The Brittany of yesteryear was not without its popular prejudices, chief amongst these was probably the utter disdain, or even contempt, held for those that practiced certain professions, such as notaries, priests, millers, fishmongers, horse skinners, pie carriers and cesspit emptiers. However, the profession that seems to have once aroused the most scorn in the heart of the rural peasant was that of tailor.
Writing in the early 19th century, the French author and administrator Hippolyte Bonnellier noted a belief current across Finistère, in western Brittany, that tailors were a breed apart; descended from the ancient druids and speakers of a special, secret language that was akin to a modified form of Greek. The Breton author Emile Souvestre noted the same in his book Les Derniers Bretons (1836) but also added that tailors were thought to have been taught how to braid by goats, whose language they were also said able to speak.
The low esteem in which tailors were held can be seen in the old ballads and popular proverbs that have survived to this day. Such sentiments as: ‘It takes nine tailors to make a man’; ‘Who says tailor also says liar’ and ‘A tailor is not a man, only a tailor’, being typical. Some sayings were more savage: ‘I have never met a tailor who was not a fart bladder or had no scabies on his legs or did not carry lice as big as cats’. Others, were simply cruel: ‘A tailor has nothing in his head but a quarrel’ and ‘There is no longer and uglier story than the life of the tailors’.
Some people even refused to acknowledge the tailor with a name; a similar belief in the deliberate denial of the latent power of a spoken name was also noted with wolves and the Devil who were popularly spoken of as Guillou and Polik respectively. To Breton men, tailors were Spindle Dealers, Cutters of Ponytails or Givers of Kisses and if they were acknowledged at all it was by taking off their hats; a gesture usually reserved as a mark of respect offered to older women.
Sadly, the region’s children seem to have been imbued with this disrespect from an early age, as witnessed in an old nursery rhyme that translates to: ‘Listen to me, lice skewer; Come to my house on Thursday, I have three dogs and three cats; All six are naked; Come and make them each a doublet, So that they can go to mass on Sunday.’
When tailors appear in folk tales it is generally as a figure of ridicule or as one possessed of unpleasant attributes such as greed. One story, noted in the 1860s, tells of two tailors, both hunchbacks. One was returning home from a wedding feast where he had played the fiddle until dark. Crossing the Liscuis moor, he encountered a group of korrigans dancing and singing their favourite ‘Days of the Week’ song: ‘Di Lun (Monday), Di Meurzh (Tuesday), Di Mercher (Wednesday)’. Seeing the tailor’s fiddle, the korrigans invited him to join their dance which he did with much aplomb. Not only did he lead their merry dance on his fiddle but he also delighted them by adding another verse to their song: ‘Di Iaou (Thursday), Di Gwener (Friday).’ In their gratitude, the korrigans offered him a choice of two gifts: beauty or wealth. The tailor chose beauty and immediately transformed into a handsome man without a hunchback.
The following morning, the other tailor, astonished to see his friend without his hump, demanded to learn the secret of his miraculous transformation. Having heard all of the night’s events, he decided that he too would risk a dance with the korrigans and that same evening, he hastened to the moor where he found the korrigans just as his friend had described.
Anxious to gain their favour, he proposed to improve their song by completing the days of the week but the korrigans thought the new verse inelegant and sent him home without any gift. The tailor was disappointed at his dismissal and protested loudly, finally pleading: “At least give me what my friend did not want to have!” The korrigans, unmoved by the tailor’s greed, immediately obliged him with an additional hump!
Only in a very few tales does the tailor emerge triumphant from the ordeals that he is subjected to. In these, the tailor is usually pitted against an evil lord or the Devil and wins the day through sheer effrontery or great cunning. In one story, a drunken lord was envious of the great reputation that surrounded the local tailor. Having summoned the tailor to his castle, the lord consigned him to the dungeon, saying: ‘I want to see if you deserve your reputation. I need clothes for tomorrow.’
Locked in his small cell with no means or material with which to fashion a set of clothes for a wealthy lord, the tailor spent all night thinking of how he might solve his impossible dilemma. Hearing sounds outside his cell, he noticed a piece of charcoal on the floor near the door jamb. He quickly picked it up and traced the outline of a long coat on the whitewashed wall just as the door creaked open. ‘Your coat is ready, Sire. All you need do is put it on’, said the tailor. Enchanted by his quick wit, the lord released the tailor but only after showing him the gallows which he had erected to hang him.
Another tale highlighting the impudence of a tailor tells of one brought before a powerful lord for having cheated his household. The tailor argued his case furiously and was startled when the lord broke off from remonstrating with him to rush out into the castle’s courtyard only to return clutching a rooster. “The time of talking is passed. Kill this bird as you wish to be dispatched and I swear, humanely, that whatever you do to him I will do to you.
Having received the lord’s confirmation of his murderous oath, the tailor took the rooster and thrust a finger into the bird’s backside. After withdrawing his finger, he put it in his mouth and looked at the lord, saying: “You will do that, my lord?” The stunned lord could not help but laugh and released the tailor, saying: “You are a stronger man than me!”
Songs tell of tailors who fall from roofs or are thrown into ponds, others that they are owned by their patron saint, the Devil or that they are deceitful or sickly, always hungry or else cowardly thieves and boastful womanisers. One old song likens them to grunting boars with bandy legs who dishonestly retain for themselves a little of the fabric entrusted to them by their clients. Another tells us that the tailor does not deserve his food, nor holy water; he does not even deserve to be buried in consecrated ground. Little wonder then that the region’s tailors were once believed to be afflicted with the Evil Eye, possessing the power to cast misfortune upon man and beast simply by their toxic gaze.
There is no clear explanation for why the people of western Brittany felt so strongly about tailors. Perhaps, like millers, they were believed to keep a little of that entrusted to them by those least able to afford any loss; in this case, fabric and linen? Perhaps the fact that their occupation never placed them in danger or saw them collapse with exertion after enduring hard manual labour in all weathers was a bone of contention. Maybe they were mistrusted because they spent so much time in the company of women? Possibly, elements of all these factors coalesced in the popular imagination.
It is also worth noting that the itinerant nature of the rural tailor might also have caused some to feel ill at ease. With no permanent base, tailors spent all year crossing the countryside, staying in farms only long enough to complete whatever tailoring work the household was unable to do themselves; closely sharing the life and secrets of the household before moving on to another.
Given the contempt felt towards tailors it is remarkable that they were often called upon to act as country matchmaker; a formal role known as baz-valan in Breton on account of the stick of broom that needed to be carried by the holder of this important office. If was often the baz-valan that formally asked, on behalf of the hopeful groom, the prospective bride’s parents for the hand of their daughter in marriage; a ritual held at nightfall that traditionally ended with him singing songs of blessing and praise for the dead as well as the living.
In instances where the conditions of a marriage had not already been agreed upon by both sets of parents, the matchmaker acted as intermediary. It fell to him to inform the families about their morality and standing in the neighbourhood and of the state of their fortunes. A process that often followed an inspection of the farm, its livestock and working implements as well as a look at the contents of the linen store.
Given the stigma attached to tailors, it is worth considering the possibility that they somehow collectively assumed the mantle once worn by certain ‘unclean’ families; belief in whose existence was attested in the far west of the region by the Breton tax collector and amateur ethnographer Hyacinthe Le Carguet as late as 1893. He noted that certain families were believed more predestined than others to certain afflictions on account of their unhealthy blood and that people avoided touching vessels from which such unhealthy people had drunk. Marrying a child from one of these families was also avoided thus compelling these societal outliers to ally only within their social circles at the margins of society.
Le Carguet postulated that this belief in unclean families was tied to the existence, in the Middle Ages, of a group of people who lived apart from others and to whom certain activities, such as rope making, were reserved. He suggested that these unfortunates were descendants of lepers. If this was so, it highlights, painfully, how the prejudices of the present can be conditioned by the long-dead realities of the past.
The most commonly found supernatural creatures in the folklore of Brittany are the korrigans; a race of capricious magical dwarves who live underground surrounded by vast wealth and who venture out at night to play cruel tricks upon the race of humans that robbed them of their ancient, scared lands. Some tales claim that korrigans share the same roots as fairies, some that they are the descendants of the giant first men of Brittany and others that they are tormented souls, condemned to wander the lonely moors at night.
However, one Breton tale ascribes the origins of the magical korrigans to a most powerful enchantress named Koridwen, wife to Hu-Ar-Braz, the first of the druids, with whom she bore three children. In addition to their first born, a son named Mor-Vrau, they had a daughter, Kreiz-Viou, who was reputed to be the most beautiful girl in the world and another son, Avrank-Du, sadly said to have been the most hideous of beings.
Consumed with motherly tenderness, Koridwen desired something special for her youngest child; a unique gift that would set him apart from others as surely as his horrible countenance was destined to do. She therefore resolved to imbue him with knowledge and wisdom by making him drink the Water of Divination; a magical concoction that took a whole year of boiling to bind together properly. To maintain the fire and constantly stir the bubbling potion, the enchantress entrusted the custody of her iron cauldron to a blind man named Morda and to a dwarf called Gwiou.
The year of careful, patient labour was about to expire, when, with the two overseers having slackened their zeal, a little of the precious brew was spilled and three small drops fell on to the finger of the dwarf, who, bringing it to his mouth, suddenly knew the vast secrets of the future. Immediately, the hot cauldron shattered into hundreds of pieces and their angry mistress suddenly materialised before them. An irate Koridwen rushed at Gwiou but the dwarf had already taken to the wind on her first appearance.
As fast as he ran, Gwiou could sense Koridwen was hard on his heels and almost close enough to grasp him. As he was about to be caught, he transformed into a hare and instantly ran across the open country so much faster. However, within the blinking of an eye, the enchantress had become a greyhound and sprang up behind him once more. Approaching the bank of a river, Koridwen was about to grab him when he suddenly assumed the form of a fish and dived into the fast-flowing water.
No sooner had Gwiou sped away with the current than a large otter unexpectedly appeared which pursued him so closely that he could only escape by becoming a bird. Soaring through the grey sky, Gwiou flew as hard as he could but he soon espied a great hawk bearing down on him from above with its wings outstretched and its sharp beak open in attack. Quivering with fear, the tired dwarf turned from a flying bird into a single grain of wheat and allowed himself to slowly fall upon a large heap of wheat that he had noticed piled-up on the ground below.
Suddenly, a big black hen came scurrying along and began scratching at the wheat, pecking at the grains. Thus was Gwiou consumed and Koridwen avenged. However, her revenge was not absolute; for the grain of wheat that was Gwiou grew inside her and nine months later Koridwen bore another son. Unamused at the appearance of Koridwen’s baby, Hu is said to have taken the child in its wicker cradle and abandoned it to the waters of the sea. Providence seems to have had other designs for the boy as he was saved from the clutches of the waves by Elffin, son of King Gouydno, and grew to become an enchanter; spirit of the moor and shore, the Korrigan. It was thus from Koridwen that all the magical dwarves and fairies of Brittany were descended.
Those with an interest in Celtic mythology will note the striking resemblance between this tale and parts of that known as Hanes Taliesin; an account of the life of the 6th century British bard Taliesin, featuring his legendary birth and the acquisition of his marvellous gift of vision. A work that was composed by Elis Gruffydd, a Welsh soldier and administrator, during the mid-16th century in Calais, then a continental enclave of the King of England.
In Gruffydd’s account, the rescued boy is named Taliesin on account of his radiant forehead and is immediately able to craft and recite wonderful poetry. He subsequently uses his unique gift to thwart the machinations of those who seek to bring down Elffin and even unearths a cauldron full of gold as a reward for Elffin having saved and adopted him. The young bard was also famed for his poetry recounting the earliest history of mankind and his prophesies of the history yet to come.
It is these mystical qualities that have made Taliesin such a mysterious figure in the early history of Britain. His legendary status as chief of the bards and poets likely derived from his having been the leading bard at the courts of three British kings but his renown saw later generations attribute him with poems and prophecies that he is most unlikely to have written. Perhaps there was a talented poet active in the 10th or 11th centuries who also was known by the pen-name of Taliesin? The work of two, or more, distinct authors having become confused by the early 14th century when one of the oldest collections of Welsh poems were assembled in the manuscript known as the Book of Taliesin.
In the epic tale of Culhwch ac Olwen, found in the 14th century Red Book of Hergest, although the text itself is believed to be several hundred years older, Taliesin is described as a bard to King Arthur. However, the same book contains a tale of the legendary giant Brân the Blessed, high king of Britain, and his military expedition to Ireland; an enterprise from which only seven men survived, one of whom being Taliesin.
Confusion regarding the historical Taliesin is also compounded by him sometimes having been likened to and even conflated with the sage Myrddin, known in English as the enchanter Merlin. The 13th century Black Book of Carmarthen contains a lengthy poem known as The Discourse of Merlin and Taliesin likely written centuries before the book was compiled; a connection that never seems to have lost its popular lustre as the 19th century poet Alfred Tennyson incorporated both characters in his Idylls of the King, so too, Bernard Cornwell in his Warlord Chronicles written at the turn of this century.
Interestingly, the story of Taliesin was also well known in Brittany and from an early date; a history of Brittany written in the 14th century, known as the Chronicle of Saint-Brieuc, contains a hagiography of Saint Iud-Hael or Judicael, king of Dumnonia in northern Brittany, that was compiled in the early 11th century. This tells us that, around 570AD, the monastery of Saint Gildas in southern Brittany was host to: “a certain overseas traveller and exile for religion, namely Taliesin the bard, son of Dôn, a prophet who had great foresight through the interpretation of portents; one who with wondrous eloquence, proclaimed in prophetic utterances the lucky and unlucky lives of lucky and unlucky men.”
Other versions of the tale of Koridwen and the dwarf Gwiou are known in Brittany; one accords almost completely with the account given in Hanes Taliesin, while others contain some subtle differences. For instance, in one story Koridwen is described as a companion, rather than wife, of the god Hu-Kadarn. As well as being father of all druids and bards, Hu was described as saviour of the earth, teacher of agriculture, founder of justice and the great institutions of humanity, conqueror of giants and the protector in the darkness. Interestingly, both of Hu’s known epithets carry the meaning of strong or resolute, so, perhaps the only noteworthy difference is that Hu is described as a god; a deification also accorded to Koridwen in another version of the tale, while some 19th century versions seem to endow her with the title of The White Fairy.
Recovering a coherent history of Koridwen is virtually impossible today as there is so little early source material from which to form a robust estimation. She is called Kyrridven in the Black Book of Carmarthen and seems to be regarded as the patron goddess of bards, thanks to her Cauldron of Inspiration and its magical ability to disperse awen; a quality perhaps best described as spiritual inspiration or profound poetic muse. The notion that the greatest bards were deeply inspired poets and divinely endowed seers was an important part of Celtic tradition and was even still attested in the late 12th century by the historian Gerald of Wales who noted that: “these gifts are usually conferred upon them in dreams: some seem to have sweet milk or honey poured on their lips.”
Lady Charlotte Guest, in the notes to her edition of the collection of medieval Welsh tales now known as The Mabinogion (1845), boldly states that: “Caridwen is generally considered to be the Goddess of Nature of Welsh mythology” but offers little to substantiate such a claim other than her role in the birth of Taliesin and the few references to her in other medieval poems. Today, many people now regard her as some sort of primordial Earth Mother while others believe her to be the ancient British goddess of fertility and death or even resurrection.
The etymology of Koridwen’s name is of little help in understanding her earliest origins as the spelling of it, in Breton and Welsh, has changed several times over the last 800 years. Some authors have suggested derivations such as ‘crooked woman’, ‘blessed poetry’ or ‘fair poet’. It has even been suggested that her name is actually derived from the notoriously poisonous plant, hemlock. Breton authors have long focussed on the fact that korr is the Breton word for the magical little folk of the region and have thus taken Koridwen’s name to mean ‘white fairy’.
Perhaps Koridwen’s real virtue was her magical cauldron which is variously noted as the Cauldron of Inspiration and Science or as the Cauldron of Divination? A Breton version of the birth of Taliesin tells that Koridwen only prepared the Water of Divination after having sought guidance in the temple of ‘The Just One’; a wonderfully mystical phrase but one that is, sadly, not expanded upon. Into the brazen cauldron, surrounded by the pearls of the sea, she is said to have cast six most efficacious plants.
The Breton writer, Théodore de La Villemarquéin his Barzaz Breiz (1839), suggests that these virtuous plants were the magical, and elusive, golden grass, together with henbane, brookweed, verbena, primrose and clover. A magical sextet endorsed by Henri Martin in his Histoire de France (1861) and, more authoritatively, by Victor Duruy in his Histoire des Romains (1879). La Villemarqué claims that the magic potion produced was known as “the water of Gwion” and in highlighting this version of Gwiou’s name attempts, unconvincingly, to link this to the island of Gwion or Alwion – Albion; the name used by the Ancient Greeks for the island of Britain.
Given their likely importance in Celtic ritual, it is perhaps unsurprising that magical cauldrons are not an uncommon trope in the old Welsh legends; for instance, the cauldron of Pwyll, chief of Annwfyn, was said to have dispersed poetry when breathed upon by nine maidens but refused to boil the meat of a coward. There were also a few cauldrons that were renowned for their ability to return the dead to life, such as that once owned by Brân the Blessed that had the power to resurrect dead warriors even if they were reborn deaf and dumb. Magical cauldrons are not unique to Welsh mythology being also found in old Irish and Norse legends.
Whether magical korrigan or mystical bard, the story of Koridwen’s charmed offspring fits into a broader pattern of tales that highlight the marvellous origins of certain, special people. Such characters were not confined to the mythologies of Ancient Greece or Rome but were also found in medieval legends such as that relating to the conception of King Arthur or to those early Breton saints who crossed the ocean on rocks or leaves. These fantastic backstories served only to enhance their distinctiveness and to underscore the special status accorded to them. Embellishments that were likely unneeded but certainly helped to forge an unforgettable story.
Although perhaps not as closely observed here as in the past, the approach of the period known to Christians as Lent was long marked with festivities and licence; a storm before the calm of six weeks solemn observance marked by self-discipline, abstinence and spiritual reflection that conclude with the celebration of Easter.
Traditionally, one of the most marked days of this week was Shrove Tuesday, popularly known as Mardi-Gras in France. It is quite likely that the festive nature of the day has its initial roots in the pagan celebrations that once marked the end of Winter and heralded the coming of Spring; long standing seasonal celebrations that morphed with the Matronalia feasts of the Roman Empire before later becoming Christianized to mark the start of Lent in the 4th century.
Lent, the forty days before Easter, begins on Ash Wednesday and recalls the forty years spent in the wilderness by the people of Israel under Moses and the forty days that Christ spent in the desert after his baptism, before the commencement of his mission. For Christians, it was and remains for many, a period of introspection and penitence, where the devout fasted or willingly abstained from alcohol, meat and rich foodstuffs.
The day preceding Ash Wednesday marks the end of the period of excess or ‘seven fat days’ that took place between the Thursday preceding Quinquagesima Sunday (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday) and Shrove Tuesday. This last day before the Lenten fasting period began thus became popularly known as ‘Fat Tuesday’ or Mardi-Gras. Today, it is customary to eat crêpes, doughnuts or waffles on Mardi-Gras. Such an indulgence is a remnant from the times when these dishes were made to purposefully exhaust the scarce reserves of eggs and butter that were not going to be used during Lent and would therefore spoil over the next forty days.
Even as late as the 1930s, this was the only time of the year when the folk of rural Brittany ate beef bought from a butcher. Before the First World War, such meat was so rare on the tables of western Brittany that a special song was sung when it was served. Other Mardi-Gras favourites included crêpes and craquelines but a sweet dish known as Farz Buan was also very popular; a sort of deconstructed pancake made with a thick crêpe batter, lots of sugar and salted butter, the mixture fried until carmelised and sprinkled with sugar.
In western Brittany, the Bara Dous and the very similar Bara Gwastell were other Mardi-Gras specialities; soft sweet breads made with flour, butter, milk, eggs, sugar and a dash of alcohol, sometimes raisins were added too. This part of Brittany also enjoyed another quite distinct Mardi-Gras culinary tradition, the chotten or pig’s cheek.
In the rural Brittany of yesteryear, it was common for even the most meagre households to raise a pig for the purpose of feeding the family and to sell the good cuts of meat for money to buy iron, salt or another pig. The pig was therefore a valuable commodity and no part of the butchered animal was wasted; just the offal from one animal alone could keep a large family well-nourished for over a fortnight. For those animals slaughtered in the run-up to Mardi-Gras, the pigs’ heads, having first been cut in half and soaked in brine, were brought to the neighbourhood baker or communal bread oven to be baked after the bread, where they roasted in the pre-heated oven for several hours before emerging still steaming.
Giving-up food for Lent was a genuine sacrifice at a time when most people enjoyed, at best, a simple and relatively poor diet. Visitors to Brittany in the 19th century all noted the populace’s wretched diet and even towards the end of that century, bread, pancakes and broth were noted as the staple diet of most people. Today, broth has become re-invented in the popular imagination into something served in fine-dining restaurants but the broth eaten by the peasants of Brittany was very basic fare; a pottage of buckwheat or millet, sometimes enlivened with chestnuts or a little cabbage and a turnip or potato. During Lent, even these meals were reduced to a minimum and any vegetables used in a broth were usually replaced with parsnips.
Typically, bread was made from barley or rye and in many households constituted both breakfast and dinner when soaked in salted hot water with just a trace of butter in it. Meals were usually accompanied with water or milk – cider and wine, being tradeable commodities, were saved for feast days and celebrations. Meat was another luxury usually reserved for feast days; a state of affairs that was still typical for poorer farmers and agricultural labourers in the years immediately before the First World War. By that time, the better off farmers could afford to eat a little fatty bacon every day but most people were only able to afford a small piece once or twice a week.
The rarity of meat on the table is suggested in a tale noted in the 1880s around the northern town of Langueux in which four young men vie with each other over what they would do if they were king for a day. In discussing what they would eat, one man declared: “Beans and smoked bacon; a piece as fat as my big toe.” Without hesitation, another said: “A pork sausage as long as the road from Lamballe to Saint-Brieuc!” Not to be outdone, the third man announced: “I will have the sea turned into suet and will be in the middle of it with a wooden spoon.” The fourth man was speechless and decried: “There is nothing left for me; you have taken all the good things!”
One might wonder why hard-working, productive farmers ate so poorly. Simply put, it was out of necessity because almost the entirety of their production was reserved for sale or barter; the best vegetables, potatoes and chestnuts were destined for market, as were the eggs and most butter. Likewise, any birds or fish caught were typically sold or exchanged rather than eaten at home; a state of affairs that was also noted in the coastal communities where the fishermen ate only the cheapest shellfish and crabs, selling all their fish, lobsters and oysters.
It is worth noting that, until the early years of the 20th century, the food eaten by farmers and their households here was remarkably similar to that reserved for animal feed, principally buckwheat, potatoes and chestnuts. Thus, when harvests were poor and food was scarce, the people endured simply because their animals received less to eat.
In anticipation of forty days of austerity, the festivities associated with the period before Lent, known as Shrovetide, were an opportunity for people to enjoy themselves and behave more freely than was usually socially accepted; to let off some steam before the onslaught of the hard work necessitated by the arrival of Spring. They were informal, relaxed occasions that gathered together family and friends and the wider community. It was a time for merrymaking, feasting, drinking and for playing bouts of competitive games, such as those discussed in a recent post.
Mardi-Gras celebrations in Breton cities were more widely regarded by the locals as a period of license and officially-tolerated disorder. Although in the eastern town of Dol, it was the day that the bishop invited all the beggars of the country to feast within the precincts of the cathedral; a long-held practice that was, sadly, only discontinued by the Revolution.
More generally, the spirit of carnival prevailed: social conventions were temporarily cast aside, roles were reversed; men dressed as women, the poor in the fashion of the well-to-do, sailors dressed as agricultural labourers and vice versa. Through costume and disguise, one’s station in life could be momentarily forgotten and overturned. The mask of anonymity allowed one a mischievous opportunity to harangue and poke fun at authority and to those who normally wielded it.
Popular parades often gave rise to parodies of religious processions but such outrages were tolerated by the religious and civil authorities, even if they reproached the excesses of the multitude or the ridicule of which they were the victims. In the 19th century, some local authorities in Brittany tried to gain control over these celebrations with the organisation of official cavalcades and approved organising committees; measures that ultimately proved successful across the region by the turn of the century.
A rather curious ritual was noted at carnival time in eastern Brittany in the latter half of the 19th century and seems to share similarities with ones recorded in parts of England and Wales in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here, young men crafted the body of a horse from a ladder and the rings of a barrel, this skeletal frame was then covered with a decorated cloth. While one man supported the weight of the horse’s body, the other held the neck and head and pulled strings that snapped the sharp jaws open and closed.
The horse, known as Bidoche, was led noisily from house to house, dancing to the sound of myriad instruments as it crossed the community. Sadly, we no longer know the meaning behind this ritual or even its purpose but the practice seems to have died out towards the end of the century under the weight of municipal concerns for public order and safety.
The sea has always played an important part in the lifeblood of Brittany; its waters have nourished and sustained generations of Bretons since time immemorial but the price paid has often been so very high. Little wonder then that, in a land once seeped in legend and superstition, those hardy souls that risked their lives upon the roaring waves surrounded themselves in practices designed to preserve them from misfortune.
For many Breton mariners, Fridays and Sundays were once generally considered unfavourable days on which to trust one’s life to the sea but certain days of the year were regarded as particularly inauspicious, namely; the Feast of Candlemas on 2 February, the Feast of the Holy Innocents on 28 December 28 and the Feast of Saint Sylvester on 31 December 31, New Year’s Eve.
When undertaking any sea voyage, whether to fish for cod off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland or to carry a cargo of mistletoe to Great Britain, certain sights were taken as omens predicting the success or failure of the voyage. For instance, around the north-east port of Saint-Malo it was considered a most propitious omen to see a donkey before setting out to sea; seamen there considered the animal stupid but courageous.
Similarly, sighting a rabbit or a hare before a voyage was a sign of ill fortune to come and even talking of these animals was believed to invite disaster. Some Breton fishermen were noted to have abandoned setting out to sea, in favour of tending to their boats and nets, if a hare had crossed their path on their way to the boats. These animals were also regarded as bad omens for those undertaking journeys on land but some have suggested that they were regarded as particularly ominous to sailors on account of the danger they posed to rope and caulking.
The humble cat was also not viewed with any favour by Breton fishermen; the animal was not welcome aboard any sailing vessel and, like the hare, sighting a black cat before setting out to sea was enough to cause many sailors to postpone or even cancel their departure. Black cats were also once believed to possess the power to spoil the day’s catch if they merely crossed the path of fishermen here. Although seen as an unlucky animal, it was not one to cast away lightly as the killing of a cat was said bring-on bad weather.
Omens were not restricted to the creatures of the land, for the sky also had much to tell those who could interpret the signs. The sight of a cormorant at sea indicated that the catch of the fishermen would be poor and its cries were almost always believed to herald the approach of bad weather. Around the west coast port of Brest, the cries of seagulls above the breaking waves were also said to indicate the approach of a storm.
Along this part of the coast, these birds were believed to contain the souls of the shipwrecked and the drowned; warning the living to take care to avoid calamity. It was therefore popularly prohibited to touch a seagull for fear of harming the pitiful dead. A similar belief was noted around the Bay of Saint-Malo to the east where the sight of gulls perched atop the Phare du Jardin lighthouse announced that a boat from Saint-Malo had been lost; the number of resting gulls represented the number of fatalities to be expected.
Conversely, along the coast of the Bay of Morlaix to the west, the appearance of the black-headed gull was regarded as a good omen and one that was said to announce a spell of fine weather at sea. Along the northern coast more generally, sighting a goose in flight was popularly taken as a sign of approaching good fortune.
Tales of the malevolent sea creatures and mermaids that once abounded off the Breton coasts have been recounted in earlier posts so I will not repeat them here but it is worth noting that the Devil or his demons were sometimes said to take the form of large fish to frustrate and terrorise the region’s fishermen. Not so the porpoise, for these creatures, especially those found in the Bay of Saint-Malo, were said to have a particular affinity for the mariners of Brittany. It was said that these mammals were the souls of sailors who had perished in shipwrecks and who now returned to catch sight of places once so familiar to them.
Several superstitions were attached to the people sailors might encounter on their way to their vessels. For instance, it was considered very bad luck to encounter a lame person but good luck was assured if one chanced to meet an idiot. People were careful not to stop a seaman heading to his boat as such an interruption was said to invoke some misfortune upon him at sea; even calling out to the sailor was said to bring him bad luck. It was also important to never wish an embarking sailor good luck; to do so was to curse him with bad luck throughout his voyage. Likewise, to point one’s finger at a ship leaving port was said to condemn it to certain shipwreck.
Given the real perils often posed by the sea, surrounding the sailor with as much good fortune as possible was of keen concern to the people of Brittany’s coastal communities. Here, it was customary when building a boat to splash the hull with sea water so as to acclimatise it to its destined environment; such rituals being accompanied by prayers and charms for protection.
The prayers of the Church were also called upon to keep sailors from harm in a formal ceremony popularly known as the ‘blessing of the boats’. Such services were once very common across Brittany’s coasts and saw priests bless all the boats in harbour, either conducting the ceremony on the quayside or, more typically, in a boat that sailed amongst the other craft. In some port towns, the tradition continues to this day and usually takes place on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary on 15 August or the Sunday nearest to it.
It was once believed that certain acts performed on land could cast their affects across the waves and women who had a loved one at sea were cautioned against combing their hair after darkness had fallen for fear that they would cause a storm at sea. Another, albeit more recent, superstition related to unintended consequences said that those who lit their cigarettes from a lighted candle risked causing the death of a sailor at sea.
Such a notion likely derived from the idea that using the flame of a candle saved the use of a match and thus denied a little income for the Hospitaliers Sauveteurs Bretons (the Breton Sea Rescue Society) who raised funds by selling matches. However, some have suggested that the belief may have been associated with the practice of households’ keeping a candle burning at the window for those sailors expected home from sea. Romantic and ancient as it sounds, the latter suggestion is unlikely as the cigarette lighting superstition was not recorded here before the 20th century.
The act of spitting as a gesture to invoke good fortune was once noted in many places across the world and, unsurprisingly, the known superstitions of Breton sailors contain two notable examples that suggest spitting was thought to cast some form of magical protection against bad luck. In the first instance, fishermen spat on their nets in the belief that doing so helped to ensure a good catch. Spitting was also used in a popular charm to ward off the malign power of the rainbow; regarded here as a symbol of bad weather. Dangerous winds at sea were linked to the rainbow, whose ends were said to terminate in a terrible maelstrom.
To Breton sailors, the rainbow marked the passage between the realm of the living and that of the dead; to pass under the rainbow was to risk being taken by the sea. To ward off this bad omen, sailors would cut it by spitting in the palm of their left hand and cutting the spit with a strike from the side of the right hand or by tracing a cut across the sky with a piece of rope while reciting: ‘Cut, cut, rainbow or I will cut you with my thread’. Little wonder therefore that sailors took care never to point at a rainbow out of fear that their boat would fall victim to its storms.
Another simple act that was traditionally discouraged aboard a boat here was whistling, as this too was said to raise uncontrollable winds and to even attract the attention of the Devil. It was believed that favourable winds could be summoned with a whistle but whistling during a breeze was frowned upon lest the breeze became a storm and sailors would not whistle when the weather threatened for fear of increasing the force of the wind.
If the prevailing wind at sea was weak or unhelpful, sailors were not long in invoking the intervention of Saint Clement, patron saint of mariners. If the saint appeared slow in responding to their supplications, then he was considered asleep but it was thought that he could be awakened and roused into action if he was loudly cursed at.
Other early Christian saints were also commonly petitioned; appeals were made to Saint Anthony, another saint regarded as a patron of mariners, for a favourable wind. Saint Mary the Virgin and Saint Houarden, who was said to have travelled to Brittany on a stone boat, were popularly invoked to calm the fury of a storm while Saint Budoc was called upon to change the direction of the wind; the saint was reputedly born in a barrel at sea.
On the Île de Sein, Saint Corentin, one of the seven founding saints of Brittany, was particularly invoked and his statue in the chapel turned in the direction of the most propitious wind. Likewise, in Saint Michael’s chapel near Carnac, women, whose husbands were at sea, swept-out the chapel in the direction that they wanted to see a favourable wind blow but the ritual was not complete until they had prayed at the sacred fountain nearby and drank its water. Similar practices were once popularly noted in several other chapels across western Brittany.
The sailors of this same part of Brittany believed that sea water somehow protected one from catching a cold and claimed that those who suffered with a cold while ashore were quickly cured at sea by the waves whipped-up by a strong breeze. Around the northern port of Tréguier, the sick were thought to suffer more during a rising sea and to recover when it was in retreat. However, about 100km (63 miles) to the east, around the Bay of Saint-Malo, the contrary belief prevailed; the sick gained vitality with a rising sea and weakened with a falling tide.
There were myriad superstitions relating to death at sea and I highlighted many of these in an earlier post and will not repeat them here. However, it is worth noting that underscoring most of the old superstitions was the belief that those who perished at sea were to be pitied because they were condemned never to rest until their bodies were recovered and buried in consecrated ground. Local legends tell of these lost souls forever raging along the coast or endlessly traversing the sea in ghostly boats. These pitiable souls carried no ill will towards the living whom they were often believe to help by warning of impending storms and other dangers.
Sometimes, the influence of the dead on the sea was more mischievous. Around the northern port of Paimpol it was said that those who had drowned without being in a state of grace were condemned to labour at the bottom of the sea until Judgement Day; their movements being responsible for causing the wild waves offshore. Further east, around the Bay of Saint-Malo, such waves were attributed to the movements of a sorcerer frantically searching the sea bed for a magical mill that he had lost there.
It was once believed here that three worms lived inside the human body and that when a person drowned, each of them became embodied in a bone. These bones subsequently detached from the corpse and turned into seashells. The old sailors of western Brittany used to say, when they heard of someone dying at sea: “One less man, three more shells.” According to legend, some cursed islands off Brittany’s northern coast were formed from the skeletons of the drowned and such origins were ascribed to the Sillon de Talbert near Pleubian; a long, bone-white, furrow that points out to sea like an accusing finger of the dead.
Spells to attract that most elusive of treasure, true love, have been noted in disparate cultures across the world since the earliest times. It is therefore no surprise that in the Brittany of yesterday, spells and charms to inspire romantic desire were also once quite widespread.
Consumed with hard work from before dawn to after dusk, opportunities for young people to meet and mix with folk outside their immediate neighbourhood were largely limited to communal events such as weddings, fairs, saints’ pardons and church services. If one was fortunate enough to have found someone that quickened their heart, the challenge then lay in trusting in their sincerity and to the depth of their devotion.
In Brittany, pins, coins, bread and even broken pottery were once popularly used at sacred springs in the quest to find true love. Different sites had their own rituals but people traditionally took an omen from the behaviour of the cast item falling through or floating on the water. Superstitious rituals thought to reveal the identity of a future spouse or to confirm the length of time that separated one from a suitable marriage abounded here.
Witchcraft and religion were both called upon by the superstitious and the devout to help influence life’s key moments and securing a lasting love, or at least a partnership that endured, was one of the most important concerns for the Bretons of earlier centuries. While some hopeful couples might visit the local witch to receive their views on the suitability of any proposed match and associated dowry, many young men and women were happy to trust to tradition and their ability to cast the spell that harvested true love.
In the south-east of the region, it was recommended to catch a green frog and to place it in a small box pierced with a few holes. It seems unlikely that these holes were to allow a little ventilation because it was then necessary to bury the box inside an anthill. Recovering the box after the passage of three nights, whatever remained of the frog needed to be dried under the sun before being carefully ground into a powder. It was then only necessary for this powder to be thrown over the object of one’s affections for the spell to be cast.
Another charm from eastern Brittany, designed to make the heart of your loved one more inclined to reciprocate your feelings, called for one to contrive to get the other person to touch a Ribwort Plantain. This plant then needed to be folded into a little linen pouch that was then worn around the neck of the spell-caster in expectation of a fairly speedy return of affection. Similarly, the ashes of a burnt branch of mistletoe, stored in a pouch worn close to one’s skin was also believed to attract a true love to the wearer.
Other plants could be called upon to help stoke the fires of desire, such as the sundew; an uncommon carnivorous plant often known as morning dew. This plant was said to possess the ability to cure almost all disease, while the person who possessed it was believed to wield an irresistible attraction to those of the opposite sex.
One of the simplest traditional spells used to attract love here consisted of heating a red apple by rubbing it vigorously between one’s hands, cutting the fruit in two and sharing one half with the object of one’s affections. Although if a woman wanted to ensure her suitor loved her sincerely, it was recommended that she put a walnut leaf, picked on Midsummer’s Eve, in her left sabot while the Nones bell was ringing at about three o’clock in the afternoon.
One old ritual, once noted throughout the region, counselled the woman whose love for a man remained unrequited to somehow make him eat a morsel of bread that she had baked herself with a little of her menstrual blood. It is worth noting that hen dung was thought the best antidote to such a philtre.
Another charm recommended for those whose love was unrequited required them to gather some elecampane before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day and thoroughly dry the plant’s leaves. Once crushed, the powdered leaves needed to be mixed with a little ambergris and worn in an amulet around the neck for nine days. All that then remained was for the spell-caster to convince the object of their desire to eat, without being aware of doing so, a little of this concoction three times.
Some love spells were noted especially for men seeking the love of a woman. One noted ritual to gain the love of a woman of any social standing, required the spell-caster to note when a mare was born of a foal and to be prepared to immediately cut a piece of flesh from its forehead and dry it, from noon precisely, under the sun on Jupiter’s day (Thursday). After collecting the dried flesh at the death of the sun, the spell-caster had only to grind it into a powder and feed it to the object of his affections to be assured of success.
Another spell to win the love of a woman required the caster to collect the intimate secretions of a mare on heat and to somehow convince the lady of his dreams to drink this fluid. Having swallowed this marvellous drink, the lady was said to immediately want to join with the spell caster. This charm was held to be effective on any day of the week, except Friday.
A more wholesome charm recommended that the potential suitor visited the woman he loved for three days in a row; on each occasion, taking her hand while declaring: “I beg you X, to love me and no other, and to grant me the same friendship that the Virgin Mary bore to Our Lord Jesus Christ”. Religious notions were also brought to bear in another, seemingly innocent sounding spell that began with the spell-caster tearing out a hair from the front of his beloved’s head. This prize achieved, it was then necessary for him to knot it with his own hair between the two elevations performed during a Friday mass while invoking the charm: “Deus dixit quae ligatum” (God has declared what was bound).
Alternatively, a spell for a lovelorn woman called for her to take a lock of the desired man’s hair and offer it three times to the altar of a certain chapel with a lighted candle and then plait it with a lock of her own hair.
Many of Brittany’s old spells and traditional folk remedies once ascribed a mysterious, magical power to knots of hair and finger nail cuttings; in central Brittany, nail cuttings absorbed in water were once believed to cure a fever but one Breton spell book assures us that a lady will return her suitor’s affections if she consumes a drink containing the cuttings of his finger nails.
However, the strongest love potion was thought made from a compound of marjoram, myrtle, thyme and verbena; the dried leaves were ground into a fine powder and administered as a snuff. The potion was believed most effective if the constituent plants had been collected by the spell-caster themselves during the course of a single Midsummer’s Day. Another compound once said to have been equally effective was a love potion composed of water or cider infused with the powder of a bone taken from a fresh grave or, if obtainable, ground cantharides.
There were, of course, myriad other rituals employed to retain the love of one’s spouse or to ensure marital fidelity and even to know whether one was truly loved by their partner. In common with the majority of the aforementioned spells, for the magic to be effective it was essential that the rituals were not seen by anyone else and were kept secret. As some might know, trusting the secrets of one’s heart to another can lead to an awfully big adventure!
Internationally renowned artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, Renoir, Monet and Chagall all drew inspiration from the tempered light, rich colours and distinctive landscapes of Brittany. So too, countless Breton painters whose work drew additional vitality from the region’s unique cultural heritage. This post looks at a few of these Breton artists whose accomplished work deserves serious consideration in any discussion of the art of Brittany.
From the central town of Rostrenen, Olivier Perrin (1761-1832) was perhaps the first artist to produce quality, objective drawings of everyday peasant life in Brittany. A noted painter, much of his work was engraved and published posthumously between 1835-39, providing subjects and motifs that were subsequently explored by other artists.
The landscape artist from Nantes, Prosper Barbot (1798-1877), is now perhaps better known for his romantic images of Italy and North Africa but he painted this atmospheric masterpiece on home soil before heading to sunnier climes.
Victor Roussin (1812-1903) from Quimper, spent most of his working life as a lawyer and public administrator but was clearly a talented artist, first exhibiting at the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, in Paris in 1838. He specialised in Breton landscapes and scenes of popular life in the province. He was also one of the founding members of the influential Archaeological Society of Finistere.
Jean-Édouard Dargent (1824-1899), also known as Yan’ Dargent, was born in Saint-Servais; a skilled and prodigious book illustrator whose oil paintings, whether created from imagination or reality, deliver a strong visual impact. He also painted frescos in many Breton churches that can still be viewed today. Before his death he had asked to be buried in the town of his birth and that his skull be placed in the ossuary alongside those of his mother and grandparents. By law, disinterment could only take place five years after burial and in October 1907, with full ecclesiastical approval, his body was exhumed. However, the body was not sufficiently decomposed and the supervising abbot had to cut the head off himself; leading to an unseemly legal dispute with Dargent’s surviving relatives.
Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891), from Nantes, was an influential painter appreciated for his portrait work and classical scenes but is today best known for his grand murals, such as those that adorn the walls at the Paris Opera house, the staircase of Paris City Hall and the nave of the Panthéon. Despite working on it for fifteen years, this latter commission remained unfinished at his death.
Another native of Nantes, Jacques Tissot (1836-1902), better known as James Tissot, stayed with Dalauney, a family friend, while attending the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1857. Having established a reputation as a painter of medieval themes, he transitioned easily to depicting Parisian high society and continued on this vein after relocating to London in 1871 where his work was in high demand, commanding commensurately high prices.
Tissot declined his friend Degas’ invitation to join what became known as the first Impressionist Exhibition but his refusal did not affect his close friendships with such luminaries of the movement as Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet. In terms of style, colour and light, Tissot’s London work is perhaps a closer fit to that of the Pre-Raphaelites. Tissot returned to Paris after the death of his lover in 1882 and shortly thereafter experienced a strong resurgence of his Christian faith, which seems to have led him to spend the rest of his life focused on painting biblical scenes.
Alexandre Le Bihan (1839-1924) was born in Langonnet, central Brittany, and despite exhibiting regularly at the Salon between 1869 and 1900 is now not particularly well remembered. He lived for a time in Paris but spent almost his entire professional life in Brittany where he was known for his genre scenes and landscapes and was, for a time, Curator of the Lorient Museum.
A native of Lorient, the self-taught Theodore Roussel (1847–1926) was another Breton artist who cemented his artistic reputation in London having only taken-up painting when his military service concluded in 1872. His earliest works were scenes of daily life but his permanent move to London in 1878 ignited a life-long passion for printmaking and etching. Primarily known as a landscape painter, his entry for one of the first exhibitions held by the New English Art Club (an alternative to the Royal Academy established in 1885 by young British artists who had studied in Paris) created quite a sensation at the time.
Maxime Maufra (1861-1918) is another painter who committed himself to his art later than some of his contemporaries although this Nantes-based businessman exhibited, as a hobbyist, at the Salon of 1886. Perhaps it was this success that convinced him to turn his back on commerce and fully embrace his art a few years later in 1890 when he moved to Paris and became the first artist to take up residence in the then unknown Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre. He returned regularly to Brittany where he painted extensively along the southern coast and was particularly accomplished at landscapes and seascapes.
Born in Châteaugiron in the east of Brittany, Jules Ronsin (1867-1937) was a widely exhibited artist who spent most of his working life in and around the city of Rennes.
Edgar Maxence (1871-1954) studied under another native of Nantes, Jules-Élie Delaunay, at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His work mostly focused on medieval and mythical subject matter; his talent allowing him to create convincingly rich costumes and headgear. The header image of this post is his 1906 painting The Breton Legend; a wonderful juxtaposition of the stolidly Catholic and magical pre-Christian Brittany.
Mathurin Méheut (1882-1958) was a prolific artist from Lamballe who was not only an accomplished painter but also a skilled engraver, sculptor, illustrator and designer; he even collaborated with the renowned Henriot pottery in Quimper as a decorator. His work is highly praised for its striking and authentic depiction of daily life in Brittany in the first half of the 20th century.
A wonderful example of how artistic influences inter-weave can be seen with Jeanne Malivel (1895-1926) from Loudeac. Malivel was one of the founders of Seiz Breur (the Seven Brothers), a movement that revolutionised Breton arts and crafts between the two World Wars. Multi-talented, she was a skilled designer of furniture, upholstery and ceramics but is perhaps best known for her skills as a woodcut engraver and illustrator where she took inspiration from Celtic art and the synthetism of Gauguin, who himself had been influenced by the naïve style of English illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) whose drawings in an 1880 guidebook to Brittany were well regarded by the artists of Pont-Aven.
Another member of the Seiz Breur movement was Pierre Péron (1905-1988) from the west coast city of Brest. Like Méheut he is hard to categorise being an accomplished painter as well as cartoonist, engraver, designer and author.
Simone Le Moigne (1911-2001), from Magoar in central Brittany, did not seriously start painting until she was almost sixty years old but left a legacy of several hundred naïve, tender paintings that shine a light on life and rural society in central Brittany between the World Wars; a rural lifestyle that was rapidly disappearing when she began to paint in the 1960s.
I fully appreciate that the word ‘best’ used in the title of this post is highly subjective, as is the term ‘popular’ and perhaps this post should really have been called: ‘My Favourite Breton Artists’. If I have failed to include a favourite of yours please let me know and I will be happy to add them here!
For over two centuries, Brittany has been a great source of inspiration for artists from across the world drawn to the beauty of its landscapes and unique quality of light. Today, it remains one of the regions of France most visited by painters and art lovers keen to explore the same magical sights that have inspired so many.
Visitors to Brittany in the 18th and 19th centuries noted many beliefs surrounding the little folk of the region. This post continues to look at some of the more notable characteristics once attributed to a specific group of fairies, known as the Fairies of the Swells, in the local legends and folklore of northern Brittany.
Fairies who ask to be godmothers to a mortal child are found in several old French tales and a rather peculiar example was also once noted in northern Brittany. Here, a tale relates that a fairy became the godmother of a human baby and was so besotted by him that she cast a powerful spell to ensure that the baby would not grow until he made her laugh. After seven years, the child, though healthy, remained as small as on the day he was born. One day, while riding his pet rat to the river, he was thrown off and landed awkwardly in front of the fairy who laughed uncontrollably at the strange sight; the curse was broken and the child immediately assumed the size of all other seven-year-olds.
Several legends show that the fairies did not guard their good fortune too closely but like all good neighbours were prepared to lend their prized possessions to those in genuine need. They lent their oxen to those neighbours who politely asked for them but they imposed certain conditions; most commonly they demanded that their beasts not be made to work before sunrise or after sunset. If the fairies’ animals made but a single furrow after dusk, they immediately burst and the fairies came to curse the imprudent ploughmen.
It was said that the fairies often kept their cattle stabled in a corner of their vast cave dwellings and that each morning a child from the nearest farm came to fetch them and took them to graze in the meadows. The cows were returned each evening but never once did the young cowherd see the fairies she diligently served but every month, a small cloth bag hung from the end of a rope was found containing the silver owed to her for their care. Likewise, the fairies of Saint-Agnan, who needed milk and butter for their cakes, had cows which were found every morning grazing in the midst of the communal herd and who, at night, suddenly disappeared. On the last day of the grazing season, one of them carried, suspended from its horn, a small bag containing the sum owed to the cowherd.
As might be expected, not all fairies were benevolent, some were even reputed to be evil and were known as such, while others were simply viewed as mischievous. Those mortals who had offended the fairies were sometimes transformed beyond human recognition. For instance, an enormous oak tree near Saint-Pôan was said to have once been a man changed into a tree by a fairy’s curse, while another legend tells that the lumpfish was once a fisherman. One evening, when walking along the seashore at nightfall, a fisherman heard a voice saying that the feast of the queen of the fairies would take place on the next day and that any fisherman who lifted his nets that day would be punished. The man ignored the warning and when he touched his nets, a voice cried out to him: “Unbeliever, you are the cursed of the fairies; be changed into a fish.”
Like the other little folk of Brittany, the Fairies of the Swells loved to dance, especially the circular dance. Traces of their nocturnal dancing were recognised in the morning light by large circles on the ground where the grass seemed greener or in the strange marks in the sand of the most isolated coves. The fairies did not welcome uninvited guests at their soirées; those mortals curious enough to spy on them were almost immediately bewitched. The fairies along the Emerald Coast west of Saint-Malo once invited some hapless men into their moonlit dance and suddenly turned them into cats. Locals reported seeing them wandering on the cliffs on windy evenings, wailing in distress. To regain their human form, they had only to weave, for the fairies, mantles of gold and silver from the grains of sand on the seashore.
Another glimpse into the spiteful nature of some fairies is afforded in a tale about two old maids long tormented by them in their small cottage by the sea. After weeks of anguish and many vain attempts to combat the fairies with charms and prayers, magical amulets and holy rosaries, the two ladies resolved to fortify their home with holy water. Copious amounts of which they sprinkled all over the house, including the doors, windows and fireplace, before retiring to bed. At midnight, the fairies appeared but found themselves unable to enter the house because the holy water burned them harshly. A few minutes later, they were lifting the earthen sods from the roof and throwing them down the chimney, and, walking carefully on these new lawns which they threw out in front of them, they reached the old women’s beds and began to whip them, singing in chorus: “All is not blessed! All is not blessed!”
In several parts of Brittany, it was said that fairies visited people’s homes by means of the chimney, particularly to see if any of the household dared to continue their spinning on certain auspicious days. Around Essé, it was also believed that this was the means fairies used to gain access to a house when they stole the children.
A perhaps more unsettling tale highlighting the dangers of antagonising the fairies lies in the jagged jumble of rocks and boulders that litter the base of the cliffs around Cap Fréhel. Local legend tells that a good house once stood upon the ground now covered by these rocks; home to a family that had repeatedly bothered the fairies of the neighbouring caves. To avenge their perceived offence, the fairies brought down these massive rocks and crushed the house, on the very day when the wedding of the eldest son was being celebrated.
Further west, the debris of the shore, specifically sand dunes, were at the heart of another fairy-related legend. Around the village of Portsall it was said that some fairies, having committed a murder, were condemned to fetch sand from the sea and to count the grains until they had arrived at a figure which the imagination could hardly conceive; the sand dunes that lie between Portsall and the estuary of the Aber represent the piles of sand that each fairy had to count.
Returning some miles east, the cave known as Toul ar Groac’h (Fairy’s Hole) near Loguivy was reputed to be home to a group of fairies who carried a most sinister reputation. As late as the middle of the 19th century, local fishermen preferred to sleep under their boats for the night rather than risk walking home near the fairy’s cave. Interestingly, it was said that the power of these fairies did not extend over women; if those of Loguivy came to meet their men at the end of a day’s fishing, they had nothing to fear as they passed the Toul ar Groac’h.
This area seems to have once been home to many groups of malevolent fairies as it was noted that around the nearby town of Tréguier, evil fairies once killed those who ventured onto the beach at night, while the salt workers of Crec’h Morvan feared the evil fairies that seemed to protect those of neighbouring Buguelès whose salt was reputedly of better quality. If the fairies of this stretch of coast were not evil then perhaps some enterprising smugglers spread such tales in order to keep prying eyes away from the beaches at night?
Further east, around the port of Saint-Cast-le-Guildo, the Pointe de l’Isle was said to be the domain of fairies who whipped human trespassers with the long strips of seaweed. Some 12km (8 miles) across the Bay of Saint-Malo lies the Goule-aux-Fées, just north of the resort of Dinard. Here, popular tradition warned that those people who dared to venture on the clifftops at night risked being seized by a ferocious whirlwind that would drag them down into the fairy cave below, where they would be devoured by the evil fairies chained there.
One of the key characteristics of the fairies was their industriousness, even if their activities were accomplished beyond the sight of mortal eyes. The fairies were reported to have visited their human neighbours at night; knocking on doors asking for the loan of ploughs and horses. It was believed necessary to agree to any request made by the fairies for fear of exposing the household to any evil spells. The fairies were said to have been very careful with whatever items they borrowed and would even return any damaged items fully repaired.
Despite their diminutive size, fairies were attributed prodigious strength as evidenced by certain menhirs which were said to be discarded spindles which they had once used to spin wool. In their aprons they could transport massive stones, such as those that were used to create the world’s largest surviving dolmen, La Roche-aux-Fées (Rock of the Fairies), near Essé. Constructed from 32 upright stones with nine roof slabs, this structure is about 20 metres long by five metres wide and at its highest point is over four metres high. These monumental stones were likely quarried about 4km (2.5 miles) away and dragged to this site some 5,000 years ago but local legend long ascribed the building of this dolmen to the fairies who completed the work in a single night.
A rather touching local legend tells that the structure was built by the fairies to shelter the souls of the just but that these fairies disappeared with the retreat of the forest. Since then, the whistling of the wind between the stones was held to be the lamentations of souls in pain no longer visited by the fairies.
Some 13km (8 miles) away at Saulnières stands another megalith said to have been built by the fairies, La Table aux Fées (Table of the Fairies) to serve as a table where they could eat and rest during their exertions at La Roche-aux-Fées. The presence of many of the neighbourhood menhirs were once explained away as discarded building stones; at the precise moment the dolmen was completed, the fairies carrying their now surplus stones simply dropped them where they stood. It was also said that the fairies had placed a spell of confoundment upon the monument so that no count of the number of stones would consistently tally.
Other significant landmarks were once credited to the skilled craftsmanship of the fairies, such as the 14th century Cesson Tower in Saint-Brieuc and the elaborate portal of the chapel of Saint James in Saint-Alban which is otherwise accredited to the Knights Templar in the 13th century. This was about the time that the castle of Montauban de Bretagne, just 49km (30 miles) away, was built although local lore attributes its construction to the fairies who are also reputed to save sown the forest that surrounds it in order to give it protection.
It was traditionally believed that during the hours of darkness everyone possessed the capacity to see the fairies but during the day this privilege was only afforded to a very small number of people, such as gifted sorcerers and those who had rubbed their eyes with a magic ointment. Many stories tell that it was thanks to this mysterious ointment that the fairies could make themselves invisible or transform themselves.
A few cautionary tales highlight the dangers to mortals who believe that they can wield the magic of the fairies. One tells that, one evening, a fisherman from Saint-Jacut was walking home along the bottom of the cliffs when he saw several fairies talking animatedly together in a cave. Alas, he heard nothing of their discussion but did see them rub their eyes with some kind of ointment and immediately change shape before walking away from the cave like ordinary women.
When he thought the fairies were far away, the fisherman entered the cave and saw, on the wall of the rock which formed part of the cave, a remnant of the ointment with which they had rubbed their eyes. He scraped a little with his fingertips and smeared it around his left eye, to see if he could, by this means, acquire the magic of the fairies and discover their hidden treasures.
A few days later, a ragged and dirty beggar came to the village where she pleaded for alms from door to door but the fisherman immediately recognized her as one of the fairies he had seen in the cave; he noticed that she was casting spells on certain houses and that she was looking carefully inside them as if she had wanted to see if there was something worth stealing within.
Sometime later, at the Ploubalay fair, the fisherman noted the presence of several fairies despite their various disguises; some masqueraded as beggars, others displayed curiosities or held games of chance in which the country people were taken like fools, one even appeared in the guise of a fortune-teller. He was careful not to imitate his companions and to play the fairies’ games but he could see that the fairies were worried; vaguely sensing perhaps that someone was aware of them. Delighted with the knowledge that he held the upper hand, the fisherman laughed as he wandered among the crowd. Passing by a tent where several fairies paraded on a platform, he quickly realised that he too had been unmasked and that they were looking at him irritably. He wanted to run away but swift as an arrow, one of the fairies used the wand in her hand to burst the eye which their ointment had made clairvoyant.
A similar tale was noted some 30km (18 miles) south, near Gouray, in 1881: A human midwife who delivered a fairy baby carelessly allowed some of the fairy ointment to get onto one of her own eyes. The eye at once became clairvoyant, so that she beheld the fairies in their true nature. A few days later, this midwife happened to see a fairy in the act of stealing and admonished her for it. The fairy quickly asked the midwife with which eye she beheld her and when the midwife indicated which one it was, the fairy immediately plucked it out.
Just 33km (20 miles) east, a local legend from near Dinard tells that a midwife of the town was once called out to attend a mother in labour in a cave on the Rance estuary. Having successfully delivered the baby, the midwife was given a jar of ointment with which to massage the newborn, along with strict instructions to avoid rubbing it around her own eyes. Unfortunately, she was unable to resist the temptation to do so and was startled to find everything around her changed; she now saw the dark cave was as beautiful as the finest castle and that the new mother and her friends were actually fairies dressed like princesses. Careful not to betray any surprise, the midwife completed her tasks and returned home well paid. Sometime later, as she could, thanks to the magic ointment, see the fairies that were invisible to others, she saw one flying and could not help exclaiming aloud. Realising she had been seen, the fairy swooped down and tore out the offending eye.
The invisibility charms woven by the fairies seem to have extended beyond masking their appearance and that of their dwellings. According to popular legend in Plévenon, the fairies of Cap Fréhel used to wash their clothes in a pool on Fréhel moor and spread their laundry to dry in the surrounding meadows. Their linen was reputedly the whitest that one could ever see and whoever could get near it without moving their eyelids would have had permission to take it but none of those who tried ever succeeded, for as soon as they moved their eyelids the linen became invisible.
In this region, fairies were renowned as skilled healers whose remedies were believed to contain compounds from plants that possessed yellow and blue flowers. Secret, bewitched herbs that enjoyed the virtue of curing all diseases were said to have been cultivated along the shorelines by the fairies who employed them to make the ointment which was used in many of their enchantments, although some tales say that the fairies also ate these herbs. Fairies were also said to feed on sylvies; a delicate plant whose downy seeds were sensitive enough to disperse at a fairy’s breath but highly toxic to humans. A fairy’s breath is usually lethal in Breton lore but there is a tale of an old leper on the Île-de-Groix visited one night by an old crone. Discovering him near death, the fairy recited some charms and breathed on the man’s sores, leaving him fully cured.
Most legends here agree that the fairies did not age and were immune to all sickness. However, they were believed susceptible to ailments and even death as soon as any salt was put into their mouths; a belief likely due to the association of blessed salt and the Christian baptismal ceremony. It was even said that all the fairies around Plévenon died at the same moment because a malicious boy, seeing a fairy asleep with her mouth open, threw a handful of salt into it.
About 24km (15 miles) to the east, along the Rance estuary, legends unique to this part of Brittany tell of fairies that appeared during storms and followed a queen who rode a boat fashioned from a nautilus shell, pulled by two large crayfish. It was said that she could command the winds and that she ordered the waves to return the corpses of the drowned. This fairy queen of the Rance sometimes visited the small island of Île Notre-Dame where she was seen landing one day by a young sailor who, having sighted her, quickly hid himself.
Captivated by the queen’s great beauty, the sailor noticed that she had fallen asleep and felt compelled to move closer so as to see her better. Standing over the sleeping queen, he was silently admiring when he was quickly surrounded by other fairies who wanted to throw him into the sea for his effrontery. The commotion awoke the queen who ordered her companions to do the lad no harm and to whom she addressed a few, sadly unknown, words before disappearing in a chariot drawn by butterflies.
The numerous legends of the fairies of the swells represent them as living as part of a family unit or wider community but there are a few notable exceptions. One is the Fairy of Puywho is reported to have lived in a cave popularly known as la Grotte-ès-Chiens (Dogs’ Cave) on the Rance estuary near Saint-Suliac. This fairy was said to emerge at sunset, being initially glimpsed as a white and indistinct vapour that seemed to dance over the ground before slowly evaporating to reveal a beautiful woman whose dress shone with all the colours of the rainbow. She was seen walking on the seashore, sometimes sitting on the grass of the cliffs; a sad, solitary figure who fled at the sight of man.
Local legend tells that this fairy did not always cut such a forlorn figure for she was once sovereign of these lands; her voice commanded the winds and controlled the waves. Recognising her power, fishermen would offer their homage to her before setting out to sea and the mouth of her cave, guarded by a pack of invisible dogs, was always bedecked with garlands offered by the wives and loved ones of those at sea. In return for such devotion, the fairy delivered favourable winds and abundant fishing.
One day, some shepherds found, near the entrance of the cave, a young woman lying close to death. She told them that she had come to this place to wait for her fiancé but she had seen the fairy who told her that her fiancé was dead and that she herself would die soon. The shepherds took her to the village where the priest, having heard their story, quickly gathered his congregation and marched to confront the fairy. At the mouth of her cave, he summoned her to appear and exorcised her but nothing was seen and only an anguished cry heard. Returning from the cave, the people who had accompanied the priest found the dead body of the young fiancé.
Since that fateful day, the Fairy of Puy does not often show herself; she flees from the sight of man because she no longer has any power over him. Her appearance now is said to announce some imminent misfortune and any bloody traces found on the beach are a bitter reminder of her rejection and her fall from benevolent protector to spiteful destroyer. Perhaps the Puy fairy’s journey was typical of others who were more thoroughly lost to the mists of time. It is not too fanciful to see in her some kind of pre-Christian sea deity or sacred oracle that, over time, was greatly rationalised and transformed into just another devilish creature for the superstitiously minded imagination.
One interesting aspect of the legends involving the fairies of the swells is the paucity of any meaningfully direct association with water. Certainly, they had their homes close to the sea but unlike the korrigans who are frequently noted as frolicking in fountains and streams, there are no tales that mention these fairies swimming or bathing and only one of them being said able to walk on water. Nor were they seemingly concerned with catching fish by natural or magical means, preferring to steal their oysters and fish from the catches landed by the fishermen. These fairies thus shared some attributes with other supernatural beings such as korrigans and mermaids but were viewed as a quite distinct, even unique, group.
Some Breton tales tell that the fairies transformed into moles in order to escape the Gospel or else that they were condemned to the darkness by God in punishment for having rejected the early saints. In southern Brittany, it was said that the Gulf of Morbihan was born from the abundant tears that the fairies shed when they were forced to leave Brittany; on this new sea, they threw their garlands which turned into little islands.
Legends surrounding the disappearance of the fairies of the swells are far more consistent than those surrounding Brittany’s other fairies; they left the country, all at once, during the course of a single night. They are said to have left for another country and several legends tell us that their destination was the island of Great Britain. While the exact date of their departure varied from commune to commune, most agreed that it was sometime around the beginning of the 19th century. Towards the end of that century, the Breton painter and author Paul Sébillot, who spent over two decades recording the folklore of the region, claimed to have met only two people who believed in the contemporary existence of fairies and who swore to having personally seen them.
There is no neat answer as to why the fairies left these lands but it is important to remember that primary education was being pushed in rural areas from the middle of the 19th century and was made compulsory in 1881. Young Breton children entering school were officially described as “like those of countries where civilization has not penetrated: savage, dirty and not understanding a word of the language”. Education was the State’s main tool in civilising the savages and “clods” of “the bush” in order to integrate them into national society and culture, specifically the culture of the city, of Paris; the war on superstition was now began in earnest. Over time, children became almost as separated from the world of their grandparents as they were from the court of the King of Siam.
With the existence of the fairies attacked by both Church and State and with the communities that sustained such beliefs changing rapidly, it is little wonder that certainty in the living presence of fairies waned. Perhaps the character Peter Pan summed it up best when he said: “You see children know such a lot now. Soon they don’t believe in fairies and every time a child says ‘I don’t believe in fairies’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”
I shall end this post on a more positive note because Breton legend assures us that the fairies will, one day, return to this land; perhaps at a time when the Angelus bell is no longer sounded, perhaps at some other time of their choosing. The fairies all left in one night and will likewise all return during the course of a single night in a century that is an odd number. Some people were convinced that the fairies would return in the nineteen hundreds and in the early part of that century, the people of Saint-Cast, seeing women in motorcars for the first time, thought that the fairies had indeed returned.
According to Breton tradition, the fairies abandoned Brittany all at once and over the course of a single night. Local legends differ as to when that time was but at the end of the 19th century it was usually said to have been when one’s grandparents were very young or even during the turmoil of the Revolution; dates so distant that nothing then resembled what exists here today.
The travellers and ethnographers that visited the region in the mid to late 19th century noted many beliefs surrounding the little folk of Brittany. As you might expect, the names given to these diminutive supernatural beings often differed from community to community but there appears to have been fairly broad agreement about the characteristics exhibited by certain beings seemingly based on their habitat.
The fairies of north-east Brittany and along an associated coastal strip about 130km (80 miles) long, stretching roughly from La Fresnais in the east to Saint-Quay-Portrieux in the west, were notably different from others found in Breton folklore or even elsewhere in Europe. In the east of the region, they were known as LesFéesdes Houles (Fairies of the Swells) or Margot la Fée but terms that meant ‘My Godmother Margot’ and ‘Good Ladies’ were also popularly used. In the Breton speaking areas to the west, Groac’h vor (Sea Fairy) was used although Groac’h was also a word that could be used to describe a witch or a crone.
Like the korrigans, the Fairies of the Swells possessed magical powers; they could foretell the future, shapeshift into any human or animal form and were able to travel from one end of the world to another in the twinkling of an eye. Fairies were often spoken of with a sense of reverence for it was widely believed that they refused to be mocked and ruthlessly punished those that ill-treated or disrespected them. They loved to dance but were often shy and wary of human contact and thus made their homes in hidden isolated places such as coastal grottoes or sea-caves.
These fairies were almost always described as beautiful people; fallen angels condemned to an earthly exile for a certain period. Around the areas of Le Mené and Moncontour, it was said that after the revolt of the angels, those left in Heaven were divided into two camps: those who had fought on the side of God and those who had not. These latter angels were sent to live on the earth for a time, some of whom willingly abandoned their parallel world for regular incursions into the daily lives of our ancestors.
Around the fishing port of Saint-Cast, the fairies were said to have dressed in clothing made of white canvas but further inland, near Le Mené, one who claimed to have knowledge of such things in 1880 described: “human-like creatures whose clothes had no seams and no one knew which were men or which were women. When seen from afar, they appeared to be dressed in the most beautiful and brilliant clothes. When we approached, these beautiful colours disappeared but there remained on their heads a sort of cap in the form of a crown, which appeared to form part of their body”.
Local legends generally describe the fairies as well-educated, wise, young and very beautiful although some appeared to have been centuries old, with teeth as long as a man’s hand and with backs covered with seaweed, barnacles and mussels. If these appearances seem remarkable, it is worth noting that the fairies of Cotentin, further along the coast in neighbouring Normandy, were reputed to be very small with breasts so elongated that they threw them over their shoulders to better suckle their babies which they carried on their backs.
As in other parts of Brittany, some of the region’s fairies were said to live in dolmens or under menhirs or other great rocks – locations that perhaps hark back to earlier devotions and ancient stone cults. For instance, during the nights of a full moon, fairies were said to emerge from the dolmen on Île-Grande near Pleumeur-Bodou to dance their favourite circular dance. Likewise, tall, beautiful fairies, dressed in purest white and so luminous that looking upon their faces was like seeing light through a horn lantern were reported to enjoy moonlight dances around a dolmen near Caro each Easter night.
In the area around the towns of Lamballe and Moncontour, fairies were said to live under some of the protruding rocks that emerge from the ground in that neighbourhood but only if they were also sited very near to a stream or pond. Protected by the elements from the overhanging stone, the fairies lit their fires and watched over their cattle. Their presence in the area attested by the markings on the stones said to have been made by their feet or by the nails of their sabots.
Throughout Brittany, both fairies and korrigans were most closely associated with water; the latter usually with springs and ponds, the former with streams, rivers and the sea. Near Saint-Pôtan, the waters of the Guébriand River were said to be home to a fairy that lived in a fine palace hidden by the reeds and aquatic grasses; her blond hair could be seen above the water on nights when the moon was clear and sometimes one could her wonderful singing. This fairy could assume the appearance of an eel or even take a human form and was feared because it was believed to possess the power to petrify unmarried girls.
In central Brittany, a pond in the forest of Huelgoat was said to be the location for a great meeting of fairies who congregated there each year, at the summer solstice, to judge those of their number who had shown themselves particularly spiteful to their human neighbours. Each fairy was able to cast their opinion without fear or favour and those found guilty were condemned to stay at the bottom of the water until the next appearance of the summer solstice.
While Brittany’s islands contain legends of fairies and mermaids, their presence on the more numerous islets were rarely noted but exceptions do exist. On Ebihen, lost in the underground passages said to be hidden there, sleeps a fairy who would marry any man willing to undergo ordeals of water, earth and fire to reach her. A little further along the north coast lies the Île de Bréhat where a fairy famously transformed some shepherds to stone for having leered at a mermaid basking there. Off the south coast, the lake in the centre of L’île du Loc’h was said to be the home of a wicked fairy whose great wealth surpassed that of all the temporal kings combined. Here, she seduced hapless men, turning these unfortunates into fish and serving them as a meal for her guests.
Along the coast of the Bay of Saint-Malo, between La Pointe du Grouin and Cap Fréhel, the myriad caves fronting the sea were said to be the abode of the fairies; some were said no larger than a rabbit warren while others were as grandiose as a cathedral. If one was surprised at the smallness of some caves, legends were at hand to explain that they had not always been like this but had fallen victim to some cataclysmic event or that, like at the Teignouse grotto, they had collapsed the moment the fairies abandoned the country. The largest dwellings were said able to accommodate extended families and their households with only the antechamber visible at low tide; some were said to extend deep into the land, even as far as 40km (25 miles).
In some legends, the caves inhabited by the fairies were not damp, dark holes punched into the earth but a microcosm of the world above them with sun, sky, floral meadows, trees and even stately castles. However, most tales mention only normal but spotlessly clean caves that were sometimes closed by a stone door or hidden behind a nondescript old door covered with wet seaweed and other plants.
Aside from their great age and magical powers, fairies were believed to live their lives as their human neighbours did; albeit with an assumed lifestyle more akin to those Bretons living near the top of the social spectrum. The fairies baked their own bread, they spun yarn, did the laundry and were even held to keep chickens and to tend their own herds of cattle.
A very few tales mention male fairies, known as féetauds, who are almost always described as husbands, brothers or sons; in the fairies’ realm, males were thought to have been fewer in number and held magical powers inferior to the females. Many legends also note that the fairies lived with a unique race of little men or elves known as fions. These men – there were no female fions – served as servants and cowherds to the fairies and were said to be so small that their swords were no larger than bodice pins.
However, some tales talk of fairies marrying mortal men with whom they communicated the mysteries of nature and the secrets of their magic. This select band of men subsequently adapted to a subterranean domestic life, enjoying their new life so much that the passage of time seemed but half as long as it really was. In one tale, the object of a fairy’s affection was an old man who had been long baptized, the fairies baked him in an oven to reduce him to ashes before kneading him anew; a ritual that made the new husband young and handsome.
Courting a fairy was clearly not an undertaking for the fainthearted with human suitors usually subjected to a series of trials and harsh ordeals. Having won a fairy’s heart, the mortal man was generally given a final opportunity to avoid the commitment of marriage by having to agree upon certain, sometimes seemingly bizarre, pre-conditions such as not using harsh words or throwing anything at his wife. The terms were unequivocal; the fairy would give her new husband her total devotion but their union would be irrevocably broken if the husband did not completely observe the conditions he had agreed were acceptable to him. Tales tell of the marital bond between fairy and mortal often being severed suddenly; either due to the over-sensitive nature of the fairy but more often due to the ill manners or falsehoods of the husband.
One story relates that, after a long absence, a lord returned to his castle with a beautiful young woman whom he had married in a distant land. She always wore dresses so long that no one, not even her husband, had seen her feet. Indeed, it was only after having sworn never to look at them that he was able to become her husband. They lived happily until one day he scattered some ash on the floor of their bed chamber. The instant she entered the room, her husband saw the imprint of crow’s feet on the ash. Carried away by anger and pain, the lady, a most powerful fairy, cursed the lord and his lands; the castle sank into the earth with all its inhabitants and was covered by water. The site it once occupied now forms a lake whose depth no one has yet been able to fathom.
Another legend from northern Brittany warns of the dangers of losing the favour of a fairy. It was said that during the wars of the Revolution one of the fairies that lived near Saint-Cast once fell in love with one of the soldiers garrisoned nearby. She followed her lover and kept him safe wherever the army sent him. Indeed, while they were together, the soldier was never injured and only knew the taste of triumph. However, the fairy subsequently abandoned him and all luck left him immediately; he was wounded and all the battles in which he fought ended in bitter defeat.
Sometimes, a fairy’s love was unrequited, such as occurred just across the Bay of Fresnaye. Here, the whirlpool of the Rocher de la Fauconnière near Cap Fréhel was traditionally said to have been feared by sailors, not because they were incapable to handling their vessels there but because the spot was cursed and had been since the day the phenomena was created by a fairy who rushed into the waves at that spot; desolate with grief when a fisherman she loved rejected the love potion she had presented to him.
Like the fairies recorded in other parts of the Celtic world, the Fairies of the Swells sometimes seized the children of their human neighbours to substitute them with their own; now popularly known as changelings. A typical story tells how a fairy mother takes a pretty little girl and replaces her with an ugly creature that appears as old as stone but generally the fairy changelings are almost always males. Such changelings were said to have been insatiable and a burden to their human hosts while the human babies taken by the fairies were believed to have been granted special powers and enjoyed a life so pleasant that twenty years seemed to pass as quickly as one day for them.
Considering that the fairies are almost always portrayed as very beautiful and righteous, the notion of their begetting and discarding extremely ugly children is not without interest because some authors have suggested that legends of changelings and infants that were said to have been ‘taken by the fairies’ began as stories to explain away the appearance of babies born with abnormalities or those that had disappeared altogether. In one notable example from the town of Dinard in the 1850s, a woman in her thirties was described as no bigger than a girl of ten years of age; a condition ascribed to her being a fairy changeling.
For the Breton household desperate to regain their missing child, several remedies were noted as effective in the region’s folklore. It seems to have been important to force the changeling to reveal itself as such and one of the ways this was done was by piquing its curiosity to incite an involuntary reaction, either through song or exposing it to something remarkably bizarre such as boiling water in broken eggshells. Another certain means to expose a changeling was to beat it or even to pretend to beat it: such drastic measures were said to cause the fairies to immediately return the baby they had stolen.
Fairies usually enjoyed a good relationship with their human neighbours and were generally regarded as benevolent; ‘good ladies’ and ‘our good ladies the fairies’. Provided any pact made with them was respected, the fairies were generous and compassionate towards humans, healing wounds and curing local children of diseases such as croup. The fairies around Saint-Cast were even said to have collected the children of fishermen at sea in order to send them to their schools and instruct them in their oldest secrets.
A legend common to several parts of the region tells of hungry fieldworkers politely asking the fairies for a little bread being pleasantly surprised to discover, at the end of whatever furrow they were working on, a fresh loaf of bread or a hot pancake placed upon a clean napkin and accompanied by a sharp knife. Sometimes, the fairies’ benevolent nature was witnessed by their desire to protect people from harm, such as in the legend of a pregnant woman who, in her desperation, tried to drown herself but was saved by the fairies who nurtured her and hid her in their swells.
Another tale tells of a fisherman floundering off the coast, sighting, through the evening mist, a white-clad woman beckoning him ashore. Anxious to avoid the treacherous rocks that skirted the coast, the fisherman tried to tack away from the shoreline but was helpless against the power of the waves. His small boat was quickly engulfed and was smashed against the walls of a cave where he lost consciousness. He awoke the following morning to find himself in a smart new boat filled with clean tackle and a great catch of fish.
Local tradition attests that the land now covered by the moor of Cap Fréhel was formerly cultivated and once supported a large farm. Thanks to the kindness of the fairies who then lived in the neighbouring cliff, the farmer enjoyed the finest crops in the country. One day, a fairy came to his house and, to test him, asked for charity. The farmer, who did not recognize the fairy in the disguise she had taken, pushed her away harshly. The next day an old woman knocked on his door and begged him to give her something to eat: “Do you think I will feed all the lazy people who come to my house! Go away! I have nothing for you”, he cried. As the crone did not move, he took her by the arm and pushed her away but suddenly, instead of the poor woman who hobbled along, he saw a lady as beautiful as sunlight who said to him: “Since your heart is so hard, your harvests that have been so good in the past, will be as bad in the future.” From that day on, despite the farmer’s hard work, his fields produced nothing but thistle and thorn.
Given its importance in Breton society, it is little surprise that the fairies were usually portrayed as exemplars of charitable behaviour; they gave willingly and generously to the poor who asked politely or to those who had unselfishly rendered them some service. Typically, the gift was a piece of bread that never diminished or some other inexhaustible item such as a magical plate or cup. However, in one tale a man was rewarded with the gift of a golden pear that, provided it was kept secretly hidden under his pillow, produced three gold coins every morning. All these precious gifts immediately lost their virtue if one did not fully observe any conditions imposed by the fairies, such as not speaking of them to anyone or not sharing their magical bounty with strangers.
A legend from Port-Blanc recounts the tale of a woman who, one evening, walked past a fairy cave on the nearby Île des Femmes. Seeing a faint light, she ventured into the cave and saw, in the dim shadows, an old woman who motioned for her to approach before handing her a distaff, telling her that she would benefit from it as long as she did not tell anyone of its provenance. The visitor promised her discretion and on returning home spun splendidly for months; the distaff did not diminish and all her thread was sold as soon as it had been spun. The woman would soon have made her fortune but her idle tongue could not be contained. One day, when a neighbour asked how she created such beautiful thread, she boasted that she had been blessed by the Sea Fairy. At that instant, the distaff ran out and all the money the woman had earned was gone.
There are several accounts of the damage wrought by the fairies’ cattle and the responsible way in which they, as good neighbours, handled any reparations. Near the village of Tressé, a cow owned by the fairies was said to have caused some damage in the meadow of a farmer whose anger was swiftly assuages by one of the fairies who gave him a piece of bread in compensation, telling him that it would neither shrink nor harden as long as he kept it a secret.
Another legend tells that a black cow belonging to the fairies once ate the buckwheat growing in the field of a local widow. The woman complained to the fairies who told her that she would be paid for her crop and gave her a cupful of buckwheat in settlement, promising that it would never diminish so long as none was given away. That year, buckwheat was very scarce but no matter how much buckwheat the woman and her family used there was never any less found in the fairies’ cup. Alas, one day a rag-picker appeared at the woman’s door begging for a little food. Never one to refuse charity, the woman, without thinking, gave him one of her pancakes and immediately, as if by magic, all the buckwheat in the cup disappeared forever.
A similar tale was told near Plévenon where a farmer was compensated for the damage done to his wheat field by a cow belonging to the fairies. They gave him a small loaf of bread, telling him that it would not reduce as long as it was eaten only by the family but would vanish if even a single crumb was enjoyed by a stranger. The fairy bread lasted the farmer’s family for over two years but suddenly disappeared when a piece had been cut for a passing beggar.
One curious tale from the same district tells of a group of young men walking home along the shore one evening encountering two ladies who invite them to dinner. When the meal was over, the ladies told them to come back another time when they would teach them things that would be useful to know. The lads dutifully returned to the same spot the following evening and over a meal of bread and meat were questioned, each in turn, on their histories and whether they were farmers or sailors, single or married. We are also assured that the fairies told their guests many useful, albeit frustratingly, unspecified, things.
One of the lads said that he was a father and often struggled to earn enough to feed his family. Reflecting on the young man’s admission, one of the fairies gave him enough gold on which to live comfortably, telling him: ‘When your wife is pregnant again, come back here and I will talk some more’. When his wife quickly fell pregnant with their third child, the young man returned to the seashore where the fairy asked him for the honour of being the child’s godmother. This request was relayed by the man to his wife who was adamant that the fairies would not have her child. Irritated by this stubborn refusal, the fairies took away all the items that had been purchased with their gold and the family became as poor again as they were before.
A long time ago, when magic was commonplace and the fairies still lived amongst us, there was a prince of Poher who had been blessed with six healthy children. This aging nobleman was content that his lands were peaceful and that his wife and children were happy in the realm he had fought so hard to maintain; all save his only son, who seemed consumed with wanderlust and dreams of faraway places.
To indulge his boy, the prince had given him a great deal of gold and silver along with the second-best horse in his stables, with hopes that he might see a little of the world he so longed for before returning home to assume his responsibilities in Poher. Unfortunately, the young prince did not take very long to squander his coins on unfriendly cards and over-friendly women; he had even been forced to sell his horse and fine tackle to pay for his last lodging.
Penniless and with no knowledge of a trade with which to earn a living, the young man resolved to carry on heading eastwards. One evening, he arrived, exhausted with hunger and fatigue, at a poor stone cottage that sat astride a great desolate moor; home to an old tailor and his wife. He asked for a little hospitality for the night but the lady of the house bewailed her situation and explained that they only possessed one bed and had only barley bread and buckwheat pancakes for food. The prince pleaded for pity and only the chance to sleep on the hearthstone; a request that was granted along with an invitation to share what meagre resources the old couple possessed.
The next morning the prince asked his host if he knew of some grand house in the neighbourhood where he might find work as a groom or even as a stable lad. “I know only the poor around here but within a good day’s walk there is an old castle, in the middle of a wood, and maybe you will find what you are looking for there”, replied the tailor. With this encouraging news, the prince thanked his hosts and set off in the direction shown by the tailor.
The sun was setting as the prince arrived under the walls of the castle which the tailor had told him about. To him, it seemed uninhabited and long abandoned; weeds and brambles invaded it on all sides and even covered the towers and roofs. Finally finding a door that would open, he entered the castle’s courtyard but could neither see nor hear any sign of life. However, on entering the kitchens, he encountered, crouched on the stone of the hearth, an old woman with long dishevelled white hair and yellow teeth as long as those of a rake. “Good evening, grandmother,” he announced politely.
“Good evening, my child; what are you seeking? Come and warm yourself by these poor flames and tell me your story,” replied the old woman. So, the prince informed her of his situation and she showed herself well disposed towards him. She gave him some of her barley stew and afterwards led him to a chamber that contained a worm-eaten but serviceable bed. “Sleep there, my child and tomorrow morning I will find you work. During the night, you might hear, in the next room, some noise, which will surprise you but whatever you hear, do not open the door of this room or you will have need to repent”.
Too tired to mull over the old woman’s curious words, the prince immediately went to bed but sleep eluded him as his senses were now too alert. From the next room, he could distinctly hear anguished moans that convinced him that some sick person must be within and likely close to death. After an hour of listening to the most piteous cries, the prince resolved to help in whatever way he could; he got up and opened the door to the adjacent room but immediately recoiled in terror at the sight of a huge coiling snake. The serpent spoke, like a man, and said to him: “Welcome, Prince of Poher! I pity you because I fear that you are to be treated here as I myself have been. You might still avoid this misfortune and save yourself, saving me too, if you do precisely as I tell you”.
The prince was dumbstruck; nothing in his life had ever prepared him for an encounter with an enormous talking snake. “Do not be afraid for you have nothing to fear from me. I only want to save you from my fate but you must act now! Go into the forest that surrounds this castle and cut a strong stick of holly or hazel there and bring it to me”, said the snake.
Having cut and trimmed a very stout branch of hazel, the prince offered it to the snake who told him: “We have no time to lose. Put the staff through my mouth and I will coil around it as best I can. Load me on your back and carry me away from here but take care to make not a sound, lest the old witch should awaken. You must walk straight ahead until you find another castle. When you feel yourself weakening or when you are hungry or thirsty, lick the foam that I have in my mouth and immediately you will feel comforted”.
With the heavy snake loaded on his back, the prince quietly left the castle and began walking. He walked for what seemed an eternity and whenever he felt thirsty, he licked the serpent’s mouth and continued walking as before. Finally, with great difficulty, the exhausted prince arrived at the foot of a high curtain wall and once again found himself in the courtyard of a strange castle. “We are saved!” cried the snake, “Remove the staff!”
The prince withdrew his hazel staff and immediately found himself in the presence of a king rather than a serpent. “My blessing upon you, Prince of Poher,” said the king to him: “Five hundred years ago I was transformed into a serpent by an evil sorcerer. I have three daughters who live in this castle and whom the same magician also kept enchanted and asleep; in delivering me, you have also delivered them and I offer you the hand of whoever pleases you most. Here they are now, calling me, each at her bedroom window”.
The three princesses hurried down to the courtyard and threw themselves on the king’s neck, weeping for joy; then the king said to them, showing them the prince: “Here, my children, the Prince of Poher to whom we owe our deliverance. In payment of that debt, I want one of you to agree to take him for a husband”.
“The Prince of Poher! What or where is that?” replied the two eldest girls, disdainfully.
“I, father, will gladly take him, since it is to him that you owe your deliverance,” said the king’s youngest daughter.
“Fool!” her sisters snapped back, “At least let him first show his worthiness.”
“That seems right,” responded the old king who rushed to a nearby doorway only to quickly return with a great sword in his hands. “Take this enchanted sword and the white mare that you see grazing by the oven wall. Go to Russia, the horse knows the road and will lead you there directly. While you hold the sword you can be without worry, for it has no equal in the world. When you are in a battle, in the middle of the melee, all you have to do is raise the sword in the air, saying: ‘Do your duty, my good sword!’ and immediately, it will cut down, striking of itself, whatever is in its path, except, however, what you tell it to spare.
You will arrive in Russia at the time of a great battle; you will throw your horse in the middle of the fight and tell your sword to do its work and it will do it. Similarly, when you are out hunting, it will pursue and strike the game; all you have to do is watch.
In recognition of the great service that you will have rendered him, the Emperor of Russia will grant you the hand of his only daughter, who is of a marvellous beauty and with whom you will immediately fall in love. Your wife will betray you with one of her father’s generals and they will succeed in stealing your sword, making you quite helpless. You will be killed and your broken body minced, like meat for pâté.
Do not be afraid because, despite everything, you will one day be restored and marry the daughter of the King of Naples. Before your death, ask that they place your body in a sack and that this be put on the back of your horse, that they will set free. The horse will return home and then you will be saved, for with the wonderful water that I have, the water of life, I will resuscitate you and restore your body, as whole and as healthy as it ever was.
As instructed, a few days later, the young prince set his horse towards Russia carrying little more than his new sword and a mind full of confused thoughts. He arrived at the height of a bloody and confusing battle, immediately throwing his horse into the fray. Miraculously, he reached what seemed the midpoint of the fighting and raised his sword with the command: “Do your duty, my good sword!” while indicating the direction to strike. As swift as a lightning bolt, the sword rushed through the enemy ranks, scattering all before it in the blink of an eye.
The Emperor of Russia, saved by such a marvellous and unexpected intervention, took the prince of Poher to his court and showered him with honours and favours. When the young prince saw the emperor’s beautiful daughter, he immediately fell in love with her and asked for her hand in marriage. Openly given, the marriage was soon arranged and duly celebrated with pomp, solemnity and riotous feasts.
However, the new bride cared little for her husband and preferred instead a young and handsome general of her father’s armies. The prince, who had been forewarned of the path of fate, did not seem to care about his wife’s affections and spent most of his time hunting; taking so much game with his sword that everyone was astonished and many were jealous. The young general was particularly intrigued and determined to expose the witchcraft he felt certain was behind the sword’s prowess.
One evening, after a day in which the prince had taken an incredible amount of game, his wife was most effusive towards him, saying: “What a mighty hunter you are, my prince! We have never seen your equal and if you do not moderate yourself, you will destroy all the game in Russia. All of our hunters are vexed and humbled by your exploits, as much as I am proud of them. Tell me, how do you kill so many beasts every day?”
“I will tell you but you must assure me of your absolute secrecy,” replied the prince. “I have an enchanted sword and when I command: ‘Do your duty, my good sword!’, it reaches out and defeats whatever I want, whether in battle or in the hunt.”
“I thought there was some magic there,” answered the princess who also thought to herself: ‘This is better than I hoped. The sword will be mine; I will substitute another sword for his, while he sleeps.’
By the time the sun had risen on the next morning, the substitution had been made. The prince was completely oblivious to the exchange and took the sword which he found under his pillow as his own. As was his habit, he went hunting soon after his breakfast but his sword no longer reacted to his command and, for the first time, he returned home, dejected, without having taken a single prize.
Sadness not bitterness filled the prince’s heart for he now realised that the prophecy of the serpent king was steadily unfolding. Indeed, he had barely dismounted his horse before he was seized and manacled to the stable wall. “I am not blind to this betrayal nor to its ultimate cause,” the prince said to his wife, who had appeared before him an hour or so after the sun had risen the following morning. “I will not beg for my freedom, so, you must do as you think best and I ask no favour of you, save one; if I must die then let my body rest in my own land. Cut my flesh as finely as possible, put my sad remains into a sack and load it onto my horse; she knows the way home.”
Impressed by her husband’s noble manner, the princess described all that had been said to her lover and instructed that her husband’s death be a quick affair and that his last wishes be respected. As foreseen, the white mare carried its unusual burden directly to the court of the Serpent King but the suffocating stench that surrounded her as she entered the stables, caused all who worked there to flee in disgust.
One groom decided that the return of such a fine horse needed to be reported to the king. He was in the process of doing so when the king sprang-up and demanded: “Bring that foul-smelling sack to me immediately!” The groom did as he was bidden and brought the fetid sack to the king who quickly opened it and sprinkled a few drops of his marvellous water onto the shapeless and stinking contents. Almost at once the Prince of Poher emerged, as sound of mind and as healthy in all his limbs as he had ever been.
A few short days later, the Serpent King took the prince aside and told him that he had to return to Russia again. “This time,” he added, “you will go in the form of a beautiful white horse. I will hide a vial of my Water of Life in your left ear because you will need it. When you arrive at the emperor’s court, you will go straight to the stable. There, a young girl, who is employed to keep geese although she is of high birth, will come to your aid.
Her name is Souillon and she will inform your former wife, who has now married her lover, of your arrival. The princess will rush to the stable and, seeing you, will say: “This must be some mischief connected to my first husband!” She will immediately issue orders to kill you and to throw your dismembered corpse into the castle’s furnace but Souillon will plead for mercy and will stroke your head with her hand. It is then that you must tell her, very softly, to take the vial that you will have in your left ear.
Now in the form of a beautiful white horse, the prince once more left for Russia. As predicted, his former wife gave the order to put him to death, to cut his body into pieces and to throw everything into a fiery furnace. However, quick-witted Souillon had already seized the vial of precious water which had been hidden in his ear and sprinkled a few drops onto the thick puddle of curdled blood left by the executioners.
At once, a beautiful cherry tree sprang-up, bearing plump red cherries, and stretched upwards until its crown reached to the window of the princess’s bedroom. Worried by this incredible sight, the princess again feared some magic from her first husband and quickly had the cherry tree cut down and consigned to the fire. However, Souillon had managed to pick a beautiful red cherry before the flames had consumed the tree and she placed this on one of the stable’s stone window ledges before pouring a few drops of the marvellous water on it.
Immediately, a wonderful blue bird emerged, its faltering flight soon giving way to aerial acrobatics that impressed everyone with their grace and dexterity. The bird flew over the castle’s walled garden and its remarkable colour and skilful flight soon captured the attention of the princess and her husband, who happened to be walking there. “That is such a beautiful bird! Let us try to take it,” exclaimed the princess who began chasing after it. The bird seemed to enjoy the game of being chased and flew rapidly from bush to bush, never going so far as to be completely out of reach of its pursuers. In order to be able to run more freely, the princess took off her shoes while her husband removed his sword-belt: now the chase would quicken.
However, the bird swooped in a great arc and landed on the hilt of sword and instantly transformed into a man; the Prince of Poher. He quickly seized the sword and brandished it with the command: “Do your duty, my good sword!” As fast as lightning, the magical sword fell upon the startled princess and her husband and cut off their heads.
A lady of uncommon beauty had entered the garden and slowly approached the prince who recognised her with a gracious smile. It was the youngest of the three daughters of the Serpent King or the King of Naples, who had followed him in all his trials and had become keeper of geese at the court of the Emperor of Russia in order to remain unnoticed. The young couple returned to Naples, where their marriage was soon arranged and duly celebrated with much pomp, solemnity and joyous feasting.
This rather curious tale was first set-down from the oral tradition by the Breton poet and folklorist François-Marie Luzel in 1868 and published as part of his Fifth Report on a Mission to Lower Brittany (1873). Luzel spent over forty years researching, collecting and cataloguing the oral folk tales and legends of Lower or western Brittany. His systematic approach focused on faithfully recording the tales that he heard in Breton and translating these as accurately as possible into French: ‘without taking anything away and above all adding nothing to the versions of my storytellers.’
Luzel wrote that Breton storytellers were usually quite verbose and often liked to insert episodes from other tales into their stories in the belief that such embellishments only added further interest to their own. These literary detours were retained by Luzel when he transcribed his field notes, preferring fidelity to the source over a well-crafted composition. He accepted that the tale recounted above was somewhat confused and incomplete and likely a rather clumsy grafting together of two, once distinct, tales. Luzel collected this story from a beggar that lived just a few miles away from his childhood home and never found another version with which to compare; the tale thus remains unique to a single rural commune in the north west of Brittany.
The constant sequence of religious and secular festivals and seasonal practices forms an endless, familiar, chain that repeats itself around our lives each year. This continual renewal marks a completion of the annual cycle but where should we rightly place the beginning and the end? In much of Europe, the first day of January has been viewed as the first day of the year since the days of the Roman Empire.
However, following the fall of Rome in the 5th century, many nations subsequently adapted the inherited calendar to better reflect local sensibilities. Thus, New Year’s Day transferred to 25 March (the Feast of the Annunciation or Lady Day) or, in some cases, 25 December (Christmas Day).
Major changes to the calendar were instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and one of the chief revisions restored the first of January as the start of the New Year. However, while countries such as France and Spain immediately adopted the new calendar, some countries such as the Netherlands and Great Britain were reluctant to do so. Indeed, for 170 years, those hardy souls that travelled between Barcelona and Boston, England or Boston, Massachusetts or between Paris and London were effectively time travellers able to celebrate Christmas on 25 December in France and again, on the same date, in England, ten days later. The difference in the celebration of New Year’s Day was even more marked: it being some 84 days adrift.
For economies that were totally ingrained into the agricultural cycle, the first of January did not correspond with any major point in the life of the rural peasants of Brittany and elsewhere. To them, a more practical and natural start to the year would likely have been a significant communal event such as the first ploughing or the last harvest. However, a papal bull decreed that the new year begin on 1 January and so, over time, the date developed its own traditions and superstitious practices.
In Brittany, the turn of the year was marked most by the children of the community. On the last day of the year, groups of two or three boys would visit each house in the commune while holding a pilgrim’s staff in their right hand. Typically, they would stop outside the front door of a house and sing a Christmas carol followed by the recitation of a short verse wishing the inhabitants a happy, healthy and prosperous new year and entry to Heaven at the end of their natural days. The boys would then receive thanks by way of gifts of coins or apples, according to the means of the household visited. On New Year’s Day, the girls of the community took their turn to offer their good wishes and collect their rewards.
Although a public holiday here, popular attendance at Mass was not noticeably larger than on any other weekday. However, the day was considered special as it was given over to visiting friends and relations and crowned with a family meal consisting of chotenn (half a pig’s head that had been slowly baked in the communal bread oven).
In the same western regions of Brittany, New Year’s Day was also popularly marked with offerings of buttered bread at the sacred springs; each member of the family offered a piece of bread to the water and the way it floated or sank was regarded as a good or bad omen for the coming year. It was also once 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; whoever’s piece of bread landed on the buttered side was said to die within the year.
Another New Year’s custom thought to allow one to learn the secrets of the forthcoming year called for the curious to stare into a cold bread oven and listen carefully to the noises they heard. More prosaically, if a knife that had been inserted into a fresh loaf on New Year’s Eve was withdrawn and found to have crumbs attached to it, a rainy year ahead was forecast but a year of famine could be expected if the withdrawn blade was wet.
Mistletoe was also once a key part of the new year celebrations and was cut and offered, on New Year’s Day, as a symbol of prosperity and long life, usually accompanied by a spoken charm to assure their onset. Children would run through the streets proclaiming: ‘On Mistletoe, the New Year’. Even into the early 20th century, beggars and children would call from house to house offering a little mistletoe and their best wishes for happiness for the household over the year ahead; being rewarded with a little food or some coins for their efforts.
In several north European traditions, mistletoe was a symbol of fertility and in some places, young women once placed a sprig of mistletoe under their bed in expectation of seeing their future husband in their dreams. In Brittany, kissing under the mistletoe, as a mark of love and affection, was a New Year’s Day not Christmas tradition and a ceremony that often announced a proposed marriage. Perhaps some of the old traditions are due a reboot in the 21st century?
Many thanks to all who have supported this blog over the last year – your willingness to take the time to read what I have written and to then share your thoughts have been much appreciated! I sincerely hope that you all enjoy a healthy and happy new year! Bonne année et Bloavezh Mat!