In Brittany, the miller enjoyed a rather ambivalent reputation. His trade brought him into regular contact with a wide range of people across the community; guaranteeing any visitor would leave the mill with all the latest news of any importance. Admired for his hard-work and often his skill at resetting broken or dislocated bones, the miller was also viewed with some suspicion and a once popular saying told that nothing was bolder than a miller’s shirt because every morning it caught a thief.
Mysterious magical plants can be found scattered throughout the folklore and popular superstitions of Brittany. Noted for their extreme rareness, long and patient efforts were required to locate these mystical growths. A quest that would only have hopes of success if performed by certain select people or on the most propitious days of the year. The diligent seeker could hope to be rewarded with good fortune, vigorous health or true love.
Deified and demonised across the world throughout the ages, the dragon of yore also left its footprints upon the lives, legends and landscapes of Brittany. Indeed, Breton lore once held that the peninsula of Brittany itself was the body of the enormous dragon slain by the archangel Michael.
To talk of the soul is, to some, to touch on the very essence of existence. First century authors noted that the ancient Celts believed in the indestructibility and inevitable transmigration of the human soul and, despite the march of Christian dogma, such beliefs remained in the Breton tradition where there was no significant separation between the living and the dead; both dwelt in discrete worlds that were in perpetual relation with one another. The souls of the dead surrounded the living, wandering the skies and sunken paths of the land as black dogs, petrels, horses or hares.
The lives of those who inhabited the rural Brittany of yesteryear were guided by the seasons and the precious hours of daylight. For them, the unpredictable year was punctuated by the key dates of the agrarian and liturgical calendar. With harvest well underway here in today’s Brittany, a look at some of the old rituals, beliefs and superstitions once associated with the agricultural cycle here might be timely.
A terrifying cacophony of noise crashes across the night sky; demonic howls hang on the wind and blast through the dark forest; thunder rumbles across the moorland and lightening streaks across the bruised sky. Children hide in fear while their parents murmur a quiet prayer; it is the passing of the dreaded Fantastic Hunt.
For over two centuries, a remarkable phenomenon was once noted in central Brittany; a seemingly spontaneous outbreak of barking women that disappeared as suddenly as it had first appeared. The reasons for these strange behaviours have, at times, been attributed to causes ranging from demonic possession to sexual frustration.
The folk medicine and traditional remedies of rural Brittany changed little over the centuries; a fascinating blend of ancient superstitious practices, naturalistic beliefs, witchcraft, religion and empiric medicine. In an earlier post I highlighted some of the popular plant-based treatments once used in the Breton countryside; this post will therefore focus on other traditional natural remedies once found here.
Surrounded on three sides by the ocean, Brittany has always enjoyed a special relationship with the sea. It has long played an important part in the life and soul of Brittany; its waters have nourished and sustained generations of Bretons since time immemorial but the bargain has sometimes been cruelly struck. A point well made in an old Breton saying that tells: “Who trusts the sea, trusts death.”
The popular memory of JRR Tolkien’s literary output will forever be overshadowed by his novels of Middle-earth, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but other gems are to be found amidst his rich body of work. One of these is a long poem written in rhyming verse in the style of a medieval Breton lay, entitled The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun; a tragic tale featuring several motifs found in the traditional folklore of Brittany.