Noz an Anaon: Halloween in Brittany

Middle Breton engraving from the church at Ar Merzher (La Martyre) reading: 'An maro han barn han ifern ien pa ho soing den e tle crena fol e na preder' (Death and the Judgement and the cold Hell, when one thinks of them he must tremble. Mad is one who does not wonder [about it]).

 

If you were to mention “Halloween” (i.e. using the English word) to somebody in Brittany, they would tell you that it is some Anglo-Saxon commercial festival practiced far away and having nothing to do with us. If you were, however, to tell them about Gouel an Anaon (“the Festival of the Dead”) or Gouel an Hollsent (“All Saints’ Day”, fr. La Toussaint), then you would most likely hear of some local practices. Your interlocutor would probably tell you of the still extremely common practice to come together as a family to visit your dead on the 1st November. But what of the night before? Halloween is, after all, often said to be of Celtic origins, so surely Bretons will have a remnant of that?

Let’s begin with language. The period around what is known in Gaelic as Samhain is called kalan-goañv in Breton (cy. Calan Gaeaf), the calends of winter (from Latin kălendae – sorry, not a fancy Celtic word). The night of Samhain itself would be known as noz an Anaon (“the night of the Dead”, cy. Nos Galan Gaeaf), but to my knowledge every practice surrounding it is long gone, though some elders may recall traditions and belief to this day. Let us delve into some of these.

To begin with, it is important to our non-Breton readership to understand that the relationship between Armoricans and their Dead is quite intense, to say the least. A seminal work on the question was the one of Anatole Le Braz (1859-1926), a Breton poet and folklorist who reached fame with the publication of La Légende de la Mort chez les Breton armoricains (Dealing with the Dead, 1902), though many things had been collected prior to it by Le Braz himself and other folklorists. One word (and concept, really) that is important here is the one of Anaon. It is used as a plural of ene (soul), but covers way more as a collective noun. It means both the entire population of dead souls and the world they inhabit, a world intermingled with the world of the leaving in many ways.

As you would expect, on the night of the 31st of October, the veil between the two worlds was said to be much thinner. The main beliefs in Brittany thus seem to have been connected to the return of the Anaon to our world on that night. They were often said to come back to their houses and roam the land they had inhabited while they still breathed. As a result, there seems to have been a fair amount of practices around what needed to be done then in order to both guard yourself from harm and show proper respect to those who have died. It seems to have been common practice to light a fire and leave krampouez (Breton pancakes), chistr (cider) and milk for the Anaon visiting your house. One would also be advised to walk in the middle of the road at night to leave the sides free for the passing souls. It was said that you could hear the Dead doing the jobs they used to do while alive, discussing the news from the Otherworld and announcing the deaths to come. You would also leave a big log (kef an Anaon) in the fire so that the dead could warm themselves up while the living sleep. Indeed, in Breton tradition, Hell is a very cold place (an ifern yen) and the Anaon are said to always feel it. Some people would also gather to pray and perform domestic rituals to help the souls find peace better and leave Purgatory faster.

Was everything on Noz an Anaon related to the return of the Dead, then? Not exactly. There seem to be a strong overlap, if not a complete one, between the world in which the Anaon lives and the world of what would be called in English the fairies, though they go by many names in Brittany, most of which could be translated more accurately with “dwarves”. In Leon (North-Western Brittany) for instance, people would be careful not to sweep the ashes of the fire outside on a night like the 31st October so as not to give a chance to the paotred ar sabat (“the Sabbath Boys”, i.e. dwarves) to come indoors.

It appears that Noz an Anaon was also, the way Halloween is today, a night of games and celebrations. Still in Leon – and likely elsewhere – children would carve beetroots and turnips and light little candles in them, a practice well-known in Britain and Ireland as well to this day. Some divinatory games would also be played in hope to see into the future, especially when wanting to learn more about one’s love life in the times to come, or one’s time of death. Daniel Giraudon (1999) collected this rhyme, for instance:

Greunennig aval

Greunennig aval

Lavar din

E peseurt bro e varvin

Pe en breton pe en gall

Pe en greunennig aval ?

Little apple seed

Little apple seed

Tell me

In which country will I die

In Breton land or French land

Or in the land of little apple seeds?

 There are many more practices and beliefs that could be presented here. Unfortunately, all of this is now gone in Brittany, and we owe our knowledge of it to collectors of the past centuries. Some Breton elders will remember bits of them, but this memory is to be lost in the coming years. The last surviving (and thriving) practice remains the one that consists in visiting one’s dead on All Saints’ day, and you can be sure to see cemeteries filled with families and graves covered in flowers on the 1st November.

For those interested in learning more about Gouel an Anaon, and indeed death in Brittany, we have put below some good resources you should start with. Most of the elements shared above were taken from Anatole Le Braz’s La Légende de la Mort (1902) and from Daniel Giraudon’s paper on Halloween (1999). Knowledge of French is highly recommended for exploring that fascinating topic – and knowledge of Breton is highly recommended for your health and wellbeing, and for communion with the dead, especially at this time of year.

Bibliography:

Bihan-Gallic, Fañch. 2018. “The Armorican Voyage to the Afterlife and Celtic Myths”. In: Emily Lyle, Celtic Myth in the 21st Century. The Gods and Their Stories in a Global Perspective. University of Wales Press.

Braz (Le), Anatole. 1893. La Légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne. (Translated into English under the title Dealing with the Dead).

Braz (Le), Anatole. 1902. La Légende de la Mort chez les Breton armoricains. (Revised and augmented edition of the latter).

Giraudon, Daniel. 1999. “La Nuit d’Halloween”. In: Armen n°107, pp. 44-55. Available at https://danielgiraudon.weebly.com/ (under the title “Samhain, Halloween – La nuit des jeux et des esprits en Bretagne et pays celtiques”)

Giraudon, Daniel. 2012. Sur les Chemin de l’Ankoù. Yoran Embanner.

Hélias, Pierre-Jakez. 1975. Le Cheval d’Orgueil. Plon.

 

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