Friday, November 9, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

All cultures have folklore that tells of the psychopomp. This figure is the guide to the dead who, often quite literally, harvests souls and takes them to the next world. Sometimes the psychopomp is no more than a harbinger, like the willow-the-wisp that floats above the swamp and, when seen, foretells death. More often, though, the psychopomp has a personality of his or her own. He or she not only takes the soul to its perdition or reward, but it chooses who shall die and who shall live. Sometimes, too, the psychopomp has a bit of a temper.

All this is the case in Celtic legend. Many of the psychopomps of the Celts, who covered territory from the Iberian Peninsula to the British Isles, remain in various forms. One such is the Ankou, a Death figure who is best known in the French province of Brittany.

The Bretons, much like the Irish and Welsh in Great Britain, held on to their Celtic culture well into the 19th century. Even their language was colored by ancient Celtic. So much so that Paul Gauguin, who painted in the region for a short time, complained that he could hardly understand the local farmers at all. And it was among those locals that the legends of the Ankou were whispered, and are still considered to this day.

The Ankou, or rightly Ankous, of Brittany are generally imagined as tall, skeletal men who are seen only at night. They wear either a long, monkish robe or old work clothes and often the wide-brimmed hat curious to the Breton regions. The Ankou plods along next to a rickety cart pulled by one or three skinny and invariably black horses. More often than not, the Ankou carries a scythe. In most of the mythology, each cemetery in Brittany has its own Ankou.

It is not hard to imagine that the scythe is for reaping the dead, and the cart is for hauling the souls off to eternity.

The Ankou, it is important to note, is never thought of as Death in the flesh - or lack thereof. He - and the Ankou is always male - is considered to be only Death's assistant. In almost all stories he is sent to collect the dead soul, not angered or displeased to the point of killing someone outright as some psychopomps can be.

Various origin stories surround the Ankou but the two most prominent are that he is Cain, the fratricidal son of Adam and Eve who was, according to mythology, doomed to walk the Earth for eternity. More commonly though, the Ankou is said to be either the last or first to die in any given year, returned in a new form to collect the souls of his friends, family and neighbors.

The Ankou can also be a harbinger of death to come. When he is seen on the road, the person who sights him is considered a lost soul. Time and place are important to these sightings. The closer the Ankou is to the cemetery when seen, the sooner the seer will die. Those who see the Ankou at dusk or dawn may have years yet to live. But woe to those who are out late at night; in the blackness of midnight, the Ankou is an omen of sudden and virtually immediate death.

Legend has it that the creaking of the Ankou's ungreased cart wheels, though not necessarily foretelling death, is a sure portent of ill luck. And not a soul in Brittany would peak past the curtains once the sun had set. Why, after all, tempt the Ankou and fate?

Header: Medieval carving from La Roche-Maurice in Brittany thought to be a depiction of the Ankou via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

Well, if nothing else, it's a good way to keep the kids in house after dark, Pauline...

Pauline said...

You can only imagine what Breton moms must have said: "Don't you go out there, Gauline! The Ankou will get you!"