Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed, is a legendary King of the Britons. He is best known to us through the medieval Welsh text The Second Branch of the Mabinogi (1). The primary theme is hope betrayed, most chillingly by Efnysien, Bran’s “brother on his mother’s side”. A marriage feast ends in a series of disasters. But this is not the whole story.
The marriage is between Bran’s sister Branwen and Matholwch the King of Ireland, intended to bring the two kingdoms together in peace and amity. But Efnysien mutilates the Irish party’s horses at the celebration hosted by Bran. It is among the worst things he could do.
In one savage, impulsive act, Efnysien opens the space for an outpouring of resentment, suspicion and hostility – eventually, from both the Irish and the British people. Bran’s efforts to resolve the situation through explanation, consultation and negotiation end in failure. The level of compensation and apology he offers is too much for the British and too little for the Irish. The time comes when Branwen is seriously abused in Ireland. The absolute breakdown of trust between the two countries leads to a bitter, brutal war.
After the war, Bran returns from Ireland with seven surviving companions, his only victory being that he has got them home. Ireland is completely devastated. Bran has been wounded in the foot by a poisoned spear, probably a mortal wound. Bran makes a radical decision, leading to a period of healing and renewal for his companions and a new protective role for his country. “Bendigeidfran ordered his head to be cut off. ‘And take my head’, he said, ‘and carry it to the Gwynfryn in London (the White Mount, now the Tower of London) and bury it with its face towards France. And it will take you a long time; you will feast in Harlech for seven years, with the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. And you will find the head to be as good company as it ever was when it was on me. And you will stay for eighty years in Gwales in Penfro. And so long as you do not open the door to Aber Henfelin, facing Cornwall, you can remain there, and the head will not decay. But as soon as you open that door you can stay no longer. Make for London and bury the head. And now set off across the sea”.
Bran has never been an average human. Too big “to fit inside any house”, he wades across the sea to Ireland “carrying all the stringed instruments on his back”. Later, he bridges the River Liffey by lying down across the river: “hurdles were placed on him, and his men walked on top of him to the other side”. Bran is more than a physical giant. There is something numinous and otherworldly about him, built into his name Bendigeidfran, Bran the Blessed.
The term ‘blessed’ points to something other than it would in the life of a Celtic saint. Caitlin & John Matthews call Bran the Blessed a “titanic god of the Celts … a god of earth and mountain” (2). R. J. Stewart and Robin Williamson describe him as a “primal guardian deity” (3) enacting a role of sacred king traditionally concerned with music, poetry and bridging. In the narrative world of the The Second Branch, such roles are alluded to rather than fully described, but the world is full of magic and spiritually ambiguous, with formal religion little mentioned.
The decapitation of Bran is a magical act. It has two successive effects, both of them benign. The first is when the presence of the head enables an extended period of protected respite for Bran’s companions: the seven years when they feast and hear the birds of Rhiannon (4), and then eighty years as “the Assembly of the Noble Head”. During this time, they forget “all the sorrow they had themselves seen and suffered, [and] … any grief in the world”. Life is pleasurable and delightful and no one seems to age.
It has to end, for the story to continue. The western door is opened, by Heilyn son of Gwyn, driven by curiosity. Grief, loss and ageing return to the companions’ world. They hasten to London to complete their destined task. As long as the head remains buried, no enemy can conquer the kingdom. This is where The Second Branch story ends. Bran, through the agency of his buried head, is confirmed as enduring protector of the land.
There is a coda. It is said that King Arthur dug the head up in later days in the belief that no one but he should protect the country, and that subsequently the head was lost. In later days, the power of the head was transferred to the presence of resident ravens. Bran’s name means raven (also crow), which allows the ravens to take on his power. He is them. They are him. Ravens are kept in the Tower of London to this day, a practice insisted on by Charles II, concerned for the preservation of his country as a kingdom. During World War II the ravens fled after a bombing raid, and every effort was made to ensure that they were swiftly replaced. Seven ravens, the responsibility of Ravenmaster Chris Skaife, live in the Tower now. (5).
(1) The Mabinogion Oxford: the University Press, 2007. (Translated with an introduction by Sioned Davies)
(2) Caitlin & John Matthews The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition London: Arkana, 1985 (Foreword by Gareth Knight)
(3) R. J. Stewart & Robin Williamson Celtic Bards, Celtic Druids London: Blandford/Cassell plc, 1996 (Colour illustrations by Chris Down)