The Wind-Charmers of Brittany

For centuries, humanity struggled to make sense of the natural world and its unpredictable weather. Sometimes, the blood and sweat of months of hard toil could be torn apart in a matter of minutes; an uprooted crop or spoilt harvest often spelt total disaster for a poor farming family. One of the most feared natural events here was the sudden storm or violent wind and many explanations were once proffered in an effort to make sense of these; the most popular being that certain, gifted, people could control the wind and storm.

In 18th century Brittany, winds were said to have been blown by mountain-dwelling giants, such as Norouas, the northwest wind, and Surouas, the southwest wind. Tales of lost livelihoods caused by such indifferent creatures show that they could, at times, show great kindness towards their human victims by making amends for lost crops or carrying people on their back across mighty seas but also great cruelty.  In northern Brittany, on the approach of a storm, children were once told that if they did not hasten to take refuge inside their home, they were exposed to see, between the sky and the earth to the west, the silhouette of a female black giant.

Wind Charmers Brittany - blowing wind
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In some local legends, violent winds were believed caused by dragons that lived far above the clouds. The colour of these wind dragons varied with their original direction; those from the south were said to be golden, western ones blue, eastern ones were green and northern ones white. There are tales of farmers lifting their iron rakes during a storm – in an attempt to counter the supernatural power of the witches and demons widely thought to ride in the eye of the wind – only to see dragon scales fall from the sky.

At sea, the wind dragons were blamed for whirlpools and sudden squalls of bad weather; their tails dragging under the water any craft that foolishly stood in their way. How else might one explain the many sudden disappearances of experienced sailors? Unexpected storms were also blamed on mermaids who were held to be able to unleash storms at will but also to possess the ability to calm the fiercest winds.

Wind Charmers Brittany - sea fury
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Sometimes, only supernatural forces could help to explain the fury of the sudden wind at sea. In western Brittany, it was widely believed that the souls of those who had drowned and for whom no funeral Mass had been held announced themselves to their loved ones during a storm.  Around the north coast town of Paimpol it was said that those who had drowned without being in a state of grace were condemned to labour at the bottom of the sea until the Day of Judgement; their movements being responsible for causing the wild waves. Further along the coast, around the Bay of Saint-Malo, such wild waves were attributed to the movements of a sorcerer frantically searching the sea for a magical mill that he had once lost there.

The observation of weather patterns and their effect on the cultivation of crops and thus livelihoods gave rise to many beliefs and superstitions that were particular to the wind and storm here in Brittany. For instance, the direction of the wind during the Palm Sunday procession pointed to the wind that would be dominant throughout the rest of the year.

The direction of the winds were regarded as important as they were thought to announce a particular weather pattern and a good or bad influence: the northeast wind was held to be dry, making for very hot summers and freezing winters; a northwest wind brought storms; the southeast wind was particularly unwelcome as it marked summer storms and very cold winters; wind from the southwest heralded rain. Winds from the south were said to be more benign than those that blew from the north. Sowing was thought to be best done with the northeast wind and avoided at a time of the east wind.

Wind Charmers Brittany - Corot Gust of Wind
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In the minds of our ancestors, the world was teeming with signs that had only to be interpreted correctly. In Brittany, a dog rolling on the ground announced a forthcoming wind. Similarly, magpies were said to chatter a great deal before a coming wind and in the summer, swallows flew nearer to the trees and fish swam nearer the surface of the water. In eastern Brittany, the arrival of a windstorm was said to signal that a person had hung themselves or drowned in the neighbourhood and that the Devil had arrived to claim the victim’s soul.

The power of a storm once held a particularly strong grip on the Breton imagination for, in times past, at the outset of thunder, men and women screamed at the top of their voices to prevent hail. However, perhaps the most significant manifestation of the primeval power of the storm on the popular consciousness was the widespread use of Thunder Stones.

Wind Charmers Brittany - Waterhouse Boreas
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In Brittany, the small worked stones known as thunder stones were once attributed to lightning; in fact, they were generally prehistoric stone tools or just smooth, oblong pebbles found in the fields. In common with people from other parts of Europe, the Bretons believed that these stones, having been forged in the eye of the tempest, served as a powerful protector against violent storms and lightning strikes; the stones were typically placed in the foundations of buildings, near the threshold of the house or even on a window sill. Small thunder stones were also sometimes hung around the necks of children to protect them from childhood illnesses, particularly skin rashes and eye pain. 

Deep into the 19th century, there are many examples noted here of people who carried thunder stones about their person as a matter of course or who put such stones in their hat, apron or pocket on the approach of high winds. It was believed that these stones afforded the wearer protection from the power of the elements; the logic being that a thunder stone fallen from the sky safeguarded against future thunderstorms and lightning strikes because thunder stones were thought to repel each other. Thus to possess one ensured that any stones concealed in the storm would fall away from the wearer on the ground.

Wind Charmers Thunder-Stones
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As with many of these old protective rituals, certain charms needed to be invoked to ensure success and we are fortunate that some were still noted in use here in the 1880s: ‘Stone, stone, save me from thunder’ and ‘Saint Barbara, Saint Flora, At the cross of my Saviour, When the thunder rumbles, Saint Barbara will keep me; By virtue of this stone, May I be saved from thunder.’

The 3rd century martyr Saint Barbara features in a number of ostensibly Christian conjurations noted in Brittany but it is likely that the Saint Flora or Holy Flower referenced is Hawthorn, known in Breton as White Thorn; a plant once said to protect against lightning. Whether such charms were ancient superstitions grafted onto Christian prayers, we cannot say for certain but it is worth noting that such syncretisation can be traced at least as far back as Marbodaeus, the 11th century Bishop of Rennes, who proclaimed that thunder stones provided God-given security against thunder and even nightmares.

Wind Charmers Brittany - Millet Coming Storm
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Sometimes, the influence of witchcraft helped to explain the unusual in the uncertain world around them such as a sudden blast or a whirlwind. These freak wind occurrences also played a part in forecasting the weather; a whirlwind was sometimes taken as an indicator of an impending rainfall that would last for three days and a whirlwind headed to the southwest or towards the sea was said to be fetching rain.  Sudden gusts of wind that carried away stalks of hay or straw were taken as a sign that the coming winter would be a harsh one; the straw being carried aloft to help God prepare for a cold winter. However, other tales tell that the movements of the air were so bizarre that only the Devil and his wind witches could be responsible for such actions.

One group often blamed for such phenomena were the priests, men who were often viewed by their congregations as sorcerers. The suspicion that priests were interfering with the weather was widely found in western Brittany where young clerics were said to practice their skills by raising whirlwinds or were testing the knowledge that they had gained at the seminary by performing magical changes to the weather. A 19th century priest in Cancale was even said to possess a rope that could control the wind; the art of tying-up the wind in three knots, so that the more knots that were loosened the stronger the wind would blow, is noted as having been attributed to witches in other parts of the Celtic fringe. The belief in the power of the priest to raise a whirlwind extended beyond simple creation, like witches, they were thought to be able to divert storms, to control and even travel on the wind. 

Wind Charmers Brittany - Witches brewing a storm
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Witches and sorcerers were believed to have been taught to travel in this way by the Devil himself. In eastern Brittany, it was said that it was in such winds that the Devil carried immoral women to hell with him; so desperate was the struggle of the condemned that a whirlwind was created. Others believed that the whirlwind contained a damned soul doomed to spend eternity crossing the world from one end to the other, destroying people and crops in its frustrated rage. While others maintained that such a wind contained a witch who, having given her soul to the Devil had disobeyed him and was fated to forever wander the earth without any hope of rest.

While freak winds were feared because of their potential to destroy crops, the potential to harm those labouring in the fields was not underestimated. It was popularly believed that those unfortunate enough to be caught-up in the path of such a wind were chilled to the bone, to the point of paralysis. It was therefore commonly held that the best course of action on the appearance of a whirlwind was to lie flat on the ground until it had passed; lest the power of the wind forever freeze one’s body in the posture that it was in when first encountered.

Wind Charmers - Wind Witches
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The people of Brittany were not always passive spectators in the face of the power of the whirlwind. Countering the supernatural forces thought to be behind the creation of such winds was believed best achieved by casting an open knife, scythe or iron pitchfork into the wind; it being popularly supposed that supernatural beings and witches were repelled by iron. It was also believed that the person whose sorcery had caused the wind to rise might themselves receive the blow and be hurt. In the event that the whirlwind contained a person who had been abducted, it might be the victim who would receive the blow but this could have a favourable effect as shown in this tale related by the Breton author Paul Sébillot in Les Coutumes populaires de la Haute-Bretagne (1886):

“Some folk were haymaking when a gust of wind suddenly arose. A girl who happened to be holding a knife at that moment threw it into the midst of the whirlwind. The wind vanished immediately, to the great pleasure of the haymakers who were shouting that the Devil was inside it. Everyone looked for the knife but it could not be found and so they thought that it was likely embedded in the body of someone being carried away by the Devil. One day, as the same girl was washing clothes in a nearby farm, she recognized her knife in the hands of a young woman. When asked where she had got it from, the girl answered that she had sold herself to the Devil in order to be rich because she was fed-up working but the Devil had carried her away: ‘Without your throwing a knife into that wind, I would have become a lost soul’, she said.”

Wind Charmers Brittany - VVG clouds
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Here in Brittany, it was believed that favourable winds could be summoned with a whistle but if the wind proved obstinate it was necessary to invoke the intervention of Saint Clement. If the saint appeared slow in responding to one’s supplications then he was considered asleep but it was thought that he could be roused into action if he was cursed and sworn at! However, whistling during a breeze was frowned upon lest the breeze became a storm and seafarers would not whistle when the weather threatened for fear of increasing the force of the wind.

One noted conjuration used by wind charmers called for two apples that had been cut from a tree so that they retained the stems that had held them suspended from the same branch. These talismans needed to be stored in an oak box which was placed on the table as soon as the wind signalled an approaching storm. At the second gust of wind, the box was opened under the sign of the cross. Upon the third flurry, the apples were watched keenly for any sign of trembling; any detectable movement demanded immediate recitation of the prayer: ‘Terrible and unleashed wind, through you everything will be turned upside down. There will be no safety in the house or outside if you continue. Yet, despite your threats, we have here a remedy against you.’

Wind Charmers - Spells - Wind Witches
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The wind charmers were then said to pass the two apples from one to the other while reciting another incantation and yet another as the apples changed hands once more. Finally, the apples were passed around all the people assembled in the house or barn while a final prayer was offered invoking the protection of Saint Mathurin; once popularly invoked by sailors and those seeking a cure for madness.

Other Christian saints were commonly petitioned by the Bretons of yesteryear; Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint Houarden were popularly invoked to calm the fury of a storm while Saint Budoc was called upon to change the direction of the wind; the saint was apparently born in a barrel at sea. On the Île de Sein, Saint Corentin, one of the seven founding saints of Brittany, was particularly invoked and his statue in the chapel turned in the direction of the most propitious wind. Likewise, in Saint Michael’s chapel near Carnac, women, whose husbands were at sea, swept-out the chapel in the direction that they wanted to see a favourable wind blow but the ritual was not complete until they had prayed at the sacred fountain nearby and drank its water. Similar practices were once noted in several other chapels across the region.

Wind Charmers - Sea - Brittany
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Sometimes, forces far older than Christianity were attributed with the power to influence events and grant wishes. The Neolithic megaliths that pepper the Breton landscape were long ascribed miraculous virtues and while most were related to superstitious rites designed to improve fertility or effect healing, others were believed to control the weather or contain the seas. The Roc’h-en-Aud dolmen near Saint-Pierre-Quiberon contains cupule markings reputedly made by the knees of the 14th century Saint Roch, who landed upon one of the stones when he fell from his horse. Even into the 20th century, women anxious to obtain favourable winds for the voyages of their sailor husbands would strike the cupules with a hammer; an operation that needed to be completed alone at night and without being seen or known in order to achieve success.

In one old Breton tale, to obtain a favourable wind, the hero must make a sign of the cross on the sand of the seashore with a white wand. This nugget may simply be a bit of colour added by the storytellers of old but it is tempting to speculate whether this tale had at its root some early folk memory of an ancient conjuration addressed to the wind. Like so much from such a relatively short time ago, we shall never know for sure but certainty is often as ephemeral as it is unhelpful.

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

132 thoughts on “The Wind-Charmers of Brittany

  1. A hurricane was approaching Virginia Beach in the 1980s. A local preacher took credit for praying the hurricane away from Virginia Beach, but had no response when questioned why he slammed it up the coast into New Jersey. Sounds almost like some of the windcharmers in Brittany. Fascinating post.

    Liked by 8 people

  2. Excellent post about how natural events and phenomena can be used to control the thoughts and deeds of the masses. Still, the wind is not to be trifled with, no matter how caused. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    Liked by 4 people

  3. प्रकृति की प्रचंडता को आपके यहां भूत प्रेत या पिशाच, शैतान आदि से जोड़ने की परिपाटी रही है. भारतीय जन मानस में वह सामन्यतः दैवी शक्ति ही कही गई है. पवन, अग्नि या वरुण – सभी देवता हैं यहां. वेग से बहती नदी – चाहे वह बाढ़ लाए, उसे माता ही कहा जाता है.
    यह अन्तर क्यों है?
    मुझे Abrahamic religions की जानकारी नहीं है. पर मोटे तौर पर यह अन्तर भारतीय और यूरोपीय सोच में दिखता ही है.
    हमेशा की तरह अच्छा लिखा आपने. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    1. आपको धन्यवाद! आपने एक दिलचस्प मुद्दा उठाया! मुझे लगता है कि हमें यहां यूरोप में ईसाई धर्म के प्रभाव को देखना होगा। जब शुरुआती प्रचारकों ने मंदिरों और पवित्र स्थलों जैसे झरनों और नदियों को नष्ट या फिर से समर्पित किया, तो पुराने देवताओं को दुष्ट आत्माओं के रूप में पुनर्गठित किया गया 😦

      Liked by 3 people

  4. I think animal behaviour does change according to weather patterns. I seem to recall that when that awful Tsunami hit Thailand, many animals had already moved to higher ground. We have detached ourselves too far from the Natural world. Wild weather has always fascinated me. It’s not surprising that so many superstitions arose from it. My grandmother used to cover mirrors and put away the cutlery. The paintings here are wonderful. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You are very welcome! Thank YOU for taking the time to read it! 🙂 Sadly, I agree – we really have divorced ourselves so much from the natural world and it seems a relentless process that is ongoing! 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow, what amazing legends! I live in Texas where the storms can get pretty severe. Maybe I should put some thunder stones under my hat.:-) Think I’ll skip the apple ritual, though, because it’s awfully complicated!

    Liked by 3 people

  6. That was an absolutely fascinating read. Loved the little stories embedded within it. Especially loved some of the paintings, particulary the wild ones. You have put together a very informative and interesting read here – well done!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Geographically, Brittany is very exposed to the elements, so I understand why Bretons would have such a fear of winds and storms. In Scotland the cattle would always lie down before a storm arrived. I can always tell when snow is coming – the sky takes on a strange hue. Here in south Texas we have almost no wind – when the wind picks up you can tell that a storm is a-coming. It is hurricane season…💨 As always, I am astonished at your wealth of knowledge and research.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Many thanks Kerry! I appreciate your kind and strong support!! 🙂
      Like you, I can see why these things were once so important and would have been for most windswept farming communities, sadly. Ha, yes, there is that definite change to the sky before a storm and often that wind can pick-up so very suddenly! Do you have a long hurricane season there?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is wonderfully fascinating! In the farming community where I came from there were superstitions galore. Some were about controlling the weather, and were taken very seriously. This was great fun to read! Hope you are well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Susan, I am very pleased that you enjoyed this one! It is surprising isn’t it, how relatively recently many of these old weather superstitions faded away. Or perhaps not as people claim they are not superstitious but practice the rituals anyway! 😉
      All good here thanks and I pray the same for you? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. There may be something to a few of those old Breton legends.

    In Alberta, I have noticed flocks of magpies squealing and squawking and circling just before a powerful wind storm.

    So maybe what the Bretons saw was indeed accurate.

    Animals seem to be more naturally sensitive to changes in the weather than are humans.

    I find it fascinating that the people of western Britanny regarded priests as powerful sorcerers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is interesting that you have noted such behaviour in magpies too!! I think you are right, there must be something in some of these superstitions even if just years of watching behaviour!
      Ha, yes, priests despite holding a big role in society were viewed with some suspicion here. I think there were a few contributing factors to this – they were generally literate and often from out-of-area, they were unmarried but spent a lot of time in the company of women, they were not seen to work in the way their congregations did. All theses things set them apart and to be different in a small community was not always an easy thing.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. I remember my grandmother seeking shelter from storms with a bible in one hand and a clock in the other. She would emerge from hiding only after the clock struck the next hour. For instance, if a storm subsided at 1:15, or 1:30, or 1:45, she would wait until 2:00 to declare it safe enough to go about as usual. It might have been easier for her to just carry thunder stones! Wonderful post, and I particularly love the final painting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks! I am happy that you enjoyed the read! 🙂 I love that story and can see how such a superstition might have evolved but not heard of it before!! Do you know whether it was a localised superstition or one unique to her family??

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Such a great read I enjoyed all the stories of belief and superstition. Just before it rains, I always notice flocks of birds flying around in circles just before it rains. So fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. The winds are said to whisper to you 😘 you just have to hear them and know what saying

    I would like to look for white wand – cause I would like favorable 🙏❤️

    I’m pretty sure I have one 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  13. A fascinating look into how and why people of olden days explained what was surely inexplicable back then . It is human nature to find a reason for such awesome outcomes the destructive nature of weather can leave behind. Without meteorology they were left with witchcraft, religion, and karma to blame the misfortune of wild weather ruining crops and wreaking havoc upon them. This is a fantastic write Colin, a very enlightening look into the reasoning for natural disasters as seen through the eyes of those who have no other way to reconcile such unexpected chaos. I might add , very timely too ! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Many thanks Holly! I am pleased that you liked it! 🙂 Yes, it must really have been once so difficult to understand one’s place in the world order that it is little surprise that folk turned to religion, witchcraft or downright odd superstition to try and make sense of things. Now, we have the weather app and it is as wrong as often as not! Now, where are my thunder stones? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hahaha! So true Colin. With all our technology We have just barely succeeded in being able to ascertain what is really going on and many of us still prefer superstition. It’s hurricane season here. I could use some Thunder stones. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  14. So the next time we have heavy winds and terrible weather I’ll look to see if it’s my dogs fault or mermaids or priest! 🤣🤣
    I love these stories so much. Looking forward to the next one my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Humanity is still trying to make sense of the natural world :-(.

    I love this post — wind is a major element of life here in the San Luis Valley. I wish I knew what the early people thought of it and did as a remedy, though they were not trying to grow anything. Hunting in the wind must have been absolutely crazy.

    Also, who did the painting of the little person in a world of black paint strokes?

    This is actually good advice, though the rationale is a little (little?) bizarre, “It was therefore commonly held that the best course of action on the appearance of a whirlwind was to lie flat on the ground until it had passed..”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t that the truth!! The more we learn, the more we realise how much more there is to learn!
      Hunting in the wind would have been hard work but hard work was the only thing folk once knew back then! Methods of hunting must have been refined over centuries.
      I am afraid that I have no info on the artist other than their signature 😦 I think I will change it as I like to ensure the illustrations I use are PD unless credited!
      Hmm, I suppose that advice was maybe to lower one’s profile? Thankfully, I have never had to test that theory in practice!!
      Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave some interesting thoughts! Stay out of that wind, stay well! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Don’t take down the picture, please. It has a signature. I just couldn’t read it. I love it. I was thinking this morning of those colors and of Native American colors of directions. White, Red, black, yellow — not really the same, but it’s still cool what people do.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. Wonderful article – astonishing how much rich mythology you conjure up from this part of the world. I read and enjoyed the Lore of the Drowned but never got round to dropping in with an appreciative comment.

    I find the (amateur) psychology behind this quite interesting. Did people, who perhaps lack less control and knowledge, sub-consciously use this mythology as a defence against the unknown, to take control? Perhaps a similar drive behind conspiracy theories.

    Speaking of which, I want to find a thunder stone now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks for your kind words – they are much appreciated! I am glad that you enjoyed the read and pleased you took the time to do so! 🙂
      I am sure that, to a large degree, you are right! Traditions and customs may evolve and change but we humans seem saddled with a nature that remains stubbornly familiar!

      Like

  17. Another wonderful post. The aspect of folklore that is so fascinating to me is how practically everything is attributed to supernatural forces….which is perhaps understandable given the time periods.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks!! I am pleased that you enjoyed it! Yes, I think we can ascribe the readiness to believe in the supernatural to illiteracy and the remoteness of some of these communities. That said, it was only in the early 18thC that most people really started to accept a division between natural and supernatural. As you said, these folk were products of their time. 😉

      Like

  18. Regarding Christianity, I believe that Jesus’ fundamental nature and teachings were/are notably different from the unambiguously fire-and-brimstone angry God of Judaism and Islam (not to mention the Biblical Old Testament’s Almighty).

    Followers of Islam and Judaism generally believe that Jesus did exist but was not a divine being. After all, how could any divine being most profoundly wash his disciples’ feet as did Jesus, the act clearly revealing that he took corporeal form to serve. And that he, as a hopeful example of the humility of the divine, joined humankind in our miseries, joys and everything in between.

    Even John the Baptist — who was the equivalent of today’s social activist and believed in Jesus as the savior — was left troubled by Jesus’ contradictory version of the Hebraic messiah, with which John had been raised. Perhaps most perplexing was Christ’s revolutionary teaching of non-violently offering the other cheek as the proper response to being physically assaulted by one’s enemy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These are quite valid insights although I am unsure where you have got your insight into John the Baptists’ personal views? 😉 But yes, the whole point of the New Testament is to portray the Messiah as the early Christians perceived him within the Jewish framework! Not quite sure whether the donkey in Jerusalem fits with this though!

      Like

  19. Very interesting!

    I’d be wary of seeking the protection of a storm from hawthorn though, it’s thought to protect people from lightning, but is more likely due to its short size rather than any innate ability! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I am glad that you thought so! 🙂

      Hawthorn/White Thorn had a reputation here as a good luck talisman and, yup, like the Laurel is was thought to protect against lightning strikes too. I guess that is pretty lucky 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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