Variations: Lavandière, Laveuse de Nuit (French); Kannerez Noz, Cannerez Noz, Gannerez Noz (Breton); Bean nighe, Bhean Nighe, Caoineachag, Nigheag Bheag a Bhroin (Gaelic); Washerwoman, Night Washerwoman, Washer of the Ford, Little Washer of Sorrow (English)
The lavandières de nuit (“washerwomen of the night”) are present in some form or other from Scotland to Provence. Their exact nature is uncertain; sometimes they are ghosts, other times members of the fairy kingdom. Their best-documented haunt is Brittany.
Lavandières are female, and can be seen washing laundry in the odd hours of the night. They usually take the form of tall, gaunt, and withered crones, but the Gollières a Noz of Romandie are as beautiful as they are cruel. Some of them sing as they wash, earning them the name of kannerez noz (night singers). Their song is sadder than a De Profundis. Those of Morbihan have had their song recorded as follows:
Tors la guenille, tors // Le suaire des épouses des morts.
(Wring the rags, wring // the shroud of the wives of the dead).
Often a lavandière is condemned to wash a shroud in atonement for a sin committed in life. Some merely did laundry on Sunday. Others were greedy misers who denied decent clothing to the poor. The grimmest were those guilty of infanticide. The outline of a baby’s corpse could be seen in their blood-soaked sheets; try as they might, the blood never washed out, and the bones never whitened.
The bean nighe of the British Isles are women who died in childbirth before their time, and who are doomed to wash the clothes of those fated to drown until the day when they were meant to die. Their appearance foretells death. Some are aligned with the Morrigan, and wash the corpses of the dead. Cú Chulainn saw one, the daughter of Bodhbh, washing bloodstained clothes and weeping; he died in battle not long after.
In France, especially in Brittany, they call passers-by to help them wring out the laundry. This isn’t a choice – those who accept out of ill will get their arms broken, and those who refuse are drowned. To escape their clutches, one must wring in the same direction they do, turning clockwise when they turn clockwise and vice versa. But this has to be kept up all night, and the lavandières never tire. One false move and the unfortunate victim is crushed, wrung out, their corpse mangled beyond recognition. Even the strongest man is no match for a lavandière, who wrings humans out as easily as a pair of tights.
Another way of escaping their clutches is to tell them Diwasket ho poan ha me diwasko ma hini (“wring out your sins, and I will wring out mine”). Running away at top speed always helps, and lavandières cannot cross recently-ploughed fields. Finally, making the sign of the cross or reciting Biblical verses is always helpful.
The lavandière of Chantepie was a stingy woman who buried her husband in a dirty shroud. She continues to wash it every night.
The lavandières of Fond-de-Fond hold up the bodies of the recently-deceased.
In Landéda, the lavandières are powerless against the goodhearted, but tie the sinful into knots.
The lavandière of Noes Gourdais, near Dinan, appeared early in the morning and had a skull for a head.
The Mille-Lorraines of Lower Normandy form fairy circles around ponds.
Several lavandières gather in the pond of Roc-Reu, and drown anyone who tries to touch them.
Around Dinan, the teurdous (“twister”) is a rare male counterpart. He does not wash, but instead offers to help washerwomen wring out their laundry. If they accept, he breaks their arms.
The true nature of the lavandières is more prosaic. Unfamiliar sounds have been invoked – the croaking of frogs or toads, for instance, might have suggested the sound of washboards. The lavandières themselves may have had nothing supernatural about them. A number of flesh-and-blood women may have had reason to do laundry at night: those who worked during the day, those who did not wish to be seen doing menial work, those who wanted to clean the clothes of their illicit lovers… Anyone coming upon them could be forgiven for seeing them as ghosts.
Others managed to exploit the superstitious fear of lavandières. A garde-champêtre in Vaucluse once stumbled upon a pair of lavandières in spectral white clothes. “Wring the laundry!” they cackled, grabbing him by the collar. And wring he did, all night long. He also noted the fine quality of the cloth they were washing, but did not dare stop until morning, when they left. Only later did the warden find out that a nearby castle had been robbed of various items of clothing. He had spent the whole night helping the thieves wash their ill-gotten gains.
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