The thick forests, lonely moors and windswept beaches of Brittany were long said to carry heavy dangers for the unwary traveller abroad in the Breton night. Local legends tell of frightening werewolves, menacing black dogs, murderous horses, sinister black cats and hungry basilisks but there are tales of many other, more ambivalent, fantastic beasts.
Most of the ruined castles that pepper the landscape of Brittany have some marvellous myths attached to them; one of the most commonly shared legends attests to the presence of enchanted hares. The castle of Tonquédec was said to be the home of an enormous hare that wandered amongst the ruins, particularly on the nights of the full moon. Hunting dogs were said to stop at its sight and when pushed to pursue, the hare did not flee in panic but withdrew slowly before suddenly disappearing without trace.
Three other castles, namely Coatfrec, Kerham and Coatnizan, all within 15km (10 miles) of Tonquédec, were also said to have been haunted by mystical hares. This suggests a once powerful local belief in the punishment meted out to evil men after death, for these hares were believed to be the souls of the old lords forced to undergo their penance in this form. In life, the old lords had made their people tremble and so, in death, they were condemned to live as the most timid of beasts. It was said that their souls would only be delivered after they had suffered as much pain as they had once inflicted on others. The bullets of hunters were said to pass through their bodies without killing them and without spilling a drop of blood but they suffered as if they had been killed each time.
It is worth noting that, more generally in the Brittany of this time, the souls of girls who had been deceived by their lovers were believed to haunt them as hares.
The ruins of the 13th century Penhoat castle near Saint-Thégonnec (not to be confused with the 18th century castle of the same name once owned by Karl Lagerfeld) is home to a white rabbit of extraordinary size that only appears at night. The legend here does not connect the animal with a former lord; the family were one of Brittany’s most noted and deserted the castle after its partial destruction during the Wars of Religion at the end of the 16th century.
The rabbit is said to display itself before running furiously into the former moat and up along the lines of the old battlements, passing the same spot a hundred times or so before sprinting to the top of the south tower crying its pitiable lamentations. Hunting dogs were reputed to have refused to chase it and any human hunter that dared inevitably lost sight of it amongst the brambles. Perhaps this was once said to have been a former inhabitant of the castle, recoiling in terror, as the forces of the League advanced on the castle but their memory now long since forgotten?
In the east of the region, the Beast of Béré was a creature of immense size and strength that once terrorised the lands around Châteaubriant; sometimes reported to take the form of a dog, boar, horse or even a sheep. The beast was said to trample travellers to death or to drown them in Lake Courbetière or one of the surrounding rivers. Reputed to be immortal, the creature was believed to be the tortured spirit of a young woman who died hidden in captivity as the result of an illicit affair with a monk from the nearby Priory of Saint-Sauveur.
In southern Brittany, the Kole Brizh (piebald bull), and the Tarv Garv (rough bull) were dangerous bulls who carried away those people who crossed their paths. A similarly malevolent bovine was noted in central Brittany under the guise of buoc’h-noz (night ox). Clearly, the need to warn against such powerful beasts had distinctly local origins now lost as the bull is usually depicted fairly in Breton lore.
Indeed, the Blue Bull, one of the most famous Breton fairy tales, features a magical old bull who nourishes and protects a young girl tormented by her wicked step-mother. He leads her safely through enchanted forests and gives his life in her defence but before dying he tells her of a castle where she should go for safety. Taking work as a goose herder, the girl is known as Wood Jacket on account of her drab clothes but one Sunday she resolves to go to church and visits the bull’s grave to ask for a pretty dress. Her request is rewarded with a garment made of the finest silk and a pair of golden slippers. The young lord of the castle, who had paid little heed to Wood Jacket, was instantly smitten by this beautiful girl in a golden silk gown. When he sees her at church on the following Sunday, he rushes to speak to her but Wood Jacket flees, losing one of her golden slippers as she does so.
A white doe was said to wander the moors of Kerprigent near the north coast town of Saint-Jean-du-Doigt. The beast was described as docile but agitated, seemingly searching for something yet quick to follow those who chanced across its path. If she met a young girl and blocked her route, the girl was sure to marry within months but was destined to die within the year. If she followed an unmarried girl, it was a sign that she would never marry but if she showed herself to a married woman, it was to announce the imminent death of her husband. Marriage within the year was also assured if the doe appeared before a young man but if he was under twenty years of age her appearance foretold the death of a close relative.
Another elusive creature was the Morilhon, an animal which was said to resemble a fox that only appeared on the night of 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption, when it circled the Ménez Hom mountain in western Brittany; according to legend, fabulous wealth will fall to the one able to capture the beast. In recent years, some have argued that this beast was no more than a practical joke but it was attested in the region’s folklore in the second half of the 19th century.
On the Île des Ébihens off Brittany’s north coast, a red donkey was often reported perched on the steep rocky ridges overlooking the sea. This ungodly beast was thought to be the ghost of a former owner of the island who is doomed to atone for the many scandals he inflicted upon the town of Saint-Jacut; a penance that will not end until a woman from that town makes him bleed with a stroke of her sickle. This notion of evil not resting until blood has been shed is also found in Breton werewolf superstitions and noted as a means of destroying the power of the bugul-noz; a mostly malevolent chimeral monster of the Breton night.
A beast that lurks in the forests between Fougeray and Pierric in eastern Brittany is another accorded a most peculiar pedigree. It is said that at the end of the 17th century, a powerful baron presented the lordships of Fougeray and Roche-Giffart as a dowry for his daughter on her marriage to the Lord of Coetenfao; a man renowned for his cruel nature and whose dissolute life brought desolation to so many families. One of his most notorious crimes was the murder, near Pierric, of two young women who had spurned his advances and it was near this spot that, after his death, a previously unknown animal was sighted. Nicknamed the Beast of Pierric, this strange animal, black as night and the size of a heifer is said to constantly prowl the old pathways between Fougeray and Pierrict. No clear description has ever been given of this beast but it was said to be stronger than the largest dog and often announced by a mysterious ball of fire.
There are other local legends about strange creatures that seem to have once been people supernaturally transformed and cursed to spend the nights running as white greyhounds, red owls or white cats. One popular tradition from western Brittany talks of mysterious white-tailed beasts that roam at night, jumping on the back of any late night wanderers and forcing the unlucky traveller to carry their enormous weight.
While the crow and the magpie were popularly regarded as birds of ill omen and the owl and the sparrowhawk as birds of death, others were to be feared for the immediate danger they posed to the living. In northern Brittany, an indistinct bird known as Ar Vaou was said to kidnap small children, while in central parts of the region, a bird known as Ar Liketaer enjoyed a similarly sinister reputation but was also said to push children, particularly girls, into rivers. In some districts, this bird was confused with the kestrel whose Breton name sounds quite similar.
Sometimes, local lore seems to have been moulded so as to warn children of unseen dangers, perhaps Ar Liketaer is such an example and possibly the tales surrounding the secretive two-headed viper (Naer a daou-penn) or the snake that was said to swallow its victims with a flick of its tongue. However, it is difficult to see the same connection with the horse-viper (Naer marc’h); a dragonfly that was accused of stinging as violently as a snake.
Although by no means regarded fantastic beasts, certain animals were thought to possess fantastic qualities. The hedgehog was thought to suckle cows and any cow that ate the grass upon which a hedgehog on-heat had urinated was certain to fall ill; the same was believed true of the grass visited by a female hare on-heat. Pigs were said to be condemned to death if a shrew walked on their backs, while the last glance of a weasel condemned any poor beast to death within the year.
Some peculiar beliefs once surrounded the lizard here, for it was said that while the creature was ambivalent to men, it hated women so much that it would attack them by leaping onto their faces. However, it was believed in eastern Brittany that if a woman managed to tame a lizard, she would have the power, when she wore it in her dress, to know all that had been said and done for ten leagues around and the ability to cure all diseases.
Similarly, the humble toad once enjoyed a most sinister reputation and I have yet to discover why this was so. Possibly it was because the toad was frequently associated with evil spells designed to harm livestock. To counter this, in the west of the region, one was often nailed to the stable door to ward-off evil although impaling the little creature on a pointed stick and leaving it die under the glare of the sun was quite commonplace. It was said that if one wounded a toad without killing it outright, it would return at night to suffocate its attacker in their sleep. Some even claimed that the wounded toad never forgot its enemy and could wait many years before enacting its revenge; if its target died before it had claimed its vengeance, the toad was said to throw venom upon the grave of its enemy.
Belief in the toad’s innate power can be sighted in several other old superstitions. In the Breton borderlands it was once believed that if a man stared at a toad for long enough he would eventually kill it but that the opposite could well happen! The toad was thought to blind those in whose eyes it urinated and that young toads could be born in the eye where the urine had entered. Hens were said never to lay eggs in a coop that had been visited by a toad and that anyone who drank milk touched by a toad would die. Toads were also called upon in folk magic; placed under the pillow of someone suffering from smallpox, the presence of the toad prevented the patient from being scarred. They were also placed on cancers in the expectation that they would somehow suck out the offending venom.
Other unassuming creatures, such as the bat, were afforded fantastic origins. Seeking refuge from a violent windstorm, a mouse sought shelter in the old chimney breast of a ruined cottage only to find it already occupied by a swallow who had built a fine nest there. The bird allowed the mouse to stay on the condition that it would brood her eggs for the following three days; the mouse accepted the swallow’s terms and brooded her eggs while she searched for food. After three days, the mouse left and it was not long thereafter that the eggs hatched and the swallow shrieked in agony; her little ones were covered with hair instead of feathers and they possessed the head and body of a mouse, with ears and hooked wings like the Devil. The swallow died of grief and after her funeral, the Queen of the Swallows had the orphans confined in the cathedral of Tréguier and forbade them, under penalty of death, to ever leave and fly in the light of the sun.
One Breton legend tells of a time when cats had horns but that they bartered them for the easy gratification of a cartload of drink and fish. The merchant who made this unusual exchange placed two of their horns atop his ox and since that time, cattle have had horns but alas they never grew back on the heads of cats. A less charming belief tells that when a rooster reached seven years of age, it laid an egg during the hottest day of the year formed from the rotten excrement of its seed. When hatched, this cursed egg delivers a small serpent that grows into a basilisk; the product of the coupling of a rooster and a toad, brooded by a snake.
The behaviour of many malevolent beasts was thought able to be controlled by sorcerers; people who even possessed the power to transform into beasts themselves. For instance, those that stole the ability to make butter were said to turn into hares to escape their pursuers or could also metamorphose into a snake in order to visit the farm surreptitiously to suckle the cows and steal their milk. Animals or parts of them were frequently called upon in spells to prevent such sorcery, burying the corpse of an enchanted mole was thought particularly effective in eastern parts of the region; another humble animal to which fantastic qualities were once attached.