“Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Listen closely for the bells of Ys.
Listen closely for the bells of Ys.

We are an enormously forgetful species, misplacing all manner of things from people to cities to entire continents.  We’re even better at losing our grasp on the reasons things vanished.  Keeping track of what saint to call on for a particular minor miracle, or which monster haunts which dark forest seems prudent, but it is awful difficult when you lead the hardscrabble life of an illiterate peasant.  What does the date of the sinking of Atlantis have to do with the price of rutabagas in Lyon?  This is of course why we were so keen on the invention of writing.  Do you really think we would still remember that Enki was patron god of the Sumerian city of Eridu if some savvy scribe hadn’t jotted down a few notes in cuneiform to that effect?  Once we could record our memories, we could fix points in time, giving rise to the entire discipline of history.

Now, history and folklore have always had a bit of a tense relationship, history being what people bothered to write down, and folklore the stuff that happened when nobody could find a priest to scratch out a record on a stone tablet or piece of papyrus.  Inconceivable to us modern monkeys, with our 24-hour news cycle, Big Data, ubiquitous social media, i-reporters, bloggers, and “citizen journalists”, most of human history is shrouded in darkness, doomed to eternal obscurity.  We’ve only been putting pen to paper for roughly 6000 years of the 200,000 years us anatomically modern humans have been around, and the majority of folks who ever lived and breathed could neither read nor write.  Thus, as we peer back in time, we are staring into pitch black, punctuated by an occasional strobe-light that allows us, for a brief moment, to see the crowded dance floor.  And then it’s gone. All of history is encapsulated in those periodic flashes.  Every once in a while, some smart guy like Herodotus realized how much we were missing and surmised that if you pieced together the fragments glimpsed by multiple observers, you might get a better idea of the story arc.  And thus the professional historian was born.  Yet sometimes we were all looking at the DJ, or the pretty girl with the sexy moves, or were simply distracted by the beat of our favorite song, so we are inevitably left with fragments.  History is an impressionist painting.  Step back and you see the lines and contours, but stare hard enough and you can see the brush strokes, movement frozen in a series of snapshots.

So we looked right, rather than left.  What did we miss?  What glorious kings lived and died anonymously? What creatures were born, evolved, and went extinct?  What histories will never be read?  What civilizations vanished?  What fabled cities were submerged beneath the sea?  Tantalizing hints of unwritten histories slip in from the corner of the room to suggest that perhaps the gap between history and folklore is a matter of degree.  The names of kings were recorded, attested to, and corroborated by multiple contemporary scholars, but sometimes the kingdoms they ruled, or the grand cities they built only reside in impoverished memory.  That a Breton Prince Gradlon ruled the realm of Cornouaille in Brittany in the 5th Century, perhaps we can agree.  The spotlight of history swept across him if but for an instance.  Gradlon’s glorious and wicked City of Ys?  Sadly, ‘tis but a folktale.  We blinked, and missed it’s rise and fall, failed to record its sad tale until generations later, forced to rely on hearsay and oral tradition, rather than the security of pen and parchment.  The City of Ys sunk beneath the waves of the Baie de Douarnenez, forever drowned in a tide of unreality.  How odd a thing, existence.  Gradlon existed because he caught our eye and was recorded.  His city of Ys never existed because…well, because it emerged only later as a tale told by fools.  Let us not forget that the jester has always been allowed to speak truth to power in the guise of myth.

In the 5th Century A.D., King Gradlon the Great (Gradlon Meur) ruled the tiny kingdom of Cornouaille in the southwest of France’s Breton peninsula.  Alert readers may note the similarity between “Cornouaille” and “Cornwall”, which is no coincidence, as the independent principality of Cornouaille is thought to have been founded by Cornish princes fleeing the Anglo-Saxon invasions of England that commenced in the 5th Century, as the glory that was Rome started to fray at the edges.  Gradlon was the eldest son of Conan Meriadoc (born 305 A.D.) by his second wife, St. Darerca.  Conan expected to inherit the Kingdom of Wales, until he was usurped by his cousin, who cunningly married the sister of Roman senator Magnus Maximus, a minor member of the Roman Imperial family and ostensible High King of Britain.  Sucking up his demotion, Conan helped Maximus subdue Armorica (modern Brittany) and was rewarded with the governership of Armorica & Dumnonia, Armorica passing to his son Gradlon, and Dumnonia (Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, and Dorset) to his other son Gadeon.  Gradlon, raised as a Celtic pagan, fell in love with a mysterious half-fairy, who felt spurned when he converted to Christianity and came to rely heavily on the wise counsel of St. Gwenole.  Hell hath no fury like that of a half-fairy scorned.   Although the final fall of the Western Roman Empire is usually dated to about 476 A.D., the dissolution of Roman authority in the provinces was already well underway by the time of Gradlon.  Say what you want about the Roman Empire, but one thing is certain – they did like to write at length about their relative awesomeness and they loved them some history.  Your average barbarian Hun, Goth, or Vandal was far more concerned with stomping Roman heads than he was in documenting his reasons for doing so.  Consequently, we had ourselves a Dark Ages in Europe, and it was during those few years before everything completely came apart that Gradlon came to power in Brittany.  With the close of Classical Antiquity hard upon them, the Romans were less inclined towards serious ethnographic work, as they were distinctly busy not dying and retreating into the Italian heartland, so while we know from various Roman and church sources that Gradlon existed, much of what we hear about him are mythological reconstructions derived from oral traditions about a cultural hero.  It would be a serious mistake to regard mythology as untruth, since narrative is not necessarily a lie, rather an overlay of flow on remembered pasts.  In this sense, all history is mythological, but many historians will still maintain that you better have paper to prove it.

Whilst it is certain that Gradlon really existed, much that is recorded of him is untrue; for the compilers of romances and legends associated him with all sorts of marvellous things, notably the notorious lost city of Ys, which he was said to have founded on the jutting headland bounding the Bay of Douarnenez on its southern side. Ys may have existed, and have been submerged by the sea, as the legends assert; but that it was destroyed by Heaven in consequence of the profligacy of Gradlon’s court, and notably that of his daughter Aes, is quite another matter. We only know that when Gradlon died he was buried at Landevennec, where, according to Brother Albert of Morlaix, the biographer of the Breton saints, his tomb still existed early in the seventeenth century. He had a son, named Riwelen Mur Marc’hou, who predeceased him; and about 510, when he had been dead some four or five years, his State passed, it seems, into the possession of a chief called Iaun Reith, the leader of another exodus from Britain (Vizitelly, 1902, p65-66).

Gradlon is given the right to exist, but sadly his fabled City of Ys (also called “Is” or “Ker-Is”) is not accredited with such distinction, a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah of the Breton coast that went the way of Avalon, Hy-Brasil, or Atlantis, accorded a place in the dusty recesses of memory, but ruthlessly yanked from the stage of reality.  The historian knows these things.  To this day, the Breton is not so easily convinced.  “And if you should go to Audierne in Brittany today, to that grim and rocky coast by the Bay of the Dead, you will always see two black crows together. The Breton peasants, crossing themselves, will tell you that the two black crows are the souls of the princess and her lover. At Troquer you would see, on the shore, great hewn blocks of stone which were once part of the palaces of Ys, and beneath the water, at low tide, the foundations of the walls and of the palaces of this lost and drowned city. And you might hear—who knows?—the trampling of Gradlon’s horse in the night and glimpse the pale, lost souls hovering on the shore of the Bay of the Dead, drowned souls awaiting their passage across the bay” (Hill, 1934, p79-80).  While Gradlon is well thought of, his City of Ys, built for his beloved daughter Dahut, was imagined to be a profiligate and dissolute den of iniquity (at least by Medieval standards, when in fact it was probably no worse than say, Reno, Nevada).  It is said that the angry half-fairy that was Gradlon’s first love determined to have her revenge by possessing Dahut and driving her to wickedness in the beautiful city Gradlon built for her by her beloved seacoast. Degenerate parties, wild orgies, and all manner of disturbing behavior ensued, apparently so extreme that those divine moralists in the sky concluded a severe smiting was in order.

The legend of the submerged city of Ys, or Is, is perhaps the most romantic and imaginative effort of Breton popular legend. Who has not heard of the submerged bells of Ys, and who has not heard them ring in the echoes of his own imagination? This picturesque legend’ tells us that in the early days of the Christian epoch the city of Ys, or Ker-is, was ruled by a prince called Gradlon, surnamed Meur, which in Celtic means ‘the Great.’ Gradlon was a saintly and pious man, and acted as patron to Gwennole, founder and first abbot of the first monastery built in Armorica. But, besides being a religious man, Gradlon was a prudent prince, and defended his capital of Ys from the invasions of the sea by constructing an immense basin to receive the overflow of the water at high tide. This basin had a secret gate, of which the King alone possessed the key, and which he opened and closed at the necessary times. Gradlon, as is so often the case with pious men, had a wayward child, the princess Dahut, who on one occasion while her father was sleeping gave a secret banquet to her lover, in which the pair, excited with wine, committed folly after folly, until at last it occurred to the frivolous girl to open the sluice-gate. Stealing noiselessly into her sleeping father’s chamber she detached from his girdle the key he guarded so jealously and opened the gate. The water immediately rushed in and submerged the entire city. But, as usual, there is more than one version of this interesting legend. The city of Ys, says another account, was a place rich in commerce and the arts, but so given over to luxury as to arouse the ire of St. Gwennole, who, in the manner of Jeremiah, foretold its ruin. It was situated where now a piece of water, the Etang de Laval, washes the desolate shores of the Bay of Trespasses—though another version of the tale has it that it stood in the vast basin which now forms the Bay of Douarnenez. A strong dike protected it from the ocean, the sluices only admitting sufficient water for the needs of the town. Gradlon constantly bore round his neck a silver key which opened at the same time the vast sluices and the city gates. He lived in great state in a palace of marble, cedar, and gold, and his only grief was the conduct of his daughter Dahut, who, it is said, “had made a crown of her vices and taken for her pages the seven capital sins.” But retribution was at hand, and the wicked city met with sudden destruction, for one night Dahut stole the silver key for the purpose of opening the city gates to admit her lover, and in the darkness by mistake opened the sluices. King Gradlon was awakened by St. Gwennole, who commanded him to flee, as the torrent was reaching the palace. He mounted his horse, and, taking his worthless daughter behind him, set off at a gallop, the incoming flood seething and boiling at his steed’s fetlocks. The torrent was about to overtake and submerge him when a voice from behind called out: “Throw the demon thou carriest into the sea, if thou dost not desire to perish.” Dahut at that moment fell from the horse’s back into the water, and the torrent immediately stopped its course. Gradlon reached Quimper safe and sound, but nothing is said as to his subsequent career (Spence, 1917, p184-186) .

Interestingly, similar memories were preserved in Cornwall.  Keep in mind the close connection between Cornwall and Cornouaille.  A distinct correspondence is notable between the City of Ys and the Arthurian tale of the fate of the Kingdom of Lyonnesse.  Corroborating mythologies are rarely afforded the same status as corroborating histories, but isn’t a shared dream also a curious thing.

It is, however, a singular fact, that a somewhat similar tradition—viz., of a part of the extreme west portion of the ancient Celtic division of Cornouaille, adjoining that of the Leonais in Armorica, having been submerged—is still preserved in that district . Between Guilvenec and Penmarch the pilots on that coast still endeavour to point out, at a depth of twenty feet beneath the surface of the ocean, Druidical altars, the remains of the submerged city of Ys. Even until the commencement of the present century the priests and all the people of that part of the coast annually assembled to embark in their boats, and proceed to where the priest offered Christian sacrifice over the spot where the city of Ys is believed to have stood. Probably in Europe these were the last ceremonies offered for heathen ancestors, and the most marked continuance of rites commenced under a heathen priesthood. It will be seen from this detail that there is not only the country of Lionais, but also that of Cornwall, as ancient divisions of Brittany. In the former the site of King Arthur’s palace is pointed out, also the island of Aiguilon, where they say he was buried, and the site of the castle of Launcelot-du-lac and La Blonde Yseult on the banks of the Elorn. In the next Celtic division to Cornwall, in the Morbihan, is shown the forest of Brocelinde, where Merlin “drees his weird ;” and there also is the consecrated fountain of Balanton, which is still believed to possess miraculous properties. There also may be found Caradoc and Madoc, and other names familiar to the ancient legends of British history (Leslie, 1866, p11-12).

While the City of Ys may have sunk into the ocean and its history sunk into mythology, Bretons not so burdened by the need for profane verification, not schooled in the measured disbelief of the academic who demands the identity papers of every monster and mystery, will “point out the site of this fabulous city and the fishermen tell you strange tales. On days of tempest they assure you they see in the trough of the waves the peaks of its church spires. On calm days they hear rising from its depths the sound of its bells intoning the hymn of the day” (Mosher, 1920, p138).  One day, this endless historical rave may end, the houselights will come up, and we can look at the great and grotesque, side by side, swaying drunkenly to the fading music of our memory.

Hill, Edwin Conger, b. 1884. The Human Side of the News. New York city: W.J. Black, 1934.
Leslie, Forbes. The Early Races of Scotland and Their Monuments. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1866.
Mosher, Ange McKay Mrs., 1835-1918. The Spell of Brittany. New York: Duffield and company, 1920.
Spence, Lewis, 1874-1955. Legends And Romances of Brittany. London: G. G. Harrap and company, 1917.
Vizetelly, Ernest Alfred, 1853-1922. Bluebeard: an Account of Comorre the Cursed And Gilles De Rais, With Summaries of Various Tales And Traditions. London: Chatto & Windus, 1902.