French Myths & Legends 101 - Les Dames Blanches, Ankou, Les Lavandieres, European Dragons

In the area of what we now know as France, there have been several tribes that left a mark in the country’s culture. The Celts are probably the biggest and most well know, and their influence can still be felt in French music, dance, and language. Other cultures like the Gauls, and Bretons have also left a long-standing tradition in the region, and very often the cultures have syncretized and adapted to each other. This multi-cultural legacy can perhaps be most clearly felt in the myths and legends that permeate the country, and which are varied, imaginative, and incredibly interesting.

To give you a little taste of the magical world of French myths and legends, we give you four of our favorite ones:

1. Les Dames Blanches

Like beautiful trolls, these White Ladies eternally await in bridges for handsome young men who need to cross. What interests these beauties is the simple joy of dance, and a willing partner. When a young man tries to cross the bridge, they ask him to dance with them. If the man agrees, she will let him pass without any problems, and he will be none the wiser to her potential danger. However, those unlucky men who are not suitable dance partners, and who refuse the invitation will be thrown off the bridge.

2. Ankou

We are all familiar with the image of the grim reaper, who wears a black cloak that covers his face, and carries a scythe that causes fear. Unlike the grim reaper, the Ankou is not charged with killing those whose time has come, but he embodies the same physical characteristics. The Ankou’s job is to guard the souls of his graveyard, collecting the ones that have been lost, and bringing them into his realm. In some stories, the Ankou is the unfortunate soul that beats all others as the first death of the year, and is then charged with guarding the souls of others until the year has passed. In other stories, he is forever doomed to fulfill his task and cannot ever leave it.

3. Les Lavandieres

These Celtic figures of Brittany recall an image repeated in several cultures of three old women who are connected to death. These old women with webbed feet wash cloths in the banks of rivers at midnight -hence the name “The Washers”-. What makes the image of these women morbid is that the clothes they are washing are old and torn rags that will be worn by those who are about to die. Hence, they evoke an image of death and wasting away that would make anyone’s hair stand up.

4. European Dragons

As in many European countries, Dragons are an intrinsic part of French Medieval mythology. Because of their resemblance to snakes, dragons were the perfect enemy for brave Christian Knights who left in epic journeys of honor and valor in which they rescued the damsel in distress. Several images and stories of dragons were produced, including images of Christian saints fighting them.