The Ankou – the most terrifying figure in Celtic folklore?

Before the Grim Reaper, there was the Ankou…

Known as the Ankou (Breton), Ankow (Cornish) or Angau (Welsh) this Celtic legend is most prolific in the region of Brittany, where (if you keep your eyes peeled) you can still spot him haunting many of the churches and cathedrals today. The Ankou is a defiant remnant of Pagan influence surviving as a stowaway in the stone-work of Christian buildings.

It is said that every graveyard in Brittany has its own Ankou. He is the last soul to die in the village before the stroke of midnight that year. Doomed to stay another year longer upon this earth as guardian of the graveyard, until another soul takes his place.

Depiction of an Ankou hanging out on a church roof in Finistère, Brittany. Via Yann Seitek on Flickr

‘No sentiment is so strong with the Breton as their affection and veneration for the dead… With these people the veil which separates the real from the marvellous is very slight.’

from ‘the Spell of Brittany’ – ange m. mosher (1920)

So if you’re walking around graveyards in Brittany, Cornwall or Wales, it’s probably best to avoid anyone matching this description:

  • A tall man
  • Dresses in black
  • Thin and/or skeletal looking
  • Has white hair under a wide-brimmed black hat
  • Holds a scythe 
  • Might be dragging a wheelbarrow or riding in a horse-drawn cart with squeaking wheels
  • The coach may be pulled by two horses, one fat and the other emaciated 
  • Might have one or two ghostly mates with him

If you hear the sound of a shrieking owl just before spotting him, then definitely get away from there.

Although, saying that, seeing him at all may mean your death warrant is sealed…

Here’s a translation of the original legend of the Ankou, to explain further:

‘It was a night in June, when the Breton leave the horses out all night. A young man had taken his horses to the fields. He was whistling on his way back, for the night was clear and the moon was shining. He heard a coach coming towards him on the road; a coach whose badly-greased axle went “squeak, squeak.” He was sure it was the coach of death. “At last I’ll be able to see that coach with my own eyes,” he thought. And he crossed the ditch and hid in a clump of hazels, so that he could see without being seen. 

The coach came into view. It was drawn by three white horses harnessed one behind the other. Two men accompanied it, each dressed in black and wearing wide-brimmed felt hats. One of them led the first horse by the bridle, the other was standing up in the front of the coach.

As the coach came opposite the hazel clump where the young man was hiding, its axle went “crack.” 

“Stop!” said the man on the coach, to the one who was leading the horses.

The man cried “Whoa!” and the team came to a halt.

“The axle pin’s just broken,” said the Ankoù. “Go and cut what you need to make a new one from that hazel clump over there.” 

“I’m lost,” thought the young man, who right then regretted his indiscreet curiosity very much. However, he was not punished there and then.

The coachman cut off a branch, shaped it, inserted it into the axle, and then the horses and coach went on their way.

The young man was able to return home safe and sound; but, towards morning, he was taken with an unknown fever, and they buried him the next day.”

This translation of ‘The Coach of the Dead’, was first recorded by Breton poet and folklorist Anatole Le Braz in 1890*, though of course, the actual legend is much older, but was until this point, handed down the generations through oral tradition.

Le Braz made the Ankou famous, in his work La Légende de la mort or “The Legend of the Dead” detailing the traditions and stories of death and the otherworld in Breton folklore. Le Braz was part of a wider trend in the late Victorian period in reviving Celtic folklore. He grew up speaking Breton as his mother-tongue, with parents who didn’t speak French and it is said that Le Braz often entertained local peasants at his home, recording their songs and stories for his research.

An Ankou figure in a church in Ploumilliau, Brittany. Via Melina1965 on Flickr.

The figure of the Ankou is particularly curious to me due to him being the soul of a man held against his will on Earth. This gives him a level of complexity as a character, obviously a source of great Fear but also of pity. The most terrifying fate to me seems to be made an Ankou, rather than being taken by one.

I hope you enjoyed finding out more about this ghostly and terrifying legend. Do you agree that this Celtic legend makes the Grim Reaper look pretty simplistic in comparison?

Bibliography and further reading:

  • L’Ankou illustration by Guillaime Delacour. http://delacourbd.blogspot.com/2014/02/nouvelles-illustrations.html
  • The Legend of Death – Anatole Le Braz (1893)
  • The Spell of Brittany – Ange M Mosher (1920)
  • Legends from Brittany – Brett H. Furth (2004). [Transcript from the University of Wisconsin lecture]
  • * The translation of ‘The Coach of Death’ was obtained from Furth’s transcript, and has been modified by Furth himself.

Published by lizzbythesea

Blogging all things coastal and magical. Fantasy writer.

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