The legend of Death, Ankou

Ankou is a major figure of Breton mythology, very present in the oral tradition and the tales of lower Brittany. He does not represent death in itself, but his servant: his role is to collect the souls of the deceased.

La danse macabre de l’Ankou
Qu’ils soient simples paysans, nobles seigneurs, ou hommes d’Eglise, tous les hommes seront emportés par le serviteur de la Mort : les thèmes de l’Ankou et de la danse macabre sont extrêmement répandus en Bretagne.

He looks like a very tall and very thin old man or a skeleton covered with a shroud, holding in his hand a scythe mounted upside down to slice souls. He collects these souls in his cart or on his boat when he is on the coast.

It is sometimes said that whoever sees Ankou dies in the year; or that it will be the last dead person of December. It is also said that the first dead person of the year becomes his servant (komis an Ankou: "the assistant of Ankou" in Breton) to help him in his task.

Here is how Anatole Le Braz describes him in his collection of legends "La légende de la Mort" (the Legend of Death) (1893):
"The Ankou is the worker of death (oberour ar marv). The last dead person of the year, in each parish, becomes the Ankou of that parish for the following year. "

The Ankou travel by his creaking cart and collects the souls of the recent dead. This cart is called karr an Ankoù or karrig an Ankou, "char of the Ankou", or karrigell an Ankou "wheelbarrow, small cart". When a living person hears the sound of the cart (wig ha wag!), it is because they (or according to another version, one of their relative) will soon pass from life to death.

Le serviteur de la Mort, l’Ankou
L’Ankou parcours les chemins sur sa charrette grinçante, emportant ceux dont l’heure est venue à l’aide de sa faux dont le fer est monté à l’envers. Gare à ceux qui croisent son chemin…

People from the coastline speak about a boat, Bag noz (“the boat of night”), instead of the cart, in which Ankoù collects the "anaon", the souls of the deceased, that he transports towards the banks of the afterlife.

In both cases, he is holding a scythe in his palm. This one is different from the ordinary scythe, since it has an outwards turned edge. So the Ankou does not bring it back to himself when he is mowing; unlike what hay reapers and wheat reapers do, he throws it forward.

He is sometimes said to be the bearer of the “mell beniguet” (blessed mallet), used to hasten the death of the dying people.

In the Trégor, there are representations of the Ankou in Ploumilliau (statue dating from the 15th century, in the church), and in Pleumeur-Bodou (statue in the St Marc church on the Île-Grande, made in the 20th century and inspired by that of Ploumilliau)

Statue de l’Ankou à Pleumeur-Bodou
Statue de l’Ankou, visible dans l’église de l’Ile-Grande (Pleumeur-Bodou) : réalisée au XXe siècle, inspirée de la statue du 15e s. de Ploumilliau

In "La Légende de la mort chez les Bretons armoricains" (The legend of Death in the Armorican Bretons) (1893), Anatole Le Braz tells the story of Marie-Job Kerguénou, broker on the Île-Grande. The story tells that one night, while she was returning from Lannion, Marie-Job would have met an old man in distress on the side of a road. She helped him, and accompanied him to the cemetery of the Île-Grande upon request. Once arrived on the spot, the man transformed into the allegory of death. It was Mathias Carvennec, who died fifteen years ago, but wandering since, for not having kept his promise of bringing back the bones of his regimental comrade who died at war up to the Île-Grande cemetery. It was therefore done thanks to Marie-Job. So the man could now rest in peace. Unfortunately, the kindness of Marie-Job was what killed her. The next day, Marie-Job was found dead in her bed.

- Wikipédia : l’Ankou ; Pleumeur-Bodou croyances et légendes
- Daniel GIRAUDON, Sur les chemins de l’Ankou

More information:
- : L’église St Marc et l’Ankou
- Buy "La légende de la Mort" d’Anatole LE BRAZ

Here is our audio version of the Legend of Ankou, check it out:

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