The Family Troubles of Bran the Blessed
After spending most of this month devoting blog posts to Irish topics in honor of Irish American Heritage Month, I thought it was time to turn to a different Celtic country. I decided on Wales because I haven’t done anything from or about Wales for a while. Welsh folklore and mythology don’t tend to get a lot of attention. I think part of the reason is the names. Celtic names in general often look difficult to pronounce, which can make reading the folklore and myths a bit daunting. But Welsh can seem particularly puzzling to English speakers. Take for example Llywd ap Cil Coed, Creiddylad, and Culhwch.
Once you get past worrying about how to pronounce the names and just enjoy the stories, you’ll find Welsh folklore is full of fantastic stories. After all, it was the Welsh who gave the western world the great gift of Arthurian legend. The story I’ve chosen for this week’s post is actually quite relatable. Except for the fantastical elements, such as a cauldron that brings the dead back to life. But the magical stuff is the fun part of myth and folklore, isn’t it? Anyway, this tale is from Welsh mythology and is simply about a guy who runs into trouble because of a brother-in-law who’s a wife-beater and a half-brother who’s, well, potentially psychotic. The
hero’s name is Bran and here’s his story.
Bran the Blessed was a Welsh high king and a giant. He had some really cool possessions. One of the best was a magical cauldron that could restore the dead to life. Bran had several siblings but the only ones who are important to this story and his sister, Branwen, and Efnysien, the half-brother of Bran and Branwen.
One day, Matholwch, a king of Ireland, came to Wales to meet with Bran in his castle in Harlech. Math asked to take Branwen as his wife and queen. Bran considered this request and decided that the union of his sister with this Irish king had a number of advantages, so he agreed to give Branwen in marriage to Matholwch. The two kings rejoiced and had a feast to celebrate.
While they and their retinues were celebrating, Bran’s half-brother, Efnysien heard about the arrangement and became enraged. He felt he should have been consulted and been included in the negotiations. So, while the kings were busy feasting, Efnysien mutilated the horses of Matholwch and his entourage.
When the Irish king was informed about the horses, he was understandably outraged. Bran tried to apologize and swore to make amends, but Matholwch called off the wedding and he and his company left for Ireland.
Since the union between Matholwch and Branwen would have created a powerful alliance for Bran, the Welsh king was determined to find a way to salvage the situation. He sent his most persuasive ambassadors to Ireland with gifts for Matholwch. The gifts included a silver stick as wide as a finger and as tall as Bran as well as a gold plate as big as the Welsh king’s face. And remember he was a giant, so these were no small offerings. But the Irish king sent back the message that Bran’s gifts weren’t enough to make up for the slaughter of the horses.
Finally, Bran begged Matholwch to come to Wales for a face-to-face discussion about what he could do to appease the Irish king. Math agreed and sailed to Harlech with his men. He told the Welsh king he would settle for nothing less than the death of the man who had mutilated his horses. Bran explained that the heinous act had been committed by Efnysien and that he couldn’t put his own half-brother to death. In desperation, Bran offered to give Math his magic cauldron which brought the dead back to life.
The Irish king realized that the cauldron was too wondrous of a gift to pass up, so he agreed to let go of his wrath. The two kings again agreed that Matholwch would marry Branwen to cement an alliance between the two kingdoms. The wedding took place and Math took his bride and the magic cauldron with him and returned to Ireland.
For the first few years, Branwen and Math had a good marriage. The Irish people welcomed her and soon she had a baby boy, Gwern, who was the physical symbol of the alliance between the Irish and the Welsh. But some members of the king’s court were still angry about the incident with the horses, and they wouldn’t let the king forget it. They mocked him and needled him, saying he gave into Bran too easily.
Matholwch took the embarrassment and anger he felt out on Branwen, beating her and treating her harshly in every way. Finally, he banished her to the kitchens to get her out of his sight.
Branwen was in misery but, one day, a starling came to a window of the kitchen. She fed it and it came back day after day. She trained the bird how to carry messages and, when it was ready, she sent the bird to her brother in Wales, telling him of the way the Irish king was treating her.
By the time Bran had finished reading his sister’s message, he was seething with anger. He mustered an army from all across Wales and they set sail for Ireland to rescue and avenge Branwen.
The Welsh force was so large that, when the Irish saw them, they decided to sue for peace. Bran’s hand was stayed, though, only because Branwen intervened on the behalf of the Irish. She said she wanted to prevent bloodshed for both the Irish and the Welsh.
Bran tentatively agreed to listen to peace terms and the Irish built a house for him in, they said, gratitude for his mercy. In the house, they hung up 100 bags they said were filled with flour but, in truth, each bag contained an armed warrior. The Irish warriors had been instructed to wait until the feast, which was to be held to negotiate peace terms. During the feast, they were to jump out and kill the Welsh.
Efnysien had come with Bran to Ireland, and he was suspicious of how quickly the Irish had capitulated. When no one was around, he investigated the sacks and discovered the hidden warriors. He went to each sack and quietly crushed the skull of the warrior inside.
During the feast, Gwern, the son of Matholwch and Branwen, who was the heir apparent, went around greeting all the Welsh. Somehow, he missed shaking hands with Efnysien. Furious at being snubbed, Efnysien picked his nephew up by the ankles and threw him into the fireplace. In her distress, Branwen tried to go in after her son, but Bran restrained her.
In response to Efnysien's murder of the heir apparent, the Irish attacked the Welsh, and a full-blown battle broke out. Many men died on both sides.
But then Efnysien noticed the Irish were picking up their dead and putting them in the cauldron. Brought back to life, these Irish warriors returned to the battle and killed more Welshmen.
Lying down in the pile of dead Irish, Efnysien got himself thrown into the cauldron. Once inside, he destroyed it, killing himself in the process.
By the time the battle ended, only Bran, Branwen, and seven of the Welsh were still alive. But Bran had suffered a fatal blow to his ankle. He instructed his men to cut off his head and bring it back to Harlech. They followed his instructions. Branwen went with them back to Wales but she soon died of grief over the death of her son.
Even though Bran’s head had been cut from his body, he was still able to talk, and he continued to talk, guide, and entertain the Welsh for eighty more years. When he sensed his time in this world was coming to an end, Bran gave his men instructions on where to bury his head.
When Bran’s head finally fell silent, the Welshmen buried it, as he had told them, on White Hill, on which the Tower of London now stands. They buried the head with its face turned towards France, believing this would protect Britain from invasion.
It is said that King Arthur dug later dug up Bran’s head and discarded it, proclaiming it was his strength that would evermore protect Britain.
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Slan go foil!