The Ankou was a grim harvester of souls from the dark side of Brittany folklore, once believed to ride the dark lanes of Brittany in search of unwary travellers and the benighted.
The Ankou came in many guises, most commonly as a gangling skeletal figure with long white hair and a revolving head so he could look in every direction, his features shaded by a long brimmed hat.
He was the driver of a wooden death cart, drawn by pale horses or oxen, which could sometimes be heard creaking through the dark lanes: a warning to bolt the shutters and hide from his gaze. There were two other figures associated with the Ankou, they walked beside the cart and would help to lift the dead inside, their features always hidden from view.
The Ankou sometimes carried a weapon, a sword, scythe or lance with which he would strike down victims and in most guises he can be identified as death himself, perhaps some long lost memory of an ancient god, although the origin of the tradition are long lost.
In some accounts the Ankou is the soul of the last person to die in an area during the year, tasked with collecting all other souls. In others he is identified with Cain: Adams eldest son who killed his brother and was doomed to search the darkness for those about to die.
In some stories the Ankou is blind as a result of an encounter with St Peter: St Peter came down to walk beside the Ankou in his grim task, as the darkness grew they passed by a farmer and his servant still working in the fields by the side of the lane. The creaking of the Ankou’s cart startled the farmer who fell to his knees and hid his face from sight. The servant however continued to cut the hay singing all the time in his strong melodic voice. The Ankou stopped the cart and shouted that the servant would be dead within 8 days, but the servant kept on singing defiantly. At this challenge to authority the Ankou’s eyes lit up like fire and he readied himself to strike down the servant, but St Peter jumped between the Ankou and his prize blessing the servant with long life and taking the fire from the Ankou’s eyes. Thus the Ankou was left blind and less able to strike down souls in the dark leafy lanes of Brittany.