In the minds of yesterday’s Bretons, the world around them was swarming with signs that, if interpreted correctly, predicted the future. Being prepared for the unknown future and warding off misfortune were constant concerns for our ancestors. Natural phenomena, abnormal behaviour and other irregularities were carefully noted for the favourable or unfavourable shadow they cast over daily life. Deciphering these signs allowed our ancestors the comfort of a thin veneer of some control over their destiny.
Omens were not confined to the spectacular natural phenomena like meteors and whirlwinds or significant abnormalities such as sheep born with an extra limb. Sometimes, the most mundane sights or occurrences were held to be ominous; seeing a wolf or a toad in the morning were considered auspicious omens, while sighting a snake, salamander or boar were all taken as ill omens. Putting on one’s shirt inside-out brought on misfortune but seeing a spider in your barn was a favourable sign, especially if it was weaving its web.
Often, it was the first sights seen in the morning that were important to note; an overturned bench; grains of salt on the table or crossed knives were all said to herald misfortune. A knife resting on the table with its sharp side pointing upwards indicated an upcoming marriage but you could soon expect to go into mourning if the knife was resting on its sharp side.
Calamity was also close at hand if you saw someone killing a dog or a cat or spitting into a fire. Similarly, you could expect some imminent misfortune if the lady of the household spoke louder than her husband but if thirteen people were seated at the same table, one of them would be dead within the year. This was a fate that was also said to lie in store for those who had discovered an undeclared treasure.
While such omens were manifested for all to see, some people were reputed to be more attuned at noticing them, particularly the precursors of death, than others. This gift was said to be held by those who had entered holy ground and left it before having been baptised. The gift could be temporarily acquired by those in possession of a four leafed clover, a stalk with seven ears of grain, or grain that had passed through the millstone without being ground.
Birds of ill omen once filled the skies of Brittany; the sparrowhawk was considered the bird of death and it was said to fly around a house and knock on the window to announce an impending demise. To hear the call of an owl near one’s house also signalled the approach of death. The croaking of a crow flying about you heralded the death of a family member. Likewise, a magpie landing on the roof announced that someone would die in the house, while two magpies flying away to your left heralded misfortune but three magpies jumping together on a road presaged the passing of a funeral cortege in the near future.
To hear a rooster crowing in the afternoon was thought to herald great joy or great sadness but crowing at night was a sign of impending misfortune or death. Similarly, a rooster crowing all around you was taken as a warning that your last hour was approaching. Hens too were once seen as augurs; if the hen sang before the rooster, bad luck would soon fall upon the household but if, after being entangled in straw, the hen had a strand remaining attached to its tail, it was taken as a sign of imminent mourning for the people of the house. Likewise, the sight of small white butterflies flying into a house in the evening was a sign that one of its inhabitants would die soon but whoever saw a weasel was said to die within the year.
In Brittany, a number of traditions once surrounded the three main stages of rural life: birth, marriage and death. The conditions at birth were thought to bear an influence on the child’s future life. When a child was born at night, it was the role of the oldest woman present to examine the state of the sky at the precise moment of delivery. If the clouds surrounded the moon at that moment or were masking its face, the child was thought destined to one day be drowned or hanged. If a child was born under the new moon, it was fated to die a violent death but a girl born under a crescent moon was destined to be precocious in all things.
An old Breton superstition held that if your left ear tingled or your left nostril bled while undertaking a journey, you would meet with disaster. Conversely, good fortune lay ahead if your right ear tingled or your right nostril bled or you met a debauched woman in the morning.
In undertaking any important business, it was essential to take account of any signs encountered along the way as these would indicate whether your enterprise was likely to be successful or not. Misfortune was sure to strike if you chanced upon a dishevelled woman, a pregnant woman, a nun, a priest, a monk, a one-eyed man, a lame man, a blind man, a hare, a cat or a stag. However, you could draw great encouragement if you happened across a courtesan, a pigeon, a goose or a goat.
When a wedding procession encountered a funeral cortege on the way to church, the sex of the deceased was thought to indicate who, of the husband and wife, would die first. Similarly, during the ceremony itself, the relative strengths of the flames of the candles that were typically placed in front of the bride and groom were said to indicate which spouse would live longest. However, if one of the candles went out before the end of the service, it signalled the death of that spouse within a year.
If the church bell chimed to the same time as the bell that the altar boy rang at the moment of the elevation of the Host, it was a sign of death for one of the congregation attending that Mass. If the sound of the bell vibrated long after the bell had finished ringing, death was said to be hanging over someone nearby.
All misfortunes were thought announced by some omen but the most common related to death. If someone was taken, without cause, of a sudden shiver it was because death had just passed. If you were startled by a sudden sound or unexpected touch, it was because death, which had fallen on you, had just left you in order to take another.
It was once thought that no one died without someone close to them having been previously warned by some omen or other. These precursors of death were there for all to see but were disregarded or unremarked because they were not recognised for the warnings that they were. The person who was perceptive enough to recognise the omens of death was rarely the one threatened with death but had no way of knowing exactly whose death was being announced. If such an omen were noted in the morning, that indicated that the death would occur soon, within nine days. If noted in the evening, death might not call for as much as a year or more.
The noises of the night, for those that took care to listen, carried warnings for the wise. The clamour of dogs howling to each other, from one farm to another, was regarded a bad omen but if dogs howled alone at night it was to warn you that death was trying to approach the house. Sounds of creaking timber from the attic meant that one of your closest relatives was dying; a sudden noise on the table or on the walls of the boxed bed warned of a sudden death in the family. To hear falling crockery was a sign that death would fall upon a relative or friend while travelling. The sound of dripping water indicated that a seafaring relation was drowning. The creak of an axle in the road at night heralded the approach of the cart of death coming to take away the soul of the dying; if the sound passed, you had but a temporary reprieve from misery as to hear the squeak of death’s cart meant that someone close to you was fated to die soon.
Forgetting to sow all of the furrows in a field was another powerful omen. If the unseeded furrow was the longest in the field, death would strike the head of the family; if the furrow was the second longest, the mistress of the house would be claimed; if it was short, one of the children would be taken; if it was unremarkable, one of the labourers or one of the maids would die.
Dreams also had a role in forewarning of an impending death. To see someone carrying a load of dirty laundry in your dream was a sign that you would soon lose a loved one but if the laundry was white in places, it was a sign that this death would cause you little sorrow. If one dreamt of water, someone in the family would soon fall ill. If the water was clear, they would recover but they would die if the water appeared cloudy. If someone dreamt of losing a tooth at night, it was a sign that one of their loved ones had died or would do so soon. To see a horse in your dreams was another omen of death but not if the horses were white.
If someone in the house was sick with fever and demanded, despite their weakness, to change bed, they were not expected to live long. To learn whether someone sick was fated to die, some people put salt into the hand of the afflicted: if the salt melted, it was taken as a sign that they would inevitably succumb to their disease.
Even the freshly-cut flowers, placed on the bed where a dead person rested, had a silent forecast to make to those that paid attention. If the flowers withered once placed there, it was thought the soul of the deceased was damned; if they faded after a few moments, it was because the soul was in Purgatory and the longer the flowers took to fade, the less penance was necessary. If the eyes of the deceased, having been closed for the wake, reopened, it was to tell the mourners that the last hour of one of their number was approaching. If the left eye alone reopened, it was a sign that it was one of the near relatives that would soon follow to the grave.
In northern Brittany, wives who had, for some time, been without news of their sailor husbands, made a pilgrimage to the chapel of Petit Saint-Loup where they would light a candle at the saint’s statue. If the husband was well, the candle burned happily but if it glowed with a weak, intermittent flame and went out, it was a sign that the husband was dead. The death of a sailor at sea was said to be announced by gulls and curlews flapping their wings against the windows of his house.
Other omens announcing death were once closely associated with certain rituals here. In the far west of Brittany it was customary at New Year to butter as many pieces of bread as there were members of the household. The head of the family would then name each person and toss the bread into the air or upon the water of a sacred fountain. Whoever’s bread landed on the buttered side was sure to die within the year. On the morning of Midsummer’s Day, those people who, the night before, had jumped over the communal bonfire, would customarily visit the site to examine the ashes; a discernible footprint there was said to indicate who, if any, of these people would die within a year.
If a person was anxious to know how much longer they were to live, they had only to look into the water of the fountains of death in Plouigneau or Plouégat-Guérand at midnight on the first night of May. If an image of a skull was reflected by this magic mirror instead of a face, they knew that death was near. May Day was also the time to visit these fountains with an infant under one year of age; their feet were immersed in the water, if the child removed their feet it was taken as a sign that they would suffer an early death.
In other fountains, a child’s smock was placed in the water; if it sank it was said the child would die within the year. Another ritual performed at some fountains involved placing a cross, made of two sticks of willow, upon the water. If the cross floated, death was near but distant if it sank; the faster it sank indicated how much further that time would be.
We do not know how consistent or selective people once were in taking notice of omens and portents. Of course, each day any number of omens could remain unfulfilled but this did not discourage our ancestors who did not consider this fact a failure of the omens’ functioning mechanism. Any number of plausible explanations would have been offered to help interpret the situation; perhaps a contrary omen had been missed or the omen was meant for another, possibly the time of its fulfilment was more distant than thought. The absence of death itself would be but a temporary reprieve attributed to divine intervention or other powerful forces. The memories of the unrealised omens would fade and new omens carefully received in the time-honoured manner.