Breton legends: The Pointe du Raz and the city of Ys

The contemporary département Finistère (Bret. ‘Penn-ar-Bed’) was the centre of the pagan Brittany from the 4th to the 9th century. Some of the pagan customs and legends are retained. At the cliffs of the coast of Finistère the solitude of the ocean meets the solitude of the land. One of those cliffs is the Pointe du Raz (Bret. Beg ar Raz), it belongs to the commune Plogoff (Bret. Plougoñ). Until the beginning of the 20th century the wasteland began behind the village of Lescoff. There was only a windmill visible in the distance or sometimes a shepherdess, sitting with a spindle at a gorse hedge. On the Pointe du Raz you can hear the roaring of the sea from below, the impacts of the waves shake the whole cliff. Where the cliff ends, the ocean approaches from three sides. When you stand on the cliff, it seems as if there was only the sea and the sky. Near the Pointe du Raz stands the “Phare de la Vieille” (‘Lighthouse of the old woman’), it has been inaugurated in 1887.

In 1950 the Hôtel de L’Iroise was built on the Pointe du Raz. The tourism has left his marks in the following years. Well-trodden paths covered the rocks and in summer there were even snack stands. So the government decided to renaturate the cliff. Therefore the hotel was pulled down in 1996.

According to a legend the fishermen of the area heard sometimes at midnight a knocking at the door. When they went outside, they empty found boats at the coast. In those boats were invisible spirits. Driven by a mysterious sway, the fishermen sat down at the rudders and the boats rushed away. When the boat reached the Île de Sein (Bret. Enez-Sun), the fishermen heard voices call their name. Then the voices and spirits disappeared.

The spirits of the drowning victims gather at the Baie de Trépassés (en. Bay of the Deceased, bret. Bae an Anaon). On All Souls’ Day, the 2nd November, their souls run as transient, white spray over the wave ridges and in the whole bay you can hear their voices, their cries and their susurration.

According to another legend the souls of lovers, that have committed suicide, because they couldn’t marry, meet on All Souls’ Day on the sandy beach of the bay. The flood tide unites them and the ebb tide disunites them.

The Enfer du Plogoff, a cavernously weathered part of the cliff, at which you can hear the groaning of the deceased. Photo by Eschallier in the Base Mémoire des Ministère de la Culture

The most interesting Breton legend is the myth of the sunken city Ys (Bret. Kêr-Is). It is a repercussion of the pagan history of Armorica in the 4th and 5th century. In this legends the fear of the pagan cult, of women’s rampant sensual enjoyment and of the ocean become manifest. In the 5th century King Gradlon reigned Cornouaille (Bret. Kerne, Lat. Cornu Galliae). At this time, the same language was spoken on both sides of the English Channel. Gradlon was a pirate, conqueror and had gained the title “Conan of Armorica” several times, because he defended the country against Germanic tribes. Before he became king, he undertook several raids against the Saxons in England and against the Picts and Scotti in Scotland. When he came back from his last raid he brought the black horse Morvark and the redhaired woman Malgven with him.

Morvark was untamable, only Malgven and Gradlon were able to ride it. It stared at other people with black eyes and snorted, whereby a flame seemed to dart out of his nostrils. The redhaired Malgven wore a golden diadem and a dark blue coat of mail made of steel. Her arms were white as snow and she had sparkling blue eyes, nobody knew how Gradlon had obtained the woman. It was said, she was an Irish or Scandinavian sorceress who has poisoned her first husband to follow Gradlon.

Gradlon on Morvark, statue on the cathedral of Quimper. Photo by Archibald Tuttle, Lizenz: CC by/ Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

When Gradlon became king, Malgven died abruptly and left a young daughter. Her name was Dahut and she had been born on a ship on the ocean. King Gradlon was lamenting Malgven and became depressive.

Dahut grew up and resembled her mother, her skin was even whiter, her hair of a deeper red and her eyes changed the colour like the ocean. She alone could cheer Gradlon up. When he looked at Dahut, it was as if Malgven was back.

Dahut loved the sea and asked her father to build her a city at the coast. Thousands of slaves built the city of Ys, it was protected by a huge dyke. Behind the embankment lay a basin, at spring tides it was filled with water. A sluice regulated the influx of the basin. On a rock at the coast stood the palace of Gradlon and Dahut.

Fishermen saw Dahut, when she was swimming naked in the ocean and chanting mysterious songs that were dedicated to the ocean, whom she called her fiancé. One day she threw a ring in the floods and a wave touched her feet, went up and wrapped her up to her hips.

The city of Ys grew and became the richest town of Cornouaille. Many boats shipwrecked on the rocks of the coast, the inhabitants of Ys took the flotsam and enslaved the survivors. Dahut and the people of Ys worshipped the ocean as a god. Once per month they held a religious service for the ocean. The ceremony was held at the beach, Dahut was enthroned amidst the crowds and bards invoked the ocean. Then the sluice was opened and the water flowed in the basin. People were catching fish in the shallow water of the basin with their nets. Dahut handed out pink shells as talismans.

When she saw a man she liked, he immediately fell in love with her. She invited him in the palace and when he went there, he was never seen again. Some nights later a rider on a black horse would throw a big bundle from the Enfer du Plogoff in the Baie des Trépassés.

Landévennec, ruins of the Abbey Saint-Guénolé, photo by Camille Enlart (1862-1927), licence: public domain

One day Dahut visited the tomb of Saint Winwallus (Bret. Gwenole, Fr. Guénolé, born after 460, died 532) in Landévennec (Bret. Landevenneg). At first she entered the tomb alone and the bard, who accompanied her, waited outside. When she lit her torch, she saw the figure of a man, who raised his hand. he scared her and she ran outside. That bard asked her what happened, they went back in together and the mysterious man had disappeared. The bard predicted, that a man who looks alike the figure in the tomb, would bring ill luck to her some day.

Some time later Dahut got a page by name of Sylven. Sylven resembled the figure in the tomb and Dahut fell in love with him. She was in love with a human being for the first time in her life and she didn’t want to kill him.

In the meantime the families of the missing men made rebellion. They grabbed their pitchforks, went to the castle and tried to ram the gate. They wanted to kill Dahut.

Dahut was lying on her bed and ignoring the uproar. She told Sylven that she loves him. He asked her to flee with him but she didn’t wanted to listen. She sent him on the highest tower to check the colour of the ocean. First he saw the sea was dark green and the sky was black. She said there was no need to worry. Then the sky went pale and the sea became sallow yellow and white full of of sea foam. The waters were rising. Dahut didn’t take it serious and made jokes about her “ex- husband”. Suddenly the sea went pitch black and the waves were high like mountains.

The angered crowd entered the palace, Dahut went out of the building through a hidden door. Dahut was very angry on the people of Ys now and decided to flood the city. She ordered Sylven to open the sluice. Sylven opened the sluice and the first wave of entering water grabbed and drowned him. When Dahut saw what had happened to her lover she realized, that the situation was dangerous and she ran to her father. Gradlon lifted her on the black horse Morvark and they fled. The ocean cried for his fiancé and pursued her.

Suddenly Saint Winwallus appeared and told Gradlon to drop his evil daughter and behind the fleeing horse the spirits of the lovers of Dahut emerged from the Enfer de Plogoff. When Dahut saw the apparitions, her cold hands slipped off Gradlons clothes and she fell into the floods. In the moment she drowned the ocean went quiet. The beach was deserted, the city of Ys was destroyed.

The flight of King Gradlon, by Evariste-Vital Luminais (1822-1896), Quimper, Musée des Beaux-Arts, licence: public domain

Gradlon went to Quimper (Bret. Kemper) and became a Christian. When Gradlon died, his horse Morvark went insane with grief. It ran away. It still searches for Gradlon and at night people sometimes hear the clatter of its hooves. On the cathedral of Quimper stands a statue of Gradlon and Morvark. The inhabitants of the region are still proud of their King Gradlon and his horse might symbolize the independent Brittany.

Sources and further reading:
Les grandes légendes de France : les légendes de l’Alsace, la grande Chartreuse, le Mont Saint-Michel et son histoire, les légendes de la Bretagne et le génie celtique by Édouard Schuré (1841-1929), published in 1908 by Perrin in Paris. Pages 209-228; licence: public domain.

Dahut on the cover of the Comic “les Druides” volume 2 by Jean-Luc Istin, Thierry Jigourel and Jacques Lamontagne.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s