Brân the Blessed

Brân the Blessed, known as Bendigeidfran or Brân Fendigaidd in Welsh, meaning “Blessed Crow,” is a prominent figure in Welsh mythology, particularly in the Mabinogion. As a giant and the king of Britain, his role is central in several Welsh Triads and notably in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, titled “Branwen ferch Llŷr.”

He is the son of Llŷr and Penarddun and brother to Brânwen, Manawydan, Nisien, and Efnysien. The name “Brân” is translated as crow or raven, reflecting his symbolic connection to these birds.

In the Mabinogi, Brân plays a pivotal role in the tale of his sister Branwen’s marriage to Matholwch, the Irish king. The story takes a dark turn when Efnysien, Brân’s half-brother, mutilates Matholwch’s horses in a fit of rage for not being consulted about the marriage. To appease Matholwch, Brân gifts him a magical cauldron that resurrects the dead.

Branwen, after moving to Ireland with Matholwch, endures mistreatment and sends a message to Brân using a tamed starling. Brân responds by crossing the Irish Sea to rescue her, leading an enormous army. A peace offering by the Irish involves a deceitful plot involving hidden warriors in a large hall. Efnysien, suspecting treachery, kills these hidden warriors. The story escalates with Efnysien murdering Branwen’s son, Gwern, and a violent battle ensues. Efnysien sacrifices himself by destroying the magical cauldron from within.

The conflict’s aftermath is tragic, with only seven men surviving, including Manawydan and Pryderi fab Pwyll. Branwen dies of a broken heart. Brân, mortally wounded, instructs his men to behead him and return with his head to Britain. His head continues to speak for seven years in Harlech and then for eighty years in Gwales. When the survivors finally open a door facing Cornwall, their grief returns. Following Brân’s instructions, they bury his now silent head in the White Hill, believed to be where the Tower of London now stands, as a protection against invasion. This element of Brân’s head speaking is tied to the ancient Celtic “cult of the head,” where the head was considered the home of the soul.

Branwen ferch Llŷr

In the “Branwen ferch Llŷr” narrative, part of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, King Bran, known as Brân the Blessed, plays a central role in a tale that weaves together themes of family, honor, and tragedy.

The story begins with Bran, seated on the rocky shore at Harlech, spotting thirteen ships from Southern Ireland. These ships belong to the Irish Lord Matholwch, who has come to seek the hand of Bran’s sister, Branwen. Bran, seeing the merit in this union for both an alliance and his sister’s happiness, warmly welcomes Matholwch and agrees to the marriage.

The wedding is held at Aberffraw, with the festivities conducted in grand tents, as no building could accommodate the giant Bran. However, the celebration is marred by Bran’s half-brother, Efnysien, who, infuriated at not being consulted about the marriage, brutally maims Matholwch’s horses as a form of retribution. This act angers Matholwch, who considers leaving in dudgeon. To reconcile, Bran offers lavish gifts and a magical black cauldron to Matholwch, which can resurrect the dead but renders them mute. Matholwch accepts the apology and the extraordinary gift, and the situation seemingly resolves.

In Ireland, Branwen and Matholwch’s marriage initially is joyous, especially after the birth of their son Gwern. However, the Irish nobles, resenting the earlier insult, eventually turn Matholwch against Branwen. She is banished from court and subjected to mistreatment in the kitchens. After three years of suffering, Branwen sends a starling with a message to Bran, pleading for rescue.

Furious at his sister’s plight, Bran leads a massive army to Ireland. The Irish attempt a peace offering by proposing that Bran’s nephew Gwern becomes king, but they also plot to kill the Welsh guests during a feast in a specially constructed house. Efnysien, suspecting deceit, discovers and kills the hidden Irish soldiers.

The peace offering leads to a tragic climax when Efnysien, feeling slighted once more, kills Gwern by throwing him into a fire. This act ignites a brutal battle. During the conflict, the Irish use the magical cauldron to resurrect their dead, tilting the battle in their favor. Efnysien, in a final act of redemption, sacrifices himself to destroy the cauldron, thus stopping the resurrection of Irish warriors.

As the battle concludes, Bran, mortally wounded, instructs his men to decapitate him and take his head to London, directing it towards France as a protective talisman. Branwen, heartbroken by the war’s devastation and her brother’s death, dies of a broken heart. The remaining men honor Bran’s wishes, taking his head to be buried in the White Hill of London, the supposed site of the Tower of London.

The story of Brân the Blessed is rich in symbolism and reflects the complex interplay of honor, loyalty, and the consequences of actions in Welsh mythology.

Other References to Brân the Blessed

The Welsh Triads, a collection of medieval Welsh literature, recount that Brân the Blessed’s head was buried in London, where the White Tower (the central tower at the Tower of London) now stands. This burial was said to protect Britain from invasion. However, in a twist of legend, King Arthur is said to have unearthed Brân’s head, proclaiming that Britain should rely solely on his strength for protection.

Three Fortunate Concealments of the Island of Britain:
The Head of Bran the Blessed, son of Llyr, which was concealed in the White Hill in London, with its face towards France. And as long as it was in the position in which it was put there, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to this Island; The second Fortunate Concealment: the Dragons in Dinas Emrys, which Lludd son of Beli concealed; And the third: the Bones of Gwerthefyr the Blessed, in the Chief Ports of this Island. And as long as they remained in that concealment, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to this Island.

The Welsh Triads

The practice of keeping ravens at the Tower of London, supervised by the Yeomen Warder Ravenmaster, has been intriguingly linked to the legend of Brân. In Celtic languages, “brân” means crow in Welsh, and the word is similar to the Cornish and Irish terms for raven, tying the legend to these birds. One of the current ravens is called Brânwen.

Brân the Blessed shares striking similarities with the Fisher King, a character from Arthurian legend and keeper of the Holy Grail. The Fisher King, first appearing in Chrétien de Troyes’s 12th-century romance “Perceval, the Story of the Grail,” is wounded in the leg and sustains his life through the power of the Grail in his mystical castle, awaiting healing by Percival. In the later work by Robert de Boron, the first Fisher King is named “Bron,” closely echoing Brân’s name. Moreover, the Welsh story “Peredur son of Efrawg,” a parallel narrative to the Percival legend, features a visit to a mysterious castle where a severed head, rather than the Grail, is discovered.

The Grail in some interpretations has the power to restore the fallen, much like Brân’s magical cauldron, highlighting another connection between the two myths. Additionally, comparisons have been drawn between Brân the Blessed and the Irish hero Bran mac Febal, further emphasizing the extensive interweaving of Celtic and Arthurian mythologies. These connections and symbolic representations, especially through shared motifs and themes, underscore the rich tapestry of Celtic and medieval literature.