Christmas Nights in Brittany

In Brittany, the magic of Christmas night was once said to have been so complete that no evil could act. It was a time when only the son of man and the toad slept; a moment when animals spoke to each other in the tongues of men and secret, hidden treasures were revealed.

The old tales told in front of the flaming Breton fireplace on a cold winter’s evening were full of magic. Some terrifying, others touching but always entertaining; from the infant Jesus descending the farmhouse chimney to leave gifts for the children of the house, to the Devil striving hard to ensnare innocent souls walking home from church.

The period of the Midnight Mass was popularly believed to be the time when fantastic things happened and key parts of that religious service were said to mark moments of special supernatural power. During the chimes of the midnight bell, it was held that many of the region’s Neolithic standing stones, known as menhirs, uprooted themselves to go and drink from a sacred spring or neighbouring river; returning to their home on the sound of the last chime. A menhir near Jugon was said to drink in the Arguenon river, another near Saint-Barthélemy to drink in the Blavet river, while the menhirs of Plouhinec were famously reputed to drink at the Étel river only once every century. Even the stone alignments at Carnac were said to go and wash in the waters of the nearby ocean on Christmas night.

Winter in Brittany
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Local legends once reported that, at the stroke of midnight, one of the menhirs that stood on the summit of Mont-Belleux near Luitré was lifted by a mere blackbird to momentarily reveal a great treasure. Anyone impudent enough to try to seize it was doomed to be crushed to death as only the magical korrigans could move fast enough to take the gold. Sadly, these ancient megaliths were destroyed in the 19th century; the last in 1875 in order to provide hard core for a nearby road. Local tradition cautions against walking on the mountain at night else one encounter the korrigans dancing around the site where their stones once stood; their destruction, a sacrilege still resented by them.

Standing almost six metres high, the menhir of Kerangosquer near Pont-Aven was said to guard a buried treasure whose presence was heralded by a rooster that sang at midnight. As with other sites, this treasure was only accessible during the sound of the Midnight Mass bells when the menhir took itself to drink at a nearby stream. As you might expect, there are several popular tales of men who came to grief, having been crushed by their greed under the weight of returning menhirs.

In Brittany, it was believed that the dry bones stacked in the village ossuary spoke to each other during Midnight Mass. This was also a time when animals too were said to be able to talk with one another. One tale tells of a farmer determined to eavesdrop on these magical conversations. Hiding himself in the barn, he waited patiently until sometime, around midnight, he heard his two oxen speak together: “What will you do tomorrow, old friend?”; “Oh, I will just take the master to the cemetery.” The farmer, furious at being mocked, seized a pitchfork to strike his beasts but, in his haste, he stumbled and injured himself. His injury proved fatal and, so, as predicted, on the following day the ox pulled the cart that carried his coffin to the church.

 Gauguin winter in Brittany
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In some parts of Brittany it was only the donkey and the ox that possessed the ability to speak on Christmas Eve; a miraculous gift granted every year to these two animals in memory of the good offices once rendered to the baby Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem. It was said here that donkeys carried a cross on their backs to mark the day Christ entered Jerusalem on a donkey and that, at Christmas, they knelt in silent tribute at midnight.  A related belief held that burning the broken pieces of a yoke invited disaster; the ox having been sanctified by its presence at the birth of Christ.

The holiness of the night before Christmas was considered so sacred that no wicked spirit could act with impunity but it was also a time for the dead; Christmas Eve being one of the three solemn festivals (the others being Midsummer’s Eve and Halloween) when the community of the dead of each region gathered. This was a night when the veil of separation between the living and the dead was particularly vulnerable; a time when the dead wandered freely in the land of the living and returned to visit their former homes before being led, by the ghost of a priest, in a long procession to some abandoned chapel, where the only masses celebrated were those of the dead.

A far more sinister being was also held to be active on Christmas Eve; consumed with rage on this anniversary of his greatest failure, the Devil sought to harvest fresh souls. It was said that the verges of the sunken pathways trodden by the devout attending Midnight Mass often glistened in parts. Such reflections were not of moonlight but of gold coins scattered by the Devil to enchant the unwary traveller. Deep cracks appeared in the earth around the base of the wayside crosses, offering a tantalising glimpse of a stream of gold coins but any who tried to enrich themselves were unable to keep hold of their gold. Each coin collected immediately escaped their grasp, leaving on the fingers an indelible black imprint and a terrible burning sensation, like that of hellfire.

Old woman in the snow of Brittany
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It was widely believed that evil spells lost their power on Christmas night; it was a time when it was possible to discover the most hidden treasures, a time when the power of their supernatural guardians was suspended. In northern Brittany, the Grand Rocher massif was said to entomb a magnificent lost city that could be seen through a narrow fissure that only opened up on Christmas Eve once every seven years. The city would be reborn, if someone managed to penetrate to the depths of the mountain at the first stroke of midnight and re-emerge unscathed before the sound of the twelfth bell had died.

Another old tale tells how, in thanks for a crust of bread that he had received, a beggar revealed to Scouarn, a young Breton farmhand, a way of gaining his happiness and fortune. He told him that in the middle of the Bay of Morlaix there stood a castle inhabited by a princess, as beautiful as a fairy and as rich as the paladins, held captive by the spirits of Hell. At Christmas, on the stroke of midnight, the sea opened and revealed the castle: if someone could enter it and take possession of a magic wand stored in its inner chamber, that bold soul could become the lord of the land. However, it was imperative to gain the wand before the last stroke of midnight; if not, the daring adventurer would be turned to stone and the sea would reclaim the castle.

Scouarn resolved to attempt the quest and Christmas Eve found him in the shadows on the shore when, at midnight, the sea parted like a bed curtain being drawn to reveal a fine castle resplendent with lights. Scouarn ran as fast as he could and quickly reached the castle’s main door. On entering, he saw the first room was filled with precious furniture and massive silver chests; scattered around the room stood the stone statues of those unfortunate men who had been unable to go any further.

Castle in the sea
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A second room was defended by dragons and sharp-toothed monsters but as the sixth stroke of midnight struck, Scouarn succeeded in passing through the enchanted beasts who moved aside at his approach. He now entered a chamber more sumptuous than all the others and where the fairies of the swells were swaying to sweet music. He was about to let himself be drawn into their circular dance when, fortuitously, he saw the magic wand resting on a cabinet set against the back wall; he sprang forward and seized it in triumph as the twelfth stroke of midnight struck.

However, Scouarn had secured his prize; he held the wand aloft without fear. On his command, the roaring sea retreated away from the castle and the spirits of Hell, utterly defeated, fled, uttering cries that made the cold hard rocks tremble. The delivered princess gladly offered her hand to her valiant saviour and it was not long before they enjoyed a most splendid wedding. Having comfortably settled into his new castle, Scouarn, in gratitude for the saints who had protected him, employed half of his newly won wealth to build a grand chapel to the glory of the Archangel Saint Michael.

During Christmas night, the natural order of the world was thought upset. When the bell announced the elevation during the Midnight Mass, all the beings that shared the earth were simultaneously revealed: the ghosts of the dead and the drowned; the korrigans of the moors; the fairies of the swells; mermaids; the black dogs and werewolves; the treasure-guarding dragons; the phantom washerwomen of the night and other demons of the dark. At that moment, while the faithful were at prayer, all the frightful fantastic creatures that inhabit the Breton night were displayed.

Christmas night in Brittany
A Collin : Burzudou Nedeleg or The wonders of Christmas night (1844)

A quite different Breton legend tells us that when the Magi arrived at the stable in Bethlehem, they found the shepherds there who, having nothing else to offer the baby Jesus, had garlanded his crib with wild flowers.  Seeing the rich gifts subsequently presented by the Magi, the humble shepherds were concerned at the paucity of their offering but the Divine baby gently pushed aside the riches in front of Him and stretched His hand towards the flowers, plucked a field daisy, and, bringing it to His lips, kissed it. Since that moment, the daisies, which until then were all white, have displayed at the end of their petals, a colour which seems a reflection of the hopeful dawn, and shown at their heart, the golden ray which fell from the lips of the Divine.

The period from Christmas Eve to the Feast of the Epiphany (24 December to 6 January) was once marked by a number of particular customs and superstitions here. On Christmas Eve, the Yule log was anointed with water from a sacred spring and placed in the fireplace where it was carefully burned until New Year’s Day or even Epiphany. The charcoaled embers were subsequently collected as they were believed to hold beneficial qualities including the ability to purify water. Additionally, small bags of ash were placed under beds in order to protect the home from lightning strikes and snakes over the year ahead. This ash was also said to preserve wheat from rust diseases and to help cows to calve.

It was also on Christmas Eve that calendar bread was made for consumption on Epiphany, except for a small piece kept in reserve to cure certain ailments. All bread baked on Christmas Eve was said to keep for ten years without spoiling. Another belief surrounding bread can be seen in the once traditional practice for the head of the household to carry a piece of black bread in his pocket before attending Midnight Mass. On his return, he would give a little to each of his animals in order to ensure their health throughout the year ahead: black bread was used here in many rituals of protection against evil spells.

Similarly, to ensure a good harvest of apples, the trees in the orchard were surrounded with a little ring of straw after the Christmas Midnight Mass. In some northern parts of the region, the brightness of the moon illuminating those journeying to and from Midnight Mass was said to predict the prosperity of the following year’s apple harvest.

Moret Brittany
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It was during Christmas night that the world’s secrets were revealed to those that knew how to expose them. In eastern Brittany, if a young girl wanted to see who she was destined to marry, it was necessary for her to place three bay leaves under her eyes before going to sleep on Christmas night while reciting the charm: “Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior, tell me while I sleep, who will be mine for life.”

During Midnight Mass, at the moment of consecration, spectral candles were said to cast light on the locations where hidden treasures could be found. Not all treasures were buried, for it was said that each hazel bush grew a branch which turned into gold on Christmas night. To pick this prize that was believed to make a wand equal in power to that of the greatest fairies, it needed to be cut between the first and last sounds of the midnight bell but whoever did not succeed disappeared forever. The moment of consecration was also said to be the fleeting instant when the waters of the sacred springs were changed to wine.

On Christmas Day, it was thought necessary to avoid eating plums so as to protect oneself from ulcers over the year ahead. The tablecloth used only at Christmas was considered a powerful talisman in which to store wheat seeds that would deliver a plentiful crop and was thus utilised for these purposes each year. It was also a day on which it was possible to predict the future price of wheat: twelve grains of wheat, each named after one of the twelve months, were placed on an iron shovel heated in the fire; those that jumped on the hot iron indicated the months in which wheat would be most expensive.

Breton children Christmas
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If Christmas fell on a Sunday, it was believed to be an auspicious year in which to sell one’s horse or donkey, while Saint Stephen’s Day was a most favourable occasion for bleeding horses.  To avoid misfortune, it was advised not to bake bread or do the laundry between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, with prohibitions against doing the laundry extending to Epiphany. Likewise, eating cabbage on Saint Stephen’s Day also invited misfortune as the saint was thought to have been martyred in a cabbage patch.

During the night of the Epiphany, it was whispered that if one wrote, with their own blood, the names of the three kings, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, on their forehead and then looked into a mirror, they would see themselves as they will be at the hour of their death. Truly, this was a most wonderful time of the year.

Santa Brittany
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Nedeleg Laouen ha Bloavezh Mat!   Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Brittany’s Best Christmas Lights

With Christmas fast approaching, towns and villages across Brittany have bedecked themselves with some glorious festive illuminations. Unfortunately, travel restrictions imposed as part of the measures to limit the spread of covid-19 have meant that is has been impossible to see this year’s displays, so, this post must necessarily highlight a few memories of Christmas past.

Most municipal Christmas lights here were lit on the last Friday in November and will run until the third of January. Limits on public gatherings have, this year, seen the cancellation of the Christmas markets, parades, funfairs and outdoor ice rinks that usually form an integral part of the festive experience in many Breton towns. Some of the finest seasonal outings in Brittany were featured in a previous post, so, this one will just focus on a few places that were visited after that post was written.

The medieval hearts of the Breton towns of Dinan and Morlaix wear their Christmas decorations well; the coloured lights and projections create wonderful hues and shadows on the old timber-framed buildings. Situated between these two northern towns, Saint-Brieuc now boasts festive illuminations and decorations that rival its neighbours; with many kilometres of downtown lights.

Saint-Brieuc
Saint-Brieuc

In the west of Brittany, the town of Landerneau boasts the only bridge in Europe that still has people living on it; a feature that is at the heart of its colourful festive displays.

Landerneau
Landerneau

Hailed as one of the prettiest villages in France, the picturesque small town of Locronan has established a well-deserved reputation for the magical ambience created by its Christmas lights and festive illuminations. The narrow cobbled streets, courtyards and buildings are adorned with lights and decorations, creating a wonderful atmosphere in which to wander around this little town.

Locronan
Locronan

Full of character, the southern city of Quimper is another medieval town that makes great use of colour and lights to showcase its half-timbered buildings, old city walls and historic cathedral to best effect.

Quimper

If you are partial to Christmas illuminations set against a stunning backdrop then the medieval city of Vannes will not disappoint; from the projections on the medieval ramparts to the curtains of light that overhang the cobbled streets of the old town.

Vannes
Vannes

Just a little west of Vannes, the coastal town of Auray boasts a wonderful array of lights and Christmas decorations with the town square and its picturesque harbour being particular highlights.

Auray
Auray

A picture perfect village regularly ranked among the most beautiful villages in France, Rochefort-en-Terre is a town that knows how to display itself to best effect and at Christmastime it does so spectacularly. The cobbled streets and alleys are beautifully illuminated by the sparkling of tens of thousands of pretty lights and festive garlands.

Rochefort-en-Terre
Rochefort-en-Terre
Rochefort-en-Terre

The historic centre of the small town of Josselin is another delightful place in which to wander around at dusk during December.

Josselin
Josselin
Josselin

It is not only towns that put on festive light shows here; several historic monuments also stage Christmas spectacles using coloured lights and projections to wonderful effect. The three best known are perhaps those at the Château de Trévarez, the Abbaye de Beauport at Paimpol and the Abbaye de Bon-Repos at Laniscat.

Bon Repos Abbey

Hopefully, the world will return to something approaching normalcy next year and we can, once again, enjoy the sights of Brittany at Christmas.

The Black Dogs of Brittany

The black dog is a recurring image in folklore across the world. In Brittany, these sinister spectral beasts roamed the lonely places and, in many local legends, were closely associated with crossroads, springs and the old sunken pathways.

Several fountains and ponds were once said to have been the nocturnal haunts of black dogs, some headless, prowling in search of their former master; a fountain near Cléden was avoided at night as it was said to be the haunt of a fierce black dog or ki du in Breton. Many parishes in western Brittany are home to legends of fearful black dogs of unusual size with flaming red eyes. The enormous black dog that was thought to wander the roads around Pleyben was even said to have left no footprints behind it.

Described as a fierce black dog of imposing size, the red-eyed hell hound of Brittany was usually said to be the cursed reincarnation of evil souls who had returned to torment the living. However, such a dog was usually believed to be an exorcised spirit that had escaped the clutches of the exorcists.

The souls of the dead who had led a wicked life, particularly murderers and swindlers, were said not to undertake their penance as other souls did. Instead, they chose to amuse themselves by terrorising the living or causing mischief about the house or barn. For most people, living alongside such malevolent spirits proved impossible and it was not long before the priest was summoned to perform an exorcism.

Black Dog
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Only a skilled priest, sure of his science, was believed able to defeat these spirits; some exorcisms were said to have taken hours of battling before the evil spirit was subdued enough to be conjured to pass into the body of a black dog. Tied around the dog’s neck, the priest’s stole kept the evil locked inside the body of the dog. It was then necessary for the priest to lead his charge from presbytery to presbytery until he reached the rector of Commana near the Monts d’Arrée in the west of Brittany.

At the heart of this mountain range lies a vast peat bog, the Yeun Elez; a desolate, windswept spot that boasts a swamp of unfathomable depth known as the Youdic (little porridge in Breton), reputed to be one of the gateways to Hell. It was into this bubbling morass that the two priests, at sunset, hurled the black dog. Some accounts say that the dog was entrusted to a strong man, especially hired for the task. 

Tales tell that the beasts resisted their descent to Hell with great fury; formidable tremors shook the ground and the air was torn by terrible clamours. Leaving the scene as quickly as possible, it was important that the exorcists resisted the temptation to look behind them as it was said that invisible arms would grab them and drag the living into the unseen depths of the dead.

If the exorcist was not quick enough in trapping the malevolent spirit within the dog or lost control of his stole while throwing the dog into the Youdic, it was said to run away and take shelter on Ménez Hom, the westernmost peak of the Black Mountains, before returning to its familiar haunts.

Mont Saint Michel de Brasparts
Mont Saint-Michel de Brasparts

Several high points which were once sites of pagan devotions now bear the name of Mont Saint-Michel and the sanctuaries that were built there under the invocation of this demon hunter were likely intended to supplant the ancient deities once worshipped on these places. Overshadowing the Youdic, Mont Saint-Michel de Brasparts was often said to be visited by Saint Michael the Archangel; his appearances motivated by the dogs’ furious barking. Saint Michael lowered his flaming sword towards the bog and peace returned to the land.

Many malevolent fiends were believed to materialize in the form of great black dogs and unfortunate animals of this type, which displayed characteristics likely to place them under suspicion, were once dragged to the Youdic and cast into its seething depths.

A black dog who wandered the swamp near Mont Saint-Michel de Brasparts was said to have formerly been a fairy who, at the death of the fabled giant Hok-Bras, was transformed into a beast. While the black dog seen in the vicinity of Plouzélambre was said to contain the spirit of the 6th century tyrant Rivod, who murdered his elder brother, Miliau, to usurp the throne of the Breton kingdom of Kernev; transformed into a black dog in order to expiate his crimes.

Occasionally, these sinister animals were also said to prowl the city streets, such as in Quimper, where at the end of the 18th century, people often fell into the Odet River, then without guard-rails. It was said that the Devil, in the guise of a big black dog, was pushing passers-by into the water. In the central town of Pontivy, a black dog was reputed to throw itself into the legs of travellers and push them into the Blavet River. Around Fougères in eastern Brittany, pregnant women were traditionally advised against venturing out of their homes between the evening and morning Angelus prayers, lest they encounter and be trampled by large black dogs.

Rabid Dog
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Other superstitious beliefs once surrounded the black dog here; in the 19th century many Breton peasants believed that buried treasures were marked by the presence of a black dog and that the Devil used to take the form of a black barbet to slip into people’s houses and suck blood from the fingers of small children. In some parts of Brittany, the custom of amputating the tails of dogs was said to be a safeguard against witchcraft although many once believed that cutting off the tail removed the worm that resided there and that would eventually cause their death.

In western Brittany, stories were told of a ship manned by men and giant dogs. The men were reprobates guilty of horrible crimes; the dogs, demons set to guard over them and inflict on them a thousand tortures. Their sad vessel was said to wander ceaselessly from sea to sea, without entering port or casting anchor and condemned to do so until the Day of Judgement.

Dog Cart
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The close association between the black dog and the supernatural stretches back to antiquity and has long been a potent image of infernal power; from the Hound of Hades in Greek mythology to Conan-Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. Demons often revealed themselves as black dogs and in Brittany it was popularly believed to serve as a witch’s familiar. Sometimes, witches and sorcerers were said to possess the ability to transform into the beast itself; a power also attributed to priests who were often believed to adopt this guise to marshal errant parishioners, particularly during Advent. Such beliefs survived into the 20th century in the neighbouring communes of Penvénan and Plougrescant which were said to have been terrorised by a priest, in the form of a black dog, during the 1930s and 1940s.

At the end of the 19th century, the French novelist Octave Mirbeau recounted how, when a young student at the Jesuit college in Vannes, he was terrorised by a priest with harrowing tales of a black dog. A less sinister tale tells of a country priest that was once summoned by the Bishop of Quimper who forbade him to practice his sorcery. As he left the Bishop’s Palace, a large black dog attached itself to him and would not be driven away. The animal was docile and so the priest entrusted the dog to his servant and told him to offer it to all the priests in the canton. Unfortunately, no priest agreed to take the dog and the servant was forced to return to the presbytery with it. His priest then ordered him to dig a pit and to lead the dog into it backwards. Having followed his master’s instructions, the man was astonished when he turned around to see the bishop emerging from the pit.

Many of the traditional Breton ballads collected from the oral tradition by folklorists in the middle of the 19th century associate the enchanter Merlin with a black dog; he collects his magical herbs in the company of such a beast and is even able to metamorphose into one.

Mandrake and dog
Pulling mandrake

A black dog also played an essential role in one of the rituals surrounding the gathering of that most potent of magic plants, mandrake, where it was necessary, at midnight, to tie the animal to the root of the plant. It was said that anybody who pulled a mandrake from the ground was condemned to death, as the plant shrieked hideously when uprooted; killing all who heard its pain. It was therefore recommended that a black dog be used to lift the root and to suffer death in order for the witch to secure her prize.

On the Crozon peninsula, a woman, reputed to have been a witch, died alone with no near relatives. As was customary, her neighbours were preparing her mortuary toilette while being careful not to disturb the big black dog she lived with that was lying at the foot of her bed. Suddenly another black dog entered the room and the two beasts took hold of the body, each by one arm and dragged the corpse out of the cottage and into the night. The old woman’s body was not recovered and the black dogs never seen again. It was said that the Devil came to take his maid away before the priest could attend and perform his prayers.

In many cultures, the black dog has long been a powerful harbinger of death and similar echoes can be found in the folklore of Brittany where meeting a black dog typically heralded some misfortune ahead, particularly for fishermen. If the dog rolled on the ground it was to announce the wind; if it bit the grass, rain was imminent, while its bark heralded the near death of a close relative of the one who heard it.

Hunting dogs
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It was not only black dogs that were feared here; mad dogs too were once dreaded. While rabies may historically have claimed fewer victims than other diseases such as typhoid or dysentery, its scourge was highly feared and held a special place in the popular imagination. Rabies was endemic throughout France until early in the last century and the bite of a rabid animal was usually fatal. The initial phase of the disease might begin days or even months after the infected saliva had entered the puncture wound; delay being due to the slow passage of the virus along the sensory nerves to the spinal cord and brain.

Early symptoms of rabies resemble those of many less serious diseases; aches and pains, tiredness and a loss of appetite. The onset of clinical anxiety and depression usually herald the so-called furious phase of the disease, when the patient tends to experience increased sensitivity to stimuli, delirium, hallucinations, insomnia and hydrophobia. Patients scream in rage during periods of wild distress which alternate with periods of relative calm; both constantly interspersed with bouts of violent vomiting. Typically, within about a week of the onset of the first symptoms, the patient descends into a coma and inevitably dies.

One traditional reaction to meeting a mad dog involved making the sign of the cross while reciting: “Sick dog, go on your way! Get to the field and break your teeth. The cross and the banner arrive with Saint Tugen” or “Mad dog, change course! Here is the banner and the cross and Saint Gildas.”  These two local saints were most popularly invoked by those seeking protection against rabid dogs and rabies in Lower Brittany where the disease was known as “the evil of Saint Tugen” or “the evil of Saint Gildas”.

Fountain of Saint Tugen
Fountain of Saint Tugen

In the west of the region, it was said that, before dying, rabid dogs were obliged to confess their behaviour to Saint Tugen, at the 16th century chapel devoted to him in Pimelin. Their confession was believed to allow the saint an opportunity to contain any harm that they might have caused.

If one was bitten by a dog suspected of carrying rabies, it was necessary to get ahead of the beast and run to Saint Tugen’s chapel to seek his intersession. It was crucial to reach the chapel before the dogs as they were believed to lie to the saint, in an attempt to hide their wrongdoings so as to avoid the punishment they deserved. Once there, one had to circle the saint’s fountain three times before looking into its water. If a face was reflected, one was reassured; the saint had heard the supplications and answered them. If the water reflected the image of a dog, it was because the animal had already passed by and had successfully hidden its crime from Saint Tugen; the saint was powerless to intervene and the patient was doomed.

In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, in many churches dedicated to Saint Hubert, it was once customary to apply a piece of iron known as “the saint’s key”, heated in a fire, to the bites made by rabid dogs.  At Pimelin, although the key, in the form of an awl, is eminently suitable for deep cauterization, there are no records that indicate a similar practice. Here, the saint’s key was popularly used to prick holes in the small bread buns that were sold on the day of the Pardon. Once blessed, these loaves were believed to keep indefinitely and were said to help protect against rabies and to cure toothache.

Rabies Key
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However, the main use of the saint’s key was to bless, by its touch, the small lead keys, known as “the keys of Saint Tugen” that were also sold to pilgrims on the day of the Pardon. These souvenirs were widely carried and were thrown in front of presumed rabid dogs; the dog pounced on the key and this distraction gave one time to escape.

According to tradition, people with rabies were locked in the “Saint’s Cell”; a dark, narrow room near the entrance to the church. It is reported that between their fits of rage and despair, they begged the saint to ease their last moments. Public prayers, often interrupted by the vociferations of these unfortunates, were said for them outside the church.

Local tradition also speaks of a rather more barbaric custom. Those infected with rabies were tied to a wooden stake erected in the square near the church, receiving Holy Communion at the end of a wooden slat.  When in the grip of the furious stage of the disease, these unfortunates were suffocated between two quilts loaded down with heavy objects by their family and neighbours thus ending their appalling suffering. This grim practice was still noted at the beginning of the 19th century.

In other parts of Brittany, other saints were popularly invoked to protect against or to cure rabies, like Saint Hubert. In the east of the region, Saint Méen was invoked; in the south, Saint Bieuzy. Eating bread soaked in the waters of the saint’s fountain at Bieuzy-Lanvaux was said to cure rabies, while the water of Saint Thégonnec’s fountain near Plogonnec was thought to heal bites. In other areas, those bitten by a dog suspected of carrying rabies visited the nearest fountain devoted to Saint Gildas and looked into the mirror of the water; if the image of a dog was detected in the reflection, infection was confirmed.

Woodcut of rabid dog
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Today, we might find it difficult to accept our ancestors’ superstitious beliefs but it is important to remember that consulting the sacred springs was likely as effective as some of the practices recommended by the doctors of the day. One of the medical procedures suggested to establish whether a bite was likely diseased involved rubbing the wound with a piece of bread and feeding this to a hen; if the hen refused the bread, the patient was declared infected.

It was popularly believed that being by the seashore reduced the effect of rabies in humans but it was also a place where dogs were said to contract the disease if they drank the foam left by the outgoing waves. The disease was poorly understood and trusting to the saints offered as much prospect of relief as the cures touted by medical professionals who, at the turn of the 19th century, recommended sea bathing and drinking a potion composed of wine, water and several different herbs as a remedy. Another medical treatment advised making an omelette of eggs, dog roses and powdered walnuts; applying half this omelette to the bite, the patient ate the other half in expectation of being cured.

In closing, I would like to highlight a once popular folk belief relating to dogs that carries with it no sinister connotations whatever. In times past, in Breton farmhouses, the stone of the threshold and the stone of the fireplace were said to be connected by what was known as ′′the dog trail′′; a symbolic representation of the journey taken by every soul of the household which, embodied, entered through the door and then, discarnate, left through the chimney on the day of their death.

The Breton Cinderella’s Steel Shoes

For centuries, tales of unjustly treated heroines, eventually finding happiness, have featured in the popular traditions of countless cultures worldwide. In Europe, the best known example is probably the tale of Cinderella, first published in the 17th century. Variants of this story abound and one of several versions found in Brittany is the tale of the grey wolf’s wife. This is her story.

Long ago, when the trees were thicker and the rain sweeter, there lived in the heart of Brittany, a powerful baron. Twice widowed, the baron had been graced with three daughters. Some years separated his two eldest children from his youngest who, at times, also seemed separated from his affections. While the older girls were feted at court and wore fine dresses trimmed with lace and silver thread, the youngest always stayed at home and wore only those garments cast aside by her sisters.

The baron was noted for his generous hospitality and an invitation to one of his lavish feasts was highly prized amongst the nobles of the land. With no wife, his eldest daughters fell easily into the role of hosts while their sister was usually to be found in the kitchens with the servants; only venturing out to sit in the corner of the Great Hall’s monumental fireplace to listen to the evening’s entertainment.  It was therefore unsurprising that her sisters nicknamed her Luduennic or, in English, Cinderella.

Luduennic Breton Cinderella Brittany
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A keen huntsman, the baron would often take his hounds into the vast forest of Quénécan. During one of these excursions, he became separated from his retinue and found himself in the thick of the forest, quite lost. At length, he chanced upon a modest but stout castle; a building previously unknown to him. His curiosity aroused, he dismounted and approached the door, which opened as he was about to strike it. To his astonishment, he found himself in the presence of a large grey wolf. He recoiled in fear but the wolf spoke to him: “Be not afraid. Please come inside, take some food with us and rest for the night. In the morning, we will put you on the right path for home.”

The baron entered the castle with some caution although he had no need to worry for he was treated with every courtesy and ate a wonderful meal in the company of two great wolves, who sat at the table in the manner of men. After a hearty breakfast, the wolves proved true to their word and guided the baron to a track that led out of the forest. Grasping the horse’s bridle tightly, the grey wolf addressed the baron: “Lord of Poher, I have shared my table and shown you kindness, now you must show me the same. I know that you have three daughters; one must consent to be my bride. If not, there is only death for you; my brother and I will devastate your land and its people. Go now, ask your eldest daughter if she agrees to take me for her husband and return tomorrow with her answer.”

Anxious to leave, the baron promised to put the proposal to his daughter but knew, in his heart, that she would never countenance such a wild notion. Arriving at his castle, he first saw Luduennic, who had been watching for him near the gates; her eyes red from crying over his disappearance. As soon as she saw him, she ran up to kiss him but he brushed past her and hastened to go to his eldest who he found, as always, with her sister, busy adorning themselves and admiring one another. “Where have you been, father? You did not return and we were worried for you!” they cried.

“My dear children, if you only knew what happened to me! I was lost in the forest and spent the night in a mysterious castle, where I was looked after by two talking wolves.”

“Talking wolves? Have you lost your mind father? Surely, you had a strange dream.”

“I wish that were the case but alas it is not so. One of the wolves told me that he needs one of my daughters for a wife; otherwise there is only death for me, cold death and the destruction of our lands. What say you, my child, will you take him for your husband?” he asked his eldest.

“What? You have surely lost your mind in the forest, to ask such a thing of me! Me, take a wolf as my husband when there are so many handsome lords wooing me. It is really too much!”

“But, my dear child, what is to become of my life and our lands?” pleaded the baron.

“What will be, will be. You ask for too much from me. I will never be a wolf’s wife!” she said firmly.

Wolf - medieval engraving
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It was the answer that he had expected and it was a worried man that rode into the forest early the following morning. Within minutes, the grey wolf stepped out of a dense thicket and stood in front of the baron’s horse before asking: “Tell me my fate; what answer do you bring me?”

“I regret that she thinks that I must have lost my mind to have made such a proposition to her.”

“She said that to you? That is a great pity but I will be married. Go home; make the same proposal to your second daughter,” the wolf responded.

Burdened with grief and not a little fear, the baron returned to his castle and lost no time in summoning his second daughter and submitting to her, the wolf’s offer. “How can you ask such a thing of me who loves you dearly? Ask anything of me, dear father but not that! I am a good Christian and in all conscience, I cannot do this. I will not do this!” his daughter sobbed before running out of the baron’s chamber.

Early the next morning, the baron set out for the forest once again and, once again, his heart was heavy with dread. “What answer do you bring from your second daughter, my lord?” demanded the grey wolf. Squirming uncomfortably in his saddle, the baron could only mumble that his daughter’s rejection had been as firm as that of her sister. “You have twice brought me disappointment. My threat was not an idle one. Go now and ask your youngest girl if she will agree to be my bride.”

Breton Cinderella
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Believing all hope lost, the baron returned home and immediately asked his valet to send Luduennic to him in the Great Hall. Tears welled in his eyes as he spoke: “You are of age, my child. I want you to marry.”

“I am willing to serve our house as you think best, father,” replied an astonished Luduennic.

“Good. Thank you! You will marry a great wolf who lives in Quénécan forest.”

“A wolf!” she cried.

“Yes, my sweet child. The day I was lost in the forest, I spent the night in a strange castle where dwelt two enormous wolves. One of whom, a grey beast, told me that he would have one of my daughters for a wife, otherwise there was only death for me and that moreover he would devastate our land. I have spoken to your sisters and both are firm; they will never take a wolf as husband. You are my last and only hope.”

“Oh my dear father, then it must be done,” replied Luduennic, without hesitation, “tell the wolf that I will take him for my husband.”

For a third time, the baron returned to the forest but on this occasion, he felt no trepidation as the grey wolf blocked his path. “What tidings do you bring me today, baron,” asked the wolf.

“My daughter consents to marry you,” replied the baron without emotion.

“That is good. Now, you must waste no time in arranging the wedding. As a token of my esteem, please give these three fir branches to your daughters.”

A Breton Wedding
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Nine days later, almost six hundred guests celebrated the wedding of Luduennic and the grey wolf; the dancing and merry-making did not stop until the first light of dawn. Everyone agreed that it was a most wonderful day and certainly the strangest union that they had ever witnessed. The next morning, Luduennic found that her stem of fir had turned to gold, much to the consternation of her sisters who had disdained theirs and thrown them away upon receipt. When the last revelries were over, the baron bade the newlyweds a heartfelt farewell and prayed for his daughter’s happiness.

Married life sat well with young Luduennic; she was kindly treated by her husband and wanted for nothing. Indeed, she was happy and content. After some three months had passed, the grey wolf interrupted her breakfast, saying “Your oldest sister is to be married tomorrow and you should attend. My brother and I will stay at home. Take this gold ring and wear it on your finger. You will not see its equal. When you feel it prick your finger, you must return here immediately, no matter the time or whatever you might be doing.”

The next day, Luduennic attended her sister’s wedding, arriving in a beautiful gilded coach drawn by four powerfully-built white horses. All the guests were dazzled by her beauty and the rich lustre of her fine clothes and sparkling jewels. “Look at the wolf’s wife!” her sisters mocked jealously; for none could compete with her in beauty or dress. They overwhelmed her with questions: whether her husband was well; why did he not attend the wedding; was she happy with him; did he sleep with her like a wolf, and so many other enquiries.

After the wedding feast, the night was devoted to dances and games of all kinds. Sounds of happy laughter filled the night air and Luduennic seemed the very epitome of joy, throwing herself into one dance after another. At midnight, she felt her ring gently pricking her finger. Straightaway, she announced: “I must leave now, my husband is expecting me.” and made her farewells.

Vasilisa and The Grey Wolf by Alexandra Nadzvetskaya
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“What? So soon? Please stay just a little longer,” her sisters and all those around her urged. “You are having such a good time. Have fun here; you will always have enough of your wolf’s company.” So, Luduennic stayed but within the hour, her ring pricked her harshly. She ran to the courtyard and into her coach, which promptly left with all haste. Arriving at her woodland castle, she found her husband lying on his back in the middle of the courtyard, on the verge of death. “Oh my beloved husband, what happened to you?” she cried.

“Alas,” replied the grey wolf, “you did not come home as soon as you felt your ring prick your finger. Your neglect has brought this trouble upon me.” Luduennic threw herself on her husband and kissed him, watering his noble face with her tears. Revived, the wolf straightened up and the relieved couple were helped to the comfort of their hearth by the grey wolf’s brother.

Some four months passed peacefully before the wolf, over dinner, announced: “Your second sister is to be married tomorrow and you will attend.  Take care that you do not stay there overlong. Return to me the instant that you feel your ring prick your finger. If you do not, you will never see me again.”

It was a radiant Luduennic that stepped down from her carriage at her father’s castle the following day. Was it possible, the crowd asked, that the bride’s little sister looked more beautiful than before. Once again, she was showered with questions from her sisters and extended family. They were aghast to hear of her pregnancy and her father feared that she might give birth to a wolf cub. Luduennic simply smiled and responded that only God could know the future and that whatever pleased Him, would happen.

Some of the best musicians in the land had been hired to play at the wedding and their music fuelled dances of all kinds, much to Luduennic’s delight. A little before midnight, she felt a sharp bite as the ring pricked her finger. Anxious not to repeat her previous mistake, Luduennic began to say her good-byes but, caught in the throng of so many well-wishers, she forgot herself again and returned home even later than the first time.

The Eternal World by Laurel Long
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No sooner had she stepped down from her carriage than the air was rent by the long mournful howl of a wolf. Luduennic ran across the courtyard to where the grey wolf’s brother stood over her husband’s prone body. Seeing no sign of life, she flung herself to his side, lamenting: “My beloved, I lost myself again. Forgive me. Wake up! Please, return to me!”

Luduennic’s hot tears fell onto the grey wolf’s face but he remained deathly cold; even after he had been moved to lie in front of the castle’s main fireplace. Holding his body close to her, she rubbed his neck anxiously and was much relieved when, at length, he stirred a little, then opened his eyes and looked at her tenderly. Finally, he spoke: “My misery is complete. You failed my one request of you. You are too late, now I must leave you and you will not see me again. I no longer had to remain in this wolf form: if you had but honoured me, as soon as you gave me a child, I would have recovered a first form, that of the prince I was before.  Now, I must go to live on the Crystal Mountain, across the Blue Sea and the Red Sea, and you will not find me until you have worn out a pair of iron shoes and a pair of steel shoes in search of me.”

With that, he threw off his wolf skin; his brother did the same and they were revealed, in their natural state, to be handsome young men with noble bearing. Luduennic was overwhelmed with remorse, she sobbed uncontrollably and cried: “No! Stay! Stay or take me with you. I beg you!” She ran after her husband, shouting: “Wherever you go, I will follow, even to the very end of the world,” but he would not listen to her pleas. Gripping her long, flowing robe, Luduennic gave chase.

Alphonse_Leuxhe_Le_chemin_de_Sainte-Barbe
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In an effort to distract her, her husband threw in her path a perfect ball of gold. Luduennic stopped for a moment to pick up the beautiful orb and continued her pursuit. Her husband dropped a second gold ball, then a third, which she also picked up, without ceasing her run. She was the stronger runner and, feeling her hard on his heels, he suddenly turned and punched her full in the face. Her nose exploded with blood but just three drops splashed onto the prince’s white shirt. He barely looked at the devastated face of his bride before resuming his course. Alas, Luduennic was in too much pain to continue and could only shout to him: “I wish that no one can wipe away my blood from your shirt, until I come to remove it myself!” As the fleeing prince and his brother disappeared from view, Luduennic made a solemn oath that she would not stop walking until she found her husband.

So, she returned home and took her golden frond to the master blacksmith at Gwareg who forged for her a fine pair of shoes made of iron and another crafted in tempered steel. The smith also created an iron ferrule for the new walking stick that she had fashioned from a strong branch of elderberry. With some ill-fitting clothes bought from the blacksmith’s wife, she set out again in the direction in which she had last seen her husband go.

Luduennic walked; she walked night and day, barely taking time to rest. She travelled far; far beyond all lands and languages known to her. Her wooden sabots had perished, so, she wore her iron shoes. Everywhere she asked for news of the Crystal Mountain, located beyond the Blue Sea and the Red Sea, but no one was ever able to give her any indication of their whereabouts.

Eventually, her iron shoes were worn away and she was forced to put on her steel pair before continuing her quest. Months of constant walking took their toll and her steel shoes were also almost worn through, when Luduennic arrived at a desolate sea shore. There, nestled between two gigantic red boulders, she saw a miserable looking hut. She approached it and saw inside a little woman, as old as stone with teeth as long and sharp as those of a rake. “Hello, little one; what are you looking for here?” croaked the old woman.

Haridon_The rocks of the Great Peacock
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“I search for my husband, who left me. I have walked for nineteen moons yet I can find no trace of the Crystal Mountain where he said he was going. It lies beyond the Blue Sea and the Red Sea; tell me, does this ocean carry either name?” asked Luduennic.

“Truly, you have travelled far and suffered a lot to come here,” replied the crone.

“Yes but perhaps, sadly, in vain. I have already worn out a pair of iron shoes and the steel ones on my feet are also almost spent. Do you know the Crystal Mountain?”

“You are on the right path, little one, but you still have far to walk and much to endure before you get there.”

Luduennic’s heart dropped at this news: “In the name of God, help me, grandmother, please. Please help me!”

“You do interest me little one and so I shall do something for you. I will call my son; he will take you across the seas Blue and Red and will put you, in no time, at the foot of the great Crystal Mountain.”

The crone's son; the eagle
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Shuffling to the threshold of her hovel, the crone let out a cry so piercing that Luduennic could hardly credit its source. A few moments later, an ominous shadow spread across the sky from the south and Luduennic saw the outline of an impossibly large bird darkening the heavens. It glided towards her, crying, before landing gracefully nearby. The enormous eagle touched the old woman’s feet with its beak and asked her: “Why did you call me, mother?”

“To take this one over the Blue Sea and over the Red Sea and deposit her at the foot of the Crystal Mountain,” she responded.

“Very well. So shall it be,” replied the eagle, “let her ride on my back and we will leave immediately.”

Luduennic sat astride the eagle’s back and clung tightly as the magnificent bird soared high into the air. They flew away from the sun and over the Blue Sea and soon thereafter, the Red Sea. The sun had not fully passed across the sky before the eagle began to descend toward the base of a towering peak: the Crystal Mountain. Having laid his burden at the foot of the mountain, the eagle flew away and was soon out of sight.

Ludennic and the eagle
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Having decided to climb the mountain on the following morning, Luduennic allowed herself a night’s rest. However, the full light of day illuminated the challenge ahead; the mountain’s slope was steep and slippery, and she could not find any trace of a path. It was then she noticed a fox playing nearby with some golden balls, similar to those her husband had thrown at her in his flight and which she still carried in her bag. The fox appeared to be rolling his golden balls from high up the mountain before gathering them all up when they reached the bottom. Seeing Luduennic, the fox spoke in the language of men and asked her what she was doing at the mountain. No longer surprised to encounter talking animals, Luduennic told the fox of her search and long journey from home.

“Of course, of course,” muttered the fox, “You are, no doubt, Luduennic, the youngest daughter of the Baron de Poher? Tomorrow your husband is to marry the daughter of the master of the Castle of Crystal Mountain. It will be a grand occasion.”

“This cannot be,” cried the poor girl, “I must speak to him. In all haste, I must! But how can I ever climb such a mountain as this?”

“Take hold of my tail with both hands, hold tightly and I shall take you to the top,” replied the fox. Luduennic took the fox’s tail as instructed and was able to climb to the top of the mountain, where the fox, before departing, showed her the castle where her husband was living.

painting of a fox
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As Luduennic made her way towards the castle, she saw a group of washerwomen scrubbing clothes in a steam and noticed that one of them was fiercely working on a shirt with some stubborn stains on it. Clearly unable to remove the stains, the washerwoman held up the shirt to her neighbour, saying: “This thin shirt has only three stains on it but I cannot lift even one of them. I dare not scrub it more as it is fine linen but the young lord wants to wear it tomorrow as it is his most beautiful shirt.”

Luduennic heard these words and, having approached the washerwoman, instantly recognized her husband’s shirt, saying: “If you want to give me the shirt, I think I will succeed in making those stains disappear.” The washerwoman gave her the shirt; she spat on the three stains, soaked the cloth in the water, rubbed it and the stains promptly disappeared. In recognition of this service, the washerwoman invited Luduennic to come with her to the castle, where she could find work for as long as the wedding celebrations lasted.

The following morning found Luduennic seated on a low wall that ran alongside the road upon which the bridal procession travelled on its way to the church. At her side, she had spread a clean white handkerchief upon which sat a beautiful gold ball. The expectant bride did not fail to notice the glistening ball as she passed by; she admired it greatly and sent one of her trusted maids to secure it for her.

“What will you take for your little gold ball?” the bride’s maid asked Luduennic.

“Tell your mistress that I will not sell my gold ball, neither for silver nor for gold,” replied Luduennic.

“My mistress has a strong desire to own it, however,” continued the maid.

“Tell her that if she wants to let me spend tonight with her husband, she will possess it; but for nothing else in the world can she have it.”

Market in Brittany
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“She will never consent to that,” snorted the maid as she hurried back to the castle. After the wedding party had returned, the maid sought out her mistress and recounted her conversation with the owner of the golden ball and the high price she demanded for it. Both agreed it was a most shameless suggestion. However, such was the lure of this golden sphere that the lady reluctantly agreed to the terms offered and to conserve her honour, resolved to give her husband a potent sleeping draught before they retired to bed.

The maid returned to Luduennic and, having secured the gold ball, brought her, in secret, to the castle. The lady, delighted with her bargain and her new husband, was a picture of happiness during the wedding feast and later, while clapping the dancers, she was able to pour some narcotic into her husband’s cup without his noticing it. It was not long before he gladly acceded to his wife’s suggestion to rest awhile before dancing anymore and was guided to his chamber by his new bride.

A few moments later, Luduennic was shown to the room. She threw herself on the prince and kissed him, weeping with joy, saying: “I have finally found you, my beloved husband! If you but knew at the cost of how much trouble and pain. Our baby was lost. I have known only suffering since you left me.” However, he was sleeping soundly and nothing could wake him. The poor girl spent the whole night crying without being able to raise one word from her husband. At daybreak, the princess’s maid came for her and led her out of the castle.

Later that day, the princess was walking in the woods near the castle when she chanced upon Luduennic standing beside a white cloth laid out on the grass upon which sat another gold ball. The princess again coveted the precious globe and sent her maid to buy it. “How much is your gold ball today?” she asked.

“The same price as yesterday,” Luduennic replied. The maid reported the answer to her mistress who, eager to acquire the ball, again accepted the bargain offered.

During the evening meal, the prince, who had been slipped another dose of sleeping potion, fell asleep at the table and had to be carried to his bed. As on the previous day, the pitiable Luduennic spent the whole night with him, weeping and moaning, without being able to wake him.

Castle gate
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However, the newlywed’s brother, whose chamber was next door, heard Luduennic’s plaintive cries and was moved to hear her say: “If you only knew of the ordeals I was forced to endure in search of you. I married you when you were a wolf. Neither of my sisters wanted you. I alone loved you and now you receive me this way! I will visit you once more and if you do not rouse, we will never see each other again!”

In the morning, the prince’s brother relayed all that he had overheard and told how Luduennic’s deep anguish had moved him deeply. Suspecting some mischief, he cautioned his brother against drinking anything offered by his new bride; if he retained his senses, he might see Luduennic’s devotion for himself. While the brothers were deep in conversation, the princess was walking outside the castle walls with her sister and was most surprised to encounter Luduennic, sitting outside the east wall with yet another golden ball. A deal, on the same conditions as the first two, was swiftly concluded.

During the evening meal, the prince was careful of what he ate and poured away his drugged drink without his princess noticing. Pretending to succumb to an irresistible sleep, he was carried to his bed by his brother and was wide awake when Luduennic slipped into his chamber a short time later. Weeping with joy, Luduennic told her husband of the many hardships she had overcome and the pain she had carried in searching for him. The prince was touched by her sincerity and believed her earnest declaration that she loved him above all else in the world. So complete was his trust that he vowed to return with her to her country and leave, without regret, his new wife.

Dressed in the manner of the princess that she was, Luduennic was the prince’s guest at dinner on the following evening.  Introduced as one of his relatives, nobody recognised this visitor whose beauty commanded the gaze of all present.  A most convivial atmosphere surrounded the evening and it was not long before people started to tell tales and sing songs; each vying to be more entertaining than the last performer much to the delight of the lord of the mountain. “And you, my new son, will you not sing us something too, unless you prefer to recite some beautiful story? asked the master of the castle.

medieval banquet
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“I have little to say, father,” replied the prince. “However, there is one thing that troubles me and on which I would welcome your advice and that of the other wise men present. It is this: I once owned a charming little box, opened by a delicate golden key. I lost this precious casket and had a fine new one made but as soon as I took hold of the new box, I found the old one. Thus, I find myself today with two and one is enough for me. Which of the two should I keep, father – the old or the new?”

“Respect and honour always that which is ancient,” replied the lord, “keep your old box, my son.”

“I am also of that opinion and therefore I must, in good conscience, return your daughter to you. As for me, I will return to the land of my first wife. She is here and loves me more than any other,” announced the prince as he rose from the table. To the total astonishment of all, he took Luduennic by the hand and promptly left the castle.

The two wolves of the forest castle were princes, sons of a powerful ruler to the south. They had been cursed, as punishment for some perceived slight, by a witch to adopt the form of a wolf. Alas, their father died shortly after their joyful homecoming and was, in turn, succeeded by the prince. Luduennic’s father was very happy to see his daughter return but her sisters had made bad marriages. Setting aside all ill will, she forgot their wrongs towards her and called them to her court where she saw them re-married to men who loved them more than their father’s estates. As for the princess of Crystal Mountain; only the storytellers heard of her fate.

Looking for Love in Brittany

For centuries, marriage, whether motivated by romantic idealism or social necessity, was a key concern for rural societies across Europe. In Brittany, where traditionally an early wedding was expected and the unmarried viewed with suspicion, a number of unusual customs and superstitions once surrounded marriage and the quest for a worthy spouse.

Across Brittany, many sacred springs and fountains were widely believed to have possessed divinatory powers and it seems that pins were long considered the most effective medium for consulting these oracles. Different pins were used at different fountains; mostly silver hairpins were used but sometimes the ritual required a wooden pin or one taken from the bodice of the dress. The most auspicious pin to use was widely held to be one of the pins used for a bridal crown or wedding dress and such pins were highly prized by those wishing to get married.

The omens drawn from the behaviour of the pins cast into the water also differed according to the site. Whether a pin simply floated or sank was often not enough to draw meaning; in some locations it was important that the pin sank without making a whirling motion or that it turned on itself before hitting the bottom of the fountain.

With many thousands of sacred springs scattered across the Breton countryside, deciding on which source to consult was no trivial matter; something as important as a happy marriage could not be left to mere chance. Unmarried women therefore routinely visited the local witch in hope of securing her recommendation as to the right fountain to be consulted. This was typically done by a ritual known as ‘the pull of the saints’; the bent branch of a hazel tree was burnt over a container of water while the names of propitious saints were recited. The name pronounced at the moment the first piece of charcoaled residue fell into the water, signalled the saint’s fountain to be visited.

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In Brittany, the 3rd century Christian martyr Laurent or Lawrence, who was said to have been roasted alive, was popularly invoked for burns, shingles and difficulties in walking. However, many fountains dedicated to him were also ascribed miraculous powers of prophecy. Near Pleyben, on the day of the Pardon of Saint Laurent (10 August), young women would visit the saint’s fountain in an attempt to float a pin on the water in hopes of being married within the year; a ritual that was also popularly observed there on May Day. Similar rituals were undertaken at the Saint Laurent chapel in Yffiniac and at the fountain of Saint Laurent, just north of Plémy.

The Saint Laurent fountain at Stivell features a spring encased by a circular stone basin, reminiscent of a well, from which the water is channelled through a culvert for about six metres before emerging at a spout carved into a granite wall from which it cascades two meters down into a stone basin. This basin fed a large stone pool that accommodated bathers while stones, sealed into the wall, allowed pilgrims to be seated while making their ablutions.

On the night before the saint’s Pardon, it was traditional for the devout to circle the 15th century chapel on their knees before enjoying the evening festivities; boisterous drinking, energetic dancing and bouts of bloody wrestling by the light of consecrated candles being the norm. After sunset, the men bathed naked in the pool; the waters were believed to strengthen the body. At sunrise, the women took their turn to bathe together. Those who did not want to appear naked in public would send a beggar to perform this ritual on their behalf. The practice was clearly an echo of some ancient belief but we can only speculate as to what that might have been. Perhaps the association of sacred water and fire was related to pagan notions of the sun regaining its vitality in the underground waters before being reborn with the dawn. 

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The religious authorities finally managed to get such practices proscribed in 1855 when an official decree prohibited night fighting and excesses of all kinds; the temporary drinking tents set-up for the Pardon were henceforth forced to close at the same times as the licensed taverns in town and displays of nudity were branded offensive to public decency and expressly forbidden. However, old traditions die hard and the timeworn practices were still reported in 1864. Having failed to eradicate the belief, the Church focused on making the site irrelevant and finally abandoned the chapel in 1879.

Sainte Barbe’s fountain in Le Faouët was once a popular site for those in central Brittany to visit in order to find out if they were to be married in the year ahead. Here, it was traditional to throw a pin into the basin of the fountain while one’s back was turned. If the pin fell into the small vertical cavity at the base of the fountain, a suitable marriage within the year was assured. Young girls also visited another fountain dedicated to Sainte Barbe some 30km away in Pont-Augan near Quistinic but the ritual here appears to have involved simply making an invocation and throwing a round-headed pin into the water in hopes of being married within the year.

Sainte Barbe’s Fountain : Henri Baronin (1921)

Saint Lawrence was one of the most widely venerated Christian saints; the cult of Saint Barbara, another 3rd century martyr, was also fairly widespread, so, we should not be too surprised to see sacred springs devoted to them in Brittany. However, the majority of such ancient sites were successfully Christianised by being devoted to local saints not recognised by the Vatican.

The fountain attached to the 16th century church at Saint-Servais was consulted by young girls seeking to know when they would marry; if the pin floated it was taken as a fortuitous omen. However, at the fountain of Saint Alor, a little south of the city of Quimper, the pin had to sink directly down with its head pointed upwards. When the pin thrown into the fountain of Saint-Gobrien sank upside down through the water, the unmarried girl was said to find a husband before the end of the year.

Those seeking a marriage in the far west of Brittany would visit the fountain of Saint Ourzal’s chapel near Kervézennoc. Here, it was necessary to offer a pin to the water before invoking the saint with the words: “Mr Saint Ourzal, please, give each a wife, Mr Saint Ourzal, once again, give us each a husband.”

If the pin thrown by a girl into the waters of the fountain of Saint Vio at Ploneour-Lanwern did not quickly sink through the water, she was said to be guaranteed to marry within the year. While at the saint’s fountain in nearby Tréguennec, it was necessary for those seeking marriage to throw a coin into the circular depression found in the middle of the fountain’s outer basin.  Coins were also the medium used at the fountain of Saint-Gouesnou where they were thrown into the waters of the spring while asking for the saint’s favour in securing an early marriage. The grace of this saint was considered most auspicious given his reputation for forbidding women from entering his monastic territories in 7th century Brittany.

Saint Vio’s Fountain

In the forest of Brocéliande, the fountain of Barenton, long famous for its association with Merlin and Viviane, is one of the few sacred sources in Brittany not to have been successfully Christianised by the Church. Unmarried women visited the fountain to offer it a pin; if the waters of the spring bubbled, it was a sign that she would be married before Easter. If fate was favourable, those seeking marriage were said to see the image of their intended reflected in the waters if they visited the fountain alone, at midnight, on the night of a full moon.

It was not always pins that were cast into the waters. At the fountain of Saint Drien in Penmarc’h, girls traditionally threw pieces of broken pottery into the water; the number of air bubbles that rose to the surface foretold how many years separated her from marriage. Nor were pins used at the fountain of Saint Efflam in Plestin-les-Grèves; a source reputed to have been raised by the saint to quench the thirst of King Arthur, weary after having spent three days fighting a dragon in the vicinity. This fountain was once the scene for several special divination rituals; the young woman threw a piece of bread onto the water, if it floated, it was taken as a sign that she would be married within the year.

Another rite involved placing two small pieces of bread, representing the prospective bride and groom, on the water channel that flows from the fountain’s basin. This channel widens and a slight eddy is formed in the water; if, during this journey, the two pieces floated side by side, the marriage was assured within the year. However, if the pieces, caught in the eddy, separated, the wedding would not take place soon, possibly never.

Fountain of Saint Efflam

Probably the most impressive fountain related to those desiring a marriage is the fountain of Quinipily. This monumental fountain is topped by a nine foot high pedestal on which stands a seven foot tall statue of Venus thought to be a relic of the Roman occupation and to date from 50BC. The fountain possessed a massive water basin where women bathed naked in the hope of securing a marriage, much to the consternation of the local clergy.

In Ploumanac’h, on Brittany’s Pink Granite Coast, the 12th century Oratory of Saint Guirec is only accessible at low tide but if an intrepid and unmarried girl managed to put a pin into the statue’s nose without it falling out, she was thought to be married within the year.

It was not only the sacred sources that were visited in hopes of influencing the future; certain monoliths and megaliths were also the scene for a variety of rituals designed to effect a marriage. In the eastern Breton village of Maen Roch, the large quartz-rich boulder known as Le Rocher Cutesson was climbed on the morning of May Day by unmarried people, of both sexes, each carrying a bowl full of water. Holding their bowl, the young folk allowed themselves to slide down the rock face; those who managed to reach the ground with their bowl intact were said to be married within a year. A little over 3km away in Saint-Étienne-en-Coglès, a similar result was said to be achieved if a young woman climbed the large boulder in the churchyard of Saint Eustache’s chapel on Good Friday and stood on its summit in front of the congregation without blushing.

Menhir de la Thiemblaye

Just 20km away at Monthault, unmarried women would slide down an enormous inclined ashlar, leaving behind a piece of cloth or ribbon, in the expectation that they would be married within the year. However, it was important that no one witnessed this rite as it was thought that only the stone could keep the secret of the maiden’s heart. Similar practices were known to have taken place on other stones, such as the inclined Menhir de la Thiemblaye near Saint-Samson-sur-Rance.

Near the north east coast, in Plouër-sur-Rance, young women would climb to the top of the rocky outcrop known as La Roche de Lesmont to take position on the highest block of quartz. This abuts a large pyramid shaped boulder which, over the years, has been rubbed quite smooth by the elements and human action. It was on this angled face of rock that girls would slide down in the expectation of gaining a marriage within the year. For the ritual to be effective, it was necessary that, before commencing her slide, the young lady rolled up her skirt so that her bare flesh was in constant contact with the stone (underwear not being commonly worn until the turn of the 20th century). If the girl reached the bottom without scratching herself, she was said to be sure of securing a husband within the year. Some reports claimed that the slider also needed to urinate in a cavity in the stone.

The symbolic importance of flesh against stone is quite ancient and was often noted in archaic societies who practiced an element of stone worship; bodily contact with that to which they attributed power was crucial. A bared bottom was also a requirement for sliding down the broken blocks of the Great Menhir at Locmariaquer on Brittany’s southern coast but to succeed, the ritual had to be completed on the night of May Day. A scratch deep enough to bleed augured a future marriage. The menhir was recorded as still standing at the beginning of the 18th century thus this custom, which could not have been observed when the stone stood vertical, twelve meters in height, must have been relatively modern. Most likely, the unmarried women of the area followed, on the broken pieces, an ancient custom which was formerly held on another stone in the neighbourhood.

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The Neolithic dolmen of Cruz-Menquen in nearby Carnac was popularly known as Pierre Chaude (the hot stone). During the nights of a full moon, young women seeking marriage would sit atop the capstone with their skirt lifted above their waist. It was, no doubt, to counter such pagan practices that the local clergy decided to Christianize the megalith in the early 19th century. Accounts from the same time relate how young women seeking husbands, undressed completely and rubbed their ‘navels’ against another menhir near Carnac that was especially devoted to this usage. Similar practices were also recorded at the megalith known as La Roche-Marie near Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier.

Further along the coast, near Guérande, the French diplomat Charles Coquebert de Montbret noted the presence of many pieces of red cloth pushed into the clefts and cracks of the dolmens of Kerbourg during a visit in the early 19th century. He was assured that these were favours entrusted to the stone by young girls in the hope of being married within the year, such secret deposits being made far from the watchful gaze of the local clergy.

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The interpretation of omens and the practice of specific rites to ward off misfortune or to encourage good fortune was an important part of everyday life in the rural Brittany of yesteryear. It was said that if a young girl danced around nine Midsummer bonfires, she would marry before the next Midsummer Day; a similar outcome was assured if she found, on Midsummer’s Eve, a vantage point that allowed her to see nine fires burning at once.

A marriage, within a year, was also thought assured if one found, first thing in the morning, a flowered thistle. Similarly, anyone who saw a star between nine and ten o’clock in the morning was believed to marry within the year. However, if an unmarried woman wore her petticoat in such a manner that it exceeded her outer skirt, it was a sign that she would not marry for a long time.

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A thistle was also used by young women to identify the suitor that loved her the most sincerely. Taking as many heads of thistle as she had suitors, she would remove the tips and assign each thistle a boy’s name before placing them under her bed. The plant that decayed the least told her whose sincerity was the strongest. In some parts of Brittany, aspiring suitors placed a hawthorn leaf on the door of the object of their affections; if their attention was unwelcome, the young lady replaced the leaf with that of a cauliflower.

Finding a four leafed clover, when one had not been looking for it, was a widespread omen of good fortune here but it was said that if it was discovered by an unmarried girl she would soon be married. When a bramble clung to a woman’s dress, it was another sign that love was near and that she would marry within the year. In the east of the region, if a young girl wanted to see who she was destined to marry, it was necessary for her to place three bay leaves under her eyes before going to sleep on Christmas Eve while reciting: “Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior, tell me while I sleep, who will be mine for life.”

If a woman wanted her partner to love her dearly, it was recommended that she put a walnut leaf, picked on Midsummer’s Eve, in her left shoe while the Nones bell was ringing. An equally bizarre ritual was advised for the girl whose love for a boy was unrequited; it was said that she had only to make him eat some bread that she had baked with a little of her menstrual blood. Alternatively, the lovelorn lady could take a lock of the boy’s hair and offer it three times to the altar of the local church with a lighted candle and then plait it with a lock of her own hair. Another procedure said to have been effective was a love potion composed of water or cider infused with the powder of a bone taken from a fresh grave or ground cantharides.

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The broader animal kingdom was also called upon to throw light on matters of the heart; young girls consulted the ladybird to draw some omen from its flight. In eastern Brittany, young women would take a harvestman or daddy long-legs and pull off its legs; if the dismembered limbs twitched when placed in the palm of the hand, a marriage was near.

In yesterday’s Brittany, a woman seeking a husband needed to avoid treading on the tail of a cat; in the west of the region, it was said no marriage would follow for seven years but in eastern Brittany it was held that she would remain unmarried for as many years as the cat had shrieked. Likewise, the call of the cuckoo was said to indicate how many years a young woman would have to wait until marriage. The bark of a dog could also be auspicious as young shepherds, whose dogs barked while seemingly asleep, once believed that their future husband would be sighted on the following Sunday; approaching from the direction indicated by the dog’s head.

A white doe that was said to wander the moors of Kerprigent near Saint-Jean-du-Doigt served as another animal progosticator. The beast was described as docile but agitated, seemingly searching for something and was quick to follow those who chanced across its path. If she met a young girl and blocked her path, the girl was sure to marry within months but was destined to die within the year. If she followed or walked alongside an unmarried girl, it was a sign that she would never marry. If she showed herself to a married woman, it was to announce the imminent death of her husband. If the doe met a young man, he would marry within the year but if he was under twenty years of age her appearance foretold the death of a close relative.

The course of true love never does run smooth and such are the vagaries of love that sometimes folk felt it necessary to seek affirmation of their partner’s devotion and fidelity. Many superstitious practices were once widely thought to pronounce on the sincerity of a lover. For instance, a piece of magnetite or magnet stone placed under the bed was thought to have the power to repel unfaithful lovers from the marital bed.

One way to attest to the virtue of one’s future bride was to present the young lady with a lighted tallow candle; if she managed to extinguish the flame by blowing on it once and succeeded in relighting it in the same fashion, blowing on it only once, the result was decisive; the lady’s virtue was intact. Sometimes portents were taken from the most everyday occurrences; a woman whose hair remained askew after she had prepared her headdress was said to be subject to the temptation of adultery, while the appearance of rain on laundry day indicated that the man of the house was not a faithful partner.

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Near the south coast town of Concarneau, the massive boulder at Trégunc known as Men Dogan (the stone of the cuckolds) was visited by men to verify the fidelity of their partners; tradition held that a deceived partner could not make the 50 tonne stone move but those whose partners were true could move it with just one finger. The behaviour of another balancing rock nearby was said able to answer any question put to it; the rock could only be moved if the answer was in the affirmative. Several menhirs that faced the sea off Brittany’s southern coast were visited by young people who placed flax flowers on the stones on Saint John’s Day; if the flowers were still fresh when visited eight days later, it was taken as a sign of faithfulness. Those men who feared betrayal by their wives visited the rock at Combourtillé, circling it under the light of the moon in an attempt to retain marital faithfulness.

Many young people traditionally came to consult the fountain of Saint Thivisiau at Landivisiau before their wedding: a pin from the girl’s bodice cast into the waters of the fountain indicated whether the prospective bride had retained her innocence. The pin was laid on the water with the greatest care; if it floated for a moment, the young girl’s virtue was confirmed. Only recognised in this location, nothing is known of the life of the, possibly mythical, Saint Thivisiau whose name is attached to this fountain. However, the site’s importance stretches back millennia, as attested by the Iron Age steles uncovered here during excavation work in the 1980s.

Some 40km to the east, the fountain of Saint Efflam in Plestin-les-Grèves was the site of three distinct rituals. Consulted by men eager to secure affirmation of their partner’s faithfulness, it was necessary to visit the fountain without being seen, on an empty stomach, on the first Monday in May. Three small pieces of bread, representing the couple and the interloper, were thrown on the water, if the latter piece moved away from the other two, it was because any suspicions were well-founded.

In another rite, a woman threw a piece of bread onto the water; if it floated, it was a sign that her fiancé was faithful to her. The fountain was the site of one more practice, observed by those men anxious to know whether their wife was faithful to them. For this to be effective, it was necessary for the man to steal the pin worn closest to his wife’s heart and place it on the water; if the pin floated, his wife’s virtue remained intact.

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The Breton writer Yann Brekilien once uncovered a most unfortunate episode in this fountain’s history: A young couple visited the fountain to offer to the waters a beautiful silver-headed pin that the boy had bought for the girl as a gift to mark their engagement. Neither were worried; both confident of their devotion to each other. Alas, the pin swiftly sank to the bottom of the basin. We can only imagine their devastated dreams as, heads bowed in silence, they turned away from the fountain. The following morning, the young girl’s lifeless body was found on the beach.

It is commonplace in our modern world to laugh at the superstitions of old but it is important to remember that, whether right or wrong, people once had faith in their power and effectiveness.

Brittany’s Milk Snatching Sorcerers

As with most other rural communities, considerable importance was once attached to milk in Brittany; it played a vital role in the people’s diet and livelihood. It is therefore not surprising to find a number of once popular superstitions and beliefs surrounding it; including special practices to preserve one’s cows from the evil spells thrown at them by jealous neighbours.

For centuries, it was commonly believed that milk production could be influenced, for good and especially for ill, by acts performed outside the cowshed. In Brittany, a silver coin held in the hand or hidden in the stable insured good luck for the dairy. Similarly, certain plants and herbs were thought to have an influence on the production of milk: to ensure one’s cow gave as much milk as those of your neighbours, it was thought beneficial to place in the byre, every day, an amulet of ground herbs picked on the night of Midsummer, reciting a short prayer while the Nones bell was ringing.

To preserve the health of milk cows, their hooves were rubbed with a paste of ground herbs gathered before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day and in the southern Breton Marches, cows’ udders were rubbed with the early morning dew on May Day in hopes of the same result. In order for the cow to deliver ample milk without difficulty, it was often made to drink the first milk or colostrum after it had calved. Many farmers also put their faith in religion and regularly made offerings of butter at one of the many churches dedicated to the protector of cows, Saint Herbot, invoking the saint’s favour for full churns. Likewise, butter was offered to Saint Hervé to keep cattle safe from wolves; the saint, stricken with blindness, was once led about by a wolf.

If a cow’s milk dried-up unexpectedly or for no apparent reason, it was not long before the farmer suspected the influence of witchcraft; causing the udders of asses and cows to dry-up was one of the misdeeds often attributed to witches from at least the 17th century onwards. An amulet containing certain dried herbs, placed inside the chimney-breast of the barn was thought to bring-on the drying of cows’ udders. However, it was also believed that the same circumstances could also be produced if the cows chanced to be milked over their litter or if they were put in a blessed house.

Milkmaids
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A sympathetic bond between the cow and its milk was thought to exist even after the milk had left its body. It was believed that certain people possessed the ability to cast the evil eye, causing cows to lose milk simply by looking at them in a certain way; enchantments that could only be lifted by the intervention of a witch or sorcerer.

It was thought that the best milk was vulnerable to thieves able to draw the cream of others to their barn; before sunrise on May Day it was said that one’s enemy needed to attach a string to the filter of their milk churn and drag it in the direction from which they wanted the cream to come while reciting the charm: “Milk and butter, come all to me and nothing to my neighbours.”

To dispel this enchantment and chastise the one who cast it, the owner of the bewitched cow was required to boil a few pins in the animal’s milk; these were then thought to wound the one who cast the spell who, to alleviate the pain, hastened to lift the curse. In the north west of the region, another way to lift such a curse was to stick several pins into the heart of an ox which was then put into an iron pot hung over the flames of the farmhouse fire; the spell caster was now believed to feel compelled to present themselves to the accursed party.

 Breton farmhouse
A typical Breton farmhouse

Around Quintin in central Brittany, it was said that milkmaids ran naked at night, filling their churns with dew collected in their neighbour’s fields in order to steal the cream. Similar nocturnal naked expeditions were also reputed to have been undertaken by milkmaids in eastern Brittany. It was said that they stole milk by walking naked around the stables of the neighbouring farms, dragging behind them the rags used to clean the oven. This was thought to draw the cream from the milk of all the cows included within this circuit and pass it instead into their stable, so that even with just one cow, they would produce butter in abundance. This good fortune was held to last until another person, more powerful in the dark arts, again diverted the cream.

In western Brittany, it was thought that such an enchantment could be broken if the affected cow was walked around a three sided field. Indeed, one was believed to be able to turn the tables on the spell caster if, while walking the cow, one threw salt over their shoulder, chanting: “Cream for me and milk for my neighbour.” Salt as a preservative against drying-up also featured in the traditional beliefs of neighbouring Normandy, where, to counteract any possible bewitchment that had been cast on a new cow, molten salt was rubbed on the udder and around the base of its tail.

A more elaborate ritual for lifting this type of curse involved cutting some hairs from the cow’s head, the withers and its tail, soaking them in the animal’s water trough before sunrise on each day of Holy Week before wearing them to mass on Easter Day.

Witches and cows
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In southern Brittany, May Day was believed to be the day when cows were particularly susceptible to the power of sorcerers and their evil spells. In order to protect them against such misfortune, an elaborate ritual was performed; the cattle were taken from the byre which was then cleaned thoroughly. The leaves of a number of plants, namely bay, bramble, elderberry and laurel, collected that morning, were then burned with scraps of old leather in all the corners of the building.  Branches of elderberry were hung from the walls inside the barn and a bramble, with a root at each of its ends, fastened in the form of an arc above the barn door. This ritual complete, the cows were then returned to the barn, being led backwards through the doorway by the farmer.

The belief that sorcerers could steal milk by diverting its output is quite ancient and was specifically condemned by the Council of Paris in 829: “Among the very pernicious evils of pagan origin and which divine law orders to fight, it is necessary to announce the action of magicians, diviners, enchanters and interpreters of dreams. It is reported that, by their evil spells, they can disturb the air and send hail, predict the future, take away from some the fruit and milk and give it to others.”

In addition to its beneficial qualities, milk was said to possess other virtues in yesterday’s Brittany as it was thought effective against all deadly fires. It was also said to influence the physical abilities of infants and even adults. It was claimed in eastern parts of the region that children raised on goat’s milk were particularly nimble and jumped in the manner of the beast that fed them. In times past, this belief was quite common; the 16th century French physician Laurent Joubert wrote of a girl who, for this reason, always wanted to climb and jump and that those adults, who drank too much goat’s milk, became so restless that they only danced, jumped and ran.

Breton milkmaid
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A number of ill omens were once connected with milk here; it was considered that misfortune would befall the person who happened to drop a pail of milk. Another sign of impending bad luck was received when milk that had been put on the fire did not come to the boil quickly and it was also a bad omen if the milk boiled over. It was also said that giving away milk on May Day was to invite misfortune upon the household. However, milk was reputed to be the only thing that could break the terrible power of La Main de la Gloire or the Hand of Glory.

Some animals were thought to cast a sinister shadow over the health of cows and their milk. It was once believed that a cow bitten by a snake would give bloody milk; a notion that was refined in the south of the region where it was said that milk that was tinged red indicated that the cow had been suckled by a snake. Pouring the cow’s milk into an anthill was thought the only way to effectively destroy the offending ophidian.

Hedgehogs were also claimed to suckle the milk of cows and thus steal their milk and, in doing so, they caused the fatal cattle disease known as blackleg. It was also thought that those cows who ate the grass upon which a female hedgehog on-heat had previously walked fell ill. In eastern Brittany, a pregnant cow that ate the grass on which a hedgehog had walked was said to be cursed to calve painfully.

Cow and milkmaid
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If a farmer with only one cow often succeeded in getting her to give him more butter than some neighbours could get from two or three cows, neighbourhood gossips lost little time in attributing such results to a pact with the Devil. However, in some instances, it might have been more proper to assign the honour to Saint Herbot, a semi-legendary 6th century Breton saint who was popularly invoked in order for cows to produce milk and for butter to take. Protector of horses and horned animals, cows’ tails were regularly hung by the altars of churches dedicated to him into the 20th century. The Saint was usually invoked in the following terms: “Blessed Saint Herbot, from the depth of my heart I beg you to pour out your blessing on the milk that I take, so that the cream rises abundantly to satisfy my masters and next year, if I live, I promise you a calf.”

Wearing a silver ring while churning was reputed to cause the butter to take quickly and to successfully churn when it was cold, it was once recommended to place a silver coin at the bottom of the churn. In some parts of Brittany, it was traditional to turn the crank of a butter churn in only one direction, that of the sun. A more widespread belief held that it brought bad luck to lend a churn to a neighbour as it was thought to reduce your fortune in making butter thereafter.

Like milk, butter was also the target of sorcerers and evil spells; it was believed that people could prevent it from taking by striking the churn three times with a stick and reciting, backwards, a verse from Psalm 31: “My times are in thy hand: deliver me from the hand of mine enemies and from them that persecute me”, or by reciting a verse from the Gospel of Matthew known as nolite fieri: “And when you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say, they have received their reward.”

Churning butter
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Mendicants and tinkers who chanced to call at the farm when the butter was being churned were almost always guaranteed to receive some consideration from the household, if only out of fear that, if rejected, they would cast the evil eye over the butter. The sighting of a hare while churning was a cause for alarm as it was believed that butter stealing sorcerers had the ability to turn into hares to escape their potential pursuers. In western Brittany, the milkmaid whose butter was slow to take, averted the possible machinations of the sorcerer by changing her churn immediately.

Several unusual superstitions were once closely attached to dairy products here; for instance, it was considered especially bad luck to bring foxgloves into a room where yogurt was being made. In parts of eastern Brittany it was thought a menstruating woman could not make butter and it was more widely claimed that those with red hair made bad butter. Similarly, it was once believed that the cheese made by an adulterer did not keep and was quickly invaded by worms.

Many once claimed that the best butter was formed if it was churned during the time of the turning of the tides. According to the time when it was made, butter enjoyed several special attributes; in the west of the region, it was believed that the butter made during Rogations (the three days of prayer preceding the Feast of the Ascension) never corrupted and constituted a most effective balm for healing wounds. Similar attributes were applied to butter made in May which was also used to treat the injured hooves of cows and goats.

Girl with eggs
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A number of superstitious beliefs also surrounded eggs here in Brittany where it was once common for those who kept chickens to place a piece of iron, such as a horseshoe, inside the henhouse in order to protect the brood from the disastrous effects of storms and lightning.  It was also believed that foxes would never enter a henhouse that had been sprinkled with the water in which chitterlings (pig intestines) had been boiled. However, the ermine was thought so bold that it was said to enter the coop while the hen was laying and slip under her, ready to swallow her eggs. Another enemy of the chicken was the toad whose presence in the henhouse signalled that no hens would lay there anymore.

One of the biggest concerns of the Breton farmer revolved around choosing the most favourable moment for setting the hen on the eggs. This was thought important to ensure maximum success; factors such as the day of the week were said to influence the number of chicks born or cause the hatching of more males than females. It was said that a hen must never be put to set during a waning moon or when the wind was in the east. Fridays were to be avoided as the day would deliver mostly male chicks and misfortune was said to follow if a hen was set on a Sunday. Nor was a hen put to set on an even number of eggs, it was usually an odd number and most commonly a multiple of three.

It was popularly held here that eggs ought only be gathered in the morning and it was considered unlucky to gather eggs after sunset and at any time on a Sunday. Duck eggs brought into the house after dark were said never to hatch. Similarly, eggs brought into the house having been carried over running water were said not to hatch. In some parts of Brittany, even crossing a dry water course was held to bring on similar bad luck. To protect against such misfortune, it was necessary for the person who owned the eggs to crumble some morsels of bread over the eggs and the basket being used to transport them. Additionally, the basket containing the eggs which had passed over water was not to be placed on a table, chair or any other item of furniture; it could only be placed directly on the floor. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind these last two practices has long been lost to the mists of time.

Rooster and Hens
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Breaking a newly laid egg whilst collecting it from the roost was regarded as an omen of some misfortune ahead but breaking egg shells over a child was thought to bring on good luck and to protect them against witchcraft. The eggs laid on Good Friday were said to bring good luck to the household and were carefully kept as talismans to guard the house against fire. Easter was also a period when many people traditionally abstained from eating eggs throughout Holy Week only to eat a dozen on Easter Day; an observance that was held to be most effective in ensuring the fertility of one’s animals.

The small eggs that were sometimes found in chicken roosts were once attributed a most sinister reputation; a widely held belief said that these were eggs that had been laid by roosters. It was said that when a rooster reached seven years of age, it laid an egg during the hottest day of the year formed from the rotten excrement of its seed. If hatched, this cursed egg would deliver a small serpent that grew into a basilisk; the product of the coupling of a rooster and a toad, brooded by a snake. To avoid unleashing a basilisk on the land, the rooster was therefore routinely killed before it had reached the age of seven.

Basilisk
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Haunted Brittany

Said to be one of the most haunted regions of France; the windswept coastlines, bleak moors and uncultivated lands of Brittany have long been closely associated with the ghostly goings-on of the dead. Let us explore some of these haunted sites, beginning our journey in the far west of the region and traversing the land in a great clockwise arc.

Located on a lump of bare rock between the Île de Sein and the Pointe du Van on Brittany’s Atlantic coast, sits the lighthouse of Tévennec. Long reputed to have been haunted by the ghosts of drowned mariners, this lonely rock’s lighthouse has an accursed history that lends itself well to any list of haunted sites. Commissioned in 1875, the light was automated just 35 years later; it having proved impossible to recruit anyone willing to live there. Due to an administrative aberration or optimistic fancifulness, the lighthouse was initially placed in the same category as similar lighthouses situated on land, meaning a single keeper was assigned to it.

Working on an isolated rock without relief and relying on a monthly supply boat that depended on the infrequent appearance of a calm sea was not for the fainthearted. The first keeper, an experienced lighthouse-man, descended into madness within a few years, claiming that voices in the wind harassed him with the constant cry of: ‘Go away, go away, this is my place’. Local superstition attributed this to the soul of an unfortunate castaway who died of hunger on the rock having been unsuccessful in attracting the attention of the boats that regularly passed nearby. The replacement keeper remained in post for six years but he too fell into insanity; a development that saw the local priest called upon to bless the rock and exorcise its restless souls.

Tevennec Lighthouse
Tévennec Lighthouse © B. Stichelbaut

In an attempt to alleviate the hardship of working on Tévennec, the authorities made it an accompanied posting and one benefiting from a fortnightly supply boat – weather permitting.  However, with the notable exception of a couple who stayed for five years and had three children on the rock, the lighthouse cast an unhappy shadow over its occupants; seeing twenty keepers in twenty years and, alarmingly, some ten deaths before its early automation in 1910.

Off the Quiberon peninsula on Brittany’s southern coast, lying between the mainland and the islands of Groix and Belle-Ile is the rocky plateau of Birvideaux; at times covered by less than three metres of water. The lighthouse here is well known as having been the most expensive to construct in France; a process that lasted almost 55 years. A local legend tells that this mile-long plateau is the sunken island of Aïse; a land that was said to have been attached to the mainland as recently as the 13th century when a causeway allowed the inhabitants to attend Sunday mass at the chapel of Saint Clément in Quiberon.

As the sea gradually claimed the land to the west, the people of Aïse adjusted to island living and, for as time, thrived as successful fishermen. However, the rising waters steadily encroached upon the mass of the island but these were a proud people who stubbornly refused to surrender their homes to the relentless sea. One night, a terrific storm saw the total submersion of the island and ever since, the people of Birvideaux have haunted the seabed, feeding on mussels and limpets.

It is said that, to avenge their fate, the ghosts stir the sea to unleash angry waves upon the descendants of those who abandoned them. Sometimes, on a clear night, if you walk along the wild west coast of the Quiberon peninsula, it is said that you can still hear their dreadful lamentations.

Ship wrecked by storm
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In the 14th century, a monk from the Priory of Saint Sauveur in eastern Brittany fell in love with a pretty, young peasant girl. To avert a damaging scandal, the Prior arranged for the monk to be transferred to another monastery and persuaded the young girl to move away to the city. However, this version of events was said to conceal a ghastly truth: the Prior, jealous of his monk, lured the girl to a nearby convent where she languished and died alone. She is reputed to lie buried under the steeple of the church of Béré and, to ward off any prying eyes, the legendary Beast of Béré has been charged to watch over her bones until the Day of Judgement. At midnight, the candles in the church are said to light themselves and a priest from the Otherworld appears to celebrate a funeral mass alone.

The Beast of Béré is a monster of some repute that once terrorised the Breton borderlands; sometimes reported to take the form of a dog, boar, horse or even a sheep. Of immense size and strength, the beast was said to be immortal although no sightings have been reported for some time. A melancholic variant of the legend tells that the beast is, in fact, the spirit of the unfortunate girl who died in captivity.

Beast of Béré
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Just 12km north, the forest of Teillay is haunted by a spectre held to be the Lord of Coetenfao; a Huguenot nobleman once renowned for his cruel nature and dissolute lifestyle. Said to have terrorised the peasants of Brittany during his life, his damned soul continues to spread fear in death with the wild hunts he has been condemned to lead as punishment for the cruelties he once exercised on his vassals. The phantom lord has been reported on foot, on horseback and even riding a carriage driving on his baying hounds and even passing them like lightning. Sometimes, only the cry of his voice or the sounds of his horse’s bridle are heard.

The forest is also home to a small grave known as ‘La Tombe à la Fille’ (the Girl’s Grave). One local legend says that during the Revolution, the National Guard of the area massacred a troop of anti-revolutionary forces who had been hiding in the woods; their presence having been betrayed to the authorities by a young woman named Marie Martin. In retaliation, she was seized by the rebels who tied her, by the hair, to the tail of a horse and dragged her into the forest where she suffered various outrages before being hung from the branch of an oak. Having been buried under this tree, the site became a place of pilgrimage; the humble Marie becoming popularly known as Saint Pataude (a French word that can be roughly translated as awkward or clumsy and a sobriquet once applied towards the Republicans). Her grave was often visited by those seeking deliverance from fever, sterility and paralysis of the limbs, particularly children having difficulty walking. Such invocations are still made there today.

Tomb of the Girl, Teillay
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In an earlier post, I related the tale of a haunted oak in the forest of Loudéac in central Brittany and it is worth recounting another haunting reported in that same forest. An entry in the parish register from 1710 records how a twenty-one year old blacksmith named Yann was convicted and subsequently hanged for the murder of his friend, Pierre. It was said that the two men were rivals for the love of a local girl and that Yann lured his friend into the forest and there, in a fit of jealous rage, stabbed him to death. Pierre’s body was discovered at the foot of an oak tree deep within the forest and local tradition asserts that five small basins found in the forest floor thereabouts were created by Pierre’s lifeless body; the depressions tracing where his head, hands and knees lay, waiting to be discovered. Some say that Pierre’s ghost still haunts the forest today. Local legend warns us that the five small hollows should never be covered; any stones put in them disappear the following night and whoever places any stones in the cavities will die within the year.

A more recent urban legend says that some years ago, two young men ended their day-long drinking spree in the forest. One of these, in a moment of boldness – or madness – scorned the old legend by filling the depressions with small stones. His friends and family blamed Pierre’s curse when he was unexpectedly found dead shortly afterwards.

Forest of Loudeac
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There is barely a stretch of road in Brittany that is not watched over by a carved stone cross but one in the centre of the region has gained a most supernatural reputation. Outside the village of Gomené are the Tertre-Feuillet; three isolated small stone roadside crosses. It is said that the oldest cross was erected in the Middle Ages to ward off evil, the others being added later to compound the power of the trinity. It is said that every full moon night, since the end of 1870’s Franco-Prussian war, the site is visited by a ghostly figure wearing a long coat and the wide-brimmed hat then popularly worn by Breton peasants.

This debased phantom of the night is said to be the malevolent spirit of a soldier, returned from battle to haunt the crosses. Legend tells that a local poacher once decided to confront this ghost with fatal consequences. Now, the spirits of both men haunt the crosses; the full moon illuminates the unlucky poacher, trapped in the moment of his departure, doomed to linger for eternity alongside the dark entity who stole his life.

Tertre Feuillet
Le Tertre Feuillet, Gomené

Just outside the north coast town of Morlaix, a 17th century manor house has long been haunted by the ghost of a nun. It is said that, in life, this woman was overly proud of her well-turned ankles and would reveal them to men by raising her habit coquettishly as she walked. Punished by God for her vanity, the nun is condemned to wander the halls until the Day of Judgement; displaying not shapely calves but one that is gnarled and emaciated and another covered in suppurating ulcers. Legend tells us that one day, exasperated by the ghastly appearances of the nun, an old woman, armed with holy water, confronted the phantom and commanded her to remain in her grave. She heard but a solitary sob and since then, the nun only appears once a year; on the night of New Year’s Eve.

Phantom Nun
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A little further along Brittany’s northern coast, a local legend relates that between the ruins of Beauport Abbey and the Poulafret mill on the coast at Paimpol, there sat a three-cornered field that was said to contain a great hidden treasure. Over the years, many people had tried to locate this prize but none met with any success. However, a young miller who had grown-up on tales of the treasure committed himself to finding it but months of diligent searching were to no avail.

Returning home late from work one evening, the miller was surprised by a heavy downpour and took shelter under a large oak. In the half-light, his eyes slowly discerned, in the neighbouring field, a pale glow around which several small children were gathered in a circle. Despite his uneasiness, the young man crept closer to this mysterious assembly but his courage almost deserted him when he realised that he was spying on a meeting of korrigans. Transfixed, he watched as one of their number moved out of the circle to stand next to the radiant light but was unable to clearly hear the few words uttered by the korrigan, who suddenly stabbed the ground with a pitchfork and pressed his gnarled finger to his lips.  

This gesture was taken-up by all the other korrigans who immediately launched into an energetic ronde or circular dance. Their dance ended as abruptly as it had begun and seemed to coincide with the exact moment the light went out; within the blinking of an eye, the korrigans had all disappeared. Seizing his opportunity to investigate, the miller ran to where the pitchfork staked the ground and stood aghast as the object disintegrated at his touch.

Beauport Abbey
Beauport Abbey with the Poulafret Mill to the left rear of photo

Placing a large rock to remember the spot, the excited miller returned the following day in order to better mark the precise location. He took only his closest friend into his confidence and the two agreed to return to the field on Christmas Eve. Under cover of darkness, they silently dug the hard ground for a long time before striking the famed treasure trove. Faced with such fabulous riches, the miller’s friend was trembling with emotion and could not help shouting out: “The fortune is ours!”

No sooner had these few words been uttered than the gold coins turned into brittle dead leaves. The stunned miller then remembered the korrigan’s gesture: the silence had been broken. The night also broke, forever, the friendship of the two men. Since then, it has been reported that around midnight on Christmas Eve, the ghost of the miller has been seen wandering between the ruins of the abbey of Beauport and the Poulafet mill.

Battle of Auray 1364
Battle of Auray, 1364

Other fields in Brittany have long been said to be haunted by the restless dead; souls of those who died without receiving absolution for their sins.  Near the south coast town of Auray, at the end of September 1364, a vicious pitched battle took place between the Anglo-Breton forces of Jean de Montfort and the Franco-Breton troops of Charles de Blois. Unusually for the time, this battle was fought on a Sunday and no quarter was given by either side. This bloody encounter was the decisive battle of the Breton War of Succession and helped guarantee Brittany’s continued independence for almost the next two centuries.

The battle of Auray left behind several thousand fatalities; a contemporary chronicler described the scene: “… strewn with the homeless dead, blood flowed in a great stream, banners shot down, brains outstretched, daggers, swords, axes and people stretched out like cows.” The battlefield and surrounding marsh are reputed to be haunted by the spectres of combatants who died in a state of mortal sin; they wander the ground at night and strike down anyone foolish enough to stand in their path.

Sadly, the ground around Auray was again soaked with more blood some four hundred years later. The failure of the royalist landings at nearby Quiberon in support of the Chouan counter-revolution in the summer of 1795 saw over 6000 rebels captured by Republican forces. Regrettably, promises surrounding the treatment of captives as prisoners of war were not honoured and while most of the women and children were released, over 950 anti-Republican prisoners were systematically slaughtered in cold blood.  It was said that the bodies were barely buried, so that the rotting bones quickly rose to the surface.  

Battle of Auray 1795
Chouan irregulars

Twenty years later and just three days after the battle of Waterloo the area was the site of another battle between Republican and anti-Republican forces which saw several hundred dead bodies again litter the fields of Auray. The tragic and bloody history of the area perhaps allows us to better understand the myriad ghost stories that circulate locally. The restless spirits of the dead combatants are sometimes said to be condemned to relive their last moments every night, although some tales tell that these same souls are constantly seeking new victims to satiate their bloodlust.

Brittany’s Most Haunted Castles

Brittany has long been a land of lore and legends, seeped in the supernatural. The region is said to be one of the most haunted parts of France and any journey around the castles of Brittany weaves a dark path between legend and rumour; fear and fright. Unsettling tales of lost innocence and tormented souls condemned to forever haunt the old stones lest they be forgotten.

One of the most haunted sites in Brittany is surely the medieval Château de Trecesson whose grounds are reputedly haunted by the ghost of a white lady sporting a muddy wedding dress. Legend tells us that this is the spirit of a woman who was buried alive on her wedding day; murdered in 1750 by her brothers for having agreed to a matrimonial match they felt dishonoured the family. The ghost of an unknown monk – sometimes described as headless – is said to wander nearby; along the meadow that borders one of the lanes leading to the castle and the roadside calvary there.

Trecesson cstle
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A room on the first floor of the castle has long had a reputation for being haunted. The local legend says that some hundreds of years ago, a guest at the castle asked to spend the night in this room to prove that there was nothing to fear but the superstitions of chambermaids. Having gone to bed, our guest found sleep difficult, having been kept awake by a tremendous storm outside and the noise of the wind whistling down the chimney. Sometime before one o’clock, he was startled to see candlelight illuminating an open doorway to the left of the fireplace; as his eyes adjusted to the light, he could make out a flight of stone steps leading upwards. Thinking this a servants’ staircase that he had somehow overlooked earlier, he called out but received no response. Two liveried servants crossed to the centre of the room carrying not water and a clean chamber pot but two chairs and a gaming table. No sooner had they set down the furniture, than two well-dressed gentlemen appeared, seated themselves and began a game of cards.

Some versions of the tale say that the house guest immediately reached for his pistol and fired-off a shot before falling into unconsciousness. Others say that he sat watching the stakes quickly rise to giddying heights before firing his shot and being overcome with sleep. When he awoke, there was no evidence of his nocturnal visitors, save for the table and a significant stack of gold coins. After rousing the owner of the castle and relating his tale of the ghostly gamblers, our guest thought himself entitled to the abandoned stakes. Alas, his host considered them rightfully his and an ugly dispute ensued that was carried all the way to the Parliament of Brittany.

The castle is also said to be haunted by the ghost of a young knight who had been forced by his father to represent the family honour on the crusade of 1249. He was killed in battle the following year and his young widow died of grief a few wretched months after receiving news of his death. Since then, the spirits of the ill-starred lovers have often been sighted replaying the scene of their final farewell near the castle’s gateway.

Combourg castle
Château de Combourg

The magnificent 14th century Château de Combourg was the childhood home of François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848) one of Brittany’s most acclaimed writers. In his memoirs, he evokes his lonely childhood and nights spent tormented by nightmares of an ancestor with a wooden leg who haunted the staircase of his turret chamber. Sometimes, he dreamt that the wooden leg alone wandered the flagstones accompanied by a sinister black cat. In a curious twist of coincidence, some thirty years after Chateaubriand’s death, renovation work to the tower’s walls uncovered the skeleton of a cat that was sealed into the fabric of the building during its initial construction.

Noted as the building that effectively sounded the death knell for the independence of Brittany, the Château de Châteaubriant was once home to Jean de Laval, sometime Governor of Brittany. His wife, Françoise de Foix, was a noted beauty and, for a decade, a mistress of the King of France. Having lost the King’s favour, she returned to Brittany and died, aged 41, just nine years later in 1537. A number of legends attribute her death to the resentful jealousy of her husband who is reputed to have locked her in her chamber where he had her bled to death. Her ghost returns to haunt the place at midnight every 16 October; the anniversary of her death. Some variants of the story have her appearing alone; others have her being joined by her husband and even appearing as part of a courtly procession through the sumptuous chamber known as the Golden Room; a place not built until a century after her death.

Chateaubriant castle
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Just outside Châteaubriant, the chapel of the old Manoir de Bois-Briant was said to be visited by three beautiful young ladies, dressed in white. These apparitions always appeared from the neighbouring woods and walked arm-in-arm towards the chapel singing with ‘so much sweetness that we were all delighted with it’. In the 19th century, these ladies were reported to make themselves known every Christmas Eve and sometimes on the eve of other sacred festivals. Their lament was said to be a reproach to the populace for their ingratitude in forgetting the martyrdom of a priest murdered at the chapel’s altar by Republican forces during the religious purges of the Revolution.

Nearby, the ruins of the 13th century Château de Pouancé, which once guarded the border between Brittany and Anjou, is said to be haunted by a former mistress of the castle. This late 14th century lady is reputed to have been desperately in love with a Breton knight and one night, at his behest, opened one of the doors to the fortress. Alas, her suitor was not alone in the darkness; the gate was rushed by the Bretons who quickly overwhelmed the castle’s garrison.

Pouance catle
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With the departure of the Bretons, legend tells us that the lord of Pouancé had his wife walled-up alive within the castle for her treachery. Since then, many people have reported seeing a lady, dressed in white, walking the ramparts; her finger pressed close to her lips. Another tale says that in the 18th century, renovation work at the castle uncovered a sealed chamber where the body of a woman was found, tied seated at a table upon which rested silver cutlery; inside her mouth was a single gold coin.

White Lady ghost
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Today, little remains of the Château de Vioreau near Joué-sur-Erdre but it was a significant site in the Middle Ages and was, for a time, part of the powerful Barony of Châteaubriant. A tale tells that a lady of the castle once had a brief love affair with her husband’s favourite page; a liaison that ended badly and saw bitterness soak the lady’s heart. One day, she sent her former lover on an important errand; to deliver a letter to her kinsman, the governor of the castle of Nantes. He was promptly clapped in irons after the governor read the message: “Hang, without delay, the bearer of this letter”.

Fortunately for the page, the lord of Vioreau had been concerned by the sudden departure of his servant on a secret errand and had followed him to Nantes. In the dungeon of the city’s castle, he confronted his page: “Tell me all and I will save you”. Having already betrayed his master, the wretched man now betrayed his mistress.

Some weeks later, the lord and lady of Vioreau attended a great celebration at the nearby Château de Blain. As the music began, the lord took his wife to dance and danced with such enthusiasm that all remarked how joyful was the lord of Vioreau. The lively dancing went on late into the night and the attentive lord insisted that his wife dance with him without any interruption. Having danced for hours, the lady eventually collapsed exhausted, hot and breathless; her husband lost no time in tenderly escorting her to rest on a window seat nearby.

As he had hoped, the treacherous coolness of the stone seat served his vengeful designs better than any more violent means; the lady of Vioreau contracted a harsh cold that quickly proved fatal. The lord duly rewarded his former page with a generous gift of land. Betrayed by the only two men she had ever loved, the ghost of this lady roams the castle ruins to this day.

Rustephan castle
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In ruin for the last 250 years, the 15th century Château de Rustéphan near Pont-Aven is reputed to be home to the ghost of a young girl from the 16th century who is said to have died of grief after her fiancé renounced their marriage to become a priest. Legend tells us that the lord of Rustéphan did not consider the prospective groom a good match for his daughter and pressured him to take holy orders and leave the parish. After midnight, during the nights of a full moon, the unhappy lady, wearing a green dress, has been seen weeping while walking along the castle’s walls. Sometimes, the ghostly figure of an old priest has been sighted at the windows, longingly gazing of the apparition of the green lady of Rustéphan.

Largoet castle
Château de Largoët

Near Elven, the 14th century Château de Largoët boasts the highest keep in France; rising some 57 meters above the fortress’ massive moat. We have already been introduced to the castle’s resident white lady who is said to wander the surrounding forest in a bloodied dress; the ghost of a former lady of the castle who killed herself upon the death of her lover, a knight who had been slain defending her. There is another tale of ghostly goings on; sometimes between the hours of eleven o’clock and midnight, the spectres of the former lords of the castle are said to feast rowdily together in the keep. The ghost of an otherwise unknown crippled man is also said to haunt the border of the castle’s moat.

Suscinio castle
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A former residence of the Dukes of Brittany and, for a dozen years, home to the exiled Jasper and Henry Tudor, the 14th century Château de Suscinio on the Rhuys Peninsula of Brittany’s southern coast is steeped in history. Alas, the Lancastrains’ departure in 1484 marked one of the last times the castle was officially used by the rulers of Brittany. Duke Francis II died in 1488 and was succeeded by his 11 year old daughter, Anne; the last ruler of an independent Brittany and subsequently twice Queen of France. After 1532, the castle passed to the French crown and was sometime home to Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Médici before being slowly abandoned by the aristocracy.

After the Revolution, the castle was sold to a local merchant for use as a stone quarry and remained in ruins until the late 1960s. The castle is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young boy, reputed to be the son of a former Captain of the Guard, who seems to play hide-and-seek with those who chance to catch sight of him. Sceptics might note that sightings of this ghost appear to coincide with the major restoration works carried out to the building since the 1970s and its eventual opening to the public.

I would like to end this post with a sincere note of gratitude to those of you who have taken the time to read it and the 46 others that I have posted since joining the WordPress community a year ago! Thank you! Thank you for your kindness and encouragement throughout the year – it has been very much appreciated!

Ghosts and Revenants of Brittany

Tales of ghosts and ghostly apparitions form a rich vein in the folklore of Brittany although, in the Breton tradition, there was once no significant separation between the living and the dead; both were seen as dwelling in two discrete worlds that were in perpetual relation with one another. While the dead might have been feared, so too was a lightning storm, and people were no more surprised to hear the sound of the dead rustling the fallen leaves as they walked than they were to hear the lark sing.

It was traditionally believed that the dead were doomed to return to the land of the living three times. The souls of the damned were thought lost forever, confined to Hell for eternity although sometimes a soul might fleetingly return to the land of the living to reproach a loved one, beseeching them to change their ways in order to avoid a particular fate. Similarly, those who had secured salvation and a place in Heaven stayed there, rarely visiting the corporeal world. However, a few legends do contain spirits who seem to have returned from Heaven for the sole purpose of guiding or protecting the story’s hero or heroine through the myriad perils that are placed in the way of their quest.

Those people who died of violent death were said to be forced to remain between life and death until the time that they would have naturally lived had elapsed. The spirits trapped between Heaven and Hell were believed to freely roam the land; the hedgerows and seashores were heavy with wandering souls awaiting divine judgement. It as once thought that the dead did not immediately reach the Other-world but stayed in the vicinity of the living for nine generations. These were thought of as tormented souls and regarded with a veneration that combined feelings of fear and pity. Such spirits were said to enter, at will, the dwellings of those they loved and acted as beneficial protectors of the home. They were welcome visitors and it was thought proper to leave a little fire smouldering in the grate in case the dead returned to the hearth of their former home for a little warmth and people took care to remove the tripod from the fireplace overnight, lest the dead sat on it and burned themselves.

Charles Cottet - In the land of the Sea
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In the Brittany of yesteryear, the dead were never far removed from the living but it was commonly held that the veil of separation between the living and the dead was at its most vulnerable on those solemn days when the dead of each locality congregated, namely; the eve of Midsummer’s Day, Christmas Eve and the eve of All Saints’ Day. On these nights, after vespers, the dead wandered freely in the land of the living, returning to their former homes and haunts. On Halloween, the table was especially covered with a white cloth and food was left for the dead to enjoy overnight. The household would retire early so that they would not chance to see the dead feasting as any interaction with the dead was to be avoided.

During the hours of daylight, the land belonged to the living but nightfall heralded the dominion of the dead.  In some parts of Brittany, the hours of darkness were further refined; in the west of the region, the ghosts of the dead were said to favour the hours between ten o’clock at night and two in the morning but coastal regions held that the dead reigned between the depths of midnight and dawn’s first glow. It was believed that the power of the dead peaked at midnight and it was at that hour that the dead were said to open their eyes. In eastern Brittany, the dead, for some reason, seemed to have had a particular affinity for the nights that fell on a Tuesday.

If one was foolhardy enough to be abroad during the hours of darkness, certain activities were ill advised. For instance, it was said to be dangerous to whistle at night as it attracted demons as well as the dead and there is a tale from Upper Brittany that relates how a man travelling home one night whistled, to keep up his spirits, only to hear a distant echo of his tune. However, his ears soon distinguished that the echo was nothing of the kind; the tune being whistled back to him was clearer, sharper and getting steadily closer. Thinking someone was playing a trick on him, our nocturnal wanderer was struck dumb with terror when he discovered the Devil himself on his tail.

A Breton ossuary
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In the west of Brittany, whistling was also to be avoided at night, lest one expose themselves to the wrath of the dead. It was also crucial to resist the urge to turn your head if you chanced to hear some noise behind you, for you risked seeing a ghost and your own misfortune. The ghosts of the dead trod the byways and paths of Brittany; the sound of their passage or even their murmurings could be clearly heard, even if they could not always be seen. However, the dry patches on an otherwise wet road always betrayed their presence.

Working in the fields after dusk was also an activity likely to bring unhappiness upon the farmer; it was said to attract the Devil and to anger the dead. In Upper Brittany, one tale told of a man who, anxious to complete his task, continued to sow buckwheat during the setting sun. He wisely heeded the warning of the dead not to encroach upon the time reserved for them when he heard their cautionary cry: “Leave the night to whom it belongs!”

If one had no option but to travel at night, it was necessary to follow the path and not deviate from it and on no account be tempted to follow the flickering lights of the will-o’-the-wisp. It was said in southern Brittany that anyone who gazed too long upon such spectral illuminations would lose their sight. In another part of the region, it was said that such ethereal lights were candles carried by white-clad girls who were cursed to walk the nights of eternity for having utilised the candles blessed at Candlemas in a profane manner.

Moonrise
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To protect oneself from ghosts, several practices were once traditionally advised. In addition to carrying a rosary, a lighted lantern was said to deter the spirits of the dead from approaching too closely as their eyes were thought wounded by light made by the hands of the living. Although, the most powerful weapon that one could carry to safeguard oneself against a malevolent ghost were the trappings of your labour; it was thought no evil could befall those who carried the instruments of their work.

Another way to shield oneself from ghosts was by challenging them directly with the formula: “If you come from God, tell me your desire; if you come from the Devil, go on your way as I go mine.” However, a solo traveller was said to have no right to address a ghost; this might only be attempted if there were three of you. It was said that even the most ill-intentioned ghost was powerless to act against three people travelling together, all of whom having been formally baptised. In some parts of Brittany, this provision was further refined to say that the three travellers needed to be of the same sex and age group; if all these conditions were not met, the ghost retained its power. Anyone foolish enough to insult a ghost could expect to feel, before their quick death, the wrathful supernatural power they possessed.

Many of the ghost tales that have come down to us from the oral tradition were collected throughout the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Often, these stories are of a strikingly personal nature, covering events witnessed by the narrator or some other reliable local witness whose testimony was beyond reproach.

White Lady
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One ghost story that is found throughout Brittany, albeit with slight variations, is that of a man encountered on the road, struggling under the weight of a large stone he is carrying. This is a man who, in life, had cheated his neighbours and moved one of the marker stones that, in times past, delineated the boundaries of a landholding. For improving his lot at the expense of his friends, this farmer is forced, in death, to carry the offending stone on his back until he returns it to its rightful place. Unfortunately, he cannot remember where that should be and assails any living soul he meets with a cry of: “Where will I put this?” A question he is doomed to ask until he is met with the response: “Return it where you found it!”

Some of the marked variations of this tale say that the farmer can only hope for the curse to be lifted in the hundred and first year after his death; or that the cheated landowner alone could deliver him by personally indicating where the stone should be set. Still another version says that the ghost’s burden could only be lifted if the stone was replaced in the presence of a witness, such as in the legal act of demarcation.

In northern Brittany, ghostly priests, with faces as pale as the white garb they were said to wear, were sometimes sighted at night in the neighbourhoods of Plancoët and Pléven but only by unmarried women. Perhaps such reports were manifestations of mass-suggestion associated with an over-active imagination and the trunks of birch trees; perhaps not. The 14th century castle in nearby La Hunaudaye is also said to be haunted by a spirit popularly known as le soufflou (the blower) while the ancient forest that surrounds this ruined castle contains a much older legend; it is reputed to be home to a man, dressed in red, who haunts, in death, the spirit of a former lord of the castle who had, in life, murdered his family.

Forest of Loudeac
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An oak, long since fallen, in the forest of Loudéac was once said to have been haunted by a young woman. The legend tells that a local lad promised a maid a pair of beautiful shoes if she would meet him under the tree at midnight. The girl left for her rendezvous but failed to return; a search the following day discovered her blood-stained headdress and clogs at the foot of the tree. From that time onwards, sometimes, at midday, a plaintive voice could be heard coming from the depths of the tree crying: “Give me my shoes!” Another forest in the south of Brittany was reputed to be the home to a ghostly deer but any young man who happened to see it was fated to die on his wedding day.

The bridge over the Elorn River at Plougastel is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young woman wearing a wedding dress. The legend tells that this is the spirit of a lady abandoned by her prospective groom on her wedding day; in her despair she took her own life by throwing herself off the 30 metre high bridge. At midnight, she is said to display her disgust for the fickleness of men by distracting those driving over the bridge or appearing inside their vehicles and screaming in order to cause an accident. This is not a ghost of any antiquity; the bridge was opened only in 1930 and was then the largest concrete bridge in the world.

Plougastel Bridge
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Brittany also has its share of more traditional but no less tragic, ‘white lady’ ghosts; at the ruined Château de Montafilan near Corseul, a white lady walks the battlements at night before disappearing into the subterranean passages where she can be heard counting coins and crying. This sorrowful shadow is reputed to be that of a lady once sold in marriage who has returned from the grave to claim the blood money that was exchanged for her happiness.

About 50km to the south, the woods surrounding the medieval Château de Trecesson are the haunt of another white lady who is reported to sport a muddy wedding dress. Legend tells us that this is the ghost of a noble lady who was buried alive on her wedding day in the autumn of 1750; murdered by her two brothers for having agreed a match that they felt dishonoured the family. A poacher is said to have witnessed the deed which was soon reported to the lord of the castle; disinterred, the lady was found alive but sadly never regained consciousness and died shortly thereafter.

Continuing our southward journey, the stunning Château de Largoët, whose imposing keep is the tallest in France, once saw the future King of England, Henry VII, held captive within its walls in 1474. However, it is not the ghost of a vengeful Tudor monarch that haunts this place but a white lady wearing a bloodied dress. Said to stalk the surrounding forest, the ghost is thought to be a former lady of the castle who killed herself upon the death of her lover, a knight who was slain defending her. The white lady is sometimes reported in the company of another ghost, so, perhaps the lovers are reunited in death.

Tonquedec Castle
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Returning to the north of Brittany, the majestic ruins of the once mighty Château de Tonquédec are home to a white lady who walks balefully around the summits of the medieval towers at night. Little is known of this spectral figure; some say that she is the ghost of a watchful Huguenot who once took refuge in the castle and is warning those who would listen of some impending disaster.

In many Breton tales, the appearance of ghosts is often motivated by a request that they have to make to the living; they often appear to claim the fulfilment of a vow or to honour one. There are also people who are condemned to return to earth for a determined period of time to expiate their sins by a posthumous penance such as the farmer carrying the marker stone or the ghosts of priests begging for alms, condemned to wander the land until they have collected the money for masses for which they were once paid but did not say.

The nocturnal apparitions are often harbingers of death; such as in the tale of a woman whose brother was ill. Returning home from the market one evening, she saw her brother dancing in front of her on the road. She called out to him but receiving no response, she said a prayer and he promptly disappeared. Approaching the doorway of her house, she again saw him dancing whereupon she prayed and he again disappeared. On entering the house, she found her brother dead.

A warning from death
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Sometimes the dead have other messages to deliver to their loved ones. One story tells of a young woman who lost her infant son to sickness; inconsolable with grief, she mourned his passing fiercely for many years. Concerned at her declining health, her neighbours successfully convinced her to speak to the local priest who advised her to sit outside her house at midnight on a certain night so that she might see the parade of the dead and speak again to her beloved son.

On the prescribed evening, the woman waited anxiously and was mesmerised as the dead of the parish slowly shuffled down the abandoned path near her house. This long chain of ghosts paid her no heed as they passed by, gradually fading from sight. Alas, she had not been able to catch sight of her son and the distraught woman was about to return home when she heard the fall of unsteady feet. Rounding the corner, far removed from the body of the main procession, she saw a solitary figure struggling to walk under the weight of the two heavy pails of water it carried. Recognising this poor wretch as her son, she noticed that he was shivering violently and was drenched from head to toe: “My dear boy, what has happened to you, why do you walk alone in this state?” “Mother, the tears that you shed for me, I am doomed to carry them all. Please release me from this; please stop crying for me!”

Many legends tell of vast frights of ghosts that congregate in certain places to await their deliverance from the confines of the earth. In the far west of Brittany, the waters of the Baie des Trépassés are full of the souls of drowned mariners who, on Christmas Eve, are said to raise their heads above the water and with outstretched arms, beg the living for a proper burial. Inland, it was said that you could hear the wails of the dead near the Yeun Elez bog in the heart of the Monts d’Arrée; a forlorn place traditionally held to be one of the gateways to Hell. Sometimes, at midnight, the baleful sounds of the biniou (Breton bagpipe) were reported hereabouts but with no sign of any musician, the ghostly notes were held to be a call from the dead, inviting you to join them.

Vapours of the Night
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While the deserted islands, desolate moors and uncultivated lands of Brittany have long been closely associated with the ghostly activity of the dead; the beings that traditionally inhabit these areas in Breton folklore are the malevolent children of the night. For it is not only the dead who inhabit the gloom; dangerous and evil beings, who are not of the race of men, roam abroad during the hours of darkness and to encounter them could be fatal to mere mortals such as we.

Death Omens of Brittany

In the minds of yesterday’s Bretons, the world around them was swarming with signs that, if interpreted correctly, predicted the future. Being prepared for the unknown future and warding off misfortune were constant concerns for our ancestors. Natural phenomena, abnormal behaviour and other irregularities were carefully noted for the favourable or unfavourable shadow they cast over daily life. Deciphering these signs allowed our ancestors the comfort of a thin veneer of some control over their destiny.

Omens were not confined to the spectacular natural phenomena like meteors and whirlwinds or significant abnormalities such as sheep born with an extra limb. Sometimes, the most mundane sights or occurrences were held to be ominous; seeing a wolf or a toad in the morning were considered auspicious omens, while sighting a snake, salamander or boar were all taken as ill omens. Putting on one’s shirt inside-out brought on misfortune but seeing a spider in your barn was a favourable sign, especially if it was weaving its web.

Often, it was the first sights seen in the morning that were important to note; an overturned bench; grains of salt on the table or crossed knives were all said to herald misfortune. A knife resting on the table with its sharp side pointing upwards indicated an upcoming marriage but you could soon expect to go into mourning if the knife was resting on its sharp side.

Calamity was also close at hand if you saw someone killing a dog or a cat or spitting into a fire. Similarly, you could expect some imminent misfortune if the lady of the household spoke louder than her husband but if thirteen people were seated at the same table, one of them would be dead within the year. This was a fate that was also said to lie in store for those who had discovered an undeclared treasure.

Wheel of fortune engraving
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While such omens were manifested for all to see, some people were reputed to be more attuned at noticing them, particularly the precursors of death, than others. This gift was said to be held by those who had entered holy ground and left it before having been baptised. The gift could be temporarily acquired by those in possession of a four leafed clover, a stalk with seven ears of grain, or grain that had passed through the millstone without being ground.

Birds of ill omen once filled the skies of Brittany; the sparrowhawk was considered the bird of death and it was said to fly around a house and knock on the window to announce an impending demise. To hear the call of an owl near one’s house also signalled the approach of death. The croaking of a crow flying about you heralded the death of a family member. Likewise, a magpie landing on the roof announced that someone would die in the house, while two magpies flying away to your left heralded misfortune but three magpies jumping together on a road presaged the passing of a funeral cortege in the near future.

To hear a rooster crowing in the afternoon was thought to herald great joy or great sadness but crowing at night was a sign of impending misfortune or death. Similarly, a rooster crowing all around you was taken as a warning that your last hour was approaching. Hens too were once seen as augurs; if the hen sang before the rooster, bad luck would soon fall upon the household but if, after being entangled in straw, the hen had a strand remaining attached to its tail, it was taken as a sign of imminent mourning for the people of the house. Likewise, the sight of small white butterflies flying into a house in the evening was a sign that one of its inhabitants would die soon but whoever saw a weasel was said to die within the year.

Medieval painting of magpie and owl
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In Brittany, a number of traditions once surrounded the three main stages of rural life: birth, marriage and death. The conditions at birth were thought to bear an influence on the child’s future life. When a child was born at night, it was the role of the oldest woman present to examine the state of the sky at the precise moment of delivery. If the clouds surrounded the moon at that moment or were masking its face, the child was thought destined to one day be drowned or hanged. If a child was born under the new moon, it was fated to die a violent death but a girl born under a crescent moon was destined to be precocious in all things.

An old Breton superstition held that if your left ear tingled or your left nostril bled while undertaking a journey, you would meet with disaster. Conversely, good fortune lay ahead if your right ear tingled or your right nostril bled or you met a debauched woman in the morning.

In undertaking any important business, it was essential to take account of any signs encountered along the way as these would indicate whether your enterprise was likely to be successful or not. Misfortune was sure to strike if you chanced upon a dishevelled woman, a pregnant woman, a nun, a priest, a monk, a one-eyed man, a lame man, a blind man, a hare, a cat or a stag. However, you could draw great encouragement if you happened across a courtesan, a pigeon, a goose or a goat.

Return from the fields - Jules Breton
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When a wedding procession encountered a funeral cortege on the way to church, the sex of the deceased was thought to indicate who, of the husband and wife, would die first. Similarly, during the ceremony itself, the relative strengths of the flames of the candles that were typically placed in front of the bride and groom were said to indicate which spouse would live longest. However, if one of the candles went out before the end of the service, it signalled the death of that spouse within a year.

If the church bell chimed to the same time as the bell that the altar boy rang at the moment of the elevation of the Host, it was a sign of death for one of the congregation attending that Mass. If the sound of the bell vibrated long after the bell had finished ringing, death was said to be hanging over someone nearby.

All misfortunes were thought announced by some omen but the most common related to death.  If someone was taken, without cause, of a sudden shiver it was because death had just passed. If you were startled by a sudden sound or unexpected touch, it was because death, which had fallen on you, had just left you in order to take another.

Death and the Woodcutter
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It was once thought that no one died without someone close to them having been previously warned by some omen or other. These precursors of death were there for all to see but were disregarded or unremarked because they were not recognised for the warnings that they were. The person who was perceptive enough to recognise the omens of death was rarely the one threatened with death but had no way of knowing exactly whose death was being announced. If such an omen were noted in the morning, that indicated that the death would occur soon, within nine days. If noted in the evening, death might not call for as much as a year or more.

The noises of the night, for those that took care to listen, carried warnings for the wise. The clamour of dogs howling to each other, from one farm to another, was regarded a bad omen but if dogs howled alone at night it was to warn you that death was trying to approach the house. Sounds of creaking timber from the attic meant that one of your closest relatives was dying; a sudden noise on the table or on the walls of the boxed bed warned of a sudden death in the family. To hear falling crockery was a sign that death would fall upon a relative or friend while travelling. The sound of dripping water indicated that a seafaring relation was drowning. The creak of an axle in the road at night heralded the approach of the cart of death coming to take away the soul of the dying; if the sound passed, you had but a temporary reprieve from misery as to hear the squeak of death’s cart meant that someone close to you was fated to die soon.

Forgetting to sow all of the furrows in a field was another powerful omen. If the unseeded furrow was the longest in the field, death would strike the head of the family; if the furrow was the second longest, the mistress of the house would be claimed; if it was short, one of the children would be taken; if it was unremarkable, one of the labourers or one of the maids would die.

The Prodigal Son painting Box Bed
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Dreams also had a role in forewarning of an impending death. To see someone carrying a load of dirty laundry in your dream was a sign that you would soon lose a loved one but if the laundry was white in places, it was a sign that this death would cause you little sorrow. If one dreamt of water, someone in the family would soon fall ill. If the water was clear, they would recover but they would die if the water appeared cloudy. If someone dreamt of losing a tooth at night, it was a sign that one of their loved ones had died or would do so soon. To see a horse in your dreams was another omen of death but not if the horses were white.

If someone in the house was sick with fever and demanded, despite their weakness, to change bed, they were not expected to live long. To learn whether someone sick was fated to die, some people put salt into the hand of the afflicted: if the salt melted, it was taken as a sign that they would inevitably succumb to their disease.

Even the freshly-cut flowers, placed on the bed where a dead person rested, had a silent forecast to make to those that paid attention. If the flowers withered once placed there, it was thought the soul of the deceased was damned; if they faded after a few moments, it was because the soul was in Purgatory and the longer the flowers took to fade, the less penance was necessary. If the eyes of the deceased, having been closed for the wake, reopened, it was to tell the mourners that the last hour of one of their number was approaching. If the left eye alone reopened, it was a sign that it was one of the near relatives that would soon follow to the grave.

Emile Renouf - The Widow of Sein painting
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In northern Brittany, wives who had, for some time, been without news of their sailor husbands, made a pilgrimage to the chapel of Petit Saint-Loup where they would light a candle at the saint’s statue. If the husband was well, the candle burned happily but if it glowed with a weak, intermittent flame and went out, it was a sign that the husband was dead. The death of a sailor at sea was said to be announced by gulls and curlews flapping their wings against the windows of his house.

Other omens announcing death were once closely associated with certain rituals here. In the far west of Brittany it was customary at New Year to butter as many pieces of bread as there were members of the household. The head of the family would then name each person and toss the bread into the air or upon the water of a sacred fountain. Whoever’s bread landed on the buttered side was sure to die within the year. On the morning of Midsummer’s Day, those people who, the night before, had jumped over the communal bonfire, would customarily visit the site to examine the ashes; a discernible footprint there was said to indicate who, if any, of these people would die within a year.

If a person was anxious to know how much longer they were to live, they had only to look into the water of the fountains of death in Plouigneau or Plouégat-Guérand at midnight on the first night of May. If an image of a skull was reflected by this magic mirror instead of a face, they knew that death was near. May Day was also the time to visit these fountains with an infant under one year of age; their feet were immersed in the water, if the child removed their feet it was taken as a sign that they would suffer an early death.

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In other fountains, a child’s smock was placed in the water; if it sank it was said the child would die within the year. Another ritual performed at some fountains involved placing a cross, made of two sticks of willow, upon the water. If the cross floated, death was near but distant if it sank; the faster it sank indicated how much further that time would be.

We do not know how consistent or selective people once were in taking notice of omens and portents. Of course, each day any number of omens could remain unfulfilled but this did not discourage our ancestors who did not consider this fact a failure of the omens’ functioning mechanism. Any number of plausible explanations would have been offered to help interpret the situation; perhaps a contrary omen had been missed or the omen was meant for another, possibly the time of its fulfilment was more distant than thought. The absence of death itself would be but a temporary reprieve attributed to divine intervention or other powerful forces. The memories of the unrealised omens would fade and new omens carefully received in the time-honoured manner.

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