Four Branches of the Mabinogi

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The Four Branches of the Mabinogi are the best known tales from the collection of medieval Welsh prose known as the Mabinogion. The word "Mabinogi" originally designated only these four tales, which are really parts or "branches" of a single work, rather than the whole collection. The tales contain most of what is recorded of Welsh mythology.

Overview[edit]

The most mythological stories contained in the Mabinogion collection are four interrelated tales, by a single author or storyteller, titled The Mabinogi in manuscripts, or often "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi". The use of characters' names as titles for each branch is also a modern practice; they are not named in the original manuscripts. One figure, Pryderi, appears in all four branches, though not always as a central character. They include:

  • Pwyll Prince of Dyfed, telling of Pryderi's parents, his birth, loss, and eventual recovery.
  • Branwen Daughter of Llŷr, which mostly follows Branwen's marriage to the King of Ireland. Pryderi is named but plays no part in this branch.
  • Manawydan Son of Llŷr, where Pryderi returns home with Manawydan, brother of Branwen, and they encounter misfortune.
  • Math Son of Mathonwy, following Math and Gwydion and their conflict with Pryderi.

It has been suggested that originally these tales were all part of a tradition surrounding the life of Pryderi, and that later additions of material have since come to dominate the stories. It is unclear whether this is indeed the case, or if, alternatively, Pryderi himself was introduced to link legends of separate origins.

Story[edit]

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed[edit]

The first branch tells of how Pwyll, the prince of Dyfed, exchanges places for a year with Arawn, the ruler of Annwn, defeats Arawn's enemy Hafgan and on his return encounters Rhiannon, a beautiful maiden whose ambling horse cannot be caught. He manages to win her hand at the expense of Gwawl, to whom she is betrothed. He does so by using a magic bag that can never be filled in which he traps Gwawl. His men beat Gwawl while he is in the bag. Rhiannon bears Pwyll a son but the child disappears the night he is born. Rhiannon is accused of killing him and forced to carry guests on her back as punishment. But the child had been taken by a monster and is rescued by Teyrnon and his wife who bring him up as their own, calling him Gwri Golden Hair, until his resemblance to Pwyll becomes apparent. They return him to his real parents, Rhiannon is released from her punishment and the boy is renamed Pryderi.

Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr[edit]

In the second branch, Branwen, sister of Bendigeidfran (meaning "blessed raven", otherwise known as Brân the Blessed), king of Britain, is given in marriage to Matholwch, king of Ireland. Branwen's half-brother Efnisien, angry that no one asked him permission, insults Matholwch by mutilating his horses. Bendigeidfran gives Matholwch compensation in the form of new horses and treasure, including a magical cauldron which can restore the dead to life, although the revived persons will always remain unable to speak.

After returning to Ireland, Matholwch and Branwen have a son, Gwern, but Efnisien's insult continues to rankle among the Irish and Branwen is banished to the kitchen and beaten every day. Branwen trains a starling to take a message to Bendigeidfran, who goes to war against Matholwch. His army crosses the Irish Sea in ships, but Bendigeidfran is so huge he wades across. The Irish offer to make peace and build a house big enough to entertain Bendigeidfran but hang a hundred bags inside, supposedly containing flour but actually containing armed warriors. Efnisien, suspecting a trick, reconnoitres the hall and kills the warriors by crushing their heads inside the bags. Later, at the feast, Efnisien, again feeling insulted, throws Gwern on the fire and fighting breaks out. Seeing that the Irish are using the cauldron to revive their dead, Efnisien hides among the corpses and destroys the cauldron, although the effort costs him his life. Only seven men, all Welsh, survive the battle, including Pryderi, Manawydan and Bendigeidfran, who is mortally wounded by a poisoned spear. Bendigeidfran asks his companions to cut off his head and take it back to Britain where it continues to live for eighty years as they partake of an enchanted feast. Branwen dies of grief on returning home. Five pregnant women survive to repopulate Ireland.

Manawydan, son of Llŷr[edit]

Pryderi and Manawydan return to Dyfed, where Pryderi is reunited with his wife Cigfa and Manawydan marries Rhiannon (Pryderi's mother from the First Branch). However, a magical mist descends on the land, leaving it empty of all domesticated animals and humans apart from the four protagonists. They stay in Dyfed and support themselves by hunting at first, then move to England where they make a living making saddles, shields and shoes of such quality that the local craftsmen cannot compete and drive them from town to town. Eventually they return to Dyfed and become hunters again. While they are hunting a white boar leads Pryderi and Manawydan to a mysterious castle. Pryderi, against Manawydan's advice, goes inside but does not return. Rhiannon goes to investigate and finds Pryderi clinging to a bowl, unable to speak. The same fate befalls her and the castle disappears. Manawydan and Cigfa return to England as shoemakers, but once again the locals drive them out and they return to Dyfed. They sow three fields of wheat but the first field is destroyed before it can be harvested. The next night the second field is destroyed. Manawydan keeps watch over the third field and when he sees it destroyed by mice he catches one and decides to hang it the next day. A scholar, a priest and a bishop in turn offer him gifts if he will spare the mouse but he refuses. When asked what he wants in return for the mouse's life he demands the release of Pryderi and Rhiannon and the lifting of the enchantment over Dyfed. The bishop agrees because the mouse is in fact his wife. He reveals that his name is Llwyd son of Cil Coed and that he caused the enchantment on Dyfed in revenge for the insult against his friend Gwawl, whom Pwyll, Pryderi's father, humiliated in the First Branch.

Math, son of Mathonwy[edit]

While Pryderi rules Dyfed in south-west Wales, Gwynedd in north Wales is ruled by Math, son of Mathonwy, whose feet must be held by a virgin at all times except while he is at war. Math's nephew Gilfaethwy is in love with Goewin, the current footholder, and Gilfaethwy's brother Gwydion tricks Math into going to war against Pryderi so Gilfaethwy can have access to her. Gwydion kills Pryderi in single combat and Gilfaethwy rapes Goewin. Math marries Goewin in compensation for her rape and banishes Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, transforming them into a breeding pair of deer, then pigs, then wolves. After three years they are restored to human form and return.

Math needs a new footholder, and Gwydion suggests his sister Arianrhod, but when Math magically tests her virginity, she gives birth to two sons. One, Dylan, immediately takes to the sea. The other is raised by Gwydion but Arianrhod swears that he will never have a name or arms unless she gives them to him, which she refuses to do. But Gwydion tricks her into naming him Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Bright, (with a) Deft (Skilful) Hand) and giving him arms. She then swears he will never have a wife of any race living on earth; so Gwydion and Math make him a beautiful wife from oak, broom, and meadowsweet, naming her Blodeuwedd ("Flower Face"). Blodeuwedd falls in love with a passing hunter called Gronw Pebyr and they plot to kill Lleu. Blodeuwedd tricks him into revealing the means by which he can be killed; but when Gronw attempts to do the deed, Lleu escapes, though wounded, transformed into an eagle.

Gwydion finds Lleu, transforms him back into human form and turns Blodeuwedd into an owl. Gronw offers to compensate Lleu; but Lleu insists on returning the blow that was struck against him. He kills Gronw with his spear, which is thrown so hard it pierces him through a stone behind which he is hiding.

Recent translations[edit]

  • Bollard, John K. (translator), and Anthony Griffiths (photographer). The Mabinogi: Legend and Landscape of Wales. Gomer Press, Llandysul, 2006. ISBN 1-84323-348-7
  • Davies, Sioned. The Mabinogion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. ISBN 0-19-283242-5
  • Ford, Patrick K. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977. ISBN 0-520-03414-7
  • Gantz, Jeffrey. The Mabinogion. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1976. ISBN 0-14-044322-3.
  • Jones, Gwyn and Thomas Jones. The Mabinogion. Everyman's Library, 1949; revised 1974, 1989, 1993.

Walton, Evangeline. (prose retelling) " The Island of the Mighty", "The Children of Llyr", The Song of Rhiannon", "Prince of Annwn". New York: Ballantine Books, 1971 - 1974 (respectively), ISBN 345-02773-6-125 Rhiannon:Curse of the four branches video game

External links[edit]