If you happen to be planning a trip to the Brittany region of France, try not to die on the night of October 31.  Specifically, try not to be the last person to die in the parish you’re visiting.  You may wind up with a greater responsibility than you ever imagined.
 
A warning or a joke?  Even in 2010 Brittany, people tread carefully on the ancient Celtic new year.  Ancient legends, tales of times gone by, still live among the Bretons.  Perhaps no legend remains quite as vivid in the minds of the people as that of the Ankou.  He is a personification of death, in simple terms.  But the Ankou is shrouded in tradition so dramatic that he steps beyond many of his morbid colleagues.
 
The Ankou collects the souls of humans who have passed beyond the mortal world.  He himself is not Death.  Instead, the Ankou is called a worker in the house of Death.  Put another way, the Ankou’s task is not his own will but rather the will of Death.  He is a pawn, but a necessary pawn.
 

 

An important thing to bear in mind is that the Ankou is not cut of the same folkloric cloth as, for instance, the Grim Reaper or the Greek Thanatos.  Each and every Ankou was once a resident in the parish that Ankou now patrols.  A parish is a subdivision of the church and comprises a certain area and population.  Given the tremendous number of parishes in Brittany, that is how many different Ankous are working at any one time.  The Ankou is not one lone omnipotent and omnipresent figure but rather there are many Ankous carrying out Death’s will.
 
There is a certain difficulty in describing the appearance of the Ankou.  No one still living has ever seen his face.  To look at the Ankou’s face means immediate death.  Tradition does tell us that he is a skeleton, with all human attributes wiped away.  He wears a black robe and a large-brimmed hat.  Unlike common depictions of Death, the Ankou holds his scythe correctly, suggesting his origins in a farming society.  Most tales agree that the Ankou drives a cart drawn by four black horses.  For this reason, the sudden sound of a cart going by is believed to be a warning that the Ankou is near.  A cold gust of wind is another warning.  Some versions give the Ankou two skeleton helpers who load the collected souls into the cart.
 
The Ankou is a perfect representation of ancient, pre-Christian Breton beliefs that have carried over into modern times.  Brittany itself is a fiercely independent region of France.  The Breton people, in contrast to the rest of France, are of Celtic descent.  Stone monuments such as the standing stones of Carnac show the connection between Brittany and the Celtic settlements of the British Isles.  According to some sources, the Ankou has his origins in Celtic fairy lore, which in turn was combined with the harsh reality of farming life to create a being of the mortal world with a supernatural vocation.  Even the word “Ankou” remains a mystery as to its meaning.   
 
Given the Ankou’s circumstances, it’s not surprising that little is said of his personality.  In truth, the Ankou is a very personal part of every parish.  The Ankou is a title or an office to be filled by different human beings.  One belief that holds throughout Brittany is that there is an Ankou for every parish.  That Ankou is the last soul to have been collected the previous year.  The last person to die in a given year becomes the Ankou for the following year.  As if the fear of dying isn’t bad enough, the fear of becoming the next Ankou is even greater.
 
The Ankou is the subject of many tales throughout the Breton peninsula.  Perhaps the most famous story involves three friends who had gotten drunk together at a village tavern.  As they walked back to their homes, swerving and swaying with drink, they came across the thin, bony figure of the Ankou, who was driving a rickety cart.  Crying out in shock, the men picked up stones and began hurling them at the Ankou.  One stone hit the axle on the Ankou’s cart and it broke into many pieces.  
 
Two of the friends fled in horror.  The third swallowed his fear and took pity on the Ankou.  He looked around and found a branch, intending to use it to fix the axle.  Next he used his own shoelaces to attach the branch to the cartwheel.  Through all of this the Ankou remained quiet, but when the man had fixed the wheel the Ankou nodded in thanks and continued down the road.
 
Sunrise the following day found that the two friends who had thrown stones at the Ankou and crippled his cart cold and dead in the road.  The man who had helped the Ankou discovered that his hair had turned as white as bone, but otherwise was alive and well.  That man never mentioned to any of his neighbors the extraordinary meeting of that night.
 
Another legend features an Ankou who had once been a cruel prince.  As a mortal, he foolishly challenged the Ankou to a game of chance.  This prince was no one admirable but prone to fits of jealous anger and petty viciousness.  He loved to hunt and he thrived upon the moment of death of his quarry.  One Sabbath night, the prince decided to have some sport in his forest. He chased a white stag–a magical animal found in many Celtic tales.
 
Then the prince and his drunken hunting party stumbled across a massive figure draped in black atop a magnificent white horse–another Celtic symbol of death. The prince challenged the unknown and likely wounded man to a contest, as the prince was angry that this common man on his land.  The man, prince or pauper, who could kill the stag would not only keep the meat and hide, pass sentence to determine the fate of the loser. The man agreed.  His raspy voice reminded the hunting party of dead leaves scraping against the castle walls.
 
The hunt ended so quickly that the prince twisted in his confusion. As hard as he had rode, the odd man galloped faster. Through field and stream and mountain, the man kept the lead.  The night winds tugged wildly at his black cloak.  As the prince was still stringing his bow, the man in black let loose his arrow.  There was a dead whistle and the sickening tear of shredding flesh.
 
As could be expected, the prince did not accept defeat with grace.  He ordered his hunting party to surround the stranger.  “Tonight I shall bring two trophies home to my great hall!” the prince bragged.
 
Then the stranger laughed, and for the first time he revealed himself as the Ankou.
“You can keep the stag,” he said.  “My prizes are all the dead of the world. Your joy is hunting?  Mine is collecting.  My trophies will be found across battlefields and hearth.  But my time is finished.  Now it is yours to reek of decay.”
 
In that moment, the prince fell in death and himself became the Ankou.  The old Ankou was freed of his charge and went on to his eternal reward.
 
These stories and others are as alive today as they have ever been.  The Ankou has not lost any of his power over the centuries.  In fact, even today when a great number of people die in a given year, the Bretons say, “This was a bad Ankou!”  And still people dread the thought of being the last to die in their parish and becoming the Ankou in turn.