The Legend of Ys

Hello again, Peresephoneers! It seems that there’s a pattern starting to emerge here. Last week, I covered the French legend of Melusine, and today, I’m covering the Breton legend of the city of Ys. What’s the connection? Well, as one of the commenters pointed out last week, both legends are featured as poems written by Christabel Lamotte in A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession. If you haven’t read the book, you must do so immediately.

The Legend of the City of Ys, by Lucien Levy-Dhurmer

But I digress. So back to the legend of the city of Ys. A lot of different cultures have their own city-swallowed-up-by-the-sea tale: there is the Greek story of Atlantis, and the English story of Lyonesse. A lot of other authors, like Marion Zimmer Bradley, have referred to the legend in their works. Claude Debussy even wrote a song about it called “La Cathédrale Engloutie.” There are some slightly different versions of the legend, but what follows is the basic story.

Gradlon, the king of Brittany, had a marvelous city built by the sea at the request of his daughter, Dahut. The city, called Ys or Ker Ys, was protected from the ocean by tall, bronze floodgates, to which only Gradlon had the key. Because the key was so important to the survival of the city, Gradlon wore it around his neck to keep it on his person at all times. The city itself was known as one of the most beautiful capital cities in the world, and because of its location, it became very wealthy and powerful.

Even though Gradlon himself was a Christian, converted by St. Guénolé, Dahut and the rest of the inhabitants of Ys followed the old pagan religion of the Celts. St. Guénolé denounced their way of life as wicked and the many feasts and celebrations as debauchery. In particular, he viewed Dahut’s vow of “engagement to the sea” as sinful. Each night, Dahut would take a new lover to her bed as her betrothed, and in the morning, the lover was killed, and his body was thrown into the sea as an offering. This was all to change, though.

Statue of Gradlon in Quimper


One night, a knight clad in red came to the city seeking Dahut’s affections. Dahut, immediately smitten with the knight, agreed and took him to her bed. As a storm brewed around the city and the sea began to grow rough, Dahut laughed and told her lover not to fear, for the floodgates of the city were strong and would protect the city from the ravages of the ocean. To show him, she went to her father’s room and stole the key to the floodgates. He took the key from her and used it to open the floodgates and let the sea swallow the city, and it was then that it was revealed that Dahut’s new lover was the devil himself.

Gradlon and Guenmole abandoning Dahut to the sea. Flight of King Gradlon, by E.V. Luminais

St. Guémolé woke the king and urged him to flee. The king mounted his magical horse, Morvach, who was able to gallop across the sea as easily as he could dry land. Gradlon found his daughter among the flooding halls of the palace, and she climbed on the horse behind her father to flee. The horse could not outrun the water, and Guémolé urged Gradlon to relieve the horse of its burden and the cause of the city”˜s destruction: Dahut. The king was unable to do this, and as the waters rose, the voice of God commanded him to leave his daughter behind. Sadly, the king did as he was commanded, and as soon as he had cast Dahut into the sea, the horse was able to outrun the flood. The ocean swallowed up the rest of the city and its people, and the Bay of Dourarnenez now marks the place where the city once stood. The king himself was able to make it to higher ground, and he settled in the Breton city of Quimper. Dahut, left behind to drown, instead was turned into a mermaid. She still sits on the rocks singing in hopes of luring sailors in her direction, where their ships will sink, and they will drown. It’s still said that when the tide is low, the towers of Ys can be seen just below the surface of the ocean, and that sometimes, the bells from the cathedral can still be heard ringing from the depths of the sea.

Douarnenez Bay, Brittany

The tale itself contains many elements seen in other tales. We have Ys, which is powerful and wealthy, yet degenerate, like Sodom and Gomorrah. Still, there is at least one worthy person who lives there – the king, in this case – and through divine intervention, he is allowed to survive the calamity that destroys his city. It serves as a cautionary tale of what will happen if someone chooses to follow the old religion instead of the true faith of Christianity. Dahut herself is like Jezebel, for she is the leader of the old religion in Ys, and her refusal to convert to Christianity is ultimately her downfall. She is quite literally led down a path of destruction by the devil himself, who takes advantage of her practices and worms his way into her bedroom, thereby gaining her assistance in the city’s destruction. Even though she was tricked by the devil, Dahut is still blamed for her role in it, as her following of the old religion and sexual license put her in such a position to be fooled, and for that, she must pay dearly. Her transformation into a mermaid is a strange sort of poetic justice; she is bound to the sea, and her song, along with her charms and allure, can lead soldiers to their death, just as she consigned the bodies of her dead lovers to the sea. And the tale is also a reminder of how much more susceptible women – even Christian women – are to sin and temptation than men. Much like Eve was led into temptation by the snake, so Dahut was by the devil. It also further reaffirms how Christianity is somehow “better” by keeping women in a certain place so that they cannot be led into temptation. In short, all of this really would have been a scare tactic zealous missionaries might have used to convert the area Bretons who still followed the old religion.

It also may be a tale made up to explain the destruction of cities because of some unforeseen natural disaster, much like with the stories of Lyonesse and Atlantis. As time went on, given the oral tradition of the Celts, the story was changed and expanded upon. But nonetheless, it still makes for a good story, which is why it has been around for so long.

Source: This has a lot more information on the legend and better explains some of the origins and different versions. There is apparently also a connection with a Marie de France lai as well.

10 thoughts on “The Legend of Ys”

  1. Pingback: lonesome
  2. A wonderful post!

    I was sort of half-familiar with the legend of Ys because of Joanna Newsom’s album of the same name. I’ll read Possession if y’all listen to that album :P (I will probably read it anyway – A.S. Byatt is one of my favourite authors).

  3. I’m going to just say this right now: I’m a super-secret fangirl of these posts, Linotte.

    As in, I always hope that I get to copyedit these posts so I can relish them all by my lonesome before they go to print.

    I especially loved this one, which is what brings me out of the woodwork. YOU TEACH ME THINGS.

  4. Awesome!  I was so excited to read this, and you didn’t disappoint.

    I am really struck by how many of these legends turn out to be allegorical Christian lessons.  I was watching a History Channel piece on Beowulf – a story I’ve loved since I was a kid – and I couldn’t believe that I have heard this story for years and didn’t pick up on the pro-Christian connotations.  I can’t even say pro-Christians – really the Christian-only connotations would be a better descriptor.

    Thanks for another great article.  I for one would love to have more analyses of ancient legends.

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