In the Mabinogi
In the distant mythological past, Brân is a giant and king of Britain. His sister Brânwen is betrothed to Matholwch, king of Ireland. Matholwch is insulted when his horses are mutilated so Brân presents a gift of a magic cauldron to the Irish king. Matholwch takes Brânwen back to Ireland with him. When Brân hears Brânwen is being mistreated by her husband’s people he musters the hosts of Britain for an expedition to Ireland. He leaves his son Caradawg as officer in charge of the Island of the Mighty while he embarks to Ireland.
In the bloody war that ensues, Irish warriors are revived by being thrown into the peir dadeni (cauldron of rebirth) resurrected but without the power of speech. Ultimately Brân succeeds in rescuing Brânwen but in the midst of the fighting, there is an obscure traditional utterance in which Brân is called 'Morddwyd Tyllion' this is clear reference to his fatal wound (pierced thighs). The fighting ends when the Irish and the army of the Island of the Mighty have all but annihilated each other; only seven of Brân's party survive and return to Harlech. He tells his followers how to deal with the situation by decapitating him:
‘And take the head,’ he said, ‘and bring it as far as the
White Mound (Gwynfryn) in London, and bury it
with its face towards France. And you will be a long
while on the way. In Harlech you will be seven years
engaged in feasting, with the birds of Rhiannon
The following 87-year Otherworldly feast is referred to in the tale by the peculiar traditional name 'yspydawt urdawl benn' (hospitality of the noble head), during which Brân’s head remains alive, uncorrupted, and as good a companion as ever. The Otherworld feast comes to an end when one of Brân’s retinue opens the door facing south, towards Cernyw (Cornwall) and Aber Henfelen. They must now end their sojourn in the Otherworld, take the head and bury it at the White Mound. The Third Brânch (the Mabinogi of Manawydan), opens with Brân’s head interred as a talisman preventing the incursion of foreign oppression.
It is evident from the Mabinogi account that Brân is a supernatural figure; his head has the ability to live on after its decapitation; it talks, sings and can prophesy to its companions in an Otherworldy feast that lasts 87 years.
In the Book of Taliesin
In the Second Brânch tale, Taliesin is named as one of the seven who returned from Ireland with Brân’s head. Among the mythological poetry in Llyfr Taliesin, in the poem Song Before the Sons of Llyr, there are allusions to two episodes in Brân’s story which interestingly use the same words as the Mabinogi tale:
A battle at the feast over joyless beverage,
A battle against the sons of Llyr in Ebyr Henfelyn.
I have been with Brân in Ireland.
I saw when Morddwydtyllon was killed
Complete is my chair in Caer Siddi,
No one will be afflicted with disease or old age that may be in it.
Manawyddan and Pryderi know it
The narrator, Taliesin, was one of the seven survivors named along with Manawyddan, Pryderi, and four others in the Mabinogi of Brânwen. Clearly, the poem and the tale of Brânwen are closely related texts, referring to the same event, confirming the old and traditional status of elements of the Mabinogi text.
In the Welsh Triads
The burial of Brân’s head is recorded in the Triads of the Island of Britain (Trioedd Ynys Prydein) as one of the Three fortunate concealments of the Island of Britain. The following translation is based on the Red Book version (Llyfr Coch Hergest):
The head of Bendigeidfran son of Llyr, which was
concealed in the White Hill in London, with its
face towards France; and so long as it remained as it
was laid there, no Saxon oppression (gormes) would
ever come to this island.
Brân's severed head is also described as one of Three Unfortunate Disclosures because Arthur declared that he needed no talisman to protect his own country and dug up the head. However, we are not told what he did with it.
In Ancient Greek History
Brân's story is well known in traditional accounts, as we have seen, featuring in the Mabinogi, The Book of Taliesin and the Triads of the Island of Britain. John Koch has equated Brân's story with the famous historical Gaulish chieftain Brennos (Brennius), together with Akichorios, who led a Celtic offensive in the Balkans and attacked Macedonia and Greece in the 3rd century BC.
At the beginning of 279 BC the Gaulish chieftain Bolgios’s army annihilated the detachment of the Macedonian ruler Ptolemy Keraunos, opening the way into Greece for Brennos to follow with a force comprising 152,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry. Brennos continued south. By the autumn of 279 BC he had reached and passed the strategic pass at Thermopylae. Brennos then attacked Delphi with 65,000 men. It seems the winter forced the Gauls to retreat; a miraculous snowstorm sent by Apollo saved the Delphic sanctuary from the onslaught of the Gauls. Brennos, gravely wounded, retreated to the north, where he rejoined Akichorios’s forces but, unable to stand the pain of his wounds, he took his own life by stabbing himself.
The episode of Brennos’s death has been compared with the voluntary beheading of the wounded Brân after the great invasion of Ireland in the Mabinogi; Diodorus Siculus (22.9) has the wounded Brennos command his surviving followers to kill him.
Some of the treasure taken from Delphi by Brennos’s Gauls was deposited, as an offering to their god, in the sacred pools of the Volcae Tectosages at Tolosa (Toulouse) in south-west Gaul. The treasure was then raised out of the ritual pools by the Roman general Caepio when the area was conquered in 106 BC, and considered comparable with the talismanic deposition of Brân’s severed head which protected Britain from foreign conquest.
In Medieval Welsh Legendary History
In Brut y Brenhinedd, the Welsh versions of the Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of
Monmouth, the legendary prehistoric British king called Hely by Geoffrey appears as Beli, and the
conquerors of Rome whom Geoffrey called Brennius and Belinus have the Welsh names Brân and Beli. However, Beli may derive from the Old Celtic name, which is attested as both Bolgios and Belgius, and was borne by the chieftain who led the Gauls’ invasion of Macedonia in 280–279 BC.
Another Brennos (of the Senones) was a Gaulish leader who marched at the head of assembled Celtic warbands c. 390 BC, that routed the Roman army eleven miles from Rome. The recurrence of the name Brennus raises the suggestion that it was a title rather than a proper name. However, the Welsh name Brân could be related to Gaulish Brennos, but is not its exact equivalent. Geoffrey probably saw the name 'Brennius' as a Latinisation of 'Brân' and muddled the two accounts.
The story of Brân in the Mabinogi is well known for the 'talking head' episode when, after being fatally wounded, Brân orders his retinue to severe his head and take it with them. The head continues to talk and remains uncorrupted until one of the party break a taboo and open a window to the south. The head is then buried at Bryn-Gwyn, the White Mound, said to be the site of the Tower of London, however, the Tower's association with the raven is a late tradition. Nearby Tower Hill, described as the“blood-stained ground to the north-west of the Tower,” maybe a better candidate where there is archaeological evidence of a Bronze Age settlement and, later, the site of many public executions. According to Geoffrey the 'White Mound' is the burial place of Brutus.
There seems to have been a cult of the head at the site of St Paul's with numerous animal skulls found there when the building of the present cathedral began in 1675 AD, architect Sir Christopher Wren, discovered remains of a pagan Stag Goddess temple in the foundations of the previous Cathedral which had been destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. This was possibly the site of the pagan temple at Ludgate Hill, reputedly destroyed by the Saxons in 597.
Koch suggests that the Roman Saxon Shore fort of Brâncaster in Norfolk, may have been the site of the original interment of Brân's head. Recorded in the Notitia Dignatatum under the Romano-British name as “Brânodunum” meaning the 'fort of Brân'. It seems more than coincidence that a fort of the litus Saxonicus should be named after a supernatural protector defending the land from foreign oppression (gormes) as reflected in the Triads; the White Mound in London would hardly be in the first line of defence against overseas invaders.`
Anne Ross informs us that birds and heads are associated with each other concerning the Irish war raven goddesses. In O'Mulconry's Glossary, from the Yellow Book of Lecan, the name of the goddess Macha is described as “a crow, or it is one of the three Morrigana. Mesrad Machae, Machae's Mast, that is the heads of men after their slaughter.” Ross adds that the heads of the dead would thus appear to be this bird-goddesses' due, i.e. the dead were more than just food for crows; the spirits of the fallen belonged to the Morrigana.
Koch has drawn attention to a similar reference in Y Goddodin. Crows and ravens feature heavily in Welsh poetry depictions of battlefields. This is typically seen as the act of consuming carrion but can equally imply the presence of a deity collecting souls of the fallen. Koch translates the following stanza (A.24) of Y Gododdin as:
The hero with the protective shield under its polychrome boss,
(with movement like a colt),
was tumult on slaughter's high ground, was fire,
His spears were readied, they were [like] the sun,
He was food for ravens, he was spoils for Brân.
The final line of this stanza makes it quite clear that the dead were not just food for carrion birds but the property of Brân; he was the Celtic god of Hades.
Koch adds that in pre-Christian times, Brennos functioned as the Brittonic god of death, comparable to the Irish Donn and the Dis Pater of the Gauls as reported by Julius Caesar. This supernatural role fits perfectly with Brân's living decapitation and the 87 year Otherworld feast of the noble head.
Significantly, in the Mabinogi of Brânwen the gathering in Ireland is referred to as Gwledd Brân, (The feast of Brân): there is strong argument for presenting Brân as a Celtic psychopomp, guiding the souls of the dead heroes of the battlefield to the glorious afterlife.
Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson
Anne Ross, Celtic Pagan Britain, Academy Chicago, 1996.
Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein (The Triads of the Island of Britain), University of Wales Press, Third Edition, 2006.
Mary Jones, Celtic Literature Collective, Song Before the Sons of Llyr from Llyfr Taliesin (The Book of Taliesin).
John T. Koch, Brân, Brennos: an instance of Early Gallo-Brittonic history and mythology, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies (CMCS) 20, 1990.
John T. Koch, Celtic Culture, ABC-CLIO, 2006.
John T. Koch, The Gododdin of Aneirin: Text and Context from Dark-Age North Britain, Celtic Studies Publications, 1997.
Angelique Gulermovich Epstein, War Goddess: The Morrígan and her Germano-Celtic Counterparts (Dissertation).
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