The story of the City of Ys and its Queen Dahut is ancient indeed but it enjoyed a sort of Renaissance during the Romantic and Victorian period when poets and artists imagined the shining city in the sea and its beautiful Celtic mistress after their tragic fall. In fact the legend, even with the added baggage of Victorian moralizing, is instructive. It speaks to the changing perceptions that happen when one regime and its religion overthrow another.
Dahut was the lovely and spirited daughter of King Gradlon who ruled an empire along the rocky coast of French Brittany. Dahut was a devoted believer in the “old ways” in a time when Christianity was being “introduced” to her corner of the world. Later writers tag the time period as the reign of Charlemagne, which is not entirely unbelievable, but the legend existed before the Holy Roman Emperor started killing those who would not convert to the Christian faith en masse.
Gradlon fell under the tutelage of a wandering monk who introduced the King to Christ and convinced him to convert. Gradlon built a monastery in his capitol, much to his now nubile daughter’s dismay. She chastised him for his weakness, saying that abandoning his ancestral beliefs was like forgetting his family. Gradlon shrugged and gave her a “this is the way of the world” speech. What, he asked, would his daughter have him do.
Dahut quickly suggested that her father build her a city of her own, far out on the rocky promontory now known as Pointe du Raz. There she would rule over those who chose to follow the old religion and worship the gods of the sea while allowing her father to pursue his own path. Gradlon agreed and the City of Ys, sparkling like gold in the summer sun, was the result.
Now the Queen of Ys, Dahut and her followers retired to their city on the rocks where they lived happily on the bounty of the sea. As fall turned into winter, storms threatened Ys and it became abundantly clear that the city would not last through a truly devastating storm. Dahut, against her prior promise, went back to her father in the spring and asked him to build a mole around her rocky city to form a tranquil harbor and keep her people safe from storms.
At first Gradlon agreed but the monk who was now his constant companion advised otherwise. Damnation would be the only reward for the King if he gratified the pagan Dahut’s requests. Better to let the sea claim her and her city of sin. In the end, that would most please God. Fearing for his soul, Gradlon relented and denied his beloved daughter her safe harbor.
Dahut retaliated by returning to her city and calling up the ancient sea spirits known in Celtic Breton belief as the Korrigans. These watery sorceresses, in the form of mermaids, granted Dahut’s request to protect Ys in return for her fidelity to them and her promise never to have dealings with the mainland again. Dahut agreed, and for winter after winter – despite the rage of storm after storm – Ys remained safe in a magickal cocoon.
Unfortunately, though, Dahut began to believe that she was the source of her city’s magick. She stopped offering sacrifices to the Korrigans and turned to lustful pleasures. She began to have young, handsome men shipped in from her father’s kingdom for one night dalliances that ended with her lovers’ deaths. Finally she declared she was Queen of not just Ys but the very sea itself, placing herself above not only the Korrigans but their father, the Lord of the Waters.
This was more than the ancient Gods could stomach. Ys’ bubble literally burst and the Sea King came to claim his own. Even though King Gradlon tried, as the sea engulfed Ys, to save his daughter there was nothing he could do. Dahut was dragged down with her people and her city, never to be heard from again.
It seems to me that the story of the lost city of Ys, which is still told on the Breton coast, is cathartic. In a time when Celtic women, who were used to being equal to their men in both civil and religious law, were being asked (forced?) to become second class citizens (chattel?) by the newly arrived Roman law and Christian church, the story of a powerful pagan who got her comeuppance could be instructive for all parties. The new ruling class could put their own spin on the story but around the hearths in women’s kitchens, the reason Dahut was punished would be clear. She failed to keep faith with the ancestral spirits not by joining the new religion, but by making herself greater than the Gods.
Header: Pointe du Raz, Brittany, France via Wikimedia Commons