Books of magical spells and incantations have existed for as long as the written word; some well-known examples, known as grimoires in France, contain fairly benign formulas for finding love while others feature deadly curses and charms for summoning demons. Some books are reportedly so cursed that they reap catastrophe upon any who possess them and it was once believed that a grimoire had to be burned after the death of the witch or sorcerer who wrote it.
Filed away in the Departmental archives of Finistère in western Brittany lies a small, slim volume containing seventy six handwritten charms, conjurations and formulas. A practical handbook of witchcraft set down sometime in the 18th century representing a varied collection of spells and enchantments to be used in order to gain good fortune, riches or love. These spells provide a fascinating insight into the popular mentality of the rural population of Brittany before the French Revolution.
At a time when very few Bretons understood French, it is perhaps surprising that the grimoire was not written in Breton, suggesting that the work was intended for a certain strata of society that could read French or for some literate village witch or sorcerer. The work contains a mixture of French and Latin; the former used as the operational language for functional spells, while Latin, the liturgical language, was devoted to the more incantatory, mystical formulas. Mysterious runes and strange characters are also scattered throughout the text.
Much of the book contains variations of spells and conjurations found in some of the more popular grimoires published in France in the 18th century, such as Le Dragon Rouge and the Grimoire of Pope Honorius, and interspersed with charms once commonly found in witchcraft rituals across Brittany.
A significant proportion of the book focuses on spells that allow the caster to gain possession of something or even someone. To win at games, the book recommends writing a certain formula on a previously unused parchment of sheep skin at noon on the day of Jupiter (Thursday) during a waxing moon.
In order to acquire a certain memory, one is required to draw two crossed circles on a new parchment made from the skin of a fox, killed when the sun is in the houses of Mercury which are Gemini or Virgo. More often than not, in witchcraft, the act is the verb; the right magic word or symbol being the source of enchantment. To bewitch a sword or dagger, it was necessary to recite: “I command you to remain in the scabbard of Agrippa; Obo, obe, ober puero”. To enchant a firearm, one proclaimed: “I charm you with stone, powder and lead in the name of Beelzebub, Satan and Lucifer; Pala, Zela, funa, diabolis”.
In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, commoners were prohibited from hunting game under the laws of the Ancien Régime. Penalties for those caught poaching were often severe, so, we should not be too surprised to find a spell that allows one to escape the rigors of the law and obtain game without hunting. To achieve this marvel, the grimoire proposes an incantatory formula: “I beseech you Leonis, by your master and mine, to expose and muster all kinds of game, furred and feathered, all good to eat. Bring me game that can be caught by hand before the sun has risen”.
In a time when incessant hard work did not always offer the reward of a full table, some people might well have been tempted by the allure of easy money. The book tells us that to receive one hundred crowns (high value pre-Revolutionary coins) a week, it was necessary to walk between four paths while holding a coin between the thumb and second finger of the left hand, reciting, in a robust tone, the charm: “Beelzebub, ego me nobis trado”. In casting this spell, which was sealed by drawing a magical rune with one’s own blood, it was crucial that one was not in possession of anything holy or that had ever been blessed. This done, one needed to throw their coin onto the ground before them. Returning to that spot on the following day, one could expect to discover one hundred crowns; if not, it was necessary to re-cast the spell three times.
Almost a quarter of all the spells in this grimoire are devoted to what can loosely be called love; formulas talk of winning, catching or gaining the affection or love of a girl or woman. Magic could be called upon to break through the societal barriers caused by rank and riches but such spells were not for the fainthearted. To gain the friendship of a girl of any quality, one needed to note when a mare was born of a foal and immediately cut a piece of flesh straight from its forehead and dry it, from noon precisely, in the sun on Jupiter’s day. After collecting the dried flesh at the death of the sun, one needed to grind it to a powder and feed it to the object of one’s affections.
For those anxiously seeking a woman’s love, a more wholesome recommendation contained in the grimoire advised visiting the lady for three days in a row, taking her hand while solemnly declaring: “I beg you X to love me and no other, and to grant me the same friendship that the Virgin Mary bore to Our Lord Jesus Christ”. Another, seemingly innocent sounding, spell involved taking a hair from the front of a lady’s head and knotting it with one’s own hair between the two elevations during a Friday mass while invoking the charm: “Deus dixit quae ligatum”.
Another spell to win the love of a girl or woman required one to collect the intimate secretions of a mare on heat and somehow convince the lady to drink these fluids – the grimoire is silent on whether the liquid can be diluted or whether subterfuge can be used to encourage the lady to drink. Having swallowed the drink, the lady was said to immediately want to join the spell caster. The charm was said to be effective on any day of the week, save Friday.
Many of Brittany’s traditional folk remedies and old spells ascribe a mysterious, magical power to knots of hair and finger nail cuttings; in the Côtes d’Armor region, nail cuttings absorbed in water were once believed to cure a fever. Our grimoire attributes another power to such a potion; a lady will return your affections if she consumes a drink containing the cuttings of your finger nails. Such examples of the power of contact form, alongside those of similarity and contrast, the key foundations of many concepts of practical witchcraft.
The desire to become invisible at will was clearly a power popularly sought in the Brittany of yesteryear as witnessed by the gift said to have been provided by the regions many magical grasses. The grimoire does not fail to provide several spells said to grant the caster the ability to make themselves invisible. In one, it is necessary to cut off the head of a male black cat and remove its eyes. A bean must then be inserted within each socket with further beans placed inside each ear and in the cat’s mouth. At midnight, the head should be buried in a dung heap and not retrieved until midnight on the following day. It is then that you will encounter a man who will ask what you are looking for. You must answer by telling him that you are seeking what you have hidden and he will tell you to take it.
However, before you bow to take it, you must ask the stranger whether it is safe for you to do so. If he answers that all is well and again tells you to take it, you must do so immediately and take it straight home. Having regained possession of the head, you then need to buy, without any haggling, a new mirror. Once home, remove the beans from the cat’s head and, facing the mirror, place them, one after the other, under your tongue until you can no longer see your reflection.
A slight variation to this ritual is offered in another invisibility spell found in the grimoire. This calls, once again, for the head of a black cat whose eyes must be removed and replaced with two beans and buried. When the beans are ripe, one amongst them will differ to the others; this bean, when placed under your tongue, will grant you the elusive power of invisibility.
Finding something hidden or lost was another popular concern addressed by the folk magic of old Brittany but the rituals contained in this grimoire call upon the divinatory power of angels. That which was lost would be uncovered if a virgin child, whose palm was greased with a mixture of walnut oil and soot, faced west and recited certain formulas invoking the fallen angel Assyriel. To identify someone who was guilty of murder, the child had to face north and call upon the angel Gediel; to know who had wronged you, the child needed to face south and invoke the angel Uriel. Similar rituals are found in Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia and in the anonymous 17th century grimoire known as The Lesser Key of Solomon.
The formula to predict the future blurs the opaque distinction between superstition and traditional witchcraft quite nicely. For instance, in order to know if one will have a good trip, the grimoire recommends that the traveller asks the name of the first person sighted on the day of the voyage. A good trip was assured if the name did not begin with a vowel but danger lay ahead if the name began with a C, D or F. One’s undertaking would be difficult or time-consuming if a person whose name started with N, R or S was met; if an F or G were encountered, you could expect to receive a judgement against you.
The grimoire does not contain any spells to bring about death; perhaps the author did not wish to divulge curses likely to involve death and for which he refused to take responsibility? However, there are a number of spells whose evil nature are explicitly noted by the author and while spells intended to prevent a woman from conceiving or to bring on uterine pain might have been called upon by people anxious not to have any more children, they could equally be used out of malevolent intent. Other spells are clearly intended to do no harm, such as extinguishing a house fire or relieving toothache but the incantation to make a woman wet the bed is unlikely to be anything but malicious.
Such ambivalence was at the heart of traditional witchcraft; benign or malign spells inhabited the same space, a duality recognised by the sorcerer or witch and their wider community. Belief in the effectiveness of these spells as recently as a few centuries ago may surprise us today but might seem less improbable if we consider the mentality of a largely uneducated rural population living in a land of legends and superstitions and little inclined to distinguish the natural from the supernatural. Spell books, such as this one, generally reflect the desires and fears of the people of the time or perhaps just offer us an insight into the obsessions of the author.
The Knights Templar were traditionally known, here in Brittany, as the Red Monks. Their evil deeds and cruel reputation survived in the popular imagination long after their medieval heyday; cruel ghosts, condemned to forever wander the lonely places to atone for their terrible and abominable crimes.
Following the success of the First Crusade, a number of feudal domains were established in the Holy Land by European Christian knights. However, these realms lacked the full military resources necessary to maintain little more than a tenuous grip on their territories; most crusaders returned home after fulfilling their vows. Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem and the other holy sites therefore continued to remain subject to peril and attack.
It was to alleviate the plight of these pilgrims that a band of French knights led by Hugh de Payns vowed to devote themselves to the pilgrims’ protection and to form a religious community for that purpose. Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem, was quick to grant them quarters in a wing of the royal palace, said to have been the site of the former Temple of Solomon, from which they took their name: The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Jesus Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, more popularly known as the Templar Knights.
To gain the support, supplies and manpower necessary to deliver on their vows, de Payns embarked on a major fund-raising tour of the kingdoms of western Europe in 1127. His efforts were well rewarded; the new order received significant donations and political backing from many of Europe’s most noble families and also secured the Church’s official sanction at the Council of Troyes in 1129. It was during this first European tour that the Templars received their first donations within the Duchy of Brittany; lands in the country of Retz.
In 1139, Pope Innocent II granted the order special privileges: the Templars were allowed to build their own oratories and were not required to pay tithes; they were also exempt from episcopal jurisdiction, being subject to the pope alone. This was also around the time that the Duke of Brittany, Conan III, whose father had fought in the First Crusade, ceded property to the Templars on the outskirts of the cities of Nantes and Rennes. The Duke also granted the order an exemption from taxes and awarded them lucrative market rights in Nantes.
The rule of the order was modelled after the Benedictine Rule, especially as applied by the Cistercians. Renouncing the world, the Templars swore an oath of poverty, chastity and obedience, just as the Cistercians and other monks did. Like other monks, the Templars heard the Divine Office and were expected to honour the fasts and vigils of the monastic calendar. They were also required to live in community but, unlike other monks, were not strictly cloistered nor were they expected to perform devotional reading.
The Templars were originally divided into two classes: knights and sergeants. The knights came from the aristocracy and were thus trained in the arts of war and generally assumed leadership positions in the order. Only the knights wore the Templars’ distinctive regalia of a white mantle emblazoned with a red cross. The sergeants, usually from lower social classes, served as both warriors and servants and dressed in black. A third class was eventually added, the chaplains, who were responsible for holding religious services, administering the sacraments and addressing the order’s spiritual needs.
With increased resources, the Templars swiftly expanded their remit in the Holy Land; from protecting the pilgrim trails, the order moved to staging a broader defence of the Crusader States, building and garrisoning castles and fortified settlements. Now a full military force, the Templars formed an important part of the military infrastructure of the Holy Land and gave much useful service in support of the Christian cause there.
While the Templars were sometimes opposed by those who rejected the notion of a religious-military order, their growing wealth and influence was also criticised by other religious orders such as the Benedictines and the Cistercians. However, the order enjoyed the support of powerful secular leaders and the full protection of the Church whose anathemas struck against any who opposed them. For instance, in 1213, the Bishop of Nantes obliged the Lord of Clisson to compensate the Templars for the damages he caused them and for a murder committed in their cemetery; in 1222, the Lord of Assérac was excommunicated for having refused to release Templars detained in his prisons.
Over time, the Templars amassed great riches, thanks, in part, to the lordships, manors and estates gifted to the order by the nobility of France, England, Italy, Portugal and Spain. By the mid-12th century, the Templars boasted an extensive property portfolio scattered throughout western Europe and the Holy Land. Giving land and property rights to the order was seen as a pious duty that some benefactors hoped would help secure the salvation of their souls and those of their loved ones. In Brittany, Duke Conan IV donated dozens of properties and good lands which would form the nucleus of the Templar presence in the region.
Making good use of their extensive privileges, the Templars constructed hundreds of structures, including churches, castles, farms and even entire villages such as Vildé-Guingalan. While the full extent of the Templar domains in Brittany might never now be known for certain, documents suggest that they once had holdings in around a hundred Breton localities. Many local traditions represent them as prolific builders and they were sometimes even honoured with constructions that pre-dated the founding of the order. Indeed, since the 18th century revival in interest in the Templars, there is hardly an old church or ruined castle whose foundation the locals here did not attribute to the Templars.
Perhaps the most famous Breton ruin associated with the Templars is the 12th century octagonal tower of Montbran which was, for a time, thought built by the Romans. Dominating the Frémur valley, this strong tower might have been built to guard against Norman incursions into Brittany but was more likely built to protect and control the ancient northern road that connected the east and west of Brittany and traffic headed to and from the great annual fair at nearby Pléboulle. Many Templar buildings were carefully sited near main traffic routes, coastal approaches or river crossings; all lucrative sources of revenue.
Initially, the Templars had eschewed the ties of the feudal hierarchy, wanting to remain free to answer the first call of the Holy Land but, over time, they accepted fiefs with all their charges. Their estate management eventually extended beyond simple farming; they cleared vast tracts of land in northern Brittany for growing cereals and breeding animals; they cultivated the vine and branched out into highly profitable processing activities such as producing wine and operating community ovens and mills. It is believed that they created, or at least promoted, great fairs and public markets such as those at Pléboulle and Les Biais.
Just as important as their vast country estates, a presence in major cities such as Nantes, Quimper and Saint Brieuc was vital to the order. Not only were these centres of trade and commerce where they could sell their goods or rent out their warehouses, they were also important communication hubs. The Templars’ military and political power allied with their broad geographic coverage allowed them to safely collect, store and transport goods and bullion across Europe and the Holy Land. Their international network of warehouses and secure transport links thus made them attractive as bankers to kings as well as to more humble pilgrims.
The fall of Acre, effectively the last crusader stronghold, in 1291 removed much of the Templars’ reason for being and the pope was keen to see the order merge with their great rivals, the Knights of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, better known as the Hospitallers. Having rejected the pope’s proposals, the order’s arrogance, great wealth and extensive landholdings inspired increased resentment towards them. While an ex-Templar had accused the order of blasphemy and immorality in 1305, it was on Friday 13 October 1307 that King Philip IV of France acted; ordering the arrest of every Templar in the country and the sequestration of their property.
The king accused the Templars of heresy and immorality; specific charges against them included idol worship (of a cat and a male head), homosexuality and numerous other errors of belief and practice. It was claimed that during the order’s initiation rite, the new member denied Christ three times, spat on the crucifix and was kissed on the base of the spine, on the navel, and on the mouth by the monk presiding over the ceremony. The charges, now generally recognized as without foundation, were seemingly calculated to stoke the contemporary fears of witchcraft.
The motives behind Philip IV’s desire to destroy the order are unclear; he may have feared their power and been motivated by a pious duty to destroy a heretical group or he may have seen an opportunity to seize their fabled wealth. Outside France, news of the charges levied against the Templars was greeted with incredulity, particularly in Brittany, England, Portugal and Aragon. However, the pope finally suppressed the order in March 1312 and the Templars’ property throughout Europe was slowly transferred to the Hospitallers or else confiscated by secular rulers. Knights who confessed and were reconciled to the Church were sent into retirement in the order’s former houses, which were now nominally run by the Hospitallers.
Here, as elsewhere, the Templars were arrested and their property sequestered but their downfall left little trace in the annals of Brittany, leading some to question the degree that each of the nine Breton bishoprics implemented the pope’s orders. One of the few claims made against the knights in Brittany alleged that, in Nantes, wheat from Templar warehouses was given to pigs rather than the poor. Sadly, only three depositions from Templars serving in Brittany at the time of the arrests have been preserved in the records of the papal commission sitting in Paris in 1310: each of the brothers attested that they had initially been heard in Poitiers where they had been absolved and reconciled to the Church.
A tradition of the 15th century records that when the French king’s men arrived in Nantes on 10 August 1308 to take possession of the Templar properties there, they were driven out of the city by a mob who declared that the Templar possessions did not belong to the king of France but to the Duke of Brittany and no other.
In Brittany, the Templars were popularly known as the Red Monks; a moniker unconnected with the colour of their costume but rather the dress of the Devil. Most local tradition here depicted them as ungodly; arrogant and debauched, leading a lifestyle that marked the public consciousness with once popular phrases such as “Drink like a Templar” or “Curse like a Templar”.
Around the town of Guingamp, the Templars were said to have spied on the young girls in the washhouses and to kidnap those that took their fancy. Like many other characters whose lives were said to have been sullied by evil deeds, the Templars cannot find rest, even in death. In some areas, the people believed they saw the ghosts of Templars wandering at night, mounted on skeletal horses covered with dirty funeral shrouds. They pursued travellers, attacking young women whom they kidnapped and that were never seen again.
According to local legend, the ancient chapel of Trioubry, about 25km south of Rennes, was originally built by the Templars. It was reported that, one stormy evening, a man from a nearby village took shelter in the ruins of the chapel which was suddenly illuminated on all sides. Adjusting his eyes to the light, the man noticed the knave of the chapel was filled with skeletons, and a tall monk, dressed in red, began to bear down on him. The man rushed out into the night and having covered several hundred metres, he turned to see the red monk retrace his steps and disappear under the rocks of the hill. It was said that this red monk, a former Templar, returned every evening in search of sinners to share with them his torments in hell.
On Brittany’s north coast, the Château du Guildo was said to be visited each night by the restless spirits of Templars who wandered the castle ruins, their backs bent under a crushing burden. These souls were believed to have been condemned, as punishment for their crimes, to carry, for eternity, the weight of all that they had stolen in life. A local farmer, having counted his sheaves after harvest, found a hundred more the next day; he believed that the Templars had returned to him a part of what they had once stolen from his parents. Nearby, at Ploubalay, the Templars were held to have had such a bad reputation in the locality that the rectors of the neighbouring parishes rang bells to warn people to guard their livestock and their daughters when the knights were abroad.
Just 13km to the south, an old manor house in Quévert is said to be haunted by a Templar who walks slowly along the avenue, stopping fleetingly at the manor’s well before moving off quickly in all directions. It is believed that the well conceals a stash of gold once taken by the knight, who died without being able to return it.
In Belle-Isle-en-Terre, local legend tells of a Red Monk, mounted on a horse of the same colour that threw lightning bolts through its muzzle, that is seen to descend from a granite outcrop outside the village before launching into the Guic river: whoever sees this apparition was thought certain to die within the year.
Returning to the north coast, a reputed subterranean passage linking the Templar chapel outside Pléboulle to the old watchtower of Montbran, some 700 metres away, was said to be home to a knight who had redeemed his wicked ways while still a serving brother. Some people claimed, on the darkest of nights, to have seen the red monk at large, he having left his eternal retreat to walk again amongst men. His beard was said to be so long that, in order to walk without hindrance, he had to lift it over his shoulder. Often the old chapel was seen surrounded by strange lights; thought to be the spectres of the knight’s former companions come to beg him piteously to intercede for them.
It was said that near the tower of Montbran lay a Templar cemetery where the knights buried there were as tall as in the time Noah. Local legend claims that one of these knights kidnapped a Norman princess and imprisoned her in the tower, where she slowly died of grief. The knight, to keep a memory of his prize, cut off one of her hands. Every year, on the anniversary of her pitiful death, she emerges from her tomb and walks in the old cemetery to the plot where the knight was buried; she goes to claim her hand that the wicked Templar had ordered buried with him.
In Brittany, the unfavourable memory of the religious orders that once peppered the land was not confined to the Templars alone. Many old stories accuse other monks of kidnap and keeping women captive, sometimes even of murder. In Béré, it was said that a young girl entered the priory of Saint-Sauveur and never reappeared; it was rumoured that she had been slain and buried within the church. Her vengeful spirit returns to terrorise the land under the guise of the monster popularly known as the Beast of Béré.
Unlike priests, sorcery was rarely attributed to monks here but several tales about the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Boquen talk of spell casting and magical, crop-destroying, potions and even that one of the last priors was a levitating sorcerer able to foretell the future.
An old Breton ballad, The Three Red Monks, collected from the oral tradition in the 1830s tells of a young girl, Katelik Moal, abducted by three Templars near the town of Quimper. Taken to their commandery in nearby Locmaria, the girl was held captive and subjected to the most abominable outrages. Her torment endured for eight long months, at the end of which the knights resolved to rid themselves of young Katelik and the baby she now carried; as they had done before for seven other girls from the area. They decided to bury her under the high altar of the commandery chapel and dug a pit as Katelik begged for her life while a hailstorm raged outside. It was at that moment that a lone traveller seeking shelter noticed the lights burning in the church. Reaching the door, he looked through the keyhole and saw a bound Katelik thrown into the pit, pleading for the holy oil of baptism for her child.
Rushing to Quimper, the witness roused Bishop Morel who quickly agreed to attend the commandery in all haste. Once there, the bishop had the flagstones lifted and the ground under the high altar dug up; he wept as the lifeless forms of young Katelik, who had torn her breast to her heart, and her child, were uncovered. Faced with this appalling scene, the bishop fell to his knees. For three days and nights, dressed in only sackcloth, he remained bent in prayer bowed towards the cold earth, surrounded by all the Templars of the community. At the end of the third night, the body of the child began to move; he opened his eyes, got up and walked directly towards the three knights, declaring: “These are they!”
Justice was soon served; the three culprits were tried, found guilty and burned alive; their ashes scattered to the four winds. However, earthly punishment was seemingly considered insufficient because since that day, these knights were condemned to wander the roads of southern Brittany, where, according to tradition, they continued their vile activities, kidnapping children who were never seen again.
It is difficult to assign, with any degree of accuracy, a timeframe for the many legends surrounding the red monks in Brittany but it is unlikely that they really date from the medieval period; chroniclers from that time make little mention of them. The traditions recorded in the 17th century seem to have been more ambivalent than negative but in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Templars are nearly always popularly portrayed as evil, self-serving figures.
Much has been written about how quickly the Order of the Temple was eradicated and in Brittany there were many legends that tell of the suddenness of their demise. The manors and castles they owned around Moncontour were all said to have collapsed in one night. Likewise, in nearby Yffiniac, their commandery was held to have been completely destroyed in just one night, while the Templar contingents at La Baussaine and Carentoir were all believed to have been killed overnight.
Many believe that such legends are allegorical, as the order did effectively collapse in the course of a single day. However, as with many of the myths surrounding the Templars, the truth is slightly separated from the folklore and it was not until May 1313 that the Breton assets of the order were eventually transferred to the Hospitallers; another religious-military order of knighthood founded some twenty years before the Templars and whose successor bodies remain very active to this day.
Tired of the current covid related travel restrictions and the winter weather here in Brittany, I took a leisurely amble amidst the shades, shrines and shadows of India; a little vicarious journey on Wordless Wednesday.
In response to a few questions, the locations are: Qutub Minar; Humayun’s Tomb; Safdarjung’s Tomb; Qadam-e-Rasool, Bhul Bhulaiya, Lucknow; Neemrana Palace; Fatehpur Sikri; Galta Temple; McLeod Ganj; Saint-Thomas Cathedral, Chennai; Golden Temple, Amritsar; Amer Fort. The header photo is the view from Mukteshwar looking over the Kumaon Hills towards Nanda Devi.
Sacred plant of the ancient druids, mistletoe has, for centuries, been highly prized for its supposed medicinal virtues. Here in Brittany, this pretty parasitic evergreen has traditionally been associated with love, luck and the promise of the New Year.
The first century Roman author Pliny wrote that the druids held nothing more sacred than oak mistletoe and that they never performed their religious rites without employing branches of it. Gathering the mistletoe was done with much solemn ritual; it was cut down with a golden billhook by a druid clad in white and received by others upon a stretch of white cloth. These rites were said to have been immediately followed by the sacrifice of two white bulls. Pliny tells us that this ceremony took place on the sixth day of the moon, the day which, in the Celtic calendar, marked the beginning of their months and years. On this day, the waxing moon was considered particularly auspicious.
Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant that, in addition to utilising photosynthesis, grows by taking water and nutrients from its host. Unusually, the plant grows in all directions at once and forms a fairly spherical ball that can reach up to one and a half metres in diameter. Its leaves are thick and quite tough; small flowers give rise in autumn to sticky white berries. The seeds contained in these berries are spread on the branches of trees by birds regurgitating or excreting the undigested fruits. Mistletoe can be found on any tree but mostly prefers soft woods such as apple, sycamore, ash and poplar; rarely is it found on oak trees.
Pliny claimed that the druids believed that everything that grew on an oak had been sent directly from Heaven and that the mistletoe that grew upon it was proof that the tree had been selected by God as an object of His especial favour. We cannot be certain of Pliny’s source for this claim nor who this deity might have been, nor indeed do we know whether the mistletoe gathering ritual was but a part of a much broader ceremony.
Similarly, we do not know why mistletoe was regarded as a sacred plant by the druids. Some have suggested that a ball of mistletoe mimics the celestial orbs or that, as an evergreen, its ability to grow in winter and survive on dead trees might have symbolised eternal life. Others have thought it significant that it was likely the only flora then known by the Celts that could grow and thrive without being rooted in the earth or that it was the only native plant that produced white fruits.
Pliny’s account of the druids is not a first-hand testimony but likely drawn from lost works by the Greek polymath Posidonius who, like Julius Ceaser, actually visited the Celtic domains over a hundred years before he started writing. Pliny tells us that the Romans also collected mistletoe on a stretched canvas and believed that it cured female infertility. It is therefore worth highlighting that the word mistletoe has been used to refer to a large number of plants from the Viscaceae and Loranthaceae families and that, for a Roman, mistletoe was not the Viscum album (white mistletoe) of Gaul and Britain but Loranthus europaeus (European yellow mistletoe); both plants look alike but Viscum carries white berries while those of the Loranthus are yellowish. The latter is a common plant in the warm climes of Italy and regularly found on chestnut and oak trees there.
The mistletoe gathering ceremony described by Pliny contains several interpretable elements, particularly if we accept that the oak was regarded as a sacred tree by the Celts; the mistletoe that grew upon it was thus sanctified by its life-giving host. Even today, the oak rightly symbolizes longevity; the trees can live for a thousand years or more. Oaks are one of the most populous trees in France but a study in the last century found just fifteen mistletoe bearing trees across the whole nation; a ratio of roughly one mistletoe oak per 10,000km² of forest. Oaks are special trees and those upon which mistletoe has been able to flourish are the rarest of specimens and it is perhaps this scarcity that made oak mistletoe so magical.
The druids cut the mistletoe with a golden billhook but gold is a soft metal with which it is almost impossible to cut anything. Possibly the billhook was made of polished bronze or brass or some other alloy that merely contained a trace of gold. Only secondary twigs of mistletoe could reasonably be cut with such a tool and as long as a few leafy branches were left, the mistletoe could regrow and be re-visited in later years. It seems that the use of iron was prohibited in the religious and magical practices of the Celts; the proscription is noted in later writings. Perhaps because it was the metal of weapons but possibly because it is a very variable metal which blackens and contaminates the plants that it cuts.
A white cloth was used to prevent the plant from touching the ground; this helped to maintain the purity of the mistletoe and thus its all-important magical properties. Pliny tells that the harvesting was done at night and one cannot but note the symbolic resemblance of the golden billhook with the crescent of the moon at this period of its cycle.
These few details from Pliny are the basis for our popular image of Celtic druids as men clad in white Roman togas gathering mistletoe in sacred groves. It is an enduring myth but could just as easily be the imaginative writings of a Roman armchair geographer transposing local practices onto the mysterious northern savages of legend. Let us not forget that the Romans of the time also collected mistletoe on the new moon without letting it touch the ground. The widespread notion that these rites were only undertaken during the winter or summer solstices is purely the speculation of recent centuries.
According to Pliny, the druids called mistletoe by a Celtic name which meant ‘the all-healing’ – the plant, when taken in drink, was believed to make barren animals fertile and to be a most effective antidote for all poisons. In today’s Breton it is known as uhel varr, literally ‘high branch’ but in some areas it was once known as uhel vad or ‘high good’. Perhaps an etymological echo of the veneration once accorded this plant which was also known here as dour derv or oak water?
Oak mistletoe has always been considered a plant with powerful therapeutic properties. In Ancient Rome, mistletoe berries were typically boiled in water and drunk, or else de-skinned and eaten in the belief that it helped disperse tumours. Such berries were also used as a poultice to heal inflammations, suppurating sores and even for rectifying malformed nails.
The plant is found in traditional folk medicine across the world, particularly in relation to treating problems with the female reproductive system and menstrual difficulties; in some cultures it was used as a cure for excessive menstruation and in others to treat amenorrhea (the absence of menstruation). The bark, leaves and berries of the mistletoe were also used in remedies to combat diseases of the immune and nervous systems. To treat jaundice in 18th century Brittany, nine balls of mistletoe were soaked in the urine of a male child and put into a cloth sachet placed on the patient’s head. Mistletoe taken from a hawthorn was believed to alleviate colic and cure a fever. The plant was also widely used to treat convulsions in children and epilepsy; belief in its efficiency was still strongly held at the turn of the 20th century. Interestingly, recent scientific research seems to indicate that the traditional use of mistletoe to treat epilepsy and other convulsions might actually have some merit.
The plant’s popularity with traditional healers and licenced apothecaries, coupled with a strong seasonal demand for it in London and, to a lesser extent, Paris ensured a healthy demand and price for this sought-after plant. The medicinal use of mistletoe extracts once again found favour in the 1920s when supporters of anthroposophic medicine explored its use in treating cancer with the subcutaneous injection of fermented mistletoe. As yet, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that mistletoe is any more successful in treating cancers than the more conventional therapies.
In some parts of Europe, mistletoe is still used to treat cancer, as well as a wide range of ailments from mental exhaustion to diarrhoea and from high blood pressure to haemorrhoids but in France it is now included in the list of traditional medicinal plants whose potential adverse effects are greater than the expected therapeutic benefit. The bark, leaves and berries of mistletoe are highly toxic and just half a dozen berries are enough to bring on serious stomach upsets in humans.
In Europe, the plant’s magical association stretches back to Virgil’s Aeneid where the eponymous hero carried a golden branch as a powerful talisman during his voyage to the Underworld. Mistletoe’s magical qualities are found scattered throughout the folklore of Brittany where some legends claim that the Celts of Gaul could not fight under a ball of mistletoe and that it was only cut during the winter solstice while making a certain invocation seeking a fruitful wheat harvest while others say that it was cut during the night of Midsummer.
The Breton author François-René de Chateaubriand evoked the importance of mistletoe in the life of the druidess, Velléda, in his epic tale The Martyrs. Some 150 years later, another Breton writer, Théophile Briant, beautifully wove the plant into the funeral of the enchantress Viviane: “Merlin had said it; the sting of the snake was without remedy. Viviane was dead. The fairies led by Mona-La-Cendrée, the fairy of heather and farewell, surrounded the coffin of the enchantress. The trees of the forest, silent, tilted their green plumes. At midnight, when the moon was in the middle of the sky, Merlin stripped a tuft of mistletoe from the clear water of the Druid’s Fountain, in the hollow of which Viviane’s body now rested.”
Mistletoe as a funerary garland was also noted as a custom in northern Brittany where twigs of mistletoe and laurel were traditionally pinned to the sheets of the funeral chapel. In times past, a sprig of mistletoe was often hung on the door of a house when a barrel of cider was drilled and in some parts of northern Brittany, a bunch of mistletoe betokened the door of a tavern. In the south of the region, a branch of mistletoe was hung from the door of stables to protect the animals against the mischief of the korrigans and contagious diseases. Even into the 20th century, sprigs of mistletoe were hung from Breton farmhouses and left there until time had changed the colour of the berries, leaves and branches to a golden yellow and thus converted the clutch of white mistletoe into a golden branch.
The ability to bring on good fortune was another powerful attribute thought to have been possessed by mistletoe in Brittany. A branch picked the night before the draw for military conscription was said to have provided a good number to avoid the draft. However, to be effective as a lucky charm, the mistletoe must not have been in contact with iron nor have touched the ground or another person. Some even said that it was necessary for the plant to have been taken without the knowledge of the owner of the tree. In the east of the region, around Rennes, people believed that the plant’s sap brought on bad luck, regardless of the metal used to cut it, and so they preferred to tear off the mistletoe branches.
Near the northern town of Lamballe, it was once said 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. Another strange legend from southern Brittany tells that the woman who ate the leaf of certain oaks was assured to have a child.
Here, in times past, mistletoe was cut and offered, on New Year’s Day, as a symbol of long life and prosperity, usually accompanied by a formula to assure their onset. Children would run joyously through the streets with a cry proclaiming: ‘On Mistletoe, the New Year’. Even into the early 20th century, beggars and children would call from house to house offering a little mistletoe and their best wishes for happiness for the household over the year ahead; being rewarded with a little food or some coins for their efforts.
In several north European traditions, mistletoe was a symbol of fertility and in some places, young women once placed a sprig of mistletoe under their bed in expectation of seeing their future husband in their dreams. In Brittany, kissing under the mistletoe, as a mark of love and affection, was a New Year’s Day tradition and a ceremony that often announced a proposed marriage. Mistletoe was considered to be the plant of love and its harvest constituted a significant event. In its first edition of 1897, a French weekly magazine reported on the Feast of Mistletoe in western Brittany:
“Parisians may be neglecting the druidic flower but in the depths of Brittany it has always kept its faithful. I know of a small village around Quimper, where every year, at Christmastime, the mistletoe festival is celebrated with great pomp. Girls and boys, especially those who have a feeling in their hearts and who dream of marriage, put on big clogs and go off, arm in arm, in search of mistletoe. They get lost, two by two, in the dark forest and seek the mistletoe of the oaks; the only one that has the magical virtue of helping lovers and warding off evil spells.
Whoever first brings back a tuft of mistletoe to the village is proclaimed King of the Forest. He is led in triumph to his home and enjoys the right to kiss all the women and girls who pass by his door. Then we sit down, for all popular rejoicing is not without a feast; we cook chestnuts under the ashes, we sprinkle them with cider, we dance. Everyone goes to bed with the awareness of a great duty accomplished. The superstitious young girls, who desire marriage, keep the ashes of a branch of charred mistletoe in a sachet; they expect that this talisman will bring them love.”
These days we tend to regard kissing beneath the mistletoe as one of those slightly strange Christmas traditions whose origins are lost in the mists of time. Perhaps, fittingly, it is now a custom likely destined to remain wonderfully obscure.
In Brittany, the magic of Christmas night was once said to have been so complete that no evil could act. It was a time when only the son of man and the toad slept; a moment when animals spoke to each other in the tongues of men and secret, hidden treasures were revealed.
The old tales told in front of the flaming Breton fireplace on a cold winter’s evening were full of magic. Some terrifying, others touching but always entertaining; from the infant Jesus descending the farmhouse chimney to leave gifts for the children of the house, to the Devil striving hard to ensnare innocent souls walking home from church.
The period of the Midnight Mass was popularly believed to be the time when fantastic things happened and key parts of that religious service were said to mark moments of special supernatural power. During the chimes of the midnight bell, it was held that many of the region’s Neolithic standing stones, known as menhirs, uprooted themselves to go and drink from a sacred spring or neighbouring river; returning to their home on the sound of the last chime. A menhir near Jugon was said to drink in the Arguenon river, another near Saint-Barthélemy to drink in the Blavet river, while the menhirs of Plouhinec were famously reputed to drink at the Étel river only once every century. Even the stone alignments at Carnac were said to go and wash in the waters of the nearby ocean on Christmas night.
Local legends once reported that, at the stroke of midnight, one of the menhirs that stood on the summit of Mont-Belleux near Luitré was lifted by a mere blackbird to momentarily reveal a great treasure. Anyone impudent enough to try to seize it was doomed to be crushed to death as only the magical korrigans could move fast enough to take the gold. Sadly, these ancient megaliths were destroyed in the 19th century; the last in 1875 in order to provide hard core for a nearby road. Local tradition cautions against walking on the mountain at night else one encounter the korrigans dancing around the site where their stones once stood; their destruction, a sacrilege still resented by them.
Standing almost six metres high, the menhir of Kerangosquer near Pont-Aven was said to guard a buried treasure whose presence was heralded by a rooster that sang at midnight. As with other sites, this treasure was only accessible during the sound of the Midnight Mass bells when the menhir took itself to drink at a nearby stream. As you might expect, there are several popular tales of men who came to grief, having been crushed by their greed under the weight of returning menhirs.
In Brittany, it was believed that the dry bones stacked in the village ossuary spoke to each other during Midnight Mass. This was also a time when animals too were said to be able to talk with one another. One tale tells of a farmer determined to eavesdrop on these magical conversations. Hiding himself in the barn, he waited patiently until sometime, around midnight, he heard his two oxen speak together: “What will you do tomorrow, old friend?”; “Oh, I will just take the master to the cemetery.” The farmer, furious at being mocked, seized a pitchfork to strike his beasts but, in his haste, he stumbled and injured himself. His injury proved fatal and, so, as predicted, on the following day the ox pulled the cart that carried his coffin to the church.
In some parts of Brittany it was only the donkey and the ox that possessed the ability to speak on Christmas Eve; a miraculous gift granted every year to these two animals in memory of the good offices once rendered to the baby Jesus in the stable at Bethlehem. It was said here that donkeys carried a cross on their backs to mark the day Christ entered Jerusalem on a donkey and that, at Christmas, they knelt in silent tribute at midnight. A related belief held that burning the broken pieces of a yoke invited disaster; the ox having been sanctified by its presence at the birth of Christ.
The holiness of the night before Christmas was considered so sacred that no wicked spirit could act with impunity but it was also a time for the dead; Christmas Eve being one of the three solemn festivals (the others being Midsummer’s Eve and Halloween) when the community of the dead of each region gathered. This was a night when the veil of separation between the living and the dead was particularly vulnerable; a time when the dead wandered freely in the land of the living and returned to visit their former homes before being led, by the ghost of a priest, in a long procession to some abandoned chapel, where the only masses celebrated were those of the dead.
A far more sinister being was also held to be active on Christmas Eve; consumed with rage on this anniversary of his greatest failure, the Devil sought to harvest fresh souls. It was said that the verges of the sunken pathways trodden by the devout attending Midnight Mass often glistened in parts. Such reflections were not of moonlight but of gold coins scattered by the Devil to enchant the unwary traveller. Deep cracks appeared in the earth around the base of the wayside crosses, offering a tantalising glimpse of a stream of gold coins but any who tried to enrich themselves were unable to keep hold of their gold. Each coin collected immediately escaped their grasp, leaving on the fingers an indelible black imprint and a terrible burning sensation, like that of hellfire.
It was widely believed that evil spells lost their power on Christmas night; it was a time when it was possible to discover the most hidden treasures, a time when the power of their supernatural guardians was suspended. In northern Brittany, the Grand Rocher massif was said to entomb a magnificent lost city that could be seen through a narrow fissure that only opened up on Christmas Eve once every seven years. The city would be reborn, if someone managed to penetrate to the depths of the mountain at the first stroke of midnight and re-emerge unscathed before the sound of the twelfth bell had died.
Another old tale tells how, in thanks for a crust of bread that he had received, a beggar revealed to Scouarn, a young Breton farmhand, a way of gaining his happiness and fortune. He told him that in the middle of the Bay of Morlaix there stood a castle inhabited by a princess, as beautiful as a fairy and as rich as the paladins, held captive by the spirits of Hell. At Christmas, on the stroke of midnight, the sea opened and revealed the castle: if someone could enter it and take possession of a magic wand stored in its inner chamber, that bold soul could become the lord of the land. However, it was imperative to gain the wand before the last stroke of midnight; if not, the daring adventurer would be turned to stone and the sea would reclaim the castle.
Scouarn resolved to attempt the quest and Christmas Eve found him in the shadows on the shore when, at midnight, the sea parted like a bed curtain being drawn to reveal a fine castle resplendent with lights. Scouarn ran as fast as he could and quickly reached the castle’s main door. On entering, he saw the first room was filled with precious furniture and massive silver chests; scattered around the room stood the stone statues of those unfortunate men who had been unable to go any further.
A second room was defended by dragons and sharp-toothed monsters but as the sixth stroke of midnight struck, Scouarn succeeded in passing through the enchanted beasts who moved aside at his approach. He now entered a chamber more sumptuous than all the others and where the fairies of the swells were swaying to sweet music. He was about to let himself be drawn into their circular dance when, fortuitously, he saw the magic wand resting on a cabinet set against the back wall; he sprang forward and seized it in triumph as the twelfth stroke of midnight struck.
However, Scouarn had secured his prize; he held the wand aloft without fear. On his command, the roaring sea retreated away from the castle and the spirits of Hell, utterly defeated, fled, uttering cries that made the cold hard rocks tremble. The delivered princess gladly offered her hand to her valiant saviour and it was not long before they enjoyed a most splendid wedding. Having comfortably settled into his new castle, Scouarn, in gratitude for the saints who had protected him, employed half of his newly won wealth to build a grand chapel to the glory of the Archangel Saint Michael.
During Christmas night, the natural order of the world was thought upset. When the bell announced the elevation during the Midnight Mass, all the beings that shared the earth were simultaneously revealed: the ghosts of the dead and the drowned; the korrigans of the moors; the fairies of the swells; mermaids; the black dogs and werewolves; the treasure-guarding dragons; the phantom washerwomen of the night and other demons of the dark. At that moment, while the faithful were at prayer, all the frightful fantastic creatures that inhabit the Breton night were displayed.
A quite different Breton legend tells us that when the Magi arrived at the stable in Bethlehem, they found the shepherds there who, having nothing else to offer the baby Jesus, had garlanded his crib with wild flowers. Seeing the rich gifts subsequently presented by the Magi, the humble shepherds were concerned at the paucity of their offering but the Divine baby gently pushed aside the riches in front of Him and stretched His hand towards the flowers, plucked a field daisy, and, bringing it to His lips, kissed it. Since that moment, the daisies, which until then were all white, have displayed at the end of their petals, a colour which seems a reflection of the hopeful dawn, and shown at their heart, the golden ray which fell from the lips of the Divine.
The period from Christmas Eve to the Feast of the Epiphany (24 December to 6 January) was once marked by a number of particular customs and superstitions here. On Christmas Eve, the Yule log was anointed with water from a sacred spring and placed in the fireplace where it was carefully burned until New Year’s Day or even Epiphany. The charcoaled embers were subsequently collected as they were believed to hold beneficial qualities including the ability to purify water. Additionally, small bags of ash were placed under beds in order to protect the home from lightning strikes and snakes over the year ahead. This ash was also said to preserve wheat from rust diseases and to help cows to calve.
It was also on Christmas Eve that calendar bread was made for consumption on Epiphany, except for a small piece kept in reserve to cure certain ailments. All bread baked on Christmas Eve was said to keep for ten years without spoiling. Another belief surrounding bread can be seen in the once traditional practice for the head of the household to carry a piece of black bread in his pocket before attending Midnight Mass. On his return, he would give a little to each of his animals in order to ensure their health throughout the year ahead: black bread was used here in many rituals of protection against evil spells.
Similarly, to ensure a good harvest of apples, the trees in the orchard were surrounded with a little ring of straw after the Christmas Midnight Mass. In some northern parts of the region, the brightness of the moon illuminating those journeying to and from Midnight Mass was said to predict the prosperity of the following year’s apple harvest.
It was during Christmas night that the world’s secrets were revealed to those that knew how to expose them. In eastern Brittany, if a young girl wanted to see who she was destined to marry, it was necessary for her to place three bay leaves under her eyes before going to sleep on Christmas night while reciting the charm: “Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior, tell me while I sleep, who will be mine for life.”
During Midnight Mass, at the moment of consecration, spectral candles were said to cast light on the locations where hidden treasures could be found. Not all treasures were buried, for it was said that each hazel bush grew a branch which turned into gold on Christmas night. To pick this prize that was believed to make a wand equal in power to that of the greatest fairies, it needed to be cut between the first and last sounds of the midnight bell but whoever did not succeed disappeared forever. The moment of consecration was also said to be the fleeting instant when the waters of the sacred springs were changed to wine.
On Christmas Day, it was thought necessary to avoid eating plums so as to protect oneself from ulcers over the year ahead. The tablecloth used only at Christmas was considered a powerful talisman in which to store wheat seeds that would deliver a plentiful crop and was thus utilised for these purposes each year. It was also a day on which it was possible to predict the future price of wheat: twelve grains of wheat, each named after one of the twelve months, were placed on an iron shovel heated in the fire; those that jumped on the hot iron indicated the months in which wheat would be most expensive.
If Christmas fell on a Sunday, it was believed to be an auspicious year in which to sell one’s horse or donkey, while Saint Stephen’s Day was a most favourable occasion for bleeding horses. To avoid misfortune, it was advised not to bake bread or do the laundry between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, with prohibitions against doing the laundry extending to Epiphany. Likewise, eating cabbage on Saint Stephen’s Day also invited misfortune as the saint was thought to have been martyred in a cabbage patch.
During the night of the Epiphany, it was whispered that if one wrote, with their own blood, the names of the three kings, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, on their forehead and then looked into a mirror, they would see themselves as they will be at the hour of their death. Truly, this was a most wonderful time of the year.
Nedeleg Laouen ha Bloavezh Mat! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
With Christmas fast approaching, towns and villages across Brittany have bedecked themselves with some glorious festive illuminations. Unfortunately, travel restrictions imposed as part of the measures to limit the spread of covid-19 have meant that is has been impossible to see this year’s displays, so, this post must necessarily highlight a few memories of Christmas past.
Most municipal Christmas lights here were lit on the last Friday in November and will run until the third of January. Limits on public gatherings have, this year, seen the cancellation of the Christmas markets, parades, funfairs and outdoor ice rinks that usually form an integral part of the festive experience in many Breton towns. Some of the finest seasonal outings in Brittany were featured in a previous post, so, this one will just focus on a few places that were visited after that post was written.
The medieval hearts of the Breton towns of Dinan and Morlaix wear their Christmas decorations well; the coloured lights and projections create wonderful hues and shadows on the old timber-framed buildings. Situated between these two northern towns, Saint-Brieuc now boasts festive illuminations and decorations that rival its neighbours; with many kilometres of downtown lights.
In the west of Brittany, the town of Landerneau boasts the only bridge in Europe that still has people living on it; a feature that is at the heart of its colourful festive displays.
Hailed as one of the prettiest villages in France, the picturesque small town of Locronan has established a well-deserved reputation for the magical ambience created by its Christmas lights and festive illuminations. The narrow cobbled streets, courtyards and buildings are adorned with lights and decorations, creating a wonderful atmosphere in which to wander around this little town.
Full of character, the southern city of Quimper is another medieval town that makes great use of colour and lights to showcase its half-timbered buildings, old city walls and historic cathedral to best effect.
If you are partial to Christmas illuminations set against a stunning backdrop then the medieval city of Vannes will not disappoint; from the projections on the medieval ramparts to the curtains of light that overhang the cobbled streets of the old town.
Just a little west of Vannes, the coastal town of Auray boasts a wonderful array of lights and Christmas decorations with the town square and its picturesque harbour being particular highlights.
A picture perfect village regularly ranked among the most beautiful villages in France, Rochefort-en-Terre is a town that knows how to display itself to best effect and at Christmastime it does so spectacularly. The cobbled streets and alleys are beautifully illuminated by the sparkling of tens of thousands of pretty lights and festive garlands.
The historic centre of the small town of Josselin is another delightful place in which to wander around at dusk during December.
It is not only towns that put on festive light shows here; several historic monuments also stage Christmas spectacles using coloured lights and projections to wonderful effect. The three best known are perhaps those at the Château de Trévarez, the Abbaye de Beauport at Paimpol and the Abbaye de Bon-Repos at Laniscat.
Hopefully, the world will return to something approaching normalcy next year and we can, once again, enjoy the sights of Brittany at Christmas.
The black dog is a recurring image in folklore across the world. In Brittany, these sinister spectral beasts roamed the lonely places and, in many local legends, were closely associated with crossroads, springs and the old sunken pathways.
Several fountains and ponds were once said to have been the nocturnal haunts of black dogs, some headless, prowling in search of their former master; a fountain near Cléden was avoided at night as it was said to be the haunt of a fierce black dog or ki du in Breton. Many parishes in western Brittany are home to legends of fearful black dogs of unusual size with flaming red eyes. The enormous black dog that was thought to wander the roads around Pleyben was even said to have left no footprints behind it.
Described as a fierce black dog of imposing size, the red-eyed hell hound of Brittany was usually said to be the cursed reincarnation of evil souls who had returned to torment the living. However, such a dog was usually believed to be an exorcised spirit that had escaped the clutches of the exorcists.
The souls of the dead who had led a wicked life, particularly murderers and swindlers, were said not to undertake their penance as other souls did. Instead, they chose to amuse themselves by terrorising the living or causing mischief about the house or barn. For most people, living alongside such malevolent spirits proved impossible and it was not long before the priest was summoned to perform an exorcism.
Only a skilled priest, sure of his science, was believed able to defeat these spirits; some exorcisms were said to have taken hours of battling before the evil spirit was subdued enough to be conjured to pass into the body of a black dog. Tied around the dog’s neck, the priest’s stole kept the evil locked inside the body of the dog. It was then necessary for the priest to lead his charge from presbytery to presbytery until he reached the rector of Commana near the Monts d’Arrée in the west of Brittany.
At the heart of this mountain range lies a vast peat bog, the Yeun Elez; a desolate, windswept spot that boasts a swamp of unfathomable depth known as the Youdic (little porridge in Breton), reputed to be one of the gateways to Hell. It was into this bubbling morass that the two priests, at sunset, hurled the black dog. Some accounts say that the dog was entrusted to a strong man, especially hired for the task.
Tales tell that the beasts resisted their descent to Hell with great fury; formidable tremors shook the ground and the air was torn by terrible clamours. Leaving the scene as quickly as possible, it was important that the exorcists resisted the temptation to look behind them as it was said that invisible arms would grab them and drag the living into the unseen depths of the dead.
If the exorcist was not quick enough in trapping the malevolent spirit within the dog or lost control of his stole while throwing the dog into the Youdic, it was said to run away and take shelter on Ménez Hom, the westernmost peak of the Black Mountains, before returning to its familiar haunts.
Several high points which were once sites of pagan devotions now bear the name of Mont Saint-Michel and the sanctuaries that were built there under the invocation of this demon hunter were likely intended to supplant the ancient deities once worshipped on these places. Overshadowing the Youdic, Mont Saint-Michel de Brasparts was often said to be visited by Saint Michael the Archangel; his appearances motivated by the dogs’ furious barking. Saint Michael lowered his flaming sword towards the bog and peace returned to the land.
Many malevolent fiends were believed to materialize in the form of great black dogs and unfortunate animals of this type, which displayed characteristics likely to place them under suspicion, were once dragged to the Youdic and cast into its seething depths.
A black dog who wandered the swamp near Mont Saint-Michel de Brasparts was said to have formerly been a fairy who, at the death of the fabled giant Hok-Bras, was transformed into a beast. While the black dog seen in the vicinity of Plouzélambre was said to contain the spirit of the 6th century tyrant Rivod, who murdered his elder brother, Miliau, to usurp the throne of the Breton kingdom of Kernev; transformed into a black dog in order to expiate his crimes.
Occasionally, these sinister animals were also said to prowl the city streets, such as in Quimper, where at the end of the 18th century, people often fell into the Odet River, then without guard-rails. It was said that the Devil, in the guise of a big black dog, was pushing passers-by into the water. In the central town of Pontivy, a black dog was reputed to throw itself into the legs of travellers and push them into the Blavet River. Around Fougères in eastern Brittany, pregnant women were traditionally advised against venturing out of their homes between the evening and morning Angelus prayers, lest they encounter and be trampled by large black dogs.
Other superstitious beliefs once surrounded the black dog here; in the 19th century many Breton peasants believed that buried treasures were marked by the presence of a black dog and that the Devil used to take the form of a black barbet to slip into people’s houses and suck blood from the fingers of small children. In some parts of Brittany, the custom of amputating the tails of dogs was said to be a safeguard against witchcraft although many once believed that cutting off the tail removed the worm that resided there and that would eventually cause their death.
In western Brittany, stories were told of a ship manned by men and giant dogs. The men were reprobates guilty of horrible crimes; the dogs, demons set to guard over them and inflict on them a thousand tortures. Their sad vessel was said to wander ceaselessly from sea to sea, without entering port or casting anchor and condemned to do so until the Day of Judgement.
The close association between the black dog and the supernatural stretches back to antiquity and has long been a potent image of infernal power; from the Hound of Hades in Greek mythology to Conan-Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. Demons often revealed themselves as black dogs and in Brittany it was popularly believed to serve as a witch’s familiar. Sometimes, witches and sorcerers were said to possess the ability to transform into the beast itself; a power also attributed to priests who were often believed to adopt this guise to marshal errant parishioners, particularly during Advent. Such beliefs survived into the 20th century in the neighbouring communes of Penvénan and Plougrescant which were said to have been terrorised by a priest, in the form of a black dog, during the 1930s and 1940s.
At the end of the 19th century, the French novelist Octave Mirbeau recounted how, when a young student at the Jesuit college in Vannes, he was terrorised by a priest with harrowing tales of a black dog. A less sinister tale tells of a country priest that was once summoned by the Bishop of Quimper who forbade him to practice his sorcery. As he left the Bishop’s Palace, a large black dog attached itself to him and would not be driven away. The animal was docile and so the priest entrusted the dog to his servant and told him to offer it to all the priests in the canton. Unfortunately, no priest agreed to take the dog and the servant was forced to return to the presbytery with it. His priest then ordered him to dig a pit and to lead the dog into it backwards. Having followed his master’s instructions, the man was astonished when he turned around to see the bishop emerging from the pit.
Many of the traditional Breton ballads collected from the oral tradition by folklorists in the middle of the 19th century associate the enchanter Merlin with a black dog; he collects his magical herbs in the company of such a beast and is even able to metamorphose into one.
A black dog also played an essential role in one of the rituals surrounding the gathering of that most potent of magic plants, mandrake, where it was necessary, at midnight, to tie the animal to the root of the plant. It was said that anybody who pulled a mandrake from the ground was condemned to death, as the plant shrieked hideously when uprooted; killing all who heard its pain. It was therefore recommended that a black dog be used to lift the root and to suffer death in order for the witch to secure her prize.
On the Crozon peninsula, a woman, reputed to have been a witch, died alone with no near relatives. As was customary, her neighbours were preparing her mortuary toilette while being careful not to disturb the big black dog she lived with that was lying at the foot of her bed. Suddenly another black dog entered the room and the two beasts took hold of the body, each by one arm and dragged the corpse out of the cottage and into the night. The old woman’s body was not recovered and the black dogs never seen again. It was said that the Devil came to take his maid away before the priest could attend and perform his prayers.
In many cultures, the black dog has long been a powerful harbinger of death and similar echoes can be found in the folklore of Brittany where meeting a black dog typically heralded some misfortune ahead, particularly for fishermen. If the dog rolled on the ground it was to announce the wind; if it bit the grass, rain was imminent, while its bark heralded the near death of a close relative of the one who heard it.
It was not only black dogs that were feared here; mad dogs too were once dreaded. While rabies may historically have claimed fewer victims than other diseases such as typhoid or dysentery, its scourge was highly feared and held a special place in the popular imagination. Rabies was endemic throughout France until early in the last century and the bite of a rabid animal was usually fatal. The initial phase of the disease might begin days or even months after the infected saliva had entered the puncture wound; delay being due to the slow passage of the virus along the sensory nerves to the spinal cord and brain.
Early symptoms of rabies resemble those of many less serious diseases; aches and pains, tiredness and a loss of appetite. The onset of clinical anxiety and depression usually herald the so-called furious phase of the disease, when the patient tends to experience increased sensitivity to stimuli, delirium, hallucinations, insomnia and hydrophobia. Patients scream in rage during periods of wild distress which alternate with periods of relative calm; both constantly interspersed with bouts of violent vomiting. Typically, within about a week of the onset of the first symptoms, the patient descends into a coma and inevitably dies.
One traditional reaction to meeting a mad dog involved making the sign of the cross while reciting: “Sick dog, go on your way! Get to the field and break your teeth. The cross and the banner arrive with Saint Tugen” or “Mad dog, change course! Here is the banner and the cross and Saint Gildas.” These two local saints were most popularly invoked by those seeking protection against rabid dogs and rabies in Lower Brittany where the disease was known as “the evil of Saint Tugen” or “the evil of Saint Gildas”.
In the west of the region, it was said that, before dying, rabid dogs were obliged to confess their behaviour to Saint Tugen, at the 16th century chapel devoted to him in Pimelin. Their confession was believed to allow the saint an opportunity to contain any harm that they might have caused.
If one was bitten by a dog suspected of carrying rabies, it was necessary to get ahead of the beast and run to Saint Tugen’s chapel to seek his intersession. It was crucial to reach the chapel before the dogs as they were believed to lie to the saint, in an attempt to hide their wrongdoings so as to avoid the punishment they deserved. Once there, one had to circle the saint’s fountain three times before looking into its water. If a face was reflected, one was reassured; the saint had heard the supplications and answered them. If the water reflected the image of a dog, it was because the animal had already passed by and had successfully hidden its crime from Saint Tugen; the saint was powerless to intervene and the patient was doomed.
In Brittany, as elsewhere in France, in many churches dedicated to Saint Hubert, it was once customary to apply a piece of iron known as “the saint’s key”, heated in a fire, to the bites made by rabid dogs. At Pimelin, although the key, in the form of an awl, is eminently suitable for deep cauterization, there are no records that indicate a similar practice. Here, the saint’s key was popularly used to prick holes in the small bread buns that were sold on the day of the Pardon. Once blessed, these loaves were believed to keep indefinitely and were said to help protect against rabies and to cure toothache.
However, the main use of the saint’s key was to bless, by its touch, the small lead keys, known as “the keys of Saint Tugen” that were also sold to pilgrims on the day of the Pardon. These souvenirs were widely carried and were thrown in front of presumed rabid dogs; the dog pounced on the key and this distraction gave one time to escape.
According to tradition, people with rabies were locked in the “Saint’s Cell”; a dark, narrow room near the entrance to the church. It is reported that between their fits of rage and despair, they begged the saint to ease their last moments. Public prayers, often interrupted by the vociferations of these unfortunates, were said for them outside the church.
Local tradition also speaks of a rather more barbaric custom. Those infected with rabies were tied to a wooden stake erected in the square near the church, receiving Holy Communion at the end of a wooden slat. When in the grip of the furious stage of the disease, these unfortunates were suffocated between two quilts loaded down with heavy objects by their family and neighbours thus ending their appalling suffering. This grim practice was still noted at the beginning of the 19th century.
In other parts of Brittany, other saints were popularly invoked to protect against or to cure rabies, like Saint Hubert. In the east of the region, Saint Méen was invoked; in the south, Saint Bieuzy. Eating bread soaked in the waters of the saint’s fountain at Bieuzy-Lanvaux was said to cure rabies, while the water of Saint Thégonnec’s fountain near Plogonnec was thought to heal bites. In other areas, those bitten by a dog suspected of carrying rabies visited the nearest fountain devoted to Saint Gildas and looked into the mirror of the water; if the image of a dog was detected in the reflection, infection was confirmed.
Today, we might find it difficult to accept our ancestors’ superstitious beliefs but it is important to remember that consulting the sacred springs was likely as effective as some of the practices recommended by the doctors of the day. One of the medical procedures suggested to establish whether a bite was likely diseased involved rubbing the wound with a piece of bread and feeding this to a hen; if the hen refused the bread, the patient was declared infected.
It was popularly believed that being by the seashore reduced the effect of rabies in humans but it was also a place where dogs were said to contract the disease if they drank the foam left by the outgoing waves. Although, it was said that a mad dog would be cured if it swallowed a fresh oyster. The disease was poorly understood and trusting to the saints offered as much prospect of relief as the cures touted by medical professionals who, at the turn of the 19th century, recommended sea bathing and drinking a potion composed of wine, water and several different herbs as a remedy. Another medical treatment advised making an omelette of eggs, dog roses and powdered walnuts; applying half this omelette to the bite, the patient ate the other half in expectation of being cured.
In closing, I would like to highlight a once popular folk belief relating to dogs that carries with it no sinister connotations whatever. In times past, in Breton farmhouses, the stone of the threshold and the stone of the fireplace were said to be connected by what was known as ′′the dog trail′′; a symbolic representation of the journey taken by every soul of the household which, embodied, entered through the door and then, discarnate, left through the chimney on the day of their death.
For centuries, tales of unjustly treated heroines, eventually finding happiness, have featured in the popular traditions of countless cultures worldwide. In Europe, the best known example is probably the tale of Cinderella, first published in the 17th century. Variants of this story abound and one of several versions found in Brittany is the tale of the grey wolf’s wife. This is her story.
Long ago, when the trees were thicker and the rain sweeter, there lived in the heart of Brittany, a powerful baron. Twice widowed, the baron had been graced with three daughters. Some years separated his two eldest children from his youngest who, at times, also seemed separated from his affections. While the older girls were feted at court and wore fine dresses trimmed with lace and silver thread, the youngest always stayed at home and wore only those garments cast aside by her sisters.
The baron was noted for his generous hospitality and an invitation to one of his lavish feasts was highly prized amongst the nobles of the land. With no wife, his eldest daughters fell easily into the role of hosts while their sister was usually to be found in the kitchens with the servants; only venturing out to sit in the corner of the Great Hall’s monumental fireplace to listen to the evening’s entertainment. It was therefore unsurprising that her sisters nicknamed her Luduennic or, in English, Cinderella.
A keen huntsman, the baron would often take his hounds into the vast forest of Quénécan. During one of these excursions, he became separated from his retinue and found himself in the thick of the forest, quite lost. At length, he chanced upon a modest but stout castle; a building previously unknown to him. His curiosity aroused, he dismounted and approached the door, which opened as he was about to strike it. To his astonishment, he found himself in the presence of a large grey wolf. He recoiled in fear but the wolf spoke to him: “Be not afraid. Please come inside, take some food with us and rest for the night. In the morning, we will put you on the right path for home.”
The baron entered the castle with some caution although he had no need to worry for he was treated with every courtesy and ate a wonderful meal in the company of two great wolves, who sat at the table in the manner of men. After a hearty breakfast, the wolves proved true to their word and guided the baron to a track that led out of the forest. Grasping the horse’s bridle tightly, the grey wolf addressed the baron: “Lord of Poher, I have shared my table and shown you kindness, now you must show me the same. I know that you have three daughters; one must consent to be my bride. If not, there is only death for you; my brother and I will devastate your land and its people. Go now, ask your eldest daughter if she agrees to take me for her husband and return tomorrow with her answer.”
Anxious to leave, the baron promised to put the proposal to his daughter but knew, in his heart, that she would never countenance such a wild notion. Arriving at his castle, he first saw Luduennic, who had been watching for him near the gates; her eyes red from crying over his disappearance. As soon as she saw him, she ran up to kiss him but he brushed past her and hastened to go to his eldest who he found, as always, with her sister, busy adorning themselves and admiring one another. “Where have you been, father? You did not return and we were worried for you!” they cried.
“My dear children, if you only knew what happened to me! I was lost in the forest and spent the night in a mysterious castle, where I was looked after by two talking wolves.”
“Talking wolves? Have you lost your mind father? Surely, you had a strange dream.”
“I wish that were the case but alas it is not so. One of the wolves told me that he needs one of my daughters for a wife; otherwise there is only death for me, cold death and the destruction of our lands. What say you, my child, will you take him for your husband?” he asked his eldest.
“What? You have surely lost your mind in the forest, to ask such a thing of me! Me, take a wolf as my husband when there are so many handsome lords wooing me. It is really too much!”
“But, my dear child, what is to become of my life and our lands?” pleaded the baron.
“What will be, will be. You ask for too much from me. I will never be a wolf’s wife!” she said firmly.
It was the answer that he had expected and it was a worried man that rode into the forest early the following morning. Within minutes, the grey wolf stepped out of a dense thicket and stood in front of the baron’s horse before asking: “Tell me my fate; what answer do you bring me?”
“I regret that she thinks that I must have lost my mind to have made such a proposition to her.”
“She said that to you? That is a great pity but I will be married. Go home; make the same proposal to your second daughter,” the wolf responded.
Burdened with grief and not a little fear, the baron returned to his castle and lost no time in summoning his second daughter and submitting to her, the wolf’s offer. “How can you ask such a thing of me who loves you dearly? Ask anything of me, dear father but not that! I am a good Christian and in all conscience, I cannot do this. I will not do this!” his daughter sobbed before running out of the baron’s chamber.
Early the next morning, the baron set out for the forest once again and, once again, his heart was heavy with dread. “What answer do you bring from your second daughter, my lord?” demanded the grey wolf. Squirming uncomfortably in his saddle, the baron could only mumble that his daughter’s rejection had been as firm as that of her sister. “You have twice brought me disappointment. My threat was not an idle one. Go now and ask your youngest girl if she will agree to be my bride.”
Believing all hope lost, the baron returned home and immediately asked his valet to send Luduennic to him in the Great Hall. Tears welled in his eyes as he spoke: “You are of age, my child. I want you to marry.”
“I am willing to serve our house as you think best, father,” replied an astonished Luduennic.
“Good. Thank you! You will marry a great wolf who lives in Quénécan forest.”
“A wolf!” she cried.
“Yes, my sweet child. The day I was lost in the forest, I spent the night in a strange castle where dwelt two enormous wolves. One of whom, a grey beast, told me that he would have one of my daughters for a wife, otherwise there was only death for me and that moreover he would devastate our land. I have spoken to your sisters and both are firm; they will never take a wolf as husband. You are my last and only hope.”
“Oh my dear father, then it must be done,” replied Luduennic, without hesitation, “tell the wolf that I will take him for my husband.”
For a third time, the baron returned to the forest but on this occasion, he felt no trepidation as the grey wolf blocked his path. “What tidings do you bring me today, baron,” asked the wolf.
“My daughter consents to marry you,” replied the baron without emotion.
“That is good. Now, you must waste no time in arranging the wedding. As a token of my esteem, please give these three fir branches to your daughters.”
Nine days later, almost six hundred guests celebrated the wedding of Luduennic and the grey wolf; the dancing and merry-making did not stop until the first light of dawn. Everyone agreed that it was a most wonderful day and certainly the strangest union that they had ever witnessed. The next morning, Luduennic found that her stem of fir had turned to gold, much to the consternation of her sisters who had disdained theirs and thrown them away upon receipt. When the last revelries were over, the baron bade the newlyweds a heartfelt farewell and prayed for his daughter’s happiness.
Married life sat well with young Luduennic; she was kindly treated by her husband and wanted for nothing. Indeed, she was happy and content. After some three months had passed, the grey wolf interrupted her breakfast, saying “Your oldest sister is to be married tomorrow and you should attend. My brother and I will stay at home. Take this gold ring and wear it on your finger. You will not see its equal. When you feel it prick your finger, you must return here immediately, no matter the time or whatever you might be doing.”
The next day, Luduennic attended her sister’s wedding, arriving in a beautiful gilded coach drawn by four powerfully-built white horses. All the guests were dazzled by her beauty and the rich lustre of her fine clothes and sparkling jewels. “Look at the wolf’s wife!” her sisters mocked jealously; for none could compete with her in beauty or dress. They overwhelmed her with questions: whether her husband was well; why did he not attend the wedding; was she happy with him; did he sleep with her like a wolf, and so many other enquiries.
After the wedding feast, the night was devoted to dances and games of all kinds. Sounds of happy laughter filled the night air and Luduennic seemed the very epitome of joy, throwing herself into one dance after another. At midnight, she felt her ring gently pricking her finger. Straightaway, she announced: “I must leave now, my husband is expecting me.” and made her farewells.
“What? So soon? Please stay just a little longer,” her sisters and all those around her urged. “You are having such a good time. Have fun here; you will always have enough of your wolf’s company.” So, Luduennic stayed but within the hour, her ring pricked her harshly. She ran to the courtyard and into her coach, which promptly left with all haste. Arriving at her woodland castle, she found her husband lying on his back in the middle of the courtyard, on the verge of death. “Oh my beloved husband, what happened to you?” she cried.
“Alas,” replied the grey wolf, “you did not come home as soon as you felt your ring prick your finger. Your neglect has brought this trouble upon me.” Luduennic threw herself on her husband and kissed him, watering his noble face with her tears. Revived, the wolf straightened up and the relieved couple were helped to the comfort of their hearth by the grey wolf’s brother.
Some four months passed peacefully before the wolf, over dinner, announced: “Your second sister is to be married tomorrow and you will attend. Take care that you do not stay there overlong. Return to me the instant that you feel your ring prick your finger. If you do not, you will never see me again.”
It was a radiant Luduennic that stepped down from her carriage at her father’s castle the following day. Was it possible, the crowd asked, that the bride’s little sister looked more beautiful than before. Once again, she was showered with questions from her sisters and extended family. They were aghast to hear of her pregnancy and her father feared that she might give birth to a wolf cub. Luduennic simply smiled and responded that only God could know the future and that whatever pleased Him, would happen.
Some of the best musicians in the land had been hired to play at the wedding and their music fuelled dances of all kinds, much to Luduennic’s delight. A little before midnight, she felt a sharp bite as the ring pricked her finger. Anxious not to repeat her previous mistake, Luduennic began to say her good-byes but, caught in the throng of so many well-wishers, she forgot herself again and returned home even later than the first time.
No sooner had she stepped down from her carriage than the air was rent by the long mournful howl of a wolf. Luduennic ran across the courtyard to where the grey wolf’s brother stood over her husband’s prone body. Seeing no sign of life, she flung herself to his side, lamenting: “My beloved, I lost myself again. Forgive me. Wake up! Please, return to me!”
Luduennic’s hot tears fell onto the grey wolf’s face but he remained deathly cold; even after he had been moved to lie in front of the castle’s main fireplace. Holding his body close to her, she rubbed his neck anxiously and was much relieved when, at length, he stirred a little, then opened his eyes and looked at her tenderly. Finally, he spoke: “My misery is complete. You failed my one request of you. You are too late, now I must leave you and you will not see me again. I no longer had to remain in this wolf form: if you had but honoured me, as soon as you gave me a child, I would have recovered a first form, that of the prince I was before. Now, I must go to live on the Crystal Mountain, across the Blue Sea and the Red Sea, and you will not find me until you have worn out a pair of iron shoes and a pair of steel shoes in search of me.”
With that, he threw off his wolf skin; his brother did the same and they were revealed, in their natural state, to be handsome young men with noble bearing. Luduennic was overwhelmed with remorse, she sobbed uncontrollably and cried: “No! Stay! Stay or take me with you. I beg you!” She ran after her husband, shouting: “Wherever you go, I will follow, even to the very end of the world,” but he would not listen to her pleas. Gripping her long, flowing robe, Luduennic gave chase.
In an effort to distract her, her husband threw in her path a perfect ball of gold. Luduennic stopped for a moment to pick up the beautiful orb and continued her pursuit. Her husband dropped a second gold ball, then a third, which she also picked up, without ceasing her run. She was the stronger runner and, feeling her hard on his heels, he suddenly turned and punched her full in the face. Her nose exploded with blood but just three drops splashed onto the prince’s white shirt. He barely looked at the devastated face of his bride before resuming his course. Alas, Luduennic was in too much pain to continue and could only shout to him: “I wish that no one can wipe away my blood from your shirt, until I come to remove it myself!” As the fleeing prince and his brother disappeared from view, Luduennic made a solemn oath that she would not stop walking until she found her husband.
So, she returned home and took her golden frond to the master blacksmith at Gwareg who forged for her a fine pair of shoes made of iron and another crafted in tempered steel. The smith also created an iron ferrule for the new walking stick that she had fashioned from a strong branch of elderberry. With some ill-fitting clothes bought from the blacksmith’s wife, she set out again in the direction in which she had last seen her husband go.
Luduennic walked; she walked night and day, barely taking time to rest. She travelled far; far beyond all lands and languages known to her. Her wooden sabots had perished, so, she wore her iron shoes. Everywhere she asked for news of the Crystal Mountain, located beyond the Blue Sea and the Red Sea, but no one was ever able to give her any indication of their whereabouts.
Eventually, her iron shoes were worn away and she was forced to put on her steel pair before continuing her quest. Months of constant walking took their toll and her steel shoes were also almost worn through, when Luduennic arrived at a desolate sea shore. There, nestled between two gigantic red boulders, she saw a miserable looking hut. She approached it and saw inside a little woman, as old as stone with teeth as long and sharp as those of a rake. “Hello, little one; what are you looking for here?” croaked the old woman.
“I search for my husband, who left me. I have walked for nineteen moons yet I can find no trace of the Crystal Mountain where he said he was going. It lies beyond the Blue Sea and the Red Sea; tell me, does this ocean carry either name?” asked Luduennic.
“Truly, you have travelled far and suffered a lot to come here,” replied the crone.
“Yes but perhaps, sadly, in vain. I have already worn out a pair of iron shoes and the steel ones on my feet are also almost spent. Do you know the Crystal Mountain?”
“You are on the right path, little one, but you still have far to walk and much to endure before you get there.”
Luduennic’s heart dropped at this news: “In the name of God, help me, grandmother, please. Please help me!”
“You do interest me little one and so I shall do something for you. I will call my son; he will take you across the seas Blue and Red and will put you, in no time, at the foot of the great Crystal Mountain.”
Shuffling to the threshold of her hovel, the crone let out a cry so piercing that Luduennic could hardly credit its source. A few moments later, an ominous shadow spread across the sky from the south and Luduennic saw the outline of an impossibly large bird darkening the heavens. It glided towards her, crying, before landing gracefully nearby. The enormous eagle touched the old woman’s feet with its beak and asked her: “Why did you call me, mother?”
“To take this one over the Blue Sea and over the Red Sea and deposit her at the foot of the Crystal Mountain,” she responded.
“Very well. So shall it be,” replied the eagle, “let her ride on my back and we will leave immediately.”
Luduennic sat astride the eagle’s back and clung tightly as the magnificent bird soared high into the air. They flew away from the sun and over the Blue Sea and soon thereafter, the Red Sea. The sun had not fully passed across the sky before the eagle began to descend toward the base of a towering peak: the Crystal Mountain. Having laid his burden at the foot of the mountain, the eagle flew away and was soon out of sight.
Having decided to climb the mountain on the following morning, Luduennic allowed herself a night’s rest. However, the full light of day illuminated the challenge ahead; the mountain’s slope was steep and slippery, and she could not find any trace of a path. It was then she noticed a fox playing nearby with some golden balls, similar to those her husband had thrown at her in his flight and which she still carried in her bag. The fox appeared to be rolling his golden balls from high up the mountain before gathering them all up when they reached the bottom. Seeing Luduennic, the fox spoke in the language of men and asked her what she was doing at the mountain. No longer surprised to encounter talking animals, Luduennic told the fox of her search and long journey from home.
“Of course, of course,” muttered the fox, “You are, no doubt, Luduennic, the youngest daughter of the Baron de Poher? Tomorrow your husband is to marry the daughter of the master of the Castle of Crystal Mountain. It will be a grand occasion.”
“This cannot be,” cried the poor girl, “I must speak to him. In all haste, I must! But how can I ever climb such a mountain as this?”
“Take hold of my tail with both hands, hold tightly and I shall take you to the top,” replied the fox. Luduennic took the fox’s tail as instructed and was able to climb to the top of the mountain, where the fox, before departing, showed her the castle where her husband was living.
As Luduennic made her way towards the castle, she saw a group of washerwomen scrubbing clothes in a steam and noticed that one of them was fiercely working on a shirt with some stubborn stains on it. Clearly unable to remove the stains, the washerwoman held up the shirt to her neighbour, saying: “This thin shirt has only three stains on it but I cannot lift even one of them. I dare not scrub it more as it is fine linen but the young lord wants to wear it tomorrow as it is his most beautiful shirt.”
Luduennic heard these words and, having approached the washerwoman, instantly recognized her husband’s shirt, saying: “If you want to give me the shirt, I think I will succeed in making those stains disappear.” The washerwoman gave her the shirt; she spat on the three stains, soaked the cloth in the water, rubbed it and the stains promptly disappeared. In recognition of this service, the washerwoman invited Luduennic to come with her to the castle, where she could find work for as long as the wedding celebrations lasted.
The following morning found Luduennic seated on a low wall that ran alongside the road upon which the bridal procession travelled on its way to the church. At her side, she had spread a clean white handkerchief upon which sat a beautiful gold ball. The expectant bride did not fail to notice the glistening ball as she passed by; she admired it greatly and sent one of her trusted maids to secure it for her.
“What will you take for your little gold ball?” the bride’s maid asked Luduennic.
“Tell your mistress that I will not sell my gold ball, neither for silver nor for gold,” replied Luduennic.
“My mistress has a strong desire to own it, however,” continued the maid.
“Tell her that if she wants to let me spend tonight with her husband, she will possess it; but for nothing else in the world can she have it.”
“She will never consent to that,” snorted the maid as she hurried back to the castle. After the wedding party had returned, the maid sought out her mistress and recounted her conversation with the owner of the golden ball and the high price she demanded for it. Both agreed it was a most shameless suggestion. However, such was the lure of this golden sphere that the lady reluctantly agreed to the terms offered and to conserve her honour, resolved to give her husband a potent sleeping draught before they retired to bed.
The maid returned to Luduennic and, having secured the gold ball, brought her, in secret, to the castle. The lady, delighted with her bargain and her new husband, was a picture of happiness during the wedding feast and later, while clapping the dancers, she was able to pour some narcotic into her husband’s cup without his noticing it. It was not long before he gladly acceded to his wife’s suggestion to rest awhile before dancing anymore and was guided to his chamber by his new bride.
A few moments later, Luduennic was shown to the room. She threw herself on the prince and kissed him, weeping with joy, saying: “I have finally found you, my beloved husband! If you but knew at the cost of how much trouble and pain. Our baby was lost. I have known only suffering since you left me.” However, he was sleeping soundly and nothing could wake him. The poor girl spent the whole night crying without being able to raise one word from her husband. At daybreak, the princess’s maid came for her and led her out of the castle.
Later that day, the princess was walking in the woods near the castle when she chanced upon Luduennic standing beside a white cloth laid out on the grass upon which sat another gold ball. The princess again coveted the precious globe and sent her maid to buy it. “How much is your gold ball today?” she asked.
“The same price as yesterday,” Luduennic replied. The maid reported the answer to her mistress who, eager to acquire the ball, again accepted the bargain offered.
During the evening meal, the prince, who had been slipped another dose of sleeping potion, fell asleep at the table and had to be carried to his bed. As on the previous day, the pitiable Luduennic spent the whole night with him, weeping and moaning, without being able to wake him.
However, the newlywed’s brother, whose chamber was next door, heard Luduennic’s plaintive cries and was moved to hear her say: “If you only knew of the ordeals I was forced to endure in search of you. I married you when you were a wolf. Neither of my sisters wanted you. I alone loved you and now you receive me this way! I will visit you once more and if you do not rouse, we will never see each other again!”
In the morning, the prince’s brother relayed all that he had overheard and told how Luduennic’s deep anguish had moved him deeply. Suspecting some mischief, he cautioned his brother against drinking anything offered by his new bride; if he retained his senses, he might see Luduennic’s devotion for himself. While the brothers were deep in conversation, the princess was walking outside the castle walls with her sister and was most surprised to encounter Luduennic, sitting outside the east wall with yet another golden ball. A deal, on the same conditions as the first two, was swiftly concluded.
During the evening meal, the prince was careful of what he ate and poured away his drugged drink without his princess noticing. Pretending to succumb to an irresistible sleep, he was carried to his bed by his brother and was wide awake when Luduennic slipped into his chamber a short time later. Weeping with joy, Luduennic told her husband of the many hardships she had overcome and the pain she had carried in searching for him. The prince was touched by her sincerity and believed her earnest declaration that she loved him above all else in the world. So complete was his trust that he vowed to return with her to her country and leave, without regret, his new wife.
Dressed in the manner of the princess that she was, Luduennic was the prince’s guest at dinner on the following evening. Introduced as one of his relatives, nobody recognised this visitor whose beauty commanded the gaze of all present. A most convivial atmosphere surrounded the evening and it was not long before people started to tell tales and sing songs; each vying to be more entertaining than the last performer much to the delight of the lord of the mountain. “And you, my new son, will you not sing us something too, unless you prefer to recite some beautiful story? asked the master of the castle.
“I have little to say, father,” replied the prince. “However, there is one thing that troubles me and on which I would welcome your advice and that of the other wise men present. It is this: I once owned a charming little box, opened by a delicate golden key. I lost this precious casket and had a fine new one made but as soon as I took hold of the new box, I found the old one. Thus, I find myself today with two and one is enough for me. Which of the two should I keep, father – the old or the new?”
“Respect and honour always that which is ancient,” replied the lord, “keep your old box, my son.”
“I am also of that opinion and therefore I must, in good conscience, return your daughter to you. As for me, I will return to the land of my first wife. She is here and loves me more than any other,” announced the prince as he rose from the table. To the total astonishment of all, he took Luduennic by the hand and promptly left the castle.
The two wolves of the forest castle were princes, sons of a powerful ruler to the south. They had been cursed, as punishment for some perceived slight, by a witch to adopt the form of a wolf. Alas, their father died shortly after their joyful homecoming and was, in turn, succeeded by the prince. Luduennic’s father was very happy to see his daughter return but her sisters had made bad marriages. Setting aside all ill will, she forgot their wrongs towards her and called them to her court where she saw them re-married to men who loved them more than their father’s estates. As for the princess of Crystal Mountain; only the storytellers heard of her fate.
For centuries, marriage, whether motivated by romantic idealism or social necessity, was a key concern for rural societies across Europe. In Brittany, where traditionally an early wedding was expected and the unmarried viewed with suspicion, a number of unusual customs and superstitions once surrounded marriage and the quest for a worthy spouse.
Across Brittany, many sacred springs and fountains were widely believed to have possessed divinatory powers and it seems that pins were long considered the most effective medium for consulting these oracles. Different pins were used at different fountains; mostly silver hairpins were used but sometimes the ritual required a wooden pin or one taken from the bodice of the dress. The most auspicious pin to use was widely held to be one of the pins used for a bridal crown or wedding dress and such pins were highly prized by those wishing to get married.
The omens drawn from the behaviour of the pins cast into the water also differed according to the site. Whether a pin simply floated or sank was often not enough to draw meaning; in some locations it was important that the pin sank without making a whirling motion or that it turned on itself before hitting the bottom of the fountain.
With many thousands of sacred springs scattered across the Breton countryside, deciding on which source to consult was no trivial matter; something as important as a happy marriage could not be left to mere chance. Unmarried women therefore routinely visited the local witch in hope of securing her recommendation as to the right fountain to be consulted. This was typically done by a ritual known as ‘the pull of the saints’; the bent branch of a hazel tree was burnt over a container of water while the names of propitious saints were recited. The name pronounced at the moment the first piece of charcoaled residue fell into the water, signalled the saint’s fountain to be visited.
In Brittany, the 3rd century Christian martyr Laurent or Lawrence, who was said to have been roasted alive, was popularly invoked for burns, shingles and difficulties in walking. However, many fountains dedicated to him were also ascribed miraculous powers of prophecy. Near Pleyben, on the day of the Pardon of Saint Laurent (10 August), young women would visit the saint’s fountain in an attempt to float a pin on the water in hopes of being married within the year; a ritual that was also popularly observed there on May Day. Similar rituals were undertaken at the Saint Laurent chapel in Yffiniac and at the fountain of Saint Laurent, just north of Plémy.
The Saint Laurent fountain at Stivell features a spring encased by a circular stone basin, reminiscent of a well, from which the water is channelled through a culvert for about six metres before emerging at a spout carved into a granite wall from which it cascades two meters down into a stone basin. This basin fed a large stone pool that accommodated bathers while stones, sealed into the wall, allowed pilgrims to be seated while making their ablutions.
On the night before the saint’s Pardon, it was traditional for the devout to circle the 15th century chapel on their knees before enjoying the evening festivities; boisterous drinking, energetic dancing and bouts of bloody wrestling by the light of consecrated candles being the norm. After sunset, the men bathed naked in the pool; the waters were believed to strengthen the body. At sunrise, the women took their turn to bathe together. Those who did not want to appear naked in public would send a beggar to perform this ritual on their behalf. The practice was clearly an echo of some ancient belief but we can only speculate as to what that might have been. Perhaps the association of sacred water and fire was related to pagan notions of the sun regaining its vitality in the underground waters before being reborn with the dawn.
The religious authorities finally managed to get such practices proscribed in 1855 when an official decree prohibited night fighting and excesses of all kinds; the temporary drinking tents set-up for the Pardon were henceforth forced to close at the same times as the licensed taverns in town and displays of nudity were branded offensive to public decency and expressly forbidden. However, old traditions die hard and the timeworn practices were still reported in 1864. Having failed to eradicate the belief, the Church focused on making the site irrelevant and finally abandoned the chapel in 1879.
Sainte Barbe’s fountain in Le Faouët was once a popular site for those in central Brittany to visit in order to find out if they were to be married in the year ahead. Here, it was traditional to throw a pin into the basin of the fountain while one’s back was turned. If the pin fell into the small vertical cavity at the base of the fountain, a suitable marriage within the year was assured. Young girls also visited another fountain dedicated to Sainte Barbe some 30km away in Pont-Augan near Quistinic but the ritual here appears to have involved simply making an invocation and throwing a round-headed pin into the water in hopes of being married within the year.
Saint Lawrence was one of the most widely venerated Christian saints; the cult of Saint Barbara, another 3rd century martyr, was also fairly widespread, so, we should not be too surprised to see sacred springs devoted to them in Brittany. However, the majority of such ancient sites were successfully Christianised by being devoted to local saints not recognised by the Vatican.
The fountain attached to the 16th century church at Saint-Servais was consulted by young girls seeking to know when they would marry; if the pin floated it was taken as a fortuitous omen. However, at the fountain of Saint Alor, a little south of the city of Quimper, the pin had to sink directly down with its head pointed upwards. When the pin thrown into the fountain of Saint-Gobrien sank upside down through the water, the unmarried girl was said to find a husband before the end of the year.
Those seeking a marriage in the far west of Brittany would visit the fountain of Saint Ourzal’s chapel near Kervézennoc. Here, it was necessary to offer a pin to the water before invoking the saint with the words: “Mr Saint Ourzal, please, give each a wife, Mr Saint Ourzal, once again, give us each a husband.”
If the pin thrown by a girl into the waters of the fountain of Saint Vio at Ploneour-Lanwern did not quickly sink through the water, she was said to be guaranteed to marry within the year. While at the saint’s fountain in nearby Tréguennec, it was necessary for those seeking marriage to throw a coin into the circular depression found in the middle of the fountain’s outer basin. Coins were also the medium used at the fountain of Saint-Gouesnou where they were thrown into the waters of the spring while asking for the saint’s favour in securing an early marriage. The grace of this saint was considered most auspicious given his reputation for forbidding women from entering his monastic territories in 7th century Brittany.
In the forest of Brocéliande, the fountain of Barenton, long famous for its association with Merlin and Viviane, is one of the few sacred sources in Brittany not to have been successfully Christianised by the Church. Unmarried women visited the fountain to offer it a pin; if the waters of the spring bubbled, it was a sign that she would be married before Easter. If fate was favourable, those seeking marriage were said to see the image of their intended reflected in the waters if they visited the fountain alone, at midnight, on the night of a full moon.
It was not always pins that were cast into the waters. At the fountain of Saint Drien in Penmarc’h, girls traditionally threw pieces of broken pottery into the water; the number of air bubbles that rose to the surface foretold how many years separated her from marriage. Nor were pins used at the fountain of Saint Efflam in Plestin-les-Grèves; a source reputed to have been raised by the saint to quench the thirst of King Arthur, weary after having spent three days fighting a dragon in the vicinity. This fountain was once the scene for several special divination rituals; the young woman threw a piece of bread onto the water, if it floated, it was taken as a sign that she would be married within the year.
Another rite involved placing two small pieces of bread, representing the prospective bride and groom, on the water channel that flows from the fountain’s basin. This channel widens and a slight eddy is formed in the water; if, during this journey, the two pieces floated side by side, the marriage was assured within the year. However, if the pieces, caught in the eddy, separated, the wedding would not take place soon, possibly never.
Probably the most impressive fountain related to those desiring a marriage is the fountain of Quinipily. This monumental fountain is topped by a nine foot high pedestal on which stands a seven foot tall statue of Venus thought to be a relic of the Roman occupation and to date from 50BC. The fountain possessed a massive water basin where women bathed naked in the hope of securing a marriage, much to the consternation of the local clergy.
In Ploumanac’h, on Brittany’s Pink Granite Coast, the 12th century Oratory of Saint Guirec is only accessible at low tide but if an intrepid and unmarried girl managed to put a pin into the statue’s nose without it falling out, she was thought to be married within the year. A similar outcome was assured if a young girl succeeded in throwing a stone through the small circular window set into the west gable wall of the 15th century chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Bon Repos in Plérin.
It was not only the sacred sources that were visited in hopes of influencing the future; certain monoliths and megaliths were also the scene for a variety of rituals designed to effect a marriage. In the eastern Breton village of Maen Roch, the large quartz-rich boulder known as Le Rocher Cutesson was climbed on the morning of May Day by unmarried people, of both sexes, each carrying a bowl full of water. Holding their bowl, the young folk allowed themselves to slide down the rock face; those who managed to reach the ground with their bowl intact were said to be married within a year. A little over 3km away in Saint-Étienne-en-Coglès, a similar result was said to be achieved if a young woman climbed the large boulder in the churchyard of Saint Eustache’s chapel on Good Friday and stood on its summit in front of the congregation without blushing.
Just 20km away at Monthault, unmarried women would slide down an enormous inclined ashlar, leaving behind a piece of cloth or ribbon, in the expectation that they would be married within the year. However, it was important that no one witnessed this rite as it was thought that only the stone could keep the secret of the maiden’s heart. Similar practices were known to have taken place on other stones, such as the inclined Menhir de la Thiemblaye near Saint-Samson-sur-Rance.
Near the north east coast, in Plouër-sur-Rance, young women would climb to the top of the rocky outcrop known as La Roche de Lesmont to take position on the highest block of quartz. This abuts a large pyramid shaped boulder which, over the years, has been rubbed quite smooth by the elements and human action. It was on this angled face of rock that girls would slide down in the expectation of gaining a marriage within the year. For the ritual to be effective, it was necessary that, before commencing her slide, the young lady rolled up her skirt so that her bare flesh was in constant contact with the stone (underwear not being commonly worn until the turn of the 20th century). If the girl reached the bottom without scratching herself, she was said to be sure of securing a husband within the year. Some reports claimed that the slider also needed to urinate in a cavity in the stone.
The symbolic importance of flesh against stone is quite ancient and was often noted in archaic societies who practiced an element of stone worship; bodily contact with that to which they attributed power was crucial. A bared bottom was also a requirement for sliding down the broken blocks of the Great Menhir at Locmariaquer on Brittany’s southern coast but to succeed, the ritual had to be completed on the night of May Day. A scratch deep enough to bleed augured a future marriage. The menhir was recorded as still standing at the beginning of the 18th century thus this custom, which could not have been observed when the stone stood vertical, twelve meters in height, must have been relatively modern. Most likely, the unmarried women of the area followed, on the broken pieces, an ancient custom which was formerly held on another stone in the neighbourhood.
The Neolithic dolmen of Cruz-Menquen in nearby Carnac was popularly known as Pierre Chaude (the hot stone). During the nights of a full moon, young women seeking marriage would sit atop the capstone with their skirt lifted above their waist. It was, no doubt, to counter such pagan practices that the local clergy decided to Christianize the megalith in the early 19th century. Accounts from the same time relate how young women seeking husbands, undressed completely and rubbed their ‘navels’ against another menhir near Carnac that was especially devoted to this usage. Similar practices were also recorded at the megalith known as La Roche-Marie near Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier.
Further along the coast, near Guérande, the French diplomat Charles Coquebert de Montbret noted the presence of many pieces of red cloth pushed into the clefts and cracks of the dolmens of Kerbourg during a visit in the early 19th century. He was assured that these were favours entrusted to the stone by young girls in the hope of being married within the year, such secret deposits being made far from the watchful gaze of the local clergy.
The interpretation of omens and the practice of specific rites to ward off misfortune or to encourage good fortune was an important part of everyday life in the rural Brittany of yesteryear. It was said that if a young girl danced around nine Midsummer bonfires, she would marry before the next Midsummer Day; a similar outcome was assured if she found, on Midsummer’s Eve, a vantage point that allowed her to see nine fires burning at once.
A marriage, within a year, was also thought assured if one found, first thing in the morning, a flowered thistle. Similarly, anyone who saw a star between nine and ten o’clock in the morning was believed to marry within the year. However, if an unmarried woman wore her petticoat in such a manner that it exceeded her outer skirt, it was a sign that she would not marry for a long time.
A thistle was also used by young women to identify the suitor that loved her the most sincerely. Taking as many heads of thistle as she had suitors, she would remove the tips and assign each thistle a boy’s name before placing them under her bed. The plant that decayed the least told her whose sincerity was the strongest. In some parts of Brittany, aspiring suitors placed a hawthorn leaf on the door of the object of their affections; if their attention was unwelcome, the young lady replaced the leaf with that of a cauliflower.
Finding a four leafed clover, when one had not been looking for it, was a widespread omen of good fortune here but it was said that if it was discovered by an unmarried girl she would soon be married. When a bramble clung to a woman’s dress, it was another sign that love was near and that she would marry within the year. In the east of the region, if a young girl wanted to see who she was destined to marry, it was necessary for her to place three bay leaves under her eyes before going to sleep on Christmas Eve while reciting: “Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior, tell me while I sleep, who will be mine for life.”
If a woman wanted her partner to love her dearly, it was recommended that she put a walnut leaf, picked on Midsummer’s Eve, in her left shoe while the Nones bell was ringing. An equally bizarre ritual was advised for the girl whose love for a boy was unrequited; it was said that she had only to make him eat some bread that she had baked with a little of her menstrual blood. Alternatively, the lovelorn lady could take a lock of the boy’s hair and offer it three times to the altar of the local church with a lighted candle and then plait it with a lock of her own hair. Another procedure said to have been effective was a love potion composed of water or cider infused with the powder of a bone taken from a fresh grave or ground cantharides. Unrequited love was also said to be returned if you sat on a rock near Fougere known as ‘the Devil’s Chair’ for a determined time at a certain time of the year.
The broader animal kingdom was also called upon to throw light on matters of the heart; young girls consulted the ladybird to draw some omen from its flight. In eastern Brittany, young women would take a harvestman or daddy long-legs and pull off its legs; if the dismembered limbs twitched when placed in the palm of the hand, a marriage was near.
In yesterday’s Brittany, a woman seeking a husband needed to avoid treading on the tail of a cat; in the west of the region, it was said no marriage would follow for seven years but in eastern Brittany it was held that she would remain unmarried for as many years as the cat had shrieked. Likewise, the call of the cuckoo was said to indicate how many years a young woman would have to wait until marriage. The bark of a dog could also be auspicious as young shepherds, whose dogs barked while seemingly asleep, once believed that their future husband would be sighted on the following Sunday; approaching from the direction indicated by the dog’s head.
A white doe that was said to wander the moors of Kerprigent near Saint-Jean-du-Doigt served as another animal progosticator. The beast was described as docile but agitated, seemingly searching for something and was quick to follow those who chanced across its path. If she met a young girl and blocked her path, the girl was sure to marry within months but was destined to die within the year. If she followed or walked alongside an unmarried girl, it was a sign that she would never marry. If she showed herself to a married woman, it was to announce the imminent death of her husband. If the doe met a young man, he would marry within the year but if he was under twenty years of age her appearance foretold the death of a close relative.
The course of true love never does run smooth and such are the vagaries of love that sometimes folk felt it necessary to seek affirmation of their partner’s devotion and fidelity. Many superstitious practices were once widely thought to pronounce on the sincerity of a lover. For instance, a piece of magnetite or magnet stone placed under the bed was thought to have the power to repel unfaithful lovers from the marital bed.
One way to attest to the virtue of one’s future bride was to present the young lady with a lighted tallow candle; if she managed to extinguish the flame by blowing on it once and succeeded in relighting it in the same fashion, blowing on it only once, the result was decisive; the lady’s virtue was intact. Sometimes portents were taken from the most everyday occurrences; a woman whose hair remained askew after she had prepared her headdress was said to be subject to the temptation of adultery, while the appearance of rain on laundry day indicated that the man of the house was not a faithful partner.
Near the south coast town of Concarneau, the massive boulder at Trégunc known as Men Dogan (the stone of the cuckolds) was visited by men to verify the fidelity of their partners; tradition held that a deceived partner could not make the 50 tonne stone move but those whose partners were true could move it with just one finger. The behaviour of another balancing rock nearby was said able to answer any question put to it; the rock could only be moved if the answer was in the affirmative. Several menhirs that faced the sea off Brittany’s southern coast were visited by young people who placed flax flowers on the stones on Saint John’s Day; if the flowers were still fresh when visited eight days later, it was taken as a sign of faithfulness. Those men who feared betrayal by their wives visited the rock at Combourtillé, circling it under the light of the moon in an attempt to retain marital faithfulness.
Many young people traditionally came to consult the fountain of Saint Thivisiau at Landivisiau before their wedding: a pin from the girl’s bodice cast into the waters of the fountain indicated whether the prospective bride had retained her innocence. The pin was laid on the water with the greatest care; if it floated for a moment, the young girl’s virtue was confirmed. Only recognised in this location, nothing is known of the life of the, possibly mythical, Saint Thivisiau whose name is attached to this fountain. However, the site’s importance stretches back millennia, as attested by the Iron Age steles uncovered here during excavation work in the 1980s.
Some 40km to the east, the fountain of Saint Efflam in Plestin-les-Grèves was the site of three distinct rituals. Consulted by men eager to secure affirmation of their partner’s faithfulness, it was necessary to visit the fountain without being seen, on an empty stomach, on the first Monday in May. Three small pieces of bread, representing the couple and the interloper, were thrown on the water, if the latter piece moved away from the other two, it was because any suspicions were well-founded.
In another rite, a woman threw a piece of bread onto the water; if it floated, it was a sign that her fiancé was faithful to her. The fountain was the site of one more practice, observed by those men anxious to know whether their wife was faithful to them. For this to be effective, it was necessary for the man to steal the pin worn closest to his wife’s heart and place it on the water; if the pin floated, his wife’s virtue remained intact.
The Breton writer Yann Brekilien once uncovered a most unfortunate episode in this fountain’s history: A young couple visited the fountain to offer to the waters a beautiful silver-headed pin that the boy had bought for the girl as a gift to mark their engagement. Neither were worried; both confident of their devotion to each other. Alas, the pin swiftly sank to the bottom of the basin. We can only imagine their devastated dreams as, heads bowed in silence, they turned away from the fountain. The following morning, the young girl’s lifeless body was found on the beach.
It is commonplace in our modern world to laugh at the superstitions of old but it is important to remember that, whether right or wrong, people once had faith in their power and effectiveness.
As with most other rural communities, considerable importance was once attached to milk in Brittany; it played a vital role in the people’s diet and livelihood. It is therefore not surprising to find a number of once popular superstitions and beliefs surrounding it; including special practices to preserve one’s cows from the evil spells thrown at them by jealous neighbours.
For centuries, it was commonly believed that milk production could be influenced, for good and especially for ill, by acts performed outside the cowshed. In Brittany, a silver coin held in the hand or hidden in the stable insured good luck for the dairy. Similarly, certain plants and herbs were thought to have an influence on the production of milk: to ensure one’s cow gave as much milk as those of your neighbours, it was thought beneficial to place in the byre, every day, an amulet of ground herbs picked on the night of Midsummer, reciting a short prayer while the Nones bell was ringing.
To preserve the health of milk cows, their hooves were rubbed with a paste of ground herbs gathered before sunrise on Midsummer’s Day and in the southern Breton Marches, cows’ udders were rubbed with the early morning dew on May Day in hopes of the same result. In order for the cow to deliver ample milk without difficulty, it was often made to drink the first milk or colostrum after it had calved. Many farmers also put their faith in religion and regularly made offerings of butter at one of the many churches dedicated to the protector of cows, Saint Herbot, invoking the saint’s favour for full churns. Likewise, butter was offered to Saint Hervé to keep cattle safe from wolves; the saint, stricken with blindness, was once led about by a wolf.
If a cow’s milk dried-up unexpectedly or for no apparent reason, it was not long before the farmer suspected the influence of witchcraft; causing the udders of asses and cows to dry-up was one of the misdeeds often attributed to witches from at least the 17th century onwards. An amulet containing certain dried herbs, placed inside the chimney-breast of the barn was thought to bring-on the drying of cows’ udders. However, it was also believed that the same circumstances could also be produced if the cows chanced to be milked over their litter or if they were put in a blessed house.
A sympathetic bond between the cow and its milk was thought to exist even after the milk had left its body. It was believed that certain people possessed the ability to cast the evil eye, causing cows to lose milk simply by looking at them in a certain way; enchantments that could only be lifted by the intervention of a witch or sorcerer.
It was thought that the best milk was vulnerable to thieves able to draw the cream of others to their barn; before sunrise on May Day it was said that one’s enemy needed to attach a string to the filter of their milk churn and drag it in the direction from which they wanted the cream to come while reciting the charm: “Milk and butter, come all to me and nothing to my neighbours.”
To dispel this enchantment and chastise the one who cast it, the owner of the bewitched cow was required to boil a few pins in the animal’s milk; these were then thought to wound the one who cast the spell who, to alleviate the pain, hastened to lift the curse. In the north west of the region, another way to lift such a curse was to stick several pins into the heart of an ox which was then put into an iron pot hung over the flames of the farmhouse fire; the spell caster was now believed to feel compelled to present themselves to the accursed party.
Around Quintin in central Brittany, it was said that milkmaids ran naked at night, filling their churns with dew collected in their neighbour’s fields in order to steal the cream. Similar nocturnal naked expeditions were also reputed to have been undertaken by milkmaids in eastern Brittany. It was said that they stole milk by walking naked around the stables of the neighbouring farms, dragging behind them the rags used to clean the oven. This was thought to draw the cream from the milk of all the cows included within this circuit and pass it instead into their stable, so that even with just one cow, they would produce butter in abundance. This good fortune was held to last until another person, more powerful in the dark arts, again diverted the cream.
In western Brittany, it was thought that such an enchantment could be broken if the affected cow was walked around a three sided field. Indeed, one was believed to be able to turn the tables on the spell caster if, while walking the cow, one threw salt over their shoulder, chanting: “Cream for me and milk for my neighbour.” Salt as a preservative against drying-up also featured in the traditional beliefs of neighbouring Normandy, where, to counteract any possible bewitchment that had been cast on a new cow, molten salt was rubbed on the udder and around the base of its tail.
A more elaborate ritual for lifting this type of curse involved cutting some hairs from the cow’s head, the withers and its tail, soaking them in the animal’s water trough before sunrise on each day of Holy Week before wearing them to mass on Easter Day.
In southern Brittany, May Day was believed to be the day when cows were particularly susceptible to the power of sorcerers and their evil spells. In order to protect them against such misfortune, an elaborate ritual was performed; the cattle were taken from the byre which was then cleaned thoroughly. The leaves of a number of plants, namely bay, bramble, elderberry and laurel, collected that morning, were then burned with scraps of old leather in all the corners of the building. Branches of elderberry were hung from the walls inside the barn and a bramble, with a root at each of its ends, fastened in the form of an arc above the barn door. This ritual complete, the cows were then returned to the barn, being led backwards through the doorway by the farmer.
The belief that sorcerers could steal milk by diverting its output is quite ancient and was specifically condemned by the Council of Paris in 829: “Among the very pernicious evils of pagan origin and which divine law orders to fight, it is necessary to announce the action of magicians, diviners, enchanters and interpreters of dreams. It is reported that, by their evil spells, they can disturb the air and send hail, predict the future, take away from some the fruit and milk and give it to others.”
In addition to its beneficial qualities, milk was said to possess other virtues in yesterday’s Brittany as it was thought effective against all deadly fires. It was also said to influence the physical abilities of infants and even adults. It was claimed in eastern parts of the region that children raised on goat’s milk were particularly nimble and jumped in the manner of the beast that fed them. In times past, this belief was quite common; the 16th century French physician Laurent Joubert wrote of a girl who, for this reason, always wanted to climb and jump and that those adults, who drank too much goat’s milk, became so restless that they only danced, jumped and ran.
A number of ill omens were once connected with milk here; it was considered that misfortune would befall the person who happened to drop a pail of milk. Another sign of impending bad luck was received when milk that had been put on the fire did not come to the boil quickly and it was also a bad omen if the milk boiled over. It was also said that giving away milk on May Day was to invite misfortune upon the household. However, milk was reputed to be the only thing that could break the terrible power of La Main de la Gloire or the Hand of Glory.
Some animals were thought to cast a sinister shadow over the health of cows and their milk. It was once believed that a cow bitten by a snake would give bloody milk; a notion that was refined in the south of the region where it was said that milk that was tinged red indicated that the cow had been suckled by a snake. Pouring the cow’s milk into an anthill was thought the only way to effectively destroy the offending ophidian.
Hedgehogs were also claimed to suckle the milk of cows and thus steal their milk and, in doing so, they caused the fatal cattle disease known as blackleg. It was also thought that those cows who ate the grass upon which a female hedgehog on-heat had previously walked fell ill. In eastern Brittany, a pregnant cow that ate the grass on which a hedgehog had walked was said to be cursed to calve painfully.
If a farmer with only one cow often succeeded in getting her to give him more butter than some neighbours could get from two or three cows, neighbourhood gossips lost little time in attributing such results to a pact with the Devil. However, in some instances, it might have been more proper to assign the honour to Saint Herbot, a semi-legendary 6th century Breton saint who was popularly invoked in order for cows to produce milk and for butter to take. Protector of horses and horned animals, cows’ tails were regularly hung by the altars of churches dedicated to him into the 20th century. The Saint was usually invoked in the following terms: “Blessed Saint Herbot, from the depth of my heart I beg you to pour out your blessing on the milk that I take, so that the cream rises abundantly to satisfy my masters and next year, if I live, I promise you a calf.”
Wearing a silver ring while churning was reputed to cause the butter to take quickly and to successfully churn when it was cold, it was once recommended to place a silver coin at the bottom of the churn. In some parts of Brittany, it was traditional to turn the crank of a butter churn in only one direction, that of the sun. A more widespread belief held that it brought bad luck to lend a churn to a neighbour as it was thought to reduce your fortune in making butter thereafter.
Like milk, butter was also the target of sorcerers and evil spells; it was believed that people could prevent it from taking by striking the churn three times with a stick and reciting, backwards, a verse from Psalm 31: “My times are in thy hand: deliver me from the hand of mine enemies and from them that persecute me”, or by reciting a verse from the Gospel of Matthew known as nolite fieri: “And when you fast, do not look dismal like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say, they have received their reward.”
Mendicants and tinkers who chanced to call at the farm when the butter was being churned were almost always guaranteed to receive some consideration from the household, if only out of fear that, if rejected, they would cast the evil eye over the butter. The sighting of a hare while churning was a cause for alarm as it was believed that butter stealing sorcerers had the ability to turn into hares to escape their potential pursuers. In western Brittany, the milkmaid whose butter was slow to take, averted the possible machinations of the sorcerer by changing her churn immediately.
Several unusual superstitions were once closely attached to dairy products here; for instance, it was considered especially bad luck to bring foxgloves into a room where yogurt was being made. In parts of eastern Brittany it was thought a menstruating woman could not make butter and it was more widely claimed that those with red hair made bad butter. Similarly, it was once believed that the cheese made by an adulterer did not keep and was quickly invaded by worms.
Many once claimed that the best butter was formed if it was churned during the time of the turning of the tides. According to the time when it was made, butter enjoyed several special attributes; in the west of the region, it was believed that the butter made during Rogations (the three days of prayer preceding the Feast of the Ascension) never corrupted and constituted a most effective balm for healing wounds. Similar attributes were applied to butter made in May which was also used to treat the injured hooves of cows and goats.
A number of superstitious beliefs also surrounded eggs here in Brittany where it was once common for those who kept chickens to place a piece of iron, such as a horseshoe, inside the henhouse in order to protect the brood from the disastrous effects of storms and lightning. It was also believed that foxes would never enter a henhouse that had been sprinkled with the water in which chitterlings (pig intestines) had been boiled. However, the ermine was thought so bold that it was said to enter the coop while the hen was laying and slip under her, ready to swallow her eggs. Another enemy of the chicken was the toad whose presence in the henhouse signalled that no hens would lay there anymore.
One of the biggest concerns of the Breton farmer revolved around choosing the most favourable moment for setting the hen on the eggs. This was thought important to ensure maximum success; factors such as the day of the week were said to influence the number of chicks born or cause the hatching of more males than females. It was said that a hen must never be put to set during a waning moon or when the wind was in the east. Fridays were to be avoided as the day would deliver mostly male chicks and misfortune was said to follow if a hen was set on a Sunday. Nor was a hen put to set on an even number of eggs, it was usually an odd number and most commonly a multiple of three.
It was popularly held here that eggs ought only be gathered in the morning and it was considered unlucky to gather eggs after sunset and at any time on a Sunday. Duck eggs brought into the house after dark were said never to hatch. Similarly, eggs brought into the house having been carried over running water were said not to hatch. In some parts of Brittany, even crossing a dry water course was held to bring on similar bad luck. To protect against such misfortune, it was necessary for the person who owned the eggs to crumble some morsels of bread over the eggs and the basket being used to transport them. Additionally, the basket containing the eggs which had passed over water was not to be placed on a table, chair or any other item of furniture; it could only be placed directly on the floor. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind these last two practices has long been lost to the mists of time.
Breaking a newly laid egg whilst collecting it from the roost was regarded as an omen of some misfortune ahead but breaking egg shells over a child was thought to bring on good luck and to protect them against witchcraft. The eggs laid on Good Friday were said to bring good luck to the household and were carefully kept as talismans to guard the house against fire. Easter was also a period when many people traditionally abstained from eating eggs throughout Holy Week only to eat a dozen on Easter Day; an observance that was held to be most effective in ensuring the fertility of one’s animals.
The small eggs that were sometimes found in chicken roosts were once attributed a most sinister reputation; a widely held belief said that these were eggs that had been laid by roosters. It was said that when a rooster reached seven years of age, it laid an egg during the hottest day of the year formed from the rotten excrement of its seed. If hatched, this cursed egg would deliver a small serpent that grew into a basilisk; the product of the coupling of a rooster and a toad, brooded by a snake. To avoid unleashing a basilisk on the land, the rooster was therefore routinely killed before it had reached the age of seven.