The submerged cities, the city of Is:
Ys or Is, sometimes called "Ker Ys" (Kêr-Is in Breton), is a legendary town in Brittany, which is said to have been submerged by the ocean. Probably inspired by a Celtic topic about the woman of the Other World, the legend of the town of Ys is very clearly Christianized. The only original element which remains about it is the character of Dahut. The hagiographic version of Pierre le Baud, the oldest known version, already explained the engulfing of the city as resulting from the sins of its inhabitants, to demonstrate the importance of the Breton evangelists.
A recent Breton tradition has made Ys into the Cornish capital of King Gradlon, supposed to have been built in or off the coast of Douarnenez. This legend is one of the most popular Breton stories, and the best known in France.
The origin of this legend would be a convergence between two myths: the cities engulfed by the ocean or a lake, and the women of the Other World, in particular Welsh and Irish. The original myth could be that of a fairy from the Other World, guardian of dikes and sluice gates, who was protecting a city from the ocean, but who finally caused the city to submerge.
The legend began to formalise at the end of the 15th century with the publication in 1495 of Pierre Le Baud’s hagiographic work "Chroniques et Ystoires des Bretons" (Chronics and Ystories of Bretons).
This work presents the submersion of the city of Ys as the punishment called for the sins of its inhabitants. Only the names of King Gradlon and Saint Corentin are then conserved.
Bertrand d’Argentré evoked the legend again in 1583. In the 17th century, it was enriched with new elements in "La vie de saint Gunolé" (the Life of Saint Guénolé) published by Albert Le Grand. The dramatization of the character of Dahut, the degenerated daughter of King Gradlon, then completed the Christianization of the myth.
In the 19th century, various erudite people, collectors of legends and writers wrote new versions. Some are based on oral tradition. like Barzaz Breiz (Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué), Légendes de la mer (Legends of the sea) (Paul Sébillot) or "La légende de la mort chez les Bretons armoricains" (the Legend of death among the Armorican Bretons) (Anatole Le Braz). Others are literary works: Le Foyer breton (Breton’s home) (Émile Souvestre), "La légende de Ker Ys" (The legend of Ker Ys) (Maupassant).
In 1926, in "La légende de la ville d’Ys" (The legend of the city of Ys) adapted from ancient texts, Charles Guyot introduced the new character of Malgven, queen of the North and mother of Dahut, as well as Morvarc’h the horse. This version is now known as the "original story".
Each of the three fundamental characters of the legend of the town of Ys plays a particular part. The saint (Corentin or Guénolé) embodies Good, Dahut embodies Evil and King Gradlon embodies the man meant for chosing between Good and Evil.
The myth of the submerged cities joins at the same time that of the Celtic “other worlds” which are under water, that of the universal myths of floods, and the historical memories of the disasters of inundation by the sea.
In Ireland, a story from the "Livre noir de Carmarthense" (Black Book of Carmarthense) is close to the story of the town of Ys. Some collectors of legends thought that the many oral testimonys would prove that such a disater really happened.
- The Escape of King Gradlon
- E.-V. LUMINNAIS, around 1884: The escape of King Gradlon from the city of Is: "King Gradlon get caught in his town of Ys by the waters of the ocean. He only had time to escape on horseback with his daughter and Saint Guénolé. Saint Guénolé said to the king "Get rid of the demon you are carrying on your horse, because it is him who, by his disorders, has drawn the wrath of heaven". The king, listening to the voice of God, had courage to give up his daughter and could reach the place which became Douarnenez " (note appearing in the "Livret du Salon" (Booklet of the Salon) of 1884).
In Pleumeur-Bodou, a submerged town, perfectly active and commercial, is described in a story evoked by the Tregor’ storytellers at the end of the 19th century, and reported by Anatole LE BRAZ in his famous work on: La légende de la mort (The Legend of Death) (1893) :
"A woman from Pleumeur-Bodou, was going down to the beach to draw sea water to cook her meal, when suddenly she saw an immense portico appear in front of her.
She crossed it and found herself in a splendid city. The streets were lined with illuminated stores. You could admire splendid fabrics on the store fronts. She was mesmerized and walked around the middle of all this wealth with a gaping mouth of admiration
The merchants were standing on their doorsteps.
As she passed close to them, they shouted to her:
Buy us something! - Buy us something!
She was stunned, distraught.
In the end, she ended up responding to one of them:
How do you expect me to buy anything from you? I got no money.
Well! That’s too bad, said the merchant. If you would have been taking something, even the cheaper thing, you would had delivered us all.
As soon as he spoke, the city disappeared.
The woman found herself on the beach. She was so moved by this adventure that she fainted. Customs officers making their rounds took her home. Fifteen days later, she died. "
(Told by Lise Bellec. - Port-Blanc.)
- The Ile-Grande Archipelago in the 19th Century
- Is the city of Is submerged in the bay of Pleumeur-Bodou?
Selection of books about Brittany’s Legends