée range were a rock pile he created for amusement; to win a wager, he brought down the moon between his teeth; in need of a pond to bathe in, he dug-out the channel now known as the Harbour of Brest. It was while drinking in this body of water that a storm blew a three-decked warship into his path and straight down his throat. Hok-Bras ran in wild panic but the weight of a fully armed first rate ship of the line caused him to sink into the mire in the heart of the Monts d’Arrée. Having struggled to free himself, the unsteady giant stumbled and broke his head upon the very pile of rocks that he had created. Hearing of the giant’s fate, it is said that Noah came and sawed off his beard to make the frames of his ark and carried away his teeth to provide ship’s ballast; it taking three strong sailors to carry each tooth.

Hok-Bras Giant Brittany
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One story tells that Hok-Bras was desperately in love with a fairy who was amused to tease him with hopes that she might, one day, return his affections after he had proved himself worthy. Having literally heard his death throes from 14km (9 miles) away, she was so overwhelmed by guilt over her behaviour towards him that she transformed into an enormous black dog; the beast still roams the Monts d’Arrée, mourning the giant’s death at night.

In the far west, the rocky coastline between Pointe de Dinan and Le Château de Dinan was said to have been the stony citadel of a community of giants; wreckers of ships, they feasted on the flesh of drowned sailors. One night, according to tradition, they decided that it might be amusing to torment the korrigans who lived in a nearby cave. However, the korrigans were alert to the giants’ lumbering approach and scattered amongst the rocks. As the giants explored the cave in search of the little folk, they did not notice that the number of little cooking fires had increased dramatically and soon, the floor of the cave was ablaze; thick acrid, blinding smoke filled the cavern. The korrigans were unable to look and witness the destruction of their home; they were all too busy collapsing the cliff face over its only exit.

Little is now known of some of the region’s giants, sometimes even their names have been lost to us. This is the case in the magical Forest of Brocéliande where it was said that, no longer under the guardianship of the wizard Merlin and the enchantress Viviane, the forest gained a new overlord. This king of Brocéliande was said to have been a black giant with only one foot and one eye. All the beasts of the forests submitted themselves willingly to this giant who could summon them all with just a cry and who hurled them, as he desired, against his enemies.

Many of Brittany’s impressive chaoses, such as that at the Gorge of Corong, were said to have been created by Boudédé, a giant often described as the first man of Brittany. One day, walking along the river banks, he was bothered by some pebbles that had found their way into his sabots; he took them out and tossed them into the water. Thus were formed the massive granite boulders that we see strewn haphazardly along the valley today.

Gorge of Corong Boudédé giant
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Several local legends in northern Brittany talk of Rannou, a giant whose colossal strength was attributed to the virtues of a potion that the giant’s mother had received from a mermaid. Unfortunately, his mother had not dared to give him all the potion to drink and this fear was, eventually, to be his undoing for legend says that he needed the full draught to thrive. Having taken just half the dosage, his body was unable to survive the precocious decay that ultimately shattered his bones.

The stories about Rannou invariably portray him as a generally decent, albeit quick-tempered man; his killings are not done out of malice but as a last resort to right a perceived wrong. The rocks that he throws over great distances have an uncanny ability to find their mark; crushing those that slander or demean him in some way.

A typical legend tells that, one morning, Rannou was walking along the banks of the Douron estuary when his peace was disturbed by the insults of some lads on the opposite bank. Filled with the bravery of being out of range, they were amused to mock and provoke the giant with impunity. However, they had underestimated Rannou’s strength and the power of his rage. The giant uprooted a huge rock, with such force that his arms were imprinted upon it, and promptly hurled it across the estuary, straight at the foulest loudmouth whose bones were crushed beneath this impromptu burial slab; saving the town the cost of a burial.

Rannou Gargantua giants
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A megalith near Morlaix was said to have been a stone once carried by Rannou in the palm of his outstretched hand but having carried it for over 10km, he dropped it just outside the town where it has sat for six centuries, waiting for a second Rannou to come and complete its journey. Likewise, an isolated stone near Plestin is known as Rannou’s Chair. Some believe that the stories surrounding Rannou the giant are the exaggerated folk memory of a minor 14th century Breton nobleman, Rannou Tréléver, Lord of Kervescontou, whose many exploits saw his memory transformed locally into a hero popular enough to withstand being supplanted by Gargantua.

While it is rather more popular to talk of gentle giants these days, the association of brute force with giants was one of the constants of folklore and literature for centuries and it is perhaps fitting that I end with a quotation from one of the giants of world literature, the playwright William Shakespeare who wrote: “Oh, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.” A sentiment as relevant today as it was when written over four hundred years ago.

May Day in Brittany

May Day is known as la Fête du Travail (Workers’ Day) in France and celebrated with a public holiday. It has become an occasion to be seen to campaign for workers’ rights and social justice but the date also carries a much older tradition here; it is also la Fête du Muguet, when sprigs of muguet or Lily of the Valley are presented to loved ones.

With roots in the ancient practice of heralding new-growth after the end of winter, the custom is said to originate from May 1560 when King Charles IX was given a bouquet of Lily of the Valley as a token of good luck. Not known for his sensitive side, the young King was so charmed by this gesture that, on the following first of May, he presented a sprig of this flower to all the ladies at his court. The tradition is still observed today and you will often see these beautiful blooms sold in sprigs and bouquets, bought by people who give them to friends and family as a token of appreciation.

However, in Brittany, the custom of using green foliage to express hope and gratitude at this time of year extends back to antiquity. For the ancient Celts, the year began on 1 November with the festival of Samhain, which inaugurated the start of winter, while six months later, on 1 May, the feast of Beltane marked the start of summer. Two intermediate festivals, Imbolg on 1 February and Lugnasa on 1 August, divided the year into four equal seasons, the middle of which roughly corresponded to the Midsummer and Midwinter solstices. We need not get obsessed with exact dates, particularly given the changes wrought by the adoption of the Gregorian calendar which mean we are now two weeks adrift of the dates recorded at the end of Caesar’s reign.

La Fête du Muguet Bretagne
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When establishing its liturgical calendar, the infant Church took pains to absorb and divert the popular feelings associated with the old pagan festivals by supplanting these with Christian ones. Thus, ancient celebrations 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. The Celtic festival of Beltane, midway between the spring equinox and summer solstice, was most effectively subsumed by the moveable feasts of Easter, Ascension and Pentecost, which shared the same themes of rebirth and new life. These themes were also the focus of another popular festival held at this time of year; the Roman festival of Floralia, devoted to Flora, the goddess of flowers and fertility, which was celebrated between 28 April and 3 May.

The month of May has therefore long represented one of the pivotal stages in the life of agrarian society in Europe; it heralded the arrival of summer, the renewal of nature and the beginning of the heavy agricultural work upon which the people completely depended. The abundance of the harvest and thus one’s hopes for survival through the cold winter months were uncertain; hope and fear merged and superstitions born.

Nature’s re-awakening reminded the farmer of the fragility of the boundary between success and failure; over time, rituals developed that both symbolised nature’s renewal and the farmer’s need for protection. In Lower Brittany, a traditional ritual known as Barrin ar Mae (May Branch) was performed on the eve of May Day. A branch of budding Beech but sometimes Birch or even Hawthorn was hung or laid in front of the house and other key structures such as the stable, hen-house and bread oven, in order to bring on good luck and to protect against evil. Similarly, the gateways to fields were often honoured with a May Branch in order to ensure a good harvest and to protect against crop diseases.

Breton peasants in the field
Beltain
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The May Branches were customarily picked only by boys; a privilege that seems to have continued until the 1960s. Although not as popularly practiced as in the past, the ceremony still survives in some areas to this day; branches being placed in the evening against the homes of the elderly and those of friends, who will not discover this sign of affection until the morning of May Day.

Unfortunately, a related practice, known as Bodig Mae (Girls’ May) disappeared in the years after the Second World War. This ceremony was only performed by young men, who, on the eve of May Day, visited the homes of young women with a Beech branch, popularly known as ‘The May’, which was left against the door or a window as a declaration of romantic interest. Different traditions were noted in different localities; in some areas, it was a solo enterprise and done anonymously, in others, groups of four or five lads would visit several different households and sing songs while one of the party left their dedication.

One custom common to all localities saw the offering placed in the most prominent position available; some were leant against doors so that they would fall inside the house when the door was opened, others were tied against buildings facing the house so that it was the first thing seen on the following morning. The size of the branch offered was said to indicate the depth of the man’s ardour. We can therefore imagine where this notion could have led to or the arguments that might have arisen in the house which contained two unmarried sisters and two branches upon the threshold.

While this might sound endearing, we should not lose sight of the human element and the bitterness occasionally found in a spurned lover’s heart. Sometimes, the budding Beech was substituted with less welcome bouquets of thorns, Stinging Nettles or Brambles. Some offerings were laden with mean-spirited symbolism: Cauliflowers for the jealous woman; Cabbages for the greedy; Laurel for the lazy; Apple tree branches for the drunk; the Fir for the wicked and Broom for the promiscuous. Given the human capacity for cruelty, especially under the cloak of anonymity, we can but wonder what other objects might have been left for the young lady whose only injury might have been to refuse a dance at a church Pardon.

Rogation Procession
Beltain
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At times, spinsters and widows who had re-married with unseemly haste, were targeted in a form of communal condemnation. Those ladies who found themselves ill-served, naturally tried to make neighbours believe that there had been a substitution and it was not unknown for people to stay-up late to be sure that no prankster replaced a Beech with a Bramble. Eligible women who, for whatever reason, had not received a May branch were the object of as much gossip and speculation as those who had woken-up to a bundle of Nettles. Given the anxiety that the eve of May Day might have brought to some households, perhaps it is not too surprising that the custom eventually died away.

There were a few traditional rituals performed on Palm Sunday that seem to have had no theological basis, such as making offerings of blessed Boxwood to productive animals and placing similarly blessed sprigs of this evergreen upon the graves of loved ones and on the strips of uncultivated land in order to invoke good fortune. In many parts of Brittany, blessed branches were also planted in the sown land in order to prevent sorcerers from casting a spell on the future harvest. Evergreen shrubs, particularly Boxwood and Laurel, were believed to be one of the preferred locations for the souls of the dead performing their penance. To plant a branch of it in a field was therefore to involve the spirits of one’s ancestors and their beneficial influence, in the fertility of the land and one’s future well-being. It is not too hard to see in these practices, vestiges of archaic traditions likely transposed to the festival of Palm Sunday which often preceded May Day by just a little.

The notion of renewal and new growth gave rise to several superstitious rituals to celebrate and encourage fertility and drive away opposing forces. On the eve of May Day, it was customary to place a little salt in the four corners of the pastures in order to protect the cattle from evil spells over the year ahead. Similarly, to preserve the health of cows, their udders were rubbed with the morning dew of May Day. Cattle here were traditionally taken out of the stable earlier than usual on this day, to allow them to graze the dew. Great virtues were once attributed to the May Day dew; young girls rubbed their faces with it in expectation of securing a fresh complexion and protection against skin diseases.

Rogation Procession
Beltain
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Likely established to dislocate the pagan Mayday processions from the first day of May, the three days of prayer preceding the moveable Feast of the Ascension, known as Rogation days, were established in Gaul in the 5th century. These ceremonies focused on imploring for God’s protection against calamities and for His blessing on the crops and the year’s harvest. It was customary for the local priest to lead his congregation through the fields of the parish, blessing fields and sown crops in hopes of a bountiful yield. The Rogations processions here usually started early morning and each day followed the direction of the cardinal points, starting from the church and ending at some wayside calvary or saint’s fountain.

It was strongly advised to avoid baking bread and doing the laundry during the Rogations, lest someone in the household die before the harvest. However, it was said that the butter made during Rogations never corrupted and a jar of it was kept all year, for it was considered a most effective balm for healing all wounds. Similarly, the butter made during the month of May was held to possess marvellous qualities for animals and was applied throughout the year as a liniment in the treatment of injured hooves.

May Day was the day when cows were believed most susceptible to the power of the sorcerer; evil spells thrown against them could dry-up their milk or prevent their butter from taking. In order to protect against such misfortune, an elaborate ritual was performed; on the eve of May Day, the cattle were taken from the byre which was then scrubbed thoroughly. The branches of a number of plants collected that morning, namely Bay, Bramble, Elderberry and Laurel, were then burned with scraps of old leather in pots placed in all the corners of the building. Although some accounts say that the fire was only lit in front of the stable door. Branches of Elderberry were then hung from the walls inside the stable and a Bramble, with a root at both ends, fastened in the form of an arc above the door. This ritual complete, the cows were then returned to the stable, being led backwards through the doorway.

Rogation Procession
May Day
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The belief that one’s cows’ best milk was, on May Day, particularly vulnerable to thieves able to draw the cream of others to their own herd was once quite widespread here. It was said that one’s rival only needed to attach a string to the filter of their milk churn and drag it in the direction from which they wanted the cream to come before sunrise on May Day, in order to divert the yield. In central Brittany, it was said that milkmaids ran naked before the dawn of May Day, filling their churns with dew collected in their neighbour’s fields in order to steal the cream of their cows. Similar nude expeditions were also reputed to have been carried out by milkmaids in eastern Brittany where it was believed they stole milk by walking naked around the stables of their neighbours at night. Perhaps aligned to beliefs surrounding the vulnerability of milk on this day, it was also said that giving away milk on May Day was to invite misfortune upon the household.

An indication of the ancient traditions that held this month was a period full of mystic potential seemed to have survived into recent times with the popular belief that May Day rain was harmful to the bounty of fruit trees. However, it was not only the fertility of trees that were influenced by this month. In order to be married within the year, in the village of Maen-Roch, the large quartz-rich boulder known as Le Rocher Cutesson was climbed on the morning of May Day by unmarried people, of both sexes, each carrying a bowl full of water. Holding their bowl, the young folk allowed themselves to slide down the rock face; those who managed to reach the ground with their bowl intact were said to wed within a year.

Similarly, in the south coast town of Locmariaquer, on the eve of May Day, unmarried girls would lift their skirts to slide, bare bottomed, down the broken blocks of the Great Menhir. A scratch deep enough to bleed was said to augur a marriage within the year. The menhir was recorded as still standing in the early-18th century thus this custom, which could not have been observed when the stone stood vertical, twelve meters high, must have been relatively recent and was still performed in the late-19th century. Most likely, the unmarried women of the area followed, on the broken pieces, an ancient custom that was formerly held on another stone in the locality.

Roman goddess Flora
Beltain
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Those planning on getting married were once advised to avoid arranging a wedding during the month of May; it was said that to marry in that month was to wed poverty and to invite quarrels into the household. The recommendation to avoid May weddings was once quite widespread but an examination of the old marriage records here shows that little attention seems to have been paid to this superstition as the number of May marriages is consistent with the twelve month average.

The fountain of Saint Efflam in Plestin-les-Grèves was the site of a once popular ritual that was said to provide a definitive answer to any doubts a couple might have about the faithfulness of their partner. On the first Monday in May, it was necessary to visit the fountain without being seen and without having eaten anything that day. Three small pieces of bread, representing the couple and any suspected third-party, were cast upon the water of the fountain; if the latter piece moved away from the other two, it was because any suspicions were well-founded.

If a person was worried about how much longer they had left to live, they had only to look into the water of the Fountain of Death at Plouigneau at midnight on May Day. If an image of a skull was reflected in the magic mirror of black water instead of a face, they could be certain that death was near. The same ritual was also popularly performed at the Fountain of Death (Feunteun an Ankou in Breton) some five miles away in Plouégat-Guérand.

Calamity - haystack fire
Beltain
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May Day was also the day that it was held necessary to visit these oracular fountains with an infant under one year of age. The fountain was questioned by immersing the child’s feet in its waters; if the child removed their feet it was seen as a sign that they would suffer an early death. In other fountains, a child’s smock was placed in the water; if it sank, it was said the unfortunate child would die within the year.

In addition to the May Day superstitions surrounding fertility and renewal, the specialness of the month also manifested itself in magical and medicinal practices. For instance, only a witch born in May was said to possess the power to stop an expectant mother passing on an unmet craving to her baby in the form of a birthmark or noevi materni. To do so, the witch applied a paste made from Heath Bedstraw onto the relevant part of the mother’s body while reciting a charm of expulsion.

A popular medicine of the 17th and 18th centuries, whose use is even attested at the French court, was Eau de Millefleurs or Water of a Thousand Flowers. The most popular varieties of this tonic were made from unadulterated cow’s urine or by the distillation of cow’s dung. According to Nicolas Lémery’s Universal Pharmacopoeia (1697) the tonic was produced by distilling fresh cow dung: “In May, when the grass gains strength, fresh cow dung will be collected and having half-filled a stoneware pot, we will place it in a bain marie and by a strong fire we will distil a clear water called Eau de Millefleurs.”

Alchemist
Millefleurs
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The physician François Malouin, in his Medicinal Chemistry (1750), offered a detailed description of the other type of Millefleurs:“… cow urine; that of a heifer or of a young healthy brown cow fed in a good pasture. In the month of May, in the morning, we collect in a vessel this urine of the cow which is carried, hot, to the patient, who must be on an empty stomach.” Lémery believed this tonic a purgative most suitable for treating asthma, dropsy, rheumatism and sciatica, if the patient drank two or three glasses of it every morning for nine days.

It was also believed that warts could be made to disappear if rubbed with the tail of a black cat but only if done under the new moon in May. Additionally, a cat born in May was said to be no good at catching mice; it would only bring snakes into the house. In eastern Brittany, some believed that for a cat to be any good as a mouse-catcher, it needed to have been stolen.

Of note in my particular corner of Brittany, May Day is also the feast day of Saint Brieuc, a late-5th century evangelist and one of the Seven Founding Saints of Brittany. He established a monastery around which a substantial community developed and this town, that now bears his name, is the capital of my Département. Saint Brieuc is said to have once travelled with a group of monks that were suddenly surrounded by a pack of wolves. His companions fled but Brieuc confronted the beasts with prayer and the sign of the cross; placated, the animals knelt before him in humility. Due to his legendary acts of charity, he is regarded as the patron saint of purse-makers.

Saint Brieuc Cathedral
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I shall end this post with a useless bit of trivia! The day of the week on which the month of May opens, always corresponds to the day on which the calendar places the feast of Saint Germanus of Auxerre (31 July), the 6th century bishop who preached against the Pelagian heresy in Great Britain where he is reputed to have personally led the natives to victory in battles against incursions by the Picts and Saxons, and Christmas Day.

Armchair Travelling – Nepal

Thankfully, Spring has now well and truly arrived here in Brittany; the blossom is falling from the trees and the roses are budding. Unfortunately, the covid-related travel restrictions remain in force. It is therefore necessary to take a non-essential journey and one that is further than the permitted 10km from my place of residence. However, there will be no steep fine for not carrying my attestation papers for this trip; another Wordless Wednesday virtual journey; today, a visit to the ‘roof of the world.’

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Thank you taking this little trip! Nepal is a country that I have been fortunate enough to visit many times, these photographs were all taken before the terrible earthquake that caused so much devastation there almost exactly six years ago. As well as being warm-hearted and welcoming, the Nepalese are a most resilient people and continue the hard work of re-building their lives and their historic monuments, scarred forever by that day. If you have an opportunity, one day, to visit, do so!

Finding Fortune and Favour

The origins of many once popular superstitions and beliefs will forever elude us but we can be fairly sure that most have their beginnings in humanity’s attempts to make sense of the world around it or to propitiate an uncaring deity and to solicit better fortune. When ignorance and fear were faced with danger, our ancestors struggled for understanding. Little wonder therefore that the belief in the existence of spirits sympathetic or antagonistic to people’s daily struggles gave rise to superstitions. Surrounded on all sides by forces that seemed incomprehensible, people tried prayers and practices they hoped would compel nature to look favourably upon them.

Predicting the future, inviting good luck and warding off the bad, protecting the family and livestock against disease, ensuring a good harvest were constant concerns. To our ancestors, the world around them offered signs that, if understood and interpreted correctly, predicted the future. Likewise, secret rituals were developed in order to induce benevolent treatment which, over time, became popular, albeit irrational, superstitious practices.

Some Breton omens announcing impending good fortune are found in other parts of France and Europe, such as finding a used horseshoe or accidentally stepping in animal excrement but many are uniquely Breton and even exclusive to particular regions within Brittany where someone sneezing to your right was regarded as an auspicious omen and people customarily leapt over the embers of the Midsummer bonfire in expectation of receiving good luck over the year ahead.

luck at cards good omen
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To bring good luck into one’s household it was advised to bake cakes that would be shared and eaten amongst the whole family on Saint-Corentin’s Day; one of the Seven Founding Saints of Brittany, his feast day is on 12 December. However, it was important that these cakes were formed in the shape of a tricorne as it was thought that the saint wore such a hat. This is highly unlikely but probably helps us to date the origins of this superstition to the late 17th or early 18th century.

Good fortune was assured to anyone able to recite the words “Meiz, Tout, Verdun” upon sighting a shooting star but this ritual was only held effective if the plunging star remained visible throughout the complete incantation. For those with lightning fast reactions, any wish that could be formulated aloud while the star fell were sure to be fulfilled.

Anyone who wanted to be certain of winning at games, particularly games of chance such as cards or dice, was thought required to pass the candle or lamp three times around the table or barrel that was to be used for the game, in order to be assured of fine fortune and success. Similarly, when taken in a bowl of cider or lambig, the small metal particles resulting from having ground a copper coin were said to make the drinker of this draught unbeatable in any competition; whether it be gouren (Breton wrestling), a horse race or a game of cards.

lucky at cards good omen
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Possession of a hangman’s rope was also said to bring on good luck, particularly to game-players, and protected one against all dangers. Touching this object to one’s temple was held to cure even the most painful migraine, while those who carried a piece of this rope in their pocket were preserved from toothache. However, securing a piece of this rope might have posed some challenges as a Breton tradition said that it brought bad luck to unhook the rope from a hanged man.

When moving into a new home, in order to attract good fortune and happiness, it was recommended to place, in each corner, a small bag containing a piece of bread and a little salt. Similarly, domestic good fortune could be encouraged by arranging one’s marriage for one of the most propitious days, said to be Monday and Tuesday or on a lucky date. Seven was seen as the luckiest number as it was composed of three, being the base, and four, which is the square. Likewise, twelve, which is equal to three times four, was also viewed as a lucky number here; both the numbers three and twelve were also regarded as lucky numbers by the Romans and Jews of antiquity. It also brought good fortune if the new bride danced with the poorest beggar attending her wedding feast.

The umbilical cord of a child was a lucky charm for both the child and the mother and it was not unknown for some mothers to sew it into the hems of their children’s clothes. The umbilical cord was thought to possess innate power and believed to develop intelligence and to open the mind.

family superstitions good omen
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Setting aside the many marvellous qualities attributed to Brittany’s magical grasses, other, clearly identifiable, plants were once credited with the ability to attract good fortune. In Brittany, the most powerful symbol of good luck was perhaps mistletoe; hung on houses and barns for protection and given on New Year as a token of love and good fortune. A sprig of this plant was once even said to give one a good number to avoid the military draft. However, to be effective as a lucky charm, it was popularly claimed that the plant must not have been in contact with iron nor have touched the ground or another person.

As in other parts of the world, the four leafed clover was thought to bring good luck to those that carried it but in Brittany it was considered most effective if the plant had been discovered without looking for it. The plant was said to ensure victory to the game-player and, thanks to its shape which echoed the sign of the cross, reputed to repel all evil. Along with other rarities such as a seven headed ear of grain or the grain that had passed through the millstone without being ground, the four leafed clover was once said to allow its possessor the ability to see what remained hidden from the eyes of most people and, if carried unwittingly, to understand the artifices of the sorcerer. The four leafed clover found under a gallows was held to possess the greatest of powers.

The green fern collected on the night of Midsummer’s Day, was, like the four leafed clover, said to ensure victory to the game-player and to grant invisibility to whoever held it in their mouth. It was even said that snakes would immediately fall dead if struck on the head with the plant’s root. The plant’s spores, collected on the same night, were believed to be effective in helping locate hidden treasures and gave the possessor the ability to read the deepest secrets that lay hidden within the hearts of men and women.

lucky flowers good omen
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Another plant mutation whose discovery marked impending success and good fortune was a stem of five leafed lilac. Similarly, wild celery was gathered and taken home as a preservative against bad luck and the curse of the evil eye. Hawthorn was also said to be a lucky plant and it was particularly believed to protect one against lightning strikes; an attribute that it shared with laurel. To protect against the ever-present danger posed by the mischief of the korrigans, wearing a gorse flower was strongly recommended.

While there are many birds of ill omen in Brittany, there are a few whose appearance near the home was always welcomed and regarded as good omens.  The most important of which was probably the wren; an auspicious bird in other parts of the Celtic fringe whose status was justified in an old Breton legend. It was told that the wren gave the gift of fire to the world; carrying fire from heaven to earth, it realised that its wings were starting to burn and so entrusted the flame to the robin, whose breast feathers also caught alight. Unselfishly, the lark came to their aid and eventually succeeding in bringing the precious gift of fire to the earth.

In spring, hearing the first cuckoo call of the year was an auspicious occasion. Not only was it a good omen in itself but it was said that if you carried any coins in your pocket at that moment then you would be free of any financial worries for the whole year. Young couples would listen attentively to the bird’s call as the number of songs sung indicated the number of years separating them from marriage. Upon hearing the first cuckoo, those afflicted with rheumatism were advised to roll over on the floor to be rid of pain over the year ahead but hearing this bird sing near one’s house was taken as a very bad omen.

lucky birds good omen
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In summer, house-nesting swallows were considered good luck charms as the birds were thought to only settle against a happy home and their presence was taken as a sign of protection against potential disaster, such as a fire or a storm. However, swallow droppings that fell onto the eyes of the members of the household were said to cause blindness. With the onset of winter, the black-headed gull was regarded as a bird of good omen to the people who lived along the coast of the Bay of Morlaix as its appearance was said to herald a spell of fine weather.

One of the national emblems of France, the crowing of the rooster, especially a white feathered one, was a very good omen in Brittany, signalling as it did the end of the witches’ power and the hope of a new day. However, misfortune was sure to follow if white, red and black roosters were kept together in the same henhouse. It was said that if you put a chicken feather together with feathers from red and black roosters into a bowl of milk, a little eight-legged white lizard would be formed but nobody dared to do it anymore because this lizard is insatiable and quickly grows into an uncontrollable dragon.

Birds, or at least their feathers, also feature in two other curious superstitions; it was believed that a patient would not die if they were lying on a bed in which there were partridge wing feathers but if a person was dying it was important to empty their mattress and pillow, lest they contain pigeon feathers, whose presence would make the death a long and agonising affair. Until the Revolution, keeping pigeons was a right reserved for the feudal lord; its meat was the preserve of the nobility and peasants found with these birds faced heavy sanctions. Alas, the liberalisation of the laws surrounding pigeons and dovecotes had the unintentioned effect of sweeping away a great deal of the breeders’ expertise. Many fanciful explanations were put forward by those unable to understand why birds would not roost; one solution offered to bring about a change in luck was to place a dead man’s skull in the pigeon loft.

lucky birds good omen
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Certain animals were also popularly thought able to bring on good luck. In many localities here, to see a spider running or spinning its web was taken as a sign that money would soon follow, although some areas refined this to say that the spider’s appearance heralded money if seen in the morning and good news when spied in the evening. Good luck was also said to fall upon the person on whom the spider popularly known as the Daddy Long Legs had landed or been placed upon.

Attitudes towards the weasel differed greatly in parts of Brittany; in the western part of the region it was desperately unlucky to see one, as the person that did was condemned to die within the year. However, in central Brittany, the presence of the animal was believed to bring good fortune upon the house. In the same region, a starfish was also considered a lucky charm and was hung over the bed to protect against night terrors or worn as a talisman on a cord around the neck at night.

Sometimes, animal parts were popularly carried as a talisman. For instance, in western Brittany, whoever carried in their pocket the tongue of a snake that had been removed without killing the beast was guaranteed to have good luck, while applying the crushed head of a snake directly to the wound was advised as a certain cure for snakebite. In a wonderful flight of fancy, it was once believed here that if a snake were able to escape the sight of people for seven years, it would grow wings and become an uncontrollable dragon. 

luck at games good omen
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In most parts of Brittany, seeing a live beetle was reputed to bring good luck but in central Brittany, much good fortune was assured if one carried in their pocket the head of a male stag beetle; that of the female which possesses massively smaller mandibles was said not to hold the same effectiveness. Although usually regarded as an animal of ill omen, carrying in one’s pocket the foot of a hare was thought to ward off all toothache.

In eastern Brittany, a lizard’s tail carried in one’s purse was said to attract money there but across the region more generally, it was thought to bring good luck to the game-player. Such competitors could also be confident of every success if they wore the bone of a mole that had been killed in love. However, identifying the bone imbued with this power was not without its ritual. Having been boiled and de-fleshed, the animal’s bones needed to be taken to a stream that issued directly from a spring and dropped into the water, one at a time; the bone that rose to the surface alone had virtue.

Some Breton tales tell of fairies turned into snakes but local lore often associates them with moles; which they transformed into in order to escape the Gospel or else that they were condemned to the darkness by God in punishment for having rejected the early saints. Perhaps because of their association with fairies, moles’ parts were accorded many wonderful virtues here; its skin was said to help teeth grow and carrying its tongue was thought to grant the possessor a most powerful memory. Another curious belief concerning this animal asserted that the hand which had suffocated a mole, while still warm from contact, was able to cure toothache and colic by the merest touch.

lucky animals good omen
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Another powerful mascot said to bring good fortune upon the household was the afterbirth of a mare, that of a white mare being held to be most potent, taken as soon after the birth as possible and placed around the base of the hawthorn tree nearest to the house. If by some chance one was unavailable, good luck could still be induced if the afterbirth was put around a nearby elm tree.

The presence of bees near the home was another indicator of good fortune and to give a hive to a neighbour was a gesture of much significance as you were not only providing them with honey but also, and above all, good luck. In Brittany, buying and selling bees as if they were a commodity, like a sack of onions, was frowned upon and they were usually traded in barter. More generally, when selling any animal here, it was customary for the seller to give the buyer some coins, even a token amount, in order to bring good luck upon both parties.

When undertaking a journey, good fortune was said to be assured if, in the morning, one met a debauched woman or a wolf, a cicada or a goat. Similarly, a trouble free journey or successful outcome was assured if the traveller heard thunder from afar, if their right ear tingled or if their right nostril bled. Along the coast of the Bay of Saint-Malo it was considered a most propitious omen to see a donkey before setting out to sea; seamen there considered the animal stupid but courageous. Sighting a goose in flight was also a sign of approaching good fortune.

between two lands good omen
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In addition to recognising the omens of good fortune and observing the rituals to attract it, other ceremonies, if performed under certain specific conditions, were once reckoned to bestow unique and marvellous gifts on those bold enough to seek them. For instance, whoever found frogspawn for the first time in the year, without looking for it, was said to need only rub their hands with it, taking care not to wash them all day, in order to acquire the power to heal, by mere touch, animals and children of certain afflictions.

It was said that if a young woman cooked an oak apple, of a certain maturity, in the water of a fountain whose source watered a cemetery, she would be imbued with all the wisdom and knowledge of the fairies of old. While it was said that whoever ate the heart of an eel, still warm from the body, would immediately be endowed with the gift of prophecy. The blood of an eel was believed to possess magical properties; not only could it bewitch but it also cured alcoholism. Eel fat mixed with tallow made from a goat was once a well-known witch’s brew in eastern Brittany and an eel skin, filled with sand, was regarded as a weapon like no other; its blows were said to be almost always fatal.

According to some sources, each hazel bush in Brittany possessed within its folds a branch that turned into pure gold. This branch made a wand that was reputed to equal in power those of the greatest fairies. However, this prize could only be gained if cut between the first and last chimes of the bell announcing the Christmas midnight mass but, lest you be tempted, be aware that whoever tries and fails, disappears from this world forever. Often associated with magic, hazel was said to furnish the very best divining rods, particularly when searching for springs and silver, but, handled well, it could also show us if one was truly loved by our partner. A sprig of the plant was traditionally placed on the bridal bed, while one that had never borne fruit was said to kill snakes with a single blow.

seeing fairies good omen
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When a person stood between two lands – their feet on the ground and with a large sod of earth held above their head – on a moonless night, they were believed to have been granted the privilege of seeing things that were unknown to others. This ritual was also advised for those who happened to meet a sorcerer up to some mischief at night because, according to popular belief, sorcerers could not see between two lands.

There are some old accounts that make intriguing references to a magical stone guarded by mice. This stone was reputed to have the power of removing any foreign body from the eye on which it was applied. Mice were said to have used this stone on their own babies who would otherwise have remained blind. Unfortunately, the legends are silent on whether this was the same magical stone that allowed one to clearly see the invisible korrigans and even the ghosts of the dead.

In talking of practices that produced a remarkable faculty of sight, it is worth noting another once popular belief that cautioned against placing a mirror in front of small children for fear that they might be instantly struck dumb. Furthermore, in northern Brittany, women were strongly advised never to look into a mirror after sunset lest the Devil himself be revealed in reflection behind their shoulder.

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As late as the 1840s, washing one’s face in the morning with cow’s urine, or your own if one could not obtain that of a cow, was said to protect you all day from pitfalls and the wickedness of the Devil because you became invisible to him. Similar protection was thought bestowed if one spat on the sabot of the right foot before putting it on or carried unblessed salt in their pocket or part of a chicory root that had been torn off, before dawn, on the morning of Midsummer’s Day.

Many of these old superstitions appear irrational to us today but that is the very nature of superstition. It does not require logic in order to function or to thrive; it does not even demand conviction of faith. Even the petty rituals associated with the lost beliefs that once underpinned them can survive through habit alone. Such acceptance could become ingrained in young, impressionable minds and even if challenged in later years, might be excused on the grounds that if a ritual does no good, its performance can do no harm and so they continue to perpetuate the ceremony.

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