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Hallowe'en Traditions in Brittany

The Celts had been taught by the Druids that the soul is immortal. When the body died the spirit passed instantly into another existence in a country close at hand.
In the fourth century A.D., the men of England were hard pressed by the Picts and Scots from the northern border, and were helped in their need by the Teutons. When this tribe saw the fair country of the Britons they decided to hold it for themselves. After they had driven out the northern tribes, in the fifth century, when King Arthur was reigning in Cornwall, they drove out those whose cause they had fought.

So the Britons were scattered to the mountains of Wales, to Cornwall, and across the Channel to Armorica, a part of France, which they named Brittany after their home-land. In lower Brittany, out of the zone of French influence, a language something like Welsh or old British is still spoken, and many of the Celtic beliefs were retained more untouched than in Britain, not clear of paganism till the seventeenth century. Here especially did Christianity have to adapt the old belief to her own ends.

Gaul, as we have seen from Caesar's account, had been one of the chief seats of Druidical belief. The religious center was Carnutes, now Chartrain.

The pagan belief that lasted the longest in Brittany, and is by no means dead yet, was the cult of the dead. Caesar said that the Celts of Gaul traced their ancestry from the god of death, whom he called Dispater. Now figures of l'Ankou, a skeleton armed with a spear, can be seen in most villages of Brittany.

This mindfulness of death was strengthened by the sight of the prehistoric cairns of stones on hilltops, the ancient altars of the Druids, and dolmens, formed of one flat rock resting like a roof on two others set up on end with a space between them, ancient tombs; and by the Bretons being cut off from the rest of France by the nature of the country, and shut in among the uplands, black and misty in November, and blown over by chill Atlantic winds. Under a seeming dull indifference and melancholy the Bretons conceal a lively imagination, and no place has a greater wealth of legendary literature.

What fairies, dwarfs, pixies, and the like are to the Celts of other places, the spirits of the dead are to the Celts of Brittany. They possess the earth on Christmas, St. John's Day, and All Saints'. In Finistere, that western point of France, there is a saying that on the Eve of All Souls' "There are more dead in every house than sands on the shore." The dead have the power to charm mortals and take them away, and to foretell the future. They must not be spoken of directly, any more than the fairies of the Scottish border, or met with, for fear of evil results.

By the Bretons of the sixth century the near-by island of Britain, which they could just see on clear days, was called the Otherworld. An historian, Procopius, tells how the people nearest Britain were exempted from paying tribute to the Franks, because they were subject to nightly summons to ferry the souls of the dead across in their boats, and deliver them into the hands of the keeper of souls. Farther inland a black bog seemed to be the entrance to an otherworld underground. One location which combined the ideas of an island and a cave was a city buried in the sea. The people imagined they could hear the bells of Ker-Is ringing, and joyous music sounding, for though this was a city of the dead, it resembled the fairy palaces of Ireland, and was ruled by King Grallon and his daughter Dahut, who could lure mortals away by her beauty and enchantments.

The approach of winter is believed to drive like the flocks, the souls of the dead from their cold cheerless graves to the food and warmth of home. This is why November Eve, the night before the first day of winter, was made sacred to them.

"When comes the harvest of the year
Before the scythe the wheat will fall."
--BOTREL: Songs of Brittany.
The harvest-time reminded the Bretons of the garnering by that reaper, Death. On November Eve milk is poured on graves, feasts and candles set out on the tables, and fires lighted on the hearths to welcome the spirits of departed kinsfolk and friends.

"We live with our dead," Say the Bretons. First on the Eve of All Souls' comes the religious service, "black vespers." The blessedness of death is praised, the sorrows and shortness of life dwelt upon. After a common prayer all go out to the cemetery to pray separately, each by the graves of his kin, or to the "place of bones," where the remains of those long dead are thrown all together in one tomb. They can be seen behind gratings, by the people as they pass, and rows of skulls at the sides of the entrance can be touched.

In these tombs are Latin inscriptions meaning: "Remember thou must die," "To-day to me, and to-morrow to thee," and others reminding the reader of his coming death.

A toast is drunk to the memory of the departed. The men sit about the fireplace smoking or weaving baskets; the women apart, knitting or spinning by the light of the fire and one candle. The children play with their gifts of apples and nuts. As the hour grows later, and mysterious noises begin to be heard about the house, and a curtain sways in a draught, the thoughts of the company already centred upon the dead find expression in words, and each has a tale to tell of an adventure with some friend or enemy who has died.

The dead are thought to take up existence where they left it off, working at the same trades, remembering their old debts, likes and dislikes, even wearing the same clothes they wore in life. Most of them stay not in some distant, definite Otherworld, but frequent the scenes of their former life. They never trespass upon daylight, and it is dangerous to meet them at night, because they are very ready to punish any slight to their memory, such as selling their possessions or forgetting the hospitality due them. L'Ankou will come to get a supply of shavings if the coffins are not lined with them to make a softer resting-place for the dead bodies.

The lively Celtic imagination turns the merest coincidence into an encounter with a spirit, and the poetic temperament of the narrators clothes the stories with vividness and mystery. They tell how the presence of a ghost made the midsummer air so cold that even wood did not burn, and of groans and footsteps underground as long as the ghost is displeased with what his relatives are doing.

Just before midnight a bell-man goes about the streets to give warning of the hour when the spirits will arrive.


"They will sit where we sat, and will talk of us as we talked of them: in the gray of the morning only will they go away."
--LE BRAZ: Night of the Dead.
The supper for the souls is then set out. The poor who live on the mountains have only black corn, milk, and smoked bacon to offer, but it is given freely. Those who can afford it spread on a white cloth dishes of clotted milk, hot pancakes, and mugs of cider.
After all have retired to lie with both eyes shut tight lest they see one of the guests, death-singers make their rounds, chanting under the windows:


"You are comfortably lying in your bed,
But with the poor dead it is otherwise;
You are stretched softly in your bed
While the poor souls are wandering abroad.
"A white sheet and five planks,
A bundle of straw beneath the head,
Five feet of earth above
Are all the worldly goods we own."
--LE BRAZ: Night of the Dead.
The tears of their deserted friends disturb the comfort of the dead, and sometimes they appear to tell those in sorrow that their shrouds are always wet from the tears shed on their graves. Wakened by the dirge of the death-singers the people rise and pray for the souls of the departed.

Divination has little part in the annals of the evening, but one in Finistere is recorded. Twenty-five new needles are laid in a dish, and named, and water is poured upon them. Those who cross are enemies.


Related Source:
"The Book of Hallowe'en" by Ruth Edna Kelley [1919] - (all rights reserved)

Ruth Edna Kelley (8 April 1893 - 4 March 1982) was an American librarian and author. She is chiefly remembered for The Book of Hallowe'en (1919), the first book-length history of the holiday.
Kelley was born in Massachusetts, the only child of Charles F. Kelley, a carpenter, and his wife Mary. She grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts, and received a master of arts degree. Her other book was A Life of Their Own (1947), which dealt with immortality and spirituality. Kelley died in Marblehead, Massachusetts at the age of 88. (Quote from wikipedia.org)
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