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.”
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.
In Brittany, Candlemas is celebrated on the second day of February. Announcing the end of winter, the festival was, for centuries, closely associated with traditions related to purification, fertility, prosperity and light and is popularly known here as le jour des crêpes or Pancake Day.
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 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.
Tales of ghosts and ghostly apparitions form a rich vein in the folklore of Brittany although, in the Breton tradition, there was once no significant separation between the living and the dead, both were seen as dwelling in two discrete worlds that were in perpetual relation with one another.
For yesterday’s Bretons, the world around them was swarming with signs that, if interpreted correctly, predicted the future. Being prepared for the unknown future and warding off misfortune were constant concerns for our ancestors. Natural phenomena, abnormal behaviour and other irregularities were carefully noted for the favourable or ill shadow they cast over daily life and often regularised as good omens or bad omens and omens of death.
A brief glimpse into some Christmas traditions from the Brittany of yesteryear.