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Wendy Mewes writing about Brittany


Ankou’s iconography in religious sculpture, particularly on ossuary buildings in the precincts of the parish closes, where the bones of the dead were kept, shows a skeletal figure, armed with a scythe or arrow and often accompanied by a slogan such as ‘Je vous tue tous’ (I kill you all). A fine example of this can be seen at La Roche Maurice near Landerneau.

When personified in legend, Ankou is described as a tall, thin man sometimes with long white hair, in dark clothes of an ancient style and with a large black felt hat low on his brow. This is to conceal his eyes shining like red fire below the brim. His skull head can turn through 360° degrees, so that he never misses anything or anyone – a fact that gives him a reputation of fairness, as everyone must die eventually. He also carries a scythe, symbolic of his role of pruning souls from the body. In some stories he is a figure of terror, whilst in others he holds normal conversations with the living.

Ankou travels at night in a creaking cart drawn by white horses, one fat, one thin, collecting the souls whose time has come and escorting them to another world. In this sense he is a sort of psychopomp, one who leads the dead to their resting place. Two men may accompany the cart, one to lead the horses and the other to open gates or doors of houses to gather in the souls reaped by Ankou. Once Ankou has a soul in his sights, there’s no escape, as some of the legends below illustrate.

Ankou - Tales of Death’s henchman

No escape

As told to Anatole Le Braz in 1890 by a woman from Bégard.

A young man from Tézélan had just taken his horses to leave in the meadow overnight. The moon was high and full as he walked home, whistling, through the countryside. Suddenly he heard the unmistakable creaking approach of a cart and knew at once that this must be the famous vehicle of Ankou. He wanted to see it for himself, but without being seen, so he got off the track and hid himself in a thicket of hazel.

What he saw was a cart drawn by white horses, with two men in black with broad felt hats walking, one in front and one behind. To the young man’s horror the cart stopped level with his hiding-place, after a sharp crack in the axle was heard. Ankou, who was driving the cart, ordered one of his men to cut a new piece for the cart from the hazel thicket. The young man was now terrified of discovery and punishment, but nothing happened. The cart was repaired and Ankou’s entourage proceeded on its way. So he returned home, safe and sound and able to tell his story. But by morning, he had succumbed to a terrible fever, and he died the same day.

Ankou is the Grim Reaper in Breton legend, but he has a distinct character and and personality

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