The constant sequence of religious and secular festivals and seasonal practices forms an endless, familiar, chain that repeats itself around our lives each year. This continual renewal marks a completion of the annual cycle but where should we rightly place the beginning and the end?
In Brittany, the magic of Christmas night was once said to have been so complete that no evil could act. It was a moment when only the son of man and the toad slept; a time when animals spoke to each other in the tongues of men and secret treasures were revealed.
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.
Birds once enjoyed a rather colourful position in the folklore of Brittany. They were often attributed with many marvellous qualities, from guarding the gates of Heaven to doing the bidding of witches. However, it was their capacity for predicting the future that bestowed these creatures with such noted significance in the mind of the Breton peasant who looked upon the flight and calls of birds as augurs from the natural world much as the ancient Druids might have done in antiquity.
We are in the time of year when the witch receives an enormous amount of attention but in yesterday’s Brittany the witch had no impact on Hallowe’en at all. So, if the region’s witches were not a feature of Hallowe’en celebrations, what were they?
Many stories from across Brittany warn of the dangers that await those traversing the lonely places after dark. While the desolate moors and uncultivated lands were always closely associated with the ghostly activity of the dead, the creatures that traditionally inhabited these areas in Breton folklore were the wicked children of the night. The night belonged to the dead but it was a dark realm that they shared with dangerous spirits who were not of the race of men and whose encounter could be fatal for us mortals.
In considering the real dangers to rural lives and livelihoods once posed by wolves it is not surprising that this animal occupied a unique place in the popular imagination of rural Brittany. For centuries, the wolf was the villain of countless folktales passed down through the generations and the beast’s victims of choice were always young lambs: innocent children watching-over their sheep or virtuous young girls travelling through the woods after dark.
The thick forests, lonely moors and windswept beaches of Brittany were long said to carry heavy dangers for the unwary traveller abroad in the Breton night. Local legends tell of frightening werewolves, menacing black dogs, murderous horses, sinister black cats and hungry basilisks but there are tales of many other, more ambivalent, fantastic beasts.
Since antiquity, trees have been associated with the mystical forces of nature and the Divine. Special or sacred trees are to be found in the traditional beliefs of cultures across the world; many possessed particular characteristics based on natural properties or else were laden with deeply-rooted symbolism. Brittany contains its share of sacred trees and a trove of legends and superstitious beliefs that attest to the reverence long afforded to trees here.
Venerated here since antiquity, the horse long played an important role in the popular religious and secular traditions of Brittany. The beast was more than a mere symbol of power and prestige or a useful descriptor for the state of the ocean waves; it was an integral part of the farming unit and the object of unique rites, superstitions and enchantments. Many of the region’s legends associate the horse with water and death; just like the notorious water horses found elsewhere in the folklore of the Celtic fringe.