Breton folktales often have magical and supernatural elements interwoven with death and tragedy in the story line which creates a dark, sombre but compelling story. Death is ever present in the world and there are many chilling tales of the evil or resentful dead but there are also some that tell of the grateful dead. These are the dead who return from the afterlife to help a living person who helped them in some way after had they died. How can the living possibly help a person who is dead? In answer to this question, presented here is a folktale from Brittany that is a retelling of a story collected by Lewis Spence (1) and tells how a living man was repaid for paying off the debts of a dead man as well as paying for his funeral to ensure he received a Christian burial.
The Man of Honour and the Grateful Dead
The story begins in a coastal town in Brittany with a maritime merchant who traded with many foreign ports so successfully that he built up a massive fortune. This merchant had a son named Iouenn who also wanted to make his way in life in the same way his father had. His father was delighted and set him up with a trading ship and filled it with all kinds of valuable merchandise from Brittany. He gave his son plenty of good advice and Iouenn sailed off to foreign ports to trade and make his fortune and then return home with his profits.
The ship had a safe voyage and after many days sailing docked at a port where Iouenn intended to sell his goods. He went ashore carrying letters of introduction from his father and very soon sold his merchandise at a good profit and found himself in possession of a large sum of money. He decided to spend a few days in the port looking around and sightseeing and one day as he strolled through the narrow streets he came upon a pack of stray dog such as are often seen roaming the streets of many towns and cities unchained. They appeared to be snarling and growling and biting and pulling on an object that was laid in the street. Curious as to what they were doing he cautiously approached and was horrified to see they actually worrying at the corpse of a man.
This shocked Iouenn greatly and he went round making inquiries about the fate of the unfortunate person. He was told that the man had died owing a great debt and as there was no money to pay for a good Christian funeral and burial the custom in those parts was that the corpse be thrown into the streets for the dogs and other beasts to scavenge. Iouenn was shocked that such a terrible indignity could be inflicted upon the dead and after chasing the dogs away, out of the kindness of his heart he paid the debts and for a proper Christian burial.
The Black Ship
After this he resolved he would not stay in the port a day longer and bid his captain make the ship ready for voyage and sailed for home. They had not sailed far when one of the sailors cried out the presence of a strange ship on the horizon heading their way and from it they hear a terrible wailing of many souls. The ship was attired all in black and had a most sinister appearance prompting Iouenn to remark to his captain,
“This is a most curious vessel! Why is all attired in black and why are those on board setting up such a wail.”
As the black ship approached Iouenn hailed it asking those on board what troubled them.
“Sir, we are charged with a most grim and unhappy task. There exists not far from this spot an island occupied by a gigantic serpent. For seven years our people must have had to pay an annual tribute of a royal princess and her you find us in the process of transporting yet another poor victim to her doom!”
Iouenn was shocked and said,
“Where is the royal princess you speak of?”
And then a great wail went up from all aboard the black ship as the royal princess stepped on deck. She was in a terrible way wringing her hands and sobbing uncontrollably. Iouenn was struck by her beauty and his heart went out to her and he vowed he would never let her be sacrificed to the monstrous serpent. He made discreet inquiries with the captain of the black ship and learned that if a sufficient bribe was offered then the captain would hand the princess over to him. He gave over the last of the money he had made from his trading and the Princess was passed over to his ship and he sailed on home with her aboard.
He had a safe and uneventful voyage home and his father was delighted to welcome him home. That delight turned to anger when Iouenn told him of how he had spent the money he had made from trading the merchandise his father had given him. His father refused to believe that the lady who he had brought back with him was in any way a royal princess and told him he was fool spending money on a dead man’s debts and banished him from his home.
Iouenn Weds the Princess
Many angry and bitter words were exchanged between the two, but nevertheless, Iouenn left his family home and married the Princess. She presented her husband with a fine gold chain and cross to wear around his neck as a wedding present and together they set up a small humble home and were very happy together. As time passed the couple were blessed with a son and then Iouenn had a stroke of luck. One of his uncles who was also a merchant trader doing business overseas asked him to take charge of cargo ship full of valuable merchandise he wanted to trade in the eastern lands. Iouenn was glad for the opportunity to increase his family’s fortunes and readily accepted. Soon the ship was ready and he embarked on the voyage in fair weather and high hopes taking with him a small portrait of his wife and their son which he kept on a shelf in his cabin.
Iouenn and the King
The winds were favourable and soon his ship reached the city of his wife’s birth and where her father still ruled and had grown very old. As is the custom in many ports the harbourmaster came aboard to check the ship and its cargo. While on board he noticed the portrait of Iouenn’s wife and recognized her immediately as the Princess of the city and daughter of its present ruler. Completing his business on board he went straight to the King to tell him what he had seen. On hearing this news the King went immediately to the harbour and boarded the ship demanding of Iouenn knowledge of his daughter. Iouenn not knowing who his daughter was could not tell him anything. The king flew into a rage and ordered that he be flung in jail and the ship be burnt and the cargo seized and impounded
While languishing miserably in prison Iouenn made friends with the jailor and told him the story of how he had met his wife. On hearing this, the jailor went to the King and told him the story. The King was overjoyed to hear his daughter still lived and after seeking a pledge from Iouenn to bring his daughter home he ordered that a new ship be commissioned and fitted out for the voyage back to Iouenn’s home port and that he would return again with his daughter. As a precaution the King sent two of his ministers to accompany Iouenn should he decide to renege on the agreement. The ship sailed in a fair wind making good progress across the sea and soon made Iouenn’s home port and docked.
The Evil Minister
Iouenn took the two ministers to see his wife and their son who were safe and well and explain to them what had happened. Now the Princess was familiar with one of the ministers for he had loved her and sought her hand in marriage of old. She knew the devious and evil nature of his character and fearing he plotted some act of treachery she asked her husband to remain at her side during the voyage. However, Iouenn loved to be on the bridge with the captain watching and learning of the operation of the ship.
One starry evening he stopped to lean against the side of the vessel and gaze in wonder at the night sky. Lost in thought he did not hear the stealthy approach of the evil minister who grasping his two legs quickly flung him overboard into the foamy sea. Deliberately waiting a few minutes the devious minister then let out a cry of
“Man over Board!”
The captain ordered the ship to sail back looking for Iouenn but the clouds now covered what starlight there was and nought could be seen in the black of the night and the victim was not found. The Princess now convinced her husband had perished was distraught and stayed in her cabin wailing and grieving. It so happened that despite the shock of finding himself submerged in the cold water Iouenn quickly gathered his wits and began swimming and luckily he was a strong and excellent swimmer. Despite having no idea which way to go he kept calm and decided to strike out in one direction and hope for the best.
Having given up all hope of finding Iouenn the ship turned around and the captain set course for the port of the Princess’s father. When the ship finally sailed into the harbour there was great joy and festivities at the return of the Princess. Her father was so pleased to have her back he readily gave his consent for her marriage to the treacherous minister who he credited fully for her return. However, the Princess was still devastated by the loss of her husband and kept finding excuses to keep putting the wedding off. Deep inside her some vague flicker of hope remained and she remembered her husband’s body had never been found.
Indeed, her husband with little other choice had struck out swimming in one direction and just as his strength was failing had come across a single small bare island of rock which he scrambled upon. The only shelter on this barren place was a small niche in the rock which he could squeeze into in times of bad weather which were frequent. For the next three years marooned on the island he lived on shellfish and the occasional fish the sea would throw into one of the rock pools, which he would gladly consume raw.
During those three years his beard and hair had grown long and matted and all of his clothes had rotted from his body leaving him naked, cold and wildly unkempt and he roamed round and round his tiny kingdom like some wild and strange mad man. All that remained of his past life was the gold cross and chain he wore around his neck.
One lonely night as he sat in his rocky niche eating a meager supper of shellfish when he was startled to hear the eeriest sound he had ever heard in his life that cut through the silence like a knife. Crouching low and peering out over the ocean he heard the terrible sound again and then his blood ran cold as he realized there were words in that unearthly wailing and it was calling his name. Surely no human could have uttered such ghastly words but he found himself listening to the weird voice in horror.
‘Iouenn! Iouenn! Iouenn! Cold, cold, cold!”
wailed the voice again and again,
before dying out in a horrible groan and starting up again. This continued through the night to die out just before dawn.
The next night the same terrible voice was heard again and although he was no coward he dare not show himself or answer the voice. The third night as the voice began its wailing he determined he would do something so stepping from his hideout he cried out,
“Who is it that disturbs my peace? Show yourself!”
From out of the sea and across the rocky shore a hideously naked man came crawling wailing his ghastly cry,
“Cold, cold cold, so cold,”
the ghastly man wailed and fixed Iouenn with a glassy stare.
‘In God’s name who are you?”
The man let out a ghastly laugh,
“So you do not remember me, but I remember you too well, Iouenn. I am the wretch you drove the dogs from and so kindly gave a Christian burial to. You paid my debts and saved me and now I come to save you. Do you wish to leave this rock?”
rasped the man as blood and poison oozed from wounds on his body.
“That I do as God is my witness!”
“Then you need to know that against her will your wife is to marry the minister who threw you overboard. If you are quick you can stop this and I will help if you promise to give to me a share of all that belongs to you and your wife. This must be handed over within a year and a day. If you accept now I will carry you to the King’s palace in time to stop the wedding. Do you accept?”
Iouenn agreed immediately and the living corpse told him to climb upon his back, which he did. Immediately it ran into the sea and began swimming at great speed with him on its back. Very soon they reached the port where his wife’s father had his palace and the corpse set him on shore. The corpse looked at him through glassy eyes and said,
“One year and one day!”
and plunged back into the sea and was gone.
Iouenn at the Gates
Such was the terrible state of neglect endured by Iouenn during his lonely stay on the island he was now in an unrecognisable state and looked barely human. In the morning when the King’s gatekeeper opened the palace gate he was shocked to find something that resembled a wild animal crouching forlornly outside begging for help.
Calling the palace servants to see what he had found they threw him scraps and crusts of bread which he ate ravenously. One of the ladies-in-waiting was passing by and seeing the strange wild looking thing that Iouenn had become she went to the Princess and told her of the wild man at the gates. The Princess with her curiosity aroused went down to see for herself. On seeing the wild thing before her she immediately saw the gold cross and chain around his neck and recognized it as the wedding present she had given Iouenn and knew him to be her husband. Iouenn and his wife embraced with great joy and she led him into the palace and fed him and bathed and clothed him in fine clothes.
The Lost Key
This being the morning that the Princess was due to marry the evil minister great preparations had been made for the much awaited event. The Princess went down to the assembled company to speak to them and asked them for advice. She asked whether it would be better to look for an old key which had been lost which fitted a the lock to her treasure chest or instead make use of a new key which was available but did not fit. Of course the treasure chest was her heart and the keys were her husband and the evil minister.
Unanimously they agreed that it was better to search for the key that fitted. With that she introduced her husband who stepped forward now arrayed in fine clean clothes saying,
“Here is the key I lost and I have found!”
The evil minister trembled and turned pale as a sheet but the King, her father thumped the table in rage and cried,
“Build a fire for this vagabond and cast him upon it!”
The Princes and Iouenn were shocked and dismayed and all present stared in shock as they thought he meant Iouenn, but the King stood and pointed to the evil minister whose guilt had been revealed by the Princess. As the company stood and applauded the King’s command his guards rushed to obey and the evil minister was led off the fire.
The Grateful Dead
So it was that Iouenn lived with the Princess in the palace in joy and happiness. There was one event that spoiled this and that was the death of their young son. However, their grief was quickly assuaged with the birth of a second baby boy and once again they were happy. In his happiness Iouenn had completely forgotten about his time on the island and the debt he owed to the dead man who had saved him. Then one grey November evening while he and his small family were sat happily around the fire together they were disturbed by three loud knocks struck upon the door. Upon the third the door flew open and in strode the awful form of the living corpse that had saved Iouenn from the island. It stood before Iouenn with dead glassy eyes and in a rasping voice said,
“Iouenn, do you remember our pact? I have come for payment!”
Iouenn, although trembling and in shock remembered the pact he had made with the living corpse and asked his wife to bring him the keys to their treasure chest so that he may pay his dues. As she handed the keys over the dead one sneered and waved her away in disgust.
“It is not your treasure I have come for, Iouenn it is this!”
he rasped pointing at the baby boy in his cradle sleeping sweetly.
“Not my baby! You cannot have him!”
cried the Princess.
“Are you a man of honor, Iouenn? A man of honor pays his debts. Remember your promise on the island, remember your debt!”
“Yes, it is true I promised but remember how I saved you from the dogs!”
“All I ask is what I am owed, and I am not asking for all the infant, just a share!”
“Have you no heart, wretched thing? As honor with me is above all things I will grant your wish!”
and he undressed the infant and laid him naked and helpless upon the table as the dead thing directed.
“Now with your sword cut off the portion you believe is my due,”
rasped the corpse
“Wretch, it would have been better to have been left to perish alone on the island than endure this!”
He raised the sword to strike and was about to bring it down when the corpse raised its hand and stepped forward commanding him to stop.
“Stop, do the child no harm! I can see clearly that you are a man of honour and have not forgotten your promise. Neither have I forgotten you saved me from the dogs and paid for me to have a Christian burial. Through you I now live in Paradise only because you paid for me my debts out of the goodness of your heart which allowed me to a proper burial. Clearly you would honour your promise but in gratitude for the service you gave me I say that we are even and the debt is paid. Now, I say goodbye until we meet again in heaven!” and with that the corpse walked out of the door and was gone.
From then on Iouenn and his wife and son lived very happily and when the old King died and because of the respect the people had for him as a man of honour he was made King. So it was that Iouenn’s act of kindness which allowed the soul of a person he had not known to enter Heaven was repaid to him in his lifetime by the grateful dead themselves.
© 02/08/2017 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Information
Copyright August 2th, 2017 zteve t evans
- Legends & Romances of Brittany, by Lewis Spence
- Grateful dead (folklore) – Wikipedia
- The Grateful Dead Index – Sacred Texts
- grateful dead | folklore | Britannica.com
- [PDF]Storytelling: An Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore
- ractapopulous – Pixabay – Pixabay License
- am84 – Pixabay – Pixabay License