This character is reported by Anatole Le Braz, a 19th century writer and collector of legends. Here is what he wrote about the Ankou in his best-seller The Legend of Death:
The Ankou is the henchman of Death (oberour ar maro
) and he is also known as the grave yard watcher, they said that he protects the graveyard and the souls around it for some unknown reason and he collects the lost souls on his land. The last dead of the year, in each parish, becomes the Ankou of his parish for all of the following year. When there has been, in a year, more deaths than usual, one says about the Ankou:
– War ma fé, heman zo eun Anko drouk
. ("On my faith, this one is a nasty Ankou.")
There are many tales involving Ankou, who appears as a man or skeleton wearing a cloak and wielding a scythe and in some stories he is described as a shadow that looks and a scythe, often atop a cart for collecting the dead. He is said to wear a black robe with a large hat which conceals his face. According to some, he was the first child of Adam and Eve. Other versions have it that the Ankou is the first dead person of the year (though he is always depicted as adult, and male), charged with collecting the others' souls before he can go to the afterlife. He is said to drive a large, black coach pulled by four black horses; accompanied by two ghostly figures on foot.
One tale says that there were three drunk friends walking home one night, when they came across an old man on a rickety cart. Two of the men started shouting at the Ankou, and then throwing stones; when they broke the axle on his cart they ran off.
The third friend felt bad and, wanting to help the Ankou, found a branch to replace the broken axle, and then gave the Ankou his shoe-laces with which to tie it to the cart. The next morning, the two friends who were throwing stones at the Ankou were dead, while the one who stayed to help only had his hair turned white. He would never speak of how it happened.
Ankou is the king of the dead, and his subjects have their own particular paths along which their sacred processions move.
Another origin story is that the Ankou was once a cruel prince who met Death during a hunting trip and challenged him to see who could kill a black stag first. Death won the contest and the prince was cursed to roam the earth as a ghoul for all eternity.
Every parish in Brittany is said to have its own Ankou. In Breton tradition, the squealing of railway wheels outside one's home is supposed to be Karrigell an Ankou ("The Wheelbarrow of Ankou"). Similarly, the cry of the owl is referred to as Labous an Ankou ("The Death Bird"). The Ankou is also found on the baptismal font at La Martyre where he is shown holding a human head.
In Ireland the proverb "When the Ankou comes, he will not go away empty" relates to the legend.
It is said that the Ankou is a death omen that collects the souls of the deceased. The Ankou is the last person to die in a parish during a year. The last deceased person will assume the duty of calling for the dead. They describe the Ankou as a tall, haggard figure with long white hair. It is also perceived as a skeleton with a revolving head able to see everything everywhere. The Ankou is said to drive a cart and stops at the house of someone who is about to die. It knocks on the door, this sound is sometimes heard by the living, or it could give out a mournful wail like the Irish Banshee. The Ankou has also been reported as an apparition entering the house, it takes away the dead who are then placed in the cart with the help of two ghostly companions.
The 2016 novel When Halloween Was Green by Bernard K. Finnigan features the Ankou, and who becomes him as the "Last to Die" in the minutes before Halloween night, as a primary plot antagonist.
Selma Lagerlöf's novel Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! tells the story of a chariot of Death driven by the last person to die in the previous year. It was filmed in 1921, 1939 and 1958.
The Ankou was the subject of a story by Wyndham Lewis titled "The Death of Ankou" (1927). A young tourist in Brittany momentarily takes a blind beggar he meets as an embodiment of the Ankou, but in truth it is he who acts as the Ankou for the beggar, who subsequently dies. Lewis relied on Le Braz for some of the background to the story.
Ankou is a 5th generation Malkavian in the White Wolf Publishing role-playing game Vampire the Masquerade (Clanbook Malkavian).
Ankous appear in the MMORPG RuneScape as undead ghost-skeletons. Also Ankou appears in the flash horror game "Ghostscape 2"
The Ankou is also used as a character in the novel Death Most Definite by Trent Jamieson, as a power second to death himself.
"Ankou" is the title of a short speculative fiction story by Nakia D. Johnson in which a man creates his own Ankou and is later killed by it.
In the Soul video game series, Zasalamel can wield a Scythe named Ankou.
The webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court has recently featured Ankou as a psychopomp.
In The Sandman: Worlds' End by Neil Gaiman, the citizens of the necropolis Litharge refer obliquely to the Angkou (sic) as an entity that punishes morticians who go bad.