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The Healing Stones of Brittany

The mysterious nature and brooding presence of the thousands of prehistoric megaliths that litter the landscape of Brittany have long fascinated both locals and visitors alike. Veneration of the region’s standing stones and ancient monuments continued for centuries after the arrival of Christianity. Perhaps the mystical aura of these massive blocks of stone retained ancient associations with death and the afterlife or possibly the stones held the folk-memory of a ritual significance once important in the religion of the later Celts? In addition to supernatural forces, the region’s ancient stones were also believed to possess the power to influence the lives of the common people. This is perhaps most clearly manifested in the many folk beliefs and old superstitions that linked the stones with good fortune and those most important, yet often most elusive, fundamental human needs: true love and good health.

Some Superstitions of May Day

Representing one of the key stages in the life of the rural peasant farmer, the arrival of May announced the appearance of summer and the renewal of the land. Nature’s re-awakening reminded the Breton farmer of the fragility of the boundary that separated success from failure; the safety and joy of an abundant harvest or the misery of a winter spent in dire straits. Little wonder then that such notions of rebirth and new growth gave rise to superstitions and rituals designed to celebrate and encourage fertility and to protect the community against all opposing forces.

Some Customs of May Day

May Day is known as La Fête du Travail (Workers’ Day) in France and celebrated with a public holiday. It has become an occasion to be seen to campaign for workers’ rights and social justice but the date also carries a much older tradition here; it is also la Fête du Muguet, when sprigs of Lily of the Valley are presented to loved ones. However, in Brittany, the custom of using green foliage to express hope at this time of year extends back to antiquity.

The Art of Collecting Seaweed

For centuries, the gathering of seaweed was an important activity along the coasts and islands of western Brittany. The back-breaking work involved in harvesting, drying and burning the seaweed changed little between the ends of the 17th and 20th centuries. Sometimes, whole families laboured together, for others it was a means of supplementing the meagreContinue reading “The Art of Collecting Seaweed”

California Dreams Can Come True

In the mid-19th century, a Breton trader owned most of the US city of San Francisco as well as a further 900 square miles of the then newly established state of California; landholdings that would have made him one of the richest men in the world. Just two years later, his ownership was unrecognised by the US government but that may soon change as an international court demands restitution for his defrauded descendants.

How to Break a Spell

Popular belief in the power of witchcraft survived in Brittany long into the modern era; spells and curses, for good or ill, abounded in the common imagination. Thankfully, the unlucky few caught under the malignant shadow of an evil spell were not always doomed but had recourse to wise practitioners able to undo the spells cast by others and to offer their own charms of unbewitchment.

Abelard and Heloise the Witch

Often described as one of the world’s great love stories, the relationship between Abélard and Héloïse is often celebrated alongside such fabled affairs as Helen and Paris, Dido and Aeneas or Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. However, the Bretons of yesteryear carried a very different remembrance; that of Héloïse as evil witch but does either standing hang true?