Translated from the article “Fées en Haute-Bretagne,” originally published in Le Magasin pittoresque in 1886. Reprinted online in La France pittoresque in January 2014.
In Upper Brittany, people often speak of faeries. In addition to the numerous legends told about them, several proverbs featuring faeries have lingered in contemporary conversation; people say “white as faerie linen” to denote linen of a brilliant white; “as beautiful as a faerie”1 to describe a preternatural beauty.
They are generally called “Fées” (Faeries), sometimes “Fêtes,” which is closer to the Latin “fata”2 than “fée” is; we would say “une Fête” for a female, “un Fête” for a male. “Fête” may be the basis of “Fuito” or “Faitaud,” which is the name for the fathers, husbands, or children of faeries (Saint-Cast). Near Saint-Briac (Ille-et-Vilaine), they are sometimes called “Fions”; this term, which can be applied to either sex, also seems to denote mischievous lutins3.
Near The Mené4, in the cantons of Collinée and Moncontour, they are called “Margot la Fée,” or “my godmother Margot,” or even “the good woman Margot.” On the coasts, they are often styled “good ladies” or “our good mothers the faeries”; in general, we speak of them with a certain regard.
The faeries were a beautiful people. However, among them there were ancients who appeared to be several centuries old; some had teeth as long as their hand, or their backs were covered in marine plants, mussels, or periwinkle shells: a way to denote their old age. At Saint-Cast it is said that faeries were garbed in cloth, although I was unable to obtain further details. In the interior of Brittany, people are more affirmative5; here is the written deposition I was given in 1880: “They were made like human creatures; their clothes had no seams or stitches, and you couldn’t tell which were men and which were women. When you saw them from far away, they looked as if they were wearing the most beautiful and shining clothing. When you came close, the beautiful colors disappeared. But on their head remained a type of cap in the shape of a crown which seemed to be a part of their person.” (Told by François Mallet du Gouray, a laborer)
On the coast, people claim that faeries belong to a cursed race, that they were condemned to remain on Earth for a certain length of time. Around The Mené and its canton of Collinée, the elderly said that during the angels’ rebellion, those who remained in paradise were divided into two groups: one took the side for the good God, the other remained neutral. This last group were sent to Earth for a time, and it was these half-fallen angels who became the faeries. A tale collected at Saint-Suliac by Mme de Cerny says that the faerie of Bec-du-Puy was exorcised by Saint-Suliac’s curé. No one saw anything, but a cry of pain was heard (Saint-Suliac and its legends).
In general, it is believed that faeries lived here once but that they disappeared in various eras depending on the region. In the interior of Brittany, near The Mené, from what I’ve personally heard, they haven’t lived here for more than a century. It’s the same around Ercé (Ille-et-Vilaine).
On the coast, where it is firmly believed that faeries once dwelt in the ocean swells and cliff grottoes, the general opinion is they left at the turn of the century. A number of people, now in their sixties, have heard their fathers and grandfathers say they had seen faeries. At present, I have only met one person who believed they still remain: she was an old seamstress from Saint Cast; she was so afraid of them that, when she went to sew at various farmsteads, she would take a long detour in order to avoid passing by a field known in that region as “the Faeries’ Convent” at nightfall.
The faeries have been gone since we first sounded the Angelus and sung the Credo; but as time moves on, religion will diminish, we will no longer sing the Credo, we will no longer sound the Angelus, and the faeries will return. The elderly said that they heard the older generations before them say there were faeries up until a certain period. Then the faeries had disappeared; but when a certain length of time had passed, they should return. They all left the same night; they will return the same night as well. I found the same belief, albeit more detailed, near Ercé-près-Liffré (Ille-et-Vilaine):
The faeries will return in the next century, since it is an odd number6. An invisible century, that is to say one where no spirits are seen, will be followed by a century in which they will be seen again.
1. The French phrase is “Belle comme une fée” which Mlle de La Force played off of in her 1698 fairy tale “Plus belle que Fée” (“More beautiful than Fae”) which was translated into the English title “Fairer than a Fairy.” ↩
2. An excerpt from the article “Contes de fées de Perrault et de Grimm : fées, ogres et magiciens d’origine indo-européenne ?” from the Revue de philologie française et provençale : recueil trimestriel consacré à l’étude des langues, dialectes et patois de France published in 1893 and reprinted in La France pittoresque says, “Les fées (fat-va, celle qui parle, qui révèle ; cf. fat-um, le destin considéré comme la révélation de l’avenir, -fans dans infans, celui qui ne parle pas, fa-ri, parler, etc.) qui résident auprès des fontaines sont les sœurs des nymphes, fatidiques comme elles, et qui, comme elles aussi, sont les habitantes des eaux. Les unes et les autres symbolisent les liqueurs du sacrifice et les crépitements prophétiques qu’elles font entendre quand elles se transforment en flammes sacrées.”
Translation: The faeries/Les fées (fat-va, one who speaks, who reveals; comparable to the Latin fat-um, the destiny considered as revelation about the future, -fans in “infant,” one who cannot speak, fa-ri, to speak, etc.) who reside near fountains are the sisters of the nymphs, oracular like them, and who, also like them, are the inhabitants of water. Both faeries and nymphs symbolize sacrificial wines and the prophetic crackling emanations when they transform into sacred flames.
(In other words, a faerie is one who reveals or one who speaks the future.) ↩
3. Lutins are hobgoblin-like creatures known for their small size, their mischief, and their love of women. However, they are thought to have originally been taller and connected to Greek water spirits. ↩
4. A community of 7 communes characterized by valleys, forests, and fields, located in Central-Brittany. ↩
5. The author is using law terminology (affirmative, written deposition) to give authority to this account. ↩
6. I am assuming he is counting starting from 1 with the 18th century when the faeries were presumably still around. ↩