The windswept moors and uncultivated lands of Brittany have long been linked with the ghostly activity of the dead. However, 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 for us mortals.
Many stories, from across the region, warn of the dangers that await those traversing the lonely places after dark. The Breton nights belonged to the black dogs and to the korrigans; a race of capricious magical dwarves who emerge from their subterranean domain to haunt the moors and the ancient sites between dusk and dawn. They amuse themselves by disturbing the peace of the countryside and playing tricks on passing travellers, never missing an opportunity to entice them to join in their dance, never suffering them to stop until, overcome by fatigue, they fall dead of exhaustion. Should a man offend them, he might be forced to dance to death or even consigned to an underground dungeon without any hope of deliverance.
Although heard of less than the korrigans, the tall, spectral women known as the phantom washerwomen of the night (kannerez-noz in Breton) were far more feared and to encounter them was often fatal. Condemned to forever haunt the washing places and wash their linen at night to atone for their past sins, they entreated unwary men for help in wringing-out their washing. If given reluctantly, they were said to break the man’s arm; if help was refused, they pulled the unwilling man into the water and drowned him. It was believed necessary for those who aided in wringing the laundry to turn in the same direction as the washerwomen; for if the assistant turned in an opposite direction, he had his arms crushed in an instant.
The origins of the creature known as Yann Gant y Tan (translated as John with the Fire) are far more obscure than those of the korrigans or the Phantom Washerwomen. Found only in the west of the region, Yann Gant y Tan is usually described as a hairy demon who roams the nights with lighted candles burning like torches on the five fingers of his right hand which he constantly spins to create a virtual wheel of fire. Unfortunately, it is unclear why he engages in such nocturnal activity, save for the pleasure of frightening any poor soul who may chance to meet him.
One popular tradition speaks of him running away, with all speed, until stopping suddenly only to leave, amidst howls of derisive laughter, the unfortunate wretch who followed him, alone in utter darkness. However, he is not always portrayed as malicious; it was said that he might appear and provide candles to those travellers who had none, thus lighting the way home for those at risk in the night. It was once believed that a sure way to ward off the appearance of Yann Gant y Tan was to leave a gold coin or chain on a travellers post; this offering was thought to distract his attentions, at least until another day.
Perhaps the most numerous nocturnal creatures found in the folklore of Brittany are those known as night criers (hopper-noz in Breton) who typically scream out to travellers in order to cause them harm or else to warn them of imminent danger. The criers seem to possess a multitude of forms; sometimes described as demons, korrigans or the ghosts of the dead, or, being shape-shifters, able to assume the form of more fantastic spectres loosely resembling human or animal shapes.
The night criers are rarely seen but they can be heard howling on the moors, sometimes they imitate the call of the farmers or take the voice of a young girl. Their whistles at night were said to beguile the traveller hastening for home; whoever dared to answer was fatally confronted by the creature after three answers. Although usually portrayed as a lumbering giant, the hopper-noz could surprise the unwary. Near the town of Saint-Goulven, local legend tells of a farmer, walking alone with his dog one night, who was startled as his dog suddenly recoiled, growling fiercely. He then realised that he was surrounded by the legs of a gigantic being whose body was lost in the shadows: the hopper-noz.
Like the korrigans, the hopper-noz was often blamed for entangling the manes of horses during the night or was a scapegoat to explain why some horses in the barn were found sweating in the morning. To protect their animals from the mischief of the hopper-noz, it was once customary for farmers to place a cross made of rosehip branches in the stable.
Another nocturnal wanderer is the spectre known as the bugul-noz (shepherd of the night in Breton) or bugel-noz (child of the night); the words have been used inter-changeably for so long that we will never know which was originally applied or whether two, once distinct, traditions have merged over time. Many tales say the bugul-noz is clad all in white and that he carries a lantern; he appears, at first, the size of a korrigan, as small as a child but as you look at him, he increases in size until he becomes of a gigantic stature before disappearing. It was said that he never presented himself before people who carried a light; the eyes of the bugul-noz were wounded by the light made by the hand of man. The only way to protect oneself from him was to take refuge behind a door whose horizontal and vertical bars formed a cross, or else to stand in a ploughed field sown with blessed grain.
Other stories surrounding the bugul-noz describe him as wearing an enormous hat and tell that he is only encountered near a crossroads or ford between midnight and two o’clock in the morning. If one heard it whistling in the darkness, one had to guard against whistling back upon pain of death. Its cries lured lost men and children into deadly traps but sometimes warned of dangers. When the weary traveller calls to him for aid, he appears dressed in a long white cape, which he throws over the suppliant; who, safe beneath its folds, becomes invisible to the passage of the Ankou, the servant of death and harvester of souls.
As with most of the supernatural beings that inhabit the Breton night, the bugul-noz cannot be definitively described. That after all is the nature of supernatural beings. To perhaps explain away the many attributes once attributed to it, the bugul-noz was known as a shape-shifter and is depicted in some tales as a werewolf who snatches young shepherds. Some have suggested that as an involuntary werewolf the bugul-noz was once a man condemned to expiate his earthly sins. A more sympathetic interpretation of the old legends tries to portray the bugul-noz as a benevolent spirit who guides the shepherds safely home after dark but this overlooks its long connection to the demon known as Teuz, recorded here in the 18th century, which bears a remarkable similarity to the bugul-noz.
Another noted shape-shifter, more commonly noted in the north and east of the region, is the mourioche; a malicious spirit able to transform itself into any animal that it chooses. Although it often presents itself to people in the form of a cow, pig or sheep, it is most often noted in the guise of a horse, particularly a yearling colt with a pair of muscular arms. The mourioche appears at night, waiting at a crossroads for the unwary traveller, its spine stretching to accommodate as many people as necessary. It took those foolish enough to mount it, straight to their doom; propelling them into a river or an abyss. At other times, it wrestles passers-by, grappling them with its strong arms and throwing them into water-filled ditches.
Like other creatures of the night, one should never speak to the mourioche lest it mistreat you cruelly and drown you in a river. The mourioche’s only weakness is that it is confounded by anyone who does not fear him. One story tells that it took a tailor into a lake but when the tailor threatened to cut its ears off with his scissors, the mourioche immediately returned him to dry ground and safety.
During the nights of the new moon, it was said to follow people along the road, changing shape every time they turned to look at it, before jumping on a man’s back until he collapsed from exhaustion. However, one of the cruellest pranks the mourioche would play was to possess the body of a recently deceased relative to scream insults at the grieving family and chase the children present at the wake.
Legends differ regarding the origins of the mourioche. Some tell that it was once a person, versed in the dark arts, who sold their soul for a magical potion; others that it was a person afflicted by a curse similar to that of the werewolves, having the ability to change shapes but without control of his actions, and there are even those who claim that it is the Devil himself.
Similar attributes were once attached to werewolves here; creatures that have formed a part of Breton folklore since the earliest times. While the werewolf’s reputation remains well-known, there are a few intriguing old references to sinister creatures that share some of their characteristics but who have now effectively disappeared from the popular consciousness. An account from the 13th century tells of a vampire who appeared at night as an old woman riding a wolf in search of the blood of a one year old child to drink. Some sources from the 17th century talk of chimeral beasts known as barbaous which were used to frighten little children in order to keep them away from dangerous places. Some early 18th century works also mention witches known as graguez-vleiz or wolf-women who, under the guise of beautiful women, dismembered and tore little children to pieces; a trait also shared here with evil creatures known as lamies.
In Brittany, there once existed a widespread belief that the drowned whose bodies were not found and buried in consecrated ground, raged forever along the shores, begging for a Christian burial. It should therefore be no surprise that the coasts also featured their own criers known as the krierien-noz (night screamers); the lost souls of the drowned, wandering and lamenting among the rocks and treacherous coastal reefs.
One of the most popularly found coastal criers was Yannick an Aod (Little John of the Shore) whose calls were heard all along the Breton coast at night, imitating the cries of people in distress in hopes of attracting people into the water and their doom. The Bretons of the coast took a typically stoic approach to the howl of Yannick an Aod; telling their children to leave Yannick in peace and, on no account, to tease him by answering his plaintive cries; those impudent enough to do so, risked certain death. It was said that if you answered him once, Yannick an Aod jumped half the distance separating you, in a single leap. If you answered him a second time, he would jump half the remaining distance. If you answered a third time, he snapped your neck as if it were a twig.
A distinctly localised night screamer was once noted on the Quiberon Peninsula. Here, the spirit of a young man known as Pautre Penn ar Lo (the boy of Penn ar Lo) offered those travellers, trapped by the tide, the opportunity to cross the water on his back but invariably threw his passengers into the water; his mocking laughter ringing out loud. A slightly less malicious crier was noted across the Bay of Quiberon on the Île d’Arz where the bugul an aod (shepherd of the shore) was said to cut the moorings of boats at harbour.
On the nights of a red moon, the jibilinen-noz (widows of the night) were said to adorn the graves of widows whose husbands were lost at sea with a sprig of boxwood. Reputed to be half-korrigan and half demon, they served as familiars to the witches of the Île de Sein. On the same island, the begou-noz (night mouths) were said to repeat, at night, the words spoken on the wind.
Some 50km to the south, on the Île d’Ouessant, the danserienn-noz (night dancers) were reported to invite passers-by to join in their cliff-top dances, in exchange for fabulous treasures. It was said that the only way for a good Christian to survive the dance was to stick a knife into the ground and graze against it at each round of dance but never to go beyond it. If one succeeded, any wish they made was granted but failure resulted in broken kidneys! On the other hand, the Diaoul-ruz (red devil) of Ouessant was said to be benign, its calls warned sailors of approaching storms and told them to secure their boats.
Some of the creatures that once formed part of the family of criers were clearly designed to explain away the inexplicable sounds carried on the night winds, such as the c’hwiteller-noz (night whistler), the beker-noz (night beater) and the biniou-noz (night bagpipes). It was especially important to resist the temptation to return the whistle of the c’hwiteller-noz as it invited misfortune and risked summoning the Devil himself. The appearance of the, wonderfully named, pilour-lann (moor crusher) was especially noted in the days preceding a storm when it was said to strike the gable end of houses with a large wooden mallet.
The spectral illumination known as tan-noz (night fire) was often attributed to the korrigans or to witches but it was sometimes portrayed as a maleficent spirit in its own right. The tan-noz, effectively acting as a wreckers’ fire lit on the cliffs, attracted ships, fighting for survival on the stormy sea, to meet their destruction on the deadly rocks off shore. On Brittany’s southern coast, the tan-noz was also said to indicate the location where a sinister black boat, laden with ghosts, was moored. Once the korrigans had lured passers-by aboard, the ship raised sail for unknown lands, condemning its passengers to forever roam the waves.
In some Breton tales, the tan-noz was sometimes used to explain the nocturnal lights, known as Will-o’-the-wisp in English, which beguile and mislead the hurried traveller. Usually, these lights were called the letern-noz (night lantern) and were often credited to lamps carried by the korrigans to lure the unwary to some treacherous bog or concealed abyss. However, some tales tell that the lights are in fact the candles carried by the ghosts of women condemned to walk the nights of eternity to expiate their sins. In some regions, the goulou-noz (night lights) were said to be spectral hands that held candles to warn the traveller of dangerous quagmires.
Only misfortune awaited those people who foolishly followed the flickering lights of the letern-noz but in southern Brittany it was said that anyone who gazed too long upon such ethereal lights would soon go blind. On the northern coast, the lights seen around the Île de Batz were supposed carried by korrigans, attempting to lead astray those who had the imprudence to follow them in hopes that they would drown in the sea. In eastern Brittany, wisps were generally said to be elves who helpfully illuminated the feet of those walking near streams and ponds.
The phenomena of ghostly White Ladies are noted in almost a dozen sites across Brittany and while their appearance might frighten the night time traveller, they differ fundamentally from the other creatures of the night highlighted here; they are the ghosts of dead people unable to pass on to the afterlife due the tragic circumstances of their death.
Here in Brittany, it was thought that the dead did not immediately reach the otherworld but stayed in the vicinity of the living for nine generations. Such ghosts did not carry any connotations of good or evil, as their behaviour in death was thought to mirror their behaviour in life. Bound to their former haunts, the ghosts of the dead continued to tread the byways of Brittany during the hours of darkness; even if they could not always be seen, the sound of their passage could be clearly heard. However, it was said that a moonstone allowed you to see the ghosts of the dead but it was not advised, for it would risk their wrath; the dead feared being seen as it would require them to restart their penance from the beginning.
While some accounts of the Phantom Washerwomen portray them as supernatural demons, most accounts identify them as the spirits of women once known in the locality or as anonymous ghosts condemned by God to wash the same laundry over and over again. Despite looking and sounding like ordinary women and not possessing any special supernatural powers, their treatment in folklore is markedly different from that of other ghosts. Perhaps, as some have suggested, they are the distorted spirits of ancient water deities long demonised under the forces of Christianity?
Similar ancient origins have been postulated about some of Brittany’s other supernatural creatures, such as the korrigans and the fairies. However, establishing the development and characteristics of these beings throws up its own challenges; traditions about the nature of the magical family of korrigans and fairies differ, sometimes markedly, between localities. Similarly, the naming conventions are wildly inconsistent from place to place; well over fifty distinct names for these creatures were noted in popular use in the late-19th century in Lower Brittany alone. Such variability makes identifying the core features rather difficult, especially when distinctions can be further blurred when korrigans, fairies and the spirits of the dead are often interchangeable characters in the same tale.
Creatures such as the hopper-noz, the bugul-noz and the mourioche were said to possess similar attributes and haunted the same ground. Perhaps these fantastic beings once had very distinct natures whose boundaries became merged over time. If one sets aside the tales of shape-shifting, they seem to have no more supernatural power than the spirits of the dead. They are thus not as clearly distinguishable from the dead as are the korrigans or the fairies and yet it seems that, according to tradition, they never once lived the life of men; it seems they have always been wandering spirits and while they never possessed a human body, like the Phantom Washerwomen they nevertheless assume human form.
Possibly all these supernatural beings were originally of the dead and it was only the individual names they received or the particular functions with which the popular imagination invested them that first separated them from the host of the dead. Over time, this gap widened, more and more deeply, until people no longer thought of them as souls of the dead but as supernatural spirits. It is not too much of a leap to see, in Yannick an Aod and Pautre Penn ar Lo, the folk memories of real drowned men who, over time, became separated in the local consciousness from the other dead souls. Eventually, they came to symbolise all drowned men and slowly morphed into supernatural spirits that haunt the shores and claim the unwary fisherman.
Despite their different origins, features and appearances, all the creatures of the Breton night seem to share several characteristics: they should be avoided at all costs; if confronted, they must be accorded due respect; they should not be taunted and will not suffer insults in any way. Forgetting any of these precepts risks exposing oneself to their wrath. Of course, the surest way to avoid these creatures was to stay indoors and not venture out at night, and perhaps they were once nothing more than tall-tales told by anxious parents keen to dissuade their children from wandering outside after dark or from approaching the water’s edge. Whatever their genesis, the creatures of the Breton night, transmitted, distorted and exaggerated from generation to generation still provide an intriguing mix of the real and the supernatural.