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.
For centuries, humanity struggled to make sense of the natural world and its unpredictable weather. Sometimes, the blood and sweat of months of hard toil could be torn apart in a matter of minutes; an uprooted crop or spoilt harvest often spelt total disaster for a poor farming family. One of the most feared natural events here was the sudden storm or violent wind and many explanations were once proffered in an effort to make sense of these; the most popular being that certain, gifted, people could control the wind and storm.
Beggars once exerted a ubiquitous and very noticeable presence in Breton society, particularly in the countryside, but their position was often ambivalent: they were feted as the most honoured guests at wedding feats but also feared for their purported ability to cast the evil eye that brought-on misfortune.
The folk customs and traditions regarding the celebration of Christmas differ from region to region in France, as elsewhere, and those in Brittany were once quite distinctive.
The lives of those who inhabited the rural Brittany of yesteryear were guided by the seasons and the precious hours of daylight. For them, the unpredictable year was punctuated by the key dates of the agrarian and liturgical calendar. With harvest well underway here in today’s Brittany, a look at some of the old rituals, beliefs and superstitions once associated with the agricultural cycle here might be timely.
For over two centuries, a remarkable phenomenon was once noted in central Brittany; a seemingly spontaneous outbreak of barking women that disappeared as suddenly as it had first appeared. The reasons for these strange behaviours have, at times, been attributed to causes ranging from demonic possession to sexual frustration.
Surrounded on three sides by the ocean, Brittany has always enjoyed a special relationship with the sea. It has long played an important part in the life and soul of Brittany; its waters have nourished and sustained generations of Bretons since time immemorial but the bargain has sometimes been cruelly struck. A point well made in an old Breton saying that tells: “Who trusts the sea, trusts death.”
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.
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.