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Fairy Faith in Brittany
[Note: This is taken from W.Y. Evans Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.]
Introduction by ANATOLE LE BRAZ, Professor of French Literature, University of Rennes, Brittany; author of La Legende de la Mort, Au Pays des Pardons, &c.
My dear Mr. Wentz,
I recollect that, at the time of your examination on your thesis before the Faculty of Letters of the University of Rennes, one of my colleagues, my friend Professor Dottin, put to you this question :-
You answered, with equal coolness and candour:
I am like you, my dear Mr. Wentz: I have never seen fairies. it is true that I have a very dear lady friend whom we have christened by that name [fairy], but, in spite of all her fair supernatural gifts, she is only a humble mortal. On the other hand, I lived, when a mere child, among people who had almost daily intercourse with real fairies.
That was in a little township in Lower Brittany, inhabited by peasants who were half sailors, and by sailors who were half peasants. There was, not far from the village, an ancient manor-house long abandoned by its owners, for what reason was not known exactly. It continued to be called the ‘Chateau ‘ of Lanascol, though it was hardly more than a ruin. It is true that the avenues by which one approached it had retained their feudal aspect, with their fourfold rows of ancient beeches whose huge masses of foliage were reflected in splendid pools. The people of the neighbourhood seldom ventured into these avenues in the evening. They were supposed to be, from sunset onwards, the favourite walking-ground of a ‘lady’ who went by the name of Groac’h Lanascol, the ‘Fairy of Lanascol’.
Many claimed to have met her, and described her in colours which were, however, the most varied. Some represented her as an old woman who walked all bent, her two hands leaning on a stump of a crutch with which, in autumn, from time to time she stirred the dead leaves. The dead leaves which she thus stirred became suddenly shining like gold, and clinked against one another with the clear sound of metal. According to others, it was a young princess, marvellously adorned, after whom there hurried curious little black silent men. She advanced with a majestic and queenly bearing. Sometimes she stopped in front of a tree, and the tree at once bent down as if to receive her commands. Or again, she would cast a look on the water of a pool, and the pool trembled to its very depths, as though stirred by an access of fear beneath the potency of her look. The following strange story was told about her :-
The owners of Lanascol having desired to get rid of an estate which they no longer occupied, the manor and lands attached to it were put up to auction by a notary of Plouaret. On the day fixed for the bidding a number of purchasers presented themselves. The price had already reached a large sum, and the estate was on the point of being knocked down, when, on a last appeal from the auctioneer, a female voice, very gentle and at the same time very imperious, was raised and said:
A great commotion arose in the hall. Every one’s eyes sought for the person who had made this advance, and who could only be a woman. But there was not a single woman among those present. The notary asked:
Again the same voice made itself heard.
A general break-up followed. From that time forward no purchaser has ever appeared, and, as the current report ran, that was the reason why Lanascol continued to be for sale.
I have designedly quoted to you the story of the Fairy of Lanascol, my dear Mr. Wentz, because she was the first to make an impression on me in my childhood. How many others have I come to know later on in the course of narratives from those who lived with me on the sandy beaches, in the fields or the woods ! Brittany has always been a kingdom of Faerie. One cannot there travel even a league without brushing past the dwelling of some male or female fairy. Quite lately, in the course of an autumn pilgrimage to the hallucinatory forest of Paimpont (or BrocÉliande), still haunted throughout by the great memories of Celtic legend, I encountered beneath the thick foliage of the Pas-du-Houx, a woman gathering faggots, with whom I did not fail, as you may well imagine, to enter into conversation. - One of the first names I uttered was naturally that of Vivian.
‘Vivian !’ cried out the poor old woman. ‘Ah! a blessing on her, the good Lady ! for she is as good as she is beautiful . . . . Without her protection my good man, who works at woodcutting, would have fallen, like a wolf, beneath the keepers’ guns. . . .’ And she began to narrate to me ‘as how’ her husband, something of a poacher like all the woodcutters of these districts, had one night gone to watch for a roebuck in the neighbourhood of the Butte-aux-Plaintes, and had been caught red-handed by a party of keepers. He sought to fly : the keepers fired. A bullet hit him in the thigh: he fell, and was making ready to let himself be killed on the spot, rather than surrender, when there suddenly interposed between him and his assailants a kind of very thick mist which covered everything - the ground, the trees, the keepers, and the wounded man himself. And he heard a voice coming out of the mist, a voice gentle like the rustling of leaves, and murmuring in his ear: ‘Save thyself, my son: the spirit of Vivian will watch over thee till thou hast crawled out of the forest.’
‘Such were the actual words of the fairy,’ concluded the faggot-gatherer. And she crossed herself devoutly, for pious Brittany, as you know, reveres fairies as much as saints.
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I do not know if lutins (mischievous spirits) should be included in the fairy world, but what is certain is that this charming and roguish tribe has always abounded in our country. I, have been told that formerly every house had its own. It (the lutin) was something like the little Roman household god. Now visible, now invisible, it presided over all the acts of domestic life. Nay more; it shared in them, and in the most effective manner. Inside the house it helped the servants, blew up the fire on the hearth, supervised the cooking of the food for men or beasts, quieted the crying of the babe lying in the bottom of the cupboard, and prevented worms from settling in the pieces of bacon hanging from the beams. Similarly there fell within its sphere the management of the byres and stables: thanks to it the cows gave milk abounding in butter, and the horses had round croups and shining coats. It was, in a word, the good genius of the house, but conditionally on every one paying to it the respect to which it had the right. If neglected, ever so little, its kindness changed into spite, and there was no unkind trick of which it was not capable towards people who had offended it, such as upsetting the contents of the pots on the hearth, entangling wool round distaffs, making tobacco unsmokeable, mixing a horse’s mane in inextricable confusion, drying up the adders of cows, or stripping the backs of sheep. Therefore care was taken not to annoy it. Careful attention was paid to all its habits and humours. Thus, in my parents’ house, our old maid Filie never lifted the trivet from the fire without taking the precaution of sprinkling it with water to cool it, before putting it away at the corner of the hearth. If you asked her the reason for this ceremony, she would reply to you:
‘To prevent the lutin burning himself there, if, presently, he sat on it.’
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Further, I suppose there should be included in the class of male fairies that Bugul-Noz, that mysterious Night Shepherd, whose tall and alarming outline the rural Bretons see rising in the twilight, if, by chance, they happen to return late from field-work. I have never been able to obtain exact information about the kind of herd which he fed, nor about what was foreboded by the meeting with him. Most often such a meeting is dreaded. Yet, as one of my female informants, Lise Bellec, reasonably pointed out, if it is preferable to avoid the Bugut-Noz it does not from that follow that he is a harmful spirit. According to her, he would rather fulfil a beneficial office, in warning human beings, by his coming, that night is not made for lingering in the fields or on the roads, but for shutting oneself in behind closed doors and going to sleep. This shepherd of the shades would then be, take it altogether, a kind of good shepherd. It is to ensure our rest and safety, to withdraw us from excesses of toil and the snares of night, that he compels us, thoughtless sheep, to return quickly to the fold.
No doubt it is an almost similar protecting office which, in popular belief, has fallen to another male fairy, more particularly attached to the seashore, as his name, Yann-An-Od, indicates. There is not, along all the coast of Brittany or, as it is called, in all the Armor, a single district where the existence of this ‘John of the Dunes’ is not looked on as a real fact, fully proved and undeniable. Changing forms and different aspects are attributed to him. Sometimes he is a giant, sometimes a dwarf. Sometimes he wears a seaman’s hat of oiled cloth, sometimes a broad black felt hat. At times he leans on an oar and recalls the enigmatic personage, possessed of the same attribute, whom Ulysses has to follow, in the Odyssey. But he is always a marine hero whose office it is to traverse the shores, uttering at intervals long piercing cries, calculated to frighten away fishermen who may have allowed themselves to be surprised outside by the darkness of night. He only hurts those who resist; and even then would only strike them in their own interest, to force them to seek shelter. He is, before all, one who warns. His cries not only call back home people out late on the sands; they also inform sailors at sea of the dangerous proximity of the shore, and, thereby, make up for the insufficiency of the hooting of sirens or of the light of lighthouses.
We may remark, in this connexion, that a parallel feature is observed in the legend of the old Armorican saints, who were mostly emigrants from Ireland. One of their usual exercises consisted in parading throughout the night the coasts where they had set up their oratories, shaking little bells of wrought iron, the ringing of which, like the cries of Yann-An-Od, was intended to warn voyagers that land was near.
I am persuaded that the worship of saints, which is the first and most fervent of Breton religious observances, preserves many of the features of a more ancient religion in which a belief in fairies held the chief place. The same, I feel sure, applies to those death-myths which I have collected under the name of the Legend of the Dead among the Armorican Bretons. In truth, in the Breton mind, the dead are not dead; they live a mysterious life on the edge of real life, but their world remains fully mingled with ours, and as soon as night falls, as soon as the living, properly so called, give themselves up to the temporary sleep of death, the so-called dead again become the inhabitants of the earth which they have never left. They resume their place at their former hearth, devote themselves to their old work, take an interest in the home, the fields, the boat; they behave, in a word, like the race of male and female fairies which once formed a more refined and delicate species of humanity in the midst of ordinary humanity.
I might, my dear Mr. Wentz, evoke many other types from this intermediate world of Breton Faerie, which, in my countrymen’s mind, is not identical with this world nor with the other, but shares at once in both, through a curious mixture of the natural and supernatural. I have only intended in these hasty lines to show the wealth of material to which you have with so much conscientiousness and ardour devoted your efforts. And now may the fairies be propitious to you, my dear friend I They will do nothing but justice in favouring with all their goodwill the young and brilliant writer who has but now revived their cult by renewing their glory.
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