I became more deeply interested in Breton culture when I learned that many of my own ancestors came from Brittany. When I began researching Breton folklore and mythology, I was particularly fascinated by the Breton cult of the dead. Maura Coughlin, in her essay ‘Celtic cultural politics, monuments and mortality in Brittany” found in Marion Gibson’s Mysticism, Myth and Celtic Identity states “the most remarked upon of folk practices and beliefs, that seemed to most connect Breton popular culture with earlier Celtic ways, was the nineteenth century obsession with the cult of the dead”. Scholars and folklorists recorded a variety of beliefs and practices surrounding the cult of the dead, perhaps none more thoroughly than Anatole le Braz in his works, most notably La Légende de la Mort (The Legend of Death), published in 1902. I thought it fitting to begin October’s blog post line-up with a discussion of the cult of the dead, considering this season for many of us marks not only the beginning of autumn and thus the approaching of winter, but also another ‘season’ of sorts - that dark half the year when the veil between worlds is thin and the spirits of the dead wander among us.
Personifications of death exist in many different cultures - even our modern Western culture has its own versions of the Grim Reaper. Ankou is the Breton personification of death, a figure which also exists in Cornwall as Ankow and in Wales as Anghau. In Breton, the word Ankou may be the plural of anken, meaning ‘anxiety, sorrow’ or it may also derive from ankouaat, to ‘forget’.
Rather than representing death itself, it is commonly believed that l’Ankou is a servant of Death/Fate and functions as a psychopomp. He arrives to collect souls at their destined time of death and guides them into the afterlife. Ankou is commonly depicted as a tall, thin old man with long stringy white hair, or as a skeletal or shadow figure, sometimes wearing a black cloak, a wide-brimmed hat which covers his noseless grinning face, and holding a spear or a scythe with the cutting edge facing out. In his shrouded skeleton form, his head turns 360 degrees continually so that he sees all. He may have candles burning in his eye sockets. He is said to drive a creaking cart or a large black coach drawn by black horses, known as the Garrig an Ankou (‘chariot of death’), and the squeaking of the wheels acts as a death omen for the one who hears it. For those who dwell on the coast or along rivers, the Ankou travels in a barge or boat, called Bag noz, the ‘night boat’, by which he transports the souls of the dead to the shores of the otherworld.
What was most fascinating for me to learn was that l’Ankou is not really a single figure - rather, there is a collective of beings that function, on a rotating basis, as Ankou for their respective regions. It was believed that the first or the last person to die in a year in a particular parish would be tasked with acting as the Ankou. Thus, one’s soul may be collected after death by a familiar former member of the community, rather than a strange terrifying spectre. One tale from the island of Sein describes a woman who witnesses her husband, who had been lost at sea the previous year, at the helm of the Bag noz as the boat drew close to the island.
The Ankou would also function as the guardian of the graveyard. Again, it would be the first person to be buried in the cemetery, or the last person to have been buried at the end of the year who would take on this role. For some, the Ankou was the king of the dead, ruling over an otherworld realm hidden away in the mountains. The Ankou may be descended from, or a remnant of, a Celtic god of death, such as Sucellos. Caesar said of the Celts of Gaul that they believed they were descended from the death god Dīs Pater. Others, such as Lewis Spence in his Legends and Romances of Brittany are convinced the death-spirit Ankou is actually female, and “it is probable that the Ankou is a survival of the death-goddess of the prehistoric dolmen-builders of Brittany”.
Ossuaries are typical in areas where there is limited burial space for the dead. Bodies in these places would be buried for a number of years, usually around five, to allow time for the body to decompose and leave only skeletal remains. These would then be exhumed and placed in ossuaries, which could be in deep wells, catacombs, or as is popular in western Brittany, in stone structures and monument buildings in cemeteries and/or close to churches.
Although ossuaries were in widespread use throughout western Europe in the Middle Ages, what is notable about the Breton ossuaries and associated customs is that these continued to be wildly popular long after such practices had died out elsewhere. The ossuaries in Brittany were numerous (there are some 200 which survive there today) and in many cases they remained in regular use up to the twentieth century. Whereas others, such as in England or other parts of France, got rid of their ossuaries, the Breton people, especially those of western Brittany where the ossuaries were built of stone, preserved these sites. The Bretons have also shown similar respect for pre-Christian sacred places and cult sites, such as wellsprings and megaliths, choosing to not only avoid their destruction but to continue to use them as well. Another interesting and unique feature of Breton ossuaries is the Celtic symbolism that makes up the decorative features of the monuments. The Ankou, for example, is frequently depicted in his skeletal form. The photo at upper left is of an Ankou outside an ossuary in La Roche-Maurice, Finistère.
The ossuaries’ purpose was to provide a visible display of the remains of the dead. In many cases the skulls were placed in individual painted boxes and displayed openly. They were not hidden away, but kept where they could be always seen or even touched. Regular visits were made to cemeteries and ossuaries - as Ruth Edna Kelley notes in The Book of Hallowe’en, “the cemetery is the social center of the Breton village...at once a meeting-place, playground, park, and church”. In some parts of Brittany, there were hollowed out areas on or near graves where holy water, milk or food offerings could be left.
In France, la Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) is the traditional Roman Catholic celebration on November 1st of “all saints, known and unknown”. Originally it was celebrated on May 13th to coincide with the Roman festival of Lemuria, however it was moved to November 1st in the 8th century and Pope Gregory IV ordered for it to be celebrated throughout christendom in the 9th century. Some scholars believe the date was changed so that it would coincide with, and thus christianize, the Celtic festival of Samhain. Like other festivals associated with the dead, it is most likely a pre-Christian holiday covered with a thin Christian veneer.
According to Catholic doctrine, Toussaint is the feast of all saints and November 2nd is reserved as a day to commemorate the deceased, however popular culture mostly continued to celebrate November 1st as the ‘day of the dead’. Therefore Toussaint is the day when people throughout France visit cemeteries, light candles and place chrysanthemums on the graves of their deceased friends and relatives. They may also pray to and for the dead, both in graveyards and at masses and vespers. Toussaint was also known to the Bretons as Gouel an Anaon, meaning the festival of the dead.
On November Eve milk is poured on graves, feasts and candles set out on tables, and fires lighted on the hearths to welcome the spirits of departed kinsfolk and friends...The poor who live on the mountains have only black corn, milk, and smoked bacon to offer, but it is given freely. Those who can afford it spread on a white cloth dishes of clotted milk, hot pancakes and mugs of cider.
(Book of Hallowe'en by Ruth Kelley)
At the heart of an ancient mountain range in western Brittany known as the Monts d'Arrée lies a vast peat bog, the Yeun Elez. In the middle of this vast marshland is a swamp of unfathomable depths called the Youdig or Youdic, believed to be a portal or gateway to the underworld whose surface waters were known to boil, hiss and bubble menacingly. Lewis Spence, in his Legends and Romances of Brittany, states it was once customary to throw animals believed to be evil spirits into the swamp. He recounts a tale of a priest and his companion who bring a demonic black dog to the Youdic with the intention of hurling the beast into it, presumably to return him to the hellish otherworld from whence he came. When they finally succeeded in pushing the howling, biting dog into the water, they heard “such an uproar as could only proceed from the mouth of the infernal regions” consisting of “shrieks, cries, hissings, explosions”.
The Roman historian Procopius refers to an island called Brittia (Britain, or at least a part of it) as the otherworldly destination of the souls of the dead.
They imagine that the souls of the dead are transported to that island. On the coast of the continent there dwell under Frankish sovereignty, but hitherto exempt from all taxation, fishers and farmers, whose duty it is to ferry the souls over. This duty they take in turn. Those to whom it falls on any night, go to bed at dusk; at midnight they hear a knocking at their door, and muffled voices calling. Immediately they rise, go to the shore, and there see empty boats, not their own but strange ones, they go on board and seize the oars. When the boat is under way, they perceive that she is laden choke-full, with her gunwales hardly a finger's breadth above water. Yet they see no one, and in an hour's time they touch land, which one of their own craft would take a day and a night to do. Arrived at Brittia, the boat speedily unloads, and becomes so light that she only dips her keel in the wave. Neither on the voyage nor at landing do they see anyone, but they hear a voice loudly asking each one his name and country.
This location presents another possibility for the Otherworld island - not Britain, but rather the Île de Sein, located on the far side of the Bae an Anaon. This is none other than the island of Sena mentioned by classical authors as the home of the Gallizenae. Pomponius Mela writes this of the island and of its druidesses:
Sena, in the Britannic Sea...is famous for its oracle of a Gaulish god, whose priestesses, living in the holiness of perpetual virginity, are said to be nine in number. They call them Gallizenae, and they believe them to be endowed with extraordinary gifts to rouse the sea and the wind by their incantations, to turn themselves into whatsoever animal form they may choose, to cure diseases which among others are incurable, to know what is to come and to foretell it. They are, however; devoted to the service of voyagers only who have set out on no other errand than to consult them.
There are countless stories of encounters with spirits of the dead in Brittany. They are spoken of, indirectly and in hushed tones, in the same manner and are assigned the same powers and characteristics as fairies in other Celtic countries, such as Scotland or Ireland. Evans Wentz states:
[...we may now note how much the same are the powers and nature of the dead and spirits in Brittany, and the power and nature of the fairy races in Celtic Britain and Ireland. Thus the Breton dead strike down the living just as fairies are said to do; the Ankou, who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths or roads over which they travel in great sacred processions; and exactly as fairies, the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve, and the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them...]
He goes on to list other similarities between the Breton spirits of the dead and fairies: eating the food of the dead, like the food of the fairies, ensures one can never return to the land of the living; the dead sometimes act as guardians of hidden treasures; they can make themselves invisible and visible to mortals at will; the dead can “take” people just as fairies do; the dead can wreak havoc or mischief, causing storms, sickness and other misfortunes; the night belongs to them, and that is when they have the most power; they can hear any insults or slights directed towards them and take revenge as appropriate, thus it is advisable to speak indirectly and/or well of them; the world of the dead and the world of faerie is the same; their appearance is often similar; they haunt similar regions, such as houses or crossroads. With some legendary figures, such as the ghostly washerwomen (les lavandières de nuits or in Breton cannered noz) similar to the banshee, are characteristic of both revenants and fairies.
After conversion to Christianity, the veneration of ancestral spirits may have taken on a darker, more frightening tone. The Catholic purgatory was a place of cold, tormented restlessness, and the Bretons believed the dead needed their prayers to ease their suffering and to eventually escape purgatory altogether - otherwise, they would cause problems for the living. Although the belief in fairies in other Celtic countries no doubt holds a level of fear and respect of spirits that is of ancient origin, the macabre Christian view of death definitely coloured the Breton perception of spirits, often clashing with the pre-Christian view, just as it did throughout the rest of Europe.
Evans Wentz concludes that “the Bretons may be said to have a Death-Faith, whereas the other Celts have a Fairy-Faith, and both are a real folk-religion innate in the Celtic nature, and thus quite as influential as Christianity”.
References and Further Reading:
Ankou. (n.d.). In Wikipédia. Retrieved October 9, 2016 from https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ankou.
Coughlin, M. (2013). Celtic cultural politics: monuments and mortality in nineteenth-century Brittany. In M. Gibson, S. Trower & G. Tregidga (Eds.), Mysticism, myth and Celtic identity, 130-141. London: Routledge.
Evans-Wentz, W.Y. (1911). The fairy-faith in Celtic countries. Retrieved October 8, 2016 from http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/lrb/.
Kelley, R.E. (1919). The book of Hallowe’en. Retrieved October 8, 2016 from http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/boh/.
Le Braz, Anatole. (1923). La légende de la mort: chez les Bretons Armoricains. Retrieved October 8, 2016 from https://archive.org/details/lalgendedelamo02lebruoft.
Spence, L. (1917). Legends and romances of Brittany. Retrieved October 8, 2016 from http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/lrb/.