One of the most commonly found creatures in the rich canon of Breton folklore are the korrigans; a race of capricious magical dwarves who now live underground surrounded by vast wealth and are variously described as blonde haired or black haired; benevolent or malicious; as household helpers but also as fiendish abductors of babies.
The world of magical creatures is notoriously inconsistent and irrational; tales about korrigans differ from place to place in Brittany and, as with all tales, the storyteller omits and embellishes thus altering the tale a little more each time. Such fluidity means that defining the nature and role of korrigans is difficult and even the nomenclature is not without issues. Korr is the Breton word for dwarf and ig–ans are diminutive suffixes, so, literally a small little dwarf but the 19th century folklorist Paul Sébillot noted over fifty names given to korrigans and lutins (the French word for sprites) in western Brittany alone. In general, the names given to korrigans vary according to the locale and their particular traits and habitats but distinctions can be blurred further when korrigans and lutins seem interchangeable characters in essentially the same tale.
Some tales claim that korrigans share the same roots as fairies, some that they are the descendants of the giant first men of Brittany and others that they are tormented souls, condemned to wander in the dark through the lonely places of the world.
It is said that in ancient times, mankind and the korrigans shared the Earth and lived together in harmony but the arrival of Christianity upset the balance between mankind and the korrigans and the other mysterious creatures of the country. To the korrigans, the spread of Christianity amounted to their being driven out of their ancestral lands and sacred spaces. Wounded by, what they considered, the betrayal of men who had turned away from them, some took refuge underground while others receded to hide in the remote corners of the world. Scattered and divided, the korrigans became sullen and resentful and now strive to repay humanity for their exclusion from their ancestral lands and seek to reclaim the scared places of the ancient deities.
All tales agree that the korrigans live underground where they guard the treasures of the Earth. Hibernating during the coldest winter months, they emerge with the first warmth of spring and roam abroad between dusk and dawn. Haunting the ancient sites, particularly the megalithic monuments known as menhirs and dolmens, fountains and springs; they amuse themselves by disturbing the peace of the countryside and the sleep of men, playing tricks on passing travellers and mocking the new faith with their raucous dancing around remote chapels and wayside calvaries.
As mentioned above, korrigans can, according to the legends, be very broadly divided into several large groupings or tribes and classified according to their habitat.
The desolate moors of Brittany are home to the korrils who are said to live under the ancient menhirs and dolmens which serve as a gateway to their underground domain full of gold and jewels. They are usually described as small, unusually strong, lean men who perpetually carry a large stick and wear a mocking grimace. Some stories say that they are garbed in coarse cloth and have small horns, cat’s claws or even goat’s hooves and a long tail. The korrils emerge from their subterranean lair at night when they engage in long frenetic dances accompanied by much noise and revelry until just before dawn’s first light. They are said to be intelligent and mischievous, playing tricks on humans that punish greed and stupidity but often reward intelligence and humility.
The korikaned are the wildest of korrigans and their domains are the ancient forests that once covered most of Brittany. Renowned as marshals and protectors of wild animals, they are never without their sounding horn and are masters of the bow. They are a proud people who consider their culture to be closest to that of the first korrigans which may account for their intense hatred of mankind whom they strive to avoid. Jealous guardians of their domain, they are said to be able to control the weather in order to disperse human hunters. They are also noted shape-shifters who seem to favour the guise of a black colt.
Korandons live on the sea shore and harbour the same strong feelings of animosity towards mankind as their cousins, the korrils. They are feared because they are said to enjoy provoking storms to create shipwrecks and to light wrecker’s fires at night to lure boats to their doom on the rocks. Some accounts claim that they possess the legs of a goat; the hooves of which are made of iron. At night, the crashing of pebbles upon the beach, stirred by the waves, was said to be the trampling of their iron feet dancing wildly.
At the bottom of the social order of korrigans are the poulpiquets of the marshes. Dark and hairy in appearance with small, gleaming black eyes and with broken voices that sound like old men, they are portrayed as compulsive thieves and notorious tricksters. It was said that one of their favourite amusements was ringing a bell to deceive the young shepherds who were searching for their lost goats. They are often said to wear a leather purse reputedly full of gold but those who steal it will find nothing within but dirty horsehair and a pair of scissors. They like to prey upon human greed by showing travellers golden rings and shimmering jewels on the water’s glistening surface but when a person leans-in to pluck out their unearned trophy, they are promptly seized and pulled down into the korrigans’ domain.
Some korrigans who originally dwelt in the meadows have long since put themselves in the helpful service of their human neighbours; cleaning houses, scouring cooking pots, rocking restless babies and finding lost objects. In some areas of Brittany these almost domesticated creatures were called teuz. It was once customary in parts of rural Brittany to leave a small flat stone in front of the hearth for the korrigan to sit upon to enjoy the warmth after his day’s work was done. While these korrigans work without reward, they are said to swiftly quit a house if they are mistreated or unappreciated.
All korrigans were believed to possess the ability to make themselves invisible to human eyes at will. However, it was said that a freshwater stone that had eroded to resemble a moonstone allowed one to see korrigans even when invisible; they appeared through the stone as small flecks of white light. The nocturnal lights, known as Will-o’-the-wisp in English, which beguile and mislead the hurried traveller were often credited here to lamps carried by the korrigans to lure the unwary to some treacherous bog or hidden abyss.
At night, like the fairies of other Celtic traditions, the korrigans love to dance, particularly the circular dance which, in the morning, leaves a ring of mushrooms to mark the presence of their dancing circle. When the moon is clear, they are said to gather near the ancient standing stones and at crossroads and calvaries; never missing an opportunity to entice a passing man to join them. If he happens to be a good−natured sort and enters into their dance heartily, they treat him well and may even do him some good turn but if he is disagreeable they will make him dance until he collapses with exhaustion. Should the man offend them, then he might be forced to dance to his death or be consigned to an underground dungeon without any hope of deliverance. Other tales tell that only if a man carries a plough-stick – a stick that has been used for scraping the clods of earth from a plough – can he enter this dance with impunity.
One way of saving yourself from the mischief of the korrigans was to distract them. They were said to be unable to pass a scattering of objects without resisting a compulsion to tidy them into a neat pile. Some people therefore overturned a vessel containing a large number of grains or positioned one in hopes that the nocturnal visitors would accidentally knock it over. Before they could re-start their mischief, the korrigans were said to be obliged to pick up the gains and count them but being unable to do so before the crowing of the rooster, they usually abandoned the task and retreated.
In parts of western Brittany, before leaving the house after a meal of pancakes, it was once believed essential to eat a small morsel of bread first; otherwise one risked being taken by the korrigans. Other practices were also said to help defend one against the mischief of the korrigans, such as wearing a sprig of flowering gorse or hanging an inflated pig bladder, containing nine grains of wheat, from a ceiling beam in the home.
There is a tale of a musician who, despite the protestations of his friends, decided to teach the korrigans a new dance and took his biniou (Breton bagpipe) to a particular dolmen one Saturday night. His friends feared to approach the dolmen and hid behind a gorse bush several hundred metres away and soon heard the joyful accents of the biniou drifting on the night air. However, the music became melancholic not long after midnight and as the night wore on, steadily descended into a confused series of inconsistent notes and incoherent frenzy, slowly dying out to sound like a fly trapped in a bottle. At dawn, his friends approached the dolmen and there on the moor, lay the cold dead body of their companion and it was, they said, impossible to pull the pipe of his biniou from his teeth.
The nocturnal dancing of the korrigans is often said to be accompanied by singing; a particularly favourite song being the days of the week: ‘Di Lun (Monday), Di Meurzh (Tuesday), Di Mercher (Wednesday), Di Iaou (Thursday), Di Gwener (Friday).’ It is claimed that they are unable to recite all the days due to the sacredness of the full week and there are many tales involving hapless men who have added days to the korrigans’ song with tragic consequences.
In one such tale, the keen man is seized and thrown into the sky with such force that he lands on the moon where he is cursed to remain until his place is taken by another victim. There is even a story of an over-excited korrigan adding ‘Di Sadorn’ to the song himself and being instantly cursed with a hunchback for his eagerness. Although another tale tells that the song was once completed by a woman with a hunchback; the korrigans were so delighted that, to thank her, they removed her bump.
It is clear from the old tales that the korrigans retain a festering hatred for the Church and this is likely an echo reflecting the strong views of the early evangelising saints of Brittany against the old deities and the difficulties the Bretons had in reconciling their beliefs in mysterious beings such as fairy folk with the new Christian religion. Thus, to some, the malevolent korrigans symbolise the early resistance of Brittany to Christianisation and it is perhaps noteworthy that one of the few ways to repel a korrigan is by the use of holy water.
Female korrigans are a quite distinct group; usually they are simply referred to as korrigans although sometimes the same stories refer to them as groac’h which is a Breton word that is also applied to witches and crones. In some later, French-language, tales they are, at times, referred to as fées. Whatever their appellation, these female korrigans are usually described as standing no more than two feet tall and beautiful, with sparkling red eyes and flowing blonde hair that they brush with a golden comb in the moonlit reflections of the water of the springs and ancient fountains which they inhabit. It is said that they are able to shape-shift into animals, foretell the future, heal any illness and can also travel from one end of the world to the other in the twinkling of an eye. Interestingly, these are all attributes that were once thought to have been possessed by the Gallicenae; the nine Celtic priestesses who dwelt on the Île de Sein.
Lest you start thinking that these are the sweetest of korrigans, be aware that they are given to stealing the babies of men and substituting them with ugly changelings. Paul Sébillot, in his Local Legends of Upper Brittany (1899), recounts how “They [the korrigans] also liked to kidnap children and put in their place ugly little beings who did not grow up, always suckled and had an old-fashioned figure. A woman had taken her son into the fields; the korrigans took him and substituted one of their offspring for him. As he was not growing, the woman went to consult a neighbour who advised her to put a dozen eggshells filled with water to boil in front of the fire. When the little boy woke up, he exclaimed: “I am ninety years old and never have I seen so many boiling pots“.
If disturbed, especially on a Saturday, the day of the Virgin, these female korrigans will not hesitate to breathe their lethal breath on the hapless human trespasser. They are also notorious for their attempts to bewitch and seduce any man who chances to pass by, cursing them to death if their advances are rejected. Lewis Spence in his Legends and Romances of Brittany (1917), tells us:
“Many are the traditions which tell of human infants abducted by the Korrigan. But it was more as an enchantress that she was dreaded. By a stroke of her magic wand she could transform the leafy fastnesses in which she dwelt into the semblance of a lordly hall, which the luckless traveller whom she lured thither would regard as a paradise after the dark thickets in which he had been wandering. This seeming castle or palace she furnished with everything that could delight the eye, and as the doomed wretch sat ravished by her beauty and that of her nine attendant maidens a fatal passion for her entered his heart, so that whatever he cherished most on earth – honour, wife, demoiselle, or affianced bride – became as naught to him, and he cast himself at the feet of this forest Circe in a frenzy of ardour.
But with the first ray of daylight the charm was dissolved and the Korrigan became a hideous hag, as repulsive as before she had been lovely; the walls of her palace and the magnificence which had furnished it became once more tree and thicket, its carpets moss, its tapestries leaves, its silver cups wild roses, and its dazzling mirrors pools of stagnant water.“
These seductive korrigans are also renowned for their hatred of the Virgin Mary and the celibate clergy who serve her. Indeed, their depiction as intractable enemies of the Church is possibly unique across the surviving body of Celtic mysterious beings. Many stories say that the female korrigans were once Celtic princesses who refused the Gospel brought by the early saints and were accordingly cursed by God. This Christianised gloss is, again, likely an echo reflecting the struggle the early Bretons had reconciling the different notions of the nature of the divine feminine inherent in their old religion and their newly adopted Christian faith.
With the notable exceptions of the Lais of Marie de France and an Arthurian romance, the old folktales and legends of Brittany were not really set down in writing until the boom in interest in regional folklore took hold in France in the early 19th century. It is therefore difficult to definitively establish the age of many of the korrigan legends. Happily, the tales continue to be told and new tales created and today’s weary parents still caution their children against misbehaving with the cautionary refrain that ‘…the korrigans will get you!’