Legends of Drowned Cities

Legends of Drowned Cities

Drowned Cities and European Folklore / Popular Legends of Brittany: The City of YsIreland: Lough NeaghWales: Bala LakeGalicia: The City of Valverde / Drowned Cities and Interrelated Legends

Drowned cities of Brittany: Ker-Ys, the city of Ys

La fuite du Roi Gradlon / The flight of King Gradlon, by Évariste-Vital Luminais, 1884 - Musée des Beaux-Arts, Quimper, BrittanyThe legend of the wicked and drowned city of "Ys" is perhaps the most famous tale of Brittany's folklore and popular culture. There are many regional variations of the story across Brittany, however, the main storyline tells that in the early days of Christianity the city of Ys, or Ker-Ys, was the richest trading port in the Atlantic. Ships and merchants from south and north came to the Bay of Douarnenez in south-west Brittany to buy and sell luxury goods. The city was rich and lively, but it was also too much given to lust and sin as to arouse the ire of Breton Saint Gwenole, who foretold the city's ruin.

The city of Ys was ruled by king Gradlon with the wise advice from Saint Gwenole, founder of the Landevennec monastery. King Gradlon was a religious and pious man who was grieved by the shameful behaviour of the city and of his wayward daughter, the princess Dahut. Saint Gwenole was constantly warning king Gradlon about the evils of the city and of his daughter, but Gradlon was not able to do anything about that.

The city of Ys was protected from the ocean by a strong dyke and by a gate built into the dyke to take the outflowing tidal water, and only king Gradlon alone possessed the key to the gate. One night, while king Gradlon was sleeping, princess Dahut stole the key from his father for the purpose of opening the city gate for her lover. As she opened the gate, the ocean immediately rushed in and submerged rapidly the wicked city.

As the city was being destroyed by the water, Saint Gwenole commanded king Gradlon to flee. He mounted his horse Morvarc'h and took his daughter Dahut behind him, with the incoming flood about to submerge them. Gwenole further commanded king Gradlon to throw the demon he was carrying into the sea. Gradlon hesitated but he finally obeyed the Saint. As Dahut was thrown off his horse into the water, king Gradlon managed to escape and save his life.

After the city of Ys was destroyed, king Gradlon moved to the city of Quimper and kept a low profile for the rest of his life. As to his daughter Dahut, she was changed into a mermaid and was condemned to sing her remorse forever in the bay of Douarnenez, where she loved and feasted. Popular folklore tells that she often appears to fishermen, combing her long golden hair and luring sailors to their doom. It is also believed that when the sea is calm one can hear the bells of the church of Ys ringing from the depths of the bay.

Drowned cities and European Folklore

Many believe that these tales about wicked cities are "Celtic", but the truth is that this cycle of legends belongs to a much wider European or even global folklore. The very first written record of this kind is actually found in the Bible's account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to the Old Testament, the people of the city "were wicked, such sinners against the Lord, He decided to destroy them", however, God allowed Lot, the one good man living there, to flee the town with his family before God showed his wrath. Centuries later, Homer's Odyssey -one of the two oldest literary documents in the Greek language, written around the 9th century BC- warned to treat beggars with respect for "it will be worse for you if he should turn out to be some god, and we know the gods go about disguised in all sorts of ways as people from foreign countries, and travel about the world to see who do amiss [hubris] and who righteously."

In the wake of the 19th century, many European writers and folklorists recorded legends about doomed cities in countries like France, Great Britain, Spain or Germany. However, that cycle of legends turned out to appear particularly popular and alive in the Celtic region. It is said that legends are not necessarily history yet legends are part of history. While this cycle of legends about drowned cities have mostly faded away everywhere else in Europe, they have kept alive and left a very strong mark in the popular culture of the Celtic countries, adding one more similarity to the many things we already have in common.

Drowned cities of Ireland: Lough Neagh

Lough Neagh, Co. Armagh, Ireland - Photo © Fraser SpairsLike the City of Ys, the legends of towns swallowed up by the water are also found in Ireland. Popular Irish folklore has it that Lough Neagh, a 29 km long and 18 km wide lake in county Armagh, Northern Ireland, occupies the site of a drowned city and that buildings may sometimes be seen through the water.

This legend was recorded as early as the 12th century by Giraldus Cambrensis -or Gerald of Wales- in his Topographia Hiberniae (Topography of Ireland), where he wrote how an extremely wicked tribe was punished for their sins by the flooding of their city:

"It is reported that his lake had its origin in an extraordinary calamity. The land now covered by the lake was inhabited from the most ancient times by a tribe sunk in vice, and more specially incorrigibly addicted to the sin of carnal intercourse with beast more than any other people of Ireland."

"Now there was a common proverb, in the mouths of the tribe, that whenever the well-spring of that country was left uncovered (for out of reverence shown to it, from a barbarous superstition, the spring was kept covered and sealed), it would immediately overflow and inundate the whole province, drowning and destroying the whole population. It happened, however, on some occasion that a young woman, who had come to the spring to draw water, after filling her pitcher, but before she had closed the well, ran in great haste to her little boy, whom she had heard crying at a spot not far from the spring where she had left him. But the voice of the people is the voice of God; and on her way back she met such a flood of water from the spring that it swept off her and the boy, and the inundation was so violent that they both, and the whole tribe, with their cattle, were drowned in an hour in this partial and local deluge. The waters, having covered the whole surface of that fertile district, were converted into a permanent lake."

"A not improbable confirmation of this occurrence is found in the fact that the fishermen in that lake see distinctly under the water, in calm weather, ecclesiastical towers, which, according to the custom of the country, are slender and lofty, and moreover round; and they frequently point them out to strangers travelling through these parts, who wonder what could have caused such a catastrophe

The legend of the drowned city of Lough Neagh was also recalled in Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies - Let Erin Remember in 1852:

"On Lough Neagh's bank as the fisherman strays,
When the clear, cold eve's declining,
He sees the round towers of other days
In the wave beneath him shining

Drowned cities of Wales: Llyn Tegid, Bala Lake

Like many other Celtic countries, Wales also has its legends of drowned cities under the sea. Lake Bala or Llyn Tegid, on the edge of Snowdonia, is the largest natural lake in Wales with 7 km long and about 1 km wide, and legend has it that there is a lost palace beneath the lake.

The legend of Bala is about a cruel prince who refused to listen to a harper about an impending flood that was to kill him and his guests in his castle. The harpist was led away by a bird to a hilltop, and the next morning there was a huge lake where the palace had been.

A different legend exists in south Wales, about the 1.5 km long Llangorse Lake or Llyn Syfaddan, nested in the Brecon Beacons National Park. The local tradition was recounted by Giraldus Cambrensis in his 12th century travelogue Journey Through Wales, where he said that the lake "had miraculous properties such that local inhabitants have witnessed it completely covered with buildings, that in winter when covered with ice it emits a loud groaning noise and that the lake sometimes turns green".

Drowned cities of Galicia: Valverde, the green valley

The legends of towns swallowed up by water are very much alive in Galicia as well, as president of the Galician Academy Manuel Murguía stated in 1866: “We have found that almost every large lake in Galicia has the tradition of a drowned city, where the ruins of old buildings are believed to be seen through the water.”

Galicia is supposed to have over 25 different lakes with a legend similar to the city of Ys, the best known of them being Lake Doniños, Lake Traba and Lake Antela. The typical Galician storyline features the Virgin Mary disguised as a beggar who wanders around a pagan village, only to find debauchery and sin. God and the Virgin Mary decide that the wicked tribe shall be punished for their sins by the inundation of their city. A blasting thunder and torrential rain drown the inhabitants and flood the town, which will be known as Valverde or city of the "green valley". Popular folklore also believes that the ruins of the city can sometimes be seen through the water, and that the bells of the submerged church can be heard at midnight.

Drowned cities and interrelated legends

The Celtic legends of the wicked cities tend all to emphasise how paganism and sin is drowned by the stronger power of the Christian gods, with water always being the purifying agent. Sometimes, cross-cultural comparisons of the Celtic folklore can uncover striking similarities in themes, structures, and characters.

Holy Wrath: Apostle St James drowned the city of Rieux in BrittanyOne example of this is the legend of the drowned city of Nasado, in Erquy, Brittany, which is identical in theme and characters to the legend of the flooded city of Ardobriga in county Eume, Galicia. According to tradition, three mysterious and beautiful maids with transparent skin were to blame for the destruction they brought to a rich city that was drowned as a punishment for their sins. In a different legend collected by Paul Sébillot in 1897, Galician patron saint St James decided to flood the Breton city of Rieux after its inhabitants had denied him hospitality. A chapel to St James was later erected in the Breton city to ask him for forgiveness.

Striking similarities are also found between the medieval poems of king Gwyddno's submerged city in Wales and the Breton poem of Ys. The Welsh legend tells that king Gwyddno's city was kept safe from the constant threat of flood by a large dyke, however, the sluice gates of the dyke were left open by a maid and the ocean inundated the land, covering many cities including the king's palace at Caer Wyddno. Like Breton king Gradlon, the Welsh king Gwyddno survided the flood and moved his court inland to the East, and like the fishermen of Douarnenez, the fishermen of Aberdyfi / Aberdovey believed that at low tide they could see the ruins of ancient buildings far down beneath the clear waters of the Cardigan Bay, and that the bells of a submerged church can sometimes be heard when the weather is calm.

Jean Pouliquen, March 2005

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