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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

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

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, 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, 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, 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.

154 thoughts on “Death Lore of Brittany

  1. Your is perhaps one of the few blogs I actually read thoroughly. The history and the illustrations are spell binding. If I’d ever had such a good history teacher in school, I would’ve taken it as a major. An excellent blog.Please accept my heartfelt compliment for your writing

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What an incredibly kind thing to say. Thank you so much. I am humbled by your words of support and very pleased that you enjoy the reads!!
      For me, it was science – the teachers made it seem dull, dull, dull but reading books long after school brought the wonder of science alive for me!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Completely fascinating. In New Mexico I’ve seen santos (holy figures carved of cottonwood) representing Death as a cart-driver “la carreta de la muerte” so I was quite struck by the resemblance.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. We went to the Dia de los Muertos festival in our downtown last week. My wife took a lot of pictures and sent some to her folks, then had to spend some time on the phone with them explaining how Dia de los Muertos isn’t exactly “Mexican Halloween”, doesn’t involve trick-or-treating, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A fascinating look at the origins of All Saints Day and All Souls Day from the Breton viewpoint! It’s unfortunate that we in the advanced secular Western economies have lost our “familiarity with death” that yesterday’s Bretons enjoyed. As you mention: “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 as is often the case, it seems, fear lurks in the darkness of the unknown. We humans are helpless in the face of the omnipotence of “An Ankou – the Breton personification of death.” Is America’s commercialized celebration of Halloween an attempt to laugh at Ankou or the Grim Reaper and thereby reduce the Master of Death’s grip over us?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you!! I am happy that you enjoyed the read! Yes, that is an interesting observation; by reducing death’s grip we do seem to become even further disassociated from it. This then makes it even harder to cope with it, once it inevitably happens to those we love!!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. How fascinating! I hope that the old traditions never die away completely. What a loss that would be. These ideas are precious. As usual, your writing style is so compelling. Thanks for the research! Hope you are well.🌟

    Liked by 2 people

  6. All Saints Day is celebrated tomorrow, Monday 1 2021, and in my country we go to the polls to vote for our local governments. Pray for us and may the saints be with us.
    Thank you for this interesting read.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A superb narrative on the mystery of death and afterlife and the customs surrounding it in past Breton. It seems over the ages we have tried to reconcile death but still fear and revere the dead. The existence of an afterlife remains one of the most controversial for man. Thank you for a wonderful read. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Holly!! I am very glad that you enjoyed it! 🙂 Yes, death and the question of ‘what next’ seems to have preoccupied humanity for ages and I suspect it will continue to hold us tight in its shadow of fascination for some time to come! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks Sherry!! You’re right, death was more accepted and thus less feared back then. Even if folks survived their early years and managed to avoid any fatal infections, death was viewed as a natural inevitability. It seems that death becoming an almost taboo subject happened around the same time that multi-generational homes began to disappear. Now death is something that happens “elsewhere” rather than in the home surrounded by loved ones.


  8. As always, a fascinating read. In the Midwest, where I grew up, it was not uncommon to see old farmhouses with a few graves on the property. Grandpa and grandma might pass away, but they only went so far.

    A friend of mine in upstate New York had a family plot (not her family. The graves were far too old) on her property. One of the things that stands out in my memory is several members of the same family dying within days of each other. Some disease swept through the region and killed them. I’ve long since forgotten what it was—scarlet fever? Typhoid fever? Something people don’t ordinarily die from now. It’s easy to forget how fragile life was—and not all that long ago.

    Thanks for an interesting, thoughtful read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much! I am glad that you liked it! I suppose in the US, where the distances are so vast, is would make sense to bury on property where the graves could be attended rather than 20 miles away in a town visited maybe once every six weeks or more.
      You are right, infectious diseases remained the biggest cause of death right up until after WW2. Sadly, it seems to have taken covid to remind us that, despite our medical advances, life remains a fragile thing!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Yes, indeed. And one that we saw coming. It didn’t have to be this bad.

    Though I don’t think many people practice home burial anymore. Perhaps in rural areas, but I think that’s more a relic of the pre-WWI era.


    1. Hi Nancy, You are most welcome! Thank YOU for taking time to read it! Some of our traditions are so second-nature to us that we often forget how they started. 😉 Plus, there is an awful lot of ‘re-inventing the past’ out there! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  10. In my young believer Catholic school days, there was a long chanting called the Litany of the Saints. However, I remember later on that some names had to be removed from so-called sainthood– either because of erroneous ancient politics, friendships, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There was a time when the qualification for sainthood was set rather low!! I recall a famous case where the Prior of an Abbey was granted sainthood yet he had died drunk after falling down a well in his stupor!!

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Interesting to know that there are two different days such as all saints’ day and all souls’ day aligned to pay obeisance to the deceased family members. We have a similar ritualistic beliefs in Hinduism called ‘Pitru karma’ which is offering prayers for the smooth travel of departed soul at the subtle level. Nobody can know the status of a departed soul, as a caution and as a gesture of gratitude all are remembered. It is believed that we have a debt to be paid to those who have contributed to our lives. To see chaos everywhere is stupidity – to see order everywhere calls for intelligence. So, one must attempt to educate but not argue of its authenticity of existence of such faith system.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. How anyone survived mentally and emotionally whole in the old days, I just don’t know. What with Ankou there and the old man with the scythe here, ready always to cut us down, it’s good to know that, despite them, people still loved, laughed and danced in the face of threat and annihilation. Tomorrow, perhaps, and tomorrow must have been their watchword. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Another wonderful post. I particularly enjoyed this one, but I have a darker frame of mind so I always appreciate learning about how other cultures view death. It’s interesting, because I grew up in the Southwest of the United States, in New Mexico, and in our culture Death is personified in the figure of Doña Sebastiana, a skeleton crone who travels the roads in her creaking cart as she collects souls. Your depiction of the Ankou reminded me strongly of her. And in our proximity to Mexico, we have assimilated many of their death-related traditions, such as lighting the way for the spirits of the dead to return on All Saint’s Day, leaving food and drink for the dead to consume when they do return, and the use of flowers. We use marigolds instead of chrysanthemums…..but so many similarities. I guess like many other beliefs and cultural folklore that we share, Death is another thing we have in common. Thank you for sharing this marvelous post! And a very happy All Saint’s Day to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!! I am pleased that you enjoyed the read! 🙂
      Your recollections of NM and Mexico are very interesting, particularly, as you noted, the similarities in practices and beliefs! Quite striking really!!
      The thing that surprised me most about the beliefs here was how relatively recently they survived. We tend to think of these things as archaic not within memory of folks we knew!


  14. Ooh, so apropos to the time of year!
    I love the idea that many people used to believe “earthly life was only a passage between an earlier eternal life and a subsequent eternal life.”
    That reminds me of the song “Row your boat,” you know, the one ending with, “Life is but a dream.”
    It’s sad to think that in such a short time, the generation’s beliefs almost did a 180, and those philosophical thoughts about death have been swept under the rug like all the rest of us do. I think the other way of thinking was a lot healthier.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am happy that you thought so, thank you!! 🙂
      Yes, exactly! I too think that the earlier viewpoint was a healthier and more balanced one. Nowadays, we are relatively divorced from death and I suppose it was a natural separation once we stopped having multi-generational families in the same home. Isn’t it funny, how one change can cause so many others and all quite quickly?

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Wonderful! Absolutely wonderful!

    I can’t help but draw parallels with the Breton ‘Anaon’ and Welsh ‘Annwfn’ in reference to the names of the Otherworld!

    And it is very tempting to liken the cup marks on graves and blessing them with milk and holy water with the cup marks found on Neolithic sites. Alas! As for whether the comparisons have any truth, we’ll never really know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks indeed! I am happy that you enjoyed it!! 🙂
      Yes, I am certain that the Welsh and Breton share the same ancient Briton root. So many names and meanings exist even today despite the changes undergone by both language streams.
      The cup marking idea is rather tantalising although I would perhaps have expected that tradition to have evolved in Great Britain as I think your megaliths contain more cup marks and the ones here? A very interesting theory!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Possibly! Although just to add a further element of similarity, it was recorded in the 19th Century that it was customary in my native Yorkshire to offer cream or milk to local spirits, deities and fairies….. apparently Yorkshire belief had it that the souls of the dead became fairies. So, even if the origins of both our peoples offering milk to the dead came from different sources, it’s interesting they both came to the same offerings. 😃

        Liked by 2 people

  16. Terrific timely tale – although I am late in reading it! Happy belated Halloween. I concur with Rev. Sabine – graveyards feel like a commune. I had no idea that they celebrated the Day of the Dead, as they do in Mexico. Life is much easier if we are relaxed about death – none of us are immortal (unless you are about to write about Breton vampires?) My husband was fascinated at the first Irish Catholic Wake he went to with me. It was my great aunt who died in her 80s and it was a celebration of her life. He also loved the measures of whisky that the nuns (from her nursing home in Colwyn Bay) poured…generous to be sure!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks!! Alas, they do not celebrate it any more – well, not like they used to. Although Halloween is slowly starting to make in roads!
      Ha, yes, wakes here also have become rarer and far more subdued than in the past. Nuns and whisky? That sounds like the start of a limerick! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I celebrated All Saints day with family.

    My nephew was Pope John Paul II …

    When I was young I had to take a saints name (confirmation) is only through church not government … but I took the name of Saint Elizabeth 🌹❤️

    I also bought some things for someone I want to remember who has passed on during Day of Dead – I will have to bring to grave later

    I do love how your tradition also leaving food out for the souls who were homeless ❤️

    Your Ankou sounds similar to our grim reaper ??

    Would be very cool to see!

    We used to be a lot closer to our dead also… but not so much now

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, that sounds like a double blessing!! Glad that you are all together! 🙂

      Yes, there are definite similarities between the Ankou and the grim reaper but I am not so sure that I would want to see them – well, not until my allotted time haha.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lol yeah Covid known for making you be alone… just not in this case lol … we stuck with Covid together

        I am thankful to be going through with my family – otherwise I would be all alone 😮

        I’m not very afraid of death at all. Almost died a few times already anyway. Not my time I suppose… but doesn’t scare me much anymore

        I am the plant grim reaper – I can not keep plants alive to save my life 😮 they always die on me!! Except ONE aloe plant, which I am allergic to lol … but that one plant survives for me ❤️

        Liked by 1 person

      2. 🙏🙏🙏 hope so – I hate being sick so much!! I just wanna sleep, not totally with it

        No plant would want this 🤒☹️

        You make sure you be careful!! Stay safe & well!!

        Liked by 1 person

  18. I just saw that I unfollowed you and I don’t know how that happened🥺
    Anyway, why did they pour milk on the graves?

    So interesting how they put separation between the ones that didn’t like eachother. I like that the idea of that. But how did they determine who’s soul was in heaven and have not yet made it there?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How annoying but very happy that you found me again!! Sadly, my keyboard no longer connects to the computer and I am having to use the on-screen keyboard right now 😦
      I am uncertain how ancient the practice of offering libations of milk to the dead was but it features as the offering of choice in many of the old beliefs and superstitions here. Likely the cow was a symbol of vigour and its milk far safer than many waters?
      Hope all is well with you and yours? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh no the on screen keyboard. I know that is tough! Thank you for explaining. Love this read.

        We are doing great. It’s getting a little chilly outside and makes me want to stay undercovers and watch movies all day. LOL

        Liked by 1 person

  19. We have lost so much of how to deal with life in our current Westernized, “Modern-Christianized” view (or non-view, rather) of death. One of my favorites is John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud”. Great thoughtful and historical lesson, as always. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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