One of the most beautiful in Europe, the large horseshoe Bay of Douarnenez on Brittany’s western Atlantic coast boasts some stunning coastal scenery; from towering cliffs to secluded sandy coves. Just five miles (8km) offshore lies the Île de Sein, reputed birthplace of the legendary wizard Merlin and sacred burial place of the druids but said to lie in the waters of the bay itself is the magnificent but damned sunken city of Ker-Is.
As with any story, we should start at the beginning with the semi-legendary fifth century Breton warlord, Gradlon or Grallon, who held sway over a large part of southern Brittany; a territory known as Kernev (Cornwall in English, Cournouaille in French).
Reputed to be the son of Cynan Meriadoc, founder of Brittany, King Gradlon was said to have been something of an adventurer, renowned for capturing vessels at sea and raiding coastal settlements in the lands to the north. During his last marauding expedition, he was abandoned by his warriors, who had become weary and homesick after fighting for so long in the harsh northern lands; thus Gradlon found himself alone. That night, in the depths of his anguish, he was startled by the appearance of a woman whose radiance was reflected by the light of the northern stars that illuminated her long red hair. This was Malgven, a northern Queen and sorceress who tells him: “I know you; you are a courageous and skilful warrior. My husband is old and his sword is rusty. Let us therefore be rid of him and return together to your country of Kernev.”
Enchanted by Malgven, Gradlon happily slays the old king and loots his treasury for a chest full of gold. The couple make good their escape by mounting Malgven’s horse, Morvarc’h; a powerful beast, black as night, who breathed fire from his nostrils as he galloped to the sea and raced on the crests of the waves. No sooner had they caught up with Gradlon’s home-bound fleet than a violent tempest flared which scattered the ships until the horizon was empty, leaving their vessel the only sign of life.
Gradlon and Malgven were destined to spend a year together at sea; during which time Malgven gave birth to a baby girl they named Dahud. Some versions of the story have Malgven dying in childbirth while others have her casting a spell that will ensure her daughter grows up looking exactly like her, shortly before being set-down on a small island so that she might return home. All tales agree that Gradlon and his daughter reached Kernev safely, whereupon he quickly re-established control over his lands after being so long absent. In his grief over the loss of Malgven, Gradlon became a virtual recluse within the walls of his castle, seeing only Saint Guénolé, while Dahud was usually to be seen wandering close against the sea to which she thought she belonged, having been born on the waves.
Dahud grew jealous of what she perceived to be Saint Guénolé’s influence over her father and spent more of her time at the seashore to avoid the preacher’s visits to the castle. She was so possessed by the sea that she begged her father to build for her a city on the shore. To her delight, Gradlon conceded to his dear daughter’s wish and ordered the construction of this new city and several thousand workers came from across the land to help build this pearl of the ocean and its formidable dyke that would shield it against storm and surf. Some tales attribute the construction of this massive defensive wall to the magic of the korrigans.
Finally, the city was complete; viewed from afar, Ker-Is seemed to rise from the depths of the very ocean itself. To control the water level in the enclosed harbour, a set of monumental bronze gates were set into the encircling wall; the keys to which only Gradlon, as king, took guardianship of and wore from a chain around his neck.
The new city, esteemed for its magnificence and splendour, quickly attracted the notables of the land to live within its stout walls. Although King Gradlon transferred his capital to Ker-Is, he remained as reclusive as ever and so Dahud fell easily into the role of the beating heart and soul of the city. However, the luxurious living within the city walls steadily led to all manner of debauchery and soon the city was renowned as a den of iniquity and vice. The exhortations of the priests, preaching repentance and reformation, made no impression upon the townsfolk; even Saint Guénolé, one of the mightiest among the saints, preached in vain, being thwarted at every turn by Dahud.
Princess Dahud set an example of depravity that none in the city could match; she adhered to the old religion, she feasted and drank to excess every day, and every night would take a new lover. Each morning, her discarded lover would be given a mask to wear before quitting Dahud’s tower. Ostensibly this was to allow him to leave the castle unnoticed but the grim reality was that it was an enchanted mask that quickly suffocated the wearer and each morning another dead body was thrown into the cold sea. Amidst the city’s debauchery, only King Gradlon preserved his soul; untainted by the vice surrounding him, he lived a modest life of the stoutest virtue.
One evening, a handsome stranger captivated Dahud and later, when they were alone in her chamber, he persuaded her to display her desire for him by bringing him the keys her father always wore. Dahud obligingly stole the keys from her sleeping father and proudly presented them to the stranger who now revealed himself to be the Devil. The gates that protected the city were opened and the sea began to rage in. As the water spread through the streets, the king was roused and quickly made plans to flee. He summoned his horse and, with Dahud seated behind him, raced from the city. Powerful though he was, Morvarc’h struggled in the water and floundered as though being ridden by a group of heavily armed knights and it seemed as though Gradlon and his daughter were doomed to destruction. When all hope seemed lost, a voice like thunder was heard above the waves: “King, if you would save yourself, shake off the demon that you carry behind you.”
As Morvarc’h wrestled with the water, so too did the good king with his conscience – should he obey and cause the death of his beloved daughter or disobey the command of God and face the fearful judgements that might overtake the country through his guilt? Suddenly, the Devil leapt out of the sea and seized Dahud; he carried her away and made her his servant; a mermaid. Freed of the burden of Dahud, Morvarc’h surged to shore, the king was saved but his daughter and her treasured city were lost forever.
As you can imagine, there are many versions of this tale; some make no mention of the Devil at all and say that Dahud herself opened the city’s gates in a state of drunkenness and that Gradlon voluntarily yielded up his daughter to the waves. Others tell that she nobly resigned herself to her fate to save her dear father.
The heavy religious undertones of the story offer us an example of divine wrath provoked by unvirtuous living reminiscent of the biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah and it is worth noting that, until the story was significantly embellished in the last century, the religious element was even more to the fore. Substituting the last two paragraphs of the above account for the following two will give you a flavour of the earlier tale:
One day, while the king was attending Divine service, he was approached by Saint Guénolé who addressed him urgently, saying “Oh king, the sickness of your city is at its height; the arm of the Lord is stretching out for it; the sea begins to rage and the city shall soon disappear! We must hurry and leave this place of sin!” Gradlon, trusting implicitly the words of the wise saint, called for his daughter and together they mounted his horse; and in the company of Saint Guénolé left the city with the utmost speed. The waves immediately began to rise and the city was soon overwhelmed.
Due to the weight of her sins, the horse carrying Dahud and her father made slow headway in the water and it seemed as though both were doomed to destruction. Seeing their plight, Saint Guénolé shouted at Gradlon: “King, if you would save yourself, shake off the demon that you carry behind you.” However, the king could not countenance consigning his only daughter to the waves and even if he had the mind to do so, Dahud’s grip on him was too strong for him to have shaken her loose. Understanding this, Saint Guénolé manoeuvred his horse closer and touched Dahud with his staff whereupon she was immediately propelled backwards and cast into the deep. The king and saint finally reached the shore together; they looked back but no trace of the city could be seen.
Legends generally survive the centuries because they are adapted and retold to suit the audience of the day and the story of the lost city of Ker-Is is no exception. Interestingly, we are able to trace the modifications to the tale since it was first set down on paper; at least in the papers that survived the Viking raids of the 10th century. The 9th century cartulary of the monastery at Landévennec – founded at the end of the 5th century by the first-generation British immigrant, Saint Guénolé – which is itself believed to be a copy of a more ancient document, mentions Gradlon Meur (Gradlon the Great). He is also a key character of one of the 12th century lays often attributed to Marie de France but Ker-Is does not feature in either text although there is no reason why it should.
To date, the earliest mention found of Ker-Is is from La Compillation des Cronicques et Ystoires des Bretons written by Pierre le Baud in 1480: “The great city of Is, located near the sea, was, for the sins of the inhabitants, submerged by the waters issuing from this sea. King Grallon who at the time was in this city, miraculously escaped by the merit of Saint Guénolé.” Another 15th century manuscript, L’Eloge de la Bretagne, refers to Ker-Is as a “formerly considerable city that was utterly engulfed by the sea’s jealous and ravenous wrath.” A history of Brittany, produced in 1582, adds nothing to these few lines beyond a note of scepticism: “… is not this city of Is (if it was), named of old, for some legends?”
There is another early reference in Canon Moreau’s Histoire de ce qui s’est Passé en Bretagne Durant les Guerres de la Ligue (circa 1605) which notes of a “very famous and fabled city, called Is in the vulgar tongue of the country, which they say was located where the bay of Douarnenez is presently and which was successively conquered by the sea around 1200 or 1300 years ago. Knowledge is from the time of the holy characters Corentin, Guénolé, Tadec, reigning at that time in Brittany, the King Grallon the Great … and everything happened by a just punishment from God for the sins of the people of the said city.” It is essentially the same bland reference but now two additional saints have been associated to the city and the notion of Divine intervention is offered as an explanation for the city’s submergence.
The hagiographer, Albert Le Grand, wrote his monumental Les Vies des Saints de la Bretagne Armorique (1636) based on ecclesiastical manuscripts that are no longer extant, so we are unable to verify his sources but within his account of the life of Saint Guénolé he adds some new details:
“After having appointed Corentin bishop and lord of Quimper, King Grallon transferred his court to a big city on the coast. This city was called Is. … Guénolé often went to see the king in his superb city of Is and preached very highly against the abominations which were committed in this city all absorbed in luxury, debauchery and vanity. … God revealed to him the just punishment he wanted to make of it and the hour of retribution. He said to the king: ‘Sire, let us get out of this place as soon as possible because the ire of God is going to overwhelm it now!’ …
Grallon immediately packed up his luggage and, having had his most expensive items removed, mounted his horse with his officers and servants, and, at the point of a spur, fled from town. No sooner had he left the doors than a violent storm arose with winds so impetuous that the sea, throwing itself beyond its ordinary limits and rushing into fury on this wretched city, drowned several thousand people; the main cause of these deaths was attributed to Dahud, immodest daughter of the good king, who perished in this abyss and almost caused the loss of the king. … History assures us that she had taken from her father the key he wore hanging on his collar as a symbol of his royalty. ”
The character of Dahud and the key as a symbol of royalty are now added to the tale; the implication being perhaps that Dahud had attempted to usurp her father as ruler. Almost 150 years later, the first seeds were sown that would, over time, lead to confusion over the role of Dahud.
In Jean-Baptiste Ogée’s Dictionnaire Historique et Géographique de la Province de Bretagne (1780) the author notes recent conjectures on the origin of the town of Keraës (Carhaix): “several have gone so far as to regard Keraës as the Ker-Is of the ancients, and, by a slight transmutation of Ker-Is into Keraës, have endeavoured to re-establish on the surface of the globe, a city that seemed to be missing for centuries. … This city, famous in the idea of people who like to feed on fables, was swallowed up according to vulgar tradition in the time of King Grallon for punishing the crimes of its inhabitants.” The etymological association has long since been discredited but linking Keraës with Ker-Is also linked the person after whom the town was then thought named; the fairy Ahès.
Writing of his tour of the province in the mid-1790s, Jacques Cambry in his Voyage Dans le Finistère (1799) noted of Carhaix that “It has been claimed that it got its name from Princess Ahès daughter of Conan Mériadec or King Grallon, she had it built.” Perhaps he thought that Grallon had two daughters rather than the one son listed in the genealogies, as less than thirty pages earlier, when describing the west coast, he talks of “The waters of the raging sea engulfed the opulent city of Is and drowned the immodest Dahud, daughter of King Grallon.”
Ahès seems to have first become the villain of the piece in Pierre Bruno’s Histoire de Bretagne (1826): “The city was only defended from the invasions of the ocean by a dyke in the middle of which, ingeniously arranged locks, delivered passage to the volume of water necessary to supply the numerous canals. King Grallon had the keys to these locks carefully kept and himself presided over the entry of the waters into the city. The intrigues and crimes of Ahès having finally wrested power from the king, she seized the keys. However, in the frightful uproar which arose in the midst of this frantic license which she herself had excited, she could not keep this precious talisman; it fell into ignorant and barbarous hands and the locks were opened.”
This passage not only replaces Dahud with Ahès but also introduces the protective dyke, the floodgates or locks and the keys that open them into the narrative. These motifs were also present in a traditional Breton ballad noted by Théodore Hersart de la Villemarqué in 1840. The tale now has the foundations upon which Pitre-Chevalier will elaborate in his La Bretagne Ancienne et Moderne (1844) in which he talks of “beautiful Ahès or Dahud” and “… The town of Is … occupied a very low beach, constantly threatened by the waves; it had ramparts, dykes and locks, the keys to which were placed in an iron casket; the king alone opened this casket with a golden key hanging from his neck. Now Dahud who had promised this golden key to one of her lovers, stole it from her sleeping father…”
The legend of Ker-Is reached a wider audience under the pens of two of the 19th century’s most prominent Breton folklorists; as a consolidated folk tale in Emile Souvestre’s Le Foyer Breton in 1844 and as a folk song in La Villemarqué’s 1845 edition of Barzaz Breiz. Souvestre’s account contains several new features: Saint Guénolé is replaced by Saint Corentin; the dykes and floodgates were constructed by the magic of the korrigans; Dahud is a powerful witch and the holder of the key rather than her father; an enchanted mask strangles Dahud’s lovers and their corpses are taken away and hurled into a pit near Carhaix.
The ballad included by La Villemarqué, in the second edition of his work, ends with some verses depicting Dahud as a mermaid or morgane, having been transformed into one by God as punishment for her wickedness: “Did you see, fisherman, the mermaid, combing her gold hair by the shore, when the sun shone bright? I saw the white girl from the sea, I even heard her sing, her song was sad like the waves.”
The author Pierre-Jakez Hélias in Bretagne aux Légendes (1967) also recounts a legend depicting Dahud as mermaid: “… Ker-Is had been submerged and when the sea was calmed, Saint Guénolé wanted to say a mass for the salvation of the city. As he raised his chalice, he saw the white torso of a copper-haired girl, arm raised to the sky, rise from the waters. A heavy tail of blue scales ended her body. It was Dahud, who had become a mermaid. Guénolé’s hand trembled so hard that his chalice escaped him and broke on the rocks. Mass was not consummated and for this reason, Ker-Is remained cursed and Dahud trapped in her mermaid form. Each time she appears, a terrible storm soon breaks.”
Both La Villemarqué and Souvestre claimed that their stories about Ker-Is were authentic transcriptions from an oral tradition, stretching back to antiquity, of poems, songs and tales collected by them in Brittany. It is difficult to say how ancient some of the tales associated with Ker-Is are and perhaps some stories contain fragments from a number of different traditions. The ethnologist Anatole Le Braz also collected several folktales related to Ker-Is which he published in La Légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne (1893). The tales he collected are rich in purgatorial symbolism; Ker-Is and its inhabitants are awaiting salvation:
“Two young men from Buguélès had gone to cut seaweed at Gueltraz overnight, which, as everyone knows, is severely prohibited. They were busy with their work when a very old woman came to them, stooping low under the weight of the wood she carried on her back. ‘Young people,’ she said, pleadingly, ‘you would be very kind to carry this burden to my home. It is not far away and you would be doing a great service to a poor woman.’
‘Go away!’ replied one of the men, ‘we have better things to do.’ ‘Besides,’ added the other, ‘you would be able to report us to the Customs.’
‘Cursed are you!’ cried the old woman. ‘If you had answered me but yes, you would have revived the city of Ker-Is.’ On these words, she disappeared.”
The legend received a comprehensive re-working by Charles Guyot in his La Légende de la Ville d’Ys, d’Après les Textes Anciens (1926) although the ancient texts actually consisted of flights of his imagination and pieces of other, un-associated, legends. It was his work that introduced the northern enchantress Malgven, ascribing to her the horse Morvarc’h that had previously been associated in a legend concerning another fabled king of Kernev. Guyot’s work is far from the last major re-telling of the legend – there have been over half a dozen major historical novels about Ker-Is published since the 1960s and the story of the city has featured in comic books and even an opera.
Dahud is the most interesting character in the legend of Ker-Is and many see in her the last echoes of the Celtic myth of the woman of the Other World or the White Lady, albeit one totally debased from the Celtic tradition to such an extent that she is often depicted as some kind of pagan pantomime villain. Her name is derived from the old Breton words for good magic and her transformation into a mermaid or morgane seems appropriate given that the word is Breton for sea born. Her metamorphosis into a mermaid is sometimes attributed to God as a punishment or to the Devil as a reward, while another version tells how Saint Guénolé took pity on her as she fell from her father’s horse saying: “You will live as one of the merfolk, living in the sunken palace of Ker-Is for eternity.” This ties-in neatly with another tale which says that Ker-Is was not destroyed by the sea but merely submerged and that it is now populated entirely by merfolk.
In Breton folklore, mermaids are usually portrayed as small, mischievous creatures versed in the arts of magic and spells. There are no firm differences between them and the sirens of other legends but they are often depicted taunting young fishermen with their amorous solicitations. If an unwary fisherman submitted to their advances, he would be dragged under the waves never to be seen again. The captive would not be killed but was thought to live a happy, pampered life at the bottom of the ocean, forgetting his earlier life. Merfolk were held to be able to unleash the storm but also to calm the wind.
To some people, the legend of Ker-Is is an allegory marking the end of an era when the ancient Celtic deities were supplanted by Christianity from the 6th century onwards. However, the legend forms part of a wider Celtic tradition regarding sunken cities; others exist in the mythology of Cornwall, Ireland and Wales. The Welsh tales possess many of the same elements as the legend of Ker-Is; transgression, a guilty woman, judgement, the opening of the floodgates/uncovering of a well due to drunkenness, a chieftain fleeing the surging water. Perhaps the water itself, primeval source of life, is the real hub of the earliest story; we know water was a crucial element of Celtic spirituality and it could serve in the tale as an illustration of the cycle of life along with its power to destroy as well as create. Then again, it could simply be the remnants of a medieval religious homily designed to show the consequences of immoral living.
Intriguingly, the legend could even be the embellished folk memory of a genuine cataclysmic event which was exaggerated and developed by the Breton bards of old. Since the 1930s, many scholars have propounded the theory that the fabled city of Atlantis lies off the coast of Brittany and that the megalithic monuments that constitute the great Carnac Alignments, the largest collection of megalithic standing stones in the world, are connected to Atlantis in some way. However, perhaps we are looking at an echo of something a little less grand. The name Ker-Is means low town in Breton but the word ker can be applied to any habitation from a city to a village or even a single dwelling. It is therefore entirely plausible that there was once a small hamlet located on the edge of the Bay of Douarnenez that was destroyed by a monstrous storm that raged in from the Atlantic Ocean.
It is said that when the wind is blowing in the right direction over the Bay of Douarnenez, that you can, if you listen keenly, hear the peal of the submerged church bells of Ker-Is and that the one who first sees the church steeple will become king of the city. If you are tempted to look, be careful what you wish for as there is an old Breton proverb that prophesies “When Ker-Is rises again, Par-Is will be consumed”.