A Sunken City of Ys

(I found a book about Death legends in Brittany, and I couldn’t resist. Then I encountered a chapter all about a sunken city I had never heard of…and I just had to explore it. Come with me on this trip to the sunken City of Is.)

One night, some sailors from Douarnenez were moored in the bay, fishing. When they had finished, they went to haul up the anchor, but all their unified efforts could not bring it up. The anchor had gotten stuck. To free it, one of the sailors, a strong diver, let himself slip down the length of the chain. 

When he returned to the surface, he said to his companions, “Guess what our anchor was stuck on!”

“Well, obviously, some rock.”

“No. The framework of a window.”

The fishermen thought he had gone crazy.

“Yes,” he continued, “and it was a church window!  It was all lit up. The light shining from it illuminated the deep sea for a long ways. I looked through the stained glass window and saw a crowd gathered in the church.  A lot of men and women with rich clothes.  A priest was standing at the altar.  I heard him asking a choir boy a question, in the middle of holding mass. 

“That’s not possible!” cried the sailors.

“I swear it on my soul!”

It was agreed they would go tell the rector. And that is what they did.

The rector said to the sailor who had dived down: “What you saw was the cathedral of Is.  If you had gone up to the priest in order to listen to his mass, the entire city of Is would have risen again from the waves and France would have a new capital.”

(Told by Prosper Pierre, Douarnenez, 1887).


(One of the pleasures and hazards of folklore is how tied to a sense of Place they are, and how they figure people that may or may not have really lived. For a full exploration of this folktale’s setting and characters, see my notes.)

The City of Is extended from Douarnenez to Port-Blanc.  The Seven-Isles are some of its ruins.  The city’s most beautiful church was located where today stand the reefs of the Triagoz.  That is why they are still called the Trew-gêr.

In the rocks of Saint-Gildas, when the nights are clear and beautiful, one can hear a siren sing.  She is the siren Ahès, the daughter of King Grallon*.

Sometimes, too, bells chime far out at sea.  You will never hear a more melodious chiming than the ringing of the bells of Is.


( I told myself that translating two folktales about Is/Ys would be enough, but then I tripped and committed another.)

A woman from Plumeur-Bodou, having descended to the shore to fetch water from the sea in order to cook her meal, suddenly saw an immense portico surge out of the water before her. 

She stepped within the colonnade and found herself in a splendid city.  The streets were lined with lit shops.  In the shop windows, fine fabrics were displayed.  Her eyes went wide, taking it all in, and she walked along, mouth agape in admiration, amidst all these riches.

The merchants were standing on the thresholds of their doors. 

As she passed by them, they cried: “Buy something from us! Buy something from us!”

She was stunned, distraught.

At last, she ended up responding to one of them: “How do you want me to buy something from you? I haven’t a penny in my pocket.”

“Well then! That’s a great pity,” said the merchant. “By purchasing even a ha’penny’s worth of merchandise, you would have saved us all.”

Barely had he spoken than the city disappeared.

The woman found herself alone on the shore.  She was so shocked by this occurrence that she fainted. Some customs officials making their rounds transported her home.  Two weeks later, she died.

(Recounted by Lise Bellec.  –Port-Blanc.)

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