The Downfall of the City of Ys — 2006

A Celtic legend, retold

In a Celtic legend from Brittany, King Granlon built a city for his daughter Dahut on the tip of a peninsula stretching westward into the Atlantic.  For obscure reasons, he built it below sea level, necessitating a strong sea wall all around it.  The only way into the city, which was called “Ys”, was through a sea gate that was kept tightly closed and locked except at very low tide.  Granlon kept the only key.

Dahut was pleased with the city, but as time passed she longed to make it richer and more luxurious.  She was a devotee of the old Celtic gods (and not a Christian like her father), and learned sorcery by tapping into their power.  She was therefore able to summon a dragon, and used it to capture merchant ships that strayed too close to Ys on the way from the low countries to Aquitaine.  With the gold, silver plate, and trade goods the dragon captured, Dahut made Ys the most splendid city in Brittany and possibly all of Gaul.

Dahut summons a dragon to prey on a merchant ship

The people of Ys loved Dahut for her glamour and for the prosperity she brought, but began to insist that she take a consort, that he might become the Prince and help her to rule and protect the city. The thought of a consort agreed with her, but the more she thought of sharing her power the less she was pleased.  She determined to delay her marriage through the following stratagem:  she would choose a likely looking man as consort, and tell him that, one day, when the time was right, she would favor him with the gift a black silk mask that had the power to raise him to royalty if he wore it for a night.  But she secretly planned to withhold the mask until such time as she had tired of him, and found a man she liked more.  Then, the morning after she had awarded the luckless suitor the mask, she would bewitch it – causing it to constrict around his face until he suffocated.  Once his lifeless body had been cast into the sea, she would be free to take another lover.

One day, however, she fell in love with a man who was even more evil than herself – a devil sent from the other world to punish her for her wickedness. He readily consented to be her new consort, and the very next morning she dispatched her previous lover.  But her new consort then asked her to bring him the key to the sea gate of Ys, as a token of her love and trust for him.  Deeply smitten, she did not hesitate to wheedle the fatal key from her father and put in into the hands of her evil consort. 

As soon as he took possession of the key,  he stole down to the sea gate and released the lock. The very next morning, at high tide, the sea burst through the gate and began to flood the city.  Dahut was terrified, and cried out to her consort – but he was nowhere to be found.  King Granlon heard her, though, and immediately knew what had happened. Riding through the rising waters, he lifted her up onto his horse and tried to reach high ground and safety.  The powers of heaven, though, were determined that she should die, and caused her to grow heavier and heavier until Granlon was force to let her sink into the waves.  Of the entire city of Ys, he alone survived. 

And the moral of the story is, next time your daughter asks to borrow your keys, think long and hard about it.

Dahut’s costume and stance are based on a painting of Morgaine by Frederick Sandys, one of the pre-Raphaelites.  The City of Ys, and its towers and gates, are based on the architecture I photographed when I visited Ireland recently (e.g., the rooftops of Cobh, the towers of the Blarney Castle).  The merchant ship is from a contemporary painting of the crusades.  I myself play a cameo role on the pumpkin – but not as the devil! The devil’s armor came from another pre-Raphaelite painting, and his face was just something I dreamed up as the very image of an “homme-fatale.”  No, I was the model for the unfortunate ex-lover in the black mask.