Bran the Blessed

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Not to be confused with Brian Blessed.
Brân the Blessed
Bendigeidfran
Mabinogi character
Harlech Statue The Two Kings.jpg
The Two Kings (sculptor Ivor Robert-Jones, 1984) near Harlech Castle, Wales. Bendigeidfran carries the body of his nephew Gwern following the latter's death at Efnysien's hands.
Information
Species Giant
Gender Male
Children Caradog (son)
Parents Llŷr (father), Penarddun (mother)
Family Branwen (sister), Manawydan (brother), Efnysien (half-brother), Nisien (half-brother)
Relatives Gwern (nephew), Caswallon (cousin), Matholwch (brother-in-law)
Welsh mythology character
Found in Trioedd Ynys Prydein, Branwen ferch Llŷr
Nationality British

Brân the Blessed (Welsh: Bendigeidfran or Brân Fendigaidd, literally "Blessed Raven") is a giant and king of Britain in Welsh mythology. He appears in several of the Welsh Triads, but his most significant role is in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen ferch Llŷr. He is a son of Llŷr and Penarddun, and the brother of Brânwen, Manawydan, Nisien and Efnysien. The name "Brân" translates from Welsh as "Crow".

Role in the Mabinogion[edit]

The Irish king Matholwch sails to Harlech to speak with Bran the Blessed high king of the Island of the Mighty and to ask for the hand of his sister Branwen in marriage, thus forging an alliance between the two islands. Bendigeidfran agrees to Matholwch's request, but the celebrations are cut short when Efnisien, a half-brother to the children of Llŷr, brutally mutilates Matholwch's horses, angry that his permission was not sought in regards to the marriage. Matholwch is deeply offended until Bran offers him compensation in the form of a magic cauldron that can restore the dead to life. Pleased with the gift, Matholwch and Branwen sail back to Ireland to reign.

Once in Matholwch's kingdom, Branwen gives birth to a son, Gwern, but Efnysien's insult continues to rankle among the Irish and, eventually, Branwen is mistreated, banished to the kitchen and beaten every day. She tames a starling and sends it across the Irish Sea with a message to her brother Bendigeidfran, who sails from Wales to Ireland to rescue her with his brother, Manawydan and a huge host of warriors, mustered from the 154 cantrefs of Britain. The Irish offer to make peace and build a house big enough to entertain Bendigeidfrân but hang a hundred bags inside, supposedly containing flour but actually containing armed warriors. Efnisien, suspecting treachery, reconnoitres the hall and kills the warriors by crushing their skulls. Later, at the feast, Efnisien, again feeling insulted, murders Gwern by burning him alive, and, as a result, a vicious battle breaks out. Seeing that the Irish are using the cauldron to revive their dead, he hides among the Irish corpses and is thrown into the cauldron by the unwitting enemy. He destroys the cauldron from within, sacrificing himself in the process.

Only seven men survive the conflict, among them Manawydan, Taliesin and Pryderi fab Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, Branwen having herself died of a broken heart. The survivors are told by a mortally wounded Bran to cut off his head and to return it to Britain. For seven years the seven survivors stay in Harlech, where they are entertained by Bran's head, which continues to speak. They later move on to Gwales (often identified with Grassholm Island off Dyfed) where they live for eighty years without perceiving the passing of time. Eventually, Heilyn fab Gwyn opens the door of the hall facing Cornwall and the sorrow of what had befallen them returns. As instructed they take the now silent head to the Gwynfryn, the "White Hill" (thought to be the location where the Tower of London now stands), where they bury it facing France so as to ward off invasion. The imagery of the talking head is widely considered to derive from the ancient Celtic "cult of the head"; the head was considered the home of the soul.

Other associations[edit]

According to the Welsh Triads, Brân's head was buried in London where the White Tower now stands. As long as it remained there, Britain would be safe from invasion. However, King Arthur dug up the head, declaring the country would be protected only by his great strength.[1] There have been attempts in modern times to link the still-current practice of keeping ravens at the Tower of London under the care of Yeomen Warder Ravenmaster with this story of Brân, whose name means Raven.

Several scholars have noted similarities between Brân the Blessed and the Arthurian character the Fisher King, the keeper of the Holy Grail. The Fisher King first appears in Chrétien de Troyes's 12th century French romance Perceval, the Story of the Grail; he has been dealt a mortal wound in the leg (Brân's wound was in his foot) but stays alive in his mystical castle due to the effects of the Grail, waiting to be healed by Percival. A later author who took up the story, Robert de Boron, describes the history of the Grail in ancient times, and says the first Fisher King was a man called "Bron". Additionally, the Welsh story Peredur son of Efrawg, a version of the Percival story with several striking deviations, features the hero visiting a mysterious castle, but he does not find the Grail there, but rather a severed human head. Additionally, some works attribute to the Grail the power to restore the fallen, making it somewhat similar to Brân's cauldron. Others have identified Bendigeidfran with the Irish hero Bran mac Febal.[2]

John T. Koch proposes a number of parallels between the mythological Bendigeidfran and the historical Celtic chieftain Brennus, who invaded the Balkans in the 3rd century BC.[3] He goes on to suggest an association between Brân and Brancaster, a fort on the Norfolk coast, while Rachel Bromwich suggests that Castell Dinas Brân in Denbighshire is similarly related.[2] Count Nikolai Tolstoy proposes that Brân's original function was that of a psychopomp, guiding the souls of the dead to the Otherworld.[4]

Brân is praised in the poetry of 12th century bard Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr, in which he is described as "a good commander of the host; in battle, in hostile territory, in the contest, in stress", while, in his elegy for Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, Prince of Wales, Bleddyn Fardd compares the overthrow of the prince to the deaths of Llywelyn Fawr, King Arthur and Brân.[5] A poem found in the Black Book of Carmarthen refers to Bendigeidfran's death in Ireland, claiming that Gwyn ap Nudd was present at the battle, either as a warrior or in his traditional role as a psychopomp.[6]

Name[edit]

The Welsh mythological texts of the Mabinogion were recorded between the 14th and 15th centuries in Middle Welsh. As a result there are discrepancies regarding the spelling of names, because English translations maintain Middle Welsh orthography whereas Modern Welsh versions use Modern Welsh orthography. In Middle Welsh, there was some variation on the name Brân; other forms include Vran and Uran.

In the Mabinogion, the character is referred to virtually exclusively as "Bendigeituran"; that is, with the epithet "Bendigeit" (blessed or praiseworthy) attached. The only exceptions are in the patronymic of his son Caradog ap Brân and a single reference to his gathering in Ireland as Gwledd Brân, "The feast of Brân (or 'Crow')". This usage is followed in the Welsh Dryads. Bendigeituran becomes "Bendigeidfrân" or "Brân Fendigeid" in Modern Welsh; Bendigeidfran is the form used in many Modern Welsh adaptations of the Mabinogion.[7] However, earlier references generally do not include the epithet, instead calling the character Brân fab Llŷr or simply Brân.[8] Ifor Williams thought Bendigeit was a late addition, perhaps a replacement for a word that had become obsolete by the time the Mabinogi was recorded.[8] "Vran" appears in an old poem in the Book of Taliesin,[9] while Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr and Prydydd y Moch mention Brân fab Llŷr several times in their poetry, under different spellings. However, Bleddyn Fardd refers to "Benigeitran" in his elegy for Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, demonstrating that the epithet "Bendigeit" had been attached to Brân since the late 13th century.[8]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Triad 37. Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, pp. 94–102.
  2. ^ a b Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydain, p. 290
  3. ^ [Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydain, p. 290
  4. ^ Tolstoy, Nikolai. The Oldest British Prose Literature: The Compilation of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, p. 290
  5. ^ Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydain, p. 291
  6. ^ The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd
  7. ^ For instance, Dafydd & Rhiannon Ifans' Y Mabinogi.
  8. ^ a b c Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, pp. 290–292.
  9. ^ Book of Taliesin XIV, "Kerd Veib am Llyr". From Llyfr Taliesin at maryjones.us. Retrieved February 7, 2007.

References[edit]

  • Bromwich, Rachel (2006). Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain. University Of Wales Press. ISBN 0-7083-1386-8.
  • Gantz, Jeffrey (translator) (1987). The Mabinogion. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044322-3.
  • Ifans, Dafydd & Rhiannon, Y Mabinogion (Gomer 1980) ISBN 1-85902-260-X