The legends of Brittany attribute marvellous origins to many of the structures that litter the local landscape. Some Neolithic megaliths were said to have been created by the enchanter Merlin while others were assigned to the magical korrigans and fairies or the giant Gargantua. Many Medieval buildings were, sometimes rightly, attributed to those great builders, the Romans or else to the Knights Templar. Similarly, local lore often attests that various notable landmarks such as bridges, churches and mills were built by the power of the Devil; some were even said to demand a human sacrifice.
The sunken pathways and ruined castles of Brittany are rich in legends of ghosts and supernatural spirits. Many of these fall into the category popularly known as White Ladies; spectral women wearing white gowns that appear at night to haunt the localities of their tragic death. Sometimes, the circumstances of their deaths are still remembered while others are barely known but a common theme appears to be betrayal or lost love and the ghosts are either lamenting their circumstances or warning of the cruel hand of fate.
The legendary unicorn is probably one of the world’s most famous fantastic beasts. This white horse-like animal sporting a long, spiral horn on its forehead was said to live for a thousand years. Long held a symbol of purity and chastity; a protector of the just endowed with exceptional magical powers. Little wonder then that the unicorn myth developed its own associations with the fabled King Arthur and mystical Brittany.
The true origins of the legends surrounding the 6th century King Arthur and his knights are lost in the distant mists of time. Scattered references to this warrior king can be found in early Welsh literature, hagiographies and historical chronicles but it is in the 12th century that the characters and features of Arthurian legend familiar to us today, such as Merlin the magician, Queen Guinevere, the Round Table and the sword Excalibur, coalesce into a single narrative about the rise and fall of a king of the Britons who defended his people against the Saxon invaders. Arthur’s connections with Brittany are littered throughout these early works and I propose to highlight some of the most significant links both in literature and local legend.
The bestiaries of the Middle Ages included fantastic beasts such as the unicorn, mermaids and dragons but popular belief in such creatures did not entirely die away after the Age of Enlightenment. Along Brittany’s wild coastline, stories of sailors and seashore gatherers encountering mermaids remained commonplace well into the 19th century.
Found within the mythology and folklore of countless disparate cultures across the world, are stories of giants; sometimes described as mighty men and women of towering stature but sometimes portrayed as a distinct race of huge humanoids. The folklore of Brittany is rich with tales of the deeds of giants and their impact in moulding the nation’s landscape.
First set down from the oral tradition in the middle of the 19th century, the tale of Peronnik the Idiot has often been described as a Breton re-telling of Chrétien de Troyes’ 12th century romance Perceval, the Story of the Grail. However, others maintain that the story is truly a surviving descendant of one once transmitted orally by the Celtic bards of old and that the tales of Peronnik, Perceval and the medieval Welsh romance Peredur all share the same ancient, lost source.
As the oldest and most important Christian festival, it should come as no surprise to note that several popular traditions and superstitions once surrounded Eastertide here in Brittany.
The history and folklore of Brittany contain many intriguing references to once flourishing cities that disappeared from the face of the earth, having left little or no trace of their ruins upon the land.
Born into grinding poverty, Marie Tromel is remembered by history under the name of Marion du Faouët; a Breton Robin Hood who robbed the rich to aid the poor. A colourful character, she raised a family and commanded a notorious band of brigands for more than fifteen years. Arrested four times, having escaped from prison she was hanged in effigy before finally being publicly executed.