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Mar 7, 2016

The Schattenreich Mythology: Ankou

Hagen nudged my knee with his. “Do you know who Ankou really is?”

“Why don’t you just come on out and tell us?” I asked.

“Many think that Cernunnos is equated with Dis Pater, who Caesar claimed was the chief of all the Celtic gods. The Big Guy, so to speak. His original Celtic name is lost. Or, more likely, hidden. Others think it is Taranis, sometimes Lugh, but not often. Taranis and Lugh are solar, possibly the same being with different names. Dis Pater is definitely a dark, underworldy god.”

“You think Ankou personifies Dis Pater?” Heinrich joined me in admiring the river, slipping his sunglasses on. “Wow. I’d never really thought about him like that, but…there’s nothing to dispute it. I think of Cernunnos as Lord of the Underworld and Ankou as—”

“Subservient, I think, is the word you’re looking for. He assumes the role, at least in the times I’ve seen them together,” Hagen said, repositioning his cutlery and obviously suppressing some excitement.

“And if he is Boss Celt—” I began.

Hagen laughed and glanced around. “Not only that. Boss German, too.”

“Wōden? Ankou incarnates Wōden? What makes you think that?” Heinrich asked.

“He has all of Wōden’s attributes. The cape, the spear – it’s a staff with a curved iron blade in Ankou’s case. The hat, but he doesn’t wear it all the time. He rides a kaveg.”

“He leads the Wild Hunt,” Heinrich said. “At least he led it on Kala-Hañv.”

“He controls the wind – is that also Wōden?” I asked.

They nodded.

“He herds the dead,” Hagen said.

“With your help. But Ankou has two eyes,” Heinrich said. “Wōden lost an eye if I recall.”

“The eye is symbolic. Ankou is not all-seeing. He’s lost the ability. It has something to do with the closing of the veil. I can’t tell you why, but I’m sure of it.”

“What does all that have to do with Caitie?”

“I’m not at liberty to say,” Hagen said.

“Your geis,” I said.

Heinrich frowned. “Wōden got around.”

“He’s a fertility god. Same as Cernunnos.” Hagen shrugged. “There’s so many things that make sense all of a sudden. But I don’t know how to use it to help us yet.”

This excerpt from Book 4 of The Schattenreich, Shadow Zone, refers to a Celtic father god, named by Caesar as Dis Pater. This is a pretty good (if not complete) summary of my interpretation of the Germano-Celtic Lord of the Dead. Ankou aka Woden aka (according to Caesar) Dis Pater. Caesar even claimed that the Gauls believed they were descended from this 'unnamed' deity. According to some scholars (e.g., Derek Bryce in his introduction to his English translation of some of Anatole Le Braz's collected folk tales), the Breton people, although traditionally Catholic, were particularly resistant to suppression of some of their pagan traditions. These traditions also included acceptance of the existence of mythological (and superstitious) events.

 Anatole Le Braz collected these 'folk' tales in the late nineteenth century. The above named collection, Celtic Legends of the Beyond, also include some references to Ankou in the form of 'recollections' of his visits and one in particular that I also freely borrowed from (Hell) in Book 5 of The Schattenreich, Triple Junction in the form of an oral tale told by Bertha von der Lahn.

So who is Ankou?

Ankou is a Breton (Celtic) psychopomp, tales of his exploits handed down in the folk tales of Brittany. The (probably) much more ancient figure (or deity) he represents has been lost to history. Since he's specific to Brittany, there's scant mention of him - neither from Miranda Green (The Gods of the Celts) nor from Marie-Louise Sjoestedt (Celtic Gods and Heroes).A couple of paragraphs at least  were devoted to him in Celtic Culture, A Historical Encyclopedia, edited by John C. Koch.

Characteristically, he wears a wide-brimmed hat, a cape, has long white hair, might or might not have a scythe, and drives a wagon (or even a train) that he uses to collect the dead. Koch cites references of a similar figure that date to 16th century Breton.

He's been interpreted by such  modern authors as Elizabeth Hand in her fantasy series Winterlong (as Book 1 of the series is also named) as a white dog and by Neil Gaiman in his Sandman series as a powerful immortal being in the form of a young Goth lady.

I've painted a broader and more syncretic interepretation of Ankou, binding him with the Germanic god Woden (=Wotan=Wodan=the Nordic father god Odin) in the tradition of finding parallels between Celtic and Nordic/Germanic religions such as those discussed by H. R. Ellis Davidson in her fabulous book, Myths and Symbols of Pagan Europe. The two figures, Ankou and Odin/Woden have much in common: passage of the dead, ruler of the afterlife, broad hat, white hair. Odin rode Slepnir, Ankou drove a wagon. Okay. But about Odin much much much more is written (see, for example, A Dictionary of Northern Mythology, Rudolf Simek).

About Ankou, practically nothing.

This gives me a lot of Spielraum for interpretation and free-association. I made full use of this - equating Ankou/Woden to an even more ancient figure who possibly was the progenitor, the Dis Pater that Caesar spoke of, to the continental Celts. God of death, fertility, poetry, a seer, In other words, a god with many faces, some more beautiful than others.

photo credit:

ankou de La Martyre via photopin (license)