Facing Death: representations of the Ankou

Generally throughout the Western world, we are taught that death is something that you accept and move on from. You bury the dead as quickly as possible and then begin the acceptance process, however that process is interpreted by each individual. Death is not considered an everyday topic that you discuss with your friends: you only speak of it when you are forced to confront it, and even then, people are frequently uncomfortable with the discussion.

The concept of death is often constantly present

Throughout the Celtic countries, however, the concept of death is often constantly present. Death, for them, is a part of life. So much so, in fact that death is personified in several Celtic countries : the angheu in Wales and the ankow in Cornwall. The most famous personification of death or death’s worker in the Celtic world, however, is the ankou in Lower Western Brittany. Here, there are many legends and accounts of Bretons who have encountered in some way the ankou on the road and later met their own end. During the nineteenth century, several Breton folklorists collected these accounts throughout the countryside, but the collector who focused the most on tales of death was Anatole Le Braz. In his book, The Breton Legends of Death, Le Braz describes the ankou as a skeletal figure clothed in a black robe, carrying a scythe and wearing a wide-brimmed hat frequently a part of the the traditional Breton male outfit. He is often accompanied by a horse-drawn cart with squeaky wheels. Often, the wheels are heard before the vision of the ankou is appears. The ankou is sometimes characterized as death himself, but for the most part is believed to be the laborer of death. It is the ankou’s job to harvest the souls and bring them to the next world.

There are several historical depictions of the ankou that continue to be visible at many religious sites throughout Finistère department of Western Brittany. They are frequently part of the exterior ornamentation of religious buildings, such as the ossuaries at Ploudiry, Landivisiau, La Roche-Maurice, and Brasparts, and the churches at Noyal-Pontivy, Bulat-Pestivien, and Lannédern. In La Martyre, the holy water font at the main entrance to the church is surmounted by a sculpted figure of the ankou along. Although an unorthodox depiction in Catholicism, evidence of this element from Breton popular tradition can also be seen in the church of Saint-Mathieu in Morlaix and in the Trégor parish of Ploumilliau, where there are statues of the ankou. These statues are alongside those of the Catholic saints in the church interior and speak to the integration of traditional Breton beliefs with Catholicism. In fact, the symbiotic relationship between Breton culture and the doctrine of the Catholic church flourished throughout Breton history as they both had a shared responsibility in dealing with the themes of death.
Despite the wealth of evidence of historical depictions of the ankou throughout Breton literature and various religious sites in Western Brittany, there are also contemporary sources that take the traditional representations of the ankou and reimagine it into something for modern audiences. One of these modern sources are French-language BD, bande-dessinée, or graphic novels in English. One author in particular, Christophe Babonneau, has created a series that is specifically inspired by the death tales recorded in the nineteenth century by Anatole Le Braz in his Breton Legends of Death. Both Le Braz and Babonneau’s tales inspired by Le Braz include additional Breton legends of the theme of death and do not simply limit themselves to the discussion of the ankou. However, for the sake of brevity, I will be focusing uniquely on the tales that include the ankou. Somewhat suprisingly, Babonneau’s tales do not depict the ankou in the traditional way: as a skeletal figure, carrying a scythe, and dressed in a black robe. The only traditional aspect of the ankou’s depiction that Babonneau keeps is the wide-brimmed hat. Babonneau’s aristic interpretation of the ankou is simply an old man found on the side of the road dressed in traditional Breton clothes (which includes the wide-brimmed hat). The audience is only aware that he is the ankou by the evidence of other elements associated with the meeting of the ankou such as hearing the sound of his cart’s squeaky wheels, meeting him on the road in the middle of the night, being warned by him of an impending death, and said death occurring the day after the ominous meeting. Babonneau’s divergence from the traditional depiction of death could be explained by the fact that his graphic novels are more marketed to children and adolescents as opposed to adults.
Babonneau’s graphic novels, as well as other series that deal with the legend of the ankou, are evidence of how traditional Breton beliefs of death continue to be ever-present in Breton society today. The fact that they are written in French and not traditional Breton could speak to the fact that many Breton children unfortunately no longer know the language of their ancestors and could also be an effort to make Breton culture accessible to a wider audience.

Published 20 March 2018
  • by Nicole Corbin is a Masters student of Celtic Languages and Societies at University of Western Brittany in Brest, France. She is currently (...)
(Edited 24 March 2021)


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