With its medieval towns and villages, wild impressive coastline and abundant forests, picturesque Brittany offers its visitors so much more than just homemade cider and galettes dripping in ham and cheese. Whole days can be devoted to meandering the narrow cobblestone streets and charming squares lined with crooked half-timbered houses. But, as night falls be prepared for a nail-biting mystical enchantment.
The Korrigans of Brittany – fairy folk
According to folklore as the twilight starts to steal the sun and the air grows heavy with the sweet smell of the cooling earth, little people, some no taller than your thumb, come out to play amongst the ferns. They flit through the silver moon-lit sprinkles of the fountains. If you sit quietly and watch extremely closely, you may glimpse a honey coloured streak of hair between the granite boulders.
However, as beautiful as this rare sight might be I strongly suggest that you dare not linger. For the golden streak belongs to no other than the Korrigan According to Patricia Monaghan in ‘The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore’ they could bring danger, for the Korrigan fairies are:
’immoral and might as readily steal a person or child as tell a fortune’.
For centuries the people of Brittany have been entertained by tales told by travelling tailors. Stories have been recounted, around the haven of warming fires, of Korrigans stealing new born babies leaving their own infants in their place. Of killing innocents with their deadly breath and cursing weary travellers to their doom.
Impish and demanding
The stories vary but there are some things of importance that every visitor to Brittany should learn from them:
Korrigans hate religion and everything associated with it. They refused to be converted to Christianity when the Apostles came to Brittany. It’s said that the Virgin Mary chased them away from their water fountains. She became their ultimate enemy and as Saturday masses are customarily dedicated to Mary, they are particularly naughty on this day. If you come across a Korrigan combing its hair or counting its treasures on a Saturday, you should fear for your life.
Yet if you are a man, common folklore will have you doomed already. It’s said, men, unable to resist the Korrigan’s beauty, will be lured into the Korrigans beds and ultimately, to their death. Dr James MacKillop, in his ‘Dictionary of Celtic Mythology’, describes the Korrigan as a;
‘Wanton, Impish, sprightly female fairy of Breton folklore who desires sexual union with humans. Each Korrigan has the power to enmesh the heart of the most constant swain (country youth, lover or suitor) and doom him to perish for love of her.’
Resistance is futile
Sadly, though we learn from the tale of the Seigneur of Nann that a refusal to sleep with a Korrigan will not save you either…
The Seigneur was married to a woman whom he loved. One day during a ride to gather May-blossoms upon his wife’s request, he became thirsty and drank water from a fountain where he came across a Korrigan who demanded that he sleep with her. The Seigneur angrily refused because he was faithful to his wife and rode away after hearing that he was fated to die. The Seigneur, feeling ill even as he drew homeward, said to his waiting mother, ‘My good mother, if you love me, make my bed. I am sick unto death. Say not a word to my bride. For within three days I shall be laid in the grave. A Korrigan has done me evil.’
As requested the curse was kept secret from his wife for three days. When the Seigneur’s mother finally told her daughter-in-law the truth, the wife died of a broken heart and was buried beside her husband.
Magical beings of Brittany
You may now decide, knowing what you know, that it is safer to just avoid the Korrigan altogether. But this is not always easy to do for a Korrigan may not always look like a Korrigan. Some say that they are able to take on any shape and move location at the speed of the mind. And, not content with changing their own appearance they also have the ability to transform a leafy forest into a delightful castle or palace in which they may sit and wait for a poor unsuspecting soul to be tempted and overcome. Only a ray of daylight can dissolve the magnificence.
I hope that you now have a little understanding of the ways of the Korrigan and feel able to protect yourself as the light fades on the enchanting countryside of Brittany. But please remember, the Korrigans are not alone.
There are cousins known as Les Lutins who are equally as mischievous and troublesome. Do not be surprised if they trip up your bicycle or scare your children. Many say there are giants, though they are never seen, the chaotic boulders strewn across the land are evidence enough for some of their tomfooleries. Not all of Brittany’s legends are mean, the Bugul Noz is a fairy spirit who lives in the woodlands. He is not malicious, but his appearance is said to be so vile that even animals avoid him. Aware of his hideous form he stays alone and shouts out to warn humans of his approach so as not to scare. And mermaids known as Les Sirenes have been said to save people on occasion.
Whether you believe, or not, lots of brilliant stories have been written, and the captivating story telling tradition continues in Brittany with many museums and tourist offices organising evening story telling sessions.
Sleep well dear readers but remember if you fall off your bike unexpectedly or come across a majestic grand chateau in Brittany’s twilight – it may not always be what it seems.