“I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure” — Clarence Darrow
We’ve all heard of Great Britain. Have you heard of Lesser Britain? Blame the fall of the Roman Empire. One of the advantages to dominating the Western world for a few centuries is that you get to name lots of stuff, although when the tides of fortune ebb and the empire crumbles, the folks you conquered tend to resent that kind of thing, and merrily set about applying new (or old names) to their favorite spots. At any rate, while you are in charge, you can call things what you like and organize your empire however you darn well geographically please, often eschewing obvious cultural similarities among peoples in favor of administrative divisions that make the paperwork easier. Surprisingly, the Latin name for the British Isles (Britannia), kind of stuck. The Latin name for the northern Brittany Peninsula (Armorica) did not. Brittany (or “Lesser Britain”) was only actually united with the Kingdom of France in 1532 A.D. In fact, culturally, Brittany is considered one of the six Celtic “nations” (along with Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, and the Isle of Man), and the Breton language is closely related to Cornish and Welsh. It is thus no surprise that Breton, Cornish, and Norman French folklore share a common respect for a creepy crony of death called L’Ankou, literally translated from Breton as “The Agony”.
L’Ankou is described as an old man (sometimes a skeleton) in a black robe, hat that covers his face, carrying a scythe, drives a cart for collecting the souls of the dead, and travels with two spectral companions to help load the souls onboard. Pretty standard fare for personifications of death. Strangely, Breton mythology maintains that the L’Ankou is a temp job, and that there is an assigned L’Ankou for every parish. If you have the misfortune to be the last man to die for the year in a Celtic parish, you are stuck with the job of L’Ankou for the next year, after which Death will sign your time card and you can move on.
Amongst them all none was more interesting than a certain figure once commonly found all over Brittany, now rarely to be met with, though still remembered and held in reverence in some remote districts. Sometimes this figure took the form of a tall thin man with long white hair and face shadowed by the broad felt hat of the country, sometimes of a skeleton, draped or undraped, whose skull turned on a pivot as though to signify that in a single glance it beheld the whole district over which it ruled. But whether man or skeleton, it always held in its hand a scythe, the blade of which was turned forward, and it signified 1’Ankou or Death. Many are the beliefs and superstitions connected with 1’Ankou, and though the representations of him have, as I have said, all but disappeared from the land, the people in many parts believe in and fear him as their ancestors did in the past. They believe, for instance, that the last man who dies in the village during the year becomes 1’Ankou for the year ensuing. That he has his chariot or cart in which he makes his royal progress, spreading terror and desolation wherever he goes. That he is usually drawn by two horses, one fat and well-to-do, the other lean as Death himself. They say that he uses a human bone to sharpen his scythe, and goes about quite silently—he, his horses, and his cart. His great friends and helpers are supposed to be Plague and Dysentery, the former of whom being lame cannot move over flowing water by herself, but has to be carried by someone (Gosling, 1906, p274).
Dying in Brittany has to be something of a let-down. I mean, after all the effort put into giving up the ghost, I’m expecting a visit from some fearsome representation straight from the abyss to usher me into the afterlife with a little pomp and circumstance. Instead, it turns out to be my neighbor Bob, whose fatal fast-food induced coronary improbably occurred on December 31st last year. Of course this can’t be fun for Bob either. He is after all basically a corpse with an uncompensated job collecting the souls of people he knows. And maybe that’s the point. Death is considerably less frightening when you’re likely to have your disembodied soul scooped up by an unlucky former drinking buddy (albeit just a little bit smellier than usual what with the decaying flesh), than it would be if some hideous incarnation was sweeping in to drag you away kicking and screaming.
The Celtic spirit of the modern Breton has preserved the legend or superstition of “L’Ankou,” the spirit of death. In many villages one may interrogate a peasant or a fisherman, who will affirm that it is “Ankou” who leads the way for the funeral-car and who waits at the grave to carry the soul of the departed away with him after the others have left. Among the superstitious signs which presage the coming of the ”Ankou” are, a ball of fire, which rests upon the tiles of the roof over the stricken one, — a most unlikely thing, one would think, — the theft of grain by crows, the tapping of a window-pane by the beak of a seabird, the prolonged bellowing of cattle by the light of the moon, a candle which will not light, or for a peasant to split or cleave two pairs of wooden shoes in one week (Mansfield, 1906, p357-358)
The omens presaging the arrival of L’Ankou are certainly numerous, but mostly he’s just hanging around waiting for the official funeral ceremonies to be over so he can get on with his work. Seeing as there is a L’Ankou for every parish, one can imagine some excellent opportunities for unionization. And let’s face it, the working conditions of the average L’Ankou are substandard – no pay, long hours, rotting body parts, your co-workers are Plague and Dysentery, and the only equipment you are provided with is a scythe. There’s like nine kinds of occupational health and safety violations there. Scholars have noted that a lot of Celtic fairy behavior is also attributed to L’Ankou, but with a similar sort of ambivalence, a properly respected L’Ankou is a far less fearsome creature, who having recently expired himself, is able to enjoy the hospitality of his living friends, as he takes his turn in the soul-transport business.
Without setting down here in detail numerous other death-legends which we have collected, we may now note how much the same are the powers and nature of the dead and spirits in Brittany, and the power and nature of the fairy races in Celtic Britain and Ireland. Thus the Breton dead strike down the living just as fairies are said to do; the Ankou who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths or roads over which they travel in great sacred processions; and exactly as fairies, the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve, and the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them of curded-milk, hot pancakes, and cider, served on the family table covered with a fresh white table-cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move, and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help to entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors (Evans-Wentz, 1911, p218).
Lower Brittany has often been referred to as the “Land of the Dead”, as there is an intermingling of the living and dead. “The graveyard is as truly the centre of the commune as the dolmen was of the prehistoric tribe. The dead who lie there are by no means cut off from the world; the voices of the living reach them in muffled tones; they know that they are not forgotten; they are associated with every event of importance in the family. Nowhere else, and at no period, have people lived in such familiarity with Death. The consciousness of the presence of the dead never leaves the people. The evening of a wedding is like a funeral wake. The betrothed meet at the graves of their dead, and seal their vows over the tombs” (Baring-Gould, 1901, p25). It is perhaps the close association with the dead that breeds a certain familiarity. It Brittany, you don’t just understand Death. You literally know him. Maybe dated his daughter, shared a beer, played soccer together, or stole his cows.
La Mort is in Breton the Ankou, who travels about the country in a cart picking up souls. At night a wain is heard coming along the road with a creaking axle. It halts at a door, and that is the summons. A spirit passes, and the Ankou moves on. Marillier, who wrote a preface to M. le Braz’s work, says that Lower Brittany is before all else the Land of the Dead. ‘Souls do not remain enclosed in the tombs, they wander at night on the high-roads and in the lonely lanes. They haunt the fields and the moors, thick as blades of grass or as grains of sand on the shore. They revisit their former habitations in the silence of the night, and from the lisclos they can be observed crouched around the hearth, where the brands are expiring.’ Certain mysterious rites are observed to which the cure is not invited, and where some old man is ministrant, on All Souls’ even, on some granite-strewn height, about a fire. M. le Cure is discreet enough not to inquire too closely what goes on. The wagon of the Ankou is like the death coach that one hears of in Devon and in Wales. It is all black, with black horses drawing it, driven by a headless coachman. A black hound runs before it, and within sits a lady (Baring-Gould, 1928, p66-67).
Some may find it disconcerting that death is neither eternal rest, blissful repose, nor stern judgment. There’s a certain purity to those extremes. You’re good you get rewarded. You’re bad you get tortured. And for the atheist set, you just get to stop worrying and enjoy the absence of everything. Unless you happen to die on the wrong day in a Breton parish. Then, death is a day job. But take solace. Things can always be worse, or as American writer David Gerrold observed, “Life is hard. Then you die. Then they throw dirt in your face. Then the worms eat you. Be grateful it happens in that order.”
Baring-Gould, S. 1834-1924. A Book of Folklore. London: Collins’ clear-type press, 1928.
Baring-Gould, S. 1834-1924. A Book of Britanny: London: Methuen & Co., 1901.
Evans-Wentz, W. Y. 1878-1965. The Fairy-faith In Celtic Countries. London: H. Frowde, 1911.
Gosling, Frank. “L’Ankou”. The Celtic Review 2:5-8, 1906.
Mansfield, Milburg Francisco, 1871-. Rambles In Brittany. Boston: L.C. Page & company, 1906.