Visitors to Brittany in the 18th and 19th centuries noted many beliefs surrounding the little folk of the region. This post continues to look at some of the more notable characteristics once attributed to a specific group of fairies, known as the Fairies of the Swells, in the local legends and folklore of northern Brittany.
Fairies who ask to be godmothers to a mortal child are found in several old French tales and a rather peculiar example was also once noted in northern Brittany. Here, a tale relates that a fairy became the godmother of a human baby and was so besotted by him that she cast a powerful spell to ensure that the baby would not grow until he made her laugh. After seven years, the child, though healthy, remained as small as on the day he was born. One day, while riding his pet rat to the river, he was thrown off and landed awkwardly in front of the fairy who laughed uncontrollably at the strange sight; the curse was broken and the child immediately assumed the size of all other seven-year-olds.
Several legends show that the fairies did not guard their good fortune too closely but like all good neighbours were prepared to lend their prized possessions to those in genuine need. They lent their oxen to those neighbours who politely asked for them but they imposed certain conditions; most commonly they demanded that their beasts not be made to work before sunrise or after sunset. If the fairies’ animals made but a single furrow after dusk, they immediately burst and the fairies came to curse the imprudent ploughmen.
It was said that the fairies often kept their cattle stabled in a corner of their vast cave dwellings and that each morning a child from the nearest farm came to fetch them and took them to graze in the meadows. The cows were returned each evening but never once did the young cowherd see the fairies she diligently served but every month, a small cloth bag hung from the end of a rope was found containing the silver owed to her for their care. Likewise, the fairies of Saint-Agnan, who needed milk and butter for their cakes, had cows which were found every morning grazing in the midst of the communal herd and who, at night, suddenly disappeared. On the last day of the grazing season, one of them carried, suspended from its horn, a small bag containing the sum owed to the cowherd.
As might be expected, not all fairies were benevolent, some were even reputed to be evil and were known as such, while others were simply viewed as mischievous. Those mortals who had offended the fairies were sometimes transformed beyond human recognition. For instance, an enormous oak tree near Saint-Pôan was said to have once been a man changed into a tree by a fairy’s curse, while another legend tells that the lumpfish was once a fisherman. One evening, when walking along the seashore at nightfall, a fisherman heard a voice saying that the feast of the queen of the fairies would take place on the next day and that any fisherman who lifted his nets that day would be punished. The man ignored the warning and when he touched his nets, a voice cried out to him: “Unbeliever, you are the cursed of the fairies; be changed into a fish.”
Like the other little folk of Brittany, the Fairies of the Swells loved to dance, especially the circular dance. Traces of their nocturnal dancing were recognised in the morning light by large circles on the ground where the grass seemed greener or in the strange marks in the sand of the most isolated coves. The fairies did not welcome uninvited guests at their soirées; those mortals curious enough to spy on them were almost immediately bewitched. The fairies along the Emerald Coast west of Saint-Malo once invited some hapless men into their moonlit dance and suddenly turned them into cats. Locals reported seeing them wandering on the cliffs on windy evenings, wailing in distress. To regain their human form, they had only to weave, for the fairies, mantles of gold and silver from the grains of sand on the seashore.
Another glimpse into the spiteful nature of some fairies is afforded in a tale about two old maids long tormented by them in their small cottage by the sea. After weeks of anguish and many vain attempts to combat the fairies with charms and prayers, magical amulets and holy rosaries, the two ladies resolved to fortify their home with holy water. Copious amounts of which they sprinkled all over the house, including the doors, windows and fireplace, before retiring to bed. At midnight, the fairies appeared but found themselves unable to enter the house because the holy water burned them harshly. A few minutes later, they were lifting the earthen sods from the roof and throwing them down the chimney, and, walking carefully on these new lawns which they threw out in front of them, they reached the old women’s beds and began to whip them, singing in chorus: “All is not blessed! All is not blessed!”
In several parts of Brittany, it was said that fairies visited people’s homes by means of the chimney, particularly to see if any of the household dared to continue their spinning on certain auspicious days. Around Essé, it was also believed that this was the means fairies used to gain access to a house when they stole the children.
A perhaps more unsettling tale highlighting the dangers of antagonising the fairies lies in the jagged jumble of rocks and boulders that litter the base of the cliffs around Cap Fréhel. Local legend tells that a good house once stood upon the ground now covered by these rocks; home to a family that had repeatedly bothered the fairies of the neighbouring caves. To avenge their perceived offence, the fairies brought down these massive rocks and crushed the house, on the very day when the wedding of the eldest son was being celebrated.
Further west, the debris of the shore, specifically sand dunes, were at the heart of another fairy-related legend. Around the village of Portsall it was said that some fairies, having committed a murder, were condemned to fetch sand from the sea and to count the grains until they had arrived at a figure which the imagination could hardly conceive; the sand dunes that lie between Portsall and the estuary of the Aber represent the piles of sand that each fairy had to count.
Returning some miles east, the cave known as Toul ar Groac’h (Fairy’s Hole) near Loguivy was reputed to be home to a group of fairies who carried a most sinister reputation. As late as the middle of the 19th century, local fishermen preferred to sleep under their boats for the night rather than risk walking home near the fairy’s cave. Interestingly, it was said that the power of these fairies did not extend over women; if those of Loguivy came to meet their men at the end of a day’s fishing, they had nothing to fear as they passed the Toul ar Groac’h.
This area seems to have once been home to many groups of malevolent fairies as it was noted that around the nearby town of Tréguier, evil fairies once killed those who ventured onto the beach at night, while the salt workers of Crec’h Morvan feared the evil fairies that seemed to protect those of neighbouring Buguelès whose salt was reputedly of better quality. If the fairies of this stretch of coast were not evil then perhaps some enterprising smugglers spread such tales in order to keep prying eyes away from the beaches at night?
Further east, around the port of Saint-Cast-le-Guildo, the Pointe de l’Isle was said to be the domain of fairies who whipped human trespassers with the long strips of seaweed. Some 12km (8 miles) across the Bay of Saint-Malo lies the Goule-aux-Fées, just north of the resort of Dinard. Here, popular tradition warned that those people who dared to venture on the clifftops at night risked being seized by a ferocious whirlwind that would drag them down into the fairy cave below, where they would be devoured by the evil fairies chained there.
One of the key characteristics of the fairies was their industriousness, even if their activities were accomplished beyond the sight of mortal eyes. The fairies were reported to have visited their human neighbours at night; knocking on doors asking for the loan of ploughs and horses. It was believed necessary to agree to any request made by the fairies for fear of exposing the household to any evil spells. The fairies were said to have been very careful with whatever items they borrowed and would even return any damaged items fully repaired.
Despite their diminutive size, fairies were attributed prodigious strength as evidenced by certain menhirs which were said to be discarded spindles which they had once used to spin wool. In their aprons they could transport massive stones, such as those that were used to create the world’s largest surviving dolmen, La Roche-aux-Fées (Rock of the Fairies), near Essé. Constructed from 32 upright stones with nine roof slabs, this structure is about 20 metres long by five metres wide and at its highest point is over four metres high. These monumental stones were likely quarried about 4km (2.5 miles) away and dragged to this site some 5,000 years ago but local legend long ascribed the building of this dolmen to the fairies who completed the work in a single night.
A rather touching local legend tells that the structure was built by the fairies to shelter the souls of the just but that these fairies disappeared with the retreat of the forest. Since then, the whistling of the wind between the stones was held to be the lamentations of souls in pain no longer visited by the fairies.
Some 13km (8 miles) away at Saulnières stands another megalith said to have been built by the fairies, La Table aux Fées (Table of the Fairies) to serve as a table where they could eat and rest during their exertions at La Roche-aux-Fées. The presence of many of the neighbourhood menhirs were once explained away as discarded building stones; at the precise moment the dolmen was completed, the fairies carrying their now surplus stones simply dropped them where they stood. It was also said that the fairies had placed a spell of confoundment upon the monument so that no count of the number of stones would consistently tally.
Other significant landmarks were once credited to the skilled craftsmanship of the fairies, such as the 14th century Cesson Tower in Saint-Brieuc and the elaborate portal of the chapel of Saint James in Saint-Alban which is otherwise accredited to the Knights Templar in the 13th century. This was about the time that the castle of Montauban de Bretagne, just 49km (30 miles) away, was built although local lore attributes its construction to the fairies who are also reputed to save sown the forest that surrounds it in order to give it protection.
It was traditionally believed that during the hours of darkness everyone possessed the capacity to see the fairies but during the day this privilege was only afforded to a very small number of people, such as gifted sorcerers and those who had rubbed their eyes with a magic ointment. Many stories tell that it was thanks to this mysterious ointment that the fairies could make themselves invisible or transform themselves.
A few cautionary tales highlight the dangers to mortals who believe that they can wield the magic of the fairies. One tells that, one evening, a fisherman from Saint-Jacut was walking home along the bottom of the cliffs when he saw several fairies talking animatedly together in a cave. Alas, he heard nothing of their discussion but did see them rub their eyes with some kind of ointment and immediately change shape before walking away from the cave like ordinary women.
When he thought the fairies were far away, the fisherman entered the cave and saw, on the wall of the rock which formed part of the cave, a remnant of the ointment with which they had rubbed their eyes. He scraped a little with his fingertips and smeared it around his left eye, to see if he could, by this means, acquire the magic of the fairies and discover their hidden treasures.
A few days later, a ragged and dirty beggar came to the village where she pleaded for alms from door to door but the fisherman immediately recognized her as one of the fairies he had seen in the cave; he noticed that she was casting spells on certain houses and that she was looking carefully inside them as if she had wanted to see if there was something worth stealing within.
Sometime later, at the Ploubalay fair, the fisherman noted the presence of several fairies despite their various disguises; some masqueraded as beggars, others displayed curiosities or held games of chance in which the country people were taken like fools, one even appeared in the guise of a fortune-teller. He was careful not to imitate his companions and to play the fairies’ games but he could see that the fairies were worried; vaguely sensing perhaps that someone was aware of them. Delighted with the knowledge that he held the upper hand, the fisherman laughed as he wandered among the crowd. Passing by a tent where several fairies paraded on a platform, he quickly realised that he too had been unmasked and that they were looking at him irritably. He wanted to run away but swift as an arrow, one of the fairies used the wand in her hand to burst the eye which their ointment had made clairvoyant.
A similar tale was noted some 30km (18 miles) south, near Gouray, in 1881: A human midwife who delivered a fairy baby carelessly allowed some of the fairy ointment to get onto one of her own eyes. The eye at once became clairvoyant, so that she beheld the fairies in their true nature. A few days later, this midwife happened to see a fairy in the act of stealing and admonished her for it. The fairy quickly asked the midwife with which eye she beheld her and when the midwife indicated which one it was, the fairy immediately plucked it out.
Just 33km (20 miles) east, a local legend from near Dinard tells that a midwife of the town was once called out to attend a mother in labour in a cave on the Rance estuary. Having successfully delivered the baby, the midwife was given a jar of ointment with which to massage the newborn, along with strict instructions to avoid rubbing it around her own eyes. Unfortunately, she was unable to resist the temptation to do so and was startled to find everything around her changed; she now saw the dark cave was as beautiful as the finest castle and that the new mother and her friends were actually fairies dressed like princesses. Careful not to betray any surprise, the midwife completed her tasks and returned home well paid. Sometime later, as she could, thanks to the magic ointment, see the fairies that were invisible to others, she saw one flying and could not help exclaiming aloud. Realising she had been seen, the fairy swooped down and tore out the offending eye.
The invisibility charms woven by the fairies seem to have extended beyond masking their appearance and that of their dwellings. According to popular legend in Plévenon, the fairies of Cap Fréhel used to wash their clothes in a pool on Fréhel moor and spread their laundry to dry in the surrounding meadows. Their linen was reputedly the whitest that one could ever see and whoever could get near it without moving their eyelids would have had permission to take it but none of those who tried ever succeeded, for as soon as they moved their eyelids the linen became invisible.
In this region, fairies were renowned as skilled healers whose remedies were believed to contain compounds from plants that possessed yellow and blue flowers. Secret, bewitched herbs that enjoyed the virtue of curing all diseases were said to have been cultivated along the shorelines by the fairies who employed them to make the ointment which was used in many of their enchantments, although some tales say that the fairies also ate these herbs. Fairies were also said to feed on sylvies; a delicate plant whose downy seeds were sensitive enough to disperse at a fairy’s breath but highly toxic to humans. A fairy’s breath is usually lethal in Breton lore but there is a tale of an old leper on the Île-de-Groix visited one night by an old crone. Discovering him near death, the fairy recited some charms and breathed on the man’s sores, leaving him fully cured.
Most legends here agree that the fairies did not age and were immune to all sickness. However, they were believed susceptible to ailments and even death as soon as any salt was put into their mouths; a belief likely due to the association of blessed salt and the Christian baptismal ceremony. It was even said that all the fairies around Plévenon died at the same moment because a malicious boy, seeing a fairy asleep with her mouth open, threw a handful of salt into it.
About 24km (15 miles) to the east, along the Rance estuary, legends unique to this part of Brittany tell of fairies that appeared during storms and followed a queen who rode a boat fashioned from a nautilus shell, pulled by two large crayfish. It was said that she could command the winds and that she ordered the waves to return the corpses of the drowned. This fairy queen of the Rance sometimes visited the small island of Île Notre-Dame where she was seen landing one day by a young sailor who, having sighted her, quickly hid himself.
Captivated by the queen’s great beauty, the sailor noticed that she had fallen asleep and felt compelled to move closer so as to see her better. Standing over the sleeping queen, he was silently admiring when he was quickly surrounded by other fairies who wanted to throw him into the sea for his effrontery. The commotion awoke the queen who ordered her companions to do the lad no harm and to whom she addressed a few, sadly unknown, words before disappearing in a chariot drawn by butterflies.
The numerous legends of the fairies of the swells represent them as living as part of a family unit or wider community but there are a few notable exceptions. One is the Fairy of Puy who is reported to have lived in a cave popularly known as la Grotte-ès-Chiens (Dogs’ Cave) on the Rance estuary near Saint-Suliac. This fairy was said to emerge at sunset, being initially glimpsed as a white and indistinct vapour that seemed to dance over the ground before slowly evaporating to reveal a beautiful woman whose dress shone with all the colours of the rainbow. She was seen walking on the seashore, sometimes sitting on the grass of the cliffs; a sad, solitary figure who fled at the sight of man.
Local legend tells that this fairy did not always cut such a forlorn figure for she was once sovereign of these lands; her voice commanded the winds and controlled the waves. Recognising her power, fishermen would offer their homage to her before setting out to sea and the mouth of her cave, guarded by a pack of invisible dogs, was always bedecked with garlands offered by the wives and loved ones of those at sea. In return for such devotion, the fairy delivered favourable winds and abundant fishing.
One day, some shepherds found, near the entrance of the cave, a young woman lying close to death. She told them that she had come to this place to wait for her fiancé but she had seen the fairy who told her that her fiancé was dead and that she herself would die soon. The shepherds took her to the village where the priest, having heard their story, quickly gathered his congregation and marched to confront the fairy. At the mouth of her cave, he summoned her to appear and exorcised her but nothing was seen and only an anguished cry heard. Returning from the cave, the people who had accompanied the priest found the dead body of the young fiancé.
Since that fateful day, the Fairy of Puy does not often show herself; she flees from the sight of man because she no longer has any power over him. Her appearance now is said to announce some imminent misfortune and any bloody traces found on the beach are a bitter reminder of her rejection and her fall from benevolent protector to spiteful destroyer. Perhaps the Puy fairy’s journey was typical of others who were more thoroughly lost to the mists of time. It is not too fanciful to see in her some kind of pre-Christian sea deity or sacred oracle that, over time, was greatly rationalised and transformed into just another devilish creature for the superstitiously minded imagination.
One interesting aspect of the legends involving the fairies of the swells is the paucity of any meaningfully direct association with water. Certainly, they had their homes close to the sea but unlike the korrigans who are frequently noted as frolicking in fountains and streams, there are no tales that mention these fairies swimming or bathing and only one of them being said able to walk on water. Nor were they seemingly concerned with catching fish by natural or magical means, preferring to steal their oysters and fish from the catches landed by the fishermen. These fairies thus shared some attributes with other supernatural beings such as korrigans and mermaids but were viewed as a quite distinct, even unique, group.
Some Breton tales tell that the fairies transformed into moles in order to escape the Gospel or else that they were condemned to the darkness by God in punishment for having rejected the early saints. In southern Brittany, it was said that the Gulf of Morbihan was born from the abundant tears that the fairies shed when they were forced to leave Brittany; on this new sea, they threw their garlands which turned into little islands.
Legends surrounding the disappearance of the fairies of the swells are far more consistent than those surrounding Brittany’s other fairies; they left the country, all at once, during the course of a single night. They are said to have left for another country and several legends tell us that their destination was the island of Great Britain. While the exact date of their departure varied from commune to commune, most agreed that it was sometime around the beginning of the 19th century. Towards the end of that century, the Breton painter and author Paul Sébillot, who spent over two decades recording the folklore of the region, claimed to have met only two people who believed in the contemporary existence of fairies and who swore to having personally seen them.
There is no neat answer as to why the fairies left these lands but it is important to remember that primary education was being pushed in rural areas from the middle of the 19th century and was made compulsory in 1881. Young Breton children entering school were officially described as “like those of countries where civilization has not penetrated: savage, dirty and not understanding a word of the language”. Education was the State’s main tool in civilising the savages and “clods” of “the bush” in order to integrate them into national society and culture, specifically the culture of the city, of Paris; the war on superstition was now began in earnest. Over time, children became almost as separated from the world of their grandparents as they were from the court of the King of Siam.
With the existence of the fairies attacked by both Church and State and with the communities that sustained such beliefs changing rapidly, it is little wonder that certainty in the living presence of fairies waned. Perhaps the character Peter Pan summed it up best when he said: “You see children know such a lot now. Soon they don’t believe in fairies and every time a child says ‘I don’t believe in fairies’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”
I shall end this post on a more positive note because Breton legend assures us that the fairies will, one day, return to this land; perhaps at a time when the Angelus bell is no longer sounded, perhaps at some other time of their choosing. The fairies all left in one night and will likewise all return during the course of a single night in a century that is an odd number. Some people were convinced that the fairies would return in the nineteen hundreds and in the early part of that century, the people of Saint-Cast, seeing women in motorcars for the first time, thought that the fairies had indeed returned.