Tales of ghosts and ghostly apparitions form a rich vein in the folklore of Brittany although, in the Breton tradition, there was once no significant separation between the living and the dead; both were seen as dwelling in two discrete worlds that were in perpetual relation with one another. While the dead might have been feared, so too was a lightning storm, and people were no more surprised to hear the sound of the dead rustling the fallen leaves as they walked than they were to hear the lark sing.
It was traditionally believed that the dead were doomed to return to the land of the living three times. The souls of the damned were thought lost forever, confined to Hell for eternity although sometimes a soul might fleetingly return to the land of the living to reproach a loved one, beseeching them to change their ways in order to avoid a particular fate. Similarly, those who had secured salvation and a place in Heaven stayed there, rarely visiting the corporeal world. However, a few legends do contain spirits who seem to have returned from Heaven for the sole purpose of guiding or protecting the story’s hero or heroine through the myriad perils that are placed in the way of their quest.
Those people who died of violent death were said to be forced to remain between life and death until the time that they would have naturally lived had elapsed. The spirits trapped between Heaven and Hell were believed to freely roam the land; the hedgerows and seashores were heavy with wandering souls awaiting divine judgement. These were thought of as tormented souls and regarded with a veneration that fondly combined feelings of fear and pity. Such spirits were said to enter, at will, the dwellings of those they loved and acted as beneficial protectors of the home. They were welcome visitors and it was thought proper to leave a little fire smouldering in the grate in case the dead returned to the hearth of their former home for a little warmth and people took care to remove the tripod from the fireplace overnight, lest the dead sat on it and burned themselves.
In the Brittany of yesteryear, the dead were never far removed from the living but it was commonly held that the veil of separation between the living and the dead was at its most vulnerable on those solemn days when the dead of each locality congregated, namely; the eve of Midsummer’s Day, Christmas Eve and the eve of All Saints’ Day. On these nights, the dead wandered freely in the land of the living, returning to their former homes and haunts. On Halloween, the table was especially covered with a white cloth and food was left for the dead to enjoy overnight. The household would retire early so that they would not chance to see the dead feasting as any interaction with the dead was to be avoided.
During the hours of daylight, the land belonged to the living but nightfall heralded the dominion of the dead. In some parts of Brittany, the hours of darkness were further refined; in the west of the region, the ghosts of the dead were said to favour the hours between ten o’clock at night and two in the morning but coastal regions held that the dead reigned between the depths of midnight and dawn’s first glow. In eastern Brittany, the dead, for some reason, seemed to have had a particular affinity for the nights that fell on a Tuesday.
If one was foolhardy enough to be abroad during the hours of darkness, certain activities were ill advised. For instance, it was said to be dangerous to whistle at night as it attracted demons as well as the dead and there is a tale from Upper Brittany that relates how a man travelling home one night whistled, to keep up his spirits, only to hear a distant echo of his tune. However, his ears soon distinguished that the echo was nothing of the kind; the tune being whistled back to him was clearer, sharper and getting steadily closer. Thinking someone was playing a trick on him, our nocturnal wanderer was struck dumb with terror when he discovered the Devil himself on his tail.
In the west of Brittany, whistling was also to be avoided at night, lest one expose themselves to the wrath of the dead. It was also crucial to resist the urge to turn your head if you chanced to hear some noise behind you, for you risked seeing a ghost and your own misfortune. The ghosts of the dead trod the byways and paths of Brittany; the sound of their passage or even their murmurings could be clearly heard, even if they could not always be seen. However, the dry patches on an otherwise wet road always betrayed their presence.
Working in the fields after dusk was also an activity likely to bring unhappiness upon the farmer; it was said to attract the Devil and to anger the dead. In Upper Brittany, one tale told of a man who, anxious to complete his task, continued to sow buckwheat during the setting sun. He wisely heeded the warning of the dead not to encroach upon the time reserved for them when he heard their cautionary cry: “Leave the night to whom it belongs!”
If one had no option but to travel at night, it was necessary to follow the path and not deviate from it and on no account be tempted to follow the flickering lights of the will-o’-the-wisp. It was said in southern Brittany that anyone who gazed too long upon such spectral illuminations would lose their sight. In another part of the region, it was said that such ethereal lights were candles carried by white-clad girls who were cursed to walk the nights of eternity for having utilised the candles blessed at Candlemas in a profane manner.
To protect oneself from ghosts, several practices were once traditionally advised. In addition to carrying a rosary, a lighted lantern was said to deter the spirits of the dead from approaching too closely as their eyes were thought wounded by light made by the hands of the living. Although, the most powerful weapon that one could carry to safeguard oneself against a malevolent ghost were the trappings of your labour; it was thought no evil could befall those who carried the instruments of their work.
Another way to shield oneself from ghosts was by challenging them directly with the formula: “If you come from God, tell me your desire; if you come from the Devil, go on your way as I go mine.” However, a solo traveller was said to have no right to address a ghost; this might only be attempted if there were three of you. It was said that even the most ill-intentioned ghost was powerless to act against three people travelling together, all of whom having been formally baptised. In some parts of Brittany, this provision was further refined to say that the three travellers needed to be of the same sex and age group; if all these conditions were not met, the ghost retained its power. Anyone foolish enough to insult a ghost could expect to feel, before their quick death, the wrathful supernatural power they possessed.
Many of the ghost tales that have come down to us from the oral tradition were collected throughout the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Often, these stories are of a strikingly personal nature, covering events witnessed by the narrator or some other reliable local witness whose testimony was beyond reproach.
One ghost story that is found throughout Brittany, albeit with slight variations, is that of a man encountered on the road, struggling under the weight of a large stone he is carrying. This is a man who, in life, had cheated his neighbours and moved one of the marker stones that, in times past, delineated the boundaries of a landholding. For improving his lot at the expense of his friends, this farmer is forced, in death, to carry the offending stone on his back until he returns it to its rightful place. Unfortunately, he cannot remember where that should be and assails any living soul he meets with a cry of: “Where will I put this?” A question he is doomed to ask until he is met with the response: “Return it where you found it!”
Some of the marked variations of this tale say that the farmer can only hope for the curse to be lifted in the hundred and first year after his death; or that the cheated landowner alone could deliver him by personally indicating where the stone should be set. Still another version says that the ghost’s burden could only be lifted if the stone was replaced in the presence of a witness, such as in the legal act of demarcation.
In northern Brittany, ghostly priests, with faces as pale as the white garb they were said to wear, were sometimes sighted at night in the neighbourhoods of Plancoët and Pléven but only by unmarried women. Perhaps such reports were manifestations of mass-suggestion associated with an over-active imagination and the trunks of birch trees; perhaps not. The 14th century castle in nearby La Hunaudaye is also said to be haunted by a spirit popularly known as le soufflou (the blower) while the ancient forest that surrounds this ruined castle contains a much older legend; it is reputed to be home to a man, dressed in red, who haunts, in death, the spirit of a former lord of the castle who had, in life, murdered his family.
An oak, long since fallen, in the forest of Loudéac was once said to have been haunted by a young woman. The legend tells that a local lad promised a maid a pair of beautiful shoes if she would meet him under the tree at midnight. The girl left for her rendezvous but failed to return; a search the following day discovered her blood-stained headdress and clogs at the foot of the tree. From that time onwards, sometimes, at midday, a plaintive voice could be heard coming from the depths of the tree crying: “Give me my shoes!” Another forest in the south of Brittany was reputed to be the home to a ghostly deer but any young man who happened to see it was fated to die on his wedding day.
The bridge over the Elorn River at Plougastel is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young woman wearing a wedding dress. The legend tells that this is the spirit of a lady abandoned by her prospective groom on her wedding day; in her despair she took her own life by throwing herself off the 30 metre high bridge. At midnight, she is said to display her disgust for the fickleness of men by distracting those driving over the bridge or appearing inside their vehicles and screaming in order to cause an accident. This is not a ghost of any antiquity; the bridge was opened only in 1930 and was then the largest concrete bridge in the world.
Brittany also has its share of more traditional but no less tragic, ‘white lady’ ghosts; at the ruined Château de Montafilan near Corseul, a white lady walks the battlements at night before disappearing into the subterranean passages where she can be heard counting coins and crying. This sorrowful shadow is reputed to be that of a lady once sold in marriage who has returned from the grave to claim the blood money that was exchanged for her happiness.
About 50km to the south, the woods surrounding the medieval Château de Trecesson are the haunt of another white lady who is reported to sport a muddy wedding dress. Legend tells us that this is the ghost of a noble lady who was buried alive on her wedding day in the autumn of 1750; murdered by her two brothers for having agreed a match that they felt dishonoured the family. A poacher is said to have witnessed the deed which was soon reported to the lord of the castle; disinterred, the lady was found alive but sadly never regained consciousness and died shortly thereafter.
Continuing our southward journey, the stunning Château de Largoët, whose imposing keep is the tallest in France, once saw the future King of England, Henry VII, held captive within its walls in 1474. However, it is not the ghost of a vengeful Tudor monarch that haunts this place but a white lady wearing a bloodied dress. Said to stalk the surrounding forest, the ghost is thought to be a former lady of the castle who killed herself upon the death of her lover, a knight who was slain defending her. The white lady is sometimes reported in the company of another ghost, so, perhaps the lovers are reunited in death.
Returning to the north of Brittany, the majestic ruins of the once mighty Château de Tonquédec are home to a white lady who walks balefully around the summits of the medieval towers at night. Little is known of this spectral figure; some say that she is the ghost of a watchful Huguenot who once took refuge in the castle and is warning those who would listen of some impending disaster.
In many Breton tales, the appearance of ghosts is often motivated by a request that they have to make to the living; they often appear to claim the fulfilment of a vow or to honour one. There are also people who are condemned to return to earth for a determined period of time to expiate their sins by a posthumous penance such as the farmer carrying the marker stone or the ghosts of priests begging for alms, condemned to wander the land until they have collected the money for masses for which they were once paid but did not say.
The nocturnal apparitions are often harbingers of death; such as in the tale of a woman whose brother was ill. Returning home from the market one evening, she saw her brother dancing in front of her on the road. She called out to him but receiving no response, she said a prayer and he promptly disappeared. Approaching the doorway of her house, she again saw him dancing whereupon she prayed and he again disappeared. On entering the house, she found her brother dead.
Sometimes the dead have other messages to deliver to their loved ones. One story tells of a young woman who lost her infant son to sickness; inconsolable with grief, she mourned his passing fiercely for many years. Concerned at her declining health, her neighbours successfully convinced her to speak to the local priest who advised her to sit outside her house at midnight on a certain night so that she might see the parade of the dead and speak again to her beloved son.
On the prescribed evening, the woman waited anxiously and was mesmerised as the dead of the parish slowly shuffled down the abandoned path near her house. This long chain of ghosts paid her no heed as they passed by, gradually fading from sight. Alas, she had not been able to catch sight of her son and the distraught woman was about to return home when she heard the fall of unsteady feet. Rounding the corner, far removed from the body of the main procession, she saw a solitary figure struggling to walk under the weight of the two heavy pails of water it carried. Recognising this poor wretch as her son, she noticed that he was shivering violently and was drenched from head to toe: “My dear boy, what has happened to you, why do you walk alone in this state?” “Mother, the tears that you shed for me, I am doomed to carry them all. Please release me from this; please stop crying for me!”
Many legends tell of vast frights of ghosts that congregate in certain places to await their deliverance from the confines of the earth. In the far west of Brittany, the waters of the Baie des Trépassés are full of the souls of drowned mariners who, on Christmas Eve, are said to raise their heads above the water and with outstretched arms, beg the living for a proper burial. Inland, it was said that you could hear the wails of the dead near the Yeun Elez bog in the heart of the Monts d’Arrée; a forlorn place traditionally held to be one of the gateways to Hell. Sometimes, at midnight, the baleful sounds of the biniou (Breton bagpipe) were reported hereabouts but with no sign of any musician, the ghostly notes were held to be a call from the dead, inviting you to join them.
While the deserted islands, desolate moors and uncultivated lands of Brittany have long been closely associated with the ghostly activity of the dead; the beings that traditionally inhabit these areas in Breton folklore are the malevolent children of the night. For it is not only the dead who inhabit the gloom; dangerous and evil beings, who are not of the race of men, roam abroad during the hours of darkness and to encounter them could be fatal to mere mortals such as we.