‘Ankou’ is the personification of death’s assistant (a psychopomp) from Breton folklore, and a figure which reached greater prominence here than in any other of the modern ‘Celtic’ nations. It was noted by folklorist Walter Evans-Wentz in his 1911 book The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, that L’Ankou and The Dead appeared to provide the equivalent role to the Aes Sidhe of Gaelic folklore – a parallel which provides us with some interesting questions as to the nature of Celtic spirit-beliefs:
“… Without setting down here in detail numerous other death-legends which we have collected, we may now note how much the same are the powers and nature of the dead and spirits in Brittany, and the power and nature of the fairy races in Celtic Britain and Ireland. Thus the Breton dead strike down the living just as fairies are said to do; the Ankou who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths or roads over which they travel in great sacred processions; and exactly as fairies, the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve, and the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them of curded-milk, hot pancakes, and cider, served on the family table covered with a fresh white table-cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move, and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help to entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors…”
(The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by Walter Evans-Wentz; Pub. Henry Frowde, Oxford University Press, 1911; p.218)
He goes on to note ‘Every parish in the uncorrupted parts of Brittany has its own Ankou, who is the last man to die in the parish during the year‘. Wentz’s source, the respected Breton folklorist Anatole Le Braz, wrote a book about Ankou, called La Légende de la Mort () and had this to say about it:
The Ankou is the henchman of Death (oberour ar maro) and he is also known as the grave yard watcher, they said that he protects the graveyard and the souls around it for some unknown reason and he collects the lost souls on his land. The last dead of the year, in each parish, becomes the Ankou of his parish for all of the following year. When there has been, in a year, more deaths than usual, one says about the Ankou: War ma fé, heman zo eun Anko drouk. (“on my faith, this one is a nasty Ankou”).
Wentz drew parallels with the Gaelic beliefs in people ‘taken’ to fairyland, but unfortunately did not establish much else by the way of concordance with this supposedly ‘Brythonic’, and in terms of surviving folklore, specifically Breton belief. It is therefore my aim here to demonstrate that Ankou did indeed have its Gaelic equivalents, whose memory became lost due to the influence of christianity and the 19thC romantic movement:
Ankou, depicted on a carving at the ossuary of the chapel of St Joseph at Ploudiry, Brittany. Note the ‘elf-arrow’ it appears to wield!
Ankou in the Isle of Man and Scotland:
The Manx – a nation whose linguistic and cultural roots lie firmly in the ‘Gaelic’ world – maintained an independent tradition which corresponds closely with that of L’Ankou. However, in examining this it is first necessary to go ‘back’ to Brittany and examine the word ‘Ankou’ itself:
The standard English definition or translation usually given for the Breton word ‘Ankou’ is ‘the agony’, originally proposed in a ‘pirated’ (uncredited) 1860 English translation (Breton Legends – Pub. London 1860, Burns and Lambert) of the folklore collected and published in French by Théodore Claude Henri, vicomte Hersart de la Villemarqué – a noted Breton dictionarian and philologist. ‘An-‘ is the definite article, and ‘-Kou’ is usually (in English translations) supposed to mean ‘agony’. However, this etymology is speculative at best, as the ‘kou’ suffix as a sound can have a number of meanings within the scope of the historical linguistics of the celtic languages. Indeed, the 1821 Breton-French dictionary of Jean-François-Marie-Maurice-Agatha Le Gonidec tellingly uses the word Kouer to mean ‘peasant’, of which more presently.
Fockleyr Manninagh as Baarlagh – the 1863 dictionary (based partly upon an earlier manuscript of John Kelly from the late 18thC) published by the Manx Society contains the following interesting entry:
Keimagh s. pl. -ee, A spirit which is supposed to haunt and guard the churchyard stiles.
Also, the word Cughtagh:
Cughtagh s. pl. cughtee – A fairy, a sprite, a spirit of the houghs* …
*AR: Hough in this context refers to a rough, rocky place or a cliff
Both entries are followed by the interesting usage example ‘Ny keimee as ny cughtee’ of which the authors say no more, but which appears to be a reference to a popular Manx charm for stopping blood, a version of which can be found in William Harrison’s ‘Mona Miscellany’ (Manx Society Volume 16, Pub. Isle of Man, 1869).
The idea of the last deceased watching over the graveyard appears to have been common to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland – Donald MacPherson called it the Faire Chloidh in his book ‘Melodies from the Gaelic, and Original Poems; with Notes on the superstitions of the Highlanders &c’ (Pub. Thomas and George Underwood, London 1824), p.202:
FAIRE CHLOIDH, (THE GRAVE WATCH.)
It was the duty of the spirit of the last person interred, to stand sentry at the grave-yard gate, from sun-set until the crowing of the cock, every night, until regularly relieved. This, sometimes, in thinly inhabited parts of the country, happened to be a tedious and severe duty ; and the duration of the Faire Chloidh gave the deceased’s surviving friends, sometimes, much uneasiness.
The Manx ‘Keimagh’ and ‘Cughtagh’ spirits share a link of sorts to the grave, vagrancy, caves or shelters: This can be seen from the fact that the Manx word ‘cugh‘ has connotations of dirt, filth and dung, and a link between this and the cave, mound or hole-dwelling spirit is also found in the word Cughlin, meaning a vagrant’s doss-hole or a mean filthy shelter, another Manx word for which is Kemmyrk. Recall that the Breton word Kouer, means ‘peasant’ and consider the restless vagrant properties ascribed to the spirits of the dead and a few ideas might start to form about the origins and meaning behind these archaic terms and the ‘Ankou’ itself.
The Manx word Keim or Keym (from which Keimagh is derived) is the same as the Irish céim, meaning ‘step’ in the same sense as it occurs in English – as a verb and a noun. The stile at old churchyard gates was often a slab of stone which those entering the church precinct would be required step over (and scrape your shoes on) in order to enter hallowed ground. It is common for the ‘m’ sound in Celtic languages to transform into a ‘w’ in pronunciation meaning that a ‘keimagh’ might easily become a ‘keiwagh’. By the same laws of linguistics, -gh-, -ch-, and -th- will lose any pretensions to consonantal pronunciation when occuring inside words.
This puts us in the interesting position of being forced to examine another similarly named spirit from the Gaelic world – Scotland’s An Ciuthach (pronounced ‘Kewach’), a being mentioned as a hairy spirit haunting caves in Volume 3 of John F. Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’ (p.55), in a folk-tale based on the story of the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Graine by Fionn Mac Cumhaill.
The Gaelic word ‘cuthach’, means ‘mad’ or ‘raging’ and fits with the portrayal of a marginal ‘wild-man’ who lives underground, and also with the Manx words ‘cugh’ and ‘cughlin’, associated with the filthy ‘Merlinesque’ state of the wild divine, a familiar sight in medieval Ireland, Britain and France where holy men often lived in a state of wild squalor. It should be obvious by now that the Breton word ‘Ankou’ had distinct similarities with the Gaelic ‘An Ciuth’ or ‘An Cuth’, ‘kou’ meaning a state of frantic restlessness, rather than ‘agony’. This fits the etymology of the Breton word for peasant: Kouer – a class of person living in mean conditions and continually working to survive.
The Irish Dullahán and the Gruagachs:
The ‘Dullahán’is the Irish legendary personification of death, usually represented as a skeletal headless horseman. The name possibly signifies ‘black one’ or ‘gloomy one’ (Dubhlachán?), probably on account of the lividity of the dead, and his appearance in popular tradition was to foretoken death. His earliest literary mention is in the writings of Charles Vallancey (‘Prospectus of a Dictionary of the language of the Aire Coti, or Ancient Irish’, Pub. Graisberry & Campbell, Dublin, 1802), who recounts that the Irish peasantry would be in fear of hearing the Dullahan or ‘Wullahan’ dragging his chains through the streets at night. Like the Ankou, it was often associated with a horse or coach and horses.
The Ankou is therefore quite possibly the ‘Wild Hunter’ who leads the Sluagh Sidhe! Was Fionn Mac Cumhaill, really originally Finn-Mac-‘Kou’-al?
The ‘wild man’ archetype has much to say about where we developed from, and about the processes by which nature is regenerated from its own ‘putrefaction’.
There are important relationships in empirical human culture between dirt, ordure and decayed matter and the regeneration of new life. To live ‘wild’ is to live in comfort with this kind of state. Such symbolism no doubt informs the apparent associations between death, the spirit world and reincarnation that underpin the ancient European beliefs. The idea anciently used to express this was termed putrefaction, and important doctrine of the natural philosophy of Europeans until the scientific age introduced new paradigms.
The British and Irish age of Romanticism started in earnest during the ‘Enlightenment’ era of the late 17th and 18thC with the researches and writings of Roderick O’Flaherty, John Toland, Edward Llhuyd, and James MacPherson, and it continued with the emergence of renewed interest in the pagan past seen in the writings of Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), and in the fading customs, beliefs and lifestyles of the defeated Highland peoples documented for popular consumption by authors such as Walter Scott. Romanticism provided a vision of indigenous pagan beliefs still remaining among the peasantry, albeit in a form designed for the tastes and prejudices of educated and wealthy elites. Wavering paradoxically between apparent veneration of quaint rustic traditions and a visceral disgust of its ‘gloomy’ and ‘unenlightened’ superstitions, Romanticism would unfortunately often prove the undoing of much of what it fawned over: by swelling interest in ‘old-fashioned’ customs it ultimately encouraged the aspirational rural poor to resent becoming ‘quaint’ objects of fascination for the middle classes seeking relief from industrialised realities. By the late 1800s many Gaelic speakers had consequently rejected their traditional culture and sought to emulate modernity.
A romanticised view of what the rural poor ought to believe therefore eventually trickled down to influence their ideas: The traditions characterised as ‘gloomy’, ‘dismal’ and ‘unseemly’ – usually dealing with aspects of death, sex and disease – would become increasingly displaced.
Putrefaction as an essential cultural idea behind abundance and regeneration among rural peoples was probably finally defeated when people stopped putting shit on their crops and used chemicals in its place… This was the era of mass-slaughter and industrial warfare, which reached its first full and horrific manifestation in the First World War.