Branwen

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Branwen is also the name of a character in some versions of Tristan and Iseult.
Christopher Williams, Branwen, 1915

Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr is a major character in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, which is sometimes called the Mabinogi of Branwen after her. Branwen is a daughter of Llŷr and Penarddun. She is married to the King of Ireland, but the marriage does not bring peace.

Her story[edit]

The story opens with Branwen's brother Bendigeidfran (Brân the Blessed), King of Britain, sitting on a rock by the sea at Harlech and seeing the vessels of Matholwch King of Ireland approaching. Matholwch has come to ask for the hand of Bendigeidfran's sister Branwen in marriage. Bendigeidfran agrees to this, and a feast is held to celebrate the betrothal. While the feast is going on, Efnisien, a half-brother of Branwen and Bendigeidgfran, arrives and asks why there are celebrations. On being told, he is furious that his half sister has been given in marriage without his consent, and vents his spleen by mutilating Matholwch's horses. Matholwch is deeply offended, but conciliated by Bendigeidfran who gives him a magical cauldron which can bring the dead to life, but the downside is that they then are mute.

Branwen is treated cruelly by her husband Matholwch as punishment for Efnisien's mutilation of the horses, though not before she gives birth to an heir, Gwern. She tames a starling and sends it across the Irish Sea with a message to her brother and Bendigeidfran brings a force from Wales to Ireland to rescue her. Some swineherds see the giant Bendigeidfrân wading the sea and report this to Matholwch, who retreats beyond a river and destroys the bridges. However, Bendigeidfran lays himself down over the river to serve as a bridge for his men, uttering the gnomic words, "A fo ben, bid bont" ('He would be a leader, let him be a bridge"). Matholwch, fearing war, tries to reconcile with Bendigeidfran by building a house big enough for him to fit into in order to do him honour. Matholwch agrees to give the kingdom to Gwern, his son by Branwen, to pacify Bendigeidfran. The Irish lords do not like the idea, and many hide themselves in flour bags tied to the pillars of the huge newly built house to attack the Welsh. Efnisien, checking out the house prior to the arrival of Bendigeidfran and his men, guesses what is happening and kills the hidden men by squeezing their heads. At the subsequent feast to celebrate Gwern's investiture as King of Ireland, Efnisien in an unprovoked moment of rage throws his nephew Gwern into the fire.

War against Ireland[edit]

In the ensuing war, all the Irish are killed save for five pregnant women that lived in Wales who repopulate the island, while only seven of the Welsh survive to return home with Branwen, taking with them the severed head of Bendigeidfran. On landing in Wales at Aber Alaw in Anglesey Branwen dies of grief that so much destruction had been caused on her account, crying "Oi, a fab Duw! Gwae fi o'm genedigaeth. Da o ddwy ynys a ddiffeithwyd o'm hachos i" ('Oh Son of God, woe to me that I was born! Two fair islands have been laid waste because of me!'). She was buried beside the river Alaw.

Bendigeidfran had commanded his men to cut off his head and to "bear it even unto the White Mount, in London, and bury it there, with the face towards France." And so for seven years his men spent feasting in Harlech, accompanied by three singing birds and Bendigeidfran's head. After the seven years they go to Gwales in Penfro, where they remain for fourscore (80) years. Eventually they go to London and bury the head of Bendigeidfran in the White Mount. Legend said that as long as the head was there, no invasion would come over the sea to Britain.

Branwen's Grave[edit]

At Llanddeusant, Anglesey on the banks of the Alaw can be found the cairn called Bedd Branwen, her supposed grave. Now in ruins, it still has one standing stone. It was dug up in 1800, and again in the 1960s by Frances Lynch, who found several urns with human ashes. It is believed that if the story of Branwen is based on real events, these must have taken place during the Bedd Branwen Period of Bronze Age British history.

See also[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

Welsh text and editions[edit]

  • Branwen Ferch Lyr. Ed. Derick S. Thomson. Medieval and Modern Welsh Series Vol. II. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1976. ISBN 1-85500-059-8

Secondary sources[edit]

  • Ford, Patrick K. "Branwen: A Study of the Celtic Affinities," Studia Celtica 22/23 (1987/1988): 29-35.

Adaptations[edit]

In 1994 a feature film was released called Branwen.[1]

References[edit]

External links[edit]