Various Anthropomorphic Personifications of Death and Something We Can Learn About Certain Cultures From Each. (part 2 – Ankou)

Ankou is a figure in Breton, Cornish (an Ankow in Cornish), Welsh (yr Angau in Welsh) and Norman French folklore. Ankou was a figure in orally transmitted mythologies and most of what we have written down about him comes from later collections of tales and myths. Originating in the Celtic mythology of Brittany, Ankou was described as a being tasked to perpetuate the cycle of life and death, wielding a hammer able to grant both. But as centuries went by, the Ankou became solely associated with Death and was progressively likened to a Grim Reaper-like psychopomp.

I will not be writing much about the Celtic roots as they didn’t write anything down and are much harder to research.

The image of the Ankou Shifted back and forth over the ages and in different myths and tellings he was, a harbinger of death and gatherer of souls, a servant of Death, king of the dead, first son of Adam and Eve, and in later tales the last person of each parish to die in the year became the Ankou of their parish. in most depictions regardless of what exactly the Ankou was he remained a grim harvester of souls.

He is often described as a tall and thin figure clad in black Breton garments, wearing a large felt hat concealing his face, standing up in a creaking cart similar to the ones used during the Middle-Age to gather corpses, in which he gathers the souls of the dead, and wielding a scythe whose blade is turned outward for striking forward instead of reaping, which glows under the moonlight. Sometimes he was human looking sometimes a humanoid shadow and sometimes a skeleton.

The Ankou (as it should be bloody obvious by now) was the precursor to the modern idea of the Grim Reaper as most tales of the Grim reaper are adaptations of tale told about Ankou.

What I learned from researching this is that there are no myths without history behind them and that when trying to research ancient belief we never know what we will discover about modern stories fantasies and mythos.

I don’t think I will make part tomorrow as I will be busy and this one was a lot of work without much to show for it but you can probably expect it sometime next week (I will still make weekday posts but they may end up being smaller as I will be busy doing other stuff).

In order to get a more complete view of the mythos of Ankou I recommend you read the following stories

Ankou: Breton Halloween Story

I couldn’t find a source for the 3 one as I found it mentioned but not told in full so here is the Wikipedia version:

One tale says that there were three drunk friends walking home one night when they came across an old man on a rickety cart. Two of the men began shouting at the Ankou and threw stones. When they broke the axle on his cart, they ran off.

The third friend felt pity and, wanting to help the Ankou, found a branch to replace the broken axle and gave the Ankou his shoe-laces to tie the axle to the cart. The next morning, the two friends who were throwing stones at the Ankou were dead while the one who stayed to help only had his hair turned white. He would never speak of how it happened.

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