Les lavandieres de la nuit

From Celtic mythology, Les Lavandières, also known as the kannerezed noz in Brittany, the Bean Nighe (in Scottish mythology), or the Midnight Washerwomen in English, are three old washerwomen.

Les Lavandieres au lavoir

©Photo: Peinture de Yan’ Dargent, “Les lavandières de la nuit”, vers 1861, Musée des Beaux-Arts

‘Les Lavandieres’ are very much part of the Brittany folklore because they are well understood to be dead women who, in their living, had a real job, a real trade. They had lived in actual trades-villages men and women worked hard for their contemporaries and those of the nobles of the time. In English, the trade of the lavandieres was called: ‘washer women’.

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The ‘washer women’, creatures of the Breton-Celtic mythology, were also known as ‘Les Lavandieres de la nuit’ in France; more precisely as: ‘the kannerezed noz’ in Brittany:

“Quand la nuit est tombée, ne tardez pas au lavoir… de peur d’y rencontrer les lavandières de la nuit.
(When the night has fallen, do not delay at the wash… of fear of meeting there – the washer women of the night.)

The washer women of the night (Les Lavandieres de la nuit) are ghosts. These ghosts are known in all of Brittany as deceased women. They died, more often than not, of a violent death; in childbirth, murdered or of a suicide. Scorned, they had not finished their tasks here on earth; so as ghosts now, they return in the night to effectually make their daily tasks.

The good advice of the Bretons: Avoid being seen by a Lavandiere. If in the curb of a road, on the banks of a stream, of a river or on the edge of a wash, you hear the beating of wet clothing, turn on your heels and whisk-away as fast as your legs can go. If unluckily you do get seen by one, she will speak to you, do not answer her; do not under any circumstance accept her help. If you should happen to feel adventurous and that you decide to answer, she will not fail to make you help her to wring one of her sheets. There will then follow a fascination, one like an hypnotic state; and if you twist the sheets in the direction of the washer women, the folds will stretched to your arms, and they will wrench your arms out of their sockets, and they will get pulled into the wet sheets, and you will get killed instantly. Once caught-up in such a movement, the only known way to become freed from the ghost is to untangle the clothing as ‘the spectrum wraps itself’.

There is however another tradition. If the sheets you wring for her twist in the opposite direction, the washer women are required to grant you three wishes.

Another speaks of, that if one can get between the washerwomen and the water, they are required to grant three wishes in exchange for three questions answered truthfully.

And then, in Scotland, tradition there speaks of a single washer at the ford. She is the goddess Clotha, who gives the River Clyde its name.

The washerwomen rarely appear in England, although lonely pools are often haunted by some supernatural creature, which may have derived from the same original root.

In any case, back in Brittany, it is said that the lavandieres of their particular kind, have an old women’s appearance; but that their size is much taller than that of a tall and sturdy person. She goes across expanses of water as if rushes and brambles. To make these ghosts disappear, you must rapidly reach a newly plowed expanse of land, because there she will sink and evaporate.

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