An ankouis in the Celtic folklore of Brittany, a DEATH OMEN that comes to collect the souls of the dead. The ankou, or King of the Dead, is the last person to die in a parish during a year. For the following year, he or she assumes the duty of calling for the dead. Every parish in Brittany has its own ankou.
The ankou is personified as a tall, haggard figure with long white hair, or a skeleton with a revolving head capable of seeing everything everywhere. It drives a spectral cart, accompanied by two ghostly figures on foot, and stops at the house of one who is about to die. There, it either knocks on the door—making a sound sometimes heard by the living—or gives out a mournful wail like the Irish Banshee. Occasionally it is reported to be seen as an apparition entering the house. It takes away the dead, who are placed in the cart with the help of the two companion ghosts.
The ankou is a powerful figure that dominates Breton folklore.
- Evans-Wentz, W. Y. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. 1911, New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1990.
First you’ll hear the creaky wheels. The cart he drives is old and decrepit: it can be heard from miles away. Another harbinger of Ankou’s approach is a cold, bone-chilling blast of wind or a sudden, abrupt drop in temperature. Ankou is a soul harvester; a Breton Angel of Death. When Ankou ventures out, he never returns home empty-handed.
Although Ankou resembles the Grim Reaper, he (or she) is not an incarnation of Death. Instead Ankou is Death’s servant. Ankou is a psychopomp, albeit a creepy, scary one, not a gentle, comforting one, delivering souls to Death’s ferryman who then transfers them to the Isle of the West (a scenario not unlike that portrayed in Woody Allen’s 2006 film, Scoop). Ankou may travel alone or accompanied by two skeletal footmen. When they are around, Ankou may take it easy and just do the driving, allowing the footmen to do the heavy lifting, tossing souls into the wagon of doom.
Various legends explain Ankou’s identity and how he came to be what he is now. The simplest suggests that the last person to die on New Year’s Eve or the person who dies closest to New Year’s Eve serves a one-year term as Death’s assistant. It’s a rotating position with each town or region possessing its own Ankou.
A more elaborate myth suggests that there is one specific spirit named Ankou who was born a rich, cruel, capricious man—a count or prince but definitely a landowner. Let’s call him Monsieur A. His passion was hunting. Instead of going to church on Sundays he went hunting. One Sunday he pursued a magnificent white stag. The color should have been the tip-off. In Celtic regions, white animals are sacred or affiliated with the Otherworld, the Realm of Death, or both. Perhaps he didn’t know or perhaps he didn’t care. Or perhaps hiding in this story is a pre-Christian Celtic death spirit (hence the refusal to attend church) whose totem ally may be that white stag.
During the chase, Monsieur A encountered a strange figure dressed completely in black, riding a white horse, also pursuing this same stag. They were on Monsieur A’s land and so he challenged the stranger, wagering that whoever killed the stag would keep the meat and hide and determine the loser’s fate. The stranger agreed. No matter how quickly Monsieur A rode, he was unable to approach the white stag, which was instead captured by the dark stranger. Rather than accept defeat graciously, Monsieur A reneged on the terms of the wager he himself had proposed: he ordered his lackeys to seize the stranger, asserting that he’d have two trophies. The stranger laughed and said he could have the stag. Furthermore, if he loved hunting so much, he could do it all the time but for human souls, not animals. Monsieur A was instantly transformed into Ankou.
Although Ankou is now usually envisioned as male, there are occasional female manifestations. (Ankou is a shrouded skeleton: unless you’re a forensic scientist, it may be hard to determine gender.) Some theorize that the oldest manifestations of Ankou were more exclusively female and that today’s folkloric figure is a vestigial survival of a death goddess associated with Brittany’s prehistoric mound builders.
If you hear Ankou’s cart, the thing to do is hide but should you actually encounter him, it’scrucial not to look him in the face, the sight of which may cause instant death.
Ankou is a skeleton wearing a black shroud, wooden shoes, and a broad-brimmed black traveler’s hat similar to that worn by Odin, Mercury, or Saint James.
Ankou traditionally drives an old cart pulled by four black and/or grey horses. Sometimes only two horses pull his cart: one cadaverous, the other young, healthy, and strong. However, that cart may have become too decrepit even for Ankou. Recent sightings indicate that Ankou has upgraded to a death-mobile and now drives a hearse.
The Yule season and especially New Year’s Eve, when people were traditionally advised to stay inside lest Ankou seize them. This may be an attempt to scare people into staying home and not participating in nocturnal rites derived from old outdoor Pagan traditions. Ankou is particularly active whenever the Wild Hunt rides; they may coordinate their schedules.
Artemis; Diana; Rhiannon; Santissima Muerte; Wild Hunt
Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses– Written by Judika Illes Copyright © 2009 by Judika Illes.