16 November 2007
At the very northwestern tip of France lies a region called Brittany, or Bretagne. Directly north of it, across the English Channel, is Cornwall. And a very long time ago, they weren’t so different from each other.
When the Romans came to Gaul, they called the area “Armorica.” Trade between Armorica and Britain had been long established and Brittany had far more in common with Cornwall than with its Frankish neighbors to the south. They even shared a language across the strip of sea.
So it’s no surprise that they also shared a mythology. It’s difficult, however, to find much information about it. The French are a trifle tetchy about their Barbarian roots, so there hasn’t been much research forthcoming from them. What survives are the folktales of the area and a strong link to the Arthurian cycles that come from Cornwall, Devon and Wales.
I’m not going to go into the Arthurian legends in this article, but talk about some of their folklore instead. First, we’ll start with the Grim Reaper himself – Ankou. That’s a picture of the jolly guy himself. Charming.
But the mythology indicates that we base our modern image of the Reaper on Ankou. Tall, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a long coat. He doesn’t carry a scythe, but rattles along on a rickety wooden cart, into which his skeletal helpers toss the bodies of the dead. If you ever hear the rattle of his cart on a misty Breton moor, you’d better run before you end up as cargo!
The Breton Korrigan is, in some tellings, very similar to the Cornish pixie. Troublesome, but not usually malicious, depending on the tale. If these female sprites steal a mortal baby, they raise it as their own. They’re also associated with water and in these instances are beautiful creatures with long flowing hair – but their sexuality is dangerous. If a mortal man falls in love with a korrigan, he is usually doomed to die.
Other tales of the Korrigan can be found at Celtic Twilight
Morgens are also water sprites (Brittany is a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water – no wonder there are so many water sprites in their mythology). Again, like the Korrigan, her beauty is dangerous. She lures men to their deaths by showing them glimpses of undersea treasures. But her power isn’t always deadly. The Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend, is named Morgen. And the story of Morgan Le Fay, Arthur’s half-sister, may have risen from Breton tales.
The last water-spirit of Brittany is the cannard noz. She’s the Washer Woman common in almost all Celtic mythology. In Breton, her name means “night duck” because she has webbed feet. In Ireland, she’s the Bean Nighe. She washes the grave clothes of the dead and is a portent of death. You don’t want to catch a glimpse of her at work.
Finally, we come to the legend of Ys. Ys is the Celtic version of Sodom and Gomorrah. There was a good and faithful king named Gradlon, who ruled wisely and well, but his daughter, Dahut, was a wicked young woman who reveled in sin. The city of Ys was built below sea level and protected by a dike. The king kept the key to the dike on a chain around his neck.
Dahut stole the key to let her lover – supposedly the Devil himself – into the city and retribution arrived. The entire city was swallowed up and only King Gradlon was saved. He went on to found the city of Quimper and when he died, a statue was erected of him on horseback, pointing back to Ys.
Dahut became a mermaid who haunts the waters in the Bay of Douarnenez and in stormy weather, the bells of Ys still toll to warn seafarers from the shore.
Here’s the thing. There’s a good deal of evidence pointing to the fact that Ys was apparently real. There are Roman roads that lead to it, Gradlon is pointing to it, and several of the locations mentioned in the legend are real. In addition, there’s a 5th century account of a Breton city being swallowed by a deluge.
You can find more information about Ys at The Legend of the City of Ys and Brittany’s Legends.
So there you have it. The folklore of the Breton. It’s easy to see the links to other Celtic and Welsh myths and the history that binds the cultures together.
For more information on Breton mythology, see Legends and Romance of Brittany by Lewis Spence, compiled in 1917.