Home > 1. Famous Poems > Ys–Brittany’s Drowned City

Ys–Brittany’s Drowned City

File:Gran Canale, Venezia (5394428985).jpg

People are drawn to the water; the overwhelming majority of us live in close proximity to it, be it an ocean or a brook. And stories of universal floods, going back to Gilgamesh, are commonplace.

Not that flooding doesn’t happen in real life, as this photograph of Venice reminds us, and the flooding of a city, with its attendant loss of life, art, and treasure, is perhaps the most grievous form of the calamity.

File:Iroise sea map-en.svg

Douarnenez Bay

The Celts have many tales of lands lost to the waves (or simply unreachable), Lyonesse, Avalon, and Cantre-r Gwaelod among them. Most of these stories, after enduring neglect during the early modern era, came to the attention of mainstream audiences again during the Romantic period of 19th century Europe. This renewed attention played no small part in the struggles of Ireland for independence and of other Celtic peoples for recognition. This was true even in Brittany, though its Celtic language, Breton does not enjoy legal recognition. Starting in the 1840s, tales of the drowned city of Ys (or Ker-Ys, located on the Douarnenez Bay) have been published and read with enthusiasm.

The tale of the Drowning of Ys admittedly falls a bit flat on contemporary ears: a king’s willful daughter, Dahut, requests that her father build a city below sea-level, Ys, which is protected by a dike. Later, the daughter, spoiled and sinful, is possessed by the devil and opens the dike at the devil’s command. Gradlon, the king, is well known in Celtic myth, and is the hero of a long story by Marie de France, written at the end of the 12th century; the story itself, however, is more recent, dating to the 15th and 16th centuries.


PhotographGrand Canal seen from the Rialto Bridge. WikiCmns; CC 2.0 generic; author: InSapphoWeTrust. Map: WikiCmns; CC 1.0 Generic.

  1. March 28, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    I’m interested in the claim that the Ys legend is as late as the 19th century (though it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me if it were so). Can you tell me which sources suggest this?

    • March 28, 2013 at 9:13 pm

      cg: thanks for catching my mistake on this: the Barzaz Breiz, a 19th century collection of Breton folks songs, was long believed to be a forgery in the same manner as Macphersons’ Ossian, but the author’s notebooks were discovered in 1964, showing that the BB were based on folk research. the legend itself goes back to the 15th and 16th centuries, at least. RT

      • March 28, 2013 at 11:19 pm

        Thanks for checking this: in the back of my mind I knew there had been some disagreement on this but had assumed it had been sorted in favour of lore of some antiquity, so it’s good it’s been confirmed!

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