choke full


Brittia (Βριττία) according to Procopius (History of the Wars 4.20, written in the 540s) was an island in the mythological worldview of the inhabitants of the Low Countries under Frankish rule (viz. the Atlantic coast of Austrasia), corresponding both to a real island used for burial and a mythological Isle of the Blessed where the souls of the dead are transported to.

Procopius's Brittia lies no farther than 200 stadia (25 miles) from the mainland, between Britannia (i.e. Brittany, at the time taken to include what is now Normandy, Flanders and part of Frisia, up to the mouths of Scheldt and Rhine) and Thule (Scandinavia), opposite the Rhine mouth, and three nations live in it, Angles, Frisians and Britons. Brittia thus corresponds to the island of Great Britain.

Procopius relates that

"They imagine that the souls of the dead are transported to that island. On the coast of the continent there dwell under Frankish sovereignty, but hitherto exempt from all taxation, fishers and farmers, whose duty it is to ferry the souls over. This duty they take in turn. Those to whom it falls on any night, go to bed at dusk; at midnight they hear a knocking at their door, and muffled voices calling. Immediately they rise, go to the shore, and there see empty boats, not their own but strange ones, they go on board and seize the oars. When the boat is under way, they perceive that she is laden choke-full, with her gunwhales hardly a finger's breadth above water. Yet they see no one, and in an hour's time they touch land, which one of their own craft would take a day and a night to do. Arrived at Brittia, the boat speedily unloads, and becomes so light that she only dips her keel in the wave. Neither on the voyage nor at landing do they see any one, but they hear a voice loudly asking each one his name and country. Women that have crossed give their husbands' names."

There have been suggestions as to at which point exactly these boats left the Gallic coast, Villemarqué placing it near Raz, Armorica, where there is a toponym baie des âmes / boé ann anavo "bay of souls".

Grimm reports that on the river Treguier in Bretagne, commune Plouguel, it is "said to be the custom to this day, to convey the dead to the churchyard in a boat, over a small arm of the sea called passage de l'enfer, instead of taking the shorter way by land".

Procopius's account is re-affirmed by Tzetzes (to Lycoph. 1204) in the 12th century; but long before that, Claudian at the beginning of the 5th (in Rufinum 1, 123-133) had heard of those Gallic shores as a trysting place of flitting ghosts. and not far from that region are Britain, the land of the Senones, and the Rhine. Grimm compares this account to the airy wagon of the Bretons, and to bardic traditions which make out that souls, to reach the underworld, must sail over the pool of dread and of dead bones, across the vale of death, into the sea on whose shore stands open the mouth of hell's abyss.


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