If you’ve immersed yourself in my world, you’ll know that in Faerie there are different power players. Today we’re looking at Ankou, King of the Dead.
The Folklore of Ankou
A spectral figure portending death in Breton folklore, a counterpart of the Greek Thanatos. The ankou is usually the spirit of the last person to die in a community. Sometimes male, but more often female, the ankou is usually a tall, haggard figure in a wide hat with long white hair, or a skeleton with a revolving head who sees everybody everywhere. The ankou characteristically drives a deathly wagon or cart with a creaking axle and piled high with corpses; a stop at a cabin door means sudden death for those inside. Although roughly parallel to the driver of the death coach in Irish folklore, the ankou appears to draw more from the Grim Reaper in medieval Christian folklore. The 19th-century writer Anatole le Braz suggested that the ankou is a survival of the prehistoric dolmen-builders of Brittany. See also ANGAU; DULLAHAN; FAR DOROCHA; YANNIG.
In Celtic folklore of Brittany, the Ankou is a death omen that collects 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 as a skeleton with a revolving head able to see everything everywhere. It drives a spectral cart accompanied by two ghostly figures on foot and stops at the house of the one who is about to die. It knocks on the door – making a sound that is sometimes heard by the living – or gives out a mournful wail like the Irish Banshee. Sometimes it’s reported to be seen as an apparition entering the house. It takes away the dead, who are then placed in the cart with the help of the two companion ghosts. The Ankou is a powerful figure that dominates Breton folklore.
In the Celtic mythology of Brittany the figure of Ankou is associated with death. Tall and wearing a long dark coat, a wide brimmed hat and carrying a scythe over his shoulder, the skeletal Ankou is a collector of the souls of the dead. Ankou is sometimes said to have two skeleton helpers who assist in loading the souls of the dead into a rickety cart drawn by black horses.
There are a number of tales about Ankou. One is recounted in the book of Breton myths, legends and music compiled and published in 1839 by Théodore Hersart de La Villemarqué, ‘Barzaz Breiz’.
It involves the story of three young drunken friends who when returning home one night met an elderly man dressed in black on an old cart. The man was Ankou. Two of the men started to taunt the old man and throwing stones broke the axel of his cart, they then ran away.
The third young man felt sympathy for Ankou and helped him mend the cart with a branch and used his shoelaces to hold the axel together. On the morning after the incident the two who had thrown stones at Ankou were found dead. The third that had helped was spared by Ankou but had his hair turned white. He would never talk in detail of his experiences that night.
Encyclopedia of Giants and Humanoids in Myth, Legend and Folklore by Theresa Bane
A personification of death in Breton mythology, the Ankou also appears in Cornish, Welsh, and Irish folklore. Also known as the grave watcher, he is a fairy version of the Grim Reaper and often appears as a skeleton wearing a black robe and carrying a scythe. In Ireland he is known to ride a black coach pulled by four horses to collect the souls of those recently passed over.
According to Breton folklore collector Anatole le Braz (1859 – 1926). “the Bard of Brittany”, “The last dead of the year, in each parish, becomes the Ankou of his parish for all of the following year. When there has been, in a year, more deaths than usual, one says about the Ankou: ‘War ma fé, heman zo eun Anko drouk.’ (On my faith, this one is a nasty Ankou.)”
In a short story by Wyndham Lewis, The Death of the Ankou (1927), a tourist in Brittany perceives a beggar to be the embodiment of the Ankou. In fact, it is the tourist who acts as Ankou to the beggar, who subsequently dies.
The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper
There are other sources too, but it basically just rehashes the same info.
- Wikia Villains: Ankou
- The Paranormal Guide: Ankou
- Wikipedia: Ankou
- Paranormal Encounters: The Ankou, Ancient Celtic Lore
- Ankou: Frightening Spirit Who Delivers Souls to the Underworld (Ancient Pages)
- L’Ankou – Gaelic parallels with the Breton death-spirit (Atlantic Religion)
The Folklore of Death
Now that we’ve established that Ankou is the personification of Death, let’s quickly look at Death in Folklore.
The personification of Death has been going on for millennia. The Ancient Greeks even had a god, Thanatos, as Death personified. And it’s been rampant in folklore – even in Aesop’s fables.
You can read the rest of the post here.
The Workers of Death
Click on the links to read the folklore of each worker of Death.
Furies are legion. They collect the souls of the fallen to do battle at the end of time.
They also punish the wicked, avenge the innocent and interfere in the lives of mortals and fae.
They wear clothes of ash, cinders falling in their wake. They have wings resembling that of bats.
Furies are excellent in battle. They can wield any weapon and can decimate their enemies in close-quarter combat (with or without weapons).
They live in the Underworld. They answer to Dagda, the Keeper of the Veil and Ankou – the King of the Dead. Like all creatures associated with Death, the rules of Faerie do not apply to them. They can be classified as deathfae.
The Barguest is a black dog who usually looks like an Alsatian with Reddish eyes. But a mirror can reveal its true nature and looks: a spectral creature with fire for eyes.
They live in the Underworld, keeping souls from escaping back to the world of the living. And if souls were to escape, they go on the hunt in the human realm and forcibly take them back to where they belong.
Barguests ensure that all deals made with creatures from the Underworld are upheld. Usually it entails keeping the foolish mortal safe.
They are great companions and loyal. They have a strong sense of duty.
Dagda is king of the Underworld. He has four castles – all spectacular – in the four corners of the world. He is perfectly toned with tattoos all over.
He possesses powerful magic.
He controls the growth of wheat and grass topside. Even in droughts he can make it grow so people won’t starve.
He is able to grant wishes – that is why he’s known as the Wishmaster. Wishes don’t come cheap: something has to be bargained.
Dagda was once a powerful figure in Faerie, but he overstepped his bounds and the Dark King punished him by making him the king of the Underworld: a place where souls from the Mortal Realm and Faerie have to wait for judgement once Dullahans have delivered them there.
Young Sirens can choose a mortal life – live among humans, age like humans and even have magic like human sorceresses. Only their magic can work on Sirens. But if, at any point, her nails start to glitter silver, she has to return to her own kind (this usually happens if she’d used too much magic).
Sirens only feed on human men. They lure them into the water – either with their seductive appearances or by enthralling them with song – then they drown them, escort their souls to the Otherworld and then return to feast on the flesh before taking the bones to the roots of the tree that gives life to their kind.
Before drowning their victims, they are beauty incarnate dressed in glittering gold or silver. During the drowning, they turn into dark creatures dressed in black with a multi-coloured coiffure. After the drowning, they turn into a barely recognised female form of skinless red oozing around stray feathers and claws. After feasting on the flesh of their victims and placing the bones beneath the tree, they return to their perfect forms.
They sing from the moment they start drowning their victims, through the meal, until they’ve returned to their perfect forms.
The curse upon them is to be half-bird, half woman creatures unless they use enough magic to conceal their true nature. It takes a lot of sacrifice (the men drowned and eaten) to keep their magic strong. The bones at the roots of their tree feeds their magic.
They live in a beautiful ocean with an underwater waterfall. They have a meadow above ground that they sometimes call home. No matter where they live, they always look the same – it’s only during the feeding ceremony that they go to extremes. Most Sirens stay in their perfect form, though some like to stay in the dark creature transformation, multi-colour hair and all, to conserve magic.
Young Sirens of age have to go through a rite of passage: drowning their first victim. They have to perform perfectly or be punished by the older Sirens.
Sirens promise truth and knowledge only to deliver death. But if someone can come away enlightened instead of enthralled by the song of the Siren, the human will go free and the Siren will dissolve into the water she stands in, becoming one with the magic of the world. It is thought that if a Siren died like this during initiation, she’d live in the cool waters that the rest could only dream of.
Sirens really do know all – the past, present and future. They have the gift of telepathy and can read the thoughts of humans. It is this knowledge that got them cursed in the first place…
There is no known way to kill a Siren.
The Banshee is a wailing wraith usually clad in green. she can have either red or blonde hair which floats around her. she is strikingly beautiful despite her incessant bawling.
Once she is banished (usually by a stronger Faery) her body puffs out to resemble a cloud of smoke and her face becomes truly ghastly and terrifying, still framed by her reddish-blonde hair. she disappears in a puff of smoke.
The Banshee always tries to trick people or Faeries into thinking that they’re dying. She’ll wail until the person she haunts dies. (Running away from her can be dangerous – cliffs, trucks, various sharp objects, etc.)
though the Banshee is thought to be a harbinger of Death, she usually causes it.
A terrifying creature. The only thing equally as scary is the steed he rides: a black horse which snorts sparks and has glowing eyes (colour differs from one steed to the next).
Dullahans are headless. They’re usually horsemen, though on occasion they will ride out in their carriages of death. The black coach has skulls all over lighted with candles from within. The wheels’ spokes are made of the femurs of humans and Fae alike. Six black horses swiftly and silently draw the carriage, creating fires in its wake.
Whether riding coach or steed, nothing can keep the Dullahan out. All locks unlock, doors and gates fly open whenever he wishes to enter. No-one is safe from the attentions of this Dark Fae.
The Dullahan’s head can either look like mouldy cheese, stale dough or some weird combination thereof with the distinct form of a skull. A terrifying, hideous, idiotic grin splits the face – broadening the closer the creature is to calling a soul to ride with him to the realm of the dead. The entire head glows phosphorescent, the strength of the light varying for stealth. Sometimes the Dullahan will use his own head as a lantern to see by…
The Dullahan likes blood. He carries with him a basin full of it, throwing it at the inquisitive who look upon him and sometimes on his victims to subdue them.
Probably the most macabre aspect of this Faery is the human spine he uses as a whip. Legend has it that the spine belongs to someone he cared for in a previous life.
Dullahans are created by the Unseelie Court as part of some weird ritual to appease the dead. Dullahans can either be made from humans (they don’t last really long) or from Fae who were chosen for this sacrifice. Always the one chosen to become a Dullahan is beheaded by a gold axe.
They have a strong allegiance to the Unseelie Court.
Dullahans don’t like speaking all that much. Mostly because the head settled on the saddle-brow can be dislodged by too much talking. A myth had arisen that this Faery has a limited power of speech because the disembodied head mostly only calls out the name of the soul he came to collect.
Though there’s no true defence against this herald of Death, the Dullahan seems to have an irrational fear of gold. (Probably due to it being a golden axe that killed him in a previous life.) Only gold weapons have any effect on them. Gold gathered from the ground with magic and then thrown at them works like shrapnel and is quite effective at chasing them off.
Merrows keep the souls of the drowned in cages until they can be collected by Black Dogs (usually Grims or Barguests) to go to their final resting place in the Underworld.
They live in the in-between world Tir fo Thoinn (the Land beneath the Waves) just like most other Fae who fall within the Water Fae Classification (e.g. Selkies, Sirens, Jengu, etc.).
Just like all Fae, they are able to change their appearance at will. When not in their mermaid-like form, fish tails and all, they wear warmer coats resembling sealskin to survive icy waters. The webbing between their fingers and toes makes it easier to swim.
All their magic is kept in their red caps without which they do not dare go near other Merrows for fear of enslavement. Better to wait out the human who stole it and pretend to be captured than face true torment at the hands of their own for eternity.
Merrows, like all Fae, enjoy toying with humans. And though they’ll warn against storms, chances are they were the ones who created it.
Some even hunt humans to eat them and keep their souls in cages as pets.
All The Grim is a black dog that looks a lot like a wolf. It has brown markings on its legs, a lot like that of a Cù Sìth. They can become shadows to stay invisible to mortal eyes.
They live in the Otherworld, guarding the Misterss of the Veil between worlds. Their job is making sure that all festivities that have to do with the mortal world and theirs go smoothly (Samhain, Solstice, etc.). Sometimes they have to hunt Faery-Hybrids, magical lakes and other things that threaten their Mistress or the festivities they safeguard.
Like all black dogs, they are fierce protectors and loyal.
Valkyries choose warriors to fight at the end of time – when good and evil will battle until only one side survives.
New Valkyries are chosen during battle the same way warriors are chosen for the final battle: some see it as a blessing while others see it as a curse. Warriors are treated like they’re something special, Valkyries have to work and serve until the end of time.
They train mercilessly. They are true warriors adept at all types of fighting.
There are different types of Valkyries: those who prefer to fight in ancient skirt armour, those who prefer medieval armour and others who like full-body leather outfits fitted with matching armour. All of them have their strengths and weaknesses – those who prefer leather aren’t all that into being subservient and are usually a lot stronger (mentally, physically, emotionally, magically) than the others.
They have a commander and they follow her orders to the letter – Valkyries aren’t supposed to have opinions of their own (which is why those who prefer leather – and have the strength that goes with it – are so rare).
Valkyries are all women. They were brave in their mortal lives and are even braver as immortals. They fight the Furies for possession of human souls to fight at the final battle (Ragnarok).
There are others, of course, but I haven’t written folklore posts about them yet. You can read three thrilling tales involving the Keeper of the Veil in Unseen (for free!) when you sign up for my newsletter.
Ankou in Modern Culture
In Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series, Ankou is the sister of Far Dorcha. She collects the corpses of fallen fae while he takes their souls to the next world. (You can read my review of the series on Goodreads here.)
I haven’t come across Ankou (the folklore version) in other recent novels or short stories (except my own), so leave suggestions in the comments.
How It All Ties Together: The Deathfae
Now you know what had inspired me to write about Ankou, to make him the King of the Dead. Let’s look at how it works in my world. (In order of importance and rank.)
- Ankou = in charge of all the dead.
- Keeper of the Veil = keeps the realms separate, in charge of all the Workers of Death (everyone else on this list).
- Dagda = in charge of keeping souls in the Underworld.
- Merrows = keep souls until they go to the Underworld.
- Sirens = escort the souls of their victims to the Underworld.
- Grim and Barguest = hunt souls that have roamed outside of the Underworld and take them back to where they belong.
- Furies and Valkyries = escort souls to their place in the Underworld, keeping them to fight at the end of time.
- Dullahans = escort souls to the Underworld.
- Banshees = cause death to those marked for death.
Ankou from the Origin of the Fae Page
Ankou can appear as a skeletal being with a scythe and wearing a cloak – just as folklore claims. But he usually dresses smartly, especially when visiting the Faery Queen. He stays bone white, though. He likes the fact that all fae fear him, or are at least uncomfortable with his presence – even those who work for him.
He sometimes collects the souls of the dead in his black cart/carriage. Depending on his mood and the circumstances, he can be quite gentle with the recently dead and take them to his realm himself instead of leaving them to the tender mercies of the dullahans and others in his service.
It is his duty to maintain order between the Otherworld and the land of the living (Faerie and Mortal Realm alike). He has various servants (dullahans, banshees, sirens, etc.) with specific duties to maintain this order. His most trusted lieutenants are the Keeper of the Veil and Dagda, ruler of the Underworld.
During Samhain, when the Veil between Worlds are at its thinnest, he leads a procession of dead fae and some of his servants through the world of the living. When they come across living beings, they are to be appeased with baked goods or dessert. Or they will play cruel tricks on the individual. That is why it is best to stay indoors, hidden in the dark, during Samhain lest you attract the attention of Ankou and his subjects.
Probably not everything he can be, but it’s a good start.
Obviously deathfae like mingling with humans as much as any other fae, so halflings are bound to be born. I used one in the short story that was accepted for FairyTale Riot. (You can read more about the anthology here.)
I made a dedicated Pinterest board about Ankou that you can check out here.
So there you have it: everything you need to know about Ankou, plus a book by yours truly featuring him, a short story in a new anthology featuring deathfae, and a reading recommendation. Anything about Ankou you’d like to add?
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