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.

About silverfox57

An AFOL who's been around a long time and has decided to make more of an on-line presence. I also have a strong love of mythology and folklore.

Posted on October 3, 2021, in Brittany, Celtic, Cemetary, Christian, Christmas, Cornwall, Death, Fairy, French, Guardian, Halloween, Irish, New Year, Nursery Rhyme, Omen, Owl, Pagan, Psychopomp, Reincarnation, Soul, Underworld, Welsh and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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