Since antiquity, trees have been associated with the mystical forces of nature and the Divine. Special or sacred trees are to be found in the traditional beliefs of cultures across the world; many possessed particular characteristics based on natural properties or else were laden with deeply-rooted symbolism. Brittany contains its share of sacred trees and a trove of legends and superstitious beliefs that attest to the reverence long afforded to trees here.
In this corner of Europe, much has been written about the beliefs of the people who dwelt here in the early years of the Common Era. However, little is really known about the spiritual life of the ancient Celts of Brittany; they left virtually no written trace and exercises in comparative mythology based on Irish and Welsh texts set down in the Middle Ages although interesting are, at best, speculative. First century accounts written by Roman authors contemporaneous with the druids tell us that their secret instruction was carried out in forests and caves and we know that certain groves, oak being especially esteemed, within forests were sacred because Romans and Christians alike cut them down in an effort to eradicate the old beliefs.
That trees once held a ritual significance in the religion of the Celts would help to explain why trees were venerated here well into the Common Era. Later, Christianity sought to eradicate the ancient religious feeling concerning trees but it was clearly a slow process as evidenced by edicts from various Church Councils. The Council of Arles in 452 expressly forbade the worship of trees and decreed that anyone who worshipped trees or neglected to destroy them, should be found guilty of sacrilege. A point reinforced by the Council of Tours in 567 that pronounced: “excommunication for all those who engage in certain practices of idolatry, such as the worship of trees consecrated to demons and for which the people have such veneration that they dare not cut off the smallest branch; and on which they make vows and oblations.”
Clearly, the old beliefs refused to be swept away for, over a century later, the Council of Rouen in 692 denounced all who offered vows to trees. Interestingly, the edicts of the Council of Leptines in 743 provide us with a small insight into the kinds of activities that still needed to be denounced; it forbade “vows near trees and in sacred woods”, “the worship of tress and secluded places” and condemned those that “make wishes in front of trees … or place there a candle or some offering, as if some power was there, which could bring good or evil”. Also proscribed were: the weaving of laurels, making herds pass through the hollow of a tree and hiding charms in trees in order to cure animals of diseases or to ruin the livestock of a neighbour. Another ritual outlawed was the making of vows in front of trees and stretching out a hand upon the tree trunk. Possibly this is the origin of the superstitious practice known as “touch wood”, still practiced across Europe today?
Forests of trees once totally dominated the landscape of Brittany and with their vitality and longevity it is not difficult to imagine how they retained their ancient associations and devotions. Many believe that the ancient Bretons venerated trees as the abodes of gods or the spirits of their ancestors. Perhaps this helps explain why trees are often closely associated with supernatural beings such as korrigans and fairies; entities who are often said to be the degraded echoes of deities venerated before the arrival of Christianity.
The little people of Brittany have long been associated with forests; dark, lonely realms that they jealously guard from the encroachment of men. Local tradition attests that the korikaned, the wildest of korrigans, claim overlordship of the forests and control the weather in order to disperse trespassers. There are many legends that place the korrigans and fairies in forest settings and others that tell of dead fairies becoming trees or that the fairies punished those who touched their favourite trees. Local lore tells of trees which one must take care not to cut, if misfortune is to be avoided. A woodcutter who had felled an ancient oak in the forest of Rennes, experienced from that moment, until the end of his days, a constant trembling in his limbs. Sometimes, the fairies’ guardianship manifested in other ways; after having built the castle of Montauban de Bretagne, the fairies are reputed to have sown the forest that surrounds it in order to give it protection.
In Brittany, the traditional folk beliefs associated with trees are, as you might expect, numerous. However, the degree that these afford us a glimpse into ancient beliefs that may have survived into modern times is for the reader to decide. There were a great deal of superstitions that associated trees with death and the Afterlife. For instance, in eastern Brittany, the leaves of the Aspen tree were said to be home to the souls of children. Those that were coloured white underneath were believed to indicate that a treasure was buried at the foot of the tree but the exact place to dig was only revealed at midnight, on a Friday, by a ray of moonlight which illuminated it for only a second.
In several Breton legends, the souls of the dead are trapped in trees; one story tells of two old Oaks endlessly battling each other, said to have been the souls of a married couple who had continuously fought whilst alive and condemned to suffer this torment until a man had been crushed between them. Similarly, some souls were said condemned to do penance until an acorn, collected on the day of their death, had become an oak suitable for some proper use. According to a belief noted around Dinan in the 19th century, an Apple tree planted on the day of the birth of a child suffers when this infant is sick, and if it becomes a man and dies, the tree withers.
Evergreens, particularly Boxwood and Laurel, were believed to be one of the preferred locations for the souls of the dead performing their earthly penance. The Laurel was also deemed surrounded with danger as it was claimed that whenever it was planted, someone in the house would die before the end of the year. The tree was therefore commonly planted on the last day of the year and by someone who was not part of the household. It is worth noting that in northern Brittany twigs of Laurel were, alongside mistletoe, once traditionally pinned to the sheets of the funeral chapel.
The Chestnut was once believed to possess a power unconnected with its strength as a hardy wood used for supporting roofs or making ploughs. In southern France, roasted chestnuts were part of the traditional meal eaten on All Saints’ Day; each nut represented a soul freed from purgatory destined for Heaven. In Brittany, in a time before coffins were widely used by the poor, Breton peasants carefully peeled the bark of a Chestnut to serve as a bier for a dead child.
One curious link between trees, their fruit and the dead is preserved in a practice noted in the west coast town of Plougastel-Daoulas on All Saints’ Day. Here, a small tree, known as the Gwezenn an Anaon (Tree of Souls), is fashioned from a trunk of Yew whose branches are cut into points upon which Apples are pierced. The tree is paraded and then auctioned; the successful bidder re-selling the Apples for the benefit of the parish, the proceeds being used to pay for masses to be said for the souls of the dead. As part of the auction conditions, the buyer committed to putting the tree, adorned with fresh Apples, back on sale the following All Saints’ Day. The Gwezenn an Anaon was thought to protect the household of its custodian against all misfortunes.
This ceremony took place in the Parish Close until the late-1970s when the local priests refused to accept money derived from such a pagan service. Thankfully, a group of locals refused to let the tradition die and continued the ceremony, much as before, at the sacred spring near the Notre-Dame-de-la-Fontaine-Blanche chapel, a short distance away; monies collected now going to community causes.
Unsurprisingly, trees were also closely associated with fertility. In times past, young women visited the Ligouyer lake near Saint-Pern to rub themselves against an Oak tree that grew near the shore in expectation of being married within the year. A Hawthorn tree in the nearby village of Miniac was also believed to possess the same virtue but only if the young girl circled the tree three times without making any sound. A similar ritual, performed on the eve of May Day, was also observed at a Hawthorn near Saint-Briac.
A little south, around Pipriac, if a young man went to ask for a girl’s hand in marriage, branches of Boxwood burning in the fireplace signalled the parents’ refusal to any union. Again in eastern Brittany, it was once customary for a new bride to enter her home for the first time through the back door; her husband being obliged to enter through the front door, which was blocked by a small tree adorned with ribbons known as ‘The May’. In the west of the region, this name was given to a branch of Beech that young men left against the door of houses on the eve of May Day as a declaration of romantic interest in one of the unmarried women residing there. At other times, aspiring suitors placed a Hawthorn leaf on the door for the same purpose.
One of the simplest traditional spells to attract love here consisted of heating a red Apple by rubbing it between one’s hands, cutting the fruit in two and sharing one half with the object of one’s affections. Wands made of Hazel were believed able to allow the skilled practitioner to know whether they were truly loved by their partner but wands made from Apple wood were said best for those rituals involving the control of human emotions.
In Brittany, those seeking marriage or children customarily visited sacred springs and saints’ fountains to undertake certain rituals believed to bring about the desired outcome. However, deciding which was likely the most favourable source to visit was a task handled by the local witch. This was typically done by a ritual known as ‘the pull of the saints’; a branch of Hazel was burnt over a container of water while the names of propitious saints were recited. The name pronounced at the moment the first piece of burnt wood fell into the water, signalled the saint’s fountain to be visited.
In southern Brittany, new brides were traditionally presented with a Laurel branch loaded with apples and bedecked with ribbons. In many parts of the region, new brides were given Hazelnuts on their wedding night or else sprigs of the tree were placed at the foot of the bridal bed; a practice believed to aid fertility. It was said that if the Hazel tree carried a lot of nuts on the day of one’s wedding that the bride would bear more girls than boys. The connection between trees and birth is also found in a local legend that tells that the woman who ate the leaf of certain Oaks was assured the birth of a child.
If a newlywed wanted her husband to love her dearly, it was recommended that she put a Walnut leaf, picked on Midsummer’s Eve, in her left sabot while the Nones bell was ringing. However, if it seemed as though her husband was going to abandon her, calling upon the power of the Chestnut tree was said to be an effective means of guaranteeing that he did not; provided the wayward spouse ate Chestnuts with every meal and Chestnut wood was burnt in the fireplace. Another curious belief can be found in a practice once recommended to ensure marital fidelity through the year ahead. This advised that upon hearing the first toad of the year, one took a branch of Hazel and struck the marital bed with it eight times without drawing breath.
As a symbol of vitality, the healing power of trees was once widely accepted here and numerous rituals were noted as extant in Brittany at the end of the 19th century. Those people that visited sacred springs in hope of being cured of their ailments often, as part of the ritual, hung various objects or items of clothing from the branches of trees that grew nearest the spring. Following the belief that disease could be transferred from the patient into another being or even inanimate object, people would sometimes bind themselves to a tree with a tie of straw or rope in hopes of passing their fever.
However, it was more typical for the patient to visit a tree before breakfast and bind a tie that had been in contact with the disease onto the tree, at the height of the sick part of their body. The sickness was said to ease as the tie rotted but only if a certain charm had been recited and the bark of the tree bitten. It was also essential that no part of the ceremony had been witnessed by another. There is an account of a beggar who once held a powerful reputation for healing fevers; his most effective remedy involved the Aspen. Having climbed the tree and cut its bark with a knife, the healer sucked the sap while intoning: “Tremble, tremble harder than I tremble.” The patient was believed healed as their sickness passed into the tree.
The region’s folk medicine also called upon trees to provide the ingredients necessary to treat a broad range of ailments. A decoction of Alder bark was said to cure a fever, as were Horse Chestnuts boiled in sweetened milk. Rheumatism was treated by boiling Ash leaves in water while boiled Walnut leaves were used in the treatment of skin diseases such as eczema, boils, herpes and even frostbite. A hot poultice made from Walnut leaves was used to treat toothache, as was a roasted Hazelnut.
Patients suffering from liver disease, asthma or whooping cough were treated with Apples cooked in cabbage leaves over red charcoal; hot Apple cooked over charcoal was also applied directly as a treatment for earache. To cure ringworm, an Apple was cut in half and its seeds replaced with sulphur before the two halves were tied back together and baked. Once mashed, the Apple was applied to the affected area for five days.
One cure for warts required the sufferer to cut an Apple in half and rub the warts with both pieces before tying them together in a Fig leaf; as they rotted, the warts were expected to disappear. Some healers believed that the ritual was most effective if the Apple was buried at the foot of a Walnut tree. Another remedy called for the Apple to be cut in half with one half remaining attached to the tree; having rubbed the warts with the detached piece, it needed to be grafted back onto the other half by a length of twine or a dowel. As the fruit rotted, so did the offending warts.
Many Bretons once wore or carried pieces of wood about the body to cure or protect against illnesses; a Horse Chestnut carried in a pocket was said to protect against rheumatism and prevented haemorrhoids. To treat epilepsy, a Hazelnut filled with quicksilver was placed in a scarlet pouch that was hung around the neck. Animals too could be protected by the power of trees; to rid sheep of worms, they were made to wear an amulet of three or nine different kinds of wood. Likewise, collars of Ash branches were hung around the neck of cattle to guard against Foot and Mouth disease. Some people carried the tip of an Alder branch and some of the tree’s bark in a small pouch as a protective talisman against the Evil Eye and other misfortunes. The tree’s sap, when collected before dawn on 10 March, was regarded as a powerful weapon in the fight against the forces of darkness.
In Breton folklore, when God created the Chestnut tree, the Devil wanted to imitate His creation but only succeeded in making the Horse Chestnut. Breton children were once cautioned against eating raw Chestnuts lest they attract lice. For those that were infested, one popular remedy called for the sufferer to visit a riverbank before sunrise and there beat their shirt for an hour with a branch of Blackthorn. This tree was also utilised in disenchantment rituals involving cursed livestock.
A patient suffering with fever was believed cured if a cross made of Laurel was placed on their chest while the priest read from the gospel during Sunday mass. However, sometimes it was not even necessary to make physical contact to enjoy the power of a tree; on the moor south of Combourg, three Oaks once grew very close together and it was believed that just to pass between these trees would cure the patient of any fever.
The mystical elements surrounding trees fostered a number of beliefs and superstitions regarding their ability to project magical power. At Saint-Pôan, an enormous Oak was said to have once been a man transformed into a tree by a fairy’s curse. This tree was believed to act as a plug that stopped a spring from overflowing; if it were uprooted or felled, the land would be inundated for a hundred leagues around. Near the northern town of Quintenic, it was once claimed that there was a plant which only grew in the hollow of Oak trees. If one ate this plant while holding a bunch of Mistletoe and Verbena, they were immediately granted the power of becoming invisible at will and of being able to travel instantly from one place to another.
In western Brittany, a ritual known as Barrin ar Mae (May Branch) was performed on the eve of May Day. A branch of Beech but sometimes Birch was hung in front of the house in order to bring on good luck and to protect against evil. Similarly, the gateways to fields were often honoured with a May Branch in order to ensure a good harvest.
May Day was believed a time when cows were particularly susceptible to the power of sorcerers and their evil spells. For instance, five or seven Hazelnut clusters passed under the door of a barn and dragged to the spellcaster’s house were said to stop any cows in the barn from producing milk. In order to protect them against such misfortune, an elaborate ritual was performed; the cattle were taken from the barn which was then cleaned thoroughly. The leaves of a number of plants, namely Bay, Bramble, Elderberry and Laurel, collected that morning, were then burned with scraps of old leather in all the corners of the building. As a final mark of protection, branches of Elderberry were hung from the walls inside the barn and a Bramble fastened in the form of an arc above the door.
Many trees were believed to cast a protective spell over people and their animals. Hawthorn was said to protect one against lightning strikes; an attribute that it shared with Laurel and Holly. The Holly tree was considered a design of the Devil; formed out of spite against the marvels of God’s creation. Despite or perhaps because of this, the tree was said to also protect one against poisoning and evil spells. Branches of the tree were also hung in barns in the expectation that they would repel cow sores. Similarly, a branch of Medlar, if placed above the stable door on the morning of Good Friday, was thought to ward off the bad luck that jealous neighbours might throw on one’s livestock.
Near Landeleau, a tree known as the Oak of Saint-Thélo attracts the attention of many pilgrims who visit the town on Pentecost to participate in the Troménie de Landeleau; a religious procession that covers a time-honoured 15km circuit. The bark of this tree was traditionally prized in the belief that it afforded protection against fire but these days it is collected as a talisman for good luck. When the original tree died about 15 years ago, popular devotion transferred to a younger oak belonging to the same grove.
It was said in Upper Brittany, that each Hazel tree possessed within its folds a branch that turned into pure gold. This branch made a wand that was reputed to equal in power those of the greatest fairies. However, this prize could only be gained if cut between the first and last chimes of the bell announcing the Christmas mass and that whoever tries and fails, disappears from this world forever.
Often associated with magic, Hazel was said to furnish the very best divining rods, particularly when searching for hidden springs and silver, but, handled well, it could also indicate whether one was truly loved by their partner and who amongst us was a thief. The power of Hazel was also manifested in the belief that sorcerers could make it rain by beating the water of the ponds with Hazel wands. A branch of this tree was even reputed to kill snakes with just a single blow and yet curiously Hazel was the only wood said able to handle new honey which was never stirred other than with a stick of this wood.
Certain trees seem to have been granted the ability to impart knowledge: around Dinan, it was once said that if a young woman cooked an oak apple, of a certain maturity, in the water of a spring that watered a cemetery; she would be imbued with all the wisdom and knowledge of the ancient fairies. One Breton story tells of a girl who sought absolution for having had three children by a priest; absolution was granted because a rod of Holly that she planted in the sand took root and flourished. The moss found under the shade of an Ash tree that grew near a stream, if gathered on the night of a full moon between eleven o’clock and midnight while the cuckoo sang three times, was once considered a sure way of finding the Devil.
Other trees seem to have possessed some kind of innate power such as the Chestnut tree whose harmful shade was said to causes diseases of languor to those who fell asleep under its shade; the Ash also carried the same sinister reputation. However, Beech wood was hung in front of the house and stable in order to, by its presence, bring-on good fortune and protect against evil over the year ahead. Likewise, throwing a broom made of Birch onto the ground in front of a sorcerer who entered your house was believed enough to counter any curse.
In Brittany, it was said that the trees which grew near houses wanted to see what was happening there; they were imbued with a vitality and personality akin to a domestic animal. On May Day, Medlar trees were even said to lean towards the ground in an effort to encourage people to trim them. This close affinity between humanity and trees is perhaps best summed-up in an old Breton saying: “When you cut down trees, the earth shakes!”