The westernmost tip of the Brittany coast, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, is alive with legends of the sea. Mythical creatures, giants, imps, naiads and sages – each associated with a detail of the sea that explains the violence and the beauty of the coastline. The stories are often harsh and, to modern ears, cruel. Men and women destined to live out the same sacrifices for all of time, retribution for crimes committed by earlier generations or as an attempt to appease the angry sea. One part of Brittany that is today more famous for its surfing and its seafood is the Baie de Trepasses – the Bay of the Departed – but in ancient times it was said to have always been a portal into death. Here, the way of life still follows the steady tread of the century before and the century before that, a timelessness that recalls the telling and retelling of old folk tales. One of the more famous stories inspired by Breton folklore is that of the Ankou: a fisherman called by name in the deep of the night by God or the Devil to transport dead souls to the portal of the beyond on the shore of a distant land.
In Brittany it is sometimes said that a legend is a story about someone who may have existed far back in some distant past, whilst a myth is a story that is, by general agreement, a fiction with no connection to real people, however far back one might search. There are many tales involving the Ankou, indeed every parish in Brittany is said to have its own Ankou. He appears as a man or skeleton wearing a cloak and wielding a scythe and in some stories he is described as a shadow that looks and a scythe, often atop a cart for collecting the dead. He is said to wear a black robe with a large hat which conceals his face. According to some, he was the first child of Adam and Eve. Other versions have it that the Ankou is the first dead person of the year (though he is always depicted as adult, and male), charged with collecting the others’ souls before he can go to the afterlife. He is said to drive a large, black coach pulled by four black horses; accompanied by two ghostly figures on foot.
The Ankou is also a personification of death in the folkllore of Cornwall (an Ankow in Cornish) and Wales (Anghau in Welsh) as well as in Breton mythology. In Ireland it is said that “When the Ankou comes, he will not go away empty”. The Ankou was also the subject of a story by Wyndham Lewis titled The Death of Ankou (1927). In the tale a young tourist in Brittany momentarily takes a blind beggar he meets as an embodiment of the Ankou, but in truth it is he who acts as the Ankou for the beggar, who subsequently dies. Lewis relied on Anatole Le Braz, a 19th century writer and collector of legends, who wrote about the Ankou in his best-seller The Legend of Death. The Ankou is also used as a character in the novel Death Most Definite by Trent Jamieson, as a power second to death himself, and by Kate Mosse in her short story The Ship of the Dead. Most famously, for comic book fans, in The Sandman: Worlds’ End by Neil Gaiman, the citizens of the necropolis Litharge refer obliquely to the Ankou as an entity that punishes morticians who go bad. Travellers attracted to Brittany by the savage beauty of its coastline had best beware, should they see strange footsteps in the sand, for the Ankou is never far away from the Bay of the Departed.