Brittany has often been called the Land of Saints and with good reason; some 750 saints ranging from obscure personalities known in only one isolated location to renowned healers popularly invoked across the region were once venerated here. Many of the early evangelising saints, some kin of King Arthur, were believed to have arrived from the British Isles in the 5th and 6th centuries in stone boats propelled by angels.
The legendary unicorn is probably one of the world’s most famous fantastic beasts. This white horse-like animal sporting a long, spiral horn on its forehead was said to live for a thousand years. Long held a symbol of purity and chastity; a protector of the just endowed with exceptional magical powers. Little wonder then that the unicorn myth developed its own associations with the fabled King Arthur and mystical Brittany.
Since antiquity, trees have been associated with the mystical forces of nature and the Divine. Special or sacred trees are to be found in the traditional beliefs of cultures across the world; many possessed particular characteristics based on natural properties or else were laden with deeply-rooted symbolism. Brittany contains its share of sacred trees and a trove of legends and superstitious beliefs that attest to the reverence long afforded to trees here.
Venerated here since antiquity, the horse long played an important role in the popular religious and secular traditions of Brittany. The beast was more than a mere symbol of power and prestige or a useful descriptor for the state of the ocean waves; it was an integral part of the farming unit and the object of unique rites, superstitions and enchantments. Many of the region’s legends associate the horse with water and death; just like the notorious water horses found elsewhere in the folklore of the Celtic fringe.
For centuries, humanity struggled to make sense of the natural world and its unpredictable weather. Sometimes, the blood and sweat of months of hard toil could be torn apart in a matter of minutes; an uprooted crop or spoilt harvest often spelt total disaster for a poor farming family. One of the most feared natural events here was the sudden storm or violent wind and many explanations were once proffered in an effort to make sense of these; the most popular being that certain, gifted, people could control the wind and storm.
The legends and folklore of Brittany are rich in tales of hidden treasures and the lure of great wealth that lies within the grasp of any intrepid soul that is courageous enough to make the attempt but wise enough to abide by the unwritten rules of the quest.
The true origins of the legends surrounding the 6th century King Arthur and his knights are lost in the distant mists of time. Scattered references to this warrior king can be found in early Welsh literature, hagiographies and historical chronicles but it is in the 12th century that the characters and features of Arthurian legend familiar to us today, such as Merlin the magician, Queen Guinevere, the Round Table and the sword Excalibur, coalesce into a single narrative about the rise and fall of a king of the Britons who defended his people against the Saxon invaders. Arthur’s connections with Brittany are littered throughout these early works and I propose to highlight some of the most significant links both in literature and local legend.
The folk customs and traditions regarding the celebration of Christmas differ from region to region in France, as elsewhere, and those in Brittany were once quite distinctive.
An echo of the region’s Celtic past, sacred springs were commonplace throughout Brittany with miraculous qualities attributed to many and were an important part of daily life even after the Catholic counter-reformation.
The Phantom Washerwomen of the Night stand out as one of the most striking and baleful characters in the rich folklore of Brittany; spectral women doomed to spend eternity labouring over their laundry from sunset to sunrise, terrifying unfortunate souls in the darkness.