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The Fairies of the Swells

According to Breton tradition, the fairies abandoned Brittany all at once and over the course of a single night. Local legends differ as to when that time was but at the end of the 19th century it was usually said to have been when one’s grandparents were very young or even during the turmoil of the Revolution; dates so distant that nothing then resembled what exists here today.

The travellers and ethnographers that visited the region in the mid to late 19th century noted many beliefs surrounding the little folk of Brittany. As you might expect, the names given to these diminutive supernatural beings often differed from community to community but there appears to have been fairly broad agreement about the characteristics exhibited by certain beings seemingly based on their habitat.

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The fairies of north-east Brittany and along an associated coastal strip about 130km (80 miles) long, stretching roughly from La Fresnais in the east to Saint-Quay-Portrieux in the west, were notably different from others found in Breton folklore or even elsewhere in Europe. In the east of the region, they were known as Les Fées des Houles (Fairies of the Swells) or Margot la Fée but terms that meant ‘My Godmother Margot’ and ‘Good Ladies’ were also popularly used. In the Breton speaking areas to the west, Groac’h vor (Sea Fairy) was used although Groac’h was also a word that could be used to describe a witch or a crone.

Like the korrigans, the Fairies of the Swells possessed magical powers; they could foretell the future, shapeshift into any human or animal form and were able to travel from one end of the world to another in the twinkling of an eye. Fairies were often spoken of with a sense of reverence for it was widely believed that they refused to be mocked and ruthlessly punished those that ill-treated or disrespected them. They loved to dance but were often shy and wary of human contact and thus made their homes in hidden isolated places such as coastal grottoes or sea-caves.

Fairies of the Swells - Brittany - Sea Fairy - Fairy Cave
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These fairies were almost always described as beautiful people; fallen angels condemned to an earthly exile for a certain period. Around the areas of Le Mené and Moncontour, it was said that after the revolt of the angels, those left in Heaven were divided into two camps: those who had fought on the side of God and those who had not. These latter angels were sent to live on the earth for a time, some of whom willingly abandoned their parallel world for regular incursions into the daily lives of our ancestors.

Around the fishing port of Saint-Cast, the fairies were said to have dressed in clothing made of white canvas but further inland, near Le Mené, one who claimed to have knowledge of such things in 1880 described: “human-like creatures whose clothes had no seams and no one knew which were men or which were women. When seen from afar, they appeared to be dressed in the most beautiful and brilliant clothes. When we approached, these beautiful colours disappeared but there remained on their heads a sort of cap in the form of a crown, which appeared to form part of their body”.

Local legends generally describe the fairies as well-educated, wise, young and very beautiful although some appeared to have been centuries old, with teeth as long as a man’s hand and with backs covered with seaweed, barnacles and mussels. If these appearances seem remarkable, it is worth noting that the fairies of Cotentin, further along the coast in neighbouring Normandy, were reputed to be very small with breasts so elongated that they threw them over their shoulders to better suckle their babies which they carried on their backs.

Fairies of the Swells - Brittany - Sea Fairy - Cotentin Fairies
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As in other parts of Brittany, some of the region’s fairies were said to live in dolmens or under menhirs or other great rocks – locations that perhaps hark back to earlier devotions and ancient stone cults. For instance, during the nights of a full moon, fairies were said to emerge from the dolmen on Île-Grande near Pleumeur-Bodou to dance their favourite circular dance. Likewise, tall, beautiful fairies, dressed in purest white and so luminous that looking upon their faces was like seeing light through a horn lantern were reported to enjoy moonlight dances around a dolmen near Caro each Easter night.

In the area around the towns of Lamballe and Moncontour, fairies were said to live under some of the protruding rocks that emerge from the ground in that neighbourhood but only if they were also sited very near to a stream or pond. Protected by the elements from the overhanging stone, the fairies lit their fires and watched over their cattle. Their presence in the area attested by the markings on the stones said to have been made by their feet or by the nails of their sabots.

Throughout Brittany, both fairies and korrigans were most closely associated with water; the latter usually with springs and ponds, the former with streams, rivers and the sea. Near Saint-Pôtan, the waters of the Guébriand River were said to be home to a fairy that lived in a fine palace hidden by the reeds and aquatic grasses; her blond hair could be seen above the water on nights when the moon was clear and sometimes one could her wonderful singing. This fairy could assume the appearance of an eel or even take a human form and was feared because it was believed to possess the power to petrify unmarried girls.

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In central Brittany, a pond in the forest of Huelgoat was said to be the location for a great meeting of fairies who congregated there each year, at the summer solstice, to judge those of their number who had shown themselves particularly spiteful to their human neighbours. Each fairy was able to cast their opinion without fear or favour and those found guilty were condemned to stay at the bottom of the water until the next appearance of the summer solstice.

While Brittany’s islands contain legends of fairies and mermaids, their presence on the more numerous islets were rarely noted but exceptions do exist. On Ebihen, lost in the underground passages said to be hidden there, sleeps a fairy who would marry any man willing to undergo ordeals of water, earth and fire to reach her. A little further along the north coast lies the Île de Bréhat where a fairy famously transformed some shepherds to stone for having leered at a mermaid basking there. Off the south coast, the lake in the centre of L’île du Loc’h was said to be the home of a wicked fairy whose great wealth surpassed that of all the temporal kings combined. Here, she seduced hapless men, turning these unfortunates into fish and serving them as a meal for her guests.

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Along the coast of the Bay of Saint-Malo, between La Pointe du Grouin and Cap Fréhel, the myriad caves fronting the sea were said to be the abode of the fairies; some were said no larger than a rabbit warren while others were as grandiose as a cathedral. If one was surprised at the smallness of some caves, legends were at hand to explain that they had not always been like this but had fallen victim to some cataclysmic event or that, like at the Teignouse grotto, they had collapsed the moment the fairies abandoned the country. The largest dwellings were said able to accommodate extended families and their households with only the antechamber visible at low tide; some were said to extend deep into the land, even as far as 40km (25 miles).

In some legends, the caves inhabited by the fairies were not damp, dark holes punched into the earth but a microcosm of the world above them with sun, sky, floral meadows, trees and even stately castles. However, most tales mention only normal but spotlessly clean caves that were sometimes closed by a stone door or hidden behind a nondescript old door covered with wet seaweed and other plants.

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Aside from their great age and magical powers, fairies were believed to live their lives as their human neighbours did; albeit with an assumed lifestyle more akin to those Bretons living near the top of the social spectrum. The fairies baked their own bread, they spun yarn, did the laundry and were even held to keep chickens and to tend their own herds of cattle.

A very few tales mention male fairies, known as féetauds, who are almost always described as husbands, brothers or sons; in the fairies’ realm, males were thought to have been fewer in number and held magical powers inferior to the females. Many legends also note that the fairies lived with a unique race of little men or elves known as fions. These men – there were no female fions – served as servants and cowherds to the fairies and were said to be so small that their swords were no larger than bodice pins.

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However, some tales talk of fairies marrying mortal men with whom they communicated the mysteries of nature and the secrets of their magic. This select band of men subsequently adapted to a subterranean domestic life, enjoying their new life so much that the passage of time seemed but half as long as it really was. In one tale, the object of a fairy’s affection was an old man who had been long baptized, the fairies baked him in an oven to reduce him to ashes before kneading him anew; a ritual that made the new husband young and handsome. 

Courting a fairy was clearly not an undertaking for the fainthearted with human suitors usually subjected to a series of trials and harsh ordeals. Having won a fairy’s heart, the mortal man was generally given a final opportunity to avoid the commitment of marriage by having to agree upon certain, sometimes seemingly bizarre, pre-conditions such as not using harsh words or throwing anything at his wife. The terms were unequivocal; the fairy would give her new husband her total devotion but their union would be irrevocably broken if the husband did not completely observe the conditions he had agreed were acceptable to him. Tales tell of the marital bond between fairy and mortal often being severed suddenly; either due to the over-sensitive nature of the fairy but more often due to the ill manners or falsehoods of the husband.

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One story relates that, after a long absence, a lord returned to his castle with a beautiful young woman whom he had married in a distant land. She always wore dresses so long that no one, not even her husband, had seen her feet. Indeed, it was only after having sworn never to look at them that he was able to become her husband. They lived happily until one day he scattered some ash on the floor of their bed chamber. The instant she entered the room, her husband saw the imprint of crow’s feet on the ash. Carried away by anger and pain, the lady, a most powerful fairy, cursed the lord and his lands; the castle sank into the earth with all its inhabitants and was covered by water. The site it once occupied now forms a lake whose depth no one has yet been able to fathom.

Another legend from northern Brittany warns of the dangers of losing the favour of a fairy. It was said that during the wars of the Revolution one of the fairies that lived near Saint-Cast once fell in love with one of the soldiers garrisoned nearby. She followed her lover and kept him safe wherever the army sent him. Indeed, while they were together, the soldier was never injured and only knew the taste of triumph. However, the fairy subsequently abandoned him and all luck left him immediately; he was wounded and all the battles in which he fought ended in bitter defeat.

Sometimes, a fairy’s love was unrequited, such as occurred just across the Bay of Fresnaye. Here, the whirlpool of the Rocher de la Fauconnière near Cap Fréhel was traditionally said to have been feared by sailors, not because they were incapable to handling their vessels there but because the spot was cursed and had been since the day the phenomena was created by a fairy who rushed into the waves at that spot; desolate with grief when a fisherman she loved rejected the love potion she had presented to him.

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Like the fairies recorded in other parts of the Celtic world, the Fairies of the Swells sometimes seized the children of their human neighbours to substitute them with their own; now popularly known as changelings. A typical story tells how a fairy mother takes a pretty little girl and replaces her with an ugly creature that appears as old as stone but generally the fairy changelings are almost always males. Such changelings were said to have been insatiable and a burden to their human hosts while the human babies taken by the fairies were believed to have been granted special powers and enjoyed a life so pleasant that twenty years seemed to pass as quickly as one day for them.

Considering that the fairies are almost always portrayed as very beautiful and righteous, the notion of their begetting and discarding extremely ugly children is not without interest because some authors have suggested that legends of changelings and infants that were said to have been ‘taken by the fairies’ began as stories to explain away the appearance of babies born with abnormalities or those that had disappeared altogether. In one notable example from the town of Dinard in the 1850s, a woman in her thirties was described as no bigger than a girl of ten years of age; a condition ascribed to her being a fairy changeling.

For the Breton household desperate to regain their missing child, several remedies were noted as effective in the region’s folklore. It seems to have been important to force the changeling to reveal itself as such and one of the ways this was done was by piquing its curiosity to incite an involuntary reaction, either through song or exposing it to something remarkably bizarre such as boiling water in broken eggshells. Another certain means to expose a changeling was to beat it or even to pretend to beat it: such drastic measures were said to cause the fairies to immediately return the baby they had stolen.

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Fairies usually enjoyed a good relationship with their human neighbours and were generally regarded as benevolent; ‘good ladies’ and ‘our good ladies the fairies’. Provided any pact made with them was respected, the fairies were generous and compassionate towards humans, healing wounds and curing local children of diseases such as croup. The fairies around Saint-Cast were even said to have collected the children of fishermen at sea in order to send them to their schools and instruct them in their oldest secrets.

A legend common to several parts of the region tells of hungry fieldworkers politely asking the fairies for a little bread being pleasantly surprised to discover, at the end of whatever furrow they were working on, a fresh loaf of bread or a hot pancake placed upon a clean napkin and accompanied by a sharp knife. Sometimes, the fairies’ benevolent nature was witnessed by their desire to protect people from harm, such as in the legend of a pregnant woman who, in her desperation, tried to drown herself but was saved by the fairies who nurtured her and hid her in their swells.

Another tale tells of a fisherman floundering off the coast, sighting, through the evening mist, a white-clad woman beckoning him ashore. Anxious to avoid the treacherous rocks that skirted the coast, the fisherman tried to tack away from the shoreline but was helpless against the power of the waves. His small boat was quickly engulfed and was smashed against the walls of a cave where he lost consciousness. He awoke the following morning to find himself in a smart new boat filled with clean tackle and a great catch of fish.

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Local tradition attests that the land now covered by the moor of Cap Fréhel was formerly cultivated and once supported a large farm. Thanks to the kindness of the fairies who then lived in the neighbouring cliff, the farmer enjoyed the finest crops in the country. One day, a fairy came to his house and, to test him, asked for charity. The farmer, who did not recognize the fairy in the disguise she had taken, pushed her away harshly. The next day an old woman knocked on his door and begged him to give her something to eat: “Do you think I will feed all the lazy people who come to my house! Go away! I have nothing for you”, he cried. As the crone did not move, he took her by the arm and pushed her away but suddenly, instead of the poor woman who hobbled along, he saw a lady as beautiful as sunlight who said to him: “Since your heart is so hard, your harvests that have been so good in the past, will be as bad in the future.” From that day on, despite the farmer’s hard work, his fields produced nothing but thistle and thorn.

Given its importance in Breton society, it is little surprise that the fairies were usually portrayed as exemplars of charitable behaviour; they gave willingly and generously to the poor who asked politely or to those who had unselfishly rendered them some service. Typically, the gift was a piece of bread that never diminished or some other inexhaustible item such as a magical plate or cup. However, in one tale a man was rewarded with the gift of a golden pear that, provided it was kept secretly hidden under his pillow, produced three gold coins every morning. All these precious gifts immediately lost their virtue if one did not fully observe any conditions imposed by the fairies, such as not speaking of them to anyone or not sharing their magical bounty with strangers.

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A legend from Port-Blanc recounts the tale of a woman who, one evening, walked past a fairy cave on the nearby Île des Femmes. Seeing a faint light, she ventured into the cave and saw, in the dim shadows, an old woman who motioned for her to approach before handing her a distaff, telling her that she would benefit from it as long as she did not tell anyone of its provenance. The visitor promised her discretion and on returning home spun splendidly for months; the distaff did not diminish and all her thread was sold as soon as it had been spun. The woman would soon have made her fortune but her idle tongue could not be contained. One day, when a neighbour asked how she created such beautiful thread, she boasted that she had been blessed by the Sea Fairy. At that instant, the distaff ran out and all the money the woman had earned was gone.

There are several accounts of the damage wrought by the fairies’ cattle and the responsible way in which they, as good neighbours, handled any reparations. Near the village of Tressé, a cow owned by the fairies was said to have caused some damage in the meadow of a farmer whose anger was swiftly assuages by one of the fairies who gave him a piece of bread in compensation, telling him that it would neither shrink nor harden as long as he kept it a secret.

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Another legend tells that a black cow belonging to the fairies once ate the buckwheat growing in the field of a local widow. The woman complained to the fairies who told her that she would be paid for her crop and gave her a cupful of buckwheat in settlement, promising that it would never diminish so long as none was given away. That year, buckwheat was very scarce but no matter how much buckwheat the woman and her family used there was never any less found in the fairies’ cup. Alas, one day a rag-picker appeared at the woman’s door begging for a little food. Never one to refuse charity, the woman, without thinking, gave him one of her pancakes and immediately, as if by magic, all the buckwheat in the cup disappeared forever.

A similar tale was told near Plévenon where a farmer was compensated for the damage done to his wheat field by a cow belonging to the fairies. They gave him a small loaf of bread, telling him that it would not reduce as long as it was eaten only by the family but would vanish if even a single crumb was enjoyed by a stranger. The fairy bread lasted the farmer’s family for over two years but suddenly disappeared when a piece had been cut for a passing beggar.

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One curious tale from the same district tells of a group of young men walking home along the shore one evening encountering two ladies who invite them to dinner. When the meal was over, the ladies told them to come back another time when they would teach them things that would be useful to know. The lads dutifully returned to the same spot the following evening and over a meal of bread and meat were questioned, each in turn, on their histories and whether they were farmers or sailors, single or married. We are also assured that the fairies told their guests many useful, albeit frustratingly, unspecified, things.

One of the lads said that he was a father and often struggled to earn enough to feed his family. Reflecting on the young man’s admission, one of the fairies gave him enough gold on which to live comfortably, telling him: ‘When your wife is pregnant again, come back here and I will talk some more’. When his wife quickly fell pregnant with their third child, the young man returned to the seashore where the fairy asked him for the honour of being the child’s godmother. This request was relayed by the man to his wife who was adamant that the fairies would not have her child. Irritated by this stubborn refusal, the fairies took away all the items that had been purchased with their gold and the family became as poor again as they were before.

Conclusion to follow ……….

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Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

188 thoughts on “The Fairies of the Swells

  1. I wonder what it was about the French Revolution that caused the fairies to leave Britanny. 🤔As always in your writing, a fascinating, riveting and interesting account- this one about the fairies of Britanny. I was intrigued by your story about the man who had good luck and triumph when he was in the good graces of a fairy and then had bad luck when he ran afoul of the fairy’s favour. I immediately thought of Napoleon. Imagining that he had a love affair with a Breton fairy. And when he was in good graces with the fairy, he had victory and triumph. But when he betrayed the fairy, he had defeat and disaster. They had a brief reconciliation but then he blew that. And subsequently faced his Waterloo. Would make for a most intriguing book and movie. Perhaps I will someday write it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think maybe it was often seen as a dividing line in history – life under the Ancien Régime and life after the Revolution. Sounds feasible for some things but, in reality, the life of the rural Breton peasant did really change after the Revolution 😦

      Haha, yes, I like your idea about Bonaparte and his secret fairy lover! 🙃😉 He did visit Loire-Atlantique and neighbouring Vendée once – the second time a French ruler had visited the province since its annexation!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Really wonderful illustrations here! What is so interesting about fairy legends is the way we sense that they somehow blend long past truths with many layers of interpretation and gossip and embellishment, yet something shines through.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks! I am glad that you liked them! 🙂
      That is a really good way to phrase it and I agree that it is fascinating how we canm accept maybe a thousand years of layering and incremental changes and yet we are still left with something quite marvellous! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I was thoroughly enchanted by your Breton fairies and liked the idea of a fairy matriarchy. We encountered the Feu Follett in Natchitoches, Louisiana. I guess they came on the boats of the Arcadian settlers?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 😁 They do have a certain quality to them don’t they? I think it’s remarkable that this little stretch of coast had such distinct ones compared to a few miles inland or further east or west! Vive la différence! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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