A good proportion of the Celtic mythology and folklore are ghosts. The Breton Legends are just as much linked to the Arthurian Legends as any others of the old culture. If there is one thing that all of those legends have in common, are their ghosts!
One of these mystical creatures are the banshee. Banshee, are traditionally ‘three old women’. More specifically, they are three old women who go to the water’s edge – at midnight (the witching hour), to do laundry for themselves and their own households, yes; but more importantly, for other women. Doing laundry for other women’s households, was a sought after trade back then. Entire quarters of a city, or even entire towns were ‘laundry quarters’.
To be a washer women by trade (La Lavandiere), meant that she also washed shrouds. Although the average washer women did laundry only for the living, some specialized in doing the laundry for ‘the dead’. Doing laundry of the clothing of the dying, and ultimately the clothing he was dressed with for his funeral, was a ‘sacred’ religious task back in those days. The fact that she would handle and wash such clothing meant that she was equal social class wise, to the Vicar’s house-maid.
Just as the Vicar’s house-maid who did his cooking and house-cleaning, the washer women served the priest’s ritual food, and washed his sacerdotal clothing and shrouds. His sacerdotal vestments and food were handled in a ritual fashion, and only by anointed women. More specifically, these washer women were hired exclusively for the laundry needs of the priestly class (les laics).
Down through history, these wash women were of the laity class. It is a given, that the ‘laity class’ are those families who were in service to the noble and religious and elite classes. More specifically, The Wash Women, being daughters of the king, through the right of the King. It was a royal decree back then, that when a women married, he family would bring her to be with the King on her wedding night; this assured his blood line into a conquered geographical region, as well as his establishing there a laity class of his own faith.
Hence, the washer women were legally recognized as ‘daughters of the king’, and were raised in orphanages or convents officially approved by the Kings Court. Thus, sired and under the King’s protection, The Washer Women were instructed by the religious orders of nuns as how to do laundry for the Order (hence The Daughters of the King who arrived in Quebec back in the 1600).
Those Daughters of the King from Brittany as well as those who remained in Brittany itself, specifically were trained and anointed to provide ‘the duties of the Lavander: laundry”. But for those still in Brittany, these hired as wash women from the laity class, were then first anointed and then hired to serve the gods of the region and their priests. It was traditional back then, for the Laity to be seen as a cloistered class of servants (set apart), this is why it doesn’t take much of a leap of thought to conclude that these washer women would have been specially anointed to do so; especially given the sacred nature of the clothes in question. In the realm of the religious, the clothing of the dying, and of the deceased, and of his funeral clothes are especially sacred. Because it is what the departed loved-one was vested with, for the purpose of ‘his travel to the other side (Ether)’. This is why these women who handled such sacred vestments, would go through a ‘ritual anointing’, so to let them enter into that class of sacred service…
In some religious washing of the sacred death vestments, the women doing even such a mundane task as the laundry, would have been ceremonially sacrificed (set a part) for the cause. In other religious denominations, these women would have either have been cloistered so to perform those task referred to as “perfuming or lavender perfuming” – again and again, as the need presented itself, or one out of many would have been chosen for the ritual accompaniment of the dead person’s laundry into the other realm.
Sacred ritualistic perspectives set aside, La Lavendiere (the washer women) was to wash shrouds for those about to die. Additionally in British folklore, and that of the myth and folklore in Brittany, the washer women also washed the clothing and bed linen of people in agony; because the pillow and sheet on his bed would literally become imbibed and stained, with his sweat and blood (which was considered to contain parts of the soul). If he died out on the battlefield, his clothing and armor and emblems would be carried home by his page, because they were deemed to contain the souls of the local warrior who died in battle. i.e. the story and song of Marlbrough s’en va-t-en guerre (a traditional folklore song) Marlbrough goes to war…
In the English version of the song:
“But since to speak I’m hurried,”
Added this page, quite flurried,
“Malbrook is dead and buried!”
And here he shed a tear.
Describes in folklore song, how the lord’s page himself told Malbrough’s woman that it was now time to shed her flurried clothing, and to shed a tear for her husband. The proclamation of the death of a lord was done with formal ceremony throughout his household and his lands, that all were now placed into ‘a season of mourning’.
‘Their clothing for the season for the living’ was shed. And the special clothing for ‘the season of tears’ were brought out. From the dead lord’s page down to that lord’s lady in the tower, cries of lamentations for him were heard; and the proper tears were seen. This meant for ‘the washer women’ to go to work. The story of ‘Three’ Old Washer Women, may be due to the old Celtic tradition of the triple goddess of death and slaughter.
The Three Washer Women were also known as the Cannard Noz in Breton folklore; and as the Bean Nighe in Scottish mythology. The Three Washer Women would go to the water’s edge, at midnight, to wash the shrouds with blood on them. In both of these two legends, Les Lavandieres are small; they are dressed in green and have webbed feet. It may very well be that it is because of their ‘web feet’, that they are also called the ‘cannard noz’ (meaning night ducks, in Breton folklore); and why they walk across expanses of water, as if on rushes and brambles. But they do sink when trying to cross a newly plowed expanse of land.
In Brittany as well as in Ireland, ‘Les Lavandieres de la nuit’ are a omniportent. Probably due to having died after a sacred anointing as ‘Washer Women Of The Night’. These ghosts are as if of a diety; they have unlimited power, and are able to do anything. As an extra virtue, they enjoy almost unlimited, unchallenged authority; mainly because of there for-telling of death, either your own or that of others. To hear or see one, is a bad presage; a bad omen…