The legends and folklore of Brittany are rich in tales of hidden treasures and the lure of great wealth that lies within the grasp of any intrepid soul that is courageous enough to make the attempt but wise enough to abide by the unwritten rules of the quest.
In common with most other tales of treasure hunts, the treasures hidden across Brittany are difficult to locate but when local legends happily point to a precise location, extraction is never a straightforward undertaking. Usually, elaborate rituals are required or certain conditions, like absolute silence, need to be observed. Sometimes, external factors must be taken into consideration as many treasures are held to only be vulnerable at certain times of the year.
Many traditions here speak of dangerous times when treasures were thrown into the security of a lake or deep well. A little south of Janzé in eastern Brittany, it was said that the local lord once threw a barrel filled with gold to the bottom of the lake near Sainte-Colombe. A similar legend is attached to the lake of the castle of Montauban-de-Bretagne some 50km (30 miles) to the north-west. While 35km (21 miles) further west, a well of the Motte-du-Parc near Le Mené is reputed to contain a door which leads to a subterranean chamber that holds all the wealth and weaponry of a once-powerful local lord. According to legend, these treasures all remain hidden because none have yet been bold enough to seek them out.
A barrel full of silver and gold pieces is reputed to lie in the marsh near the Bossac lake in Pipriac but it can only be successfully extracted by four immaculate white oxen harnessed above it and only if the herdsman utters not a single sound before leaving the commune’s boundaries. A tale tells that an enterprising man once procured such oxen and managed to harness them with stout chains to the precious barrel. Slowly, the barrel began to move through the mud; tantalising reflections of the treasure danced over the murky water. Excited by the riches almost within his grasp, the man could not restrain a cry of joy; the chains creaked loudly, the marshy water stirred in an unusual way and despite the resistance of the oxen and the desperate efforts of the man, the barrel recoiled violently and disappeared into the marsh. It is said that, on certain nights, the sad shadow of this wretched man wanders the marsh, weeping for his imprudence.
In a land where constant labour did not always guarantee a meal on the table, the lure of unearned wealth held a particular fascination; an unmerited rise from poverty was viewed with suspicion which likely helps explain why tales of treasure trove here were surrounded in uncertainties and superstition.
Around Lesneven in western Brittany, tales tell of immense hoards of treasure guarded by demons who usually assume the form of a black dog. On Palm Sunday, during the singing of the Mass, the demons are forced to make an exhibition of their wealth, though they artfully disguise its real value under the appearance of leaves, stones and pieces of charcoal. It is said that if you can succeed in sprinkling these objects with holy water, or even in touching them with some other consecrated item, they immediately reveal themselves as gold and you may fill your pockets freely.
Hidden treasure was once most closely connected with the supernatural here; either as guardians of secret riches or as mischievous confounders of greedy human treasure hunters. On the west coast Île d’Ouessant, the mysterious creatures known as danserienn-noz (night dancers) were reported to invite passers-by to join in their dances in exchange for fabulous treasures. It was said that the only way to survive their infernal dance was to stick a knife into the ground and graze against it at each round of dance but never to go beyond it. If one succeeded, any wish they made was granted but failure was said to result in broken kidneys.
At the other end of the peninsula, elves were believed to amuse themselves by spreading objects that shone like newly-minted gold coins on the sands of the beaches around the Bay of Saint-Malo. However, those that bent down to collect the coins were disappointed to find only seashells. The region’s most infamous supernatural creature, the korrigan, was also said to delight in preying upon human greed by showing passers-by gold rings and jewels glistening in a pool of water but when a person bent down to take their trophy, they were seized and pulled into the korrigan’s domain. Similarly, in western Brittany, a protean spirit known as the Droug-Speret (Evil Spirit) was said to dwell in ponds and wells, where it tried to attract women and children by deceiving them with the appearance of gold jewellery shining at the bottom of the water.
Sometimes, even the Devil himself was held to lure human souls with the temptation of treasure. It was said that the verges of the pathways trodden by the devout attending Christmas Mass often glistened; such reflections were not of moonlight but of gold coins scattered by the Devil to enchant the unwary. Deep cracks appeared in the earth around the base of the wayside crosses, offering a tantalising glimpse of a stream of gold coins but any who tried to enrich themselves were unable to keep hold of their gold. For each coin collected immediately escaped their grasp, leaving on the fingers an indelible black imprint and a terrible burning sensation, like that of Hellfire.
The Devil was also reputed to offer people the gift of a magical, money cat in exchange for their soul. To secure such a cat it was necessary to visit a crossroads at midnight and there invoke the Devil. One’s supplications would be rewarded by the appearance of a large black cat who would be accompanied by another smaller cat which would be given to you along with a purse containing a few gold coins. If treated well, the cat would start wandering at night; returning to you each morning with a purse full of gold coins.
However, upon the expiry of the diabolical contract, the cat was believed to takes its owner’s soul directly to the Devil. All contracts, awarded by the cat, were held to be written down in chronological order in his ledger but he had an undisputed right only to every ninth entry. One could never know one’s ranking in the Devil’s account book and so it was always necessary to take care to avoid his claws as your final hour drew near.
There were several ways to outwit the Devil and emerge unscathed with a little of his wealth. In one example it was necessary to take a pitch fork, a completely white-feathered hen and some golden grass to a crossroads. When the black cat appeared at midnight it was crucial to immediately release the hen so that the cat would chase after it. The hen, while running away, will scream that the cat has better things to do than chase her. The golden grass will allow you to understand the languages of the beasts, so that when the cat responds to say that he can stop watching over the treasure buried in such-and-such a place for a few minutes, time enough to catch a chicken, you will learn where the treasure is hidden and need only to dig it up with your fork. Even if the animals followed the script, securing the mythical golden grass would have made this a most challenging enterprise.
Treasures were sometimes to be found in the most unlikely of places. Along the Breton-Norman border, it was once said that if one struck a fatal blow to a Fire Salamander while it crossed a road and took care to guard the body overnight, the morning light would reveal as many gold coins as amphibians killed.
According to local legend, during the 18th century, dwarfs lived underground below the castle of Morlaix; they were prodigious miners and frequently exposed their gold to the sun to dry it. The passer-by who modestly held out his hand in hope was given a metal handle or some other trinket but the one who came with a sack was swiftly turned away and beaten. Perhaps a less risky undertaking would be an exploration of the ground below the old chapel on the small island of Île Callot in the Bay of Morlaix; a spot long said to protect the hiding place of a great treasure hidden on the island by marauding Danes in the 5th century.
A little further along Brittany’s northern coast, another legend relates that between Beauport Abbey and the Poulafret mill on the coast at Paimpol, there sat a three-cornered field that was said to contain a great treasure. Over the years, many people had tried to locate this prize but none met with any success. However, a young miller who had grown-up on tales of the treasure committed himself to finding it but months of diligent searching were to no avail.
Returning home from work one night, the miller was surprised by a heavy downpour and took shelter under a large oak. In the half-light, his eyes slowly discerned, in the neighbouring field, a pale glow around which several small children were gathered in a circle. Despite his uneasiness, the young man crept closer to this mysterious assembly but his courage almost deserted him when he realised that he was spying on a meeting of korrigans. Transfixed, he watched as one of their number moved out of the circle to stand next to the radiant light but was unable to clearly hear the words uttered by the korrigan, who suddenly stabbed the ground with a pitchfork and pressed his gnarled finger to his lips.
This gesture was taken-up by all the other korrigans who immediately launched into an energetic ronde or circular dance. Their dance ended as suddenly as it had begun and seemed to coincide with the exact moment the light went out; within the blinking of an eye, the korrigans had all disappeared. Seizing his opportunity to investigate, the miller ran to where the pitchfork staked the ground and stood aghast as the object disintegrated at his touch.
Placing a large rock to remember the spot, the excited miller returned the following day in order to better mark the precise location. He took only his closest friend into his confidence and the two agreed to return to the field on Christmas Eve. Under cover of darkness, they silently dug the hard ground for a long time before striking the famed treasure trove. Faced with such fabulous riches, the miller’s friend was trembling with emotion and could not help shouting out: “The fortune is ours!”
No sooner had these few words been uttered than the gold coins turned into brittle leaves. The stunned miller then remembered the korrigan’s gesture: the silence had been broken. The night also broke, forever, the friendship of the two men. Since then, it has been reported that around midnight on Christmas Eve, the ghost of the miller has been seen wandering the three-cornered field near the ruins of the abbey of Beauport.
A legend from Brittany’s southern coast tells of a poor beggar woman, scorned as a witch wherever she went, who was treated graciously by a humble paludier or salt worker from Guérande. To thank him for his hospitality, the woman presented him with a little rusty key, telling him to go, on the following night, to the korrigans’ cave on the cliff near Trégaté and to strike the key against a certain rock at the back of the cave. This action would cause the rock to cleave thus revealing an immense treasure but she cautioned him to leave the cave before dawn’s first light. Gratified by the man’s thankfulness, the old woman also gave him a ring that would make him invisible to those that might do him harm.
The following night, the paludier reached the cave just after sunset and quickly pressed his key to the rock which immediately pivoted to reveal a great chamber illuminated by the brilliance of gold and precious gems. He watched as dozens of korrigans moved piles of treasure towards a rock-cut dais where sat the king of the korrigans supervising an inventory of all the riches plundered from the ships that they had caused to run-aground in the last year. The paludier quickly filled his bag with gold and diamonds; he would be the richest man in town yet he left the cave regretting that he could not carry more.
Having hidden his booty in a menhir which magically opened on contact with his key, the paludier returned to the cave in the same manner as before. Once again, he filled his bag with the korrigans’ treasure but when he presented his key to the rock, it no longer turned; it was daylight and as his ring had lost its virtue, he ceased to be invisible and was swiftly seen by the furious korrigans who dragged him before their king.
The king’s judgment was swift; the paludier would be buried alive under the gold that he had coveted so much. This sentence was about to be executed when the old beggar woman appeared and changed into a beautiful red-eyed princess before whom the korrigans bowed. She conferred with the king and told the paludier that she had wanted to test him and that, on account of his greed, the treasure he had taken away the first time would remain forever hidden in the menhir. Nevertheless, the princess granted him his freedom and presented him with a little pewter dish which, three times a day, would be filled with whatever food he desired.
An alternative ending has our hero lingering too long in the cave after having been hypnotised by the great riches he saw there. After regaining his senses, he filled his bags and left the cave as quickly as possible but he was too late for the sun had just risen. He then looked in his bags to discover they were filled with only pebbles and seashells. Although mere mortals might simply be offered such a chance only once in their life, the korrigan princess took pity on the paludier and in consolation gave him an earthenware plate that magically filled with as much food as he wanted.
There are several old tales that tell of korrigans and fairies rewarding mortals who had done them some service or simply shown them kindness and appreciation. Usually this is said to be a loaf of bread that never diminished or some other inexhaustible item such as a magical plate but these precious gifts immediately lost their virtue if one did not fully observe any conditions imposed by the little folk; typically these involved not speaking of them to anyone and not sharing their magical bounty with strangers.
Local legends once reported that, at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve, one of the menhirs that stood on the summit of Mont-Belleux near Luitré was lifted by a solitary blackbird to momentarily reveal a great treasure. Anyone impudent enough to try to seize it was doomed to be crushed to death as only the korrigans could move fast enough to take the gold. Sadly, these ancient megaliths were destroyed in the 19th century; the last in 1875 to provide hard core for a new road laid nearby. Local tradition cautions against walking on the mountain at night else one encounter the korrigans dancing around the site where their stones once stood; their destruction, a sacrilege still resented by them.
Similarly, the menhir of Kerangosquer near Pont-Aven was said to guard a buried treasure whose presence was heralded by a rooster that sang at midnight on Christmas Eve. As with other sites, this treasure was only accessible during the sound of the Midnight Mass bells when the menhir took itself to drink at a nearby stream. As you might expect, there are several popular tales told of men who came to grief, having been crushed by their greed under the weight of returning menhirs.
Menhirs were not the only prehistoric megaliths reputed to hide great treasures; the Neolithic long mound known as Le Castellic near Carnac is the site of one legend, unusual in that the treasure guardians are bested by a mortal man. The tale tells that one evening, a poor farmer was wandering near Le Castellic when he thought he saw little men on the mound; some dancing in the moonlight, others emerging from the mound or sinking into it. In his surprise, he uttered an exclamation and immediately the korrigans all disappeared. The farmer resolved to confirm what he had seen and on the following day returned to the mound with a large shovel. After digging for a whole day and deep into the night, he finally exposed an underground chamber where the korrigans were crouched around an old cooking pot which they seemed to watch keenly. On sighting the farmer, the startled korrigans fled in all directions and it took but an instant for the man to grab the pot and scamper away from the mound. On safe ground, the farmer looked inside the pot and was delighted to discover a trove of korrigan gold.
Certain nights of the year were widely regarded as most propitious; during these special nights and usually at midnight, unseen forces could move mountains and seas to reveal hidden treasures ready to be claimed by those bold enough to dare. Some local traditions tell of castles and cities here that were engulfed by some calamity but which reveal themselves on certain privileged nights. One tale from northern Brittany tells that in the area now covered by the dunes of Saint-Efflam, a fine city once stood; ruled by a king whose sceptre was a hazel wand with which he changed everything according to his desires. However, the debauched living of the king and his people caused their damnation, so that one day, God sent waves so powerful that the sands of the shore rose to entomb the city.
Each year, during the night of Pentecost, on the first stroke of midnight, a passage reputedly opens under the mountain of sand that allows one to reach the king’s palace. In the last room of which is suspended the hazel wand which gives all power but if this is not gained before the last sound of the midnight bell, the passage closes and does not re-open for another year. A variant of the tale tells that it is at the first stroke of midnight on All Saints’ Day that the passage opens, leading to a well illuminated room where the treasures of the buried city are laid out but at midnight’s last chime, the lights immediately extinguish, the passageway closes and all is hidden in silence and darkness for another year.
It is probably to this same city that the legend relating to a city concealed within the nearby Grand Rocher massif refers. This rocky spur was said to entomb a magnificent lost city that could be seen in its brilliance through a narrow fissure that only opened up on Christmas Eve once every seven years. The city would be reborn, if someone was brave enough to venture inside and managed to penetrate to the depths of the mountain at the first stroke of midnight and re-emerge before the sound of the twelfth bell died.
The magic of Christmas night was again manifested in the belief that during Midnight Mass, at the moment of consecration, spectral candles cast light on the locations where hidden treasures could be found. However, not all treasures were buried, for it was said that each hazel tree grew a branch which turned into solid gold on Christmas night. To pick this prize that was believed to make a wand equal in power to that of the greatest fairies, it needed to be cut between the first and last sounds of the midnight bell but whoever did not succeed was said to disappear forever.
It is important to remember that not all treasure brings great wealth; perhaps the greatest of all treasures is that which endures through the years and flourishes in times of poverty as much as in times of plenty. A local legend asserts that the fairies of old sometimes left the mainland to find peace on the Île des Ébihens off Brittany’s north coast. One became lost in an underground passage there and subsequently fell into a deep sleep; she remains there still. Whoever can reach her will win her heart and would be able to marry her and live together happily ever after but to awaken her, one must first endure ordeals of water, earth and fire.
If the reader is tempted to consider the quest, be careful to locate the right underground passage as another legend says the island is home to a murderous monk who, having refused to perform the penance which had been imposed on him, remains trapped in an underground chamber where owls constantly tear out his hair and beard; condemned to remain there, alive, until the day a white dove places the relics of Saint Anne on his head.