Humans have always tried to explain away what they do not know with a supernatural answer. We are a species that are tied to each other and to the land through our oral tradition. Exploring our myths and legends can tell us a lot about a culture and sometime offer us a connection through them that transcends millennia. Its critical not to dismiss the myths and legends as “just stories”, these were stories that one generations would use to teach the next. They serve as the core to a culture from which it can grow.
The peoples of Cornwall, Wales and Scotland share a connection with Brittany in mainland europe. They are peoples with a shared origin and even well after the Norman invasion which did a pretty solid job of homogenising the majority of Britain, the people of Cornwall had more in common culturally with Brittany than with the English. This is strongly reflected in the myths, legends and folklore of these peoples. I have heard many versions of this story over the years, including the one my very cornish grandmother used to teach me when I was a small child. The details of these legends often change with every retelling but the central moral remains. I will go through the version from Brittany. As far as I can tell this is the earliest written down however Cornwall and Wales have their own distinct take on this myth.
Seigneur of Nann and the White Deer
Robert was the lord of a small village in Brittany, A year after this marriage to Sabine, his true love, she bore him two children. A boy and a girl, both healthy which was a blessing for the time. Robert was overjoyed, as he sat at Sabine’s bedside, weeping tears of joy he asked if there was anything she desired. All she had to do was say and he would make it so.
Sabine asked him for some venison from the deer in the forest near the town of her birth. Robert immediately promised her this and within the hour he was riding out the gates of his town. The journey to the forest was uneventful and by dawn the next day he had spotted the most magnificent deer of pure shimmering white. He set for it and it disappeared into the forest. Robert gave chase but eventually lost sight of the Deer. Tired and thirsty he found himself near a clear pool and noticed a fair lady with skin of alabaster white sat on a rock there brushing her hair. He asked to take a drink from the pool however did not wait for a response. As he dipped his hands into the water the maid screeched, he looked up to find he at not noticed the beautiful maid had eyes of blood red.
Side Note: He didn’t notice something as remarkable as blood red eyes? what part of her was he looking at to determine how pretty she was? Also in some variations of this story she was naked. Women particularly Fae Women in these legends tend to be unimaginably powerful but naked. frankly I have no idea what to make of that. I also think death should be the consequence of more social faux pas.
She hissed at him that he had defiled her pool and that a death curse lay upon him. She would only lift the curse if he would marry her this very night. Shocked he said that he would not as he already had a wife and the very day before she had given birth to his two children, even if that were not so, he said he knew what she was and he would not marry a Korrigan. He ran for his horse and rode home.
As he approached the gates of his town he was greeted by his mother whom he told of the meeting with the Korrigan and that in three nights he would be in his grave. He bade her to tell his wife nothing of this.
Three days later Sabine heard the bells of the town ringing and asked her mother in law what it meant. She said that Sabine should not worry herself, a minor tradesman of the town had died in the night and the bells rang out his funeral. She asked after her husband and the lady told her that Robert had gone to a neighbouring town trading and would return to her soon. Sabine accepted this and asked what colour dress she should wear as she wanted to go to church to offer thanks for the birth of her children. The lady advised her today, was a day to wear black.
Side Note: The ringing of bells appears a lot in Brythonic folklore and very rarely indicates anything good.
As they made their way to the church Sabine saw the door to her husbands crypt open and turned to her mother in law asking what was happening. The lady informed her that Robert had fallen foul of a Korrigan and died. Sabine was so grief stricken before the sun set on that day she too was dead and lay in the tomb.
Side Note: I would fucking love to see Disney spin this one into a song and dance number. Tim Burton could probably pull it off though. Also if my mother is that cool after I die please check her alibi.
The last line of the legend goes – “And the peasant folk say that from that tomb arose two saplings, the branches of which intertwined more closely as they grew.” This feels like an overt allegory for eternal love and frankly whilst it feels there is probably something deeper there I have utterly failed to draw much meaning from this line.
In most of the legends I know the Korrigan are usually fairly mischievous, sometimes ill tempered but rarely this intensely malicious. I am taking it as read that “defiling her pool” wasn’t an euphemism, although that would explain why she insisted on marriage and got so pissed when he left. If he did shag the fairy it would totally destroy the attempt at symbolism we are left with in the entwining trees. The pools and fountains of the Korrigan are always referred to as sacred so perhaps the waters mean more to her than we can appreciated.
My grandmother used to tell me a similar tale about a white hare dancing in the forest which turned into a beautiful woman and stole the soul of young men who cast their eyes upon her. Seth Lakeman sings a song about this legend with a great video, I recommend checking it out. Folksong is genuinely the most reliable source for many of these stories as it stems from the original oral tradition. In regards to the white hare I am unsure if they are variations of the same legend or part of a broader theme. Perhaps this will become clearer as I work through more Brythonic myths and legends.