Venerated since antiquity, the horse long played an important role in the popular religious and secular traditions of Brittany. The beast was more than a mere symbol of power and prestige or a useful descriptor for the state of the ocean waves; it was an integral part of the farming unit and the object of unique rites, superstitions and enchantments. Many of the region’s legends associate the horse with water and death; just like the notorious water horses found elsewhere in the folklore of the Celtic fringe.
Regular readers will know that I am wary of making sweeping generalisations regarding early Celtic beliefs. However, it is fair to say that the Celts likely esteemed the horse a powerful and perhaps sacred animal. The Gallo-Roman god of horses, Epona, is believed to have been a Celtic god before becoming established in the pantheon of the Roman world as the patron goddess invoked for the care of horses as well as a protector of stables and cavalry. Some of the extant iconography and surviving dedications suggest that Epona was also considered a fertility goddess.
The horse as symbol of fertility, sexual vitality and power was noted as a prominent part in the coronation ritual of the Celtic kings of Donegal; a 12th century account relates that the king-elect coupled with a white mare in the presence of his people before bathing in a tub in which the sacrificed horse was boiled piecemeal. The king and his people ate the horse’s flesh but the king alone drank the broth in which he bathed. If this was indeed a genuine ritual; it was one rich in the symbolism of power.
However, we do not need to go as far back as the 12th century to appreciate the primeval power once associated with the horse. In 19th century Brittany, the most powerful talisman said to bring good fortune upon the household was the afterbirth of a horse, that of a white mare was held to be the most potent. Taken as soon after the birth of a foal as possible, the afterbirth needed to be placed around the base of the hawthorn tree nearest to the house to be most effective. Similarly, drinking from a bucket of water after a horse had drunk from it was thought to fight off a fever, while the milk of a white mare was considered a most effective remedy against whooping cough
The horse was not only of itself a symbol of power but of wealth; the animal required attention, training and feed as well as a plethora of specialist equipment if it was to be utilised for warfare, personal transportation or even as a draft animal. Archaeological evidence suggests that horses were once revered enough to be the objects of sacrifice and worthy of quite elaborate burial rituals. Such reverence even included eating the animal’s flesh. A practice attested by the fact that several Popes in the 8th century instructed the bishops to ensure that their congregations in this part of Europe refrained from eating horses, jays, crows and hares – all then ritually eaten meats.
With ancient historical roots, the special affinity felt towards the horse in Brittany flourished during a time when the horse was a key part of the family and farm; an aid to labour, a means of transportation and a source of pride. Up until the Second World War, the horse was closely associated with all important life events and popular gatherings, such as weddings and funerals, church services and pardons, fairs and harvests. The horse markets of central Brittany always drew thousands of men from across the region and were an important rite of passage for boys keen to understand what made for a good horse and to learn from the horsemanship of others.
Similarly, the well-attended sacred celebrations known as pardons were always surrounded with secular elements such as ball games and horse races. Many pardons were specifically noted for the blessing of horses, such as at Gourin, Saint Nicolas-du-Pelem, Saint-Péver, Paule, Plaine-Haute and Plouyé: all in central Brittany. Other notable pardons for horses were held in Quistinic, Saint-Eloi, Goudelin, Plérin and Plouarzel. Each of these pardons possessed its own rituals that needed to be followed to ensure good health for the animal over the year ahead.
In some, the horse was led around the church or fountain three times before being forced to kneel before a statue of the saint being invoked; a horseshoe or length of tail being presented as an offering to the saint. In others, the horses were sprinkled with blessed water from the saint’s fountain or ridden through some deep pond fed by its waters. Sometimes, such as in Saint Nicolas-du-Pelem, water was rubbed into the horse’s ear or over its genitalia such as at Plérin. In Plouyé, the horses would be mated after receiving holy water; the mare being struck with a stick immediately afterwards.
Another ritual horse bath was practiced in Pouldreuzic on Brittany’s west coast on the feast of Marymas (8 September), when hundreds of horses from the surrounding parishes were ridden into the sea in an annual ritual that was believed to bring them as much health as a priest’s blessing. Many have speculated that these water rituals are the remnants of ancient fertility rites that simply refused to die-away completely after the establishment of Christianity in the peninsula. It is worth noting that several examples of the ritual sea-bathing of horses at harvest-time were once recorded in other parts of the Celtic fringe.
The arrival of Christianity steadily transformed the ancient devotions by subsuming many into the cult of saints. Thus, it is not surprising that many Breton saints are closely associated with the horse. Chief amongst these are Saint Eloi who was most often invoked against diseases and at the birth of a foal and Saint Gildas who was called upon for strength and fertility. Other saints, such as Hervé, Herbot, Korneli and Nicodème were also petitioned by farmers anxious for the health of their horses. Those who relied on their mounts in the heat of battle solicited the support of Saint Solomon III; a ninth century king of Brittany considered a protector of horsemen thanks to his military prowess, or Saint Théleau whose legend claimed that if this stag-riding saint was invoked by horsemen before launching a charge, they were accorded the privilege of being seven times stronger than their adversaries.
The loss of a horse amounted to a tragedy for a humble farmer but before the advent of professional veterinarians there were few ways to guard against it. Under these circumstances it is little wonder that yesterday’s Bretons called upon the power of the saints to protect their horses and to strengthen the effectiveness of these devotions with complementary practices like witchcraft. For many, there was no contradiction in the simultaneous use of the parish priest and the local witch; both invoked God and His saints, used the sign of the cross and attached certain numbers such as three, seven or nine, a special value. The witch or sorcerer was regularly consulted to heal sick animals or preserve them from harm; an ailing horse might have been the victim of a curse and so the witch would be called upon to cast the appropriate spells of disenchantment or to cast a malicious spell against the horse of a rival.
Witches were believed to possess the ability to control animals and it was thought they could revive a sick horse but also weaken it by transferring the animal’s power onto themselves. Sometimes, spells were cast through words and movements alone while other times saw enchantments placed in earthenware vases concealed in the ground near the stable or by the gateway to a field. The use of a clay or wooden effigy known as a dagyde was also popularly used; the effigy of the horse being pierced with nails in order to weaken the animal. It was also possible for an experienced spellcaster to rebound a spell by burning certain pieces of a horse suspected of having died due to witchcraft.
The health of the horse was also subject to a great deal of superstitious beliefs and practices. For instance, it was once believed that when horses were afflicted with colic, the only effective remedy was to have them change parishes. Warts were thought cured by a ritual that involved blowing on the affected area while making the sign of the cross and reciting certain charms. The sign of the cross was also used in the cure for sprains in horses but most healing remedies called for plant-based infusions and ointments such as that of Hawthorn to cure lameness.
To treat horses suffering from ulcers and tumours, a white cloth soaked in the water taken from a sacred spring was applied. If this treatment was unsuccessful, a mixture of saltpetre and water was smeared on as a lotion; very serious cases were doused with a tincture of Wolf’s-bane root that had been macerated in cow urine. A horse that had become overfed was treated with a drink made up of a handful of salt dissolved in human urine, while a drink made from boiled Boxwood bark was given to treat rheumatism.
In Brittany, the toad was frequently associated with the evil spells cast to injure livestock and in the west of the region one was often nailed to the stable door to ward-off evil, so it is interesting to note that some 18th century authorities recommended purging a horse by using toad venom to induce diarrhoea. In another remedy, horses suffering from worms might be cured if an excreted worm was pierced with a Hawthorn twig; all other worms infecting the horse would immediately die.
Local superstition once attached some curious weaknesses to the powerful horse. It was said that if a horse ate a spider, it would die; a similar fate could be expected if it met the gaze of a fire salamander. If the foot of a mole was wrapped in a Laurel leaf and put into a horse’s mouth, it was said to immediately take fright. Moles were sometimes held to have once been fairies or princesses who had rejected the early evangelists and perhaps this helps explain the belief that if a black horse was washed with the water in which a mole had been boiled, the beast would immediately turn white.
Brittany has a number of, mostly malevolent, supernatural horses; the majority of whom were described as white. Around the Grand-Lieu lake in eastern Brittany tradition tells of a marvellous white steed known locally as the Mallet Horse. Only appearing after sunset, the horse appears perfectly bridled and saddled; a perfect lure for the exhausted and unwary traveller. Once mounted, the horse is said to gallop with the ferocity of a whirlwind; a ride that always ends with the death of the rider and leaving little trace save some torn clothing or scraps of bones.
The only way to avoid such a fate at the feet of the mallet horse was to travel prepared. Several countermeasures were once advised: six coins marked with a cross thrown across its path was said to stop it, as was making the sign of the cross and throwing holy water but the most effective protection was thought achieved by possession of a medal of Saint Benedict, popularly known as the Sorcerer’s Cross.
More commonly noted in the north and east of the region, is the Mourioche; a malicious spirit able to transform itself into any animal form but most often noted in the guise of a horse, particularly a yearling colt with muscular arms. The horse appears at night, waiting at a crossroads for the unwary traveller, its spine stretching to accommodate as many people as necessary. It took those foolish enough to mount it, straight to their doom; propelling them into a river or an abyss. At other times, it wrestles passers-by, grappling them with its strong arms and throwing them into water-filled ditches.
Like other creatures of the night, it was traditionally advised never to speak to the mourioche lest it mistreat you cruelly and drown you in a river. The beast’s only weakness is that it is confounded by anyone who does not show it fear. One story tells that it took a tailor into a lake but when the tailor threatened to cut its ears off, the horse immediately returned him to the safety of dry ground.
Many legends tell of the painful pranks of the mourioche and the lives devastated by it. Near the northern town of Saint-Cast, a farmer once found the mourioche in the form of a lost sheep and took it home to his barn. The next day, when he went to check on his new sheep, he found instead a cow; the day after, it had become a horse. On the fourth day, it was a sheep again but this time it laughed and said: “Why do you check on me every morning? You are a strange one!” It was then that the farmer saw that all his animals had been slaughtered; he reached for his gun but the beast fled, destroying half the barn and taking with it the farmer’s three children.
During the nights of the new moon, it was said to follow people along the road, changing shape every time they turned to look at it, before jumping on a man’s back until he collapsed from exhaustion. However, one of the cruellest tricks the mourioche would play was to possess the body of a recently deceased relative to scream insults at the grieving family and chase the children present at the wake.
Legends differ regarding the origins of the mourioche. Some tell that it was once a person, versed in the dark arts, who sold their soul for a magical potion; others that it was a man afflicted by a curse similar to that of the werewolves, having the ability to change shapes but without control of his actions. There are even those who claim that it is the Devil himself.
Other horrible horses can be found across the region; in western Brittany, a stallion known as Marc’h Melen encouraged passers-by to mount him before trying to kill them. Around Carnac in southern Brittany, the Kole Porzh-an-Dro was a mischievous shapeshifter that mostly appeared in the form of a bull but it sometimes took the form of a horse; if anyone had the imprudence to climb on its back, it galloped towards the sea and once amongst the waves, vanished from under the legs of its rider. The same region also carries tales of a protean spirit known as the Gwrifer who often assumed the appearance of a horse to make mischief. Another notorious shapeshifter of Breton legend, the Bugul-noz was also said to occasionally assume the appearance of a horse but, like the White Mare of La Bruz, was more mischievous than malevolent; depositing those imprudent enough to ride it into the water.
Eastern Brittany was also the location of the Beast of Brielles who often appeared as a horse that terrorised travellers by blocking bridges or biting people, leaving behind only broken bones. Just 40km (25 miles) south lie the forests once ravaged by the monstrous Beast of Béré often described as indescribable, the creature was sometimes reported to have taken the form of a horse. Of immense size and strength, the beast was said to be immortal although, thankfully, no sightings have been reported this century. Further south, in Saint-Malo-de Guersac, a sorcerer was once said to terrorise children playing near the seashore by appearing to them in the form of a horse.
Predominantly, the supernatural horses of Brittany were most closely associated with water; some being highly localised. Near the village of Plouguenast, a horse was said to show itself to the local children before gently stooping down so that four or five might find a place on its back. Fully loaded, the horse sped off to drown all the children in the nearby ponds and rivers. Just 25km (15 miles) north, around the Bay of Saint-Brieuc, a local legend tells of horses that see the sea suddenly compelled to rush to the shore before disappearing into the waves, never to return. A little further along the coast, markings on rocks near Trestel beach were traditionally said to have been made by the Devil’s horse.
Around Gourin in central Brittany, the country folk once spoke of lands that seemed impossible to enter on certain evenings. The farmer, driving his cart, saw his horse rear-up and refuse to move forward as if it were presented with some fearful obstacle. The only thing that could be distinguished was the sound of galloping hooves turning in a great circle. The wise man did not force his horse to cross this magical ring but unhitched his beast and allowed it the shelter of a tree. After cockcrow, the path became free of all enchantments.
Local legend tells that no one has ever seen the shadow horse except an old beggar, a graceful man who shared his bread with those poorer than himself. One night he knocked on the door of a house in the village of Tréogan, eyes wild with fear he cried: “I have seen the shadow horse pass. It circled around the village ridden by a dead man.” The people of the house ushered him into their barn but found him dead the next morning.
On the highest point of the road between Gourin and Spézet is a place that carried a sinister reputation right up until the First World War; horse dealers and farmers avoided the spot believing their horses saw things invisible to men’s eyes that caused them to bolt in fear. Not surprisingly, the behaviour of the horses was put down to a spell cast by the mischievous korrigans eager to see the horses race.
Some legends accentuate the close links between the little folk of Brittany and the horse. In the south west of the region, a korrigan-like creature known as the Fersé was believed to manifest itself as a colt or stallion demanding the bridle that had been taken from him. In the 19th century, it was widely believed that korrigans visited lonely stables at night in order to care for the horses there. They were also accused of taking the horses and making them gallop on the moors at night; how else to explain the lethargic or sweating horse found in the morning? Further proof of their mischief were the twisted hairs found in the manes which were said to have been plaited to form little reins and stirrups. Interestingly, mares with such “fairy knots” were once reputed to become good breeders.
Another group of Breton legends tell of characters that ride horses to whom they have given the power to walk on the waves. The people of Clohars-Carnoët said that Saint Maudez used to visit the chapel dedicated to him there by riding his white horse across the sea. A little further along the coast, it was said that when Saint Gildas was fighting a dragon, he commanded his white horse to leap to the island of Houat some 13km (8 miles) away. Such gifts were not reserved for the saintly as a sorcerer from La Tranche-sur-Mer, after picking some moss at the gate of the cemetery at midnight, was carried off on a white horse to the isle of Ré, 11km (7 miles) away, travelling so fast his mount barely skimmed the waves. In a modern re-telling of the legend of the sunken city of Ker-Is, the horse used by King Gradlon as he flees his damned city is named Morvac’h (horse of the sea).
Water sources and their associated deities were once venerated by the people of Brittany and it is therefore unsurprising that such mystical places were also associated with fantastic horses. In one legend, horses turn into fountains when a sorcerer’s daughter runs away with her lover. A spring near Cléden was said to be haunted by a spectral black dog, a fairly universal symbol of infernal powers, but tradition also held that a white foal also galloped thereabouts. Another ghostly horse was reported to roam the Roz-Vein moor where the sound of spectral children crying was also heard.
On stormy nights, frightful whinnies ascribed to the horse of Saint Roux are heard emanating from a fountain in the forest of Rennes. In Boqueho, local lore attests that, on certain moonlit night, horses come to drink in the stream near the menhir of Kergoff; their noise can be clearly heard but they are never seen. Another popular tradition, recorded around the Black Mountains towards the end of the 19th century, spoke of the ghost of the notorious 18th century bandit, Marion du Faouët, who prowled the area on stormy nights; nothing could be seen, only the sound of her galloping horse whose hooves, striking the ground, left a trace of blood.
The horse as guardian features in a legend of Duchess Anne, the last ruler of an independent Brittany. It tells that she escaped the aftermath of the battle of Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier in 1488 by having herself sewn into the body of a disembowelled horse which was carried on a dray through the ranks of the English forces hunting her. Symbolism aside, this legend is noteworthy because the 11 year old Anne was not at the battle and the English troops present fought on the side of Brittany against France.
In many of Brittany’s most popular old tales, the horse generally plays the role of the magical protector such as in Trégont-à-Baris where a magnificent white mare, capable of flight and covering a thousand miles in a day, counsels the hero during his quest. A similarly wise horse leads the hero through a series of adventures in Les Quatorze Juments, capturing the most powerful horse in the world along the way. In N’Oun Doare the hero is guided by a horse capable of travelling five hundred leagues in the instant a knot on its halter is loosened; the horse is eventually revealed to be a Tartar princess. In the Gwrac’h de l’île du lok, the heroine uses a magic wand and an incantation to summon a chestnut bidet (a Breton horse now extinct) that she uses to cross the sea to save her imprisoned lover from an evil witch. While L’Homme-Cheval tells of a nobleman cursed by a fairy to live as a horse until his marriage to a miller’s daughter; another version of the tale tells of a man born with the head of a colt.
Although most of the old ballads and stories that feature singular horses link them closely to water, there are also testimonies of diabolical horses and symbolic associations between the animal and death. One tale tells of a drunken blasphemer who invoked the Devil in jest only to sees the Devil’s horse with its red mane hanging down to the ground appear. Another tells of the Devil collecting souls while riding a horse that had, in life, previously been a woman. The cart of the Ankou, the Breton personification of death, was said to have been drawn by pale white horses that walked in step like those pulling a hearse. In times gone by, observing the behaviour of the horses that pulled a hearse supposedly allowed one to identify who, in life, had been a secret sorcerer; the horses being unable to move the hearse or else start running amok.
We now live at a time when the horse has virtually disappeared from daily life but the old legends continue to be told and new stories written that will captivate the next generation. Interest in the horse has not waned here and its place in Breton culture remains steadfast.