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Some Sports from Past Times

With working hours that traditionally aligned to the hours of daylight, the time available for pastimes and sports was, at best, limited to the Breton peasants of days gone by. This narrow opportunity was further limited by the often isolated nature of rural dwellings and the poor transport infrastructure that connected communities. It is therefore unsurprising that people took full advantage of the chances offered by major communal events and celebrations, such as weddings, saint’s pardons and quarterly markets, to amuse themselves in competitive field sports and games of strength and skill.

I do not propose to detail all the outdoor sports that were once so popular across the breadth of rural Brittany; many of the old favourites, such as horse racing and hunting, remain prevalent and little changed to this day. Others, such as the regional versions of shuffleboard, boules, bowls and skittles or tug-o-war were similar enough to games well known in other parts of Europe to not bear detailing here. Instead, I intend to take a quick look at some of the distinctly Breton games once noted here.

Breton Dance Gavotte

As with other parts of the world, the games played by children here can sometimes be seen as the first steps towards the games subsequently enjoyed by adults. Many games with evocative names such as The Wolf and the Sheep or The White Dove involved some form of attack, usually with a knotted rag, a vigorous pursuit and the prize of capture. Likewise, the game of Ar Baloten involved a hunter trying to strike the other players with a ball made of rags. The hunter could be dethroned and quickly become the hunted if another player managed to hit them with a quickly gathered ball. Variations of this game are found in accounts from a number of regions across Brittany; most voicing the same concerns that the ball was often filled with harder substances than rags.

In his memoir of life in a Breton village between the two world wars, the Breton author Pierre-Jakez Hélias tells of pitched battles between the children that lived on the high end of town against those that lived in the lower end. Such tribal rivalry was a key component of soule, a very loosely structured full-contact game similar to a hybrid of handball and rugby football that often pitted the men of one village against another, the congregation of one church against another or even simply married men against the unwed.

Soule Breton Games Mellat

The soule was a large leather ball filled with bran but sometimes made of solid wood that the opposing players fought over; the ball being thrown with the hand or kicked by the foot until it was carried into the opponents’ territory or to a designated landmark, such as a ruin or pond. The game was played out over a very large area of land, often covering several leagues, and teams of a hundred men or so played all day long. While the ball and game was known as soule in the Gallo speaking east of the region, in western Brittany it was known as mellat after the Breton word for ball, mell.

The game has been attested to in Brittany since the Middle Ages but some early 18th century lexicographers claimed that the game dated as far back as antiquity with the game having been invented by the ancient Celts to honour the Sun, towards which one throws the soule. There seems no real basis for this suggestion other than the superficial resemblance between soule and the Latin word for sun, sul. Others have since argued that the word derives from the Latin word solea, meaning sandal. We are unlikely to now ever know for sure but we do know that similar games were also noted in neighbouring Normandy.

Soule Breton Games Mellat

According to a number of 17th and 18th century references, it seems that in Brittany, the role of starting the game was reserved for the lord of the manor. In some instances, the ball was ceremoniously presented to the local lord by one of his vassals at either the beginning or end of the year or some other date fixed by local custom. Although some games were hastily organised affairs to coincide with a wedding celebration, most were scheduled competitions aligned to the merrymaking that followed religious saint’s pardons or auspicious Church festivals such as Mardi-Gras; much to the dismay of the local priests.

The violence that imbued the game sat uneasily with some and in 1440 the Bishop of Tréguier issued a statute declaring that: “dangerous and pernicious games must be prohibited because of hatred, grudges and enmities which, under the veil of a recreational pleasure, accumulate in many hearts and of which a disastrous occasion discovers the venom. We have learned from reports of worthy men of faith that in some parishes and other places subject to our jurisdiction, that on feast days and holidays, going back many years, a certain game has been played; a very pernicious and dangerous game called mellat in the vulgar language. There have already been many outrages and it is clear that even more serious scandals would occur in the future, if the right remedy is not resorted to. This is why we prohibit this dangerous and scandalous game and declare liable to the penalty of excommunication and a fine of one hundred sous those of our diocesans, whatever their rank or condition, who have the audacity to play this game.”

Soule Breton Games Mellat

Needless to say, games continued as did the resultant deaths and permanent disabilities. One noted competition in Pont-l’Abbé at the end of the 18th century was reported to have resulted in the deaths of more than fifty men. Such massive displays of public disorder incited the authorities to clamp-down on these games; first by inducements, such as in 1773 when the Duke of Rohan, whose seneschal traditionally launched the popular games in the central town of Pontivy, stopped awarding cash prizes to the winning team. Later, by official decree when, in 1819, the local administration prohibited all games of soule throughout the district of Pontivy.

Old habits clearly died hard and games continued to be played in the Morbihan region despite the official ban. Writing in his book The Last Bretons (1836), the Breton author Émile Souvestre described: “Soule, in Morbihan, is not an ordinary amusement; it is a hot and dramatic game, where we fight and choke; a game that allows you to kill an enemy, without giving up your Easter, provided that you take care to hit him as if by accident and with a stroke of misfortune. It is a day of plenary indulgence granted to assassination and who does not have someone to kill, as one of the most renowned soulers once told me.”

Gouren Breton Games Wrestling

“When the day and the place of a soule have been designated, you see old men, women and children running from all sides, eager for such a spectacle.” A sight Souvestre recounted most vividly: “Soon the blood is flowing and at this sight a frenzied intoxication seizes the souls; a bestial instinct seems to awaken in the hearts of these men; the thirst for murder seizes them by the throat, pushes them and blinds them. They merge, crowd together, twist one over the other; in an instant, the combatants form a single animated block, above which we see arms rising and falling incessantly, like the hammers of a paper mill. From time to time, pale or tanned faces appear, disappear, then rise bloody and mottled with blows. As this strange mass stirs, we see it melting and diminishing because the weakest fall and the struggle continues over their bodies. Finally, the last combatants on both sides remain face to face, half-dead from fatigue and suffering. It is then up to the one who has retained some vigour to escape with the soule.”

A new banning order was promulgated in 1848 but it seems that the games stubbornly continued as another decree prohibiting the game as a menace to public order was issued in 1857. This latter edict seems to have put a popular end to the game but, in all likelihood, simply drove it underground. In June 1888, a newspaper carried a report of some five hundred men belonging to the parishes surrounding the village of Saint-Caradec in central Brittany fighting bitterly for a soule. Even as late as February 1912, games were still reported being played on Easter Monday on a moor outside Locmalo; a village within 22km (14 miles) of both Pontivy and Saint-Caradec.

Sérusier Breton Wrestling Gouren

Breton wrestling, known as gouren is another sport attested since the Middle Ages that some people have tried to attach far older origins to; even suggesting that the wrestling is symbolic of the struggle between Celt and Saxon that led to the founding of Brittany. In gouren, competitors could only battle while standing and hand-holds were only allowed above the opponent’s belt. Like the sport of pole-raising, it was as much a trial of balance and agility as of strength.

Other sports, often traditionally tied to the days between Shrove Sunday and Mardi-Gras, were once popularly noted across Brittany. Some were fairly benign, such as trying to eat sausages suspended from a line; others were less so, such as attempting to remove the head of a live goose suspended from a line with a single blow whilst riding past on horseback or balancing on the back of a cart. A game known as the Russian Bucket was also quite popular. In this, a tub of water or more noxious substances was suspended from a line over the street. The base of the tub was pierced with a hole and it was necessary for players to pass a wooden lance through this hole while balancing on a hand-pulled cart. If the aim failed, the tub would tip; spilling its contents all over the competitor.

Breton Pardon Festival Brittany

In the northern town of Guerlesquin, on Mardi-Gras, the men of the town still play a game known as Bouloù Pok. Here, the men are divided into two teams depending on whether they live north or south of the town square. The game, which lasts all day, is unique to the town and is best described as a cross between bowls and shuffleboard; the participants must throw the bouloù – a carved half-cylinder of hardwood with a lead core – as close as possible to the mestr, a wooden ball sited on the field of play. A bay leaf is presented to each player on the winning team along with the prestigious title of ‘World Champion’. The origins of this game are now lost but local tradition claims that the contest was invented by the parish priest in the 17th century in order to curb the more aggressive sports hitherto engaged in by his male parishioners.

A once popular game noted around the eastern town of Bécherel took place on Sunday afternoons. Here, a duck or rabbit was buried so that only its head could be seen above ground while the competitors were blindfolded and required to stand some twenty to thirty metres away. Armed with a scythe, the competitor tried to cut off the beast’s head. If he did not succeed in delivering a fatal blow, his position was taken by another competitor and the sorry spectacle repeated until the certain death of the beast whose body the victor claimed as his prize.

The Hunter Hunted - Rabbits hunt men

Many towns across Brittany once carried the right to stage tournaments of marksmanship; a tradition that dated back to a series of edicts issued by the Duke of Brittany in the early-1480s in an effort to enact some of the lessons learned from the Hundred Years’ War, namely the importance of ensuring that his subjects were practiced enough in shooting so as to be able to defend their towns until reinforced by the army.

Generally, these shooting competitions were organised on a yearly basis although the exact date varied from place to place; in Bain in eastern Brittany the event was held on the Feast of the Assumption (15 August) but in Guingamp, in western Brittany, the moveable feast of Pentecost was favoured. These events became popularly known as Papegai tournaments; the name derives from the French word for a parrot and was given to the wooden target, fashioned in the form of a pigeon or other bird, which was affixed to the top of a very high pole. Contestants were initially required to destroy the target from a range of up to fifty metres with arrows fired from a bow although crossbows and arquebuses were later used.

Breton Games Papegault Papegai

Such tournaments seem to have been popular with contestants and spectators alike with several accounts talking of a carnival like atmosphere prevailing with rowdy crowds, entertainers and tents selling food and cider. Sometimes, the pole was erected just outside town but some towns staged the event within the town walls and in Montfort-sur-Meu the pole was even attached to the keep of the castle.

The victor of such tournaments was publicly fêted and granted such titles as ‘King of the Papegai’ or ‘Lord of the Bow’ before being led to a feast in his honour in a grand, if tumultuous procession, of past winners, lords, priests, men-at-arms, tradesmen and beggars.  Some competitions offered generous tangible rewards too; the winner of the Guingamp event was granted 25 barrels of wine that he could sell free of restrictions or tax, the privilege of leading the companies of archers and arquebusiers at the Corpus Christi processions and of presiding over the following year’s Papegai tournament.

Papegai Breton Games Papegault

With the abolition of such tournaments in all the provinces of France in 1770, some towns sought to fill the calendar with other public spectacles of skill. Sadly, the one noted in the town of Bain-de-Bretagne was a poorly considered affair. Here, a goose was suspended by its legs from the branches of an apple tree and blindfolded contestants, armed with a sabre, were spun around several times before having to advance and cut off the bird’s head. As can be imagined, the unfortunate goose usually underwent great torment before its head was completely severed. The contestant that managed to strike the final decapitating blow was adjudged the winner. Thankfully, this barbaric ‘sport’ did not last long into the 19th century.

It seems from the few examples cited above that custom and fashion, as opposed to official or ecclesiastical sanction, dictated the longevity of the popular recreations enjoyed by the people of rural Brittany. Over time, changes in societal attitudes, particularly in regards to animal cruelty, and increased interchanges with neighbouring communes and beyond, thanks to infrastructure improvements that made travel easier, had a marked effect on the traditional sports and pastimes of the province.

Bird Watching in Brittany

Birds once enjoyed a rather colourful position in the folklore of Brittany. They were often attributed with many marvellous qualities, from guarding the gates of Heaven to doing the bidding of witches. However, it was their capacity for predicting the future that bestowed these creatures with such noted significance in the mind of the Breton peasant who looked upon the flight and calls of birds as augurs from the natural world much as the ancient Druids might have done in antiquity.

In yesterday’s Brittany, certain birds were traditionally ascribed to the Devil but they were always inferior imitations of God’s creations. God was credited with the pigeon and the hen while the Devil countered with the magpie and the crow. It is clear from the old saying and proverbs that the Bretons once attributed birds with quite particular characteristics. The wren was said to think highly of itself, believing itself to be a much bigger bird than its diminutive size suggested. The chaffinch was viewed as a great singer that celebrated the joy of having escaped the ravages of winter but was also said to mock drunkards and be a little too proud of itself. The lark, in some areas known as “the key of the day,” was thought to soar so high that it often became dizzy and it was said the bird envied the riches it saw covering the land at harvest time. The nightjar was viewed with suspicion and it was even claimed to suckle goats.

thrush - bird - brittany

The thrush was held to be friendly but rather timid, while the pigeon was the epitome of tenderness but, as with man, it was a trait subject to many lapses. The farmyard rooster was regarded as a cynical philosopher that laughed at everything, including itself, whereas the humble blackbird was said to have no other concern than thinking about its next meal. Migratory birds such as the cuckoo and woodcock were thought to exchange gossip and news of events that the other might have missed during their sojourn in warmer climes.

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

Sparrowhawk - Bird of Death - Brittany

To hear a rooster crowing in the afternoon was thought to herald great joy or great sadness but crowing at night was a sign of impending misfortune or death. Similarly, a rooster crowing all around you was taken as a warning that your last hour was near. Hens too were once seen as augurs; if the hen sang before the rooster, bad luck would soon fall upon the household but if, after being entangled in straw, the hen had a strand remaining attached to its tail, it was taken as a sign that the household would soon be plunged into mourning.

In undertaking any important business or journey, it was essential to take account of any signs encountered along the way, as these would indicate whether your enterprise was likely to be successful or not. Misfortune was sure to strike if you chanced upon a magpie or crow but you could draw great encouragement if you happened across a pigeon or a goose in flight.

Birds of Bad Omen - Owl and Magpie

Not all birds were harbingers of doom; several were welcomed near the home and regarded as good omens by the household. The most important of which was probably the little wren; an auspicious bird who featured in two old Breton legends. It was told that the wren gave the gift of fire to the world; carrying fire from Heaven to earth, it realised that its wings were starting to burn and so entrusted the flame to the robin, whose breast feathers also caught alight. The lark flew to their aid and eventually succeeding in bringing the precious gift of fire to the earth. Another legend tells that the robin followed Christ on the Road to Calvary and that having seen a thorn sink into his forehead, the bird gently removed it; the robin’s red breast forever marked by Christ’s blood. It was also said that the colour of the bird’s eggs changed from that day onwards on account of its compassion for Christ.

In spring, hearing the first cuckoo call of the year was a propitious occasion and taken as an omen of impending good fortune. However, hearing the bird sing near one’s house was taken as a very bad sign. A number of superstitions once surrounded the power inherent in hearing the first cuckoo song of the year. It was said that if you carried any coins in your pocket at that moment then you would be free of any financial worries for the year ahead. Those suffering with rheumatism were advised to roll over on the floor upon hearing the first cuckoo in order to be free of pain over the coming year. In eastern Brittany, folk claimed that those who relieved themselves while the cuckoo sang would also suffer a physical disturbance immediately thereafter. It was also believed in the same region that those who heard the cuckoo sing on an empty stomach were destined to not satisfy their appetite for the rest of the year.

cuckoo - bird - brittany

Young couples would listen attentively to the cuckoo’s call as the number of songs sung by the bird indicated the number of years separating them from marriage. Older people would also listen keenly as the number of songs heard was also said to foretell how many years separated them from death.

In summer, the swallows that built their nests against the house were considered good luck charms as the birds were thought to only settle against a happy home and their presence was taken as a sign of protection against potential disaster, such as fire or a storm. However, swallow droppings that fell onto the eyes of the members of the household were said to cause permanent blindness.

Bocklin - Ruin by sea - Brittany birds

With the coming of winter, the black-headed gull was regarded as a bird of good omen to the people who lived along the coast of the Bay of Morlaix as its appearance was said to herald a spell of fine weather. Around the north coast town of Paimpol, it was said that when a fisherman died at sea, gulls and curlews visited his former home to announce his death by crying and flapping their wings at the windows. However, around the west coast port of Brest, the gulls that flew around the rocks offshore were believed to be the souls of those who had drowned nearby.

The crowing of the rooster, especially a white feathered one, was a very good omen in Brittany, signalling as it did the dawn and the end of the witches’ power. However, misfortune was sure to follow if white, red and black roosters were kept together in the same henhouse. It was said that if you put a chicken feather together with feathers from red and black roosters into a bowl of milk, a little eight-legged white lizard would be formed but nobody dared to do it anymore because this lizard is insatiable and quickly grows into an uncontrollable dragon.

Eight legged dragon - basilisk - Brittany

Some birds were feared here for the direct danger they reportedly posed to the living. In northern Brittany, an indistinct bird known as Ar Vaou was said to kidnap small children, while in central parts of the region, a bird known as Ar Liketaer enjoyed a similarly sinister reputation but was also said to push children, particularly girls, into rivers. In some districts, this bird was confused with the kestrel whose name in Breton sounds quite similar.

The origins of many of the curious beliefs once connected with birds here are now lost to us. For instance, it was believed that a patient would not die if they were lying on a bed in which there were partridge feathers but if a person was dying it was important to empty their mattress and pillow, lest they contain pigeon feathers, whose presence would make the death a long and agonising affair. Until the Revolution, keeping pigeons was a right reserved for the feudal lord; its meat was the preserve of the nobility and any peasants found with these birds faced heavy sanctions. Unfortunately, the hasty liberalisation of these restrictions led to an unexpected loss of expertise in the breeding of pigeons. Many fanciful explanations were put forward by those unable to understand why birds would not roost; one solution offered to bring about a change in luck was to place a dead man’s skull in the pigeon loft or dovecote.

Skull - pigeon loft - dovecote - brittany

Birds, along with their eggs and ordure, were also a key ingredient in several popular folk treatments for restoring health and vitality to the sick. For instance, around the central town of Rostrenen, a chicken egg was thrown into a sacred spring in hope of being cured of a fever. Another traditional treatment for the same ailment from the same region called for a freshly killed and quartered magpie; two hot pieces of the bird were applied to the kidneys, the other two to the soles of the feet. In the west of the region, the fat of a gull killed on a Friday was rubbed onto the chest of the patient in expectation of curing a fever. For a stubborn fever, a pigeon was cut in half; the pieces being applied to the soles of the patient’s feet with the bird’s head being turned towards the heel.

The application of a freshly killed and halved pigeon was also noted in the treatment of meningitis here. In eastern Brittany, the body of a rooster, killed by having been split in half with an iron axe, was wrapped around the affected area in a cure for oedema. A cure for warts noted in the west of the region called for the sufferer to cut a pigeon’s heart in half and rub the warts with both bloody pieces before tying them together in a fig leaf; as they rotted away, so, the warts were expected to disappear. Eaten on an empty stomach, a roasted woodpecker seasoned with blessed salt was said to restore a man’s vitality .

Death - crow - Brittany

Some healers recommended transferring a fever as an effective, if mean-spirited, treatment. Typically, this involved de-shelling a hard-boiled egg and pricking it in several places. After having soaked it for three hours in the patient’s urine, it was then given to a person of the same gender in the belief that the recipient of the egg would acquire the fever from the patient. In some areas, the film of an egg, placed around the little finger of a feverish patient, was also thought to absorb the fever.

One cure for jaundice called for goose droppings; dried and ground, stirred into a bowl of white wine and drank before breakfast for nine consecutive days. Chicken droppings were used as a poultice against toothache and to prevent the formation of abscesses. This remedy was also believed to combat inflammation but to treat such an affliction, an ointment made of honey and an equal amount of dirt from a swallow’s nest was applied. A poultice made of goose droppings mixed with celery, pepper and vinegar, applied to a child’s neck was regarded as a certain cure for croup.

Another curious remedy noted in the folk medicine of western Brittany involved a cure for ringworm; a ritual that began with the capture of a grey crow while it was building its nest. The bird was then tied to a length of string and lowered to the bottom of a dried-up well where it was kept captive for three days. Each morning, before sunrise, it was essential to challenge the crow with a formula that essentially demanded that it reveal the cure in exchange for its freedom. It was said that the remedy would be found at the end of the third day, having been left near the well by the captive’s kinsfolk to secure its deliverance. This plant was frogbit; a small floating plant resembling water lily and it was rubbed on the patient’s head for seven days each morning before breakfast as a cure. However, the treatment was believed only effective if delivered to the patient by birds.

Vereshchagin - Apotheosis of war - bird spells - brittany

A legend tells that King Arthur and his queen were staying at one of their estates in Brittany when he was kidnapped by Morgan le Fey Arthur and taken to Île Aval (Avalon) where she offered him her love and eternal life. A powerful enchanter, Morgan’s magic kept the king imprisoned on the isle until he asked her for the favour of being able to review his kingdom; a request she granted on condition that Arthur was transformed into a crow.

There are many other Breton stories in which the human soul escapes from the body to take on the form of a bird, such as an owl or a petrel. Most popularly it was in the form of a lark that the soul was said to ascend to Heaven to receive its judgement; the soul of the just entered without difficulty, while that of the outcast fell down into Hell. Around the northern town of Tréguier, it was once believed that the lark was responsible for opening the door of Heaven to the souls of the dead; the bird was said to have made two trips each day, in the morning for those who died at night and in the evening, for those who died during the day.

Crows - Brittany - Harasimowicz

According to one Breton legend, after the end of the Great Flood, the earth was found bereft of any water. God ordered all the birds to go to Paradise to take a drop of dew from the trees that grew there and to return and deposit it in a place shown to them. The birds obeyed and in a few moments the rivers began to flow again and the sea was filled. The woodpecker, which alone had refused to disturb itself, was condemned never to quench its thirst in the waters of the land and that is why it strikes its beak against the trees; hoping to find the dew drop that it once refused to seek in Paradise.

Feeding on insects that live in the bark of trees, the woodpecker is armed with a beak suitable for attacking the bark. The habits of this bird seem to have preoccupied the minds of the Bretons of yesterday: how could such a modest creature make such perfect cavities in very hard timber? Clearly, it required recourse to the marvellous and observation of the bird’s habits showed that, in the course of its labours, it often flew down into the meadows. Eager to formulate a conclusion, the Breton peasants thought that the woodpecker went to sharpen its beak on a special plant; Woodpecker Grass. This legendary plant was said to be extremely small and rare; found growing only in certain damp meadows and in the trunks of ancient trees. Legends tell that whoever finds it can use it to sharpen any metal for it defies the best grindstone; a sickle sharpened by it, cuts like a steel razor.

Green Woodpecker - legends - Brittany

Other fantastic stories once attempted to explain the behaviours of certain birds. For instance, it was said that the reason why the nest of the curlew was so hard to find was because Christ had rewarded the bird for having warned the Holy Family of an approaching storm that would have wrecked the vessel they had chartered for their escape to Egypt.

Some legends tell that many familiar birds were once coloured pure white. For example, the crow was said to have once presented itself before God holding in its beak a piece of human flesh; angered, God condemned it to be the blackest of birds. Likewise, the blackbird’s beak was changed due to its greed; it having dipped its beak in a mound of gold that it had been forbidden to touch.

Who killed cock robin - birds in witchcraft - brittany

Having enjoyed such privileged positions in the local legends and folk medicine of Brittany, it is not surprising to note that birds also once featured in the witchcraft of the region. In eastern Brittany, the magpie was believed to obey witches and to serve as their messenger when they wanted to cast spells without being seen. The eye of a swallow, if placed under someone’s bed, was noted as an effective means of denying that person the ability to sleep but other spell books claimed that the same result was also assured if only the nest of the bird was used. A more sinister spell required that the blood of a hoopoe be sprinkled over a wig newly made from the hair of a hanged man; after the recitation of certain charms, the wearer of this headpiece was said to be granted with the power of invisibility.

The importance of certain birds to the popular imagination was attested here right up to the end of the 19th century. This was over eleven hundred years after the Council of Leptinnes, called by Charlemagne in 743, denounced those that drew omens from birds, those that paid attention to the song of certain birds and cautioned people against belief in the superstitions relating to small birds.

White Ladies and Phantom Monks

The sunken pathways and ruined castles of Brittany are rich in legends of ghosts and supernatural spirits. Many of these fall into the category popularly known as White Ladies; spectral women wearing white gowns that appear at night to haunt the localities of their tragic death. Sometimes, the circumstances of their deaths are still remembered while others are barely known but a common theme appears to be betrayal, deceit or lost love and the ghosts are either lamenting their circumstances or warning, those that would listen, of the cruel hand of fate.

Ghostly white ladies are said to haunt the Place du Parlement de Bretagne in the city of Rennes but I have not been able to find records of any reported sightings to suggest that this is not a relatively new phenomena. Who knows, perhaps this urban legend will be established folklore in a century or two? A little south of the city’s airport lies Bruz where, near the marshy ground on the village outskirts, the plaintive cries made by a white lady who was said to dwell in a cave nearby were sometimes heard although none have been reported since the village exploded into a decent sized town at the end of the 20th century.

White Lady ghost - phantom monk - Brittany

The woods that surround the medieval Château de Trécesson near Campénéac are haunted by the ghost of a white lady wearing a mud-splattered wedding dress. Legend tells that this is the ghost of a noble woman who was buried alive on her wedding day; murdered in the autumn of 1750 by her brothers for having agreed to a marriage they felt dishonoured the family. The lady’s death was witnessed by an old poacher who reported what he had seen to the lord of the castle; the lady was found alive but never regained consciousness and died shortly thereafter.

All that now remains of the Château de Saint-Cast are the ruins of an 18th century manor house at Val Saint-Rieul that were built over the site of the castle. It is reported that on certain moonless nights, four black phantoms, restrained by a large iron chain, can be seen being led through the brambles and thorns by a young girl who seemingly has no arms. Local legend tells that these are the ghosts of four local lords who were condemned for having, in life, cruelly mistreated young girls and women. They beg the young girl, whose arms were cut off by one of their party, to forgive them but she does not seem to hear their pleading and continues to lead them through the thickest barbs. She will continue to do so until the Day of Judgement is called.

White Lady Ghost - Phantom monks

Another legend or perhaps a variant of the above tale is attached to these ruins. It tells that the lord of the Château de Saint-Cast often invited the prettiest girls of the region to attend his feasts. Those that accepted the invitation ultimately found themselves forced to dance naked for the amusement of the lord and his drunken friends; those poor girls that refused were never seen by their friends or family again. That is to say, not seen alive; many tales tell of spectral white ladies seen walking slowly along the road that leads from the ruins of Val Saint-Rieul.

Legend tells that a powerful lord once lived in the Château de Carnoët; a man renowned for removing his wives as soon as he saw them pregnant with child. He is reputed to have married the sister of a saint, a young woman who fell pregnant after a year of marriage. However, knowing of the rumours surrounding the fate of her predecessors, she tried to avoid suffering the same and fled the castle.

White lady ghost - brittany

Unfortunately, she was seen by the lord’s valet who immediately revealed her escape to his master, an experienced horseman who quickly caught his wife whom he fell upon with his sword. Having cut his wife to pieces, he left her body on the road, forbidding it to be buried and it is along these narrow lanes that the former lady of the castle is said to walk on moonless nights. The details of this tale so clearly agree with those relating to the misdeeds of the 6th century Breton warlord Conomor, the Breton Bluebeard, that this legend must have been inspired by the other.

Near Corseul, the ruined Château de Montafilan is home to a white lady who walks the battlements at night before disappearing near the castle’s old well. It is believed that she enters the subterranean passages where she can be heard counting coins and crying. This sorrowful shadow is reputed to be that of a lady of the House of Dinan once sold in marriage who has returned from the grave to claim the wretched blood money that was exchanged for her happiness.

Aron Wiesenfeld, The Grove - White lady
©Aron Wiesenfeld, The Grove

Today, the marshes around Glénac are serene places bursting with wildlife but in the 16th century this land was devastated by the brutality and violence that marked the Wars of Religion. Legend has it that after the Château de Malestroit had fallen to the forces of the French king, the lord of that castle tried to escape with a few trusted followers. Being hotly pursued, this small band soon found themselves in the marshland where several tributaries flow into the River Oust and it was here, with enemy forces rapidly bearing down, that the lord’s daughter, Ermengarde, acted. She leapt into a boat encouraging the French soldiers to follow, which they did with great speed. However, Ermengarde knew the river and allowed her vessel to be carried by the current; she perished in the chasm and by the time her pursuers could take stock, they too were caught in the torrent and were drowned.

Since that time, it is said that Ermengarde returns every night to drift along the western marshes and linger above the watery chasm which was her untimely tomb; cursed because she saved her honour and her father’s life by means of a sin. Sometimes, this white lady of the marshes is seen above the waters; the folds of her dress almost translucent under the moonlight, her hair billowing in the wind as if it might even touch the stars themselves.

White Lady ghosts - phantom monks

In the Gulf of Morbihan, off Brittany’s southern cost, the Île-aux-Moines is reputedly the haunt of ghostly white ladies who attend to their hair on the shoreline. On the neighbouring Île-d’Arz, tall white ladies were said to have been regularly sighted walking on the waves from the mainland or nearby islands. These ghosts were reported to sit on the shore, buckled-over in sadness, absentmindedly digging the sand with their feet or else stripping the leaves from the branches of rosemary they had picked near the dunes. It was believed that these were the ghosts of girls from the island who had long-since moved away and having died without absolution far from their native soil, returned there to ask their families to pray for their salvation.  

The fishermen of the south coast town of Piriac often reported seeing, at twilight, two figures running on the tops of the waves. Local tradition held that these were the ghosts of a lady and her husband; the latter having drowned before the eyes of his wife, she became so mad with grief that, one day, she allowed herself to be taken by the sea.

White Lady ghost - Brittany

According to local legend, a dishevelled white lady whose hands seem clasped together appears at the Château de la Ville Éven near the northern town of Saint-Briac; her appearance is believed to announce the imminent death of the head of the household. It is said that this is the ghost of a lady who died in the 17th century and who, on her deathbed, promised her eldest son that she would return to warn her descendants when they were to prepare for death. Under 10km (6 miles) to the west, a white lady has also been reported emerging, at midnight, from the ruined Château du Guildo at Créhen. Sometimes shrouded in mist, the ghost walks the 40 or so metres to the banks of the Arguenon estuary to wash her linen before suddenly vanishing.

Built hard against the old Breton border with Vendée lie the ruins of the once formidable Chateau de Montaigu; when it was rebuilt in the 15th century, its moat was said to have been some 16 metres deep! Every year – the exact date is unclear – a headless white lady appears amidst the ruins at midnight and walks the path of the old battlements. Local legend attributes her visitation as a plea by the lady to remember her savage death. Sadly, the castle was the scene of much slaughter during the 16th century Wars of Religion and again during the French Counter-Revolution of the late 18th century, so, the circumstances of this sad rememberancer’s death are unfortunately lost to us.

White lady ghost - graveyard - brittany

Returning to the north of Brittany, the majestic ruins of the once mighty Château de Tonquédec are home to a white lady who walks balefully around the summits of the medieval towers at night. Little is known of this spectral figure; some say that she is the ghost of a watchful Huguenot who once took refuge in the castle during the Wars of Religion and is warning those who would listen of some impending disaster. Interestingly, a young girl dressed in white is also said to haunt the castle ruins; she is said to be seen when the sun shines brightest and seems to retreat upon the approach of the living.

Sacked during the Wars of Religion by the bloodthirsty brigand La Fontenelle in 1595, the old manor of Kerprigent in Plougasnou is the scene of another ghostly white lady. She is said to appear walking near the ruins on the nights of a full moon and has been described as a great beauty whose hair appears scattered wildly over her shoulders as if she had been caught unawares. The lady’s half-open mouth seems to expresses anguishing pain and her right hand, holding a soiled cloth over her heart, displays a gaping wound bleeding heavily. Sometimes, this piteous lady releases heart breaking cries that attract a white doe that docilely lies at her feet and licks away the blood that constantly drips from her hand.


According to legend, a visiting lord, smitten by the lady of Kerprigent, had his advances rebuffed by her and determined that he would have his foul revenge. Following his departure, the servants of the house found the lady’s bloody body on the floor of her bedchamber and since that day she has returned to seek justice but her husband, who died in a foreign country, never heard of her calamity and her parents did not try to avenge her death. She is therefore fated to return, again and again, until the end of time.

In the east of the region, the 12th century Château de Châteaubriant was once home to Jean de Laval sometime Governor of Brittany. His wife, Françoise de Foix, was a noted beauty and a mistress of the King of France. Having lost the king’s favour, she returned to Brittany and died unexpectedly just nine years later in 1537. A number of legends attribute her death to the resentful jealousy of her husband who is said to have locked her in her chamber where he had her slowly bled to death. Her ghost returns to haunt the castle at midnight every 16 October; the anniversary of her death. Some variants of the story have her appearing alone; others have her being joined by her husband and even seen as part of a courtly procession of priests and other lords and ladies.

white ladies ghosts - brittany

Nearby, the ruins of the 13th century Château de Pouancé, which once guarded the border between Brittany and Anjou, is said to be haunted by a former mistress of the castle. This late 14th century lady is reputed to have been desperately in love with a Breton knight and one night, at his behest, opened one of the doors to the fortress; the gate was immediately rushed by the Bretons who quickly captured the castle.

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

ghosts - lovers in death - white ladies

The stunning 13th century Château de Largoët near Elven, whose imposing keep is the tallest in France, once saw the future King of England, Henry VII, held within its walls. However, it is not the usurper of the Plantagenets that haunts this place but a white lady wearing a dress soiled with blood. Said to stalk the surrounding forest, the ghost is thought to be a former lady of the castle who killed herself with a dagger, struck through the heart, upon the death of her lover, a knight who perished defending her. The white lady of Elven is sometimes seen in the company of another ghost, draped in a tattered shroud; perhaps, in death, the lovers are now forever reunited.

white lady - ghost - phantom

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

Fortunately for the page, the lord of Vioreau had been concerned by the sudden departure of his page on a secret errand and had followed him to Nantes. In the dungeon of the city’s castle, he confronted his servant, demanding to hear the truth of the matter. Having already betrayed his master, the wretched man now betrayed his mistress.

Some weeks later, the lord and lady of Vioreau attended a great celebration at the nearby Château de Blain. As the music began, the lord took his wife to dance and did so with such enthusiasm that all remarked how joyful he seemed. The lively dancing went on late into the night and the attentive lord insisted that his wife dance with him without any interruption. Having danced for hours, the lady collapsed exhausted, hot and breathless. The lord lost no time in tenderly escorting his wife to rest on a nearby window seat. As he had hoped, the coldness of the stone seat served his vengeful designs well; the lady contracted a chill that soon proved fatal. Betrayed by the only two men she had loved, the white lady of Vioreau roams the castle ruins to this day.

White lady - ghosts - phantom - brittany

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

In many Breton legends, the appearances of ghosts are often motivated by a request they have to make to the living; they often appear to claim the fulfilment of a vow or to honour one. There are also many tales of people condemned to return to earth to expiate their sins by a posthumous penance, such as the ghosts of priests begging for alms, condemned to wander the land until they have collected the money for masses for which they were paid but did not perform.

Ghosts - phantoms - spirits - brittany

Other tales seem to have their origins in the chaos and violence wrought in the aftermath of the Revolution when religion was suppressed and many of the religious houses forcibly closed-down. The sight of monks and nuns dispossessed of lands they had farmed for centuries must have struck a powerful chord in some areas as many localities contain tales of wandering clerics with uncertain back-stories. For instance, the ghosts of monks are sometimes seen to appear near the Iron Age tumulus known as Château-Serein near Plévenon on Brittany’s north coast but we know not why.

At night, around the village of Bourg-des-Comptes, a headless priest is said to walk slowly along an old path before disappearing and returning to walk the same ground again. The ghost of another headless priest has also been noted over the Breton border in Saint-Laurs although there the decapitation is attributed to the priest having had his head blown off by Republican troops during the excesses of the Counter-Revolution.

Ghosts - Monks - White Lady - Brittany

A farmhouse near the northern town of Lamballe is reputed to be the site where a sheltering priest was captured and killed by Republicans who had sought him for some time. Each evening, strange noises are heard emanating from the attic; a sound described as similar to that made by a falling sack of potatoes. Legend tells that one day the attic was cleared and at the very spot where the noise seemed to originate, a large blood stain was revealed. This proved impossible to scrub away and persists to this day, as fresh as if the blood had been spilled the day before.

To the east, just outside the town of Châteaubriant, the chapel of the Manoir de Bois-Briant was said to be visited by three beautiful ladies, dressed in white. These ghosts always appeared from the neighbouring woods and walked arm-in-arm towards the chapel singing with much sweetness. In the 19th century, these white ladies were said to reveal themselves every Christmas Eve and sometimes on the eve of other sacred festivals. Their lament was said to be a reproach to the local people for their disgrace in forgetting the death of a priest killed in the chapel during the Revolution.

White Lady ghosts - phantom monks Guildo castle
Château du Guildo

We have already remarked on the white lady of the Château du Guildo, so, it is only right that we note the phantom monk who appears some four times a year, when the moon is high in the night sky, near the site of the old priory of Guildo. The ghost is said to walk down to the estuary of the Arguenon River and over the water before disappearing somewhere behind the strange basalt boulders known as the ‘Singing Stones’ of Guildo. The Château du Guildo was also said to be visited each night by the restless spirits of Templar knights; warrior monks who wandered the castle ruins with backs bent under a crushing burden. These ghosts were commonly believed to have been souls of knights condemned, as punishment for their many crimes, to carry, for eternity, the weight of all that they had stolen whilst they lived.

Just six kilometres (4 miles) to the west, in the village of Saint-Pôtan, the ghost of another monk is seen between ten o’clock and midnight, on nights when the sky enjoys neither moon nor stars. The village has grown markedly in recent years and no sightings have been reported for some time but local tradition once held that the monk was greatly feared on account of the disturbing noise made by the creaking of his bones. The ghost was said to walk along the road to Guildo before stopping at a wayside cross a few kilometres away. Here, the monk turned back to face any imprudent enough to have followed him; those foolish souls witnessed, framed in the folds of his hood, a face without flesh.  

White Lady ghosts - phantom monks

We do not know whether the monk was associated with the 12th century priory that thrived nearby for some 600 years or of that once operated by the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller or whether he is someone trying to return home to the Abbey of Saint-Cast. A disturbing local legend tells that the monks of Saint-Cast once kidnapped seven young girls from the surrounding area. The broken bodies of four of these poor unfortunates were discovered when a search was eventually made of the abbey; three more captives were thankfully found alive.

Another monk from this abbey was believed to have been imprisoned in an underground chamber on the nearby isle of Ebihen. This was his punishment for having refused to perform the penance demanded of him for a murder he had committed. It was said that owls constantly tear out his hair to line their nests and that he will remain there, alive, until the day a white dove places a relic of Saint Anne upon his head.

Groups of ghostly monks and nuns have also been reported just 10km away around the town of Matignon. Unfortunately, the histories of these ghosts are lost to us, as are those surrounding the ghostly priests, dressed in white, sometimes sighted at night about 10km to the south on the old roads between Plancoët and Pléven. Curiously, these latter sightings were only recorded by unmarried women.

White Ladies ghosts - phantom monks

The presence of the ghosts of priests has also been noted on the moors around Paimpont; one could even be seen ready to say mass, with lit candles by his side. He was said to have pursued unwary travellers, seeming to ask them something and though they might run wildly away from him, he was always with them. Eventually, the locals paid to have masses said for his soul and he has not been seen since. About 10km away, the ghost of an unknown monk, sometimes described as headless, wanders the meadow that borders one of the lanes leading to the Château de Trécesson; his purpose unknown to us.

According to another legend, at midnight on 15 July, we might see appearing on the surface of the Saint-François pond in the forest of Fougères, two wretched ghosts who seem deeply entwined; whirling as if in some crazed dance before disappearing into mist. Local tradition insists that these are the ghosts of a monk and a lady from the neighbourhood who used to arrange their amorous meetings in a boat so as to avoid any prying eyes. One night, the lady’s outraged husband followed them in another boat and having been able to approach the lovers without alerting them, cut off their heads.

White Lady ghosts - phantom monks - Brittany

It is worth noting that not all spectral ladies seen in the Breton night lament their sad situation. The imposing Roman temple ruins at Bécherel, near the northern village of Corseul, are said to mark the entrance to a vast underground city whose houses are made of the purest gold. The city is hidden beyond the reach of man because it is home to the Devil, who lives there with a company of very beautiful women. Sometimes, on summer nights, these ladies can be seen playing on the ground near the ancient tower but we dare not approach them for these are the Devil’s own women.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincerest thanks to Aron Wiesenfeld; the staggeringly talented artist who created two of the finest artworks accompanying this post and who kindly allowed them to be featured here. The header image is a haunting piece known as The Pit, while the painting placed near the tale of the White Lady of Montafilan is The Grove. These works are not in the Public Domain and copyright thus remains with the artist. If you are not yet familiar with Aron’s work, I urge you to spend a little time browsing his site here.

To Become a Witch

We are in the time of year when the witch receives an enormous amount of attention but in yesterday’s Brittany the witch had no impact on Hallowe’en at all. On the eve of All Saint’s Day, the dead were believed to return to their former homes and in expectation of this, the fire would be kept burning overnight by a large log known as the ‘log of the dead’ and the table would be set with a few pancakes and a little milk for the dead to feast on. The souls of the dead were not feared but welcomed as the old friends they had been in life and Brittany’s witches would likely have been as absorbed in preparing for those nocturnal visits as anyone else. So, if the region’s witches were not a feature of Hallowe’en celebrations, what were they?

The Jesuit missions to Brittany in the 17th century described the land as being in the primitive age of the Church. Relics of paganism were noticeable everywhere; magical talismans and charms abounded in common use, superstitions and witchcraft flourished. Even at this late date, the missionaries found prayers were popularly addressed to the moon and that some women taught the mysteries of the sun under the name Doue Tad (God Father). Even into the early 20th century, visitors noted a rural hinterland where the division between the natural and supernatural was often tenuous.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - witches sky dance

The Scottish author Lewis Spence noted in 1917 that witchcraft was part of everyday life in the region’s more secluded départements and that people could still recall a time when farm and field were ever in peril of wicked spells and the deadly gaze of the Evil Eye. Witchcraft was clearly deeply embedded into the fabric of rural life here but the amalgam of sinister spell casters, magicians and folk healers makes a clear definition of witchcraft and its chief practitioner, the witch, difficult. A task rendered even more challenging if we need to frame our thoughts within today’s definitions and those used by followers of pagan religions such as the Wiccan movement.

To avoid falling down too many rabbit holes, I propose to focus on the question based on the world-view of the rural peasants of pre-World War One Brittany. The popularly accepted characteristics of a witch, whether male or female, here then seem little changed from those noted across Europe in the preceding centuries; they were believed to possess special power and an acute knowledge of how to wield that power so as to control and manipulate natural or supernatural forces. The witch was not feared because of any innate capacity for harm and mischief but because people did not know the limits of their power.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - Witches coven

We often fear what we do not understand and witches were ascribed an enormous range of fantastic powers; from the removal of warts and locating lost wedding rings to raising hailstorms and talking the languages of beasts. The fact that many of their magical rituals were performed in secret or contained charms that were indecipherable to the ears of others likely fostered a mantle of ‘otherness’ that probably suited both the witch and the wider community.

The trials of witches noted here in the 19th and 20th centuries – mostly for fraud or practicing medicine illegally – reveal a landscape gripped with perceived threats and vague fears; an insecurity that bred an almost permanent state of anxiety that only traditional, familiar superstitions could alleviate and appease. Writing in 1893, the French psychologist Léon Marillier proposed that Bretons still possessed a state of mind where the explanation of a natural phenomenon, illness or death, which immediately came to mind, was a supernatural one. When one’s family or livestock were struck by some unforeseen misfortune it took no leap of the imagination to view one’s plight as the result of some spell cast against you.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - A Witch

It was then necessary to consult the local witch, known in Breton as the Groac’h; an archaic term that was also used to describe both crones and fairies. The witch was often called upon to identify the spells that had been cast on others and was believed able to both identify the source of any spells cast and to counteract their effects. Lifting curses through charms of un-bewitchment seems to have been as significant a part of the witch’s role in rural society as ensuring the good health of people and their livestock or of foretelling the future.

The local witch, despite their wicked role in many folktales, was widely held to possess a profound, practical knowledge of herbalism, healing and potions. In addition to being effective healers, witches were also commonly approached to find water sources and lost objects and to bring-on rain or fair weather. In many instances, they were also thought able to act as an intermediary between the dead and those family members still living. Witches often had an ambivalent role in their community but nevertheless remained an integral part of it. Although natural phenomena such as unseasonal weather, crop blight, illness and death were often blamed on the power of the witch, consulting one was seen as the surest way of countering another’s enchantments.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - Dead Listeners 1890

The Breton countryside also featured characters known as diskanterezed (one who can undo or peel away). Like the Groac’h, these people were noted healers of benign ailments who often specialised in a limited number of afflictions such as removing warts or healing eczema. However, they were also approached for the preparation of charms, concoctions and amulets of bewitchment and un-bewitchment. Traditional healers, known as louzaouer (best defined as herbalists) were once also noted in nearly all communities here; sometimes several being active in a single commune and covering a range of specialities. Typically, these people prepared and administered remedies derived from plants that were either ingested or worn as an amulet. Such preparations were mostly composed of a mixture of bark, flowers, fruits, leaves, roots and seeds although animal products such as butter, eggs, milk and even dung were also used along with minerals such as antimony, mercury, salt and sulphur.

It is quite difficult and probably unhelpful in a blog post such as this to draw clear distinctions between the two former terms that were often interchangeable in parts of western Brittany. Thus, the vagueness inherent in the label of ‘witch’, as applied in Brittany, allows us to highlight the characteristics most closely commonly associated with all these practitioners.

Becoming a witch - Brittany -Three Witches Macbeth

In Brittany, it was believed that only children who were born feet-first possessed the gift to be a diskanterez and that only an experienced practitioner could identify the child worthy of initiation into the mysteries of the craft. Like witches, they were thought to have been bestowed with their powers at birth although certain circumstances were thought more favourable than others. For instance, the strongest evil spells were those cast by witches born under a half moon or whose mothers had died in childbirth. The curses wrought by these people were considered especially powerful and were thought more dangerous because their spells could only be lifted by themselves.

The most powerful spell casters were held to be found amongst those born on the afternoon of Good Friday or on the first day of August or on a Friday in March, provided that day was one of the odd days of the month. Similarly, the seventh child born of a family where all six siblings were of the same but opposite sex, was considered destined to be a great healer. Likewise, the seventh child of a family of seven boys was thought to possess the gift to cure fevers and scrofula but only on a Good Friday. Only a witch born in May was said to possess the power to stop an expectant mother passing on an unmet craving to her baby in the form of a birthmark or noevi materni.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - witches at the gibbet

However, the witch was not the only person believed to be able to cast spells and curses; they were merely those able to cast them at will. It was widely held that others, afflicted with the Evil Eye, had the ability to cast misfortune, such as those who, on the day of their baptism, had remained on the church porch without receiving the sacrament. Beggars, rag-pickers and tailors were also believed to have possessed the power to cast misfortune upon unsuspecting households and their livestock.

An examination of the Breton court records of the latter part of the 19th century also highlights that many spell casters were not the isolated witches of popular tradition but part-time practitioners who also held steady employment as clog-makers or farmers. Many were charged for having sold magical amulets but one witch was prosecuted for claiming to heal people by blowing on mirrors and a master mason from Rédéné, in western Brittany, was accused of cursing another man with “the bad wind”!

Becoming a witch - Brittany - Preparation for Witches Sabbath Teniers

Whatever the circumstances of one’s birth or status, the ability to cast spells required knowledge and a deep understanding of the rituals required to affect the desired outcome. The words used by the spell caster were crucial, as was the delivery; several of the old spells that have survived to this day stress the need for a certain tone of voice to be used or for charms to be recited on one intake of breath only; failing to observe these crucial rites was said to annul the spell and even risk the incomplete spell falling against the caster.

In addition to the specific words used and their precise delivery, spells required particular gestures to animate them. For example, to heal eczema, the spell caster would recite the following formula three times in a single breath while continually tracing the sign of the cross with a silver coin: “Go away, go away. This is not your home, neither here nor anywhere. Between nine seas and nine mountains and nine fountains, turn northwest!” Other some spells could only be performed under specific circumstances such as on a particular date or time of day.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - Sneddon - Witch - Warboys

Knowing the appropriate remedy to apply or charm to cast against specific situations was one of the key attributes that set the witch apart from other wise folk in the community. This ancient wisdom and secret knowledge was jealously guarded and was often thought to have been the exclusive preserve of a select number of families who only passed-down their precious charge to a privileged few in each generation. Some have speculated that the charms and rituals used by Brittany’s witches in the modern era were likely debased survivors of those once employed by the ancient druids.

In many cases, the charms and invocations used by witches here contained Christian rather than occult terminology and both they and those seeking their services often referred to their spells and charms as prayers. Although specific to each ailment and often to each practitioner, the incantations of healing were very often adaptations of the liturgical prayers of healing recited by the local priest. Likewise, many charms contained supplications to local saints invoking their power to act rather than their grace to endure. Such saints were often obscure, almost semi-legendary, characters whose names might have substituted for those of older Celtic deities as happened during the Christianisation of the land’s sacred springs.

Becoming a witch - Hermann Hendrich - Cloud Walker

Our modern notions of witchcraft might sit uneasily with Christian beliefs but this was not so in the rural Brittany of old. Many of the spells and charms that have survived to this day called for the invocation of God or particular saints, although the Virgin Mary was notably invoked in a spell to prevent theft. The use of Christian motifs was not some subversive act of heresy but a petition to the ultimate power made by one who was believed to have been blessed by God with the gift of healing. However, some witches were believed to invoke not God and the saints but the Devil and his demons; such people were widely regarded as evil witches who practised sorcery in pursuit of selfish aims or to cause harm to others.

Those whose mothers had died in childbirth were thought to make evil witches but it was also said that anyone could, under certain circumstances, become a powerful witch. One means of doing so called for a green frog, caught on the day of the full moon, to be placed in an anthill while reciting a charm requesting the animal to call upon the Devil and plead for his attention. It was then necessary to go to a crossroads where five roads met and, during the chimes of the midnight bell, to pronounce another charm swearing patience and loyalty to the lord of darkness, ending with the promise: “For him, I will run”.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - Devil and witches - Medieval woodcut

With the utterance of these last words, the Devil was said to appear upon one of the five roads, while a black cat appeared on the opposite road. Of the other roads, one was graced by a white hen, another by the green frog accompanied by an army of ants. The final road was the one by which the supplicant had initially travelled to this fiendish meeting and was free of any danger so that, after the conditions of the Devil’s contract had been accepted, the witch might withdraw without fear of harm. One of the witnesses to this diabolical pact was gifted to the witch to whose service it was now attached; tradition suggests that preference was usually given to the cat.

Another means of becoming a witch, noted in the east of the region, was even more repulsive. The ritual here called for the prospective witch to rub their whole body with the fat of a child that had been torn from its mother’s womb before the expiry of its natural term. The baby needed to be cut into pieces and put to boil over a large fire, its fat was then collected and poured into jars that were sealed and hidden behind the rock of the hearth (a large stone that often acted as a fire back).

Before using this ointment, it was necessary to first present it to a priest, who was also a secret witch himself, so that he might, by reciting certain charms in reverse order, imbue the ointment with the required effectiveness. Finally, this ghastly grease needed to be taken to a crossroads at night and smeared over one’s naked body during the chiming of the midnight bell while reciting a brief charm that ended with the words: “Where all companions are”. It was believed that the spell was now cast and that the new witch was immediately transported to the midst of a Sabbath.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - Dance of the Fadets - Ryckaert

For those without the innate talent or the patience to learn the ways of the witch, other fantastic rituals were said to allow one to possess magical abilities. For instance, anyone who ate the heart of an eel, warm from the body, was supposed to be at once endowed with the gift of prophecy. Possession of a four leafed clover, a seven headed ear of grain or the grain that had passed through the millstone without being ground was said to allow its possessor the ability to see what remained hidden from the eyes of others; the four leafed clover found under a gallows was held to be the most powerful of these rarities. The spores of the green fern, collected on the night of Midsummer, were believed to be effective in helping locate hidden treasures and to give the possessor the ability to read the deepest secrets hidden within the hearts of others.

When a person stood between two lands – their feet on the ground with a sod of earth held above their head – on a moonless night, they were believed to be granted the privilege of seeing things that were unknown to others. It was said that if a woman cooked an oak apple in the water of a fountain whose source watered a cemetery, she would be endowed with the wisdom and knowledge of the ancient fairies. Similarly, if one could cut the branch of the hazel tree which revealed itself as pure gold during the striking of the Christmas bell, one would have a wand equal in power to those wielded by the greatest fairies.

Becoming a witch - Brittany - moonrise Harpignies

Belief in the power of the witch did not disappear here due to the evangelising efforts of local priests who, in Brittany, were often regarded as sorcerers themselves. Indeed, most people saw no contradiction in the simultaneous use of the parish priest and the local witch; surely protection against the dangers of the world would be better assured if one accepted both as a safeguard? Popular belief in the power of witchcraft and of healing magic faded as the isolated, inward-looking communities that had long sustained such superstitions changed forever under the guns of the Western Front and the bombardment of industrialisation.

Spirits of Storm and Shadow

Many stories told across Brittany warn of the dangers that await those traversing the lonely places after dark. While the desolate moors and uncultivated lands were always closely associated with the ghostly activity of the dead, the creatures that traditionally inhabited these areas in Breton folklore were the wicked children of the night. The night belonged to the dead but it was a dark realm that they shared with dangerous spirits who were not of the race of men and whose encounter could be fatal for us mortals.

Previous posts have looked at many of the creatures that roamed the Breton night, so, I shall not repeat the old tales of supernatural black dogs and magical korrigans here. Instead, I propose to highlight some of the less well known but equally feared spirits that haunted the dark shadows of the night here. In times past, the doors of isolated farmhouses were not shut as prevention against thieves but to protect against the entry of these malevolent spirits.

Fairies Brittany Korrigan Demons

While it might sound contradictory to modern sentiment, the Bretons of yesteryear did not fear the night or the behaviour of those beings well known to them, such as the spirits of the dead or the mischievous korrigans; there were prayers, amulets and charms aplenty to assure their safety with these creatures. What the rural Breton peasant feared were the dangers inherently hidden by the enveloping darkness.

Young children here were once commonly threatened by their parents with stories of vague croquemitaines such as the ‘Gentleman of the Night’ who might take them unless they returned swiftly home. However, other ill-defined creatures seem to have carried more sinister overtones; the Aëzraouant was a protean spirit said to inhabit ponds and springs, where it tried to attract passers-by with the lure of gold lying under the water. Those imprudent enough to succumb to the Aëzrouant’s deception were thought to have been quickly seized and dragged to its underground lair; a crystal palace where the unwary child was chained forever and subjected to a lifetime of the hardest labours.

Brittany - brous - fairies - demons - aezrouant

Another poorly defined creature here was known as Brous; supernatural beings that were said to gallop all night through the thickets and forests, killing and devouring dogs and other small animals. Like werewolves, these were sometimes claimed to have been dishonest men who were condemned to transform at night and live as beasts during the hours of darkness. Some accounts say that they were people who had been cursed by the local priest for not having returned property they had once stolen.

Breton tales also tell of Rounfl; giant ogres that dwelt in caves, as high as a church, dug out from the sides of mountains. These creatures are portrayed as formidable enemies who had mastered dark magic so as to lock away their souls from their bodies. They were also notorious cattle thieves and lovers of human flesh who could only be defeated by the rare bravery and ingenuity of resolute souls.

Brittany - giants - Rounfl - fairies - korrigan

In Brittany, ponds and springs were usually only associated with female korrigans; malevolent creatures such as the Aëzraouant were more typically associated with marshes, bodies of stagnant water or the edges of pools and fords. However, another exception was the Teuz ar Pouliet; a mischievous creature noted in the west of the region that dwelt in the waters and low burrows. This creature was said to be able to make itself invisible or to assume any shape it wanted although its true appearance was said to be that of a small male dwarf, dressed in green. These attributes are all shared with korrigans and it is likely that this creature really belongs within that category of magical beings but clearly its local notoriety was once strong enough to ensure it retained a distinct identity.

Other diminutive folk that were regarded as discrete from the race of korrigans were also noted across the region. The sea caves found on the north coast of Brittany were reputed to be home to a race of little men known as Fions. These men – there were no female Fions – performed the functions of servants to fairies and were said to be so small that their swords were no longer than bodice pins.

Brittany - fions - fairies - korrigans

Along the south-eastern coast, mysterious little creatures were said to live in caves and rocky burrows; to the west, these dwarves were known as kouricans but distinctions between them and the race of subterranean dwarves called Duzig are often vague at best. Several parishes in western Brittany retained legends of both creatures, suggesting that these were popularly regarded as two separate beings. Certain caves in the far east of the region, bordering Poitou, were believed to be home to a species of little folk called Fadets. Although noted for their ugly and hairy appearance, the fadets were not considered harmful to humans. Interestingly, these creatures were not considered supernatural beings like the korrigans but a race of men who had occupied the land before them.

Not all dangers were tangible; in central Brittany stands a mountain known as Mont Saint-Michel and it was around this desolate place that it was believed all demons cast out from the bodies of men were banished. If, at night, any one were to set their foot within the circle they inhabit, the hapless traveller was said compelled to begin running and unable to stop doing so for the rest of the night. All who passed this lonely spot, even in daylight, were reported to have immediately suffered with heavily chapped lips.

Brittany - fairies - fadets - sea witches

The region’s other lonely places, such as the windswept coasts, also gathered legends of sinister happenings and strange creatures lurking in the darkness. A stretch of rocky coast near the northern town of Tréguier was once believed so cursed that no one ventured there at night and it was avoided, as far as possible, even during the hours of daylight. This half a league of coastline was said to be the domain of a fallen angel that jealously guarded their loneliness.

Some 70km (43 miles) east, a portion of steep coast near Cap Fréhel was thought to be the lair of the Devil for it was assured that no one had descended to the sea there without experiencing some accident or other. The Devil was also said to haunt the south coast Île d’Arz; on stormy nights he was sometimes seen seated on a rock on the seashore, exciting the waves with his voice and howling into the wind.

While many in the far western département of Finistère once blamed mermaids for causing storms and high waves, the people who lived a little to the east along the coast of Tréguier attributed such phenomena to the Dud-a-Vor (Sea Men); little black demons who roused the storms and were sometimes seen dancing on rocks before the most violent winds struck. Some local legends talk of people having seen other storm casters known as Tud-Gommon (Seaweed Men), described as small human-like beings, clothed in seaweed, who walked on the waves.

Brittany - dud a vor - fairies - korrigans

Sailors from the same part of Brittany also once spoke of thick fogs at sea being inhabited by little black demons known as Diauwlo Bihan (Little Devils) who deliberately led vessels astray so that even the most experienced mariner could not recognise their route. The shadows of such creatures were reported to have been seen joyfully dancing in the mist before the outbreak of a sudden squall or immediately before a ship failed upon a reef; their presence was not to warn of approaching danger but to celebrate the imminent disaster they had set in motion.

The appearances of these malevolent creatures were almost always linked to tales of the storms that they liked to orchestrate in order to cause shipwrecks and some accounts from the northern coast tell that just before a storm, the sailors witnessed a small white dwarf dancing on the sea rocks. Another mysterious character who was sometimes noted to appear in the midst of storms off the north-west coast was an evil spirit known as the Red Witch. Local legends describe a small man, red in colour, who walked the seashore at night spreading fear amongst the families of fishermen through his command of the elements. It was said that this sorcerer excited thunderstorms by striking the waves with blows of his staff and that anyone who dared to disturb his loneliness was immediately cast into the waves.

Brittany - Red Witch - Witches Boat - fairy

The old folktales rarely associate witches and sorcerers with the sea and shore but, like the Red Witch, there are a few notable exceptions. For instance, some tales claim that, on certain nights, one could see small boats steered by solitary women riding the waves in the Bay of Audierne off Brittany’s west coast. These were the Bagou-Sorseurez (Witch Boats); sinister vessels that were said to be driven by widows from the nearby Île de Sein who possessed the Evil Eye.

It was believed that these sea-faring witches tried to manoeuvre their boats towards those of the fishermen sailing the bay in order to tell the captain a terrible secret. If the captain were to reveal it, he and his crew would be doomed to the waves the next time they put to sea; if one of the captain’s men spoke of having encountered the witch, he was cursed to die within the week. One local legend asserts that as recently as 1890 a young sailor who had seen a witch boat had the imprudence to speak of it to his friends when he arrived ashore. The next day, having set out for the port of Brest, he fell overboard and although he was brought out of the water immediately, he was dead.

Brittany - Witches Boat - fairies - catouche

Around the Cap Sizun peninsula in Douarnenez Bay, the most wicked of these witches was given the rather enigmatic name Catouche. (This French word literally means cartridge and may possibly be a corruption of some Breton word; the French language having made little popular imprint in this part of Brittany until the 20th century.) This witch was said to have been seen at daybreak wandering near the seashore, soaking wet and carrying an empty kelp basket. How else could this forlorn sight have been explained but that she had ridden the waves at night; her basket having magically transformed into a boat, her kelp stick into a mast and her apron a sail!

The notion of witch boats and the long-standing tradition of witches on the Île de Sein seem to have been expanded upon in other old tales. These tell that the widows of this isle who had been born with the gift of enchanting wielded a most formidable power; the ability to curse a man to certain death. It was said that these women sailed at night in a boat that was also their kelp basket, controlled by their kelp stick that served as both oar and rudder, to attend the Sabbaths of the Sea. Those cursed by these witches were believed sure to die within a certain time if they had not repaired the damage that had caused their damnation. In order to affect their curse, the witches were required to attend three Sabbaths of the Sea, on each occasion making an offering to the demon of the wind and sea of an object that belonged to their intended victim.

Brittany - witch boat - fairies - bolbigueandets

On the south coast of Morbihan, sinister boats were also associated with magical dwarves known as bolbiguéandets. In some accounts these creatures formed part of the race of korrigans but others claim they were a distinct breed of little people whose backs were covered in algae due to their living half immersed between the rocks of the cliffs and shore. These dwarves loved to announce storms and shipwrecks but they were also reputed to force weary travellers to enter a mysterious black boat, crowded with the ghosts of the dead. When fully loaded, this boat was said to sail with the swiftness of an arrow for an unknown island. Alas, this land is never recounted by any human passenger as they always fell into a deep sleep as soon as the ship had cast-off, only to awaken at dawn still dozing on dry land.

With some 3,000km (almost 1,900 miles) of coastline, it is little wonder that the seashores of Brittany were rich in legends of fantastic creatures and unnerving hauntings. In the area of Cap Sizun, indistinct dwarves were reported to roam the dunes at night, taking the appearance of stray fires. If any man had the effrontery to call out to them, they would run up to fight with him! On the north-eastern coast, a rather poorly defined creature known as Saint-Nicolas was said to have been armed with sharp claws with which it tore the faces of any young boys it happened to meet on the beach at night.

Brittany - Gros-Jean - fairy - jetin - saint nicolas

Near Saint-Malo, a character known as Gros-Jean (Big John) watched for those who lingered alone on the seashore. Those children who tarried too long near the sea were said to be at grave risk of being taken by him and locked in a barrel where he kept his prey confined, giving them nothing to eat and drink but seaweed and salt water. To the west, a strange shadow was said to wander around the rocky shore near Plestin-les-Greves; this spirit was drawn to tardy travellers who were gradually but steadily led towards the sea which quickly swallowed them up.

Returning to the east, the lands surrounding the Rance and its estuary were traditionally held to be the home of a race of cave-dwelling little people known as jetins. Although no more than half a metre/yard high, these creatures were reputed to have the strength of giants and amused themselves by throwing the ancient standing stones or menhirs about the fields or by playing tricks on their human neighbours to whom they were generally benign. Some have suggested that the jetins were the only little people to remain in Brittany after the departure of the fairies.

Brittany - jetins - fairies - fions

The fairies in this part of Brittany were quite distinct from the other sprites and female korrigans noted here and across the rest of Brittany. As with the jetins, these sea fairies were generally reported to be benign to any humans that treated them respectfully but ruthlessly punished those who cheated or otherwise wronged them.

As ever, exceptions to this happy state of affairs exist for the unwary traveller. Around the bustling port of Saint-Cast le-Guildo, the northernmost promontory, 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) directly across the Bay of Saint-Malo lies the Goule aux Fées, just north of the once fashionable resort of Dinard. Popular tradition attests that those people who, at night, dared to venture on the clifftops here risked being seized by a ferocious whirlwind that would drag them down into the cave below, where they would be devoured by the evil fairies chained there.

The fairies of this region and along an associated coastal strip about 130km (80 miles) long were notably different from others found in Breton folklore and are fully deserving of their own post; an undertaking high on my “to do” list!

Wolf Leaders and Werewolves

In considering the real dangers to rural lives and livelihoods once posed by wolves it is not surprising that this animal occupied a unique place in the popular imagination of rural Brittany. For centuries, the wolf was the villain of countless folktales passed down through the generations and the beast’s victims of choice were seemingly always young lambs: innocent children watching-over their sheep and cattle or virtuous young girls travelling through the woods after nightfall.

Over time, the wolf had accumulated the diffuse fears of the rural folk to become the most terrifying of animals; a beast that dominated the land that man himself claimed dominion over. In yesteryears’ Brittany, most rural dwellers even feared to acknowledge a wolf (bleiz in Breton) by name, referring instead to Yann, Guillou or Ki Noz (the Night Dog); a term sometimes also used as a synonym for the Devil. The wolf was therefore seen as evil incarnate and was often depicted in the region’s lore as cruel, cunning, voracious and violent.

werewolf - brittany - wolf

This same folklore was rich in tales of shapeshifters; magical beings who could turn themselves into domesticated animals such as cats or pigs but when there was talk of a metamorphosis of a man, it was often into a wolf or man-wolf. The werewolf (den bleiz in Breton or loup-garou in French) superstition was once as prevalent in Brittany as in other parts of France but the region was, thankfully, spared the werewolf hysteria that gripped eastern France in the 16th century.

The notion that a man, and it was usually a man, could be temporarily or permanently transformed into a wolf stretches back to antiquity and probably beyond but it was the Roman poet Ovid who provided the image that took root in the popular imagination. In the first book of his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells how Lycaon, King of Arcadia, was turned into a wolf by Zeus as punishment for feeding him the roasted flesh of his murdered son: “His clothes changed into bristling hairs, his arms to legs and he became a wolf. His own savage nature showed in his rabid jaws and he now directed against the flocks his innate lust for killing. He had a mania for shedding blood but, though he was a wolf, he retained some traces of his original shape.”

werewolf - lycaon - brittany

This image of a man-wolf full of cunning and savagery resonated through the ages amongst the rural folk of Europe. In Brittany, where there existed many superstitions surrounding the power of a name, the werewolf was sometimes known as Bleiz Garv (Cruel Wolf). A central element in European folktales featuring werewolves is usually the destruction of innocence – the murder of a child, not with thoughts of self-preservation but out of sheer blood lust.

The image of the werewolf was one of a ferocious fiend, a cold-blood killer who tasted human flesh for pleasure. Such traits were little changed since the myth of Lycaon and, like Lycaon, it was believed that the transmutation from man to werewolf could only be achieved through divine or demonic intervention. Only through powerful supernatural forces could man alter so profoundly, thus werewolves were usually linked to witchcraft and were pursued and prosecuted as wicked sorcerers.

werewolf - witch - familiar - brittany

Witches and sorcerers were said to be able to transform themselves into animals such as bees, cats, dogs, hares and wolves. Such transformations were regarded as an innate capacity of the witch but it was also believed that such powers were the gift of the Devil; a reward for entering into a solemn pact with him. The metamorphosis from man to wolf was thought to be most commonly done by shedding their human clothing and putting on a girdle or belt made of wolf-skin but other methods were spoken of, such as applying a special lotion over the body or drinking rain-water from a wolf’s footprint or eating the brains of a wolf. Donning the wolf’s girdle or rubbing oneself with an ointment was viewed as a wilful act; man thus volunteered to become a werewolf; similar practices were said able to transform a person into a witch.

In addition to the voluntary werewolf, there were also believed to be involuntary ones too. These were typically men who had been transformed into a wolf as a punishment for their sins, particularly thievery, and condemned to pass a certain number of years as a wolf or until the curse was lifted. One tradition in central Brittany held that werewolves were men who had been turned into wolves for not having confessed their sins for more than a decade. Involuntary werewolves were popularly believed to revert permanently to their human form if they bled from a wound inflicted by an iron sickle or a black-hafted blade.

werewolf - wolf man - brittany

After roaming the countryside at night, a werewolf had only to throw off his wolf skin to return to human form, taking pains to hide their wolf skin with care. In Brittany, it was said that if this skin was placed in a cold place, the man actually felt the chill. Conversely, there is a tale of a man who had hidden his skin in the communal bread oven; his wife having lit a fire there, discovered her husband shrieking and struggling as though he was really surrounded by flames. Burning the wolf skin was thought to forever sever the link between man and werewolf, while destroying the werewolf’s human clothes made it impossible for him to regain his human form.

The werewolf superstition was at its height in France during the 16th century and numerous records attest to the trials of people, predominantly men, who were accused of being a werewolf. One of the first celebrated werewolf trials occurred in 1521 in Poligny, a town some 480km (300 miles) east of the then Duchy of Brittany but it is worth highlighting as an indicative example of the typical charges levied and the subsequent investigation and prosecution of the accused.

werewolf - medieval - brittany - michel verdun

While travelling near a forest outside Poligny, a group of men were attacked by a wolf but successfully managed to beat off their assailant, injuring him in the process. The injured wolf was tracked to the hovel of Michel Verdun who was found inside dripping with blood; he was promptly seized and subsequently arrested. Under torture, he confessed to being a werewolf and implicated two friends; Philibert Montot and Pierre Bourgot, the latter likewise confessed to being a werewolf but also told of having once made a pact with a mysterious black-clad man to protect his sheep. Bourgot claimed there had been a hailstorm when he was collecting his sheep and that the stranger, likely a demon, told him that he would not have missed gathering a single sheep if he but served the demon as his lord.

Bourgot’s testimony describes how he agreed the pact the following night: “kneeling before the demon in homage, vowed to obey him, renouncing God, Our Lady, all the Company of Heaven, his baptism and chrism. He swore also never to assist at Holy Mass nor to use Holy Water. He then kissed the demon’s left hand, which was black and cold as the hand of a corpse.” He alleged that Verdun gave him an ointment that turned him into a wolf and together they killed at least two children: “…they killed a woman who was gathering peas. They also seized a little girl of four years old and ate the flesh, all save one arm. Several other persons were murdered by them in this way, for they loved to lap up the warm flowing blood. Another time they killed and ate raw a goat belonging to Maître Bongré.” It is unclear if Montot also confessed but he was executed with the others.

werewolf - jacques roulet - brittany

Another well documented werewolf trail took place in the Breton border town of Angers in August 1589. Jacques Roulet, a local vagabond, was accused of having been found, hiding amongst some bushes, in the form of a werewolf, half-naked with matted hair, his hands covered in blood and fingernails sunk in the remains of human flesh. The mutilated body of a 15 year old boy was discovered nearby. Roulet confessed to the murder and claimed “to have attacked and devoured with his teeth and nails many children in various parts of the country whither he had roamed.” Furthermore, he claimed to have been a werewolf ever since using an ointment that his parents had given him some years earlier.

Roulet’s confessions during the trial were often contradictory and improbable; he was prone to convulsions and most likely mentally ill. The tribunal sentenced him to death but he appealed to the Parlement of Paris, which commuted the death penalty, probably due to the lack of evidence, to two years confinement at the Saint-Germain-des-Prés asylum “with instruction in the faith and fear of God, which he had forgotten about in his huge poverty.” Roulet was perhaps fortunate that his appeal was heard at the time the Parlement of Paris was stamping its authority over local tribunals, requiring all capital sentences of witches be appealed to them.

werewolf - werewolf trials - france

Due to their renouncement of God and their alliance with the Devil, werewolves were regarded as damnable sorcerers and like those of their female counterpart, the witch, trials focused on the diabolical pact, confessions were gained through torture and punishments were severe. In the same year as Roulet’s trial, Peter Stubbe was convicted of being a werewolf just over the French border in Westphalia; he was sentenced to “have his body laid on a wheel and with red hot burning pincers to have the flesh pulled from his bones in ten places, after that, his legs and arms to be broken with a wooden hatchet. Afterwards to have his head struck from his body, then to have his corpse burned to ashes.”

The notion of a pact with the Devil, freely entered into, and the renunciation of God were at the very heart of werewolf trials. Under torture, many hapless unfortunates also confessed to having worshipped the Devil at a Sabbath and it was the demonic implications of these two key acts that were the focus for prosecutors. In Brittany, it was believed that the sorcerer who agreed to the Devil’s covenant was bound to it for seven or sometimes nine years; the contract being automatically renewed if the werewolf was seen by anyone other than fellow werewolves. If the werewolf died before being released from the contract he could expect to descend to Hell without hope of redemption.

werewolf - wolf leaders - brittany

While many scholars of the day argued that human to animal transformation was impossible. Others, such as the 16th century French jurist, Jean Bodin, stressed that such damnable witches should be sentenced to death since “it is a vile belief the Devil puts into the hearts of men in order to make them kill and devour each other and destroy the human race.” A position echoed by Jean Beauvois de Chauvincourt, in his 1588 Discours de la Lycanthropie, who described werewolves as “men so denatured, that they have made bastards of their first origin, leaving this divine form and transforming themselves into such an impure, cruel and savage beast.”

The official position of the Church was that any human to animal transformations did not happen in the physical body but through diabolical illusions in the spirit only. A position the Church had held for centuries, condemning as illusory those vestiges of pagan superstitions and beliefs in magic, animal transformations and night-flights which were contrary to the true faith. Lycanthropy was something induced by evil spirits that created a delusion in some men, culpability therefore lay with the Devil rather than the weak-willed but the culpability of witches and sorcerers for striking a bargain with the Devil was a heresy that demanded a vigorous response.

werewolf - wolf leader - brittany

While the demonic element was usually the key feature of a werewolf trial, the charge was closely followed by accusations of murder and sometimes cannibalism. The accused were usually said to have a predilection for young children and especially little girls and the lewd sin of lechery, sexual assaults and acts of incest were commonly found in such trials. With very few exceptions, it was men that were accused of werewolfism and no matter the physical attributes of the accused, in wolf form he was usually described as strongly-built with sharpened teeth and claws. These were crucial elements in the popular image of a werewolf during the 16th and early 17th centuries; a lustful, lecherous and savage predator.

Without straying into pop-psychology it does not take a giant leap to consider that the werewolf might have served as a useful medium for the people in small rural communities to accept how a seemingly rational neighbour could also, for a moment, act as a completely irrational creature. Even if the metamorphosis is always supernatural, the werewolf remains partly human, thus is would have been understandable to dehumanise the image of the man who threatened the stability of the community.

The emphasis on the sexuality of the werewolves likely reflects the anxieties felt within the community surrounding the issue of safety. Mutilated livestock, murders and disappearances of children and young women would naturally spread alarm and feed the collective fear of a wicked sorcerer at large. An active sexual deviant could easily destroy the equilibrium in a small village and so, in their fear, the community would turn to God and the local magistrates for help and so the witch-hunt would begin!

werewolf - wolf leaders - brittany

The accused in most werewolf trials had three things in common: they were poor, male, rural peasants, depicted as evil but weak-minded men who were easily tempted by the Devil and his promises of reward. Some modern scholars have focused heavily on the extreme poverty faced by many of the accused and questioned whether these men were simply social outcasts without means and thus, as the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, easily chosen as scapegoats for society’s ills. However, it is important to recall that, at the time, most rural dwellers lived in abject poverty and outbreaks of plague and famine were common in 16th century France.

Werewolves were widely held to only roam freely at night, particularly when there were violent winds; in some areas of Brittany this was thought to be only on the nights of a full moon but in others, all nights belonged to the werewolf. The werewolf as symbol of storm, of night and of winter, is a vivid one and some tales add to this sense of otherworldliness by taking the werewolf out of the forest and placing him on the heath or at a crossroads; both locations rich in symbolism – the transition between the wild and the cultivated and of paths chosen.

werewolf - wolf leaders - brittany - france

There are few Breton tales that involve a werewolf attacking people but some early 18th century works mention witches known as graguez-vleiz (Wolf Witches) who, under the guise of beautiful women, dismembered and tore little children to pieces. The werewolf is more often portrayed as a forlorn creature and many stories contain strong religious connotations surrounding the notion of sin and penance. Curiously, werewolves were believed never to attack musicians and were even said to flee upon hearing the binioù or Breton bagpipe; likely a superstition which had its roots in the 17th century when Jesuit missions in Brittany cursed musicians in their efforts to stamp-out music and dancing.

The belief in Wolf Leaders (meneurs de loups in French) was quite widespread in Brittany; men who directed wolves and were obeyed by them. They were also believed to command werewolves. Such men were not always werewolves themselves but sorcerers who had made a pact with the Devil and received something other than the ability to metamorphose as their reward. In some parts of the region, tales tell of men who secretly raised bands of wolves to ravage the land and destroy the flocks and herds of those that were pointed out to them.

In western Brittany, the role of wolf leaders was said to be handed down from father to son. These men were believed to stay for extended periods in the forests, where they were served by their wolves whilst sat on armchairs formed of intertwined oak branches trimmed with grass. It was even said that sometimes they ordered their wolves to lead lost travellers back home. Some stories emphasised the need to give bread, as thanks, to these nocturnal guides as they might be werewolves seeking to obtain the key to their return to the world by a good deed; the gift of bread would allow the involuntary werewolf to break his curse.

wolf leaders - werewolves - werewolf - brittany

The Christian undertones are clear and further examples can also be found scattered throughout Breton werewolf lore stretching back as far Saint Ronan, an early 6th century evangelist in Brittany, who was once famously accused of killing a child and of being a werewolf. The legends of other Breton saints tell how they changed unrepentant sinners into wolves. In western Brittany, priests were once thought to possess the power to transform unbelievers into werewolves and to be able to take on an animal form themselves during Advent.

Divine assistance was also called upon to slay a werewolf who it was believed could only be killed by being struck three times in the forehead by a dagger made of silver melted from a crucifix or shot by a ball moulded from the same silver source. Sometimes, it was said that it was also necessary for the firearm itself to have been blessed or its stock rubbed with wax from a Paschal candle. In western Brittany, a werewolf was believed able to rid themselves of their curse if they washed in a colonnaded fountain or sacred spring but only if they entered from the east side.

Adolphe Orain in his Picturesque Geography of Ille-et-Vilaine (1882) tells of another way to lift the werewolf curse in eastern Brittany: “The charcoal burners will tell you that the garou, that is to say the poor devil on whom a spell has been cast, and who is forced in spite of himself to run every night, can only foil the spell which undermines him by kissing a cross located in a forest clearing. But his efforts are in vain, a force keeps him at a certain distance from the cross, before which he crawls on the ground, screaming in rage. He can only reach it if someone spills his blood, either by hitting him with a stone or with a whip. If the blood does not flow before the sun rises, he will have to start again the following night and return to the same place to try to reach the cross.”

werewolf - loup garou - wolf leaders - kill a werewolf

Despite the confessions – given under torture – of the so-called werewolves, it is likely that many of the fatal attacks blamed on them during the werewolf trials of the 16th century were simply wolf attacks. Others were certainly brutal murders and would have been tried as such were it not for the superstitions surrounding the demonic element of a man-wolf. Some of the accused may well have suffered from lycanthropy, a psychiatric illness in which the sufferer imagines himself to have been transformed into an animal. By the middle of the 17th century confessions of werewolfism were no longer credited; the question of bodily transformation having lost its significance in natural philosophy and science.

Many men who confessed to being werewolves claimed that they used an ointment rubbed on their bodies to effect the transformation.  Such an ointment could have had hallucinogenic qualities that fooled a man’s mind into believing that he had actually changed into a wolf.  Other wolf hallucinations may have been accidental, for instance, a man’s diet might have included bread made from ergot-infected grain (the ergot fungus can cause hallucinations and irrational behaviour) as was quite common in France in the Middle Ages. We will now never know the truth of the matter.

werewolf - wolf leaders - wolf - brittany

Few of the tales collected by folklorists and ethnographers in the 19th century deal with werewolves and this perhaps reflects the decreasing importance of wolves in the Breton countryside by then but werewolves continue to remain in the imagination and old legends are still reworked in popular fiction and contemporary films and dramas. The demise of the wolf as a millennia-old adversary effectively made the werewolf redundant; a notion summed-up by the English antiquary Algernon Herbert, who said: “where there is no natural wolf, there is no werewolf”.

Fantastic Beasts of Brittany

The thick forests, lonely moors and windswept beaches of Brittany were long said to carry heavy dangers for the unwary traveller abroad in the Breton night. Local legends tell of frightening werewolves, menacing black dogs, murderous horses, sinister black cats and hungry basilisks but there are tales of many other, more ambivalent, fantastic beasts.

Most of the ruined castles that pepper the landscape of Brittany have some marvellous myths attached to them; one of the most commonly shared legends attests to the presence of enchanted hares. The castle of Tonquédec was said to be the home of an enormous hare that wandered amongst the ruins, particularly on the nights of the full moon. Hunting dogs were said to stop at its sight and when pushed to pursue, the hare did not flee in panic but withdrew slowly before suddenly disappearing without trace.

Fantastic Beasts - Tonquedoc castle - ghost - Brittany

Three other castles, namely Coatfrec, Kerham and Coatnizan, all within 15km (10 miles) of Tonquédec, were also said to have been haunted by mystical hares. This suggests a once powerful local belief in the punishment meted out to evil men after death, for these hares were believed to be the souls of the old lords forced to undergo their penance in this form. In life, the old lords had made their people tremble and so, in death, they were condemned to live as the most timid of beasts. It was said that their souls would only be delivered after they had suffered as much pain as they had once inflicted on others. The bullets of hunters were said to pass through their bodies without killing them and without spilling a drop of blood but they suffered as if they had been killed each time.

It is worth noting that, more generally in the Brittany of this time, the souls of girls who had been deceived by their lovers were believed to haunt them as hares.

The ruins of the 13th century Penhoat castle near Saint-Thégonnec (not to be confused with the 18th century castle of the same name once owned by Karl Lagerfeld) is home to a white rabbit of extraordinary size that only appears at night. The legend here does not connect the animal with a former lord; the family were one of Brittany’s most noted and deserted the castle after its partial destruction during the Wars of Religion at the end of the 16th century.

Fantastic Beasts - Brittany landscape

The rabbit is said to display itself before running furiously into the former moat and up along the lines of the old battlements, passing the same spot a hundred times or so before sprinting to the top of the south tower crying its pitiable lamentations. Hunting dogs were reputed to have refused to chase it and any human hunter that dared inevitably lost sight of it amongst the brambles. Perhaps this was once said to have been a former inhabitant of the castle, recoiling in terror, as the forces of the League advanced on the castle but their memory now long since forgotten?

In the east of the region, the Beast of Béré was a creature of immense size and strength that once terrorised the lands around Châteaubriant; sometimes reported to take the form of a dog, boar, horse or even a sheep. The beast was said to trample travellers to death or to drown them in Lake Courbetière or one of the surrounding rivers. Reputed to be immortal, the creature was believed to be the tortured spirit of a young woman who died hidden in captivity as the result of an illicit affair with a monk from the nearby Priory of Saint-Sauveur.

Fantastic Beasts - landscape

In southern Brittany, the Kole Brizh (piebald bull), and the Tarv Garv (rough bull) were dangerous bulls who carried away those people who crossed their paths. A similarly malevolent bovine was noted in central Brittany under the guise of buoc’h-noz (night ox). Clearly, the need to warn against such powerful beasts had distinctly local origins now lost as the bull is usually depicted fairly in Breton lore.

Indeed, the Blue Bull, one of the most famous Breton fairy tales, features a magical old bull who nourishes and protects a young girl tormented by her wicked step-mother. He leads her safely through enchanted forests and gives his life in her defence but before dying he tells her of a castle where she should go for safety. Taking work as a goose herder, the girl is known as Wood Jacket on account of her drab clothes but one Sunday she resolves to go to church and visits the bull’s grave to ask for a pretty dress. Her request is rewarded with a garment made of the finest silk and a pair of golden slippers. The young lord of the castle, who had paid little heed to Wood Jacket, was instantly smitten by this beautiful girl in a golden silk gown. When he sees her at church on the following Sunday, he rushes to speak to her but Wood Jacket flees, losing one of her golden slippers as she does so.

Fantastic Beasts - Breton cow - Blue Bull

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

Another elusive creature was the Morilhon, an animal which was said to resemble a fox that only appeared on the night of 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption, when it circled the Ménez Hom mountain in western Brittany; according to legend, fabulous wealth will fall to the one able to capture the beast. In recent years, some have argued that this beast was no more than a practical joke but it was attested in the region’s folklore in the second half of the 19th century.

Fantastic Beasts - Dahu - bugul-noz - Brittany

On the Île des Ébihens off Brittany’s north coast, a red donkey was often reported perched on the steep rocky ridges overlooking the sea. This ungodly beast was thought to be the ghost of a former owner of the island who is doomed to atone for the many scandals he inflicted upon the town of Saint-Jacut; a penance that will not end until a woman from that town makes him bleed with a stroke of her sickle. This notion of evil not resting until blood has been shed is also found in Breton werewolf superstitions  and noted as a means of destroying the power of the bugul-noz; a mostly malevolent chimeral monster of the Breton night.

A beast that lurks in the forests between Fougeray and Pierric in eastern Brittany is another accorded a most peculiar pedigree. It is said that at the end of the 17th century, a powerful baron presented the lordships of Fougeray and Roche-Giffart as a dowry for his daughter on her marriage to the Lord of Coetenfao; a man renowned for his cruel nature and whose dissolute life brought desolation to so many families. One of his most notorious crimes was the murder, near Pierric, of two young women who had spurned his advances and it was near this spot that, after his death, a previously unknown animal was sighted. Nicknamed the Beast of Pierric, this strange animal, black as night and the size of a heifer is said to constantly prowl the old pathways between Fougeray and Pierrict. No clear description has ever been given of this beast but it was said to be stronger than the largest dog and often announced by a mysterious ball of fire.

Fantastic Beasts - Millet Hunting Birds at Night

There are other local legends about strange creatures that seem to have once been people supernaturally transformed and cursed to spend the nights running as white greyhounds, red owls or white cats. One popular tradition from western Brittany talks of mysterious white-tailed beasts that roam at night, jumping on the back of any late night wanderers and forcing the unlucky traveller to carry their enormous weight.

While the crow and the magpie were popularly regarded as birds of ill omen and the owl and the sparrowhawk as birds of death, others were to be feared for the immediate danger they posed to the living. In northern Brittany, an indistinct bird known as Ar Vaou was said to kidnap small children, while in central parts of the region, a bird known as Ar Liketaer enjoyed a similarly sinister reputation but was also said to push children, particularly girls, into rivers. In some districts, this bird was confused with the kestrel whose Breton name sounds quite similar.

Fantastic Beasts - Breton children Václav Brožík - Brittany

Sometimes, local lore seems to have been moulded so as to warn children of unseen dangers, perhaps Ar Liketaer is such an example and possibly the tales surrounding the secretive two-headed viper (Naer a daou-penn) or the snake that was said to swallow its victims with a flick of its tongue. However, it is difficult to see the same connection with the horse-viper (Naer marc’h); a dragonfly that was accused of stinging as violently as a snake.

Although by no means regarded fantastic beasts, certain animals were thought to possess fantastic qualities. The hedgehog was thought to suckle cows and any cow that ate the grass upon which a hedgehog on-heat had urinated was certain to fall ill; the same was believed true of the grass visited by a female hare on-heat. Pigs were said to be condemned to death if a shrew walked on their backs, while the last glance of a weasel condemned any poor beast to death within the year.

Fantastic Beasts painting

Some peculiar beliefs once surrounded the lizard here, for it was said that while the creature was ambivalent to men, it hated women so much that it would attack them by leaping onto their faces. However, it was believed in eastern Brittany that if a woman managed to tame a lizard, she would have the power, when she wore it in her dress, to know all that had been said and done for ten leagues around and the ability to cure all diseases.

Similarly, the humble toad once enjoyed a most sinister reputation and I have yet to discover why this was so. Possibly it was because the toad was frequently associated with evil spells designed to harm livestock. To counter this, in the west of the region, one was often nailed to the stable door to ward-off evil although impaling the little creature on a pointed stick and leaving it die under the glare of the sun was quite commonplace. It was said that if one wounded a toad without killing it outright, it would return at night to suffocate its attacker in their sleep. Some even claimed that the wounded toad never forgot its enemy and could wait many years before enacting its revenge; if its target died before it had claimed its vengeance, the toad was said to throw venom upon the grave of its enemy.

Fantastic Beasts - the toad - Brittany - medieval

Belief in the toad’s innate power can be sighted in several other old superstitions. In the Breton borderlands it was once believed that if a man stared at a toad for long enough he would eventually kill it but that the opposite could well happen! The toad was thought to blind those in whose eyes it urinated and that young toads could be born in the eye where the urine had entered. Hens were said never to lay eggs in a coop that had been visited by a toad and that anyone who drank milk touched by a toad would die. Toads were also called upon in folk magic; placed under the pillow of someone suffering from smallpox, the presence of the toad prevented the patient from being scarred. They were also placed on cancers in the expectation that they would somehow suck out the offending venom.

Other unassuming creatures, such as the bat, were afforded fantastic origins. Seeking refuge from a violent windstorm, a mouse sought shelter in the old chimney breast of a ruined cottage only to find it already occupied by a swallow who had built a fine nest there. The bird allowed the mouse to stay on the condition that it would brood her eggs for the following three days; the mouse accepted the swallow’s terms and brooded her eggs while she searched for food. After three days, the mouse left and it was not long thereafter that the eggs hatched and the swallow shrieked in agony; her little ones were covered with hair instead of feathers and they possessed the head and body of a mouse, with ears and hooked wings like the Devil. The swallow died of grief and after her funeral, the Queen of the Swallows had the orphans confined in the cathedral of Tréguier and forbade them, under penalty of death, to ever leave and fly in the light of the sun.

Fantastic Beasts - Bat and Rats - Bat engraving - Brittany

One Breton legend tells of a time when cats had horns but that they bartered them for the easy gratification of a cartload of drink and fish. The merchant who made this unusual exchange placed two of their horns atop his ox and since that time, cattle have had horns but alas they never grew back on the heads of cats. A less charming belief tells that when a rooster reached seven years of age, it laid an egg during the hottest day of the year formed from the rotten excrement of its seed. When hatched, this cursed egg delivers a small serpent that grows into a basilisk; the product of the coupling of a rooster and a toad, brooded by a snake.

The behaviour of many malevolent beasts was thought able to be controlled by sorcerers; people who even possessed the power to transform into beasts themselves. For instance, those that stole the ability to make butter were said to turn into hares to escape their pursuers or could also metamorphose into a snake in order to visit the farm surreptitiously to suckle the cows and steal their milk. Animals or parts of them were frequently called upon in spells to prevent such sorcery, burying the corpse of an enchanted mole was thought particularly effective in eastern parts of the region; another humble animal to which fantastic qualities were once attached.

Stone Boats and Singular Saints

Brittany has often been called the Land of Saints and with good reason; some 750 saints ranging from obscure personalities known in only one isolated location to renowned healers popularly invoked across the region were once venerated here. Many of the early evangelising saints were believed to have arrived from the British Isles in the 5th and 6th centuries in stone boats propelled by angels.

Several of Brittany’s Celtic saints were held to have had strong connections with the legendary King Arthur. Indeed, some scholars have argued that the character known as Saint Armel, reputedly a son of King Hoël the Great, a nephew of Arthur and the father of Sir Tristan’s wife, Iseult, was the historical basis for King Arthur himself.

King Arthur - Saints - Brittany

Legend tells that King Arthur was visiting his cousin, King Hoël of Brittany, when he met the Irish prince Saint Efflam on the shore near Plestin; a land terrorised by a ferocious and cunning dragon. Saint and king were described as cousins but it was the saint that slew the dragon with prayer rather than Arthur who only succeeded in cutting off the dragon’s horn in three days of fighting. Another version tells that the first person that Efflam met upon disembarking his “old leaking boat” was Arthur the Terrible who had come to that place to kill the dragon. Paganism personified as an untameable beast was clearly a powerful image as some fourteen of the early saints were noted as dragon slayers.

Saint Gurthiern was a British prince who, overcome with grief for having mistakenly killed his nephew in battle, received divine inspiration to cross to Brittany and found an abbey at Quimperle. Interestingly, much of the genealogy associated with him is shared with that attributed to King Vortigern. Just 14km (8 miles) south lies the reputed site of the monastery established by Saint Ninnoc in the 5th century. The child of another British king, Brychan of Brycheiniog, Ninnoc left her family and lands in order to protect her virginity and devote her life to God; her father is said to have fought against Arthur while attempting to regain her kidnapped sister, Saint Gwladys.

King Arthur - Saints - Grail - Brittany

The author of one of the earliest surviving chronicles of Britain before and during the Saxon invasions, the British prince Saint Gildas was said to have “loved and obeyed Arthur but his 23 brothers refused to acknowledge the king as their lord”. One of his brothers was killed by Arthur but nevertheless Gildas is said to have aided the king in the recovery of Guinevere who had been kidnapped by King Melvas of Somerset and kept captive in his castle at Glastonbury. Gildas’ connections with the early saints and aristocratic dynasties of Brittany must have been considerable as he appears in the accounts of many of their lives or perhaps the hagiographers thought establishing links to such a venerated saint were important.

Another child of noble birth, Saint Ke, is said to have left his father’s lands to escape invading Scots before eventually crossing over to Brittany in a stone trough without sails or oars. Landing near what is now the north coast town of Cléder, he established a small monastery but according to legend was quickly summoned to return and join a delegation of bishops beseeching Arthur to avert war with Sir Mordred and his Saxon allies. Unable to prevent the fatal conflict, he is said to have comforted the widowed Guinevere, exhorting her to enter a convent. While it is likely that accounts of Ke’s life have been conflated with other men who shared his name, the connection with Arthur is probably due to an over-eager hagiographer confusing him with Arthur’s foster-brother Sir Kay.   

King Arthur - Saint Gildas - Brittany

Saint Tudual arrived on the west coast of Brittany in the early 6th century and, given his antecedents, it is little wonder that he led an extraordinary life here and he has long been considered one of the Seven Founding Saints of Brittany. Tudual was kidnapped by mermaids; defeated a dragon; founded several monasteries before becoming the first bishop of Tréguier and is even said to have been Pope for two years. In later life, he is believed to have interceded with the Frankish king, Childebert I, to end his support for Count Conomor, a notorious local warlord.

It is worth noting that Tudual was claimed to have been the son of Saint Koupaia (Aspasia) and King Hoël the Great of Brittany; himself son of Budic, King of Kernev in Brittany and King Arthur’s sister, Anna. According to legend, Hoël is said to have led 15,000 men across the sea to Britain to aid his uncle then assailed on all sides by the Saxons and Scots. A less romantic version tells that massive raiding parties of Danes, supported by the Franks, seized control of large parts of Brittany thus forcing the Breton lords to return to their ancestral lands. Hoël and his men stayed in Britain for four years before returning to Brittany and eventually driving out the Danish armies. With his father’s Breton lands once again secure, Tudual, along with his brother Saint Leonor and their mother returned to Brittany with 72 other men led by her brother Riwal. The ship that carried Tudual home was said to have vanished at the instant the last of his party disembarked.

Seven Founding Saints Brittany

Another of the Seven Founding Saints was also claimed to have a connection to King Arthur; Saint Padarn, first Bishop of Vannes. Legend has it that Arthur envied the saint’s cloak and tried to take it from him but the earth opened-up and swallowed the king up to his chin, only releasing him after he had acknowledged his fault and accepted Padarn as his patron.

There are several other legends concerning the arrivals of the first Celtic evangelisers to Brittany on boats made of stone. Some of these saints seem to have left little trace in the historical records or in the local toponymy of the region. Such is the case of the 6th century Briton Saint Eneour who is patron of just three churches in the far west of Brittany; in the grounds of the church dedicated to him in Plonéour-Lanvern stands an Iron Age stele traditionally claimed to have been the mast of the stone vessel he used to cross the sea from Wales. Similarly, near Plounéour-Menez lies a stone said to contain imprints made by the saint’s body.

Stone Trough - Brittany - Saints

History does not tell how another British evangeliser, Saint Goueznou, reached Brittany but we know that he was given a gift of land by Count Conomor where he established a monastery whose importance was attested right up to the French Revolution almost 1,200 years later. The cult of this onetime Bishop of Léon was noted to have been in good health as late as the 1850s when pilgrims visited Gouesnou to touch the stone block upon which the saint was believed to have slept in hopes of being cured of their ailments.

Saint Vougay was believed to have travelled from Ireland on a large rock that he found on the seashore and which he commanded to leave and serve him as a ship to pass wherever it pleased God. The stone, an Iron Age stele, stands near the sea at Tréguennec and lies close to the saint’s fountain that was traditionally visited for its healing properties particularly for children slow to walk. In times past, the stone itself was the scene for two rituals invoking fertility; to raise or stop rain according to the needs of the sown crops and by women seeking children.

Saint's Fountain - Brittany

In the 6th century, Saint Ronan renounced all his possessions and left Britain, where he had been accepted into the priesthood, for a closer communion with God. According to tradition he reached the shores of northern Brittany in a stone boat and immediately established a modest hermitage where he soon established a reputation as a great healer. Having been guided by an angel to move southwards, he settled near the town that now bears his name; Locronan near Quimper. While here, Ronan was famously accused of being a sorcerer who in the guise of a wolf had devoured a young maiden but successfully proved the accusations false by not reacting to the fury of King Gradlon’s dogs and by telling the court where the maiden’s body had been concealed by her own mother. It is also near Locronan that a stone known as the Boat of Saint Ronan lies and to which, even towards the end of the 19th century, women would lie upon in the belief that it had the power to grant them children.

On the south coast Isle of Groix, the menhir of Kergatouarn is reputed to the stone boat that Saint Tudy used to cross the sea from the mainland. Similarly, the menhir on the small north coast Isle of Maudez is said to have been set in the ground in the 6th century after it had been used as a boat by Saint Maudez to escape the rocks thrown at him by the hostile pagans of neighbouring Bréhat.

Saints - Brittany

A few hundred meters from the sea in Beuzec-Cap-Sizun lies a recumbent menhir some 8 meters long, which was traditionally held to be the vessel on which Saint Conogan, a noted healer, arrived there by sea in the 5th century. Saint Houardon, future Bishop of Léon, is also said to have reached Brittany on a stone boat and established his monastery not far from that of Conogan. Saint Conogan seems also to have sometimes been identified with Guénec which has led some to claim that the similarly sounding Saint Guénoc also arrived in Brittany on a stone boat.

The latter arrived here in the company of his family and a number of others in the early 5th century. The family is worthy of note because all were regarded as saints. His father, Saint Fragan was cousin to the King of Brittany and seems to have been more a warrior and pioneering settler than a missionary. Stronger evangelising traditions are accorded to Guénoc and his twin brother Jagu but there is precious little found in the life of their sister Klerwi.

Saint Gwenole - King Gradlon - Ker-Is

It is therefore likely that the saintliness of the family was exaggerated in order to emphasise the virtuous origins of his younger brother, Saint Gwenole; a well-known Breton saint, to whom many miracles were attributed, including calming storms and parting waves. He is perhaps best remembered today as the founder of the important monastery at Landévennec and for having ripped open a goose to recover his sister’s eye, torn out by the bird; he replaced the eye in its socket before restoring Klerwi’s sight and the health of the goose. The saint also features in the earliest legend we have regarding the loss of the city of Ker-Is; it was he who helped King Gradlon escape the rising waters and led him to safety.

One curious aspect to the cult of Saint Gwenole is that he is one of the few recognised phallic saints; a singular honour considering that he was not associated with any ancient megaliths purporting to be a boat or a bed, such as was the case with Vougay and Ronan. Gwenole was not invoked as part of some archaic ritual that survived from the region’s pre-Christian past but due to the powerful healing powers attributed to him. This status might have been reinforced by the legend that his mother, Saint Gwenn, gave birth to him while her twin sons were still suckling; a conundrum solved by God who gave her a third breast so that she might suckle Gwenole.

Saint Gwenn with three breasts _ Brittany

The saint’s earliest hagiography tells that Gwenole was a disciple of the Breton prince Saint Budoc; another saint reported to have had very close associations with the sea. A legend recounts that Budoc’s mother, wrongly accused of adultery, was banished from Brittany by being placed in a barrel and condemned to be carried where the winds and tides listed. It was during her five months at sea, when she was succoured by an angel, that she gave birth to Budoc; accounts differ as to whether they eventually landed in Ireland or Wales. After taking holy orders, Budoc was visited by an angel that bade him to return to Brittany. He is said to have crossed the sea in a stone trough that began moving as soon as he entered it, landing at Porspoder on Brittany’s west coast. In time, he succeeded Saint Maelor to become the third Bishop of Dol.

Miraculous stone crafts are also found in the legends of neighbouring lands; both Saint Piran and Saint Gerbold were reputed to have been tied to millstones which, when thrown into the sea, floated like boats that carried them to the safety of Cornwall and Normandy respectively. Legends of holy men being carried in stone boats are also found in the lore of Galicia.

Saint Pol - Paul Aurelian - Dragon-slayer

It is worth mentioning another of the Seven Founding Saints of Brittany because the early hagiographies of this saint, Saint Pol of Léon (Paulinus Aurelianus), highlight many of the common bonds shared by these early evangelists. Pol was the son of a Welsh lord and possibly related to the legendary warrior Ambrosius Aurelianus, a man mentioned in one of the earliest histories of Britain written by Gildas in the mid-6th century and identified as the elder brother of Uther Pendragon and briefly King of Britain, after he and his brother defeated the Saxon leader Hengist on their return from exile in Brittany in a 12th century work by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Like many other early Breton saints, he was a disciple of the learned Saint Illtud; the son of a Breton lord and cousin to King Arthur whom he served when a young warrior. Illtud’s other notable pupils included Gildas, Padarn, Maelor, Samson and likely his cousin Malo too: six of Brittany’s most important early evangelists. The early saints were not just spiritually close but were also tied together by bonds of kinship and this is likely no accident as the British settlers to Brittany seem to have arrived in waves led by tribal chiefs and monks from similarly aristocratic families. Saint Pol himself was said to have arrived here with “twelve priests, as many noble laymen of his kinship, some nephews, others cousins and slaves in sufficient number”. However, a local legend on the Île d’Ouessant maintains that the saint landed there first, having travelled on a stone boat!

Saint Samson - King Arthur - Brittany

Saint Samson likewise arrived in Brittany accompanied by forty companions including his cousin Saint Maelor; another cousin, Saint Malo, arrived later. Samson later became Bishop of Dol and was one of the signatories to the canons of the Council of Paris in 557, so, it is fairly certain that this historical figure existed but tradition also attests that Samson was a step-brother of Sir Kay and thus foster-brother of King Arthur.

The iconography associated with Brittany’s saints often depict quite localised traditions from the many tales told about the lives of these early missionaries. Some are featured carrying hand-bells or standing with dragons and wolves, others with birds, horses and stags. The stag seems to have been a popular trope in the hagiographies of the Breton saints, featuring prominently in the lives of Leonor, Ninnoc and Ke as a symbol of the saint’s authority over the stateliest of wild beasts.

Saint Triffin - headless saint - cephalophore - Brittany

Perhaps the most unusual item depicted with a Breton saint is its own detached head and several such cephalophores are known here. According to one legend, Saint Triffin, a princess from southern Brittany, married King Arthur but in another tale she marries Count Conomor and is beheaded by him when he discovers her pregnancy. She is restored to life by Saint Gildas and with her head in one arm and her new-born baby in the other, she leads the saint and her vengeful father to her husband’s castle which is ultimately destroyed by the wrath of God. Having re-attached Triffin’s head, Gildas takes the boy to be schooled in his monastery while Triffin enters a convent.

The wily Conomor survived the destruction of his castle and tried to arrange the assassination of his son but the boy could never be found. Unhappily, Conomor did find him crossing his lands some nine years later and immediately removed his son’s head with a blow from his sword. Legend has it that Saint Tremeur allowed his father to flee before promptly picking up his head and walking the few miles to repose at his mother’s grave.

Saint Tremeur - headless saint - cephalophore -Brittany

Just 27km (17 miles) south of this tomb lies the town of Noyal-Pontivy, final resting place of another cephalophore saint, Noluenn. This saint was believed to have been the daughter of a British prince who had fled to Brittany, accompanied by her maid, to avoid a marriage and devote her life to prayer; rather wonderfully, she was said to have crossed the sea on the leaf of a tree. Landing near the mouth of the Blavet River, they struck north in search of a suitable hermitage but near Bignan came to the attention of a local lord who demanded she marry him. Enraged at her refusal, the lord cut off her head which the saint quickly picked up and, guided by her maid, walked 20km (13 miles) towards Gildas’ sanctuary near the town of Pontivy. At Noyal, the pair rested; Noluenn planted her walking stick in the ground, which immediately turned into a hawthorn while three drops of blood that fell from her head caused three fountains to spring.

According to legend, Saint Melar was the legitimate heir to the throne of the kingdom of Kernev, then composed of lands on both sides of the Channel, usurped by his uncle Rivod who had the boy’s right hand and left foot removed thus making him unfit to wield a sword and ride a horse. A miracle gave him a silver hand and a foot of brass which functioned as well as his own limbs but seven years later, Melar was murdered, beheaded near Lanmeur. Both assassin and Rivod died shortly thereafter but the savage death of this wronged prince clearly once had such a powerful impact on the popular imagination that the young man was elevated to sainthood.

Saint Melar - headless saint - cephalophore - Brittany

Another saint depicted holding his head in his hands is Gohard, Bishop of Nantes. In 843, he was celebrating mass in Nantes Cathedral on the feast of Saint John the Baptist when a raiding party of Vikings stormed the city, killing the bishop and all his congregation. A legend tells that Saint Gohard picked up his decapitated head and walked to the Loire River where a boat took him to Angers, the town of his birth.

While not depicted as a cephalophore, Saint Bieuzy was said to have been struck in the head by an axe wielded by a local lord angry that his summons to attend a mad dog had not been given the urgency he thought it deserved. The shattered Bieuzy completed his mass and, followed by his congregation, walked the 65km (40 miles) to the abbey of Rhuys, where he received the blessing of his close friend Saint Gildas and immediately fell dead at his feet. The murderous lord is said to have returned home to have found all his animals enraged; he being ripped to pieces by his own dogs.

martyr - Saint Gohard - headless saint - cephalophore - Brittany

Another Breton saint who lost his head was Saint Gestin, a onetime close companion of Saint Efflam who had renounced his noble birth in Brittany for the life of a hermit. Legend has it that Gestin left his hermitage on Ramsay Island, off the west coast of Wales, to serve as abbot at a monastery on the mainland but was so disillusioned with the lax behaviour of the monks that he returned to Ramsay to establish a more spiritual community. Sadly, not all his followers appreciated his more rigorous regime as he was beheaded. Angry at such a monstrous betrayal, the saint picked up his severed head and walked across the water back to the mainland.

Even into relatively modern times, Brittany retained a distinctive Celtic religious identity, shown particularly in devotions to local saints and shrines. The likelihood that many of the early saints were purely legendary did not matter; their stories allowed people to make sense of the name of their village or to understand why certain features, such as springs, were believed to contain healing qualities. Similarly, it was not a matter of any import if the lives of some saints had become confused, conflated or misrepresented over the centuries; what mattered was that their existence fixed them to their community and their community to the land.

Saints of Brittany

By the time Albert Le Grand published his monumental Lives of the Saints of Armorican Brittany in 1637, the role of saints in salvation was more closely defined than it had been in the Middle Ages. Saints were now considered exemplars of Christian virtues and personal intercessors with God. The popular view of saints as miracle workers to whom veneration was made directly was frowned upon and superstitions surrounding cults discouraged.

In Brittany, particularly in the west of the region, local saints associated with the early evangelists continued to be favoured over the saints of the broader Church. However, their primacy slowly shifted over the 18th century when churches were re-dedicated or the old patron of the parish was relegated to a secondary role, supplanted by an internationally recognised saint. Above all others, veneration of Saint Mary the Virgin exploded across the region and with it, a growing veneration of her mother Saint Anne.

Virgin of Benodet - Saint Mary - Brittany

As the saints of the wider Church were progressively favoured, so Bretons incorporated new legends and traditions into their own history and so the international saints received a distinctly Breton context. One legend of Saint Anne tells that she was a princess of the ancient southern kingdom of Kernev, another that she was born in central Brittany near Merléac and had a sister named Pitié. The west coast town of Plonévez-Porzay is also associated with Anne, for it was here that her jealous husband forbade her to bear children. Driven from her home when her pregnancy was discovered, Anne wandered the  land until an angel guided her into a boat and onto the Holy Land. Many years later, Mary married Joseph and Anne returned to Brittany to end her life in prayer. Another local legend refines this to say that Anne came to Brittany to avoid persecution and settled near Crozon where she was even visited by her grandson!

The Unicorn and King Arthur

The legendary unicorn is probably one of the world’s most famous fantastic beasts. This white horse-like animal sporting a long, spiral horn on its forehead was said to live for a thousand years. Long held a symbol of purity and chastity; a protector of the just endowed with exceptional magical powers. Little wonder then that the unicorn myth developed its own associations with the fabled King Arthur and mystical Brittany.

The earliest reference we have of the unicorn is from the work of the Greek physician Ctesias who wrote an account of India around 390BC based on the reports of travellers he met during his seven year sojourn in Persia. According to Ctesias: “In India there are certain wild asses that are as large as horses; their bodies are white, their heads dark red and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a cubit (half a metre or 18 inches) in length. The powder scraped from this horn is taken in a potion as a protection against poisons. The base of the horn, for the breadth of two hands above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and vivid crimson; the middle part is black. Those who drink from cups made of these horns are saved from the sacred disease (epilepsy) and are even immune to poisons.”

Medieval unicorn - King Arthur

In his commentaries on the Gallic Wars of the 1st century BC, the Roman general who led that campaign, Julius Caesar, tells of the curious animals found in the Hercynian Forest. One of which he described as a beast with “the form of a stag, from the middle of whose brow there rises one horn, taller and straighter than any known.” Another Roman author, Pliny the Elder, writing in the 1st century, described the unicorn as a very fierce animal that “has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise and has a single black horn, two cubits in length, that projects from the middle of its forehead. It is said, this animal cannot be taken alive.”

At the beginning of the 3rd century, the Roman author Aelian wrote of the very wild heart of India where, protected by inaccessible mountains, wild beasts such as the unicorn thrived. He described a fleet footed animal as large as a horse with a tawny mane, feet like those of an elephant and the tail of a boar. Between its brows grew a single black horn, not smooth but with natural spirals that tapered to a very sharp point. Like earlier accounts, the horn was noted for its powerful magic but Aelian also added that the unicorn was gentle when approached by other animals.

Unicorn - King Arthur - Brittany

These brief references to the unicorn are worth noting because it is these few scant descriptions, likely of the Indian rhinoceros and a confused account of the antelope, that underpinned popular belief in the marvellous unicorn for the subsequent 1,500 years or so.

In the centuries that followed, the unicorn acquired religious connotations within the Christian Church as a symbol of grace and purity, even sometimes being used as an allegory for Jesus Christ; a process likely helped by the authoritative presence of unicorns in the Bible. The early Latin translations of the Bible and the vernacular translations derived from them mention the unicorn seven times; all in the Old Testament. Such references conjure the image of an animal remarkable for its strength and wild ferocity: “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of a unicorn.” (Numbers 23 v22).  “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 33 v17).  “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow or will he harrow the valleys after thee?” (Job 39 v9-10).

Unicorn - Licorne - King Arthur

Clearly these passages relate to some actual animal of which the writers possessed clear impressions; a natural rather than supernatural creature yet mysterious enough to inspire a sense of awe and power. However, these references are likely legacies of translation errors that occurred when the Old Testament was translated into Greek in the 2nd century BC. In the Hebrew text, the word re’em is used to designate a type of wild ox but without an equivalent word in Greek, the translators used the word monoceros (one-horned animal). When the Bible was translated into Latin at the turn of the 5th century, the Greek monoceros was rendered as unicornis which, a thousand years later, was translated as licorne in French and unicorn in English. Unfortunately, the first Breton translation of the Old Testament, published in 1827, is a scarce book and I have not been able to see what word was used there!

The unicorn’s passage into the rich folds of Christian myth and symbolism gathered pace thanks to the bestiaries of the Middle Ages. These books of beasts discussed the appearance, habitat and habits of the creatures of the natural world as allegories to illuminate moral truths that might edify the faithful. Although condemned as heretical by Pope Gelasius in 496 (the same year he established the feast of Saint Valentine), such works were widely circulated and remained very popular even into the 15th century. Thus, the popular tradition of the marvellous unicorn was steadily spread throughout Europe.

Killing a Unicorn - bestiary - Arthur

The medieval Bestiaries generally describe the unicorn as a small animal, akin to a large goat or small horse, fast and fierce for its size, with a single horn growing from the middle of its head. No hunter was said able to catch it but the beast could be taken by deception; the most common ploy involved a virgin girl left alone in the woods to act as a lure. Upon sighting the girl, the unicorn was believed unable to resist her and would go and rest its head in her lap where it soon fell asleep; the insensible unicorn could then be captured or killed by the hunter. Some accounts embellished this ruse to say that the girl needed to bare her breast and even to allow the unicorn to suckle in order to gain its trust. The 12th century nun and visionary Hildegarde of Bingen went so far as to claim that “the girls by whom he is captured must be noble and not rustic, not quite grown-up or quite young but moderately youthful and … gentle and sweet”.

Many of the bestiaries highlighted the healing properties of the unicorn mentioned by the early Greek and Roman authors. The animal’s horn was said to be powerful against pestilential diseases and highly effective against all poisons. Hildegard of Bingen recommended a paste of powdered unicorn liver and egg yolk as a cure for leprosy and claimed that a girdle of the animal’s skin protected the wearer against pestilence and fever, even shoes made from its skin ensured healthy feet and legs.

Unicorn and Virgin - King Arthur

Although best known for his work on the therapeutic power of thermal springs, the 16th century Italian scholar Andrea Bacci wrote an extensive treatise in defence of the unicorn and the virtues and possible uses of its horn. In his Discorso dell’Alicorno (1573) just ten grains scraped from the inside of the animal’s horn was considered enough to counteract any poison. Other Renaissance scholars also extolled the importance of the unicorn whose powdered horn was recommended as a remedy against the plague during the 16th and 17th centuries. In Johann Schröder’s influential work Pharmacopoeia Medico-Chymica (1672) unicorn horn was commended against poisons, infectious diseases and even epilepsy in children. 

The early-17th century French pharmacologist Laurent Catelan warned that unicorn horn must never be put into hot water, for this would destroy all its virtue; he advised that powdered horn be dissolved in cold water and drunk. Given the scarcity and thus high cost of unicorn horn, water that had simply been in contact with it was also considered to have powerful therapeutic virtues. Its rarity ensured that pieces of horn were highly prized; a supply challenge that proved fertile ground for the unscrupulous who touted other types of animal horn as unicorn. One means of testing the authenticity of unicorn horn was to observe the behaviour of spiders placed around it; if the spiders avoided it, the horn was believed genuine.

Unicorns and the virgin - King Arthur - Brittany

The strong belief in the ability of unicorn horns to protect against poisons also saw them used as a means of detecting such substances; fragments of horn would be touched to plates of food or jugs of wine in the belief that they would alert to the presence of poison either by changing colour or giving off steam. Those that feared poisoning had pieces of horn fashioned into the stems of cups, the handles of knives and even set into salt pots; Cosimo de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany possessed such a cup and King Henry V of England is known to have presented one to the Duke of Brittany in 1414. Indeed, unicorn horns were listed amongst the prized possessions of many European rulers such as King Charles VI of France, Philip III Duke of Burgundy and Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Given the unicorn’s reputation as a creature of both immense power and intense grace, it is perhaps of little surprise that the animal eventually found its way into literature. The first Arthurian legend to feature unicorns is Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, written in the early 13th century, which tells of Sir Percival’s long quest for the Holy Grail across the lands of Britain and Brittany. In an attempt to cure the Fisher King, wounded in the groin by a poisoned lance, many fantastic remedies are administered to him, such as the blood of the pelican and the herbs grown where a dragon had bled. One treatment was prepared with the heart of a unicorn and the carbuncle that was said to grow at the base of its horn but these also failed due to the will of God.

Unicorn and Stag - Peredur - King Arthur

Von Eschenbach’s tale builds on that found in French poet Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished Perceval ou le Conte du Graal (Percival or the Tale of the Grail) written in the late 12th century. Another medieval romance that tells a broadly similar story is the 14th century Welsh tale Peredur fab Efrawg (Peredur son of Efrawg). Scholars are divided as to how much the anonymous author of Peredur borrowed from de Troyes or whether both tales share the same ancient, lost source. One notable incident in the Welsh tale is a character known as the black maiden commanding Peredur to kill the stag with one sharp horn on its forehead that is plaguing the forest. While stag hunting is a familiar trope in Arthurian romances and there is a similar incident recorded in de Troyes’ work, could Peredur’s stag with one horn actually have been a unicorn rather than a battle-scarred stag?

Le Chevalier au Papegau is an anonymous medieval tale known in only one original manuscript dating from the end of the 14th century; much of the action takes place here in Brittany. It tells how, almost immediately after his coronation, the newly crowned King Arthur sets out from Camelot, without his retinue, to help a lady terrorised by a brute who has already killed 60 of her best knights. Championing the Lady Without Pride, the unrecognised Arthur defeats the monstrous Sir Bad Boy of Causuel in single combat thanks to his trusty sword Chastiefol (the punisher of fools) and, in doing so, excites the attention of a magical parrot who proclaims him as the one “about whom Merlin prophesised” beseeching Arthur to allow him to accompany him because: “I am rightfully yours for you are the best knight in the world”.

Knight of the Parrot - King Arthur - Unicorn

Now acclaimed as The Knight of the Parrot, Arthur continues his mission in company with the Countess Beauty Without Villainy and a cowardly dwarf who carries the magical parrot in its richly bejewelled golden cage. When Arthur encounters the knight who has been terrorising the lands of the fay Lady of the Blonde Hair a furious battle ensues. After hours of hard fighting, Arthur finally slays the evil knight; a giant whose horse was the size of an elephant and a creature that was later discovered to be one beast.

Alas, Arthur’s adventures do not end with the restoration of Lady of the Blond Hair to her lands. Love’s arrow is fired, Arthur’s honour is shamed and there are more damsels in distress to be rescued. Amid the pangs of unrequited love and the restoration of honour, Arthur and his parrot undergo a series of marvellous adventures. He encounters giants, sea monsters, a bridge of knives and a dwarf whose son grew into a giant thanks to having been suckled by a unicorn.

Unicorn - Arthur - Knight of the Parrot

This creature was described as a beast of extraordinary size, as tall as a horse and with a horn sharper than any razor in the middle of its forehead. She had fourteen large teats, the smallest of which was the size of a cow’s udder. After having nursed her foals, the unicorn continued to succour both the dwarf and his son with delicious sweet milk; the dwarf’s son grew prodigiously on account of its miraculous properties. Arthur’s ship had run aground on the dwarf’s island and he was only able to re-float it with the aid of the giant and the unicorn who pulled the vessel back into deep water. Once afloat, the dwarf and his son boarded Arthur’s ship but the unicorn could not be parted from the giant whom he loved deeply and together all safely reached the lands of the Lady of the Blond Hair.

A more recent tale tells that one stormy February night, the great forest of Brocéliande was briefly illuminated by an immense ball of fire that raced across the black sky. In that one moment, a fierce bolt of lightning cleft the heavens; striking ground deep in the forest. People claim that it was in that twinkling of an eye that a most peculiar beast first appeared on Earth. A marvellous creature that might have been taken for a mare but for the magnificent horn that stood proud upon its head; in recognition of which the fairies of the forest called it Unicorn.

Unicorns - Brocéliande - Fairies - Arthur

Over time, the Fairy Queen became firm friends with the Unicorn who would often allow her to sit upon its back and it was in this manner that the Queen, accompanied by her attendants, undertook a great journey around the farthest boundaries of her realm. It was during this grand tour that, one evening, the darkness was so complete that even the Unicorn could no longer find its way through the forest.

Fortuitously, the fairy Viviane appeared and with a single stroke of her wand she made a burst of pure white light stream forth from the Unicorn’s horn, and day won over night; to the great astonishment of the Fairy Queen and her party. Enraged at the victory of light over darkness, the Devil suddenly materialised in their midst and violently attacked the unwary Unicorn. During the struggle, the Lord of Darkness managed to snap off the Unicorn’s horn and instantly disappeared into the darkness with his trophy.

It was said that, to restore balance to the Earth, the enchanter Merlin toiled tirelessly to recover the magical horn and that after he had managed to secure this prize, he worked in secret with a master smith to forge a magnificent sword from the finest steel and the horn of the Unicorn. Later, Merlin bestowed upon Arthur the responsibility of wielding this magical sword and charged him with driving evil further into the darkness.

Raphael - unicorn - Arthur

The unicorn’s position in the popular imagination is a curious one for it was not a beast that flourished much beyond the pages of dry histories and fantastic bestiaries; domains reserved for the privileged few able to afford and read such texts. Perhaps if Pliny, the most widely read of the early authors, had spoken of the magical qualities of the unicorn’s horn the legend of the unicorn would have buried itself deeper into European folklore?

For millennia, the fact that no one ever saw a unicorn did not affect belief in its existence and yet the unicorn did not enter popular mythology and folklore to the same extent that other marvellous creatures, once held to exist such as the basilisk, dragon or griffin, did. As the world became smaller, belief in the unicorn had all but disappeared in Europe by the middle of the 17th century but faith in the healing power of its horn somehow survived here for another century.

Brittany’s Magical Trees

Since antiquity, trees have been associated with the mystical forces of nature and the Divine. Special or sacred trees are to be found in the traditional beliefs of cultures across the world; many possessed particular characteristics based on natural properties or else were laden with deeply-rooted symbolism. Brittany contains its share of sacred trees and a trove of legends and superstitious beliefs that attest to the reverence long afforded to trees here.

In this corner of Europe, much has been written about the beliefs of the people who dwelt here in the early years of the Common Era. However, little is really known about the spiritual life of the ancient Celts of Brittany; they left virtually no written trace and exercises in comparative mythology based on Irish and Welsh texts set down in the Middle Ages although interesting are, at best, speculative. First century accounts written by Roman authors contemporaneous with the druids tell us that their secret instruction was carried out in forests and caves and we know that certain groves, oak being especially esteemed, within forests were sacred because Romans and Christians alike cut them down in an effort to eradicate the old beliefs.

St Boniface-cutting-Donar-Oak - Magic Trees Brittany

That trees once held a ritual significance in the religion of the Celts would help to explain why trees were venerated here well into the Common Era. Later, Christianity sought to eradicate the ancient religious feeling concerning trees but it was clearly a slow process as evidenced by edicts from various Church Councils. The Council of Arles in 452 expressly forbade the worship of trees and decreed that anyone who worshipped trees or neglected to destroy them, should be found guilty of sacrilege. A point reinforced by the Council of Tours in 567 that pronounced: “excommunication for all those who engage in certain practices of idolatry, such as the worship of trees consecrated to demons and for which the people have such veneration that they dare not cut off the smallest branch; and on which they make vows and oblations.”

Clearly, the old beliefs refused to be swept away for, over a century later, the Council of Rouen in 692 denounced all who offered vows to trees. Interestingly, the edicts of the Council of Leptines in 743 provide us with a small insight into the kinds of activities that still needed to be denounced; it forbade “vows near trees and in sacred woods”, “the worship of tress and secluded places” and condemned those that “make wishes in front of trees … or place there a candle or some offering, as if some power was there, which could bring good or evil”. Also proscribed were: the weaving of laurels, making herds pass through the hollow of a tree and hiding charms in trees in order to cure animals of diseases or to ruin the livestock of a neighbour. Another ritual outlawed was the making of vows in front of trees and stretching out a hand upon the tree trunk. Possibly this is the origin of the superstitious practice known as “touch wood”, still practiced across Europe today?

Cezanne_Well under trees - magic trees brittany

Forests of trees once totally dominated the landscape of Brittany and with their vitality and longevity it is not difficult to imagine how they retained their ancient associations and devotions. Many believe that the ancient Bretons venerated trees as the abodes of gods or the spirits of their ancestors. Perhaps this helps explain why trees are often closely associated with supernatural beings such as korrigans and fairies; entities who are often said to be the degraded echoes of deities venerated before the arrival of Christianity.

The little people of Brittany have long been associated with forests; dark, lonely realms that they jealously guard from the encroachment of men. Local tradition attests that the korikaned, the wildest of korrigans, claim overlordship of the forests and control the weather in order to disperse trespassers. There are many legends that place the korrigans and fairies in forest settings and others that tell of dead fairies becoming trees or that the fairies punished those who touched their favourite trees. Local lore tells of trees which one must take care not to cut, if misfortune is to be avoided. A woodcutter who had felled an ancient oak in the forest of Rennes, experienced from that moment, until the end of his days, a constant trembling in his limbs. Sometimes, the fairies’ guardianship manifested in other ways; after having built the castle of Montauban de Bretagne, the fairies are reputed to have sown the forest that surrounds it in order to give it protection.

Yuliya Litvinova_Fairies and the peasant girl - magical trees brittany
©Yuliya Litvinova, Fairies and the Peasant Girl

In Brittany, the traditional folk beliefs associated with trees are, as you might expect, numerous. However, the degree that these afford us a glimpse into ancient beliefs that may have survived into modern times is for the reader to decide. There were a great deal of superstitions that associated trees with death and the Afterlife. For instance, in eastern Brittany, the leaves of the Aspen tree were said to be home to the souls of children. Those that were coloured white underneath were believed to indicate that a treasure was buried at the foot of the tree but the exact place to dig was only revealed at midnight, on a Friday, by a ray of moonlight which illuminated it for only a second.

In several Breton legends, the souls of the dead are trapped in trees; one story tells of two old Oaks endlessly battling each other, said to have been the souls of a married couple who had continuously fought whilst alive and condemned to suffer this torment until a man had been crushed between them. Similarly, some souls were said condemned to do penance until an acorn, collected on the day of their death, had become an oak suitable for some proper use. According to a belief noted around Dinan in the 19th century, an Apple tree planted on the day of the birth of a child suffers when this infant is sick, and if it becomes a man and dies, the tree withers.

Acorns - magic trees Brittany

Evergreens, particularly Boxwood and Laurel, were believed to be one of the preferred locations for the souls of the dead performing their earthly penance. The Laurel was also deemed surrounded with danger as it was claimed that whenever it was planted, someone in the house would die before the end of the year. The tree was therefore commonly planted on the last day of the year and by someone who was not part of the household. It is worth noting that in northern Brittany twigs of Laurel were, alongside mistletoe, once traditionally pinned to the sheets of the funeral chapel.

The Chestnut was once believed to possess a power unconnected with its strength as a hardy wood used for supporting roofs or making ploughs. In southern France, roasted chestnuts were part of the traditional meal eaten on All Saints’ Day; each nut represented a soul freed from purgatory destined for Heaven. In Brittany, in a time before coffins were widely used by the poor, Breton peasants carefully peeled the bark of a Chestnut to serve as a bier for a dead child.

Chestnut - magic trees brittany

One curious link between trees, their fruit and the dead is preserved in a practice noted in the west coast town of Plougastel-Daoulas on All Saints’ Day. Here, a small tree, known as the Gwezenn an Anaon (Tree of Souls), is fashioned from a trunk of Yew whose branches are cut into points upon which Apples are pierced. The tree is paraded and then auctioned; the successful bidder re-selling the Apples for the benefit of the parish, the proceeds being used to pay for masses to be said for the souls of the dead. As part of the auction conditions, the buyer committed to putting the tree, adorned with fresh Apples, back on sale the following All Saints’ Day. The Gwezenn an Anaon was thought to protect the household of its custodian against all misfortunes.

This ceremony took place in the Parish Close until the late-1970s when the local priests refused to accept money derived from such a pagan service. Thankfully, a group of locals refused to let the tradition die and continued the ceremony, much as before, at the sacred spring near the Notre-Dame-de-la-Fontaine-Blanche chapel, a short distance away; monies collected now going to community causes.

Plougastel_chapelle-fontaine-blanche - magic trees brittany

Unsurprisingly, trees were also closely associated with fertility. In times past, young women visited the Ligouyer lake near Saint-Pern to rub themselves against an Oak tree that grew near the shore in expectation of being married within the year. A Hawthorn tree in the nearby village of Miniac was also believed to possess the same virtue but only if the young girl circled the tree three times without making any sound. A similar ritual, performed on the eve of May Day, was also observed at a Hawthorn near Saint-Briac.

A little south, around Pipriac, if a young man went to ask for a girl’s hand in marriage, branches of Boxwood burning in the fireplace signalled the parents’ refusal to any union. Again in eastern Brittany, it was once customary for a new bride to enter her home for the first time through the back door; her husband being obliged to enter through the front door, which was blocked by a small tree adorned with ribbons known as ‘The May’. In the west of the region, this name was given to a branch of Beech that young men left against the door of houses on the eve of May Day as a declaration of romantic interest in one of the unmarried women residing there. At other times, aspiring suitors placed a Hawthorn leaf on the door for the same purpose.

Sebillot - Magic Trees Brittany

One of the simplest traditional spells to attract love here consisted of heating a red Apple by rubbing it between one’s hands, cutting the fruit in two and sharing one half with the object of one’s affections. Wands made of Hazel were believed able to allow the skilled practitioner to know whether they were truly loved by their partner but wands made from Apple wood were said best for those rituals involving the control of human emotions.

In Brittany, those seeking marriage or children customarily visited sacred springs and saints’ fountains to undertake certain rituals believed to bring about the desired outcome. However, deciding which was likely the most favourable source to visit was a task handled by the local witch. This was typically done by a ritual known as ‘the pull of the saints’; a branch of Hazel was burnt over a container of water while the names of propitious saints were recited. The name pronounced at the moment the first piece of burnt wood fell into the water, signalled the saint’s fountain to be visited.

Jules Breton_Asleep in the woods - magic trees brittany

In southern Brittany, new brides were traditionally presented with a Laurel branch loaded with apples and bedecked with ribbons. In many parts of the region, new brides were given Hazelnuts on their wedding night or else sprigs of the tree were placed at the foot of the bridal bed; a practice believed to aid fertility. It was said that if the Hazel tree carried a lot of nuts on the day of one’s wedding that the bride would bear more girls than boys. The connection between trees and birth is also found in a local legend that tells that the woman who ate the leaf of certain Oaks was assured the birth of a child.

If a newlywed wanted her husband to love her dearly, it was recommended that she put a Walnut leaf, picked on Midsummer’s Eve, in her left sabot while the Nones bell was ringing. However, if it seemed as though her husband was going to abandon her, calling upon the power of the Chestnut tree was said to be an effective means of guaranteeing that he did not; provided the wayward spouse ate Chestnuts with every meal and Chestnut wood was burnt in the fireplace. Another curious belief can be found in a practice once recommended to ensure marital fidelity through the year ahead. This advised that upon hearing the first toad of the year, one took a branch of Hazel and struck the marital bed with it eight times without drawing breath.

van gogh_planw trees - magic trees brittany

As a symbol of vitality, the healing power of trees was once widely accepted here and numerous rituals were noted as extant in Brittany at the end of the 19th century. Those people that visited sacred springs in hope of being cured of their ailments often, as part of the ritual, hung various objects or items of clothing from the branches of trees that grew nearest the spring. Following the belief that disease could be transferred from the patient into another being or even inanimate object, people would sometimes bind themselves to a tree with a tie of straw or rope in hopes of passing their fever.

However, it was more typical for the patient to visit a tree before breakfast and bind a tie that had been in contact with the disease onto the tree, at the height of the sick part of their body. The sickness was said to ease as the tie rotted but only if a certain charm had been recited and the bark of the tree bitten. It was also essential that no part of the ceremony had been witnessed by another. There is an account of a beggar who once held a powerful reputation for healing fevers; his most effective remedy involved the Aspen. Having climbed the tree and cut its bark with a knife, the healer sucked the sap while intoning: “Tremble, tremble harder than I tremble.” The patient was believed healed as their sickness passed into the tree.

Monet_Grove of Olive Trees - magic trees brittany

The region’s folk medicine also called upon trees to provide the ingredients necessary to treat a broad range of ailments. A decoction of Alder bark was said to cure a fever, as were Horse Chestnuts boiled in sweetened milk. Rheumatism was treated by boiling Ash leaves in water while boiled Walnut leaves were used in the treatment of skin diseases such as eczema, boils, herpes and even frostbite. A hot poultice made from Walnut leaves was used to treat toothache, as was a roasted Hazelnut.

Patients suffering from liver disease, asthma or whooping cough were treated with Apples cooked in cabbage leaves over red charcoal; hot Apple cooked over charcoal was also applied directly as a treatment for earache. To cure ringworm, an Apple was cut in half and its seeds replaced with sulphur before the two halves were tied back together and baked. Once mashed, the Apple was applied to the affected area for five days.

One cure for warts required the sufferer to cut an Apple in half and rub the warts with both pieces before tying them together in a Fig leaf; as they rotted, the warts were expected to disappear. Some healers believed that the ritual was most effective if the Apple was buried at the foot of a Walnut tree. Another remedy called for the Apple to be cut in half with one half remaining attached to the tree; having rubbed the warts with the detached piece, it needed to be grafted back onto the other half by a length of twine or a dowel. As the fruit rotted, so did the offending warts.

Hazelnuts - magic trees Brittany

Many Bretons once wore or carried pieces of wood about the body to cure or protect against illnesses; a Horse Chestnut carried in a pocket was said to protect against rheumatism and prevented haemorrhoids. To treat epilepsy, a Hazelnut filled with quicksilver was placed in a scarlet pouch that was hung around the neck.

Animals too could be protected by the power of trees; to rid sheep of worms, they were made to wear an amulet of three or nine different kinds of wood. Likewise, collars of Ash branches were hung around the neck of cattle to guard against Foot and Mouth disease. Some people carried the tip of an Alder branch and some of the tree’s bark in a small pouch as a protective talisman against the Evil Eye and other misfortunes. The tree’s sap, when collected before dawn on 10 March, was regarded as a powerful weapon in the fight against the forces of darkness.

In Breton folklore, when God created the Chestnut tree, the Devil wanted to imitate His creation but only succeeded in making the Horse Chestnut. Breton children were once cautioned against eating raw Chestnuts lest they attract lice. For those that were infested, one popular remedy called for the sufferer to visit a riverbank before sunrise and there beat their shirt for an hour with a branch of Blackthorn. This tree was also utilised in disenchantment rituals involving cursed livestock.

A patient suffering with fever was believed cured if a cross made of Laurel was placed on their chest while the priest read from the gospel during Sunday mass. Likewise, possession of a small piece of bark taken from a certain Oak that grew in La Chapelle-Janson near Fougères was believed to cure all fevers. However, sometimes it was not even necessary to make physical contact to enjoy the power of a tree; on the moor south of Combourg, three Oaks once grew very close together and it was believed that just to pass between these trees would cure the patient of any fever.

Emily Carr_Tress - Magic Trees Brittany

The mystical elements surrounding trees fostered a number of beliefs and superstitions regarding their ability to project magical power. At Saint-Pôan, an enormous Oak was said to have once been a man transformed into a tree by a fairy’s curse. This tree was believed to act as a plug that stopped a spring from overflowing; if it were uprooted or felled, the land would be inundated for a hundred leagues around. Near the northern town of Quintenic, it was once claimed that there was a plant which only grew in the hollow of Oak trees. If one ate this plant while holding a bunch of Mistletoe and Verbena, they were immediately granted the power of becoming invisible at will and of being able to travel instantly from one place to another.

In western Brittany, a ritual known as Barrin ar Mae (May Branch) was performed on the eve of May Day. A branch of Beech but sometimes Birch was hung in front of the house in order to bring on good luck and to protect against evil. Similarly, the gateways to fields were often honoured with a May Branch in order to ensure a good harvest.

May Day was believed a time when cows were particularly susceptible to the power of sorcerers and their evil spells. For instance, five or seven Hazelnut clusters passed under the door of a barn and dragged to the spellcaster’s house were said to stop any cows in the barn from producing milk. In order to protect them against such misfortune, an elaborate ritual was performed; the cattle were taken from the barn which was then cleaned thoroughly. The leaves of a number of plants, namely Bay, Bramble, Elderberry and Laurel, collected that morning, were then burned with scraps of old leather in all the corners of the building. As a final mark of protection, branches of Elderberry were hung from the walls inside the barn and a Bramble fastened in the form of an arc above the door.

Adélard_Bois Sacre -Magic Trees Brittany

Many trees were believed to cast a protective spell over people and their animals. Hawthorn was said to protect one against lightning strikes; an attribute that it shared with Laurel and Holly. The Holly tree was considered a design of the Devil; formed out of spite against the marvels of God’s creation. Despite or perhaps because of this, the tree was said to also protect one against poisoning and evil spells. Branches of the tree were also hung in barns in the expectation that they would repel cow sores. Similarly, a branch of Medlar, if placed above the stable door on the morning of Good Friday, was thought to ward off the bad luck that jealous neighbours might throw on one’s livestock.

Near Landeleau, a tree known as the Oak of Saint-Thélo attracts the attention of many pilgrims who visit the town on Pentecost to participate in the Troménie de Landeleau; a religious procession that covers a time-honoured 15km circuit. The bark of this tree was traditionally prized in the belief that it afforded protection against fire but these days it is collected as a talisman for good luck. When the original tree died about 15 years ago, popular devotion transferred to a younger oak belonging to the same grove.

Glover_Oak - magic trees brittany

It was said in Upper Brittany, that each Hazel tree possessed within its folds a branch that turned into pure gold. This branch made a wand that was reputed to equal in power those of the greatest fairies. However, this prize could only be gained if cut between the first and last chimes of the bell announcing the Christmas mass and that whoever tries and fails, disappears from this world forever.

Often associated with magic, Hazel was said to furnish the very best divining rods, particularly when searching for hidden springs and silver, but, handled well, it could also indicate whether one was truly loved by their partner and who amongst us was a thief. The power of Hazel was also manifested in the belief that sorcerers could make it rain by beating the water of the ponds with Hazel wands. A branch of this tree was even reputed to kill snakes with just a single blow and yet curiously Hazel was the only wood said able to handle new honey which was never stirred other than with a stick of this wood.

Tree Magic - magical trees Brittany

Certain trees seem to have been granted the ability to impart knowledge: around Dinan, it was once said that if a young woman cooked an oak apple, of a certain maturity, in the water of a spring that watered a cemetery; she would be imbued with all the wisdom and knowledge of the ancient fairies. One Breton story tells of a girl who sought absolution for having had three children by a priest; absolution was granted because a rod of Holly that she planted in the sand took root and flourished. The moss found under the shade of an Ash tree that grew near a stream, if gathered on the night of a full moon between eleven o’clock and midnight while the cuckoo sang three times, was once considered a sure way of finding the Devil.

Other trees seem to have possessed some kind of innate power such as the Chestnut tree whose harmful shade was said to causes diseases of languor to those who fell asleep under its shade; the Ash also carried the same sinister reputation. However, Beech wood was hung in front of the house and stable in order to, by its presence, bring-on good fortune and protect against evil over the year ahead. Likewise, throwing a broom made of Birch onto the ground in front of a sorcerer who entered your house was believed enough to counter any curse.

Pelouse_Breton Forest - magic trees brittany

In Brittany, it was said that the trees which grew near houses wanted to see what was happening there; they were imbued with a vitality and personality akin to a domestic animal. On May Day, Medlar trees were even said to lean towards the ground in an effort to encourage people to trim them. This close affinity between humanity and trees is perhaps best summed-up in an old Breton saying: “When you cut down trees, the earth shakes!”

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