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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- The Foster Brother – Legends & Romances of Brittany by Lewis Spence
- The Foster Brother – Folk Tales of Brittany, by Elsie Masson,  – Sacred Texts
- Personifications of Death – world, body, life, history, time …
- File:Eugène Delacroix – Jeune orpheline au cimetière (vers 1824).JPG – Eugène Delacroix, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
- Otway Cannell (Illustrator), Lewis Spence (Author) [Public domain]