Death Lore of Brittany

In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, All Saints’ Day is known as La Toussaint and is widely celebrated as both a religious holiday and a secular Public Holiday.  Although All Souls’ Day, more formally known as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, falls on the following day, the majority of people here tend to honour their dead relatives on the day before. Thus, Toussaint is the day when families gather together and visit the cemeteries to tend graves, pray and lay flowers (usually chrysanthemums or heather) on the graves of their loved ones. Consequently, the distinction between All Saints’ Day, which is dedicated to those who are in Heaven, and All Souls’ Day when prayers are offered for the dead who have yet to reach Heaven, are blurred.

Having been observed on different days in various places, the precise origin of All Saints’ Day can not be agreed definitively. During the 7th century it was celebrated on 13 May which has caused some to suggest its origins are pagan and hark back to the Roman festival of Lemuria which was held to pacify the dead. In the 8th century, the date was fixed to 1 November and some see this as an attempt by the Church to co-opt the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which marked the shift from summer to winter and celebrated the harvest.

If it is difficult to pinpoint the origins of All Saints, establishing the roots of All Souls’ Day is doubly so. What is known is that around the turn of the 11th century, Odilo, the Benedictine Abbot of Cluny, established 2 November as an especial date for prayers of intercession on behalf of the faithful departed undergoing purification in purgatory; a convention that was steadily embraced and adopted throughout Europe.  In addition to putting the Church’s stamp on the importance of honouring the humble dead, this day was significant as it endorsed the link between the living and the dead, in the prayers of the former for the latter. 

a funeral in Brittany
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Of course, the broader practice of celebrating the dead stretches back thousands of years before Odilo and transcends geographic and cultural lines but this conflation of the celebration of All Saints and All Souls allowed plenty of scope for the ancient traditions associated with death and ancestor worship to survive in a Christian world-view as le Jour des Morts (Day of the Dead) or, in Breton, Gouel an Anaon (Festival of the Dead).

At the turn of the 20th century, ethnographers noted a number of traditional beliefs relating to death then prevalent in Brittany. They found that, to some, earthly life was only a passage between an earlier eternal life and a subsequent eternal life. There was a significant absence of separation between the living and the dead, both seen as existing or living in two discrete worlds. In the Breton tradition, the world after earthly death – the Otherworld – is called Anaon and is a word for both the dead and the place where they reside.

The community of the dead were always close. Those buried in the cemetery were thought to live there under the protection of Saint Yves, retaining their earthly personalities, sympathies and aversions for their fellow dead. Earthly feuds and disputes would continue beyond the grave, so, care was taken not to bury two quarrels side-by-side.  As for the living; they would help or harass them according to the love or disdain they brought.

Day of the Dead Brittany
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In his Book of Brittany written in 1901, the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould noted that: “The graveyard is as truly the centre of the commune as the dolmen was of the prehistoric tribe. The dead who lie there are by no means cut off from the world; the voices of the living reach them in muffled tones; they know that they are not forgotten; they are associated with every event of importance in the family. Nowhere else, and at no period, have people lived in such familiarity with death. The consciousness of the presence of the dead never leaves the people. The evening of a wedding is like a funeral wake. The betrothed meet at the graves of their dead ancestors to seal their vows over the tombs.”

The dead were thought to return to their villages after midnight to see their homes and watch their families but – importantly – not to plead with or to frighten them. Thus, it was customary to let a little fire burn under the ashes overnight, just in case the dead were to visit the hearth of their former home. On the eve of All Saint’s Day, the fire would be kept burning overnight by a large log known as the ‘log of the dead’. The dead were always considered to be cold; a notion that also applied to Hell.

In some areas of Brittany, this veil of separation between the living and the dead was at its most vulnerable on those feast days when the dead of each parish congregated, namely; Christmas Eve, the eve of Saint John’s Day (Midsummer) and the eve of All Saints’ Day (Hallowe’en). At these times, the dead were thought to wander freely in the land of the living.

Similar notions were recorded by Walter Evans-Wentz in his influential study, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911): “On November Eve the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them (the dead) of milk, pancakes and cider, served on the table covered with a fresh white cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors.”

Ankou
Ankou, Ploudiry ossuary

Such beliefs survived the massive social upheavals of the First World War. Writing in 1919, Ruth Kelly, in her Book Of Hallowe’en noted that in Brittany, on Halloween: “… milk is poured on graves, feasts and candles set out on tables and fires lighted on the hearths to welcome the spirits of departed kinsfolk […] The poor who live on the mountains have only black corn, milk and smoked bacon to offer but it is given freely. Those who can afford it, spread on a white cloth, dishes of clotted milk, pancakes and cups of cider.”

Similarly, the Breton scholar Pierre-Jakez Hélias recounted that during his childhood, some twenty years after Kelley’s book, that: “On the evening of All Saints’ Day, we prepared food (cake, bread, milk, cider), to welcome the neighbours of the cemetery and we left for them in the hearth, a big log.” People would also leave food outside for the pitiful dead without a home to go to.

After Vespers on the eve of All Saints, people would visit the cemeteries to kneel, bare-headed, at the graves of their loved ones to pray and anoint the hollow of the gravestones with holy water or milk (small cup-like holes can be found in many old gravestones) before hurrying home. Interaction with the Anaon was to be avoided at all costs. Once at home, people would go to bed early so that they would not chance to see the dead feasting. However, those who went to bed too early might be awakened by neighbours urging them, in song, to pray for the souls of the dead. Others would fear to go outside at all during Allhallowtide.

Grave cups Brittany
Breton ‘grave cups’

Yesterday’s Bretons did not fear death, for it was seen as simply part of the natural order of things and the beginning of a new and better life but they did fear An Ankou – the Breton personification of death. Master of the afterlife, the Ankou is omnipotent. He is always portrayed as a skeletal figure, sometimes draped in a shroud, holding an arrow, spear or very occasionally a scythe whose blade faces outwards; this blade was said to be sharpened on a human thigh bone!

Standing on a cart whose axles creak, the Ankou roams at night, gathering souls to guide towards the Otherworld. He is often spoken of as being accompanied by a screeching owl and attended by one or more assistants. To hear the squeak of the Ankou’s chariot signified that someone close to you would soon die. In coastal areas, the Ankou was believed to steer a black boat. In The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Evans-Wentz noted the belief that: “The Ankou, who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths over which they travel in great sacred processions; the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve.”

Ankou
Ankou, St Mark’s Chapel, Ile Grande

In some parts of Brittany, the Ankou’s persona was rather fluid – the first or last death of the year would become Ankou. Thus, he would be renewed each year and could be imbued with some of the characteristics of the soul once living – if he had been an evil character in life then, as Ankou, he would search relentlessly for fresh souls to gather. In these traditions, the Ankou is assisted by the second on the list of the deceased of a parish. It is he who guides the Ankou’s skinny black horse by the bridle, opens the gates and loads the dead souls onto the cart. Rather than draped in a shroud, the Ankou of the 19th century was often depicted as dressing contemporaneously while hiding his face under a black felt hat with a wide brim; a style then popularly worn in Brittany.

In the Brittany of yesteryear, the dead were never far removed from the living. It was more than being at ease with the idea of death it was almost a comfortable familiarity with it; death and birth were commonplace, natural happenings.  However, by the mid-1980s, anthropologist Ellen Badone discovered that, due to the rapid social and cultural changes in Brittany since the Second World War, the customs and traditions associated with death highlighted just fifty years earlier had all but disappeared.  

In her book, The Appointed Hour (1989), Badone notes that she found that repression of the idea of death and marginalisation of the act of dying were increasingly evident here and postulated that this culture change was likely a result of a complex mix of factors. Particularly the shift from an agricultural economy based on shared labour to one of mechanisation and solitary working; the rise of retirement homes and the migration of young Bretons to work in the cities, creating a rarity of multi-generational families; and the growing prestige of science with its opposition to the supernatural.

Ankou
Ankou, St Noyale’s church, Noyal-Pontivy

As the passage of time dims the old traditions, the relentless Ankou warns us against forgetting him. His image, carved deep into timeless granite edifices, continues to adorn countless churches and ossuaries throughout Brittany. These are well worth visiting and, if you do, take time to contemplate his words at the church in La Roche-Maurice: “Remember You, Man, That You Are Dust!”

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

137 thoughts on “Death Lore of Brittany

  1. It’s been way too long since I read your posts and I am sorry, I don’t seem to find other words than “fascinating and delightful, entertaining and educational”…that I seem to always use…but that is because.. they really are!. Now in my mind, I see the relentless Ankou, the people laying out their white cloths and some pouring milk on the graves of their departed. Your descriptions and as always amazing illustration you find..keep these images in the mind for a long time. Thank you, for your dedication to these stories and myth the hard work you put into each one. All of us reading you,so appreciate that.

    Liked by 1 person

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