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Flight of King Gradlon, by E. V. Luminais, 1884 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Quimper)

Ys (pronounced /ˈs/ EESS), also spelled Is or Kêr-Is in Breton, and Ville d'Ys in French, is a mythical city that was built on the coast of Brittany and later swallowed by the ocean. Most versions of the legend place the city in the Baie de Douarnenez.[1]


In the original Breton, the city receives the name of Kêr Ys, which translates as "low city".[1] kêr is the Breton word for "city", and is related to the Welsh caer.

Development of the legend

While legends and literature about Gradlon are much older, the story of Ys appears to have developed between the end of the fifteenth century and the seventeenth century[citation needed]. An early mention of Ys appears in Pierre Le Baud's Cronicques et ystoires des Bretons in which Gradlon is the king of the city[2], but Dahut is not mentioned. Bernard d'Argentre's La histoire de Bretagne and mystery plays on the life of St. Winwaloe, in the sixteenth century, also provide early references to the city.[3] The version of the story of Ys which appears in Albert Le Grand's Vie des Saincts de la Bretagne Armorique published in 1637 already contains all the basic elements of the later story[4] and has been said to be the first.[1]

Literary versions

On 1839, T. Hersart de la Villemarqué published a collection of popular songs collected from oral tradition, the Barzaz Breizh. The collection achieved a wide distribution and brought Breton folk culture into European awareness.[citation needed] In the second edition, the poem "Livaden Geris" ("The Submersion of Ker-Is") appeared. The same basic story elements are present and, in this version, Dahut steals the key at the incitement of a lover.

Villemarqué studied several versions of the song and created his song using the best material from each. As a result, his song mentions several traditions. In the Stanza V, it mentions King Gradlon's horse that can only be heard once a year during the Black Night, a detail he may have borrowed from Lai de Graelent, probably written in the late 12th century.[1] Also, the last verses of the song mention a fisherman seeing a mermaid combing her hair and singing a sad song. The mermaid is Dahut transformed into a morgen, which references another tradition.[1] It also appears that elements of the text of this version were adapted from the medieval Welsh poem about the legend of Cantre'r Gwaelod, a very similar Welsh legend about a land that disappeared beneath the ocean as a result of human error. The poem appears in the Black Book of Carmarthen, which Villemarqué had studied at Jesus College, Oxford, in 1839. Villemarqué wrongly considered that the Welsh spoken in the sixth century was the same as the Breton spoken in his days.[1]

In 1844, Emile Souvestre told a version of the legend in his work Le Foyer breton. In the tale "Keris", the character of the Devil disguised as a man with a red beard has appeared.[1] His telling also played a great part in making the legend widely known, and many 19th century English tellings of the story are closely derived from this version.[citation needed]

Oral versions

In 1893, Anatole Le Braz collected a fragmentary version of the legend in his book La Légende de la mort en Basse-Bretagne, and its posterior 1902 augmented edition La Légende de la mort chez les Bretons armoricains[5] This version also mentions Dahut (here called Ahés) transformation into a mermaid but, unlike other versions, here Dahut is thrown off the horse by king Gralon himself, on orders from St. Gwénolé.[5]

Paul Sébillot also collected oral versions among his extensive review of the history of the legend in the second volume of his 1905 book Le folk-lore de France[6]

English versions

In 1917, Scottish folklorist Lewis Spence included the legend of Ys among the tales told in his book Legends & Romances of Brittany.[7] A few years later, in 1929, Elsie Masson also included it in her book Folk Tales of Brittany, citing Souvestre and Le Braz among her sources.[8]

The legend

Ys was built on land reclaimed from the sea[1] by Gradlon (Gralon in Breton), King of Cornouaille (Kerne in Breton), upon the request of his daughter Dahut (also called Ahes),[9] who loved the sea. To protect Ys from inundation, a dike was built with a gate that was opened for ships during low tide. The one key that opened the gate was held by the king.[7]

Ys is described as a city rich in commerce and the arts, with Gradlon's palace being made of marble, cedar and gold.[7]

Other versions of the legend tell that Ys was founded more than 2,000 years before Gradlon's reign in a then-dry location off the current coast of the Bay of Douarnenez, but the Breton coast had slowly given way to the sea so that Ys was under it at each high tide when Gradlon's reign began.[citation needed]

Most versions of the legend present Gradlon as a pious man with a wayward daughter, princess Dahut, who "had made a crown of her vices and taken for her pages the seven capital sins."[7] Princess Dahut had a lover for whom she threw a secret banquet and, under the influence of wine, she stole the key to the gate from her father and opened the gate, and the water submerged the entire city.[7] Another version of the legend says that she stole the silver key to admit her lover, mistakenly opening the sluices in the dark.[7]

St Gwénnolé, who, according to one version, had foretold the city's ruin due to its luxury, woke the king and commanded him to flee. He mounted his horse and took his daughter with him. As the water was about to overtake him, a voice called out: "Throw the demon thou carriest into the sea, if thou dost not desire to perish." Dahut fell from the horse's back, and Gradlon was saved.[7]

Though this is the most common version, there is an ancient ballad that blames Gradlon himself for leading his people to extravagances of every kind and says that Dahut received the key from him.[7]

The devil as Dahut's lover

Another version of the legend directly identifies Dahut's lover with the devil. Ys was the most beautiful and impressive city in Europe, but quickly became a city of sin under the influence of Dahut. She organized orgies and had the habit of killing her lovers when morning broke. Saint Winwaloe decried the corruption of Ys and warned of God's wrath and punishment, but was ignored by Dahut and the populace.

One day, a knight dressed in red came to Ys. Dahut asked him to come with her, and one night, he agreed. A storm broke out in the middle of the night and the waves could be heard smashing against the gate and the bronze walls. Dahut said to the knight: "Let the storm rage. The gates of the city are strong, and it is King Gradlon, my father, who owns the only key, attached to his neck." The knight replied: "Your father the king sleeps. You can now easily take his key." Dahut stole the key from her father and gave it to the knight, who was none other than the devil. The devil then opened the gate.

Because the gate was open during storm and at high tide, a wave as high as a mountain collapsed on Ys. King Gradlon and his daughter climbed on Morvarc'h, his magical horse. Saint Winwaloe approached them and told Gradlon: "Push back the demon sitting behind you!" Gradlon initially refused, but he finally gave in and pushed his daughter into the sea. The sea swallowed Dahut, who became a mermaid or morgen.[citation needed]

Gradlon took refuge in Quimper, which became his new capital. An equestrian statue of Gradlon still stands between the spires of the Cathedral of Saint Corentin in Quimper. Folklore asserts that the bells of the churches of Ys can still be heard in the calm sea. A legend says that when Paris is swallowed, the city of Ys will rise up from under the waves: Pa vo beuzet Paris, Ec'h adsavo Ker Is (Par-Is meaning "similar to Ys" in Breton).[citation needed]


This history is also sometimes viewed as the victory of Christianity over druidism, as Gradlon was converted by Saint Winwaloe. Dahut and most inhabitants of Ys were worshippers of Celtic gods. However, another Breton folktale asserts that Gradlon met, spoke with and consoled the last Druid in Brittany, and oversaw his pagan burial, before building a chapel in his sacred grove.[citation needed]

The letters Y and S in the name can also be interpreted as a reference to the typical gaelic patterns from the Bronze Age (eg Triskelion).[citation needed]

Adaptations in the arts

Poster for Édouard Lalo's 1888 opera, Le roi d'Ys

Several famous artistic adaptations of the Ys legend appeared in the late 19th and early 20th century. E. V. Luminais' painting Flight of King Gradlon, depicting Gradlon's escape from Ys, scored a success at the Salon of 1884.

Le roi d'Ys, an opera by the French composer Édouard Lalo which premiered in 1888, transforms the story significantly, replacing the figure of Dahut with Margared, whose motive for opening the gates (with the aid of her own betrothed Karnac) is her jealousy at her sister Rozenn's marriage to Mylio (characters who are also inventions of Lalo).[10]

Also inspired by the story of Ys is Claude Debussy's La cathédrale engloutie, found in his first book of Preludes (published 1910). This is a prelude intended to evoke the atmosphere of the legend by its sound.[11]

The story is also an element in Alexander Blok's 1912 verse drama The Rose and the Cross.

The city of Ys and the character Dahut feature prominently in the 1934 novel Creep, Shadow! by A. Merritt.

Ys is one of the principal cities of the Elder Isles in Jack Vance's Lyonesse Trilogy.

Poul Anderson and his wife Karen Anderson retold the story in the tetralogy The King of Ys in the 1980s. They pictured Gradlon as a Roman soldier named Gratillonius.

The name Dahut and certain thematic elements of the story of Ys can be found in the survival/exploration noir game Sunless Sea.

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers contains the story "The Demoiselle d'Ys".

Alan Stivell's renowned album "Renaissance of the Celtic Harp" opens with a track entitled "Ys".

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Doan, James (1981). "The Legend of the Sunken City in Welsh and Breton Tradition". Folklore. 92 (1): 77–83. JSTOR 1260254.
  2. ^ Le Baud, Pierre (1480). Cronicques et ystoires des Bretons Tome III (in French) (Société des Bibliphiles Bretons, 1911 ed.). pp. 42–45.
  3. ^ Guyot, Charles; translated by Deirdre Cavanagh (1979). The Legend of the City of Ys. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press.
  4. ^ Varin, Amy (1982). "Dahut and Gradlon". Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Vol. 2. pp. 19–30.
  5. ^ a b Le Braz, Anatole (1923). "XI. Les villes englouties". La Légende de la mort en Basse-Bretagne. Édition Définitive (in French). Paris: H. Champion. p. 429-441.
  6. ^ Sébillot, Paul (1905). "Les envahissements de la mer". Le folk-lore de France. Tome Deuxième. La mer et les eaux douces (in French). E. Guilmoto, Éditeur. pp. 41–57.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Spence, Lewis (1917). "VII: Popular Legends of Brittany". Legends & Romances of Brittany. p. 184.
  8. ^ Elsie, Masson (1929). "Princess Ahez and the Lost City". Folk Tales of Brittany. Philadelphia: Macrae Smith Company. pp. Foreword, 87–96.
  9. ^ Markale, Jean (1986). "The Submerged Princess". Women of the Celts. Inner Traditions. p. 44-45. ISBN 0-89281-150-1. Translation of the French La Femme Celte, Editions Payot, 1972
  10. ^ Steven Huebner, French Opera at the Fin De Siècle, Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-19-518954-4; p. 238–240.
  11. ^ Victor Lederer. Debussy: a listener's guide. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2007. ISBN 978-1-57467-153-7; p.100.

Further reading


  • Lewis Spence, Legends & Romances of Brittany. 1917, available at Project Gutenburg
  • Pierre Le Baud, Cronicques et ystoires des Bretons Tome III. 1911 edition by Société des Bibliphiles Bretons, available at Gallica.
  • Emile Souvestre, Le Foyer Breton. W. Coquebert, Éditeur, 1845. Available at Gallica.
  • TH. de La Villemarqué, Barzaz-Breiz: Chants populaires de la Bretagne. Quatrième Édition, 1846. Available at Numerlyo, Bibliothèque Numérique de Lyon.
  • Anatole Le Braz, La Légende de la mort chez les bretons armoricains. Édition Définitive. 1923, available at
  • Paul Sébillot, Le folk-lore de France. Tome Deuxième. La mer et les eaux douces. E. Guilmoto, Éditeur, 1905. Available at Gallica.

See also

Media related to Ys (city) at Wikimedia Commons

External links

  • Timeless Myths – City of Ys
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