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

Breton Folktales: Gwennolaïk and Nola

Presented here is a retelling of a Breton folktale called The Foster Brother. It was believed to be set in the old cathedral town of Tréguier a port of the Côtes-d’Armor, formerly Côtes-du-Nord, a department of Brittany in France.

The Foster Brother

When the old  Lord of the Manor passed away he left behind his youngest surviving daughter named Gwennolaïk. She was only eighteen years old, exceptionally fair of face with the sweetest of nature and her friends and those who loved her tended to call her Gwen.  In years gone by she had lost her two elder sisters who had succumbed to an illness that ravaged the area and passed into the next world. Not long after her own mother also fell ill and joined them.

Nola

Afterwards her father had remarried twice out living both wives. From those marriages she had an older foster brother named Nola whom she had loved dearly. At a very young age they had spent many hours playing together and promised each other they would one day be wed.  However, when he came of age he began to have strange dreams. He would find himself in strange places that he had never seen before and could hear words whispered into his ear telling him he should leave home and find his fortune. At first he took no notice but gradually those words wormed into his head and he decided he must prove himself, see the world and find his fortune and took a ship to foreign shores.

It was indeed grievous to witness the fair daughter from a noble family in such sadness and despair.  Everyday she could be found sitting on the steps of the ancient manor with tears in her eyes. There she sat gazing out to sea desperately hoping to catch the first glimpse of the sails of the ship of her foster brother returning to her.  It was her one big comfort – her only hope of salvation – that he would return and save her from an unhappy life of misery and drudgery.

The Ring

Gwen, although distraught at his going, gave him a ring that had belonged to her mother to remember her by.  His leaving left her alone and all this daughter of a noble family had left was a cruel stepmother. She missed him terribly and longed for his return both for his love and to save her from her unhappy home  life.

Therefore, her eyes rarely left the horizon hoping against hope for that welcome glimpse of white sail. It had been six long years since his departure  with no word of his whereabouts or his safety and she began to fear the worst. Her stepmother was forever scolding her and kept her hungry and in rags forcing her to work among the servants. Seeing Gwennolaïk gazing at the horizon made her angry and she would shout,  “Get out and do some work!  Go down to the marsh and call the cattle home and earn your living.  You will get neither food or drink if I catch you staring into space one more time.  Go and call the cattle home. Go!”

Her Stepmother

Her stepmother had always hated her and she resented the relationship Gwennolaïk had with her foster brother who had been born to her predecessor. Maybe it was jealousy that caused her stepmother to treat her with such cruelty and unkindness, but maybe she was just a wicked person.  It was she who had whispered worm words into the ear of her stepson as he slept. These wormed their way slowly into his head causing him to want to leave home and see the world and now he was long gone.

Every morning through the winter it was Gwen’s task to build and light the fire and sweep the hearth before her stepmother rose. Woe betide her if there was not a roaring fire waiting to warm her stepmother. While it was still dark and frosty she would be sent outside in the cold to the brook to bring water and was given a cracked jug and a leaking bucket for the task.

The Knight

Early one cold dark morning she went down to the brook and seeing the water was muddied looked around for the cause.  To her surprise she saw a knight in armor sat upon a fair horse. His visor covered his face but he greeted her courteously saying,  “Good morning and may you have long life!” as was the custom and then asked, “Are you betrothed?”

Gwennolaïk was a shy and unsophisticated girl and more than a little rustic and this confused her.  She replied, “That, sir, I do not know now.”

The knight persisted saying, “Fair maid, I beg you to tell me the truth.  Are you betrothed?”

Gwennolaïk replied, “God bless you sir, I am not betrothed.”

The knight then said,  “Here, Take this gold ring to your stepmother and tell her you are now betrothed to a knight from Nantes.  You must advise her that there has been a battle at Nantes and that many have been slain including the squire of your betrothed and that he himself is badly wounded by a sword cut.  Tell her that in three days time I will arrive at the manor and claim the fair Gwennolaïk as my bride.”

Having said this they said their farewells.  He turned his horse and quickly rode off and she ran back home.  As soon as she was free of her stepmother and in a safe place she took out the ring and looked at it.  She was excited to see it was the ring she had given her foster brother before he left and realized the knight was Nola.

Disappointment

Three days passed but to Gwennolaïk’s intense disappointment the knight did not return.  One week passed and then two and then three, but he still did not come as he had promised.  Her stepmother came to her and told her, “I have decided you must get married and I have found you the perfect husband who was just made for you!”

Gwennolaïk was horrified by the idea.  It was not that she did not like the idea of marriage, she did, but to the right man and secretly yearned for Nola.   She explained to her stepmother how he had returned and she had met him at the brook saying, “Please have mercy on me stepmother. I only desire my Nola, my foster brother as a husband. He has returned and I have seen him. See he has given me this ring which he took with him when he left as a token to you that he will come back and marry me.  It is my wedding ring and he will return soon to wed me.”

But her stepmother snarled angrily,  “Be silent, stupid girl before I beat you with a stick! You are dreaming again he will not be back for you. I have decided you will marry Job, the stable boy,he will be plenty good enough for the likes of you.”

Gwennolaïk protested saying,   “But, I cannot marry Job, Oh, if only my mother was here now.  Surely, I will die of a broken heart!”

Her stepmother replied angrily,  “Get out of the house and go and weep in the stables!  I am sure Job will be glad to comfort you. Let me tell you now, no matter how much you weep and wail, in three days time you will marry Job and that is all there is to it! ”

To be fair to Job he had not wanted the marriage, however, he had been beaten by Gwennolaïk’s stepmother and told he would lose his position if he refused.  Therefore, he reluctantly agreed.

Death

What neither Gwennolaïk or her stepmother knew was that as they had spoken the Crier was on his way around the village ringing a doleful bell with the following message,

“It is my sad duty to pass on the news of the death of a most noble knight.  He was brave and valiant, gentle and kind, a generous and good hearted man who did his duty.  Tragically, at the recent battle of Nantes he was mortally wounded by the thrust of an enemy sword and has now gone to God.  Therefore, pray for him today and tomorrow at sunset his funeral watch begins. The following morning he shall be carried to his tomb in the White Church.”

The day of the wedding of Gwennolaïk to Job came around and the guests were sad and subdued. They all were feeling sorry for the fair Gwennolaïk pitying her that she should have to marry a man she had no love for.  Alas that such things were once not uncommon in those days, though mercifully society has progressed.

The Wedding

However, poor Gwennolaïk had to find a way to come to terms with the situation as did Job.  The parish priest stood talking soothing words to her and many people offered their sympathies rather than congratulations, which emphasises the straits she was in.  In the church during the ceremony every man and woman had wept for the situation except for the cruel and hard hearted stepmother.

After the ceremony they had all returned to the manor where celebrations were being held in the dubious honour of the event.  The musicians struck up a merry tune but the merrier they played the sadder and more depressed Gwennolaïk became. Her friends tried their best to comfort her and led her to a quiet table where they sat trying to reassure and cheer her, but to no avail.  

She would not dance or partake of any food or drink and when the time came for her to be led to the bridal chamber she jumped up, tore off her bridal veil and threw away her flowers.  Pulling the wedding ring from her finger she threw it away as far as she could. Before anyone could stop her she ran from the celebration so fast no one could catch her and none could say where she went.   

Nola’s Return

They searched in vain but she could not be found.
Gwennolaïk had run into the woods and hidden herself in a thicket. There as night descended she fell asleep weeping to herself for the harshness of the world.  At the midnight hour she was awakened by the sound of someone or something moving towards her through the thicket. She was cold and shivering with fever and jumping up in alarm cried,

“Who is there?”

“Gwennolaïk my love, it is I Nola, I have come for you.”

“Can it really be you, my love, can it really be she?” she sobbed.

She looked into the darkness and she saw coming towards her the knight on the fair white steed,  “Come, climb up behind me and we will go together to your mother,” he said reaching down to help her up.  She caught his cold arm with her own pale hands and she was up behind him in a second. “Now we will go together,” he told her as she pressed her face against his cold, cold shoulder.

The Journey

“My, how fast we go, my love, my love, my love.  …. We must have travelled a hundred leagues already. … Oh, how happy, I am to be with you, you, you.   I cannot remember ever being so happy. … Is mother’s house far?” she asked.

“Hold on my darling, hold on and we will soon be there!” he replied as the horse sped forward racing silently over the earth faster than the wind.

“How  bright  your armor? How fast is your steed, it flies through the air faster than an arrow!  How tall and handsome you have grown my love. … Is mother’s house much further?” she asked faintly.

“Hush, now my sweet, we shall soon be there.” he replied.

“My love, your body is of ice, your hands are like winter,  you are chilled to the bone. I fear thou hast caught cold,” she said.

“Hold on my darling.  Hold on we are nearly there.  Listen, can you not hear the sweet music that joyously greets us on our wedding day?” he told her.

The Island

With these words, his horse stopped and Gwennolaïk soon saw they had crossed the sea somehow and were now on an island.  All around young lads and maidens danced and frolicked joyfully. All around were gorgeous flowers and the trees were laden with ripe apples.  Behind them the sun was rising and before them was a bubbling brook of pure water. The knight lifted her down and cupping his hand took water from the brook and offered it to her and she drank deeply.

These waters were the waters of life and those that drank of it were made whole and life and vitality flowed through their bodies.  They left behind their tired, mortal frames to live in health and happiness. Among the dancers Gwennolaïk saw her mother and her two sisters and she ran to them in in joy and they welcomed her happily.

The White Church

Back at the manor as soon as it was light the weeping wedding guests had gone out searching for Gwennolaïk.  As the sun rose a sad procession was seen carrying the body of Gwennolaïk from the woods to the White Church where they gently laid her to rest beside her foster-brother in his tomb.

© 22/05/2019 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright May 22nd, 2019 zteve t evans