The Ankou of Brittany

(Originally posted on Patreon and Twitter, September through October, 2021).

The following is a translation of the article “L’Ankou, l’ouvrier de la mort” serialized on Twitter:

“In Brittany, Death is personified by a fearsome being called the Ankou. The Ankou isn’t exactly ‘Death itself’ but a servant of Death (oberour ar marv) that labors for him.

This equivalent of the grim reaper in other popular traditions is particular to Brittany, where the Ankou is himself a man who died the previous year.

Definition of the Ankou: More than the fact that he consists of a man, the Ankou is different from a grim reaper in many respects.

The Ankou is a skeleton dressed like laborers from Lower-Brittany, wearing a chupenn (vest) and black bragoù braz (a type of puffy pants), and he wears a large, beribboned felt hat over his long white hair.

His gaunt head turns ceaselessly around his cervical vertebrae, looking for the living whom he has a mission to destroy.

He is armed with a scythe, but curiously it is fitted opposite to how scythes normally are, its sharpened edge pointing outwards in order to take lives when he sweeps out his arm.

This he sharpens on human bones.

Who, then, is the Ankou?

The Ankou is not a single being, as an Ankou exists in every parish, and moreover, in every parish the Ankou changes every year. It is the soul of the last to die in the year, who, in each parish, fulfills for a year the functions of the Ankou.

He piles up his victims in a dilapidated and squeaky horse-drawn cart (karriguel an Ankou). The squeaking of the Ankou’s cart is a sign of imminent death within the parish.

The numerous legends of death in Brittany have been collected by Anatole le Braz in his work “The Legend of Death.” There you will find stories of the Ankou, legends of the precursors of death, and other tales of death in Brittany.

In La légende de la mort chez les Bretons Amoricains by Anatole Le Braz, chapter fourteen, see the second footnote on this page:

If you have the courage to hide in the back of the ossuary during midnight mass, you’ll see the Ankou who will come to tell you the name of the people in your parish who will die in the next year.

In a tradition of Morbihan, the Ankou touches with his finger those who will die during the year. In order to see him, you must fast the previous evening until the first nine stars appear and keep your finger submersed in the holy water’s basin.

One man, who met the required conditions and who saw the Ankou coming towards him, tried to flee from the church, but the water of the stoup had frozen and he couldn’t extract his finger. (P.M Lavenot, Revue des traditions populaires, t. VIII, p. 569)

pXXXIII, serialized on Twitter:

(In describing the statues decorating Breton church ossuaries:) Certain of these stone or wooden Ankous are well-known in their regions: there is the Ankou of Bulat, the one in Ploumilliau, the one in Cléden-Poher, in Roche-Maurice, in Landivisiau–and there I’ll move on.

The Ankou of Ploumilliau has sat for a long time upon his throne above the altar of the dead, within the church itself, and, from all the parishes round about, people have come to pray to him, some bringing him offerings.

On the column of granite that rises about the gaunt skull of the Ankou of Landivisiau lies this ironic epigraph: “But here, I am the godfather — Of the one who will meet their end.”

If you’ve enjoyed this series of folklore translations and would like to support my further translation endeavors, please feel free to support my work on Patreon.

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