Bran Fendigaid (the Blessed) was the son of the Sea God, Llyr and, maternally, the grandson of Belenos, the Sun God. His name means Raven, and this bird was his symbol. In Celtic mythology, Bran appears as a semi-humanized giant residing at Castell Dinas Bran, the later home of the later Kings of Powys. Though Bran himself was supposed to have been an early King of the Silures tribe of Gwent. There appears to be no archaeological evidence for his worship though perhaps the castle mount was once sacred to him. Geoffrey of Monmouth transformed him into an early British King named Brennius, though his story probably relates to King Bran Hen of Bryneich.
One Irish tale tells how Bran fell asleep, one day, while listening to the beautiful song of a goddess with whom he fell deeply in love. She sang of a mystical Otherworld far away on a Westerly Island. So the following day, Bran and his three foster-brothers and twenty-seven warrior-followers set off in their ships to find this wondrous land. On their journey, Bran encountered his half-brother, Manawyddan, God of the Sea, and eventually reached the land of Women. Here the goddess greeted him and they spent a whole year together happy and fulfilled. Eventually though, some of Bran's men wished to return home, but the goddess warned them that if they were to step foot on the British Isles, they would crumble to dust for, in reality, many centuries had passed since they had left home. Bran, however, ignored her warning and returned home. On reaching the shore, however, the first man to step ashore found the goddess' warning to be true, and his fellow mariners were forced to sail the seas for evermore. Perhaps Bran found some magical way back to his own time, for he is better known from an old Welsh tale, in the Mabinogion, concerning the marriage of his sister, Branwen.
Desirous of an alliance with other Celtic nations, Bran gave his sister, Branwen, in marriage to King Matholwch of Ireland. This was not, however, a universally popular move and his brother, Efnisien was completely outraged. He maimed the Irish horses and caused so much offence that Bran felt obliged to give Matholwch his wondrous magic cauldron in recompense.
Though the Irish King was satisfied with the apology, his people did not forget so easily and after some years, despite Branwen bearing him a son named Gwern, Matholwch was persuaded to eject the lady from the court to work in the kitchens. Branwen therefore sent her pet starling (for which we should perhaps read raven) to seek help from her brother in Wales. King Bran was astonished to hear of the ill-treatment of his beloved sister. He immediately gathered his mighty army and crossed (or waded in Bran's case) the Irish Sea to rescue her. Matholwch retreated westward upon seeing the mighty Welsh forces. Bran helped his men cross several mighty rivers in order to follow him and Matholwch was eventually forced to offer to abdicate in favour of his son and Bran's nephew, Gwern. Bran only accepted on the understanding that a house was also built that was big enough to hold him. Unfortunately, at the feast to celebrate the truce, Efnisien through Gwern into the fire and hostilities quickly are resumed.
In the bloodiest of battles that ensued, the Irish were able to reincarnate their dead using the Magic Cauldron, so the fighting was harder than had ever been seen before. Eventually the battle was ended, but neither side was triumphant. Only seven Britons escaped alive. Bran was not amongst them. He had been mortally wounded in the foot by a poisoned dart, only surviving long enough to request that his head be cut off and buried on Gwynfryn (the 'White Mount' where the Tower of London now stands) in Caer-Lundein (London). Upon his death the harvests back in Britain failed and the land became barren and unworkable.
The seven survivors did as they were bid and returned to Britain. For seven years they stayed in Harlech, entertained by the head which continued to speak and knew nothing but joy and mirth. They later moved on to Gwales (Grassholm Island off Dyfed) where they lived for an incredible eighty years without perceiving the passing of time. Eventually, one of the men opened the door of the hall which faced Cornwall which everthying was brought back to them. They felt they must continue on their journey to London where their buried Bran's head, facing the Continent as a protective talisman against invasion.
Archaeological evidence has clearly shown that the cult of the head was a highly popular one amongst the Celts. Perhaps their was a temple on Tower Hill. Stone-carved heads have been discovered from across the Celtic World and, in Provence on the Continent, a gruesome skull-covered altar has been unearthed. Roman records occasionally refer to Celtic peoples as head-hunters who kept the severed heads of their enemies as trophies. A connected story may hold a memory of how this pagan cult was swept away when Christianity arrived in Britain. King Arthur apparently declared that he needed no talisman to protect his own country and dug up Bran's head as proof that he could perform the requirements himself. Sadly, he did not succeed and internal political squabbles led to his death and the increase of Saxon settlement in Britain. The tradition survives, however, with the Ravens (Bran in Welsh) still kept at the Tower of London. It is said that if they were ever to leave, then Britain would fall to invaders from without. Their wings are wisely kept clipped.
Much of the information available about Bran the Blessed strongly suggests that at least part of his legend entered into later Arthurian romance. His Magic Cauldron is probably that sought by King Arthur in the Welsh poem, the "Spoils of the Annwfn". As in Bran's Irish tale, Arthur travels to the Celtic Otherworld and, like the Welsh tale, only seven men survive. The vessel was later reborn as the Holy Grail, the cup of plenty or cornucopia found in mythology from across the Globe. The wound to Bran's foot, inflicted by a poisoned spear, which caused his lands to fail is echoed in that of the Arthurian Grail guardian, known as the Grail or Fisher King. His latter title may be related to Bran's association with rivers and river-crossings (such as those he encountered in Ireland). His castle was Corbenic or Castell Dinas Bran, both names deriving from the word Raven or Crow. The Fisher King, like Bran's head, could feast with his followers indefinitely and his forename was said to be Bron (or Brons) in the so-called Didot Perceval: clearly a transformation of Bran. Here, he is given a wife, Anna, the daughter of St. Joseph of Arimathea, probably through confusion with his grandmother, Belenos' wife, Anu. Bran may also be the original of other Arthurian characters like Brandegorre, Bran de Lis, Brandelidelin or Ban of Benoic.
Bran supposedly had a son called Caradog. A fact which has, unfortunately, led to his an erroneous identification with the father of the British leader of that name who opposed the Romans at the time of the Claudian invasion (AD 43). Despite this Caradog being a Catuvellaunian, the two became associated with the Silurian tribe of South Wales due to his fleeing there before the British last stand. Unlike, Caradog's real father, Cunobelin, Bran was said to have been taken as a captive to Rome where he joined the household of St. Paul. Returning to Britain, with SS. Aristobulus and Joseph of Arimathea some years later, he became among the first to introduce Christianity to the Island, hence his epithet of "the Blessed". This whole story is a late 17th century fabrication based on misinformation.
In the Bonedd yr Arwyr, Bran is made both of a paternal and maternal ancestor of King Arthur. There is, no doubt an added confusion of Caradogs here, however, as there are far too few generations given.
|© Nash Ford Publishing 2001. All Rights Reserved.|