Ankou, an omen of death

In Celtic mythology, there are legends of the Ankou as an omen of death.  The Ankou is a personification of death in Breton mythology as well as in Cormish and Norman French folklore.  It is the henchman of death (oberour ar maro), or the graveyard watcher.

The Bretons say of the Ankou, he protects the graveyard and the souls around it.  He does this for some unknown reason.  And he collects the lost souls on his land.

Also, the last dead of the year, in each parish, replaces the previous Ankou.  The new Ankou of the year, is the Ankou of his parish for all of the following year.   If there has been more deaths than usual during the year, one says about the Ankou:  – War ma fe, heman zo eun Anko drouk.  (“on my faith, this one is a nasty Ankou”).  This is how the story goes, according to Anatole Le Braz, writer and legends collector of the 19th century.  His best seller:  “The Legend of Death”.

He is always depicted as adult, and male; always the last dead of the year.  Before he can go to his after life, he is charged with collecting other dead people’s souls.  Some legends vary slightly in their descriptions of the Ankou, but they all pretty much describe him as a ghoul; the arberour of death; an omen of death; a man/skeleton wearing a black cloak wielding a scythe, a shadow of a man.  He is never alone when seen, he always has black horses, and is always accompanied by two ghostly figures on foot.  He is also accompanied by an  owl; when the owl cries, it is referred to as Labous an Ankou or The Death Bird.

People who have been known to have defended themselves  against, or have attacked an Ankou have later been found dead.  To help an Ankou after an attack, the person remains alive; but his hair turns white.

Some legends further describe the Ankou, as the first child of Adam and Eve.  Ankou is the king of the dead.  His subjects have their own particular paths along which their sacred processions move.  The Ankou himself, was once a cruel prince who met death during a hunting trip.  During that hunting trip, death challenged him to see who could kill a black stag first.  Death won the contest.  And the prince was cursed to roam the earth as a ghoul for all eternity.

Apparently, there is more than one Ankou on earth at the same time.  Every parish in Brittany has its own Ankou.  There is an Ankou found on the baptismal font at La Martyre (this parish church was given the name ‘martyre’ after the brutal assassination of the canonized Pope Salomon of Brittany; Pope Salomon dies as a martyre in 874).  In Martyre, the Ankou remains there, on the parish’s baptismal fount, as a reminder of what will happen to the scornful; the lost souls, those who sit in the seat of the scornful, will be collected by the Ankou so to go to the afterlife promised to them.

In Breton tradition, the Ankou is not confined to parish cemeteries. it also can be heard outside of a person’s home.  In Ireland, the proverb “When the Ankou comes, he will not go away empty”, relates to the legend.

Celtic folklore in Brittany goes on to describe the Ankou as a death omen.  The Banshee announces the moment of death, where the Ankou assumes the duty of calling for the dead; it collects the dead soul after death.  A tall, haggard figure of a man – with long white hair. He can see everything everywhere.  He drives a cart and stops at the door of a house where someone is about to die or has died.  He knocks on the door, and when the living hears the knock at the door or a mournful wail like the Banshee, it means to the living that death is at the door and has come to collect the body and the soul as well.

Taken and adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


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