To talk of the soul is, to many, to touch on the very essence of existence. First century authors noted that the ancient Celts believed in the indestructibility and inevitable transmigration of the human soul and, despite the march of Christian dogma, such beliefs remained in the Breton tradition where there was no significant separation between the living and the dead; both dwelt in discrete worlds that were in perpetual relation with one another. The souls of the dead surrounded the living, wandering the skies and sunken paths of the land as black dogs, petrels, horses or hares.
The Bretons once counted kinship over nine generations and it was said that the dead did not immediately reach the afterlife but stayed in the vicinity of the living for those nine generations. 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 or to claim the fulfilment of a vow or even honour one. Similarly, those who had secured a place in Heaven stayed there, rarely visiting the corporeal world. Although, it was traditionally believed that the dead were doomed to return to the land of the living three times.
Those people who died of violent death were thought forced to remain between life and death until the time that they would have naturally lived had elapsed. Those trapped between Heaven and Hell were believed to roam the land at will; the hedgerows and seashores were heavy with wandering souls awaiting divine judgement. It was said that there were as many grains of sand on the seashore as there were wandering souls and that their numbers were mightier than the drops of rain in a downpour.
A curious expansion of this state of being, which is no longer life but not yet death, features in a legend noted near Lannion that tells of a drowned girl who, thanks to the protection of the Virgin, continued to live for six years in a kind of limbo. She was nourished by the bread her mother gave to the poor and dressed in the old clothes that she distributed as alms. Her husband was not quite a widower and did not become so until the passing of these six years.
Traditionally, it was considered most imprudent to sweep the floor or to throw out any dust until the body of the deceased had left the house; otherwise, one risked throwing out, at the same time, the newly departed soul. Pitchers of liquids, such as water or cider, were covered for fear that the unsteady soul might drown in them but milk was considered to offer no risk. Indeed, it was said that the soul thirsted for it and imbibed plentifully in order to draw new strength from it.
Similarly, it was also popularly advised not to sweep the house after sunset because this again risked sweeping away the souls of the dead who, at that hour, were said to return to their former homes. Such piteous souls were welcome visitors and it was thought only proper to leave a little fire smouldering in the grate in case the dead returned to the hearth of their former home and people took care to remove the tripod from the fireplace overnight, lest the dead sat on it and burned themselves.
Many legends tell of souls that congregated in certain places to await their deliverance. In the far west, the waters of the Baie des Trépassés were believed to teem with the souls of dead mariners. Those who had drowned without the stain of sin were thought carried by the sea to a cave near Morgat. Here, their souls stayed for eight days before leaving for the afterlife. On the north coast, those who lived around the mouth of the Couesnon River claimed that on All Souls’ Day a white fog rose at nightfall. This was said to have been formed by the souls in purgatory which, being innumerable, created a fog that spread over the entire Baie du Mont Saint-Michel. In the morning those who walked along the shore heard a whisper on the wind: “In a year! In a year!” – the voices of souls bidding their farewells until the next feast of the dead.
The souls in purgatory were often believed heard wailing on the crests of mountains at night and it was also on these high places that old maids were said condemned to do their penance. It was held that those women who, having found a marriage, had refused to wed, were cursed after death to grow their fingernails to scratch the earth and dig for themselves a second tomb. However, around Châteaubriant, it was believed that spinsters were transformed into owls after death; condemned to wail in woe at night.
In western Brittany, priests were believed to have had the power to see the soul separate from the body and some even knew the fate of the deceased in the afterlife. When the priest threw the first handful of earth onto the coffin, he was thought able to see the fate of the deceased soul but was forbidden from divulging this secret, under penalty of taking the place of the departed. Priests were also thought able to discover the fate of souls by consulting the Agrippa; a mysterious living book, the size of a man that was said to have been written by the Devil himself. Using the book to evoke the demons of Hell, the priest consulted each in turn to ascertain whether the soul of his recently buried parishioner was damned or saved.
In Breton tradition, the road to Heaven was rough and covered with brambles and thorns. The weary traveller was served by ninety-nine wayside inns where each had to stop at least once but those who had no money to pay for their stay were forced to turn back and take the road to Hell. The inn located at the road’s halfway point was called Bitêklê and it was here, every Saturday evening, that God came to collect those travellers who were still sober. Three rows of clouds were said to be traversed before finally arriving in Heaven; the first was black, the second grey and the last pristine white. According to some, the 3rd century evangelist Saint Mathurin was responsible for leading the souls, who had completed their penance, to Heaven. In some Breton tales, Saint Michael, not Saint Peter, kept the gates of Paradise; it was he that weighed souls to see if they could be received there.
Conversely, the road to Hell was said to be wide, well paved and bordered with beautiful flowers; inviting the traveller to take it. Along the way, there were ninety-nine inns where one had to spend a hundred years. Good food and drink were served as desired and the taste became sweeter and better as you approached the gates of Hell. If the traveller arrived at the last inn without being drunk and had been able to resist the many temptations of the road, they were free to turn back and the Devil had no power over them. However, if they had succumbed during their journey, the last inn would serve only a toxic draught mixed from the rancid bloods of a snake and toad; their soul forever owned by the Devil.
About a dozen kilometres east of the northern town of Lamballe, a field in Landebia contained a pit so deep that any stones thrown into it were never heard to strike the bottom. Only unexplained noises and sometimes vapours escaped the deep hole which was believed by the locals to be an entrance to Hell. Some 120km west, the forlorn Yeun Elez bog in the heart of the Monts d’Arrée was also said to have been one of the gateways to Hell, while 25km east, the Menhir de Thiemblaye near Saint-Samson was held to cover another portal to Hell.
For the Bretons, Hell was located in the bowels of the Earth, always at a great distance from its surface; in the 18th century, it was said that it was to be found in the centre of the planet, some 1,250 leagues below the surface. Extraordinary beings were thought to live there in close proximity to the deepest domains of the korrigans. According to a belief noted in the 19th century, the interior of the Earth was riddled with tunnels where enormous rats lived; even a man on horseback could easily pass through their runs. Eventually, these rats will have bred so much that they will eat away the earth; a great chasm will open and we will all be swallowed by the void.
Some accounts from eastern Brittany speak of the journey made by the souls of the dead to reach their ultimate destination by way of “the sea beneath us.” This notion may have more to do with the old belief that Brittany sat atop a vast subterranean ocean rather than any connection with the crossing of the River Styx of Greek mythology. Possibly the idea was once related to the beliefs, noted in the west of the region, surrounding boats of the dead that ferried souls to mysterious faraway lands.
Usually only the priest celebrating the funeral was considered able to see the separation of the soul but it was a gift that others, such as powerful witches, were also said to have possessed. Sometimes the soul was thought to escape, not at the instant of death, but at the moment when the body was interred and it was claimed that the person who could set their foot upon that of the priest at the moment when he threw a handful of earth upon the coffin would see the soul of the deceased soar into the air.
There are many Breton stories in which the soul escapes from the body to take on the form of a bird, such as a crow, an owl or a petrel. Most popularly it was in the form of a lark that the soul, freed from the bonds of the flesh, ascended to Heaven to receive its judgement; the soul of the just entered without difficulty, while that of the outcast fell into the pit of Hell. Around the northern town of Tréguier, it was believed that, at the time of the giant first men of Brittany, the lark was responsible for opening the door of Heaven to the souls of the dead; the bird was said to have made two trips each day, in the morning for those who died at night and in the evening, for those who died during the day. Unfortunately, when Christ ascended to Heaven, He no longer wanted the lark due to its frequent blasphemies and so replaced it with Saint Peter.
The belief that the soul separated from the body and moved away from it in animal form was once quite widespread here. In a legend collected in central Brittany at the turn of the last century, a white mouse was stymied by the edge of a river but was able to cross thanks to the aid of a kindly man who bent willow branches so as to create a bridge for the creature. The passer-by noticed the mouse disappear into the mouth of a sleeping man, who having been awakened, related that he had dreamt that when he was about to drown in the river, someone threw him a branch that saved his life.
A tale from the north of Brittany also tells of a man whose soul appeared in the guise of a white mouse. On the death of his master, a servant saw such a creature escape his lips as he died. The mouse accompanied the servant to collect the funeral cross from the church, then bade farewell to the ploughing instruments by walking on each in turn. Having allowed itself to be shut inside the coffin with the dead body, the mouse re-emerged immediately after the coffin had been sprinkled with holy water and led the servant to a withered tree where it slipped through a crack in the bark. In that instant, the servant saw the face of his dead master fleetingly appear in the tree.
In another legend from the same region, the soul took the form of a gnat that emerged from the mouth of the dying person and flew around the room before returning to rest on the dead body. Like the mouse, it allowed itself to be sealed inside the coffin but quickly escaped to go and rest on a gorse bush where it was compelled to remain for five hundred years in expiation of its earthly sins.
In these two latter tales we can see examples of the once popular tradition that the soul departed the body at the moment of death to receive God’s judgement. As soon as that judgement was delivered, the soul returned to the body from which it had separated and was said to remain there for the duration of the burial. It is worth noting that the soul did not however re-enter its former host.
In the far east of the region, bats and butterflies were often believed to be hosts for the souls of the dead but it was also said to appear in the form of a large white flower, whose beauty increased as one approached it. The souls of those who had lived a wicked life were sometimes said to have been trapped in a pile of stones, while the souls of girls who had been deceived by their lovers were believed, after death, to haunt them as hares.
Others were condemned to undertake their penance in the form of a cow or that of a bull. The souls of the rich stayed in barren fields where only thorns and a few thin reeds grew while the souls of the poor enjoyed abundant grazing in rich pastures. They were separated from each other by a low dry-stone wall and the sight of the poor so well-treated added to the bitterness of the rich, just as the misery of the latter increased the joy of the former. Around the southern town of Quimperle, the notaries and lawyers who had not been fair in their accounts wandered, after death, in the form of old nags.
The souls of those who had formerly cut short their prayers were believed to wander the abandoned paths, murmuring Pater Noster prayers but when the last sentence was reached, they stopped, unable to find the words that end the prayer. Their soul would not be delivered until the day when some living person kindly completed their prayer. Some souls were said condemned to do penance until an acorn, picked up on the day of their death, had become an oak fit for some purpose. Other souls were condemned to gather enough sods of peat to provide sufficient fuel for three years or to cut gorse for a certain number of years to feed the fire in purgatory.
Some that had lived bad lives, such as thieves, were doomed to wander until the wrongs they had done in life had been righted. They stayed close to their old haunts, spitefully taking revenge for their distress by bringing trouble to the living. It was therefore not unusual for the spirits to be exorcised to reduce them to silence and calm; typically into the body of an animal, usually a black dog. Those souls most popularly believed to have required exorcism were not the murderers and drunkards destined for Hell but cheats and swindlers, particularly those whose wealth had been ill-gotten and guardians who had cheated their charges of their inheritance.
The bare circles without vegetation found in the field were said to mark the place where the souls of the wicked had been confined by an exorcist. It was claimed that these souls could, for one hour each day, torment the living and harm anyone who set foot there. Unfortunately, the time in question altered every day and so farmers never let their animals graze around them.
Uncultivated land and evergreen shrubs, such as boxwood and laurel, were considered the preferred abode of the souls of the dead but the hawthorn tree and gorse bushes, with nine souls resting on the tip of each thorn, were also noted domains. Many travellers therefore took pains to cough or shout to advertise their presence before crossing an expanse of heath thus allowing the souls in purgatory thought to reside there, time to move away undisturbed.
Sometimes, people whose animals fell sick were convinced that it was due to the influence of the tormented soul of a deceased relative and that it was necessary to pay for nine consecutive masses to placate them. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the clergy themselves often encouraged such beliefs and persuaded their parishioners that offering a novena was the only way to appease the dead and thus heal their sick animal.
In western Brittany, the toad was despised and frequently impaled on a stick to suffer under the sun but it was said that if the toad did not die it would search for you and suffocate you in your sleep and if you had died before the toad found you; it would throw poison onto your grave. However, a contrary belief was also noted in the same region, around the town of Quimper. This held that one should never kill a toad because within its body lay the soul of an ancestor who had been assigned there by God to atone for their sins; when toads came to annoy people, it was simply because they were pleading for masses to be said for their salvation.
It was once believed that children who died without baptism roamed the air as birds until the Day of Judgement when they would receive salvation and fly directly to Heaven. However, in eastern Brittany, the souls of such children were also said to appear near rivers and lakes, pleading to passers-by for the grace of baptism. A variant of these traditions was noted around Dinan where the souls of children gathered on the edge of a pond whose surface they beat in an attempt to splash water onto their heads in order to be baptised. Sadly, their little feet are unsteady and they can never balance long enough to succeed.
In eastern Brittany, the leaves of the aspen tree were said to be home to the souls of children. Those that were coloured white underneath were believed to indicate that treasure was buried at the foot of these trees but the exact place to dig was only revealed at midnight, on a Friday, by a ray of moonlight which illuminated it for only one second.
Another tradition from the same region held that if you caught a ladybird, you had to release it quickly as it was thought to then fly directly to Heaven, where it transformed into an angel that would hold a place in Heaven for the one who had spared its life. This would always have been the best course of action as it was said in the same region that those who killed or even trapped a ladybird were liable to die on the following day.
In several Breton legends, the souls of the dead are trapped in other forms; one story tells of two old oak trees endlessly battling each other, said to have been the souls of a married couple who had continuously fought whilst alive and condemned to suffer this torment until a man had been crushed between them. Another tale tells of two boulders that constantly collide with such fierceness that sparks and stone splinters fly; the souls of two brothers who had relentlessly fought each other while they lived.
Sometimes, it was not just a person’s soul that was considered to live on, wandering in pain upon moor and heath; the corpse too retained a vitality in the grave. If one was foolhardy or stupid enough to enter an ossuary at night, it was not the souls of the dead who would strike you with a mortal blow but the bones themselves which launch at you and tear you apart. Thus not only was the separation between the living and the dead thin, so too was the dual existence enjoyed by the deceased after death.
According to Breton tradition, it was within everyone’s grasp to know whether a soul was damned or not. If the flowers placed on the bed where a dead person lies wither as soon as they are placed there, it is because the soul is damned; if they fade only after a few moments, it is because the soul is in purgatory. Alternatively, it was said to be enough to go, immediately after the burial, to a high place nearest the cemetery. From this vantage point, the name of the recently departed was shouted three times, in three different directions. If the echo prolonged the sound only once, it was because the soul of the deceased was not damned.