Popular belief in the power of witchcraft survived in Brittany, as elsewhere in France, deep into the last century but the spells and curses of the witch were seemingly often as benign as they were malignant.
We have very little contemporary testimony to the popular mentalities, beliefs and superstitions of the majority of Bretons before the 19th century and nor can we be sure of how these people regarded their own particular brand of religion. They would certainly have avowed themselves Christians and members of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church but it is clear that their practices contained elements that were an inextricable blend of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs.
A Jesuit priest, Antoine Boschet, described 17th century Brittany as being in the primitive age of the Church; a place where one witnessed something akin to what the pagans experienced when the first apostles preached to them in the 5th and 6th centuries. Superstitions and witchcraft flourished, talismans and charms abounded, prayers were addressed to the moon and relics of paganism were noticeable everywhere. The region was therefore the focus of a systematic sixty year campaign, led by the Jesuits, to correct religious ignorance, even amongst the native clergy, and retrench an orthodox Christian faith.
At the very end of the 19th century, psychologist and author Léon Marillier noted that Bretons still possessed a state of mind where the explanation of a natural phenomenon, illness or death, which immediately came to mind, was a supernatural one. In a world full of perils, whether on the farm or at sea; a world where the forces of God and the Devil were constantly at work, it was necessary to reconcile by all means these supernatural forces which governed joy and sorrow, life and death.
On the periphery of the rites and prayers of the Church, it must have seemed natural to strengthen the effectiveness of these devotions by complementary practices, or to embrace religious pluralism and resort to the practices of a parallel system of belief, something ancient; agrarian, cosmic, magical even. There was a considerable, if not total, overlapping of these heterogeneous elements and there was no contradiction in the simultaneous use of the parish priest and the local witch; both invoked God and His saints, used the sign of the cross and attached certain numbers such as three, seven or nine, a special value.
For centuries, the Church had generally tolerated this syncretism but the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation that followed the Council of Trent towards the end of the 16th century, increasingly witnessed reforming bishops condemn beliefs and practices deemed incompatible with official Church dogma.
However, eradicating these long-accepted beliefs and practices was not without its challenges as it was often difficult to draw a distinct line between faith and superstition. Implementing synodal statutes or percepta at the local level was often a difficult task for the parish priest who, in Brittany, was often regarded as a sorcerer himself. The Jesuit missions of the 17th century certainly had an impact, focussing as they did on basic re-education of Christian tenets and rebuilding the faith: ignorant local priests were dismissed; sacrileges and blasphemies were denounced; salvation through faith, good works and absolution stressed as the only way to avoid eternal damnation. The missionaries’ work was not always easy; they were often accused of being sorcerers and of bewitching children, sometimes they were even forbidden to enter particular parishes. Slowly, their work bore fruit; parties, drinking and dancing were forbidden within church grounds and nocturnal dances and music were condemned as diabolical.
While these were significant steps towards establishing a change in cultural practices of some antiquity, tackling the ancient superstitions and practices proved a much more ambitious undertaking. Denouncements from the pulpit coupled with ridicule and repression failed to eradicate the popular belief in the efficacy of practices such as undue worship, divination, conjurations, charms or the cure of sickness by incantation. Inconsistencies in the Church’s approach left significant grey areas for the humble parishioner; for instance, the worship of healing saints and their attendant rites and pardons might offer an unclear distinction of where appropriate worship ended and superstition began. Thus, a number of questionable traditional practices continued to be tolerated. Another example might be, as happened in Brittany, when the local priest offered a prayer in order for someone to obtain a particular grace or a cure from sickness while the congregation offered silver pins on the altar and nodded three times in a cupboard or niche by the altar.
It is difficult to say what allowed the persistence of traditions often contradictory to orthodox Christianity to persist into living memory. However, it is important to remember that the people who fostered and transmitted such beliefs and practices were not theologians and would have regarded themselves as pious Christians and it is within such a framework that they should be viewed. These were small, close-knit societies firmly rooted in tradition albeit one that could be regarded as anachronistic. One could reasonably argue that some of these traditions retained vestiges of pre-Christian beliefs in as far as they focused on the key events that marked the life of an individual or their community such as birth, death, love, loss, sowing and harvesting.
As noted above, most people saw no contradiction in the simultaneous use of the parish priest and the local witch; protection against the dangers of the world would be better ensured if one accepted both as a safeguard against life’s ills. This might help to explain the continued belief in witchcraft and the practice of healing magic that existed in rural Brittany and other parts of France into the 20th century.
The local witch, despite their wicked role in many folk-tales, was widely held to have a profound, practical knowledge of herbalism, healing and potions. In many instances, they were also thought to be able to listen to the dead and be skilled in divination and prophecy. Witches often had an ambivalent role in their community but some that focussed on healing and un-bewitching were an integral part of their society. Although natural phenomena such as unseasonal weather, crop blight, illness and death (of both humans and livestock) were blamed on them; consulting a witch was seen as the surest way of countering a witch’s enchantment.
However, the witch was not the only person believed to be able to cast curses; they were merely those able to cast them wilfully. It was commonly held that others, afflicted with the evil eye, had the ability to cast misfortune, such as those who, on the day of their baptism, had remained on the porch without receiving the sacrament; rag-pickers and, to a lesser extent, tailors were also believed to have the power to bring-on bad luck. Even those people who had mistakenly put one of their clothes on inside out were considered to temporarily be able to cast the evil eye. Just a single look of malice, pride, desire or envy from the holder of an evil eye was thought enough to cast a curse on the unfortunate victim who fell under their gaze.
Human nature appreciates balance and thus it is no surprise that there were ways to counter such curses. For instance, throwing a broom onto the ground in front of a rag-picker who entered your home was enough to counter his curse. If one of your animals had been cursed, it was necessary to invite the one you suspected of having caused the curse to visit your home; their appearance across the threshold would nullify the curse.
Some witches were traditional healers known as diskanterezed (a Breton word that means one who can undo or remove) and were commonly consulted for their expertise in handling benign ailments; usually achieved by a mixture of a propriety concoction and the precise recitation of chants accompanied by high ritual with the execution of very specific gestures in a special sequence. However, the diskanterez was also typically approached for the preparation of charms, concoctions and amulets of bewitchment and un-bewitchment. It is thus difficult and probably unhelpful here to attempt to draw firm lines of definition between the two terms which were often interchangeable in Brittany.
In many cases, the chants and invocations used by witches contained religious rather than occult terminology and both they and those seeking their services would often refer to their spells and charms as prayers. Although specific to each ailment and often to each practitioner, the incantations of healing were very often adaptations of the liturgical prayers for healing recited by the local priest or contained supplications to local saints. More often than not, there was no deliberately malicious heresy in such petitions; the charms contained sacred motifs delivered by those that, both parties believed, had been blessed by God with the gift of healing.
In addition to the specific words used and their precise delivery, spells usually required particular movements and gestures to animate them; spell-casting required as much ritual as any religious service. Some spells could only be performed under specific circumstances such as on a significant date or time of day or on the optimal position of the moon. Only a witch was held to posses the understanding of the ingredients and formulas needed for effective magic as well as knowledge of their associated precepts.
One recipe used to protect against curses required a sou coin, nine grains of salt and nine stems from nine plants, namely: ground-ivy, common fumitory, spotted medick, common daisy, chickweed, greater celandine, dovesfoot geranium, pilewort and verbena. It was first necessary to pronounce the invocation ‘Doue Araog Oll’ (Breton for God Above All) into a linen pouch and recite the Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers three times without taking a breath. After this, three stems from each of the nine plants were placed crosswise on top of one another and then another three stems of the nine plants were similarly placed. Again, three Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers were recited in the same manner as before and the remaining stems placed atop each other into the bag. When the last of the stems was in the bag, it was necessary to recite another three prayers under the same breathing constraints as earlier, before finally adding the nine grains of salt. The pouch was then sewn tight with a linen thread and stitched into one’s clothing.
It was once believed that only children who were born feet-first possessed the gift necessary to be a diskanterez but the most evil curses and spells were those cast by witches whose mothers had died in childbirth. The curses wrought by these people were considered especially powerful and were thought more dangerous because their spells could only be lifted by themselves.
It has been recorded that when these witches cursed a person or their livestock their enchantments lay in earthenware vases concealed in the ground where the victim was sure to pass, such as under floors or beds or near bread ovens and wells. To damage livestock and thus livelihood, the enchanted vessels were placed near stables or by the entrance to pastures or fields.
Again, the precise recitation of the desired incantation was crucial; was it misfortune and misery or death that you sought for your victim? If you were targeting his livelihood, were you seeking to impose on them a setback or did you desire their complete ruin? The severity of the curse and the necessary evil to be thrown against your victim was recited nine times into the vase without taking a breath: if you paused to take a breath, the partially crafted spell fell on its author! While reciting the spell, a series of items were placed in the vase, such as: yellow broom and marigold flowers, fern, various grains including wheat, oat husks, dried oak leaves, the sting of a viper, the left eyes of a toad and raven, the head of a lizard. Sometimes, whole animals such as black hens or the heart and liver of larger animals were called for but never parts of a cat or goat due to their diabolical associations.
Other spells required bones, teeth or hair taken from a grave at night and it was said that the body parts of children who died without baptism provided witches with the ingredients for the most powerful spells. The baptism of babies generally took place as quickly as possible within a few days or birth and sometimes even the same day; an unbaptized child was considered extremely vulnerable to the evil eye. In some parts of Brittany, new-borns were immediately passed through the fireplace to protect them against evil spells.
To throw someone under a curse of death it was necessary to approach the local witch. If you were judged serious and trustworthy, a little silver would be exchanged for a small bag or pouch containing a secret mixture. To this mysterious concoction it was necessary for one to add: nine grains of salt; some earth taken from the cemetery; a little virgin wax; a spider that one caught in a corner of their home; and a piece of one’s own finger nail bitten off by their own teeth. Thus full, the pouch needed to be worn hanging from a string about the neck for nine consecutive days. On the tenth day, the little bag needed to be left somewhere where it could be guaranteed to attract the attention of one’s target, such as their window sill or beside the path to their door. It was necessary to tempt the target’s curiosity; the enemy picks up the pouch perhaps thinking that they have found a purse and opens it. The wilful act of opening the pouch completed the spell and the victim was doomed to die within the year.
Alternatively, the witch might instead give you a pierced two liard coin which you had to slip into your target’s pocket during Sunday mass but only if you had not eaten that day. Another option popularly used in parts of Brittany involved the recitation of Psalm 109 three times; invoking its curses upon the target that you had marked for death. This psalm is said to contain some of the most invective imprecations in the Bible.
The contiguity of belief or acceptance in Christian and pre-Christian, agrarian practices might seem incongruous to us nowadays but such religious pluralism was not uncommon in Brittany. Perhaps the best known example of this is the once popular practice known as the adjudication of Saint Yves. One of the few Breton saints officially accepted by the Vatican, Saint Yves was a 13th century priest and judge renowned for the fairness of his verdicts and his generosity towards the poor and downtrodden. He is the patron saint of Brittany, abandoned children and lawyers. Saint Yves was often invoked by those embroiled in a serious dispute or nursing a strong grievance but the so-called adjudication sought through the medium of his statue was distinctly un-Christian.
It was first necessary for the aggrieved party to make a pilgrimage to the statue of Saint Yves known as Saint Yves-de-la-Vérité and undertake a series of rituals, namely: slip a liard coin into the clog of the person whose death you sought; while fasting, undertake three pilgrimages to the statue on consecutive Mondays; on the final visit, take the statue by the shoulders, shake it roughly while making the invocation ‘Te eo Zantik ar Wirion. Me a westl dit heman. Mar man ar gwir a du gant han, condaon ac’h anon. Mes, mar man ar gwir a du gan in, grad’ez han merwel a berz ann termenn rik.’ (You are the little saint of Truth. I accept this of you. If the truth is on his side condemn me but if the truth is with me, condemn him; cause him to die before year end.) It was then necessary to leave an offering of a silver coin marked with a cross and to recite the Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers before making three circuits of the oratory containing the statue without once moving your head. This done, a final prayer of supplication was made at the entrance to the oratory and the curse was cast; the guilty party would die within the year and justice will have been served. However, it was important that you did indeed have right on your side; if you were the one who was in the wrong then the curse would strike you instead.
Some accounts say that the person who was justly dedicated to Saint-Yves-de-la-Vérité withered away for nine months but did not succumb to death until the day that the one who effected the curse crossed the threshold of their home. Sometimes, the parties to an intractable dispute would agree to the adjudication of Saint Yves and visit the statue together. In such cases, it was customary for one of the two sides to throw a coin on the ground in front of the other before the statue of Saint Yves-de-la-Vérité and invoke the Saint’s judgement with the words: ‘You were just in your life; show that you are still so.’
The chapel of Saint-Yves-de-la-Vérité was originally a small ancient chapel near the north coast of Brittany dedicated to Saint Sul although which particular Saint Sulien has been lost to us. In an attempt to end this cult of revenge that seems to have been well established by the 16th century, the Church abandoned the chapel sometime in the 18th century. However, a stone ossuary had been built nearby for the family of a local landowner and the statues from the chapel were transferred there. Over time, this ossuary became the new site of pilgrimage as one of the two wooden images of Saint Yves it contained was regarded as that of Saint Yves-de-la-Vérité. It was this statue that subsequently became the patron of this ossuary, transformed into an oratory.
A murder trial in 1882, involving two men who had invoked the intervention of Saint Yves but had taken matters into their own hands when the saint refused to intercede on their behalf, sounded the death knell for the oratory; the local clergy, unable to succeed in destroying the cult, managed to get the building demolished. However, over twenty years later, people still continued to visit and make invocations at the site of the ossuary, some even being so bold as to demand the local priest to show them the statue that he now housed. The priest must have rid himself of the statues rather than destroy them as it is reported that one was burned by the nuns of the local Augustine convent in 1920 and the other is said to have turned-up in the workshop of a local cabinetmaker in 1930 and shortly thereafter sold at auction; its whereabouts is currently unknown.
The interplay between religious and non-religious practices is evident elsewhere. In the not too distant past, sometime after giving birth, the new mother would go to church to undergo a ceremony of re-admittance into the congregation known as the churching of woman. While official Church teaching saw this as a ceremony of thanksgiving, many priests and churchgoers associated it with Old Testament notions of uncleanliness associated with childbirth. In Brittany, the new mother was forbidden to cook and care for the animals until she had been churched as it was believed that she cast a curse on everything she touched except for her child. The churching rite was fairly simple: the mother presented herself at the porch of the church and knelt there with a lighted candle. The priest came and blessed her with holy water before leading her into church where she knelt before the altar and was again blessed with holy water in front of the congregation. New mothers in yesterday’s Brittany were not allowed to go to church for this ceremony alone, else all the potential curses she carried befell her.
Not all curses were designed to end in misfortune and misery; if a girl was in love with a boy and she wanted him to love her in return, it was said that she had only to make him eat some bread that she had baked with a little of her menstrual blood. Alternatively, religion could be co-opted into the matter and the lovelorn girl could take a lock of the boy’s hair and offer it three times to the altar of the church with a lighted candle and then plait it with a lock of her own hair.
There were also many practices recommended to help thwart evil spells that were cast against you and these varied from carrying nine grains of salt in your pocket to washing your hands in urine. Striking, three times, the shell of an egg you had just eaten and spitting on the clog of your right foot before putting it on were also advised. To counteract a spell that had brought about a fever, it was necessary to drink from a bucket of water after a horse had drunk from it or to receive three sprinkles of holy water in three different parishes on the same Sunday. Similar protection was thought to be gained from drinking holy water on the eve of Pentecost or exposing oneself naked to the rising sun while reciting a certain number of Pater Noster and Ave Maria prayers. To save a person cursed with fever, one remedy suggested kneading a small roll of bread with the urine of the sick person and once baked, feed it to a dog three times; the fever would then leave the sick person and be absorbed by the dog.
The range of spells and curses was as broad as the human imagination; to prevent someone from eating, it was necessary to hide a needle used to sew a funeral shroud under your victim’s table; to prevent someone sleeping, place the eye of a swallow under their bed; to induce night terrors, place a crown of feathers under the bed. To prevent the consummation of a marriage, a curse known as the knotting of the needle was cast; one spell required the name of the intended victim be called out at his home and once acknowledged, a tight knot of white twine had to be tied around the penis of a wolf. Others involved attending the wedding and tying a knot in a piece of string just as the priest announced ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ while muttering the riposte ‘Let the Devil do it’. This was viewed as a most serious curse and priests are known to have threatened excommunication to those who might attempt to cast the spell. However, the seriousness of the situation also meant that the newly married spouses did not much care whether it was the power of prayer or the power of the witch that delivered them from it.
In order to guard against falling victim to this curse, a number of precautions were popularly spoken of, such as walking together, as a couple, in front of the major crucifix of the church in which they were to marry, three days before the wedding. The groom was recommended to carry salt in his pockets and coins in his footwear and even to urinate three times through the wedding ring intended for his bride. If these precautions subsequently proved ineffective, remedies for countering the curse ranged from the application of houseleek (a plant once believed to protect against witchcraft and recommended by some today for the treatment of skin inflammations) to reciting certain prayers and charms for seven consecutive dawns with one’s back turned to the rising sun. Other, more symbolic, practices involved piercing a new barrel and pouring the first draught through the wife’s wedding ring and urinating three times through the keyhole of the church where the newlyweds were married.
Another way that both witches and non-witches used to cast a spell was the practice of enchantment using a figure made of clay, wood or wax, known as a dagyde, to represent the named person to be cursed. The association between the dagyde and the subject target is strengthened by anything tangible; a piece of clothing, hair, nail clippings or even excrement. Such figures would, accompanied by incantations, be pierced with a needle or brought near a flame so that the animated original person would bodily suffer the effect of the outrages committed on their effigy. Used to cause all manner of physical discomfort, such practices were considered effective means of preventing the consummation of a marriage or for creating marital discord through means of obturation and ligation or castration. Domestic animals and livestock could also be cursed in this way. Countering the spell cast by a dagyde was a serious business and not surprisingly involved a great deal of ritual.
Grains of salt, phials of holy water, saints medallions, written prayers, sacred images and pieces of coal were all held to protect one against the power of spells and curses. Although belief or disbelief was likely the strongest weapon for and against the spell-caster. What one man dismissed as a mere turn of fate, another seized upon as misfortune resulting from a magical attack; a feeling bolstered by any manner of private and social anxieties and so, the witch is called upon once more.
Anthropologists, ethnographers, historians and psychologists may well argue over the social significance of practical witchcraft with its associated spells, curses and counter-curses in the modern era but its close association to folk medicine and traditional healing is beyond doubt. That there was a very close link, even if only in the popular imagination, between folk medicine and popular religion should not surprise us. In many ways both played a key role in supporting the life of the community and the wellbeing of its inhabitants from the cradle to the grave.