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

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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Celtic Mythology: Mixing Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods

Image by John James Audubon – Public Domain – Source

This article by zteve t evans was first published on FolkloreThursday.com on 30th July, 2020 under the title, Mixing Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods in Celtic Mythology

Animals, Birds, Humans and Gods

Animals played an important part in the everyday life of the ancients Celts. In Celtic mythology the lives of animals, birds, humans and gods are interwoven to provide rich stories alluding to important matters in their society such as life and death, love and hate, jealousy and lust. Provided here is a brief review of some of those myths and legends.

The Dream of Aengus

Swans were much admired by the Irish Celts and had some special places in their mythology. One story from Irish mythology called the Dream of Aengus, tells how a young god named Aengus fell in love with a beautiful woman from his dreams. Her name was Caer Ibormeith and she was the goddess of sleep and dreams.

Aengus set out to find her and discovered that she was a real person who had been placed under a spell which transformed her into a swan. Every other Samhain she was able to return to human form for one day beginning at sunset and then revert back to swan form for one year until the following Samhain when the transformation cycle would be repeated.

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Celtic Mythology: The Tuatha Dé Danann

Riders of the Sidhe – John Duncan – Public domain

The Tuatha Dé Danann

In Irish and Celtic mythology the Tuatha Dé Danann were a supernatural race who were known to interact with and form relationships with humans.  They had a reputation for being adept in the sciences, arts, magic and necromancy. Their name translates as the people of the goddess Dana or Danu and they are seen as being the main gods of Ireland before the arrival of Christianity.   Along with the Fir Bolg they were the descendents of Nemed, who ruled the third wave of invaders of Ireland and was reputedly descended from the Biblical Noah. They were believed to have come from Falias, Gorias, Murias and Finias which were four cities  located somewhere to the north of Ireland. They brought with them four magical treasures; the Dagda’s Cauldron, the Spear of Lugh, The Stone of Fal, and the Sword of Light of Nuada.

Each individual of the Tuatha Dé Danann was seen as being a representation of certain aspects of the natural world and some of them were associated with more than one.  Some individuals were also known by other names which may vary from region to region. The Tuatha Dé Danann were the traditional enemies of the Fomorians who appear to represent the dark destructive forces of nature.  They were personifications of drought, pestilence, chaos, darkness and death, whereas the Tuatha Dé Danann were gods of civilisation and growth. 

Christian Records

It was the Christian monks that recorded and wrote down Irish mythology and in doing so altered and rewrote some of it to a degree.  They often saw the Tuath Dé Danann as kings, queens and heroes from a bygone era and credited them with having supernatural powers. Another view was that they were fallen angels being neither good or evil. Other medieval writers  saw them as being gods or spirits because some characters are found in tales that are from different times often separated by centuries. This lent to the belief that they were divine or immortal beings. For example, Manannán mac, Aengus, Morrígan and Lugh all appear in tales from different eras which many see as supporting the idea of their immortality.

The Lebor Gabála Érenn

The Lebor Gabála Érenn  is a collection of poetry and writing collected in the Middle Ages.  It claims to tell the history and origin of the Irish and Ireland up to the time it was written.  Many versions exist but the earliest were believed to have been written in the 11th century. According to this work the Tuatha Dé Danann arrived in Ireland in ships bringing,  “dark clouds”.  They were said to have landed on the mountains of Connachta bringing three days and nights of darkness.  Another later version says that they burnt their ships on arrival so there was no way they could go back. The smoke from the ships filled the air and was the cause of the dark clouds and darkness.  

King Nuada

Their leader was King Nuada who led them in the First Battle of Magh Tuireadh where they defeated the Fir Bolg, the native inhabitants of Ireland.  Although they won, King Nuada lost an arm fighting Sreng, the Fir Bolg champion. Despite this Sreng and his three hundred followers were losing the battle and facing defeat  vowed to fight to the death. The Tuatha Dé Danann were so impressed with their valor and fighting ability they offered them a one fifth of Ireland if they pulled out of the fight.   This was agreed and they chose Connacht and the people there were said to be able to trace their ancestry from Sreng up to the 17th century.

However, Nuada had been badly wounded, losing an arm and this meant that he was no longer unblemished.  According to Tuatha Dé Danann tradition this meant he had to relinquish the kingship.   Bres, who was half-Fomorian became king and he demanded tribute from the Tuatha Dé and enslaved them.

Dian Cecht, a great healer, replaced the lost arm of Nuada with a fully functioning silver one which allowed him to take back the kingship.   Miach, the son of Dian Cecht was not satisfied with the replacement arm of Nuada and cast a spell saying which made flesh grow over the artificial silver arm in nine days and nine nights.  Jealous at the skill and success of his son Dian Cecht murdered his him.

Bres was forced to hand back the crown to Nuada and consulted with Elatha, his father who would have no part in any scheme to win back the kingship. Instead he advised him to seek help from Balor the king of the Fomorians.  Balor agreed to help Bres and from this came the Second Battle of Magh Tuireadh where the Tuatha Dé Danann fought the Fomorians led by Balor, who killed Nuada with his poisonous eye. Then the Tuatha Dé, champion, Lugh killed Balor and became king of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

The Invasion of the Milesians

The arrival of invaders to Ireland from what today is known as Galicia in  Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula brought further conflict. These invaders were believed to be Goidelic Celts, who were believed to be descendants of Míl Espáine and known as Milesians.

They met three of the Tuatha Dé Danann, goddesses;  Ériu, Banba and Fodla who requested them to name the island after them which is where the modern name Éire came from.  The husbands of these three goddesses were Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Gréine who were kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann requested a three day  truce with the Milesians. During these three days the Milesian fleet would anchor nine waves distance from the coast. They agreed and complied with the truce but the Tuatha Dé Danann using magic summoned up a storm hoping to sink the enemy fleet or drive their ships out to sea.   

Tir na nOg

The Milesians called on their  poet Amergin for help. He calmed the seas with his poetry and they managed to safely land.  This resulted in a battle with the Tuatha Dé Danann at Tailtiu which the Milesians won. Amergin was tasked with dividing the island up between the two sides and in a stroke of genius gave the part above ground to his own folk while allotting the underground part to the Tuatha Dé Danann.  According to this tradition this is where the Tuatha Dé Danann took up their residence and is called Tir na nOg, which was a paradisaical place and often an island. It was one of the Celtic Otherworlds that could be reached in several ways including by entering ancient burial mounds or sidhe, going either over or under water, or by traveling through mist. In later times the Tuatha Dé Danann became known as the Aos Si or fairies.

© 10/03/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright March 10th, 2020 zteve t evans

Elen of the Hosts: Goddess of Sovereignty, King Maker, Warrior Queen of the Britons

This article was first published #FolkloreThursday.com as British Legends: Elen of the Hosts – Saint, Warrior Queen, Goddess of Sovereignty on 21/06/2018 by zteve t evans

Elen of the Dream

Historically, Elen of the Hosts was a real woman who lived in the 4th century, but in British legend and Welsh and Celtic mythology, may go back even further.  She appears to have been a woman of many roles that have grown and evolved over the centuries to the present day. Today, Elen is best known for her part as the subject of the affections of the emperor of Rome in strange tale of The Dream of Macsen Wledig, from the Mabinogion. The story depicts her as a mysterious woman of power who knows how to gets what she wants and appears linked to the giving and taking of sovereignty a very powerful attribute.  Presented here is a discussion about who Elen was, and how she has changed and evolved over the centuries, hopefully  encouraging the reader to perhaps research and create their own ideas for themselves.

The Dream of Macsen Wledig

Her story begins one day when the emperor of Rome, Macsen Wledig, was out hunting. Feeling tired in the midday sun, he decided to take a nap. As he slept, he experienced a dream that had an incredible effect on him. In that dream, he travelled across mountains and along rivers, and undertook a sea voyage which brought him to a fair island. He crossed that island and found a magnificent castle and in that castle, seated in a golden hall, was a beautiful woman and he fell in love with her. Macsen had found the woman of his dreams within his dream and, typical of a dream, he never gets his kiss. When he moves to kiss and embrace her, he awakens, and in the waking world there is no Elen. But Macsen wants his kiss badly and now the world has changed for him. He is obsessed with her to the point that he can think of nothing and no one else. His health fails and he begins to waste away and pines for her, telling his counsellors, “and now I am in love with someone who I know not. She may be real and she may be unreal, but I am mortally stricken, so tell, what am I to do?”. Although he did not know it at the time, the woman in the dream was named Elen, and it is clear from the dream that she was someone very special, but who was she?

Who was Elen?

Although very little for certain is known today about her, it can be seen from the dream that Elen was not an ordinary woman. Today she is known by many names. She is Elen Luyddog in Welsh or in English, Elen of the Hosts, and also known as Elen of the Ways, Elen of the Roads and Elen Belipotent in reference to her military leadership skills. She also is known as Saint Elen or Helen of Caernarfon, sometimes being named as Helen rather than Elen, and there are still more names. Elen was believed to be the daughter of Eudav, or Eudaf Hen, a Romano-British ruler of the 4th century who became the wife of Macsen Wledig, also known as Magnus Maximus, a Western Roman Emperor from (383-388AD). She was the mother of five children including a son named Constantine who was also known as Cystennin, or Custennin. She introduced into Britain from Gaul a form of Celtic monasticism and founded a number of churches. There are also many holy wells and springs named after her and there still exist roads were named after her such as Sarn Elen.

She was also a warrior queen. According to David Hughes in his book, The British Chronicles, Volume 1, after Macsen was defeated and executed, Elen reigned over the Britons. She led the defence of the country against invading Picts, Irish and Saxons. After a long, hard fight she pushed the invaders out, earning the name Elen Luyddog, or Elen of the Hosts and Elen Belipotent meaning “mighty in war”. In the Welsh Triads, Elen of the Hosts and Macsen Wledig, or in some versions Cynan her brother, lead an army to Llychlyn, which some scholars such as Rachel Bromich see as a corruption of Llydaw, or Armorica which does fit better with what is known.

There is a line of thought that sees characters in the Mabinogion as Christianised versions of far older gods. Some people also see her as being a conflation of several women and ultimately derived from an ancient Celtic goddess of sovereignty. The theme of sovereignty in one form or another does appear in the dream and she appears as the catalyst that can make it happen, or take it away.

Elen’s Power

From the dream, we learn that she was in the company of her father, Eudav, who was the son of Caradawc and is also known as Eudaf Hen, (Eudaf “the Old”), or Octavius, a King of the Britons, so she was a lady of considerable importance. This is evidenced by the surroundings in the dream, which matched exactly those she was in when the messengers of Macsen find her. Her response to the messengers is not one from a woman who sees herself as being subordinate to men or emperors, or anyone else no matter who they may be. When the messengers tell her about the great love their emperor holds for her and request she accompany them back to Rome, she revealed part of her true power by flatly refusing. Instead she told them to return to Rome and tell the emperor that he must travel to her if he truly loved her as he claimed. Macsen obeyed …

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The Stag in Ancient Celtic Culture

Stag on the Watch – By Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) – Public Domain Image

The stag in Celtic mythology is a symbol of the forest. It grows antlers that resemble branches on a tree. It looks as if it carries the forest around with it crowned on its head. The stag is fast, powerful and agile and sexually vigorous. This represents the the energy of nature which is self regenerating. The shedding of its antlers in the autumn and their regrowth in the spring is like the seasonal cycle of the forest trees which shed their leaves each autumn and regrow them each spring.

The Gundestrup Cauldron

Part of Gundestrup Cauldron Depicting Cernunnos – Derivative work: Fuzzypeg – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

One of the finest relics of the Celts is the Gundestrup cauldron. This is a Iron Age silver work cauldron that was found near the Danish village of Gundestrup. The cauldron is ornately decorated with many fine figures of gods, animals and images of nature. Cernunnos, the stag horned god of the Celts is depicted sitting cross legged next to a stag. On another part of the cauldron there is a depiction of a god holding a stag with each hand.

Highly Regarded

The stag appears to be highly regarded in Celtic society and held in reverence over a widespread area. In Luxembourg a depiction of a stag with coins flowing from its mouth has been found.

A carved stone figure found in Rhiems depicts Cernunnos with a stag and a bull that are drinking from a. stream of coins. This is believed to mean that stags are associated with prosperity.

As can be expected, in many areas the stag is associated with hunting. The stag would have played an important part in the economy of the Celtic people. Its flesh provided food, its skin provided clothing and coverings, and its bones provided, tools and weapons such as arrowheads.

In northern Britain, Cocidius, the hunter god, was associated with the stag. In the south of Britain, around Colchester, Silvanus the woodland king, also known as Silvanus Callirius, was associated with the stag.

At a mountain shrine at Le Donon, in the Vosges dedicated to a nature or hunter god. His image was carved in stone showing him wearing the hide of an animal and he had fruit hanging from him. Next to him stands a stag and he has his hand placed on its antlers in what seems to be an act of benediction.

The Celtic Relationship With Nature

Images of hunting and of the forest are shown next to images of prosperity. It shows the relationship and respect the hunter has for the hunted and in doing so reveals much about the Celtic mindset and their relationship with nature.

Burgundy was believed to have been a horse breeding region during Celtic times and a place where the stag horned Cernunnos was revered. A sculpture made by the Aedui tribe shows a “divine couple.” A god and goddess, are shown apparently presiding over the animal kingdom. They are shown in a sitting position next to each other with their feet resting on two stags. Next to the god is a horse that is being offered a drink from a goblet. The goddess is offering a goblet to a horse by her side to drink from, while petting it.

The stag in Celtic terms was a representation of the natural world and the animal kingdom. The antlers are a reminder that nature can be dangerous and violent. It can be violent and harmful, but it can be benign and beneficial. They stag is also a symbol of male fertility, the fertility of the forest and the renewal of nature. As such it played an important role in Celtic society and culture representing the Celtic relationship with nature and the animal kingdom.

References and Attributions

Copyright zteve t evans