Journey to the Beyond, Bretons and Death

In the internet age, Britons have unique relationships and customs with death and the dead. This is the finding of a vast survey in Brittany today. Who is the Ankou, this conductor of the dead in the afterlife, who still appears in the 21st century? How do we perceive the presence of the “Anaons”, these wandering souls who haunt the roads or the homes? Lost deep in the woods, ancient tombs continue to receive offerings from anonymous visitors. Why are they honored? Who are the 'soul couriers'? What meaning can be given to these mysterious phenomena, revealing a true cult of the dead and a tenacious belief in the other world?

Religious practices in Brittany

Great authors such as Anatole le Braz publishing in 1893 “The legend of death in Lower Brittany” or Chateaubriand with his work “Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe” writing not without humor in his foreword “La vie me sied badly, death may be better for me! '' prove that the subject of tragic and violent death has always inspired poets, bards and writers. This literature restores the dark dimension of Brittany, because its inhabitants have not ceased to maintain in their religious and popular practices, cults that do not separate the profane and the sacred, body and soul, science and religion, knowledge and knowledge, the visible and the sensitive.

Like their ancestors, they continue to believe in the subtle relationships between worlds, attesting to the structures of human behavior. Devotions on the tombs, beliefs in wandering souls (the Anaons), manifestations of the messenger of death (the Ankou), rituals, practices and supernatural phenomena (whose origin and meaning come under a universal philosophy) continue.


An intersign is a warning, a message from the other world to the living. It is death which by announcing itself, invites us to reflect, to suspend our course, to unite with the souls in the process of departure and to assist them. The intersign can be premonitory or simultaneous with the death.

It can manifest itself in a wide variety of forms: candle, candle or lit torch (attested in numerous works from the 19th and 20th centuries), ringing and various sounds of bells, falling objects or paintings being dropped without reason, knocked down. at the door, window that opens suddenly, telephone ringing, computer that turns off or turns on, music from which we do not identify the origin, sound of footsteps, sudden flight of birds (crows, magpies, often present in the intersigns such as messengers), breath of air, sudden sadness, kitchen utensils that move ...

The symbol is the language of the soul

The dream is the bearer of symbols. So going up a staircase supposes an elevation of the soul. The ladder, the tree, the bridge, the boat and any other means of transport indicate an upward journey towards the beyond. The reflection of the deceased's face in the water of a fountain or a pond is an intersigne caused by a ritual knowingly practiced in several dozen Breton fountains (one of them is in Plouégat-guerand). Another rite concerns the Wheel of time which symbolizes the cycle of life and whose common use in Brittany is, in the church, to make it turn at the time of the Elevation, the Creed, the Sanctus and communion. .


The Ankou, this frightening character represented as a skeleton carrying a scythe and a club, would be both the one who causes death and the one who leads the dead. He is also equipped with the "Mell beniguet" the blessed mallet in the shape of a ball used to hasten the death of the dying man. Placed on the top of the skull at the height of the large fontanel, it allowed the soul to free itself, during a ceremony performed with the agreement of the family of the deceased.

The figure of the Ankou is omnipresent in the legendary, the landscape and the architecture. In addition to the countless skulls carved on the Calvaries, holy water fonts, ossuaries and funerary monuments, the Ankou is entitled to an original iconography in several sites and churches in Brittany.

The dance of death

It was in the 15th century that most of the macabre frescoes were painted in churches in Western Europe and that “realistic” representations were given on the square intended to impress the crowds. It was a spectacle of moral edification. Because no one can resist and overcome death. No one can take his wealth, his power, his beauty, any more than his misery, his ugliness and his servitude in the hereafter. The Christian doctrine of the Middle Ages teaches humility at the fateful hour.

Death and departure of the soul

Death is a symbolic passage which opens an imaginary door for some, initiatory for others. The rites of the vigil, the toilet, the religious ceremony, the funeral procession, the funeral meal are all practices that make it possible to overcome the surge of emotions: fear, anguish, sadness. These are rites of passage like two other stages of life: birth and marriage.

The meaning of the prohibitions

The candle that is extinguished at the time of death is the signal for a series of actions to be performed: close the eyes of the deceased to avoid the `` evil eye '', close the mouth, stop the hands of the clock until '' on returning from the cemetery, extinguish the fire so that the soul does not burn itself, veil the mirrors so as not to let the soul reflect (get trapped in a reflection) empty and cover the receptacles so that the soul does not do not drown there, do not sweep the house to avoid the expulsion of the soul before the end of the rites. Prohibit animals in the mortuary chamber (these can injure or even devour the soul)
Stop all work until the dead person is buried.

These prohibitions attest to a belief in the existence of the soul and the house would, during this intermediate period between death and burial, fall under a time-out becoming an out-space where neither the time of the living nor the earthly elements would have no place. The four elementaries of water, fire, air (sweeping) and earth (animals) correspond to a cosmic dimension of man.

The tombs of memory

At the end of the 19th century, there were dozens of religious tombs in Brittany giving rise to many pilgrimages. These are scattered in fields and forests, on cliffs and on the foreshore, in parish enclosures and in cemeteries, in Lower and Upper Brittany. A majority of graves concern men, of the three orders of the ancient society and of all conditions: nobles, sailors, peasants, soldiers, priests, seminarians. Nevertheless there are also some tombs of women. Would the cause of death be decisive in justifying veneration? Of course, these are often known or unknown victims who have suffered a violent or unjust death. Is the common point ideological? But if a majority dedicates victims of the Jacobin revolution, we also find the graves of republicans!

There are all styles of monuments: a simple cross planted in an embankment, a mound of earth, a marble slab .. on which ex-votos and sometimes unusual offerings are hung: rosaries, small crosses, plaited strands, shoes of children, pairs of glasses, towels, armfuls of flowers, pins, lights or handwritten letters in a laminated pocket! The frequentation of these tombs endures beyond the centuries escaping the institutions of the Catholic Church which condemns them.

The Baie des Trépassés and the soul ferrymen

If there was no doubt that the souls of the dead were gathering in certain points of the coast (the most famous of which is in Cléden-Cap-Sizun) to await an embarkation towards the other world, this belief is today forgotten. However, the Baie des Trépassés “bwe an Anaon” in Breton has become a place where legend takes precedence over reality. It is in this bay that the currents bring the drowned back to the coast (this fact is recognized by the population) and it is in this place that the souls of the deceased (the Anaons) embark on their last trip!

Then intervene soul couriers ('' tremener '') who take charge of conveying souls to the other shore. They are very living men (unlike the Ankou) working in silence in anonymity. The drowned are classified separately: deprived of funeral rites and burial, their souls are condemned to wander until they find a smuggler.

Today, a break in all these traditions means that the Breton no longer dies at home. Burials without sacraments are increasing and the fear of passing for a primitive superstitious restrains anyone from confiding their visions and perceptions of the other world to their loved ones, it is so difficult to talk about these subjects and to gain acceptance of the unknown in our society. become very materialistic.

In each era, men have wondered about the hereafter. But the philosophical and religious interpretations which diverge and oppose have created disagreements. (each period having its septics, believers, apostates, agnostics and atheists).

What if existence doesn't begin with the first cry of birth and end with the last breath of the dying man? Life and death, the man here and the hereafter participate in each other? ..

Travel in the Beyond "the Bretons and death", by Bernard Rio. Ouest-France editions, 2013.

Video: The LAST RITES (September 2021).