Mankind’s uncertain struggle for food and shelter saw our ancestors constantly battle against the forces of nature. Sometimes nature could be brought under a degree of control but often humanity found itself in a position of incredible weakness. Despite their best efforts, the labours of our ancestors offered no guarantee of success against the whims of the uncontrollable weather. Faced with their own powerlessness, they could only identify what helped or hindered their efforts and try to forsee their influence.
Forecasting the weather has always been one of mankind’s most vital concerns and this was particularly so in Brittany, a country totally reliant on working the land and harvesting its extensive coastal waters; activities that were highly susceptible to the effects of severe weather. Based on the close observation of weather patterns, monitoring the effect of seasonal changes and correlating events with particular weather phenomena, the people of yesterday’s Brittany attempted to make sense of the world around them, sometimes with supernatural explanations. As you might expect, such practices gave rise to a great number of folk beliefs and superstitions.
In many parts of the world, celestial objects were often thought to foreshadow weather events but in Brittany scant attention was paid to the constellations or to the sun; the principle heavenly influence was that of the moon; an orb that seemed to show some sympathy to the affairs of man with its perpetual cycle of death and rebirth across the night sky. The importance attached to the moon by the people of this part of Europe is attested by the edicts of several 6th and 7th century Church Councils seeking to suppress traditional rites and practices associated with the appearance of the new moon such as: refraining from work; lighting fires in front of houses; waiting for the new moon to contract a marriage; and shouting at the new moon to help it regain its brilliance. Even as late as the mid-17th century, it is reported that Bretons popularly prayed to the moon especially on the appearance of its first quarter phase.
Perhaps the mysteriousness of its constant cycle was associated with supernatural powers as its influence on events on earth was almost always held to be malign. It was, for instance, thought to cast a venom into well water at night and that potatoes, left in the field, would stain under its light. A waning moon was regarded as particularly malignant: childbirth was thought to be more laborious and those born under a new moon destined to die a violent death; to castrate a pig or sow a crop during this lunar phase was to invite misfortune.
It has been noted that the Celts of antiquity observed a lunar calendar, counting the beginning of months and years by the moon. In their world-view, night preceded day and solemn festivals such as Midsummer began not at sunrise but on the appearance of the moon. The phases of the moon were more than merely a simple and effective way of measuring time but also likely carried powerful connotations of birth and death, growth and decay.
Each new moon was thought to possess its own characteristic effect on the land and a significant number of these traditional declarations have survived to this day as proverbs, such as: January’s rain fill the ditches with water into February but March can dry all in one night; When April is shaken, May will be warm and cloudy; Sow your wheat whenever you wish but on the full moon in July you will find it.
Certain meteorological phenomena were closely observed and held to be useful signs for predicting forthcoming weather. For instance, the types of clouds were seen as offering a strong indication of the types of rains one could expect: A black cloud in the west brought heavy rain while a thinning cloud to the southwest heralded the approach of a spell of poor weather. The appearance of cloud formations around the moon were also thought significant; a close halo of clouds announced future rain while a distant halo meant that rain would arrive soon.
A rainbow was often regarded as a symbol of bad weather and its appearance in the evening was a sign that there would be rain or winds in the morning but a rainbow in the morning indicated a forthcoming strong wind that carried little rain. In Brittany, farmers would fend off this bad omen by way of cutting it; spitting in the palm of the left hand and cutting the spit with a quick strike from the side of the right hand or by tracing a cut across the sky with a piece of wire or string, reciting: ‘Cut, cut, rainbow or I will cut you with my thread’. In western Brittany, it was once said that rainbows were celestial ladders laden with lost souls, ascending and descending, and people were careful not to pass under a rainbow lest they change sex.
Similarly, the direction of the winds were regarded as important as they were thought to announce a particular weather pattern: the northeast wind was held to be dry, making for very hot summers and freezing winters; a northwest wind brought storms; the southeast wind was particularly unwelcome as it marked summer storms and very cold winters; wind from the southwest heralded rain. Winds from the south were said to be more benign than those that blew from the north. Sowing a crop was thought to be best done with the northeast wind and avoided at a time of the east wind.
While some of these meteorological proverbs might be linked to empirical observations, they are, of course, generalisations and represent the Breton’s attempt to impose order and a degree of certainty in his ever-changing uncertain reality. Accepting that nature often fails to conform to the designs of man, yesterday’s farmers could maintain a veneer of order by calling upon other omens that could be bent to justify any seasonal irregularities. For instance, the weather during the first twelve days of January was said to be an indicator for the forthcoming weather in each of the following twelve months. Similarly, the direction of the wind during the Palm Sunday procession pointed to the wind that would be dominant throughout the remainder of the year.
Sometimes, specific dates were popularly associated with the weather: If it rains on Mardi-Gras more rain will follow; If the sun shines for Mardi-Gras, it will stay for Lent; Snow for Mardi-Gras, midges for Easter; Easter rain is a bread giver; On Palm Sunday tether your cows, On Easter Sunday bring-in your cows. The latter sayings implying that the grass is now good for grazing and that the mid-afternoon sun is getting hot. Rainfall on the Feast of the Annunciation was an unfavourable omen as it was said to lead to cows yielding only the milk of a goat, while rain on May Day was thought bad for the yield of fruit trees but rain on Midsummer’s Day was held to be good for the development of wheat: ‘Good rain on the Day of Saint John makes the girl as tall as her mother.’
Other particular times of the year were also said to be auspicious for forecasting the weather, depending on whether it was inclement or fine on Saint Vincent’s Day (22 January), the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul (25 January) or the Feast Days of Saints Gervais and Protais (19 June), Saint Urbain (25 May) and Saint Médard (8 June). The weather experienced on these days was said to determine the state of the weather for the proceeding twenty, thirty or forty days.
In the minds of our ancestors, the world was teeming with signs and portents that had only to be deciphered correctly. When a child was born at night, it was the role of the eldest woman present at the birth to check on the state of the sky; if clouds were surrounding the moon or were masking its face, it was taken as an omen that the new baby was fated to one day be hanged or drowned. Magpies were said to chatter a great deal and the larger fish swam close to the surface before a coming wind. During the summer months, the same weather was expected when swallows flew nearer to the trees. Similarly, a scarcity of bees, increased croaking by toads or a large gathering of seagulls inland were taken as signs of approaching bad weather. However, to see sea fleas jumping on the sand on a Sunday announced that it would be fine for the following eight days.
In the Brittany of yesteryear, the concept of the natural world was not restricted to things corporeal and observable but included the incorporeal and unobservable. It was not considered irrational to believe in the existence of spirits causing natural effects and it was accepted that witches acted according to the natural laws; the activities of witches were thus regarded as natural phenomena. Witchcraft helped some to explain the unusual in the uncertain world around them, such as a summer hailstorm or a sudden whirlwind.
These freak wind occurrences also played a part in forecasting the weather; a whirlwind was sometimes taken as an indicator of an impending rainfall that would last for three days and a whirlwind headed to the southwest was said to be fetching rain. Sudden gusts of wind that carried away stalks of hay or straw were taken as a sign that the coming winter would be a harsh one; the straw being carried heavenwards to help God prepare for a cold winter. The notion that the wind is actively fetching and carrying possibly implies that supernatural associations were once popularly attributed to these phenomena.
One group often blamed for such occurrences were the rural priests, men who were often viewed by their predominantly uneducated congregations as sorcerers. The suspicion that priests were interfering with the weather was most widely found in western Brittany where young clerics were said to practice their skills by raising whirlwinds or were testing the knowledge that they had gained at the seminary by performing magical changes to the weather. A 19th century priest in Cancale was even said to possess a rope that could control the wind; the art of tying-up the wind in three knots, so that the more knots that are loosened the stronger the wind will blow, is noted as having been attributed to sorcerers and witches in other parts of the Celtic fringe. The belief in the power of the priest to raise a whirlwind extended beyond simple creation; like witches, they were thought to be able to control and even travel on the wind. The belief in the power to travel in whirlwinds is culturally widespread and even features in the Holy Bible when ‘Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.’
The witches and sorcerers were believed to have been taught to travel in this way by the Devil himself. In eastern Brittany, it was once said that it was in such winds that the Devil carried immoral women to hell with him; so desperate was the struggle of the abducted soul that a whirlwind was created. Others believed that the whirlwind contained a damned soul doomed to spend eternity crossing the world from one end to the other, destroying people and crops in its frustrated rage. While others maintained that such a wind contained a witch who, having given her soul to the Devil had disobeyed him and was condemned to forever wander the earth without hope of rest.
While freak winds such as whirlwinds were feared because of their potential to destroy crops, the possible harm they could cause to those labouring in the fields was not underestimated. It was popularly believed that those unfortunate enough to be caught-up in the path of such a wind were chilled to the bone, to the point of paralysis. It was therefore commonly held that the best course of action on the appearance of a whirlwind was to lie flat on the ground until it had passed, lest the power of the wind forever freeze one’s body in the position that it was in when encountered by it. Thus avoiding a permanently stooped back; a particularly unhelpful affliction for an agricultural labourer.
Yesterday’s Bretons were not passive spectators in the face of the power of the whirlwind. Countering the supernatural forces thought to be behind the creation of such winds was thought best achieved by casting an open knife, scythe or iron pitchfork into the wind; it being popularly supposed that supernatural beings and witches were repelled by iron. It was also believed that the person whose sorcery had caused the wind to rise might receive the blow and be hurt.
In the event that the whirlwind contained a person who had been abducted, it might be the victim who would receive the blow but this would have a favourable effect. According to a tale recounted by the French folklorist Paul Sébillot, the consequence was that it could save the person who had been taken by the Devil:
“One day, some folk were haymaking when a gust of wind arose suddenly. A girl who happened to be holding a knife at that moment threw it into the midst of the whirlwind. The whirlwind vanished instantly, to the great satisfaction of the haymakers who were shouting that the Devil was inside it. Everyone looked for the knife but it could not be found, so, they thought it was likely stuck in the body of someone being carried away by the Devil. One day, as the same girl was washing clothes at a local farm, she recognised her knife in the hands of a young washerwoman. She asked where she had got it and the laundress explained that she had sold herself to the Devil for riches because she was fed up with working but the Devil had carried her away in a whirlwind: ‘Without your throwing a knife into that wind, I would have become a lost soul’, she said.”
In Brittany, storms at sea were once thought to be an occasion when the souls of those who had drowned and for whom no funeral Mass had been held, announced themselves to their loved ones, seeking to be remembered. Similarly, the sound of crashing waves was sometimes thought the cries of the drowned who were doomed to be denied rest for as long as their bodies remained unburied in consecrated ground. The Virgin Mary and Saint Houarden were popularly invoked to calm the fury of a storm while Saint Budoc was called upon to change the direction of the wind. In some communities, sea winds were said to be a manifestation of the inhabitants of the ocean who had been cursed on account of their revolt against the sea; condemned to blow until the Last Judgement.
Additionally, it was thought that favourable winds could be summoned by a whistle but if the wind proved recalcitrant it was necessary to invoke the intervention of Saint Clement. If the saint appeared slow in responding to one’s pleas then he was considered asleep but it was thought that he could be roused awake and into action if he was cursed or sworn at. However, whistling during a breeze was frowned upon lest the breeze became a storm and seafarers would not whistle when the weather threatened for fear of increasing the force of the wind.
Dangerous winds and storms were also associated with the sight of a rainbow at sea, the ends of which were said to terminate in a maelstrom. The rainbow marked the passage between the realm of the living and that of the dead and was avoided as far as possible; a boat passing under the arch of a rainbow was thought at risk of being taken by the sea. Pointing directly at a rainbow was also avoided as it was considered to bring bad luck.
While many of these traditional beliefs and superstitions might seem incredible to us today, the basic principles of understanding the relationships between observed weather events and what preceded them remain. It is merely that our knowledge and technology have improved, over time.