Breton Folklore – Ankou

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      Hello everyone,

      Perhaps understandably, many people in the English-speaking world may be a little unfamiliar with the Celtic culture of Brittany, and in many modern books on all things ‘Celtic’, the Bretons are hardly mentioned, which is a shame as Breton folklore and culture may be able to reveal interesting things for people here. I thought I’d share something here about Breton folklore, along with some tentative links to Brythonic folklore from elsewhere.

      Visit many an old churchyard in Brittany and you may well find a rather alarming, skeletal representation of a figure known as the Ankou (death) sculpted in and around the church itself – often depicted holding an arrow, spade or sickle (the sickle being of added interest to druids perhaps). To modern eyes, the Ankou (Ankow in Cornish, yr Angau in Welsh) looks most like the ‘Grim Reaper’ – the personification of death, and there seems to be a lot of bad information out there talking about a ‘god of death’; however, this is inaccurate – the Ankou is a servant of death – a psychopomp who takes people to the Otherworld.

      Although there are a number of different versions of the Ankou in folklore, much of which was recorded by the Breton bard Anatole le Braz (1859 – 1926), the basic themes are that the Ankou is a servant of death, he comes for the last (sometimes the first) person buried in the year, this person then becomes the ‘next’ Ankou for the year to come. In the Breton hinterland, the Ankou has a coach and horses whereas in other more coastal areas he may be depicted with a boat as some kind of ferryman. It has to be said that these are very typical characteristics of a psychopomp, and parallels can be found in other mythologies and belief systems from around the world – Charon the boatman in Greek mythology and Shiva Tarakeshvara in Hindu/Vedic traditions to mention just two. A now lost, but fortunately recorded for posterity, Pictish carved stone (Meigle 10) also depicted a scene which was reminiscent of these ideas – people in a chariot (souls?) being led by a horse, protected by a bowman who leads the way and may be protecting them from some kind of monster; whether this represents a psychopomp from pre-Christian Pictish belief, we will probably never know, but it is certainly most suggestive. The bowman obviously has a bow, the Ankou is often depicted with an arrow.

      Something struck me about the Ankou folklore and the First Branch of The Mabinogi. Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed encounters Arawn, (a) lord of the Otherworld on a horse with his hounds. Because Pwyll chases some spectral hounds from Arawn’s quarry, a stag, Pwyll agrees to recompense Arawn by taking his place for a year and a day – taking on his shape, too, thereby effectively become ‘Arawn’ to all intents and purposes. Furthermore, after the story is played out, Pwyll himself becomes a lord of Annwfn – the Otherworld – Pwyll Pen Annwfn. Arawn himself may be somehow connected to an ancient Celtic deity known from Central Europe, Arubianus/Arubinus, whose name might be connected to ideas of ploughing and tilling, so a connection to agricultural ideas of cutting down, the soil, ploughing and preparing for new life could be important here – just a thought though.

      To sum up, I wonder if there isn’t a connection here with all this, perhaps the remnants of ancient Brythonic ideas about life, death and the Otherworld. There are many other interesting bits and pieces of folklore and mythology that could also be linked, but then I think there’s a danger of over-stretching and reading too much into things that could also be mere coincidences.

      What’s your take on this? Whatever the case, I hope this little snippet of Breton folklore and belief – hengoun breizh – was interesting.


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