Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ankou, or Death’s Baggage Carrier

I think, out of all things in the world, death is feared the most.  I don’t think about death very often unless it’s the fear of a loved one dying.  If I die, I figure, it’s not longer my problem.  I do, however, think about my death every single time I take off in a plane.  I know I am more likely to be wiped out by some twat in an SUV talking on her cell phone and yelling at her kids, but the taking off part of plane ride scares me. 

Last month I was on a flight from Washington DC to Albany with my husband.  We were coming back from a trip to San Francisco to celebrate our first wedding anniversary.  It was late. I was tired.  Two kids were giving their parents a hard time behind me.  A woman was bitching to husband about how unhappy she was making everyone else unhappy in the process.  Another kid was screaming at the top of his lungs in the front of the plane.  I was going through the list of things that I was thankful for as I often due before we taxi down the runway.  Instead of the calmness that I feel after realizing that I’ve lived a pretty nice life, I looked around at the passengers on the plane and, with the exception of my husband, I realized didn’t want to die with these assholes.

Ankou is the most prominent figure in Celtic Breton folklore.  (I know, awkward segue, but here we are.)  He’s either looked at as the King of Death (“ankou” means king of the dead) or servant of Death.   

He appears as a tall, gaunt figure dressed in black with long white hair and a hat.  Sometimes he is in skeleton form.  He has a neck that could crane around and see everything like a demented owl.  He drives a wagon piled high with bodies and a creaky axle.  He is sometimes accompanied by two ghostly footmen who walked silently behind the cart.  The wagon is sometimes lead by black horses or giant pigs or sci-fi novel sized beetles.  In some stories he knocks on the door of the person who is about to die and in others he howls like banshee.  Sort of like the boyfriend you had in college that couldn’t be bothered to get his ass out of the car and go  to the door but rather honked his horn until you came out. 

In some versions of the story Ankou isn’t a man at all.  He could very well be a she and often was.  Each parish had its own ankou.  It was the last person that died at the end of the year.  That person would be the servant of death, serving a one year sentence until the end of the next year when someone would take his or her place.  Worst temp job ever.

In another story, Ankou was a spoiled nobleman who didn’t go to church as was punished for his selfish and capricious nature.

No matter what form the Ankou took and for what reason he came to be, he was still the most feared portent of death. 

The next time I look out the window before taking off on  a plane and I see the baggage carrier dressed all in black, I’m getting the hell off that plane.


  1. This is great, I'm flying to Tennesee in a week and now I have more to worry about!

    Sorry but I disagree, I think it would be a great temp job. Oh, the power.

  2. It just seems like a dirty job. You gotta go around and collect the dead people. You got to bring them wherever it is you bring them. You got to do this ever freaking day. The smell has to be overwhelming.