Have the most ancient Breton songs a druidic origin?|
The 'Series' were transposed by La Villemarqué from one of the many versions of the 'Vespers of the Frogs', a genuine counting rhyme that was turned by him into a "druidic catechism".
Thus he assigned this song - with which the second (1845) edition of the Barzhaz Breizh opened -, the role played by the introductory piece in the 1839 edition, "Gwenc'hlan's Prophecy":
namely, proving the existence in Lower Brittany of an oral tradition that could be traced as far back as the Druidic times, before the landing of the first Britons in Armorica around 450 AC, and that was still alive in some pieces of 19th century Breton lore.
Because of that kind of adaptation intended to bestow on his models an ancientness they could not claim, La Villemarqué was reproached for having completely invented these texts.
Bending the rules
Here, more than elsewhere, La Villemarqué did not shun overstepping limits he had set to his own creativity. As from the 1845 edition, the "Preface" to the collection (pp VII and VIII) includes this statement:
"The individual versions of the same song complete and clarify one another. Therefore the collector has no correction to make and the course he should keep is giving with the highest possible accuracy the most widely spread reading. The only infringement he may allow himself is replacing some flawed phrases or less poetical verses of this version with better phrases, rhymes or verses found in other versions. Such was the method applied by Walter Scott (in "Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border" published in 1802 - 1803): I followed him. These are the only liberties I felt free to take with the texts I collected..."
It cannot be denied that in combining the many versions of the song quoted by Anatole Le Braz (see below), the Plouaret, Penguern, Scaër, Kerambrun, etc. versions, most of La Villemarqué's text may be retrieved: the sow and the young boars, the vessels coming from Nantes, the grinding stone, the priests in the blood stained shirts... But it is also obvious that these poems derive their surrealistic features from the quest for rich rhymes - "loar", "c'hoar" ("moon", "sister")... - and not from any esoteric message to be delivered. There is "rhyme but no reason" to them. But La Villemarqué was not contented with substitutions between the different versions. In his endeavours to make more sense, he indulged in replacements and additions of words that have little reference to the material collected.
Maybe he would have been kept out of "mischief", if the critics had not remained silent, but they were very likely impressed by his being supported by outstanding scientists like Augustin Thierry and Claude Fauriel. And yet, in an issue of October 1845 of the "Revue de l'Armorique et de l'Ouest", Audren de Kerdrel, who was, like him, an alumnus of the "Ecole des Chartres", warned him against "too many grammatical corrections, particularly...regarding letter inversions". One of his former professors at the "Ecole des Chartres", Vallet de Virville, writes plainly, in a comment dated 1847 to the song Baron of Jaouioz, that "the critical method of the author [consists in] "considering already proved things that he is in the process of proving".
A very convincing result
In the present case, La Villemarqué makes use of a counting rhyme aimed to train both speech and memory, which is a pastiche of those religious cumulative songs where twelve articles of the Christian faith are set forth in a mnemonic array. There are some instances of this kind of songs in the Anglo-Saxon tradition: The Twelve days of Christmas but, at the first place, Green Grow the rushes O which presents puzzling similarities with "the Series".
La Villemarqué's "Celticiizing method" consists in rubbing out all references to Christian dogma or liturgy and replacing them with enigmatic "Celtic" images!
The result proved so plausible that, among others, Edmond de Coussemaker in his "Songs of the French Flemish" published in Gent in 1856, subtitles "Druidiske Herinneringen", "Druidic remains" the song "De twaelf Getallen" (The Twelve Numbers) he gathered in the so-called "Westhoek". And yet no trace, whatever, of "druidism" might be found in this text:
"Een is eene, Eenen God alleene, Een God alleen, En dat gelooven wy..."
"One is one. One God alone. One God alone. In that we believe... Twelve apostles, eleven thousand virgins, ten Commandments, nine choirs of angels, eight beatitudes, seven Sacraments, six jugs of Cana, five Books of Moses, four Evangelists, three Patriarchs, two Testaments, one God."
Here is the tune to it: De Twaelf Getallen
as well as a similar song in French, collected by De Coussemaker in the same area: Les douze mois
The first song is the translation of a Latin hymn which is quoted in the book. La Villemarqué, too, quotes Latin lyrics that common sense prompts anybody to consider as a possible source of the "Vespers of the Frogs" and not the contrary:
1. Dic mihi quid unus? - Unus est Deus qui regnat in coelis.
R. Unus est Christus qui regnat Deus.
2. Dic mihi quid duo? - Duo sunt Testamenta, Unus est Deus...
and so forth until "Duodecim Apostoli".
La Villemarqué's interpretation of the song
According to La Villemarqué, the Church took up an old teaching method based on questions and answers that the Druids had developed (according to Julius Caesar), but replaced the ancient Celtic creed with a creed of its own.
Full particulars of his theory are given all along eight small print pages of "Notes".
The song evokes successively:
- necessary cosmic unity which becomes identified with sorrow and death,
- the Deluge, with the "oxen of Hu Gadarn" and the crocodile (who has become a shell). Though La Villemarqué refers to the spurious Triads in the Myvyrian Archeology, these elements could possibly belong to genuine old Welsh tradition. The Cambrian Quaterly Magazine N° 13 of January 1832 notes: "The Uchain Banog, the large horned oxen were some kind of animals formerly in Wales distinguished by their branching horns... There is scarcely a lake in the Principality, but it is asserted by the neighbourhood to be one out of which the Uchain Banog drew the afanc, another terrible annimal supposed to be the beaver. In the Triad of Caradawc, one of the three chief-masterworks of the island of Britain is the "drawing of the Afanc to land out of the lake by the oxen of Hu Gadarn, so that the lake burst forth no more" (Ac Ychain Bannog Hu Gadarn a lusgafant Afanc y llyn idir ac ni thorres y llynn mwyach). "Avank" translates as "beaver" in Breton.
- the three "spheres of existence" mentioned by the Welsh bard Taliesin. In fact the "Series" have "tri rann ar bed-mañ" (three portions of this world), and the "Vespers" "teir rouanez er mêndi" (three queens in the stone house)
- the "wax children" refer to some bewitchment technique like the one described in the song "Ar bugel koar", published by Luzel in his collection "Gwerzioù Breiz Izel", along with a second version very similar to the song collected by J-M de Penguern
- detailed lists of the "six medicinal herbs", of the "seven elements", and of the eight places of worship where the "sacred fire" of the druids was kept, are given,
- the Heifers of the Deep Island (Enez don) are, in fact, the heifers of the Isle of Anglesey (Iniz Mon) addressed somewhere in ancient literature.
- the nine small white hands evoke child sacrifice, once in practice according to Pierre Le Baud at Aber-Vrac'h,
- the korrigans are the priestesses of the Isle de Sein mentioned by Pomponius Mela. They used to worship the moon which they called "Kore", so tells us Strabon.
- the boar is omnipresent in old Welsh poetry and occupies, of course, an outstanding place in the "Series".
- the ten vessels and the eleven warriors with broken swords and blood stained shirts, - who are, exceptionally, borrowed without change from "the Vespers" - evoke the catastrophic defeat of the Vannes tribes (Veneti) against Julius Caesar in 57 BC.
- the twelve signs are the Zodiac signs whose combat announces the collapse of the Celtic religion or something of the like. The Cow with the white blaze is a sacred cow "whose death means death of the whole universe" [so said a Welsh bard].
And La Villemarqué adds:
"The great idea of Divine unity stands at the beginning of the [above quoted] Christian hymn and returns in each verse... as does here the dogma of the unique Necessity of Sorrow and Death which is the outset and the end of everything."
The demonstration of Le Braz and Luzel.
Anatole Le Braz, co-author with F-M Luzel of the song collection "Sonioù Breiz Izel" (1890), states in his comment to the song "The Vespers of the Frogs":
"M. de La Villemarqué titles the version presented in his Barzhaz Breizh, accompanied by a great many explanations and clever notes: Ar Rannoù, which he translates with: "The Series". But he does it wrongly, to be sure, for everywhere, without exception, I heard that title pronounced Gosperoù ar Raned, with a long "a", and several versions begin with: Kan, ran! - "Sing, frog!". There is no doubt, whatsoever, about the meaning of ran, plural: raned,..., whereas rann, plural rannoù, with two "nn", comes from the Breton verb rannañ, meaning "to share", "to divide".
The only Breton phrase I ever heard among the people, that might have some bearing on druidism is Eskob dero, "Oak bishop", commonly used in Trégor, but...its true signification is lost. (*)
The Barzhaz Breizh version of the song contains the word Drouiz, translated with "Druid", that could be sufficient to give this piece an ancientness and an importance I deny it. I never heard in the mouth of our Breton farmers the word Drouiz, neither in their songs, nor in their tales..."
(*) Note: The meaning of the Breton phrase "Biskop derv" could be the same as in the macabre, old French sentence "Bishop of the fields giving his blessing with his legs" referring to a hanged man.
According to the historian and philologist M. Bernard Tanguy, author of "Aux origines du nationalisme breton " (published in 1977 by Collection 10/18) - this book is the main information source for the present article -, the same remark applies to quite a lot of words "manufactured" by La Villemarqué, who very often "imported" them from the Welsh language, the word "Barzaz" first of all, which he found, identified as a Welsh word, in Dom Le Pelletier's "Dictionary of the Breton language" (published in 1752)...(One would look in vain in a Breton Dictionary for the words "ore", "etrec'hit", "hellink",... that are used in this song and were transcribed from the Welsh! Also the name "Marzhin" is the rendering of the Welsh "Myrddin" who was known as "Merlin" or "Merlig" in Brittany prior to La Villemarqué).
The poet La Villemarqué
And yet, these compositions have an enthralling beauty and an evocative power second to none in folk songs.
In spite of the liberties he had taken with his models, the witty alliteration of a well-known saying by J.Cocteau applies to him: he was "trop poête pour être honni!" (too much of a poet to be criticized).
He was a poet, indeed. That was the friendly reproach addressed to him by the historian of Brittany, Aurélien de Courson, in a letter dated 1839, who wrote that his rhymed translations are out of place "in a serious work" [and that the scientific community] "should not be trifled with like a pretty woman".
But he adds: "As for the poems, they are the true expression of the country's soul and therefore unassailable and even if you were a target for attacks, the common people's book would remain beyond reproach."
Such is the point of view of the Academician Jean-Jacques Ampère (1800 -1864, son to the celebrated physicist), in an article dated 15th August 1836, issued in the "Revue des Deux-Mondes", on McPherson and his "Ossian" that he knew for sure was a fraud. "The material did exist" and therefore the originality of this genuine poetry may be investigated and compared with other forms of primitive art.
If La Villemarqué refrained from rhyming in his French translations, the first foreign translators of his book did not: the Germans A. Keller and E von Seckendorff in 1840, the Pole Lucian Semienski in 1842 (12 songs translated, 8 of them in verse), the Germans M. Hartmann and L. Pfau in 1859 and the Englishman Tom Taylor in 1865. They cleary considered that verse may only be aptly translated with verse, whereas a prose translation is like the black and white photograph of a painting.
That is the reason why the translations proposed here are mostly "singable", - the Breton texts being written in accordance with modern (KLT) spelling -.