What is the symbolism of the ankou in Breton folklore? What is the task of the soul-giving Grim Reaper in the Breton legends ? Is she a messenger of death?
Whether you’re Breton or not, welcome to Skull World! Death, its symbols and allegories are our favorite subjects. And the Breton Grim Reaper is no exception. We’re going to look at his case today. 🤓
In this article, we will take a detailed look together at who Grim Reaper Ankou is. What role does he play in the Breton stories as well as his task. We will also talk about his looks and his « powers ». After reading this article you will know perfectly how to explain to everyone who the Ankou is in Brittany, as well as its mission.
Let’s start together!
Ankou: Cult of Death
The ankou is the personification of death at the heart of Breton mythology and folklore . It is recognized in the French region of Brittany. Nonetheless, its origins are said to derive from remnants of the ancient kingdom of the same name and even Celtic heritage. The Eelle is considered the protector of the deceased, but also a bad omen for the living. She has also inspired many modern works and stories.
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Soul Mediator of Breton Legends
Originally, the ankou was described as a being whose job it was to continue the eternal cycle that alternates between life and death . To bind these, she wielded a hammer, much like Sucellus, the Gallic god of nature. Her modus operandi also resembles Dagda, the Irish god of druids and the dead land, as well as other Celtic deities with similar attributes.
However, over the centuries, the ankou became associated only with death , and gradually came to be equated with the great grim reaper we mentioned just above. His name is the plural form of « anken », which means » fear » or » sorrow » in Breton . By the way, in some folk songs he is referred to as her father. Because yes, it can also be a man. Another interpretation connects it with «ankouaat» («forgotten»). In Wales it is known as Anghau and in Cornwall (a former department of Lower Britain) as Ankow.
The ankou appears in many fairy tales that have been passed down through lore, meaning its appearance varies from fairy tale to fairy tale. He rides upright in a squeaky cart (like those used in the Middle Ages) to collect the corpses. This is indeed what he does with dead souls. He is always described as a tall, slender figure dressed in black Breton clothing and wearing a large hat that almost obscures his face. He wields a scythe, the blade facing outwards to slash forward.
Sometimes he is said to look like a living shadow with the silhouette of a man, sometimes he is said to be a skeleton. His head always turns like a wind vane, so that no dead man can escape his scythe. Some describe his ugly face, without a nose, with empty eye sockets revealing white candles. Although his most common portrait reflects a tall, gaunt man with long white hair and a gaunt, gaunt face, wearing a black cloak or cloak .
It is said that his cart was drawn by two horsesbeing raised, one of whom is perfectly healthy and the other thin and ailing. Sometimes some speak of four horses, others of a single one that looks rather thin. The Ankou is also said to be followed by two ghostly figures who walk alongside his chariot, driving his horses and helping him transport the dead souls.
Ankou Der Diener des Todes
The Ankou only wanders the streets of Brittany at night, but is said to manifest itself in statues bearing its likeness in cemeteries. He has full control over the souls of the deceased who depend on him. He leads them in sacred processions. He is said to rule the Monts d’Arrée in the Armorican mountains and have influence on the other side of Death’s veil. ☠️
Despite this fact, he is seen as a servant of death rather than death itself. He is a kind of undead who must protect the souls of the deceased. He must guide her into the afterlife for a period of time before entering the afterlife himself. It is sometimes said that there is more than one ankou, one for each community.
Ankou, der Bote des Todes
Although the ankou is always described as a grown man, this role is assigned to the last dead of the year (sometimes the first), who must watch over his community until relieved. When he is described as the last dead of the year, it is said that the first to become his ghostly acolytes. Another, less common source states that the Ankou was a tyrannical prince . He lost a challenge through death and was sentenced to eternal servitude. 🙏
The people who drive to the sea speak of the « Bag Noz« , the boat of the night piloted by the last drowning man of the year. He sails the seas at night to collect the souls of the drowned and take them to the afterlife, just like the Ankou does on Earth. It is said to appear where an ominous event is about to happen. The shape of the boat was never described. Its crew let out heartrending wails, but disappear as soon as anyone gets too close.
The ankou never brings bad luck to anyone. He is always polite, especially to the people he wants to fetch. And even when he’s angry, he’s content with mild rebukes. He only follows his duty and does not bother with requests or promises of rewards. There is no escaping death no matter how hard one tries, and the ankou never fails to remind all he meets of it.in folklore Breton
Stories in Breton folklore
It is said that the ankou roams cemeteries, watching over the dead souls that dwell there. When his wagon is empty, he loads it with heavy stones. Then he takes away a few stones every time he picks up a soul. For example, it is believed that if you hear the sound of a falling stone during a wake, you know that the Ankou is preparing his chariot for the soul of the deceased. Some also say that he sharpens his scythe on a human bone . 🦴
He is the protective guardian of the dead, but also a harbinger of death and a symbol of the fear of death of the living. It is said that he knocks on the door of houses where someone is about to die. He will sometimes emit a warning or a menacing moan similar to that of a banshee. He rarely uses his scythe to decide life, as its mere presence is often deadly.
In most tales, when the ankou encounters people, he merely reminds them (albeit in a disturbing way) that death is inevitable for everyone , regardless of age, wealth, or political power. In darker tales, seeing him, speaking to him, or just crossing his path dooms people to impending death. Anyone who hears their car squeaking is said to die very soon or lose a loved one. The closer the squeak comes, the closer the time of death. 👀
According to legend , the Ankou waits in every home to claim the life of the first creature that enters it – be it an animal or an egg about to hatch. For this reason, in the Brittany municipality of Quimperlé, it is a tradition to sacrifice a rooster and splatter its blood on the foundations of every house under construction.
On Christmas Eve, which the Bretons call the « Night of Miracles », the Ankou anonymously roams the crowds attending midnight mass. Then he touches on all those who will die before the new year. However, death by the ankou is not always a bad omen. In most stories, those who have met him are given enough time to arrange their final deals and inheritances before he comes and takes their lives. Some even say that the ankou only shows itself to those who are about to die, and that seeing it is more of a warning than doom.
Ankou and Norse Mythology
There are quite a few fairy tales that feature the Grim Reaper of Britain. Let’s look at some of these fairy tales.
1) The blocked road
In this story three brothers come home from a party in the evening. Being quite drunk, they decide to prank a car driving on the nearby road by blocking it with a dead tree. Later that night, they are awakened by someone banging violently on their door and ordering them to remove the tree blocking their path. He knows they put him there. Then the three brothers open the door but find nothing. Still, no matter how hard they try, they cannot close them. They ask who is there and what they want, and hear a menacing voice ordering them to return to the path they blocked.
The frightened brothers obey without question. They discover that the stranger is none other than the Ankou himself. He explains to them that they will all die an hour early because he lost an hour of his time because of their prank. He adds that they are lucky they obeyed immediately, otherwise they would have cost him a year of their life for every minute he lost the ankou to their prank. 😵
There is a variant of this fairy tale where three drunk brothers (or friends) come home in the evening and come across the Ankou they don’t recognize. Two of them start cursing the stranger and throw stones at him until one of them breaks the spoke of a wheel on his cartbreaks. As the two run away, the third, ashamed of the actions of his comrades (as well as his own), cuts a branch from a tree and gives it to the stranger to repair his cart. Then he also gives his shoelaces to tie him. In the morning, the first two retrouvés morts tandis que les cheveux du troisième sont devenus blancs.
2) The Chariot of Death
This fairy tale tells the story of a young man who one night recognizes the Ankou’s creaking wagon. But instead of fleeing, he decides to hide so he can see the omen of death with his own eyes without being noticed. As the cart passes him, a spoke on its wheels breaks and the Ankou orders one of his ghostly helpers to retrieve a branch from the bush the young man is hiding in to fix it. The Ankou does not notice the young man, but he still pays the price for his daring curiosity, because he catches a fever and dies the next day.
3) The Ankou and the Blacksmith
This tale is about Fanch ar Floc’h , a skilled blacksmith who works constantly because he always takes on more tasks than he can handle. During Christmas Eve, he decides not to attend midnight mass in order to complete his most important task. He asks his wife and children to pray for him, and they warn him that he must stop work at all costs before the midnight hour chimes lest he be cursed. 😈
Unfortunately, Fanch is so engrossed in his task that he doesn’t hear the bell and continues to work. Then someone dressed in black knocksstranger, whose hat is obscuring his face, at his door and informs him that the bell has already rung. The stranger asks Fanch to fix his scythe. Fanch complies, though wonders why his blade is pointed outward, with no response from the distant stranger.
When this is done, the stranger turns out to be the Ankou who has come to claim the life of the one who neglected the Night of Miracles . Since Fanch has his scythe repaired, the Ankou allows him to wait until his family returns to bid them farewell and request a priest before returning to retrieve his soul.
If you fancy paying homage to the legend of Ankou that still walks among us, check out our best rings featuring this living (or dead) legend!
To continue with the folkloric mythologies, discover the full story of the Mexican Catrina .