Surrounded on three sides by the wild ocean, Brittany has always enjoyed a special relationship with the sea. It has long played an important part in the life and soul of Brittany; its waters have nourished and sustained generations of Bretons since time immemorial but the bargain has sometimes been cruelly struck. A point that is well made in an old Breton saying that tells: “Who trusts the sea, trusts death.”
By its very nature, folklore often differs quite distinctly from village to village and can be riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. The traditional lore surrounding the drowned in Brittany is no different but there are many areas of commonality across the region. While the cries of the dead were feared and even resented, the dead themselves were profoundly pitied by the living. Generally, those claimed by the sea showed no ill will towards those still living whom they often helped by warning of approaching danger.
In Brittany, there once existed a widespread belief that the drowned whose bodies were not found and subsequently buried in consecrated ground, raged forever along the shores, begging for a Christian burial. It was said that these lost souls could be heard at night lamenting among the rocks and deadly coastal reefs; they were popularly known as the krierien-noz (night screamers) on account of their infernal wailing.
One of the most widely known night screamers was known popularly as Yannick an Aod (Little John of the Shore), whose calls were heard all along the western coasts at night, imitating the cries of people in distress in hopes of attracting people into the water and their doom. Children were cautioned to never tease Yannick by answering his cries; those foolish enough to do so, risked certain death. It was said that if you answered him once, Yannick jumped half the distance separating you, in a single leap. If you answered him again, he would jump half the remaining distance. If you answered a third time; he broke your neck.
On the isle of Sein, the souls of the drowned were known as the krierien and their cry was said to announce an impending storm. Likewise, the ghosts of seven drowned fishermen were sometimes reported on the island; the crew appeared as if they had just been shipwrecked, their oilskins still dripping wet. Locals claimed that the ghosts always appeared in order to warn the living of an approaching storm and of the necessity of removing their boats from the water.
Some 55km east, around the south coast town of Quimper, it was believed that storms never subsided until the bodies of those who had drowned had been cast ashore. Sometimes, however, the sea refused to yield the bodies for burial and the drowned cried in rage and howled in despair whenever the raging sea pulled their rolling bones away from the shore.
It was said that those who drowned off the western coast of Brittany were carried by the currents to the Baie des Trépassés (Bay of the Dead in English or Bae an Anaon in Breton) on the Atlantic coast. Here, some desperate souls would emerge from the sea and walk in slow procession to the little chapel near the port of Vorlen. One legend tells that a fisherman, who had moored his craft for the night, noticed lights on the beach and a line of people walking towards the church. He took off his hat and followed them but when he tried to enter the church, the former rector, dead for fifteen years, put his hand on his shoulder and told him to go home because this was no place for the living.
Another once popularly held belief about the bay said that, when the moonlight cast its glow at a particular moment during the nights of Halloween and Christmas Eve, one could see, in the cold waters of the bay, tens of thousands of heads breaking the surface of the waves; their outstretched arms begging for deliverance.
In a rather more poetical fashion, the Breton author, Émile Souvestre, recounted of the bay: “On the Day of the Dead, the souls of the drowned rise to the top of each wave and we see them running on the crest like a fleeting foam. Each passing wave carries a soul, seeking everywhere the soul of a brother, a friend or a beloved; when they meet face to face, they cast a sad whisper and pass, necessarily driven by the flow they must follow. Sometimes, a confused, prodigious noise quivers on the bay; an inexplicable mixture of soft sighs, hoarse moans and plaintive cries that whistle on the swell. These are the souls who talk and tell their stories.”
Those who had drowned without carrying the stain of sin were said to eventually be carried to a sea cave a little further along the coast near Morgat. Here, their souls stayed for eight days before finally leaving for the Otherworld. Death was assured to anyone who might have the temerity to venture into this cave and disturb their sacred penance.
Other legends are associated with the Bay of the Dead; it was traditionally believed that this was the point of embarkation for the ancient druids who were buried on the isle of Sein. This early belief may have fed into the more recent traditions that held that, on moonless nights, hosts of the dead waited in silence for the appearance of the Bag an Noz or Boat of the Night.
One local legend tells that, on certain nights, a powerful voice carried over the bay, calling a local fisherman by name; the only man able to hear this voice. The man was not surprised by the call for it was a secret his family had carried for countless generations; he was the hereditary helmsman of the Boat of the Dead. Arriving at the shore, he found the seemingly empty boat lying heavily in the water and cast off quickly. Immediately upon landing on the isle of Sein, he felt it lighten and rise on the water as his passengers disembarked. On his return to the bay, the boat seemed as a shadow and disappeared completely once he set foot ashore.
Tales of a boat of the dead have long been associated with Brittany; the 6th century Byzantine historian, Procopius reported it thus: “The fishermen and other inhabitants of Gaul who are opposite the island of Britain are responsible for ferrying souls there and for that service are exempt from tribute. In the middle of the night, they hear a knocking at their door; they get up and find on the shore foreign boats where they see no one and yet seem so loaded that they appear on the point of sinking, rising but an inch above the water; an hour is enough for this trip, although, with their own boats, they can hardly do it in the space of a day and a night. The boat speedily unloads and becomes so light that it only rides its keel in the waves. Neither on the voyage nor at landing do they see anyone but they hear a voice on shore calling out the name and style of those who had disembarked.”
Well into the 19th century, several traditions of ships of the dead were still recorded in various parts of Brittany. Émile Souvestre, writing in 1835, noted that near Saint-Gildas, fishermen of bad character who cared little about the salvation of their souls, were awakened at night by three knocks struck on their door by an invisible hand. Compelled by some supernatural force, the men go to the shore where they find long black boats which seem empty and yet are sunk into the sea to wave level. As soon as they board, a large white sail hoists itself to the top of the mast and the boat leaves the port, as if carried away by a rapid current.
Tradition held that these vessels, laden with cursed souls, did not reappear on the shore and that the fishermen were thus condemned to wander with them across the oceans until the Day of Judgement. Some also believed that these boats were doomed to forever travel from beach to beach, from island to island, in search of the bodies of drowned sailors to return them home to the village of their birth.
Around the north coast town of Tréguier it was thought that there were boats which carried the souls of the dead, especially those of the drowned, to unknown islands that sat at the end of the world and from which no traveller had ever returned. It was said that, on summer nights, when the wind is silent and the sea is calm, the oars can be heard moaning and white shadows can be seen fluttering around the black boats. However, anyone who dared to follow the boats at sea was condemned to accompany them until the end of time.
Nearby, around Port-Blanc, people claimed to have seen the spirits of those known to have been lost at sea, land in small boats to stock-up on supplies of fresh water. They were said to have walked silently, in a long procession led by an unknown woman. Sometimes, they could be heard whispering to each other in low voices but only one word could be distinguished – yes! The silhouette of their ship could be seen in the distance, as if floating on the clouds.
Like the other night boats, those noted on the west coast were as mysterious as they were sinister. Fishermen who encountered these vessels told of seeing no one aboard or of hails answered only by an invisible chorus of ‘Amens’. Other tales tell of them hearing the sound of oars breaking the water or the cry of commands to draw-in sails despite nothing to be seen between their craft and the horizon.
In many parts of western Brittany, the Boat of the Night was thought commanded by the first drowned person of the year but on the isle of Sein, the helmsman was believed to be the last drowned of the year. A tale tells of a widow whose husband had been lost at sea, without his body having been found; saw him holding the helm, one day when the Bag an Noz passed very close to the island.
Not only did this boat carry the souls of the dead but its appearance was also thought to announce some imminent disaster. It was said to have possessed a rather indecisive form at nightfall but disappeared completely if approached too closely by another vessel. However, one night, a brave fisherman did manage to get close enough to see that there was no one aboard apart from the helmsman; the boat vanished at the instant the helmsman was hailed.
Many isolated coastal chapels are associated with legends of being visited by the souls of the dead, either alone or in procession, in order to fulfil a promise or prayer made at sea. It was widely believed that anyone who had announced an intention to undertake a pilgrimage had made a sacred vow; if someone died before fulfilling their vow, they were thought to have to honour their obligation in death. Near Saint-Servan, young girls once reported seeing a procession of men emerging from the sea accompanied by a priest and even a choir, fulfilling their vow to make the pilgrimage they had promised whilst alive.
Other legends about the drowned are less wholesome. In times gone by, the fishermen of Trévou-Tréguignec often claimed to have seen the dead hands of drowned men clinging to the planks of their boats when fishing at night. Apparently, the women who had drowned did not cling to the boats but let their hair float on the water so that it entangled the oars.
Some miles east, off the coast of the isles of Ébihens, the noise of the wind around the reefs exposed at low tide was said to have been the moans of three women from Saint-Jacut who drowned there at the turn of the 19th century. The women had been taken to the rocks, in order to gather abalone shells, by a friendly customs officer. However, the turning tide was accompanied by a wind that blew so violently that he dared not take his boat out to retrieve them. Since that day, when the weather is bad, the spirits of the drowned women stir the sea and send tremendous winds to shake the old Customs House.
One curious belief found in parts of western Brittany claimed that those who died at sea did so because of the weight of their sins. This was said to explain why those who had drowned remained caught in the grip of the sea; their deliverance would only be realised when another unfortunate drowned in the same place.
The methods advised for locating the bodies of those who had drowned seem to have varied from place to place. In the north of the region, it was recommended to balance a wooden bowl filled with bran upon a plank of wood or bundle of straw. A blessed, lighted candle was planted in the bran and the little raft placed onto the water; the candle was believed to show the location of the body. Around the central town of Guingamp, a lighted candle was fixed in a loaf of bread, which was then abandoned to the current; the body was expected to be discovered near the location where the floating loaf had halted. In western Brittany, tradition called for the seeker to a get into a boat accompanied only by a cockerel in a sack. The boat was surrendered to the current and it was thought the rooster would crow when the body of the drowned was near.
In the same part of Brittany, it was believed that the body of the drowned resurfaced nine days after being at the bottom of the deep and that a drowned man would bleed from the nose when removed from the water if one of his relatives was among those present. A variant of this belief held that tears flowed from the eyes of the recovered corpse.
Around Paimpol, it was said that when a fisherman perished at sea, gulls and curlews visited his former home to announce his death by crying and flapping their wings at the windows. However, around the west coast city of Brest, the gulls that flew around the rocks offshore were believed to be the souls of those who had drowned nearby.
It was once widely accepted here that those who died a violent death were forced to remain between life and death until the time that they naturally had to live had elapsed. This state of being, which is no longer life but not yet death, features in a curious legend from Bro-Bégard that tells of a girl who drowned but who, thanks to the protection of the Virgin Mary, continued to live for six years in a sort of limbo. She was nourished by the bread that her mother gave to the poor and dressed in the old clothes that she distributed to them as alms. Her husband was not really a widower and did not become so until the end of these six years.
The notion of an existence between real life and utter death is found in other Breton legends about drowned people. The victims of the Witch of Lok and the Red Witch of the Île du Château are entombed in water but return to life and the inhabitants of the sunken city of Ker-Is also live, submerged under water, awaiting their deliverance.
This fascination with the plight of the drowned must be placed in the context of a culture where the dead were never far removed from the living. There was a significant absence of separation between the living and the dead who were commonly believed to exist, in close intimacy, together. The dead involved themselves in the everyday life of the living. They did not remain locked in the ossuary but wandered at night along the deserted paths or upon the moors and meadows. They returned to their former homes, by the permission of God, to watch over those they had left behind or to deliver hope for salvation. However, these privileges were reserved for those who had been consigned to holy ground, those lost at sea had been denied this honour and were thus unable to return to their former haunts; a cause of profound grief to the loved ones they had left behind.
In Brittany, it was once said that three worms lived within the human body; when a person drowned, each of them became embodied in a bone, these three bones detached from the corpse and, three months later, they turned into shells. The fishermen of the coasts used to say, when they heard of a person dead at sea: “One less man, three more seashells.” According to legend, some so-called cursed islands off Brittany’s northern coast were formed from the skeletons of the drowned and such origins were once ascribed to the Sillon de Talbert; a 3km long furrow that stretches out to sea from the tip of the peninsula of Lézardrieux.