Bretons - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The vast majority of Bretons are of the Catholic faith, though practice of religion (regular attendance at mass, confession, etc.) has waned throughout this century, particularly among men. However, baptism, marriage, and funeral rites within the Catholic church are still pervasive. Historically Bretons have been noted for their deep religiosity, their profusion of saints (most are unique to Brittany) and chapels, their religious festivals—such as the pardons —and their pilgrimages. Pardons, marked by singing and dancing as well as religious observances, are still much in evidence today, though the religious underpinnings of these celebrations have been undermined by commercialism and tourism. A salient festival, known as la grande troménie, still takes place in western Brittany every six years, in which participants walk 12 kilometers bearing saints' icons, visiting the chapels and sacred spots believed to be inhabited by the saints within the parish.

Arts. Brittany's visual arts consist of many elements: centuries of architectural styles applied to both secular and religious structures (the Roman and Gothic influences are manifest, in addition to the Breton refinement of the tall, pointed spire so typical of its churches); statuary that is perhaps most memorably displayed in the magnificent calvaries (which depict scenes from the gospels with stone statues) and ossuaries that are the companions to many churches; centuries-old traditions of painting and tapestry; and a rich complex of artisanal crafts. Traditional music of Brittany focuses on two wind instruments—the biniou (a small bagpipe) and the oboelike bombarde —which are typically paired together in performances. Troops of biniou players are also popular. The Celtic harp has been reintroduced in recent decades; and the accordion has also been a popular instrument in this century. Literary production in the Breton language has seen a great upward surge in diversity and quality since the 1920s following centuries of neglect, which was a result of the castigation and repression of the spoken Breton language by the French and by Breton authorities representing their policies.

Medicine. Traditional Breton medicine drew on homemade herbal remedies; but there was also reliance on a person called a diskonter, who could dispel illnesses or disorders with special incantations (handed down from generation to generation within certain families). Today Breton medicine is almost completely in the hands of highly trained medical specialists in the national health system.

Death and Afterlife. Bretons tend to prepare for death—ensuring well in advance that their cemetery plot or place in the family vault is secured and selecting their funerary garb. Cremation is seldom practiced. Many superstitions accompany appropriate conduct when a close relative has died: for example, the doors and windows of the deceased's house should be left open to permit the soul (thought to assume the shape of an insect) to leave easily; mirrors should be turned to face the wall. Relatives accompany the deceased to the church, where a mass is said prior to burial, after which the family returns home for a ceremonial meal. In the first year following a person's death, a number of services will be held in the deceased's name to assist the soul in its journey to the anaon (the world beyond); such at least was the traditional belief and practice. The legendary death figure is Ankou, represented as a skeleton with a scythe, often riding a wooden cart. Tradition has it that the sound of his cart creaking portends the death of someone in the neighborhood. In popular belief of times past, hell ( ifern ) was conceptualized as a glacial place rather than as an inferno, seen in references to ifern yen ("cold hell") in fifteenth- to seventeenth-century liturgical literature.

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