Monthly Archives: October 2021

Mictecacihuatl

Pronunciation: Mikt-eyk-as-see-wahl or Misk-tesk-ei-siev-alth

Alternate Spelling: Mictlantecihuatl

Also Known As: Lady of the Dead, Queen of Mictlan

Etymology: Lady of the Dead (Nahuatl)

Mictecacihuatl is the Aztec goddess of the dead and Mictlantecuhtli‘s wife. Together the two rule over the nine layers of the Aztec Underworld and it’s nine rivers. Compared to her husband, Mictecacihuatl doesn’t have much for stories and myths surrounding her. But that could be if we’re just seeing male and female half of the same divine concept with similar, overlapping functions and roles.

Attributes

Animal: Bat, Dog, Owl, Spider

Direction: North

Element: Earth

Month: Tititl (Aztec), November

Patron of: Death, the Dead

Plant: Cempasúchil (Marigold)

Planet: Pluto

Sphere of Influence: Death, Resurrection

Symbols: Bones, Skeletons

Aztec Depictions

Mictecacihuatl is described as wearing a skirt made of snakes, sagging breasts, skull face and clawed feet for digging her way through the earth. She is also shown as being flayed, having no flesh on her body and her mouth open to swallow the stars during the day so that they become invisible. Mictecacihuatl can also be shown as a beautiful woman wearing traditional Aztec clothing and the skull face being more ritualistically painted on.

What’s In A Name

As previously mentioned, Mictecacihuatl’s name translates to “Lady of the Dead” in the Nahuatl language.

Family

Parents – Unknown, it is believed that when Mictlantecuhtli was born, that her parents sacrificed the infant.

SpouseMictlantecuhtli, the Lord of Mictlan.

Aztec Cosmology

Suns – This is a big one in Aztec Cosmology, the Aztecs believed in a cycle of suns or periods of creation. The fourth sun ended with a great deluge or flood that drowned everyone and that the current age is the fifth sun.

There were a number of different paradises or afterlives in Aztec belief. The manner of a person’s death would determine which of these paradises they got to enter. Any person who failed to get into these paradises would find themselves destined for Mictlan.

Fairly common in many world beliefs, the Aztecs divided the cosmos into three parts. The Heavens or Ilhuicac at the top with the Earth or Tlalticpac, being the land of the living found in the middle. Mictlan, the Underworld would be found below.

Depending on the manner of one’s death, would depend on which after life a person to. Mictlan was pretty much seen as the place for all souls who couldn’t get into one of the paradises.

Cosmic Origins

In the Aztec Creation story, there were Ometecuhtli and his wife Omecihuatl who bore four children Xipe Totec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, and Huitzilopochtli.

And…. Nothing really happens for about 600 years, so the four children decide that they will set about creating the universe. That of course includes creating the Sun, the first man and woman, maize, and calendar. Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the Lord and Lady of Death would be created last.

Deific Origins

Mictecacihuatl’s origins are a bit gruesome. When Mictecacihuat was a baby, she was sacrificed and it is there in the Underworld of Mictlan, that she quickly grew to adulthood and married Mictlantecuhtli and from there, would rule over the Underworld with him.

Keeper Of Bones – Resurrection

One of Mictecacihuatl’s functions within Aztec religion is that she kept watch over the bones of the dead. For the Aztecs, skeletons and bones were symbols of abundance, fertility, and health. You couldn’t have one without the other.

Both Mictecacihuatl and Mictlantecuhtli collect bones so that the other Aztec gods might bring them back to life. The mixing up of all of these various bones is also what allows for the creation of new races.

Lord Of The Underworld – Mictlan

With the Christian mindset, the Underworld, any Underworld does not sound like a happy fun place to be or go.

Not quite in Aztec beliefs, most everyone who died, went to Mictlan. When a person died, they would be buried with grave goods that they would carry with them on their travels to Mictlan. These goods would be offered up to Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl.

As the newly dead started their journey to Mictlan, they would be accompanied by a small dog who guided them. Mictlan was known to be located somewhere far to the North. Much like in other world myths and beliefs, the Realm of the Dead is pretty much just neutral, not necessarily evil. Mictlan is divided into nine different levels or layers that the dead must travel through and a series of tests they must do on a four-year journey down to Mictlan. We are talking having to run from various monsters, icy blasts known as the “winds of obsidian,” traverse a mountain range where the mountains crash into each other, and to cross the nine rivers of blood guarded by jaguars. Once the soul arrived, they would dissolve, vanishing forever.

Home Sweet Home – While Mictlan is divided into nine different levels, Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl live in the last few levels. One legend holds that there is a place of white flowers that was forever dark and served as home to the gods of death.

The actual house or dwelling place that Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl live at in the Mictlan is reputed to have no windows.

Vaticanus Codex – In this Colonial codex, Mictlantecutli is identified and labelled by the Spanish as “the Lord of the Underworld, Tzitzimitl” and equated with the Christian Lucifer.

Mictlampa

This is the name the Aztecs used for the northern direction associated with Mictlanteculhtli. The northern direction is where the Aztecs believed the land of the dead to be. This would be a region of the earth that was a dark, barren and cold place that was eternally still and quiet. Which makes sense for the Artic. Sometimes, Mictlanteculhtli could be associated with the south, just as equally likely if one were to make it to Antarctica, that’s pretty cold and lifeless the further inland you get.

Souls Of The Dead

The Aztecs recognized three types of souls and Mictlantecutli governed over all of them.

  1. People who died of normal deaths as in old age and disease
  • People who died heroic deaths such as in battle, sacrifices and childbirth
  • People who died non-heroic deaths, accidents and suicides

While this sounds like every soul ends up in Mictlan, a soul could end up in another place. For example, if someone died violently drowning or lighting, they would end up in Tlalocan (a realm in the Heavens), for the Tlaloc, the water god.

Deific Offerings

Like many cultures, the Aztecs buried their dead with offerings for the afterlife, namely for Mictlantecuhtl and Mictlantecutli. These items would be offerings of food and various ceremonial or precious items.

Cempasúchil – Also called Flor de Muertos and Marigold, specifically Mexican Marigold in English, these flowers are held sacred to Mictlantecuhtl. These orange & yellow blossom’s scent is thought to be able to wake the souls of the dead and bring them back for a Dia De los Muertos in autumn. Many alters, graveyards and decorations would be festooned with these flowers. The Mexican Marigold is a familiar wild flower that grows in many places of central Mexico.

Aztec Calendar

In the Aztec Calendar, Mictecacihuatl was honored and celebrated throughout the ninth month, a 20-day period that roughly corresponds to the Gregorian calendar of late July and early August. When Spanish Conquistadors arrived in 1519, Mictecacihuatl’s corresponding holiday of Hueymiccaylhuitl was moved forward to October 31st to November 2nd to correspond with the Catholic observance of All Saint’s Day.

Hueymiccaylhuitl

An Aztec holiday, the “Great Feast of the Dead” was celebrated for the recently deceased and to help them on their journey to Mictlan. Hueymiccaylhuitl would be celebrated in the Aztec month of Tititl where an impersonator or stand-in for the god Mictlantecuhtli would be sacrificed.

When someone died, the Aztecs would cremate the remains. It was believed that the soul would than undertake a four-year journey to Mictlan through the various levels of the Underworld and needing to pass a series of trials. Those who succeeded would make it to the lowest levels of Mictlan.

Hueymiccaylhuitl was also celebrated as an annual celebration as it was believed the dead could return to the lands of the living and visit. Plus, it was a way for the living to help those on their journey as the living could communicate with the deceased souls.

When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, bringing Catholicism with them, the traditions of Hueymiccaylhuitl transformed, becoming known as Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Families still leave offerings of food and goods for the dead to take with them on their journey.

Under more modern and current celebrations and influence from the Catholic church, Día de los Muertos coincides with All Saints’ Day or Feast of All Saints on November 1st. It is a celebration that combines imagery from Aztec beliefs with an air of carnival and festivities with families gathering at cemeteries to share a picnic meal with deceased loved ones and sugar skulls in the image of Mictlantecuhtli.

Month-Long Celebration

Mictecacihuatl had a month-long celebration for her. However, not much is known about it and all Archaeologists and historians know for certain is that there was song and dancing, incense burnt and very likely blood sacrifices.

Dia Los Muertes

Mictecacihuatl not only have presided over the older Aztec celebrations for the dead but continues to watch over the contemporary festivals of Día de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead. Celebrations and observances for this holiday start on the evening of October 31st, coinciding with the holidays of Halloween and Samhain. In Mexican tradition, families will hold graveside vigils with deceased loved ones. Then on November 1st and 2nd, the dead are said to awaken and celebrate with their living family and friends.

Santa Muerte – Mexico

A female deity, early images of her started off as male. Santa Muerte is a folk saint whose worship and popularity has been increasing since the start of the 21st century in Mexico and has been spreading. Devotees of Santa Muerte may or may not be disenfranchised with the Catholic Religion and many turn to her for healing, protection, and a safe passage to the afterlife.

Mictlantecutli

Pronunciation: Mict-lan-te-cuht-li

Alternate Spelling: Mictlantecihuatl

Other names: Chicunauhmictlan (“King of Mictlan”)

Etymology: “Lord of Mictlan”

Mictlantecutli is the Aztec deity who is the Lord of the Dead and ruler of the Aztec Underworld known as Mictlan. Which is exactly what Mictlantecutli’s name translates to, “Lord of Mictlan.”

Just to get it out of the way, Mictlantecuhtli’s wife is Mictecacihuatl, who is also the ruler of the dead.

Attributes

Animal: Bat, Dog, Owl, Spider

Direction: North

Element: Earth

Month: Tititl (Aztec)

Patron of: Death, the Dead

Planet: Pluto

Sphere of Influence: Death

Symbols: Bones, Skeletons, Paper

Time: 11th Hour

Aztec Depictions

Mictlantecutli is often represented as either a skeleton or a human figure wearing a skull. His headdress will often have owl feathers on it. When shown as a skeleton, Michlantechutli’s headdress will have knives in it to represent the wind of knives that the souls of the dead must pass through on their way to Mictlan. Michlantechutli when shown as a skeleton may be shown covered or splattered in blood and wearing a necklace of eyeballs or wearing paper clothing. Paper being a common offering for the dead. As human, Michlantechutli would have human bones serving as ear plugs that he wears.

Additional depictions of Michlantechutli show him wearing sandals to symbolize his high rank as the Lord of Mictlan. Michlantechutli could also be shown with his arm held out in an aggressive pose, showing he was ready to tear apart the dead as they came into his presence and realm. There is also an Aztec Codice that shows Michlantechutli as having his skeletal jaw wide open to take in the stars into him during the day.

What’s In A Name

Mictlantecutli’s name translates to “Lord of Mictlan” in the Nahuatl language.

Family

Parents – Not really, Mictlantecuhtli was created by Xipe Totec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, and Huitzilopochtli when they were busy creating the universe and world.

Spouse – Mictecacihuatl, the Queen and Ruler of the Dead. Another spelling I have for her is Mictlantecihuatl.

Aztec Cosmology

Suns – This is a big one in Aztec Cosmology, the Aztecs believed in a cycle of suns or periods of creation. The fourth sun ended with a great deluge or flood that drowned everyone and that the current age is the fifth sun.

There were a number of different paradises or afterlives in Aztec belief. The manner of a person’s death would determine which of these paradises they got to enter. Any person who failed to get into these paradises would find themselves destined for Mictlan.

Fairly common in many world beliefs, the Aztecs divided the cosmos into three parts. The Heavens or Ilhuicac at the top with the Earth or Tlalticpac, being the land of the living found in the middle. Mictlan, the Underworld would be found below.

Depending on the manner of one’s death, would depend on which after life a person to. Mictlan was pretty much seen as the place for all souls who couldn’t get into one of the paradises.

Cosmic Origins

In the Aztec Creation story, there were Ometecuhtli and his wife Omecihuatl who bore four children Xipe Totec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, and Huitzilopochtli.

And…. Nothing really happens for about 600 years, so the four children decide that they will set about creating the universe. That of course includes creating the Sun, the first man and woman, maize, and calendar. Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the Lord and Lady of Death would be created last.

Lord Of The Underworld – Mictlan

With the Christian mindset, the Underworld, any Underworld does not sound like a happy fun place to be or go.

Not quite in Aztec beliefs, most everyone who died, went to Mictlan. When a person died, they would be buried with grave goods that they would carry with them on their travels to Mictlan. These goods would be offered up to Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl.

As the newly dead started their journey to Mictlan, they would be accompanied by a small dog who guided them. Mictlan was known to be located somewhere far to the North. Much like in other world myths and beliefs, the Realm of the Dead is pretty much just neutral, not necessarily evil. Mictlan is divided into nine different levels or layers that the dead must travel through and a series of tests they must do on a four-year journey down to Mictlan. We are talking having to run from various monsters, icy blasts known as the “winds of obsidian,” traverse a mountain range where the mountains crash into each other, and to cross the nine rivers of blood guarded by jaguars. Once the soul arrived, they would dissolve, vanishing forever.

Home Sweet Home – While Mictlan is divided into nine different levels, Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl live in the last few levels. One legend holds that there is a place of white flowers that was forever dark and served as home to the gods of death.

The actual house or dwelling place that Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl live at in the Mictlan is reputed to have no windows.

Vaticanus Codex – In this Colonial codex, Mictlantecutli is identified and labelled by the Spanish as “the Lord of the Underworld, Tzitzimitl” and equated with the Christian Lucifer.

Mictlampa

This is the name the Aztecs used for the northern direction associated with Mictlanteculhtli. The northern direction is where the Aztecs believed the land of the dead to be. This would be a region of the earth that was a dark, barren and cold place that was eternally still and quiet. Which makes sense for the Artic. Sometimes, Mictlanteculhtli could be associated with the south, just as equally likely if one were to make it to Antarctica, that’s pretty cold and lifeless the further inland you get.

Souls Of The Dead

The Aztecs recognized three types of souls and Mictlantecutli governed over all of them.

  1. People who died of normal deaths as in old age and disease
  • People who died heroic deaths such as in battle, sacrifices and childbirth
  • People who died non-heroic deaths, accidents and suicides

While this sounds like every soul ends up in Mictlan, a soul could end up in another place. For example, if someone died violently drowning or lighting, they would end up in Tlalocan (a realm in the Heavens), for the Tlaloc, the water god.

Aztec Calendar

In the Aztec Calendar, Mictlanteculhtli is associated with the tenth day sign Itzcuintli, a dog. There were twenty such signs in the Aztec calendar. On the day that a particular deity is associated with, that deity was were responsible for providing the souls born on that day.

In addition, Mictlanteculhtli was the source of all souls born on the sixth day of a 13-day week. That is an exceedingly long weekend to work towards.

Mictlanteculhtli presided as the second Week Deity for the tenth week of a twenty-week calendar cycle.

Aztec Gods

Of the Aztec Gods as a whole, Mictlanteculhtli is the fifth out of nine Night Deities.

As a Night God, Mictlanteculhtli would be paired up with the Sun god Tonatiuh to symbolize the duality and dichotomy of light and darkness.

He was also the secondary Week God for the tenth week of the twenty-week cycle of the calendar, joining the sun god Tonatiuh to symbolize the dichotomy of light and darkness.

Dualities – Light & Dark

While we are on this subject, where Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl represented Death; they are the complements and opposites to Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl who represented Life.

Fertility – Life & Death

By modern, Western aesthetics, Mictlanteculhtli is not the only Aztec deity to be shown with skeletal imagery or bones. For the Aztecs, skeletons and bones were symbols of abundance, fertility, and health. You couldn’t have one without the other.

Bats

As they only come out at night and often from caves, bats have been associated with Mictlanteculhtli and the Underworld.

Dogs

Due to the tenth day sign Itzcuintli, a dog, they are also associated with Mictlanteculhtli. It also seems fairly coincidental enough too as even in Europe, dogs as in Black Dogs are often associated with death and being psychopomps to lead the souls of the dead to the afterlife.

Owls

In Aztec beliefs, the owl is associated with death and thus one of Michlantechutli’s animals. Michlantechutli is often shown wearing owl feathers on his headdress.

Spiders

Another animal associated with death and darkness; they too have been associated with Mictlanteculhtli.

Ritual Sacrifices

A good portion of the Aztec belief system involved a lot of ritual blood sacrifices. Mictlantecuhtli was no different. Sacrifices made to Mictlantecuhtli were performed at night with a person being a stand in or avatar, representative for the god of death. They would be sacrificed at the Tlalxicco temple, whose name means “navel of the world.”

The flayed skins of humans would be offered up to Mictlantecuhtli and it is said that ritual cannibalism was done at the temple too.

Fun Fact – When Hernan Cortes landed on the shore of Central America, the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II thought that this was the deity Quetzalcoatl who had arrived. Thinking that this was the end of the world, Moctezuma II increased the number of human sacrifices believing that this would allow him to appease Mictlantecuhtli and avoid the torments of Mictlan.

Aztec Creation Story

In Aztec myths and beliefs, the world has been created and destroyed a few times.

In this case, the gods Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl had just finished with restoring the sky and earth when they decide that they need to create people to populate this new fifth world. Since Michlantechutli has all the bones, Quetzalcoatl travels to him to inquire about getting some bones. Michlantechutli agrees to the condition that Quetzalcoatl travel around the Underworld four times while sounding a conch shell horn. The catch is that Michlantechutli gives Quetzalcoatl a shell that doesn’t have any holes drilled into it.

Quetzalcoatl fixes this problem by summoning some worms who drill holes into the conch shell and then having bees fly into the shell. When Michlantechutli hears Quetzalcoatl blowing the conch horn, he is obligated to fulfill his end of the agreement. However Michlantechutli decides to go back on his word to keep the bones. Quetzalcoatl is forced to flee, taking the bones with him and Michlantechutli sends his minions, the Micteca after the other god. The Micteca dig a deep pit and as Quetzalcoatl is running, a quail jumps out, startling Quetzalcoatl so that he falls into the pit and dies with the bones all shattering. This is why people will be different sizes.

One retelling has the quail tormenting Quetzalcoatl before he seemingly dies and then gnaws on all the bones, making that the reason why humans will be in different sizes.

Quetzalcoatl does eventually revive, being a god and takes the bones to the goddess Cihuacoatl who grinds up the bones and puts them into a special container. The other gods now gather around this container and cut themselves to shed blood into it. From this mixture, the humans of today came forth to populate the earth.

Variation – One version of the myths I came across is that it is both Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl who come to claim bones from Mictlantecuhtli and that these were the bones of previous deities who had lived and died.

Hueymiccaylhuitl

An Aztec holiday, the “Great Feast of the Dead” was celebrated for the recently deceased and to help them on their journey to Mictlan. Hueymiccaylhuitl would be celebrated in the Aztec month of Tititl where an impersonator or stand-in for the god Mictlantecuhtli would be sacrificed.

When someone died, the Aztecs would cremate the remains. It was believed that the soul would than undertake a four-year journey to Mictlan through the various levels of the Underworld and needing to pass a series of trials. Those who succeeded would make it to the lowest levels of Mictlan.

Hueymiccaylhuitl was also celebrated as an annual celebration as it was believed the dead could return to the lands of the living and visit. Plus, it was a way for the living to help those on their journey as the living could communicate with the deceased souls.

When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, bringing Catholicism with them, the traditions of Hueymiccaylhuitl transformed, becoming known as Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Families still leave offerings of food and goods for the dead to take with them on their journey.

Under more modern and current celebrations and influence from the Catholic church, Día de los Muertos coincides with All Saints’ Day or Feast of All Saints on November 1st. It is a celebration that combines imagery from Aztec beliefs with an air of carnival and festivities with families gathering at cemeteries to share a picnic meal with deceased loved ones and sugar skulls in the image of Mictlantecuhtli.

Syno-Deities

Santa Muerte – Mexico

A female deity, early images of her started off as male. Santa Muerte is a folk saint whose worship and popularity has been increasing since the start of the 21st century in Mexico and has been spreading. Devotees of Santa Muerte may or may not be disenfranchised with the Catholic Religion and many turn to her for healing, protection and a safe passage to the afterlife.

Ah Puch – Mayan

Also known as Yum Cimil, the Mayan god of Death, seen as similar to Mictlantecuhtli.

Coqui Bezelao – Zapotec

Another god of Death similar to Mictlantecuhtli in Central to South America.

Kedo – Zapotec

Another god of Death that Mictlantecuhtli has been equated with.

Tihuime – Tarascan

Another god of Death similar to Mictlantecuhtli in Central America.

Ankou

Pronunciation: ahn-koo

Etymology: From the Breton word anken for anguish or grief. Another word given is ankouatt, meaning “to forget.”

Also Known As: Ankow (Cornish), yr Angau (Welsh), L’Ankou, Death, the Grim Reaper, King of Dead, Angel of Death, Death’s Servant

In Breton mythology of Brittany, France, the Ankou is the local personification of death. They come at night either on foot or more often riding in a cart or carriage drawn by four black horses to collect the souls of the newly dead and take them to the Lands of the Dead.

Pre-History

With scant evidence, but the persistent belief in the Ankou prevailing, there are thoughts among scholars that the Ankou might be a surviving tradition of a local Celtic Death God or Goddess. It has been suggested by the 19th-century writer, Anatole le Braz that the belief of the Ankou goes back to the dolmen-builders of prehistoric Brittany.

Description

Imagery of the Ankou can be found throughout many of the old Celtic countries such as Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. One example is found on a baptismal font in La Martyre where the Ankou is shown holding a human head. The Ankou, like the depictions of the Green Man on many churches are a Pagan holdover and a defiance towards Church Authority.

The Ankou appears as a ghostly skeleton or sometimes as an old man who wears black robes and large, wide-brimmed hat that conceals its face. As a skeleton, the Ankou’s head is able to spin around so he can see in all directions. The Ankou is shown too carrying a scythe that has the sharpened blade upwards instead of downwards. Sometimes he only appears as a shadow carrying a scythe. He is said to drive a black cart or carriage drawn by two horses, one old and one young or there are four black horses. If there are several souls for the Ankou to collect, he will be assisted by two skeletons who help hurl them into the cart. A cold gust of wind is said to follow in the Ankou’s wake as he travels.

Aside from collecting souls, the Ankou when there is more than one, are guardians of cemeteries. And sometimes the Ankou of a cemetery is the first person to die in the year who is then tasked with collecting the souls of the dead and lead them to the afterlife.

Karrigell an Ankou – The Wheelbarrow of Ankou, he is heralded by the sound of squealing railways wheels outside a person’s home.

Labous an Ankou – The Death Bird, the cry of an owl heralds the arrival of the Ankou.

King Of The Dead – In some legends, the Ankou is the King of the Dead. Each of his subjects have their path that they follow their path through the Underworld or Afterlife.

Psycho-Pomp

Regardless of the description of the Ankou that you go by, their job is that of a psychopomp, an entity that guides and takes the souls of the deceased to the afterlife. The persistence of the Ankou has continued into the 21st century where it is recognized more as the Grim Reaper.

Though he is often shown carrying a scythe, the Ankou doesn’t have to kill anyone, just his presence and arrival signals that someone’s time has come. The Ankou’s role as psycho-pomp also sees him as something of a protector of the dead.

Death’s Henchman – In “The Legend of Death” by Anatole Le Braz, the Ankou is a henchman to Death, protecting the graveyard and souls around it, collecting them for the afterlife when it is their time. The last person to die in the year for their parish, becomes the Ankou for the following year. In any year where there have been more deaths than usual, the phrase: “War ma fé, heman zo eun Anko drouk” is said. Translated, it means: “On my faith, this one is a nasty Ankou.”

New House – It is believed that the Ankou awaits in every new house to claim the life of the first living being to enter it. For that reason, a tradition began in the Breton Commune of Quimperlé to sacrifice a rooster and spread out its blood on the foundations of every house being built, that way the Ankou could collect the soul of the rooster.

Omen Of Death

To see, hear or approach the Ankou is an omen of death. However, it is with the understanding that to see the Ankou, is something of a blessing in disguise, as the individual is often given the time to be able to say their goodbyes and get affairs in order.

Your Soul Has Been Collected, Now What?

Well now, that really all depends on what you believe. For some, that’s it, no more, finis. For others, there’s going to be some sort of afterlife that the Ankou is going to take you for final judgment, whether that be a Heaven or Hell of some sort, or even just a Purgatory where the soul is in limbo forever.

There’s plenty of speculation and evidence in surviving Celtic stories that they likely believed in reincarnation as other religions and cultures have. Ultimately, even with the arrival of Christianity, the soul continues on in some form and the Ankou is going to take it there.

The Bretons were no different than their other Celtic kin, death is a part of life. The soul continues somewhere, even if we aren’t in agreement of where that is.

Fairy

In Ireland, the Ankou is seen as a type of fairy versus a ghost or spirit of some sort. Which makes sense where distinctions between the three are easily hashed out. Yet also a bit confusing, as most people will think of the small Victorian Flower Fairies that are small and have wings like Tinkerbell of Peter Pan fame. In the more deeper studies of Celtic or Irish folklore, faeries are a type of spirit, not just another race of beings with numerous various types. Older linguistics and translations show that faeries are the spirits of the dead and the Realm of Fairy is the Land of the Dead. Which goes right back to making sense to refer to the Ankou as a type of fairy.

Kalan Goañv

A Breton festival that corresponds to October 31st with the celebrations of Halloween and Samhain. Similar to the tradition in the Mexican Dio Los Muertos, the Bretons would feed the Ankou with milk, cider and crepes. The tombstones in cemeteries across Brittany have small cup-like holders that offerings for the dead can be left at.

Night Of Wonders

The Bretons call Christmas Eve the “Night of Wonders.” During this time, the Ankou will pass through anonymously through the crowd attending Midnight Mass. Anyone that the Ankou brushes past will be those who die before the New Year.

French Nursery Rhyme

“O, Lakait ho Troadig” is the name of a nursery rhyme that dates back to the 16th century. The Ankou is mentioned where each time the rhyme progresses, a new word in introduced that then becomes the first word in the series.

Irish Proverb

“When Ankou comes, he will not go away empty.”

Storytime

There are a few stories involving the Ankou that I came across while researching this figure.

Story One – First Child

In some stories, the Ankou is said to the first child of Adam and Eve…. Which would make him Cain, if we go by most versions and translations of the Bible.

Right then…

Story Two – Drunken Friends

This story sees three friends who were drunk and of course, walking home late one night. The three came across an old man on a rickety cart. Two of the friends began to shout at the old man, not realizing that this it he Ankou. Then they began throwing stones that when the axle on the cart broke, the two ran off.

As for the third friend, he felt bad and went to help the old man. He found a branch and came back with that to replace the broken axle. Then he took the shoelaces off his shoes to give the Ankou to tie it in place.

The next morning, the two friends who had thrown stones were found dead. As for the third friend, who had stayed to help, his hair turned white. He never spoke in any detail about what happened that night.

If we have the story, the guy must have told someone or written it down.

Story Three – The Cruel Prince

In this story, there was once a cruel landowner that challenged Death. The landowner? A petty, spoiled and entitled Prince. This Prince was out hunting, chasing down a white stag, an animal given special status in Celtic lore. As the Prince and his companions chased the white stag, they encountered a dark figure sitting atop a white horse. Infuriated that this person dared to trespass on his lands, the Prince challenged the stranger. Whoever killed the stag could not only keep the hide and meat but could also determine the fate of the loser. The stranger agreed, speaking in a soft, eerie voice that unnerved those who heard him.

To the Prince’s horror, the hunt was over faster than he anticipated. No matter how hard he rode, how fast he drew his bow, the stranger was faster still and succeeded at bringing down the deer. Angry at his loss, the Prince had his men surround the stranger, declaring that he would bring back two trophies that night. The white stag and the stranger.

The stranger laughed, revealing himself then to be Death, telling the Prince that since he loved to hunt so much, he could have the stag and all the dead of the world. The Prince was then cursed to become an Ankou or a Ghoul, forever collecting the souls of the dead.

Story Four – The Blacksmith’s Story

In this story, there is a blacksmith by the name of Fanch ar Floc’h who was very engrossed with his work on Christmas Eve, that he missed the Midnight Mass. He worked late into the midnight hour, (held sacred in some European cultures, the witching hour when magic happens) when the Ankou arrived seeking to have his scythe repaired. Fanch knew full well who his midnight visitor was and he worked on the scythe tirelessly, dying at the dawn of Christmas Morning.

Story Five – The Coach of the Dead

This story was first recorded by the Breton poet and folklorist Anatole Le Braz in 1890. The legend is much older, having been passed on through oral tradition.

A young man was curious one evening when he heard the sound of the Ankou’s axles as they creaked. The man ran out to a clump of hazel where he hid watched for the Ankou’s arrival. As the cart passed by, it suddenly stopped and one of the Ankou’s skeletal companions went to where the young man hid to cut a branch of hazel to repair the axle. The young believed had been spotted by the Ankou and was relieved when the cart soon left. However, when morning came, the young man was found dead.

Story Six – The Blocked Road

Three brothers are returning home after a night of partying and quiet drunk. The three decide they will pull a prank on the first carriage to pass through on a nearby road. They do so by blocking the path with a large, dead tree.

Later in the evening, the brothers were awoken by loud banging on their door and a voice yelling that they go and remove the tree blocking the path. The voice knows that it was the boys who pulled this stunt.

When the three opened the door to look, no one was there, but they could not close the door again no matter how hard they tried. The boys called out, asking who was there. Once more the voice boomed, ordering them to go to the road that they blocked.

Freaked, the brothers went out, finding that the stranger they thought to find was the Ankou. The Ankou explained that he had lost an hour of his time due to this stunt and as a result, they would all die one hour sooner. The Ankou then added, that the three were lucky, had they not come out when they did, they would have owed him a year of their lives for each minute that he lost.

Syno-Deities & Entities

Arawn – The Celtic god of the Dead, the Ankou is sometimes equated with him.

Bag an Noz – The Boat of Night, those who live along the sea-shore in Brittany tell of how the last person to drown in the year, will roam the seas at night to collect the souls of the drowned and guide them to the Afterlife, just as the Ankou does on land. It is a ghost ship that appears when ever something bad is about to happen and disappears when people come to close. The crew of this boat are said to call out soul-wrenching sounds.

Charon – The Greek ferryman of the dead has also been equated with the Ankou due to similar garb and taking souls to the Afterlife.

Church Grim – Or the Grim, in English and Scandinavian lore it is a black dog that has been killed and buried in the graveyard at either the beginning or end of the year in order to protect the church and graveyard. Other animals such as lambs, boars or horses.

Crom Dubh – This one is a bit of a stretch. Crom Dubh was an ancient Celtic fertility god who demanded human sacrifices every year, of which, the preferred method was decapitation. Eventually the god fell out of favor and somehow this god becomes a spirit seekings corpses and eventually becoming the Dullahan.

Death Coach – A general Northern European, especially in Ireland where it is called the Cóiste Bodhar. The Death Coach is known for arriving to collect the soul of a deceased person. Once it arrives on earth to collect a soul, it will not leave empty. It is a black coach or carriage that is driven or led by a headless horseman who is often identified with the Dullahan.

The Dullahan – also known as Dulachán meaning “dark man” or “without a head.” This being is a headless fairy often seen dressed in black and riding a black headless horse while carrying his head under an arm or inner thigh. The Dullahan is armed with a whip made from a human spine. Death occurs wherever the Dullahan ceases riding and when it calls out a name, the person called dies. Death can also come if the Dullahan tosses a bucket of blood at a person who has been watching it.

In other versions, the Dullahan rides a black carriage. Sometimes they are accompanied by a banshee. Nothing can stop the Dullahan from claiming a victim save the payment of gold.

Grim Reaper – Essentially, the Grim Reaper and Ankou are largely the same entity, both wear the black robes and carry a scythe. The Grim Reaper is very much so the modern Ankou, appearing in several various media and literature.

Santa Muerte – The female version of the Grim Reaper. Her imagery is very similar in appearance to the Ankou and Grim Reaper with wearing robes and wielding a scythe. Santa Muerte is worshiped primarily among many Hispanics & Latinos, especially in places like Mexico.