The Ankou in Lower-Brittany

Author : Daniel Giraudon / June 2023
Brittany has often been represented by romantic writers as the land of death. It was already the case in the XVIIIth century with Jacques Cambry in his journey to the Finistère but such an image finds it's biggest development in the masterpiece by Anatole Le Braz The Legend of Death in Lower-Brittany published in 1893 and it's many later editions. On it's pages hovers constantly the shadow of the Ankou that we have now followed on the empty paths of Lower-Brittany.

Origins of the name and ancient representations

The Ankou is the personification of death and/or his worker whom the role is to search out the dying and accompany them to the other world after having made them pass from life to death. The name comes from the Celtic « nek » signifying to kill, to perish. The first known mention of this word is a gloss from a latin text dating back to the IXth century.

Ossuary in La Roche-Maurice (29). On the stoup of the ossuary, the Ankou is menacing. It reads: I kill you all. Photo Daniel Giraudon
The Ankou figure in the statues and paintings of churches and ossuaries in Lower-Brittany appears in the form of a skeleton carrying an attribute. It is also represented in Breton literature from the XVIth and XVIIth centuries, as a theatre character and it is evoked in certain poems of that time. And, more recently, it holds a strong place in the popular tales and legends of the oral tradition.

The different functions of the Ankou and it's attributes

Other than deadly and guiding the deceased to the next world, popular belief attributes other functions such as that of gravedigger, of messenger of the dead, or even as a justiciary (righter of wrongs). On the contrary to what we generally think, the most common attribute is not originally the scythe. Actually, in the most ancient representations whether they be sculpted, painted or literary, according to each case, he holds either a lance, a javelin, a fletched arrow and also, in his role as gravedigger, he carries a spade, a pick or a hoe. It is only in the writing of folklorists of the XIXth century and later that he will take in his hands the tool of the reaper of life. The function as messenger of the dead, translates itself by the symbol of the grinding wheels of his cart, karr an Ankou, at nightfall, three days before a death in the family or in the neighbors one will hear it. He is seconded in this task by the bird of death, the barn owl, lapous an Ankou who's nocturnal cry is bloodcurdling.

More we advance in time, and more the Ankou becomes human in the popular beliefs or imagination.

The Ankou in the oral tradition until today

Following the different parts of Lower-Brittany, The Ankou is the first dead of the year or the last from the year before. That is to say, he is renewed each year. It's age and it's importance. If he is young, he will try to take people of his generation. If he is an old person, the aged have worries in the coming months. The personality of the one who holds the role of the Ankou has also it's consequences. If they have the reputation of having been a mean person, he will go looking for a lot of people.

He is not alone to carry out his task. He is assisted by the second on the list of deceased in a parish. It is he who guides the horse by the bridle, opens the gates or conducts the loading.

Rather than hanging in a shroud, the Breton Ankou, as it is described from the XIXth century, is dressed like the people of the country. He hides his face under a wide-brimmed black felt hat under which we distinguish his long white hair. We can also see his large skeletal silhouette under a long black coat.

The descendant of a God ?

Some researchers wanted to establish a connection between the Ankou and Sucellos, The Gallic god with a mallet from a Breton expression, morzholig an Ankou, The little hammer of death, name of the deathwatch beetle, an insect which the markings in wood are a disastrous symbol. However, this tool doesn't figure in the criminal equipment of the Ankou. On the other hand, another element of belief equally in relation to death, the blessed mallet, ar mell benniget could give a lead heading in that direction. But again, no proof to this day has put this object in the hands of the Ankou.

Gallic God of the Mallet in Saint-Brandan (22). We have tried to connect the Ankou to the Gallic God of the Mallet, Sucellos, of which a superb statue still exists in the country-side of Saint-Brandan. Photo Daniel Giraudon

Today, the Ankou is a character in comics and he is sometimes represented symbolically in the processions protesting against the closure of companies.


Author : Daniel Giraudon, « The Ankou in Lower-Brittany », Bécédia [en ligne], ISSN 2968-2576, mis en ligne le 29/06/2023.



  • CROIX Alain, La Bretagne aux 16e et 17e siècles, La vie, la mort, la foi, Maloine éditeur, Paris, 1981.
  • GIRAUDON Daniel, Sur les chemins de l’Ankou, croyances et légendes de la mort en Bretagne, Yoran embanner, Fouesnant, 2012.
  • LE BERRE Yves, Entre le riche et le pauvre, La littérature du breton entre 1450 et 1650, Emgleo Breiz, Brest, 2012.
  • LE BRAZ Anatole, La légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne, Champion, Paris, 1893.
  • LE MENN Gwennole, La mort dans la littérature bretonne du XVe au XVIIe siècle, Mémoires de la Société d'Histoire et d'Archéologie de Bretagne, Tome LVI, 1979, pp. 5-39.

Contributed by : Bretagne Culture Diversité