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The Black Dogs of Brittany

The black dog is a recurring image in folklore across the world. In Brittany, these sinister spectral beasts roamed the lonely places and, in many local legends, were closely associated with crossroads, springs and the old sunken pathways.

Several fountains and ponds were once said to have been the nocturnal haunts of black dogs, some headless, prowling in search of their former master; a fountain near Cléden was avoided at night as it was said to be the haunt of a fierce black dog or ki du in Breton. Many parishes in western Brittany are home to legends of fearful black dogs of unusual size with flaming red eyes. The enormous black dog that was thought to wander the roads around Pleyben was even said to have left no footprints behind it.

Described as a fierce black dog of imposing size, the red-eyed hell hound of Brittany was usually said to be the cursed reincarnation of evil souls who had returned to torment the living. However, such a dog was usually believed to be an exorcised spirit that had escaped the clutches of the exorcists.

The souls of the dead who had led a wicked life, particularly murderers and swindlers, were said not to undertake their penance as other souls did. Instead, they chose to amuse themselves by terrorising the living or causing mischief about the house or barn. For most people, living alongside such malevolent spirits proved impossible and it was not long before the priest was summoned to perform an exorcism.

Black Dog

Only a skilled priest, sure of his science, was believed able to defeat these spirits; some exorcisms were said to have taken hours of battling before the evil spirit was subdued enough to be conjured to pass into the body of a black dog. Tied around the dog’s neck, the priest’s stole kept the evil locked inside the body of the dog. It was then necessary for the priest to lead his charge from presbytery to presbytery until he reached the rector of Commana near the Monts d’Arrée in the west of Brittany.

At the heart of this mountain range lies a vast peat bog, the Yeun Elez; a desolate, windswept spot that boasts a swamp of unfathomable depth known as the Youdic (little porridge in Breton), reputed to be one of the gateways to Hell. It was into this bubbling morass that the two priests, at sunset, hurled the black dog. Some accounts say that the dog was entrusted to a strong man, especially hired for the task. 

Tales tell that the beasts resisted their descent to Hell with great fury; formidable tremors shook the ground and the air was torn by terrible clamours. Leaving the scene as quickly as possible, it was important that the exorcists resisted the temptation to look behind them as it was said that invisible arms would grab them and drag the living into the unseen depths of the dead.

If the exorcist was not quick enough in trapping the malevolent spirit within the dog or lost control of his stole while throwing the dog into the Youdic, it was said to run away and take shelter on Ménez Hom, the westernmost peak of the Black Mountains, before returning to its familiar haunts.

Mont Saint Michel de Brasparts
Mont Saint-Michel de Brasparts

Several high points which were once sites of pagan devotions now bear the name of Mont Saint-Michel and the sanctuaries that were built there under the invocation of this demon hunter were likely intended to supplant the ancient deities once worshipped on these places. Overshadowing the Youdic, Mont Saint-Michel de Brasparts was often said to be visited by Saint Michael the Archangel; his appearances motivated by the dogs’ furious barking. Saint Michael lowered his flaming sword towards the bog and peace returned to the land.

Many malevolent fiends were believed to materialize in the form of great black dogs and unfortunate animals of this type, which displayed characteristics likely to place them under suspicion, were once dragged to the Youdic and cast into its seething depths.

A black dog who wandered the swamp near Mont Saint-Michel de Brasparts was said to have formerly been a fairy who, at the death of the fabled giant Hok-Bras, was transformed into a beast. While the black dog seen in the vicinity of Plouzélambre was said to contain the spirit of the 6th century tyrant Rivod, who murdered his elder brother, Miliau, to usurp the throne of the Breton kingdom of Kernev; transformed into a black dog in order to expiate his crimes.

Occasionally, these sinister animals were also said to prowl the city streets, such as in Quimper, where at the end of the 18th century, people often fell into the Odet River, then without guard-rails. It was said that the Devil, in the guise of a big black dog, was pushing passers-by into the water. In the central town of Pontivy, a black dog was reputed to throw itself into the legs of travellers and push them into the Blavet River. Around Fougères in eastern Brittany, pregnant women were traditionally advised against venturing out of their homes between the evening and morning Angelus prayers, lest they encounter and be trampled by large black dogs.

Rabid Dog

Other superstitious beliefs once surrounded the black dog here; in the 19th century many Breton peasants believed that buried treasures were marked by the presence of a black dog and that the Devil used to take the form of a black barbet to slip into people’s houses and suck blood from the fingers of small children. In some parts of Brittany, the custom of amputating the tails of dogs was said to be a safeguard against witchcraft although many once believed that cutting off the tail removed the worm that resided there and that would eventually cause their death.

In western Brittany, stories were told of a ship manned by men and giant dogs. The men were reprobates guilty of horrible crimes; the dogs, demons set to guard over them and inflict on them a thousand tortures. Their sad vessel was said to wander ceaselessly from sea to sea, without entering port or casting anchor and condemned to do so until the Day of Judgement.

Dog Cart

The close association between the black dog and the supernatural stretches back to antiquity and has long been a potent image of infernal power; from the Hound of Hades in Greek mythology to Conan-Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. Demons often revealed themselves as black dogs and in Brittany it was popularly believed to serve as a witch’s familiar. Sometimes, witches and sorcerers were said to possess the ability to transform into the beast itself; a power also attributed to priests who were often believed to adopt this guise to marshal errant parishioners, particularly during Advent. Such beliefs survived into the 20th century in the neighbouring communes of Penvénan and Plougrescant which were said to have been terrorised by a priest, in the form of a black dog, during the 1930s and 1940s.

At the end of the 19th century, the French novelist Octave Mirbeau recounted how, when a young student at the Jesuit college in Vannes, he was terrorised by a priest with harrowing tales of a black dog. A less sinister tale tells of a country priest that was once summoned by the Bishop of Quimper who forbade him to practice his sorcery. As he left the Bishop’s Palace, a large black dog attached itself to him and would not be driven away. The animal was docile and so the priest entrusted the dog to his servant and told him to offer it to all the priests in the canton. Unfortunately, no priest agreed to take the dog and the servant was forced to return to the presbytery with it. His priest then ordered him to dig a pit and to lead the dog into it backwards. Having followed his master’s instructions, the man was astonished when he turned around to see the bishop emerging from the pit.

Many of the traditional Breton ballads collected from the oral tradition by folklorists in the middle of the 19th century associate the enchanter Merlin with a black dog; he collects his magical herbs in the company of such a beast and is even able to metamorphose into one.

Mandrake and dog
Pulling mandrake

A black dog also played an essential role in one of the rituals surrounding the gathering of that most potent of magic plants, mandrake, where it was necessary, at midnight, to tie the animal to the root of the plant. It was said that anybody who pulled a mandrake from the ground was condemned to death, as the plant shrieked hideously when uprooted; killing all who heard its pain. It was therefore recommended that a black dog be used to lift the root and to suffer death in order for the witch to secure her prize.

On the Crozon peninsula, a woman, reputed to have been a witch, died alone with no near relatives. As was customary, her neighbours were preparing her mortuary toilette while being careful not to disturb the big black dog she lived with that was lying at the foot of her bed. Suddenly another black dog entered the room and the two beasts took hold of the body, each by one arm and dragged the corpse out of the cottage and into the night. The old woman’s body was not recovered and the black dogs never seen again. It was said that the Devil came to take his maid away before the priest could attend and perform his prayers.

In many cultures, the black dog has long been a powerful harbinger of death and similar echoes can be found in the folklore of Brittany where meeting a black dog typically heralded some misfortune ahead, particularly for fishermen. If the dog rolled on the ground it was to announce the wind; if it bit the grass, rain was imminent, while its bark heralded the near death of a close relative of the one who heard it.

Hunting dogs

It was not only black dogs that were feared here; mad dogs too were once dreaded. While rabies may historically have claimed fewer victims than other diseases such as typhoid or dysentery, its scourge was highly feared and held a special place in the popular imagination. Rabies was endemic throughout France until early in the last century and the bite of a rabid animal was usually fatal. The initial phase of the disease might begin days or even months after the infected saliva had entered the puncture wound; delay being due to the slow passage of the virus along the sensory nerves to the spinal cord and brain.

Early symptoms of rabies resemble those of many less serious diseases; aches and pains, tiredness and a loss of appetite. The onset of clinical anxiety and depression usually herald the so-called furious phase of the disease, when the patient tends to experience increased sensitivity to stimuli, delirium, hallucinations, insomnia and hydrophobia. Patients scream in rage during periods of wild distress which alternate with periods of relative calm; both constantly interspersed with bouts of violent vomiting. Typically, within about a week of the onset of the first symptoms, the patient descends into a coma and inevitably dies.

One traditional reaction to meeting a mad dog involved making the sign of the cross while reciting: “Sick dog, go on your way! Get to the field and break your teeth. The cross and the banner arrive with Saint Tugen” or “Mad dog, change course! Here is the banner and the cross and Saint Gildas.”  These two local saints were most popularly invoked by those seeking protection against rabid dogs and rabies in Lower Brittany where the disease was known as “the evil of Saint Tugen” or “the evil of Saint Gildas”.

Fountain of Saint Tugen
Fountain of Saint Tugen

In the west of the region, it was said that, before dying, rabid dogs were obliged to confess their behaviour to Saint Tugen, at the 16th century chapel devoted to him in Pimelin. Their confession was believed to allow the saint an opportunity to contain any harm that they might have caused.

If one was bitten by a dog suspected of carrying rabies, it was necessary to get ahead of the beast and run to Saint Tugen’s chapel to seek his intersession. It was crucial to reach the chapel before the dogs as they were believed to lie to the saint, in an attempt to hide their wrongdoings so as to avoid the punishment they deserved. Once there, one had to circle the saint’s fountain three times before looking into its water. If a face was reflected, one was reassured; the saint had heard the supplications and answered them. If the water reflected the image of a dog, it was because the animal had already passed by and had successfully hidden its crime from Saint Tugen; the saint was powerless to intervene and the patient was doomed.

In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, in many churches dedicated to Saint Hubert, it was once customary to apply a piece of iron known as “the saint’s key”, heated in a fire, to the bites made by rabid dogs.  At Pimelin, although the key, in the form of an awl, is eminently suitable for deep cauterization, there are no records that indicate a similar practice. Here, the saint’s key was popularly used to prick holes in the small bread buns that were sold on the day of the Pardon. Once blessed, these loaves were believed to keep indefinitely and were said to help protect against rabies and to cure toothache.

Rabies Key

However, the main use of the saint’s key was to bless, by its touch, the small lead keys, known as “the keys of Saint Tugen” that were also sold to pilgrims on the day of the Pardon. These souvenirs were widely carried and were thrown in front of presumed rabid dogs; the dog pounced on the key and this distraction gave one time to escape.

According to tradition, people with rabies were locked in the “Saint’s Cell”; a dark, narrow room near the entrance to the church. It is reported that between their fits of rage and despair, they begged the saint to ease their last moments. Public prayers, often interrupted by the vociferations of these unfortunates, were said for them outside the church.

Local tradition also speaks of a rather more barbaric custom. Those infected with rabies were tied to a wooden stake erected in the square near the church, receiving Holy Communion at the end of a wooden slat.  When in the grip of the furious stage of the disease, these unfortunates were suffocated between two quilts loaded down with heavy objects by their family and neighbours thus ending their appalling suffering. This grim practice was still noted at the beginning of the 19th century.

In other parts of Brittany, other saints were popularly invoked to protect against or to cure rabies, like Saint Hubert. In the east of the region, Saint Méen was invoked; in the south, Saint Bieuzy. Eating bread soaked in the waters of the saint’s fountain at Bieuzy-Lanvaux was said to cure rabies, while the water of Saint Thégonnec’s fountain near Plogonnec was thought to heal bites. In other areas, those bitten by a dog suspected of carrying rabies visited the nearest fountain devoted to Saint Gildas and looked into the mirror of the water; if the image of a dog was detected in the reflection, infection was confirmed.

Woodcut of rabid dog

Today, we might find it difficult to accept our ancestors’ superstitious beliefs but it is important to remember that consulting the sacred springs was likely as effective as some of the practices recommended by the doctors of the day. One of the medical procedures suggested to establish whether a bite was likely diseased involved rubbing the wound with a piece of bread and feeding this to a hen; if the hen refused the bread, the patient was declared infected.

It was popularly believed that being by the seashore reduced the effect of rabies in humans but it was also a place where dogs were said to contract the disease if they drank the foam left by the outgoing waves. Although, it was said that a mad dog would be cured if it swallowed a fresh oyster. The disease was poorly understood and trusting to the saints offered as much prospect of relief as the cures touted by medical professionals who, at the turn of the 19th century, recommended sea bathing and drinking a potion composed of wine, water and several different herbs as a remedy. Another medical treatment advised making an omelette of eggs, dog roses and powdered walnuts; applying half this omelette to the bite, the patient ate the other half in expectation of being cured.

In closing, I would like to highlight a once popular folk belief relating to dogs that carries with it no sinister connotations whatever. In times past, in Breton farmhouses, the stone of the threshold and the stone of the fireplace were said to be connected by what was known as ′′the dog trail′′; a symbolic representation of the journey taken by every soul of the household which, embodied, entered through the door and then, discarnate, left through the chimney on the day of their death.

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

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