Breton folktales often have magical and supernatural elements interwoven with death and tragedy in the story line which creates a dark, sombre but compelling story. Death is ever present in the world and there are many chilling tales of the evil or resentful dead but there are also some that tell of the grateful dead. These are the dead who return from the afterlife to help a living person who helped them in some way after had they died. How can the living possibly help a person who is dead? In answer to this question, presented here is a folktale from Brittany that is a retelling of a story collected by Lewis Spence (1) and tells how a living man was repaid for paying off the debts of a dead man as well as paying for his funeral to ensure he received a Christian burial.
The Man of Honour and the Grateful Dead
The story begins in a coastal town in Brittany with a maritime merchant who traded with many foreign ports so successfully that he built up a massive fortune. This merchant had a son named Iouenn who also wanted to make his way in life in the same way his father had. His father was delighted and set him up with a trading ship and filled it with all kinds of valuable merchandise from Brittany. He gave his son plenty of good advice and Iouenn sailed off to foreign ports to trade and make his fortune and then return home with his profits.
The ship had a safe voyage and after many days sailing docked at a port where Iouenn intended to sell his goods. He went ashore carrying letters of introduction from his father and very soon sold his merchandise at a good profit and found himself in possession of a large sum of money. He decided to spend a few days in the port looking around and sightseeing and one day as he strolled through the narrow streets he came upon a pack of stray dog such as are often seen roaming the streets of many towns and cities unchained. They appeared to be snarling and growling and biting and pulling on an object that was laid in the street. Curious as to what they were doing he cautiously approached and was horrified to see they actually worrying at the corpse of a man.
This shocked Iouenn greatly and he went round making inquiries about the fate of the unfortunate person. He was told that the man had died owing a great debt and as there was no money to pay for a good Christian funeral and burial the custom in those parts was that the corpse be thrown into the streets for the dogs and other beasts to scavenge. Iouenn was shocked that such a terrible indignity could be inflicted upon the dead and after chasing the dogs away, out of the kindness of his heart he paid the debts and for a proper Christian burial.
The Black Ship
After this he resolved he would not stay in the port a day longer and bid his captain make the ship ready for voyage and sailed for home. They had not sailed far when one of the sailors cried out the presence of a strange ship on the horizon heading their way and from it they hear a terrible wailing of many souls. The ship was attired all in black and had a most sinister appearance prompting Iouenn to remark to his captain, “This is a most curious vessel! Why is all attired in black and why are those on board setting up such a wail.”
As the black ship approached Iouenn hailed it asking those on board what troubled them. “Sir, we are charged with a most grim and unhappy task. There exists not far from this spot an island occupied by a gigantic serpent. For seven years our people must have had to pay an annual tribute of a royal princess and her you find us in the process of transporting yet another poor victim to her doom!”