Psychopomps in Breton Myths and Folktales: Entering the Afterlife

Breton Folklore

Breton myths and folktales are often a dark blend of Celtic, pagan and Christian influences that result in magic and wonder mixed with the morbid and macabre.  There are many tales, myths and legends concerning everyday and important issues such as  love and death.

For all of us, death is the great unknown and people all around the world throughout history have invented many different ways of thinking about the subject.  One of the most universal ways of representing death  was through the use of personifications.  In simple terms this the giving of human characteristics or form to abstract ideas, inanimate objects or something that is not human. 

Death itself can be personified in many other ways such as the personification known as the Grim Reaper, but there are many other representations, some as dark, others lighter.

Psychopomps

In many societies death needed a servant that would guide or bring the soul of the deceased to the place of the afterlife.  Such servants were called psychopomps and presented here is a brief discussion of two psychopomps from Breton folklore and mythology.  The first is a rather grim and forbidding entity known as the Ankou who was  a collector of souls for his master Death.  The second tells of a fair knight who came back from the dead to guide his betrothed to the afterlife.  In the course of the discussion we also look at a few folkloric motifs present in the examples given.

The Ankou

In Breton mythology and folklore the Ankou can appear in various guises in different regions of Brittany. There are also Welsh, Cornish and Anglo-Norman interpretations of him.  In some versions he is either a tall, gaunt man wearing a long black cloak or a skeleton  carrying a long scythe though earlier traditions say it was an arrow.  He is often mistaken for the Grim Reaper, but they are not the same.  In other versions he appears as an old man accompanying a horse drawn coach or cart. His role is not to judge or punish but to ensure the transition of the soul to the afterlife and will tolerate no interference in this.   

When he stops outside the house of the dying person he may knock on the door, or he may utter a low mournful wail to summon the dead to his cart.  Sometime accompanied by two ghostly assistants he will enter a home and take away the soul of the dead.

He is presented as a very grim and macabre figure and in some places he is the king of the dead.  His subjects move in processions along particular paths to the afterlife.  Some traditions say he is the last man to die in a parish in the  year who will automatically assume the role of the Ankou and the supervision of the souls of the dead.  

Nola and  Gwennolaïk

A very different kind of psychopomp appears in a Breton folktale called The Foster Brother.  This story revolves around a relationship between a young man named Nola and a young woman named Gwennolaïk. The story tells how the two fell in love when Gwennolaïk was eighteen years old after her natural mother and two sisters had passed away.   After her mother’s death her father had remarried twice and she had gained an older foster brother who was not a blood relative.  They had grown to know and love each other deeply spending all their time together.  Their relationship deepened and the two promised that they would wed with each other and no one else.

Strange Dreams

They were very happy in those days thinking and planning their future together but there came a time when Nola grew troubled.  He told Gwennolaïk that he had been experiencing strange dreams telling him he had to leave home and find his fortune.  This broke Gwennolaïk’s heart but not wanting to stand in his way she consented and gave him a ring that had belonged to her mother to remember her by.  

Promising he would return one day to marry her he took a ship to distant shores.  During his absence she missed him terribly, spending many hours pining alone and praying he would soon return to marry her.  This would release her from the awful life of drudgery and misery she now endured, partly because he was gone and partly because her step-mother treated her cruelly.  

The Stepmother

She gave poor Gwennolaïk all the hard and dirty jobs berating her with harsh words and kept her hungry all the time making her wear rags.  Six years passed in this way and Gwennolaïk was getting so run down and tired she believed she would  be better off dead.

The Fair Knight

One day while fetching water from a nearby brook she met a fair knight on horseback waiting by the water. His face was hidden and she could make out none of his features. To her surprise and embarrassment he asked her if she was betrothed.  After telling him she was not the knight reached down and placed in her hand a ring.  He told her to go back and tell her stepmother she was now betrothed to a knight from Nantes.  Furthermore, she was to say that there had been a bloody battle and her betrothed had been badly wounded but would in three days time come and claim her for his wife.

Saying no more he quickly turned and rode off leaving Gwennolaïk staring at the ring too surprised to even move.  As she gazed at the ring she realized it was the same one she had given to Nola when he departed and realized the fair knight was none other than him.

Disappointment

She waited in vain those three days and to her heartbreak and disappointment Nola did not come.  Worse still her stepmother told her she had decided that she would marry and had chosen someone for her.  Gwennolaïk was horrified by the idea and showed her the ring and told her of the knight.  She insisted it was Nola who had returned to marry her.  Her step-mother would not listen and took the ring from her.  

What they did not know was that a knight who had been mortally wounded in the battle at Nantes had been given a Christian burial in the nearby White Chapel.  

Marriage

The husband her stepmother had chosen for her  was the stable lad and to Gwennolaïk’s grief and mortification they were married.  After the marriage there was a banquet but Gwennolaïk was depressed and miserable and unable to face the reception and her guests.   Appalled and driven mad by the thought of being married to anyone other than Nola she ran off into the woods.

Fever

A thorough search of the locality was undertaken but no trace of her could be found.  In fact she had hidden herself deep in a thicket where she lay weeping and shivering in the cold and damp.  As night came black and cold she shivered more and more and weeping and crying for the hardness of the world caught a fever.  In her delirium she thought she heard something moving through the thicket towards her and cried out in fear and alarm.

Nola Returns

A voice told her that it was Nola and that he had come for her.  Disbelieving him at first she looked up and saw  a fair knight approach on a white steed.   Reaching down he easily lifted her up to sit behind.  He told her to hold on tight and he would take her to her mother and sisters in a place where they would all be together forever.  

W. Otway Cannell (Illustrator), Lewis Spence (Author), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Magical Journey

From this point she is close to death and he has appeared from beyond the grave to find her and take her back to join him and her family in the afterlife.   As her life fades he takes her on a magical journey.  They cross the land to the sea and the horse gallops over the top of the waves to a beautiful island where a celebration was being made ready.  He explains it is their wedding celebration that is being prepared.  The two were married and to her joy she was reunited with her dead mother and two sisters .   There was great singing and dancing  and at last Gwennolaïk found peace and happiness in the afterlife.

Meanwhile, as the wedding takes place, back in the earthly realm searchers finally find the expired body of Gwennolaïk and give her a proper Christian burial.

Folkloric Motifs

There are several interesting folkloric motifs in the story.  For example, the loss of Gwennolaïk’s real mother and the wicked stepmother.  There is also the foster brother as the love who goes off to find his fortune and in this case returns to die before the wedding.  The initial and inexplicable failure of Gwennolaïk to recognise Nola on his return is at first puzzling but then becomes clear that something else will happen.  It is a device used in  many fairy and folktales as is the ring given by Gwennolaïk to Nola which he gives back to identify himself. 

Nola, having had a Christian burial and Gwennolaïk a Christian marriage and finally a Christian burial become entwined in pagan and Celtic influences.

The horse he rides is interesting because it takes them on a magical journey over the sea to a magical island.  In many traditions the Celtic Otherworld could be reached by crossing the sea and in several tales such as the Irish tale of Oisin and Naimh of the Goldenhair, a magical horse is used to take them there.

Nola as a Psychopomp

Perhaps the most interesting contrast is how the soul of Gwennolaïk is taken to the afterlife by her beloved Nola who she has waited and yearned for.  Surely a much more welcome and comforting transition to the afterlife than via the macabre Ankou!

Guiding the Soul to the Afterlife

However, in cultures all around the world psychopomps appear in various forms which may be familiar and comforting taking the form of a family member or friend or they may be dark and forbidding.  In whatever form they appear they perform an important task in guiding or helping the soul of the deceased to find their place in the afterlife.

© 19/11/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright November 19th, 2020 zteve t evans

Animals and Injustice: Exploring The Motif of the Faithful Hound

Gelert – en:Charles Burton Barber – Public Domain

Motif of the Faithful Hound

In the study of folktales and folklore there is a classification system known as the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index (ATU Index) which catalogues folktale types.  It is not a perfect system and not not all folklorists recognise it but it can provide some useful insights.  Presented here is a discussion of the folkloric motif of The Faithful Hound, classified as Aarne–Thompson-Uther type 178A, that is found in a number of folktales from many different parts of the world. 

In this work we will briefly discuss human relationships with animals followed by a look at the main structure of the tale tale type of The Faithful Hound.  Three examples of such tales from different countries will be retold before concluding with a few reflections that may offer a deeper insight into the story.

Animal Helpers

Animals have always been popular characters in folk and fairy tales reflecting the close relationship humans share with them.  They have long been an integral part of our daily lives, still are today and undoubtedly will be in the future. We eat them, make clothes and other items from them, use them for many different kinds of work, but best of all welcome them into our homes as pets and companions.  Sadly, sometimes we mistreat them. Therefore, it is not surprising they are often featured in our stories, myths, legends, traditions and customs and make wonderful subjects for artists to paint.

The Story Structure

The structure of the tale type of The Faithful Hound is simple and unfolds roughly in the order shown below:

  • A fairly high-ranking person has a much loved pet and a baby
  • The baby of the high ranking person is left in the care of a parent or child nurse who negligently leaves the child alone.
  • A dangerous animal appears and threatens the baby.
  • The pet heroically defends the baby.
  • The dangerous animal is killed by the heroic pet
  • The jubilant pet greets its master/mistress.
  • A hasty and injudicious  judgement is made on the spot.
  • The pet is killed
  • The baby is found safe and sound. 
  • The body of a dangerous animal is found.
  • The parent suffers remorse, sorrow and grief because of their hasty decision and because they loved the pet.
  • There is a prevailing sense of disappointment and betrayal over the hasty decision by the high ranking person.

The structure of the story remains fairly consistent around the world.  The heroic and dangerous creatures differ from place to place to suit local conditions.  The human involved usually remains fairly high ranking in that society.

The Earliest Version

Possibly the earliest version comes from India. It is found in the Panchatantra, a book of Sanskrit verse, dated to about 200 BCE and called “The Loyal Mungoose” and later “The Brahmin’s Wife and the Mongoose.”  In these versions the heroic animal is a mongoose and the dangerous creature is a snake.  There are three humans involved; an infant, a Brahmin and the Brahmin’s wife.  In In Hinduism a Brahmin is someone of fairly high status such as a priest, teacher or trader so the story involves quite an important family in Indian society.

A mongoose is a natural enemy of snakes and vermin in the same way cats are enemies of rodents.  Therefore, a mongoose may seem like a sensible pet in places where snakes are common.  The following is my retelling of that story.

Finn, Frank – Public domain

The Brahmin’s Wife and the Mongoose

The wife of a Brahmin had a single son and she also had a pet mongoose that she loved as if it was her second son.  She brought the two up together treating both as her babies and they both suckled from her breast. One day as her son is sleeping she tells her husband, the Brahmin, she is going to fetch water from the local well and takes up a heavy stone jar to carry it in.   She warns him that he must keep his eye on their son because even though she loves the mongoose she mistrusts it because it is an animal. 

After she had gone, her husband became hungry and went off to find food leaving the child completely unprotected. While he was out a venomous snake slithered into the house and made its way towards the helpless child.  The mongoose having been closely brought up with the baby boy regarded him as its brother.  Therefore in his brother’s defense it attacked the snake, killed it and tore it to pieces. In jubilation at its victory in defense of its brother the mongoose ran to meet the mother with the snake’s blood smeared all over its mouth and face.

On meeting the jubilant mongoose the woman is horrified to see the blood around its mouth and on its face. Hastily she jumps to the conclusion that the mongoose had killed and eaten her baby son.  In anger and grief she hits the animal with the heavy stone jar she carries, killing it. Rushing home to her great joy and relief she finds the baby is safe and sound.  Close by lies the torn up body of the deadly snake and she realizes her mistake.   She is overcome with remorse and shame for her hasty judgement in killing the mongoose whom she had indeed loved as a son.  

Eventually, her husband returned bearing food but now the distraught mother turned her anger towards him,  “Greedy, foolish man!” She cried, ” All because of your greed and foolishness I must now endure the sorrow of death!”

The most obvious point is the hasty and unjust killing of the mongoose.  However,  there is also the question of the right and wrongs of loving an animal as much as a human and raising it like a human child.  The neglect of the Brahmin is also significant.

The Story’s  Journey

The story traveled west towards Europe and east further into Asia with variation of animals and story but keeping similar motifs, themes and structures.  A Persian version has a cat as the heroic animal.  From Malaysia comes a story of a pet bear that saves the daughter of a Malay hunter from a killer tiger only to be hastily and unjustly killed by the hunter who feared it had killed his daughter.  His daughter is found safe leaving the hunter full of shame and regret for his hasty killing of the bear.

In some cases stories such as these may have evolved independently in distant locations without human transmission.  This is not as mysterious as it may seem.  Although there are many different human cultures and societies we share many of the same needs and values as each other.  We also share similar emotions and fears and everyone likes a good story.

Guinefort: A French Version

In Europe, the heroic animal became either a dog or hound  and the dangerous animal a snake or a wolf.  In France the story also provides an explanation of the origin of the cult of the greyhound folk saint called Guinefort and presented below is a retelling of that story.

The Legend of Guinefort 

A knight living in a castle near Lyon in France had a faithful greyhound named Guinefort.  The dog had shown a great attachment and affinity with his infant son. Such was his placid nature and gentle disposition the knight trusted him completely to be left alone with the infant whom he loved dearly.   

One day the knight and his wife left his son in the company of Guinefort while he went out hunting.  Such  was  his unwavering faith in his dog’s affinity with his son, the knight had no reservations about leaving the sleeping  boy with the greyhound lying protectively by his side in the nursery.

After a good day of hunting he returned to find the nursery in disarray with the cot overturned and no sign of his infant son.  Guinefort greeted his master with delight jumping and fawning at his feet.  The shocked knight, seeing the disarray and the signs of violence, the blood on the dog’s jaws and not seeing his son anywhere, believed that Guinefort had killed the baby.  In grief and anger he drew his sword and struck the greyhound down.

As the dog lay dying the knight heard the sound of a baby crying underneath the overturned cot.  There, to his relief and joy  he found his infant safe and sound.  Looking around the scene he saw torn and tattered remains of a great viper that had somehow got into the nursery threatening the life of his son.  It then dawned on him as he looked about what had happened.  On discovering the threat to the baby, Guinefort had attacked and killed the viper at great risk to himself to defend the infant.  

The knight was now ashamed of his killing of the dog.  He and his family lowered the body of Guinefort down a well and sealed it with stone.  They then planted trees and flowers around it and turned it into a shrine dedicated to the memory of the faithful hound who had suffered such injustice. The shrine of Guinefort became a popular place where local people brought their babies for healing and the greyhound became a folk saint of the people.   Furthermore, it is said that God punished the knight by decimating his castle and lands.

The Welsh Version

In Wales, the savior animal was also a faithful dog but the threat came from a wolf.  The dog’s name was Gelert and was either a greyhound or wolfhound depending on the versions.  He belonged to Prince Llywelyn the Great, one of the most influential nobles in the history of Wales who was married to King John’s daughter, Joan.  

Byam Shaw / Public domain

The story was used as a selling point by David Prichard, an enterprising Victorian publican of the Goat Inn, Beddgelert, Snowdonia.  He used the romantic elements of Gelert’s story to attract customers to his pub which is conveniently close to the supposed grave of the courageous hound. Although the publican may have commercialized and added to the story, the structure is far older than the Victorian era and from much further afield than Wales. The following retelling of the story tells how the prince was a great huntsman and Gelert was his favorite hunting dog.

The Legend of Gelert

One day while out hunting with his wife Prince Llywelyn noticed his best hunting dog named Gelert has gone missing.  Feeling concerned about their favorite hound  they return home.

The scene that greets them fills them with horror and fear. There is blood all over the floor and the baby’s cradle is lying askew on the ground. The baby’s blankets are bloody and strewn around the room and no sign of the infant can be seen. Stricken with grief and anger Llewelyn draws his sword and plunges it into the dog. As Gelert dies he lets out a cry that is answered by the baby boy lying out of sight behind the fallen cradle. 

Llewelyn gently lifts the cradle to discover his baby son safe and unharmed. Lying alongside him was the body of a massive wolf covered in blood with its throat ripped out. Instantly, the Prince understood what had happened. The wolf had entered the lodge while the nurse and servants were out leaving the child unprotected. 

Gelert must have had some kind of premonition of the baby’s danger and had returned to the lodge in time to save the child and fight and kill the wolf. Now, it is said the Prince Llywelyn was so distraught from grief and guilt from his hasty deed that he never smiled again. Llywelyn buried Gelert in honor in a nearby meadow and placed stones over the body.”  – The legend of Gelert

Points to Consider

It is interesting that the savior animal changed from a humble mongoose in India  to a greyhound or wolfhound in Europe.  Greyhounds and wolfhounds were once the hunting dogs of the rich and powerful.  They were greatly prized and important animals even featuring on the coat-of-arms of many of Europe’s elite.

Both the masters of  Gelert and Guinefort were rich and powerful of very high status and seen as exemplars of behaviour as was the Brahmin.  At the same time the dangerous animal was a snake with the mongoose story, a viper with Guineforte’s story and a wolf with Gelert.

This type of story is embedded with powerful emotions.  We can identify with the love, fear and grief a parent experiences when entering such scenes of carnage and even empathize with their hasty killing of the pet.  With the sweet moment the child is found  safe and sound comes a bitter twist with the awful realization they have made a terrible mistake. We also identify with the unfortunate pet who we believe has behaved heroically and proved itself loyal and faithful, only to be condemned and killed unjustly in an instant, hasty act of gratuitous revenge.

The tale explores the positive human virtues of love, faith and loyalty that come into conflict with the negative human traits of negligence, selfishness and impetuous and unthinking behaviour. The Brahmin neglects his charge to satisfy his own hunger while the French knight and the Welsh prince leave others in charge of their infant and go out hunting to satisfy their own pleasure. 

It is a cautionary tale warning that even the great and the good can make mistakes to the injury of the innocent when acting in haste, or while satisfying their own pleasures.  The stories also subtly  emphasize the power of life and death the influential characters held over their servants and their responsibility in making just and correct decisions.  

In their unjust killing of their pets, the pet owners are seen to have let themselves down by their haste and poor judgement of the event because they failed to properly investigate the situation.  This is especially worrying when the innocent are loyal and faithful servants who should have a right to a fair trial and a fair judgement. 

Punishment

The stories highlight a real and important matter that affects everyone because even Brahmins, knights and princes have social codes and morals they are expected to adhere to.  In killing their loyal pets in such an unworthy manner the masters revealed their unworthiness and were punished for it.  The Brahmin’s wife was forced to endure the sorrow of death, the French knight lost his castle and his land and Prince Llywelyn the Great never smiled again.  Are these tales nothing more than stories to tell the children that tug at the heartstrings, or is there something else going on?  

Do Not Act In Haste!

The obvious moral of the story is not to act in haste, but if we accept  that explanation on the face of it are we not simply acting in haste?  For those who wish to take this further they may look at the meaning of haste and hastiness and examine this alongside the model of how their own personal religion or philosophy may place expectations of behavior upon them in such circumstances. 

© 12/11/2019 zteve t evans

Reference, Attribution and Further Reading

2Copyright November 12th, 2020 zteve t evans

Celtic Warrior Queens: Boudica of the Iceni

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com, 8th October 2020, titled Celtic Warrior Women: Queen Boudica of the Iceni by zteve t evans.

Queen Boudica

Queen Boudica, ruler of the Iceni people of Britain, was famous for leading a violent uprising against Roman rule. She was married and had two young daughters whose names are unknown. Her husband Prasutagus had ruled as a client-king of Rome and his realm was roughly the area of modern Norfolk. As a client-king he had entered into an alliance with Rome which allowed him to rule and receive Roman patronage in return for recognizing its overall authority and keeping law and order. When he died he left his kingdom jointly to the emperor and his two daughters, perhaps hoping to avoid trouble.  Despite this, his kingdom and property was annexed by Rome and his family maltreated, sowing the seeds of rebellion among the Britons. According to Tacitus, Boudica was beaten with rods, her two young daughters raped, and the estates of the Iceni nobles confiscated. This spurred Boudica to lead a bloody rebellion against the might of Rome.

Suffragettes

As a woman, widowed with at least two children, the qualities that people would traditionally call female were plain to see. Yet after the maltreatment inflicted upon her and her young daughters by the Romans, other, less ‘traditionally female’ qualities emerged, transforming her into a powerful, avenging force. Qualities of leadership, intelligence, aggression, courage and assertiveness in a struggle to free her people came to the fore. Such attributes were seen as subversive for women to openly display in a patriarchal society, but were some of the very qualities that the suffragettes were keen to promote as acceptable in women to help and inspire their struggle against the system.

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