The origins of many once popular superstitions and beliefs will forever elude us but we can be fairly sure that most have their beginnings in humanity’s attempts to make sense of the world around it or to propitiate an uncaring deity and to solicit better fortune. When ignorance and fear were faced with danger, our ancestors struggled for understanding. Little wonder therefore that the belief in the existence of spirits sympathetic or antagonistic to people’s daily struggles gave rise to superstitions. Surrounded on all sides by forces that seemed incomprehensible, people tried prayers and practices they hoped would compel nature to look favourably upon them.
Predicting the future, inviting good luck and warding off the bad, protecting the family and livestock against disease, ensuring a good harvest were constant concerns. To our ancestors, the world around them offered signs that, if understood and interpreted correctly, predicted the future. Likewise, secret rituals were developed in order to induce benevolent treatment which, over time, became popular, albeit irrational, superstitious practices.
Some Breton omens announcing impending good fortune are found in other parts of France and Europe, such as finding a used horseshoe or accidentally stepping in animal excrement but many are uniquely Breton and even exclusive to particular regions within Brittany where someone sneezing to your right was regarded as an auspicious omen and people customarily leapt over the embers of the Midsummer bonfire in expectation of receiving good luck over the year ahead.
To bring good luck into one’s household it was advised to bake cakes that would be shared and eaten amongst the whole family on Saint-Corentin’s Day; one of the Seven Founding Saints of Brittany, his feast day is on 12 December. However, it was important that these cakes were formed in the shape of a tricorne as it was thought that the saint wore such a hat. This is highly unlikely but probably helps us to date the origins of this superstition to the late 17th or early 18th century.
Good fortune was assured to anyone able to recite the words “Meiz, Tout, Verdun” upon sighting a shooting star but this ritual was only held effective if the plunging star remained visible throughout the complete incantation. For those with lightning fast reactions, any wish that could be formulated aloud while the star fell were sure to be fulfilled.
Anyone who wanted to be certain of winning at games, particularly games of chance such as cards or dice, was thought required to pass the candle or lamp three times around the table or barrel that was to be used for the game, in order to be assured of fine fortune and success. Similarly, when taken in a bowl of cider or lambig, the small metal particles resulting from having ground a copper coin were said to make the drinker of this draught unbeatable in any competition; whether it be gouren (Breton wrestling), a horse race or a game of cards.
Possession of a hangman’s rope was also said to bring on good luck, particularly to game-players, and protected one against all dangers. Touching this object to one’s temple was held to cure even the most painful migraine, while those who carried a piece of this rope in their pocket were preserved from toothache. However, securing a piece of this rope might have posed some challenges as a Breton tradition said that it brought bad luck to unhook the rope from a hanged man.
When moving into a new home, in order to attract good fortune and happiness, it was recommended to place, in each corner, a small bag containing a piece of bread and a little salt. Similarly, domestic good fortune could be encouraged by arranging one’s marriage for one of the most propitious days, said to be Monday and Tuesday or on a lucky date. Seven was seen as the luckiest number as it was composed of three, being the base, and four, which is the square. Likewise, twelve, which is equal to three times four, was also viewed as a lucky number here; both the numbers three and twelve were also regarded as lucky numbers by the Romans and Jews of antiquity. It also brought good fortune if the new bride danced with the poorest beggar attending her wedding feast.
The umbilical cord of a child was a lucky charm for both the child and the mother and it was not unknown for some mothers to sew it into the hems of their children’s clothes. The umbilical cord was thought to possess innate power and believed to develop intelligence and to open the mind.
Setting aside the many marvellous qualities attributed to Brittany’s magical grasses, other, clearly identifiable, plants were once credited with the ability to attract good fortune. In Brittany, the most powerful symbol of good luck was perhaps mistletoe; hung on houses and barns for protection and given on New Year as a token of love and good fortune. A sprig of this plant was once even said to give one a good number to avoid the military draft. However, to be effective as a lucky charm, it was popularly claimed that the plant must not have been in contact with iron nor have touched the ground or another person.
As in other parts of the world, the four leafed clover was thought to bring good luck to those that carried it but in Brittany it was considered most effective if the plant had been discovered without looking for it. The plant was said to ensure victory to the game-player and, thanks to its shape which echoed the sign of the cross, reputed to repel all evil. Along with other rarities such as a seven headed ear of grain or the grain that had passed through the millstone without being ground, the four leafed clover was once said to allow its possessor the ability to see what remained hidden from the eyes of most people and, if carried unwittingly, to understand the artifices of the sorcerer. The four leafed clover found under a gallows was held to possess the greatest of powers.
The green fern collected on the night of Midsummer’s Day, was, like the four leafed clover, said to ensure victory to the game-player and to grant invisibility to whoever held it in their mouth. It was even said that snakes would immediately fall dead if struck on the head with the plant’s root. The plant’s spores, collected on the same night, were believed to be effective in helping locate hidden treasures and gave the possessor the ability to read the deepest secrets that lay hidden within the hearts of men and women.
Another plant mutation whose discovery marked impending success and good fortune was a stem of five leafed lilac. Similarly, wild celery was gathered and taken home as a preservative against bad luck and the curse of the evil eye. Hawthorn was also said to be a lucky plant and it was particularly believed to protect one against lightning strikes; an attribute that it shared with laurel. To protect against the ever-present danger posed by the mischief of the korrigans, wearing a gorse flower was strongly recommended.
While there are many birds of ill omen in Brittany, there are a few whose appearance near the home was always welcomed and regarded as good omens. The most important of which was probably the wren; an auspicious bird in other parts of the Celtic fringe whose status was justified in an old Breton legend. It was told that the wren gave the gift of fire to the world; carrying fire from heaven to earth, it realised that its wings were starting to burn and so entrusted the flame to the robin, whose breast feathers also caught alight. Unselfishly, the lark came to their aid and eventually succeeding in bringing the precious gift of fire to the earth.
In spring, hearing the first cuckoo call of the year was an auspicious occasion. Not only was it a good omen in itself but it was said that if you carried any coins in your pocket at that moment then you would be free of any financial worries for the whole year. Young couples would listen attentively to the bird’s call as the number of songs sung indicated the number of years separating them from marriage. Upon hearing the first cuckoo, those afflicted with rheumatism were advised to roll over on the floor to be rid of pain over the year ahead but hearing this bird sing near one’s house was taken as a very bad omen.
In summer, house-nesting swallows were considered good luck charms as the birds were thought to only settle against a happy home and their presence was taken as a sign of protection against potential disaster, such as a fire or a storm. However, swallow droppings that fell onto the eyes of the members of the household were said to cause blindness. With the onset of winter, the black-headed gull was regarded as a bird of good omen to the people who lived along the coast of the Bay of Morlaix as its appearance was said to herald a spell of fine weather.
One of the national emblems of France, the crowing of the rooster, especially a white feathered one, was a very good omen in Brittany, signalling as it did the end of the witches’ power and the hope of a new day. However, misfortune was sure to follow if white, red and black roosters were kept together in the same henhouse. It was said that if you put a chicken feather together with feathers from red and black roosters into a bowl of milk, a little eight-legged white lizard would be formed but nobody dared to do it anymore because this lizard is insatiable and quickly grows into an uncontrollable dragon.
Birds, or at least their feathers, also feature in two other curious superstitions; it was believed that a patient would not die if they were lying on a bed in which there were partridge wing feathers but if a person was dying it was important to empty their mattress and pillow, lest they contain pigeon feathers, whose presence would make the death a long and agonising affair. Until the Revolution, keeping pigeons was a right reserved for the feudal lord; its meat was the preserve of the nobility and peasants found with these birds faced heavy sanctions. Alas, the liberalisation of the laws surrounding pigeons and dovecotes had the unintentioned effect of sweeping away a great deal of the breeders’ expertise. Many fanciful explanations were put forward by those unable to understand why birds would not roost; one solution offered to bring about a change in luck was to place a dead man’s skull in the pigeon loft.
Certain animals were also popularly thought able to bring on good luck. In many localities here, to see a spider running or spinning its web was taken as a sign that money would soon follow, although some areas refined this to say that the spider’s appearance heralded money if seen in the morning and good news when spied in the evening. Good luck was also said to fall upon the person on whom the spider popularly known as the Daddy Long Legs had landed or been placed upon.
Attitudes towards the weasel differed greatly in parts of Brittany; in the western part of the region it was desperately unlucky to see one, as the person that did was condemned to die within the year. However, in central Brittany, the presence of the animal was believed to bring good fortune upon the house. In the same region, a starfish was also considered a lucky charm and was hung over the bed to protect against night terrors or worn as a talisman on a cord around the neck at night.
Sometimes, animal parts were popularly carried as a talisman. For instance, in western Brittany, whoever carried in their pocket the tongue of a snake that had been removed without killing the beast was guaranteed to have good luck, while applying the crushed head of a snake directly to the wound was advised as a certain cure for snakebite. In a wonderful flight of fancy, it was once believed here that if a snake were able to escape the sight of people for seven years, it would grow wings and become an uncontrollable dragon.
In most parts of Brittany, seeing a live beetle was reputed to bring good luck but in central Brittany, much good fortune was assured if one carried in their pocket the head of a male stag beetle; that of the female which possesses massively smaller mandibles was said not to hold the same effectiveness. Although usually regarded as an animal of ill omen, carrying in one’s pocket the foot of a hare was thought to ward off all toothache.
In eastern Brittany, a lizard’s tail carried in one’s purse was said to attract money there but across the region more generally, it was thought to bring good luck to the game-player. Such competitors could also be confident of every success if they wore the bone of a mole that had been killed in love. However, identifying the bone imbued with this power was not without its ritual. Having been boiled and de-fleshed, the animal’s bones needed to be taken to a stream that issued directly from a spring and dropped into the water, one at a time; the bone that rose to the surface alone had virtue.
Some Breton tales tell of fairies turned into snakes but local lore often associates them with moles; which they transformed into in order to escape the Gospel or else that they were condemned to the darkness by God in punishment for having rejected the early saints. Perhaps because of their association with fairies, moles’ parts were accorded many wonderful virtues here; its skin was said to help teeth grow and carrying its tongue was thought to grant the possessor a most powerful memory. Another curious belief concerning this animal asserted that the hand which had suffocated a mole, while still warm from contact, was able to cure toothache and colic by the merest touch.
Another powerful mascot said to bring good fortune upon the household was the afterbirth of a mare, that of a white mare being held to be most potent, taken as soon after the birth as possible and placed around the base of the hawthorn tree nearest to the house. If by some chance one was unavailable, good luck could still be induced if the afterbirth was put around a nearby elm tree.
The presence of bees near the home was another indicator of good fortune and to give a hive to a neighbour was a gesture of much significance as you were not only providing them with honey but also, and above all, good luck. In Brittany, buying and selling bees as if they were a commodity, like a sack of onions, was frowned upon and they were usually traded in barter. More generally, when selling any animal here, it was customary for the seller to give the buyer some coins, even a token amount, in order to bring good luck upon both parties.
When undertaking a journey, good fortune was said to be assured if, in the morning, one met a debauched woman or a wolf, a cicada or a goat. Similarly, a trouble free journey or successful outcome was assured if the traveller heard thunder from afar, if their right ear tingled or if their right nostril bled. Along the coast of the Bay of Saint-Malo it was considered a most propitious omen to see a donkey before setting out to sea; seamen there considered the animal stupid but courageous. Sighting a goose in flight was also a sign of approaching good fortune.
In addition to recognising the omens of good fortune and observing the rituals to attract it, other ceremonies, if performed under certain specific conditions, were once reckoned to bestow unique and marvellous gifts on those bold enough to seek them. For instance, whoever found frogspawn for the first time in the year, without looking for it, was said to need only rub their hands with it, taking care not to wash them all day, in order to acquire the power to heal, by mere touch, animals and children of certain afflictions.
It was said that if a young woman cooked an oak apple, of a certain maturity, in the water of a fountain whose source watered a cemetery, she would be imbued with all the wisdom and knowledge of the fairies of old. While it was said that whoever ate the heart of an eel, still warm from the body, would immediately be endowed with the gift of prophecy. The blood of an eel was believed to possess magical properties; not only could it bewitch but it also cured alcoholism. Eel fat mixed with tallow made from a goat was once a well-known witch’s brew in eastern Brittany and an eel skin, filled with sand, was regarded as a weapon like no other; its blows were said to be almost always fatal.
According to some sources, each hazel bush in Brittany possessed within its folds a branch that turned into pure gold. This branch made a wand that was reputed to equal in power those of the greatest fairies. However, this prize could only be gained if cut between the first and last chimes of the bell announcing the Christmas midnight mass but, lest you be tempted, be aware that whoever tries and fails, disappears from this world forever. Often associated with magic, hazel was said to furnish the very best divining rods, particularly when searching for springs and silver, but, handled well, it could also show us if one was truly loved by our partner. A sprig of the plant was traditionally placed on the bridal bed, while one that had never borne fruit was said to kill snakes with a single blow.
When a person stood between two lands – their feet on the ground and with a large sod of earth held above their head – on a moonless night, they were believed to have been granted the privilege of seeing things that were unknown to others. This ritual was also advised for those who happened to meet a sorcerer up to some mischief at night because, according to popular belief, sorcerers could not see between two lands.
There are some old accounts that make intriguing references to a magical stone guarded by mice. This stone was reputed to have the power of removing any foreign body from the eye on which it was applied. Mice were said to have used this stone on their own babies who would otherwise have remained blind. Unfortunately, the legends are silent on whether this was the same magical stone that allowed one to clearly see the invisible korrigans and even the ghosts of the dead.
In talking of practices that produced a remarkable faculty of sight, it is worth noting another once popular belief that cautioned against placing a mirror in front of small children for fear that they might be instantly struck dumb. Furthermore, in northern Brittany, women were strongly advised never to look into a mirror after sunset lest the Devil himself be revealed in reflection behind their shoulder.
As late as the 1840s, washing one’s face in the morning with cow’s urine, or your own if one could not obtain that of a cow, was said to protect you all day from pitfalls and the wickedness of the Devil because you became invisible to him. Similar protection was thought bestowed if one spat on the sabot of the right foot before putting it on or carried unblessed salt in their pocket or part of a chicory root that had been torn off, before dawn, on the morning of Midsummer’s Day.
Many of these old superstitions appear irrational to us today but that is the very nature of superstition. It does not require logic in order to function or to thrive; it does not even demand conviction of faith. Even the petty rituals associated with the lost beliefs that once underpinned them can survive through habit alone. Such acceptance could become ingrained in young, impressionable minds and even if challenged in later years, might be excused on the grounds that if a ritual does no good, its performance can do no harm and so they continue to perpetuate the ceremony.