The Breton Legend of the Dead

[This is taken from W.Y. Evans Wentz's The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.]

We come now to the Breton Legend of the Dead, common generally to all parts of Armorica, though probably even more widespread in Lower Brittany than in Upper Brittany; and this we call the Armorican Fairy-Faith. Even where the peasants have no faith in fees or fairies, and where their faith in corrigans is weak or almost gone, there is a strong conviction among them that the souls of the dead can show themselves to the living, a vigorous belief in apparitions, phantom-funerals, and various death-warnings. As Professor Anatole Le Braz has so well said in his introduction to La Legende de la Mont, ‘the whole conscience of these people is fundamentally directed toward that which concerns death. And the ideas which they form of it, in spite of the strong Christian imprint which they have received, do not seem much different from those which we have pointed out among their pagan ancestors. For them, as for the primitive Celts, death is less a change of condition than a journey, a departure for another world.’ And thus it seems that this most popular of the Breton folk-beliefs is genuinely Celtic and extremely ancient. As Renan has said, the Celtic people are ‘a race mysterious, having knowledge of the future and the secret of death ‘  And whereas in Ireland unusual happenings or strange accidents and death are attributed to fairy interference, in Brittany they are attributed to the influence of the dead.

The Breton Celt makes no distinction between the living and the dead. All alike inhabit this world, the one being visible, the other invisible. Though seers can at all times behold the dead, on November Eve (La Toussaint) and on Christmas Eve they are most numerous and most easily seen; and no peasant would think of questioning their existence. In Ireland and Scotland the country-folk fear to speak of fairies save through an euphemism, and the Bretons speak of the dead indirectly, and even then with fear and trembling.

The following legend, which I found at Carnac, will serve to illustrate both the profundity of the belief in the power of the dead over the living in Lower Brittany, and how deeply the people can be stirred by the predictions of one who can see the dead; and the legend is quite typical of those so common in Armorica :-

Fortelling Deaths.- ‘

Formerly there was a woman whom spirits impelled to rise from her bed, it made no difference at what hour of the night, in order to behold funerals in the future. She predicted who should die, who should carry the corpse, who the cross, and who should follow the cortège. Her predictions frightened every one, and made her such a terror to the country that the mayor had threatened to take legal proceedings against her if she continued her practice; but she was compelled to tell the things which the spirits showed her. It is about ten years since this woman died in the hospital at Auray.’

Testimony of a Breton Seeress.-

There lives in the little hamlet of Kerlois, less than a mile from Carnac, a Breton seeress, a woman who since eight years of age has been privileged to behold the world invisible and its inhabitants, quite like the woman who died at Auray. She is Madame EugÉnie Le Port, now forty-two years old, and what she tells of things seen in this invisible world which surrounds her, might easily be taken for Irish legends about fairies. Knowing very little French, because she is thoroughly Breton, Madame Le Port described her visions in her own native tongue, and her eldest daughter acted as interpreter. I had known the good woman since the previous winter, and so we were able to converse familiarly; and as I sat in her own little cottage, in company with her husband and daughters, and with M. Lemort, who acted as recording secretary, this is what she said in her clear earnest manner in answer to my questions :-

‘We believe that the spirits of our ancestors surround us and live with us. One day on a road from Carnac I encountered a woman of Kergoellec who had been dead eight days. I asked her to move to one side so that I could pass, and she vanished. This was eleven o’clock in the morning. I saw her at another time in the Marsh of Breno; I spoke, but she did not reply. On the route from Plouharnel (near Carnac) I saw in the day-time the funeral of a woman who did not die until fifteen days afterwards. I recognized perfectly all the people who took part in it; but the person with me saw nothing. Another time, near three o’clock in the afternoon, and eight days before her death, I saw upon the same route the funeral of a woman who was drowned. And I have seen a phantom horse going to the sabbath, and as if forced along against its will, for it reared and pawed the earth. When Pierre Rouzic of Kerlois died, I saw a light of all colours between heaven and earth, the very night of his death. I have seen a woman asleep whose spirit must have been free, for I saw it hovering outside her body. She was not awakened [at the time] for fear that the spirit would not find its body again.’ In answer to my question as to how long these various visions usually lasted, Madame Le Port said :- ‘ They lasted about a quarter of an hour, or less, and all of them disappeared instantaneously.’ As Madame Le Port now seemed unable to recall more of her visions, I finally asked her what she thought about corrigans, and she replied :- ‘ I believe they exist as some special kind of spirits, though I have never seen any.’

Proof that the Dead Exist.-This is what M. Jean Couton, an old Breton, told me at Carnac :- ‘ I am only an old peasant, without instruction, without any education, but let me tell you what I think concerning the dead. Following my own idea, I believe that after death the soul always exists and travels among us. I repeat to you that I have belief that the dead are seen; I am now going to prove this to you in the following story :-

‘One winter evening I was returning home from a funeral. I had as companion a kinswoman of the man just buried. We took the train and soon alighted in the station of Plouharnel. We still had three kilometres to go before reaching home, and as it was winter, and at that epoch there was no stage-coach, we were obliged to travel afoot. As we were going along, suddenly there appeared to my companion her dead relative whom we had buried that day. She asked me if I saw anything, and since I replied to her negatively she said to me, “Touch me, and you will see without doubt.” I touched her, and I saw the same as she did, the person just dead, whom I clearly recognized.’

Phantom Washerwomen

. - Concerning a very popular Breton belief in phantom washerwomen (les lavandiÉres de nuits; or in Breton, cannered noz), M. Goulven Le Scour offers the following summary :- ‘ The lavandièries de nuits were heard less often than the cornigans, but were much more feared. It was usually towards midnight that they were heard beating their linen in front of different washing-places, always some way from the villages. According to the old folk of the past generation, when the phantom washerwomen would ask a certain passer-by to help them to wring sheets, he could not refuse, under pain of being stopped and wrung like a sheet himself. And it was necessary for those who aided in wringing the sheets to turn in the same direction as the washerwomen; for if by misfortune the assistant turned in an opposite direction, he had his arms wrung in an instant. It is believed that these phantom washerwomen are women condemned to wash their mortuary sheets during whole centuries; but that when they find some mortal to wring in an opposite direction, they are delivered.’

Breton Animistic Beliefs.-

M. Z. Le Rouzic, a Breton Celt who has spent most of his life studying the archaeology and folk-lore of the Morbihan, and who is at present Keeper of the Miln Museum at Carnac, summarizes for us the state of popular beliefs as he finds them existing in the Carnac country now :- ‘ There are few traditions concerning the fees in the region of Carnac; but the belief in spirits, good and bad - which seems to me to be the same as the belief in fees - is general and profound, as well as the belief in the incarnation of spirits. And I am convinced that these beliefs are the reminiscences of ancient Celtic beliefs held by the Druids and conserved by Christianity.’ In Finistère, as purely Breton as the Morbihan, I found the Legend of the Dead just as widespread, and the belief in spirits and the apparitional return of the dead quite as profound; but nothing worth recording concerning fairies. The stories which follow were told to me by M. Pierre Vichon, a pure Breton Celt, born at Lescoff, near the Pointe du Raz, Finistère, in 1842. Peter is a genuine old ‘ sea-dog ‘, having made the tour of the globe, and yet he has not lost the innate faith of his ancient ancestors in a world invisible; for though he says he cannot believe all that the people in his part of Finistère tell about spirits and ghosts, he must have a belief that the dead as spirits exist and influence the living, because of his own personal experience - one of the most remarkable of its kind. Peter speaks Breton, French, and English fluently, and since he had an opportunity for the first time in seventeen months of using English, he told me the stories in my own native language :-

Pierre Vichon’s Strange Experience.- ‘

Some forty years ago a strange thing happened in my life. A relative of mine had taken service in the Austrian army, for by profession he was a soldier, though at first he had begun to study for the priesthood. During the progress of the war I had no news from him; and, then one day while I was on the deck of a Norwegian ship just off Dover (England), my fellow sailors heard a noise as though of a gun being discharged, and the whirr of a shot. At the same moment I fell down on the deck as though mortally wounded, and lay in an unconscious state for two hours. When the news came, it was ascertained that at the very moment I fell and the gun-report was heard, my relative in Austria had been shot in the head and fell down dead. And he had been seen to throw his hands up to his head to grasp it just as I did.’

An Apparition of the Dead.- ‘

I had another relative who died in a hospital near Christiania, Norway; and on the day he died a sister of mine, then a little girl, saw his spirit appear here in Lescoff, and she easily recognized it; but none of her girl companions with her at the time saw the spirit. After a few days we had the news of the death, and the time of it and the time of my sister’s seeing the spirit coincided exactly.’ In all the peninsula of which the famous and dangerous Pointe du Raz is the terminus, similar stories are current. And among the fisher-folk with whom I lived on the strange and historic lle de Sein, the Legend of the Dead is even more common.

The Dead and Fairies

Compared.- Without setting down here in detail numerous other death-legends which we have collected, 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 of curded-milk, hot pancakes, and cider, served on the family table covered with a fresh white table-cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move, and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help to entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors. Concerning this same feast of the dead (La Toussaint) VillemarquÉ in his Barzaz Breiz (p. 507) records that in many parts of Brittany libations of milk are poured over or near ancestral tombs - just as in Ireland and Scotland libations of milk are poured to fairies. And the people of Armorica at other times than November Eve remember the dead very appropriately, as in Ireland the Irish remember fairies. The Breton peasant thinks of the dead as frequently as the Irishman thinks of fairies. One day while I was walking toward Carnac there was told to me in the most ordinary manner a story about a dead man who used to be seen going along the very road I was on. He quite often went to the church in Carnac seeking prayers for his soul. And almost every man or woman one meets in rural Lower Brittany can tell many similar stories. If a mortal should happen to meet one of the dead in Brittany and be induced to eat food which the dead sometimes offer, he will never be able to return among the living, for the effect would be the same as eating fairy-food. Like ghosts and fairies in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, in Brittany the dead guard hidden treasure. It is after sunset that the dead have most power to strike down the living, and to take them just as fairies do. A natural phenomenon, a malady, a death, or a tempest may be the work of a spirit in Brittany,  and in Ireland the work of a fairy. The Breton dead, like the Scotch fairies described in Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth, are capable of making themselves visible or invisible to mortals, at will.  Their bodies - for they have bodies - are material,  being composed of matter in a state unknown to us; and the bodies of daemons as described by the Ancients are made of congealed air. The dead in Brittany have forms more slender and smaller in stature than those of the living ;’ and herein we find one of the factors which supporters of the Pygmy Theory would emphasize, but it is thoroughly psychical. Old Breton farmers after death return to their farms, as though come from Fairyland; and sometimes they even take a turn at the ploughing.  As in Ireland, so in Brittany, the day belongs to the living, and the night, when a mortal is safer indoors than out, to spirits and the dead.’ The Bretons take great care not to counterfeit the dead nor to speak slightingly of them, for, like fairies, they know all that is done by mortals, and can hear all that is said about them, and can take revenge. Just as in the case of all fairies and goblins, the dead disappear at first cock-crow.  The world of the dead, like the land of Faerie or the Otherworld, may be underground, in the air, in a hill or mountain like a fairy palace, under a river or sea, and even on an island out amid the ocean.  As other Celts do against evil spirits and fairies, the Breton peasants use magic against evil souls of the dead,  and the priests use exorcisms. The Breton realm of the dead equally with the Irish Fairyland is an invisible world peopled by other kinds of spirits besides disembodied mortals and fairies.  The dead haunt houses just as Robin Good-fellows and brownies, or pixies and goblins, generally do. The dead are fond of frequenting cross-roads, and so are all sorts of fairies. In Brittany one must always guard against the evil dead, in Cornwall against pixies, in other Celtic lands against different kinds of fairies. In Ireland and Scotland there is the banshee, in Wales the death-candle, in Brittany the Ankou or king of the dead, to foretell a death. And as the banshee wails before the ancestral mansion, so the Ankou sounds its doleful cry before the door of the one it calls. There seems not to be a family in the Carnac region of the Morbihan without some tradition of a warning coming before the death of one of its members. In Ireland only certain families have a banshee, but in Brittany all families. Professor Le Braz has devoted a large part of his work on La Legende de la Mort to these Breton death-warnings or intersignes. They may be shades of the dead under many aspects - ghostly hands, or ghosts of inanimate objects. They may come by the fall of objects without known cause; by a magpie resting on a roof - just as in Ireland; by the crowing of cocks, and the howling of dogs at night. They may be death-candles or torches, dreams, peculiar bodily sensations, images in water, phantom funerals, and death-chariots or death-coaches as in Wales.

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. Should Christianity in some way suddenly be swept away from the Celt he would still be religious, for it is his nature to be so. And as Professor Le Braz has suggested to me, Carnac with its strange monuments of an unknown people and time, and wrapped in its air of mystery and silence, is a veritable Land of the Dead. I, too, have felt that there are strange, vague, indefinable influences at work at Carnac at all times of the day and night, very similar to those which I have felt in the most fairy-haunted regions of Ireland. We might say that all of Brittany is a Land of the Dead, and ancient Carnac its Centre, just as Ireland is Fairyland, with its Centre at ancient Tara.


We can very appropriately conclude our inquiry about Brittany with a very beautiful description of a VeillÉe in Lower Brittany, written down in French, for our special use by the Breton poet, M. Le Scour, of Carnac, and here translated. M. Le Scour draws the whole picture from life, and from his own intimate experience. It will serve to give us some insight into the natural literary ability of the Breton Celts, to illustrate their love of tales dealing with the marvellous and the supernormal, and is especially valuable for showing the social environment amidst which the Fairy-Faith of Lower Brittany lives and flourishes, Isolated from foreign interference :-

A ‘Veillee in Lower Brittany.-‘ The wind was blowing from the east, and in the intermittent moonlight the roof of the thatched cottage already gleamed with a thin covering of snow which had fallen since sunset. Each corner reached on the run the comfortable bakehouse, wherein Alain Corre was at work kneading his batch of barley bread; and the father Le Scour was never the last to arrive, because he liked to get the best seat in front of the bake-oven.

‘Victor had promised us for that night a pretty story which no person had ever heard before. I was not more than fourteen years old then, but like all the neighbours I hurried to get a place in order to hear Victor. My mother was already there, making her distaff whirr between her two fingers as she sat in the light of a rosin candle, and my brother Yvon was finishing a wooden butter-spoon. Every few minutes I and my little cousin went out to see if it was still snowing, and if Victor had arrived.

‘At last Victor entered, and everybody applauded, the young girls lengthening out their distaffs to do him reverence. Then when silence was restored, after some of the older men had several times shouted out, “Let us commence; hold your tongues,” Victor began his story as follows :-

‘ “Formerly, in the village of Kastel-Laer, Plouneventer (Finistère), there were two neighbours; the one was Paol al Ludu and the other Yon Rustik. Paol al Ludu was a good-for-nothing sort of fellow; he gained his living easily, by cheating everybody and by robbing his neighbours; and being always well dressed he was much envied by his poorer acquaintances. Yon Rustik, on the contrary, was a poor, infirm, and honest man, always seeking to do good, but not being able to work, had to beg.

‘ “One evening our two men were disputing. Paol al Ludu treated Yon shamefully, telling him that it would be absurd to think an old lame man such as he was could ever get to Paris; ‘But I,’ added Paol, ‘am going to see the capital and amuse myself like a rich bourgeois. At this, Yon offered to bet with Paol that in spite of infirmities he would also go to Paris; and being an honest man he placed his trust in God. The wager was mutually agreed to, and our two men set out for Paris by different routes.

‘ “Paol al Ludu, who had no infirmities, arrived at Paris within three weeks. He followed the career of a thief, and deceived everybody; and as he was well dressed, people had confidence in him. The poor Yon Rustik, on the contrary, did not travel rapidly. He was obliged to beg his way, and being meanly dressed was compelled to sleep outdoors when he could not find a stable. At the end of a month he arrived in a big forest in the region of Versailles, and having no other shelter for the night chose a great oak tree which was hollowed by the centuries and lined with fungi within. In front of this ancient oak there was a fountain which must have been miraculous, for it flowed from east to west, and Yon had closely observed it.

‘ “Towards midnight Yon was awakened by a terrible uproar; there were a hundred corrigans dancing round the fountain. He overheard one of them say to the others: ‘I have news to report to you; I have cast an evil spell upon the daughter of the King, and no mortal will ever be able to cure her, and yet in order to cure her nothing more would be needed than a drop of water from this fountain.’ The corrigan who thus spoke was upon two sticks  (crippled), and commanded all the others. The beggar having understood the conversation, awaited impatiently the departure of the corrigans. When they were gone, he took a little water from the fountain in a bottle, and hurried on to Paris, where he arrived one fine morning.

In the house where Yon stopped to eat his crust of dry bread he heard it reported that the daughter of the King was very ill, and that the wisest doctors in France had been sent for. Three days later, Yon Rustik presented himself at the palace, and asked audience with the King, but as he was so shabbily dressed the attendants did not wish to let him enter. When he strongly insisted, they finally prevailed upon the King to receive him; and then Yon told the King that he had come to cure the princess. Thereupon the King caused Yon to be fittingly dressed and presented before the sick-bed; and Yon drew forth his bottle of water, and, at his request, the princess drank it to the last drop. Suddenly she began to laugh with joy, and throwing her arms about the neck of the beggar thanked him: she was radically cured. At once the King gave orders that his golden coach of state be made ready; and placing the princess and the beggar on one seat, made a tour throughout all the most beautiful streets of Paris. Never before were such crowds seen in Paris, for the proclamation had gone forth that the one who had made the miraculous cure was a beggar.

‘ “Paol al Ludu, who was still in Paris, pressed forward to see the royal coach pass, and when he saw who sat next to the princess he was beside himself with rage. But before the day was over he discovered Yon in the great hotel of the city, and asked him how it was that he had been able to effect the cure; and Yon replied to his old rival that it was with the water of a miraculous fountain, and relating everything which had passed, explained to him in what place the hollow oak and the fountain were to be found.

‘ “Paol did not wait even that night, but set off at once to find the miraculous fountain. When he finally found it the hour was almost midnight, and so he hid himself in the hollow of the oak, hoping to overhear some mysterious revelation. Midnight had hardly come when a frightful uproar commenced: this time the crippled corrigan chief was swearing like a demon, and he cried to the others, ‘The daughter of the King has been cured by a beggar ! He must have overheard us by hiding in the hollow of that d-d old oak. Quick ! let fire be put in it, for it has brought us misfortune.’

‘ “In less than a minute, the trunk of the oak was in flames; and there were heard the cries of anguish of Paol al Ludu and the gnashing of his teeth, as he fought against death. Thus the evil and dishonest man ended his life while Yon Rustik received a pension of twenty thousand francs, and was able to live happy for many years, and to give alms to the poor.” ‘

Here M. Le Scour ends his narrative, leaving the reader to imagine the enthusiastic applause and fond embraces bestowed upon Victor for this most marvellous story, by the happy gathering of country-folk in that cosy warm bakehouse in Lower Brittany, while without the cold east wind of winter was whirling into every nook and corner the falling flakes of snow.





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