Bran the Blessed (Bendigedfran: ‘Blessed raven’) figures prominently in The Second Branch of the Mabinogi, as the king of Briton (Referred to as The Island of the mighty), and it was said, on account of his gigantic size, that “No house could possibly contain him”.
Bran had a brother called Manawydan, and a sister called Branwen, who was supremely beautiful, and regarded as one of the Three prominent matriarchs of Briton. Bran and his two siblings were the children of Lyr (a Celtic sea god) and his wife, Penarddun. There were also two half-brothers named Nissyen (a man of peace) and Efnissyen (a man of discord), both the sons of Efnissyen, who, it is said, once imprisoned Lyr, and perhaps it was during this period that Efnissyen fathered these two sons upon Penarddun.
One afternoon the king sat upon the the rock of Harlech, amidst many noble courtiers, when he saw thirteen ships upon the horizon, quickly approaching from the direction of southern Ireland. He ordered his courtiers to arm themselves and go down to investigate. The men stood in awe of these magnificent ships, when one of their number pulled out ahead of the fleet, displaying an inverted shield, which was a sign of peace. The ship dispatched boats, and even though the king was sitting high upon his rock, he could hear them, and he bid them welcome, and asked for the captain’s name.
They answered, that is was Matholwch, the king of Ireland, who would only come upon dry land, if his request was met. He desired to join their two royal houses, through a bond of marriage to Bran’s sister, Branwen. Bran agreed to let the king and his company come ashore, and the following day it was decided that the two should marry. A great feast was organized, and on account of Bran’s gigantic size, tents were erected for the festivities. On one side of the king sat his brother Manawydan, and on the other sat the king of Ireland, and next to him sat Branwen. They feasted until overcome with sleep, and that night, Matholwch and Branwen became one.
Some time afterwards, Bran’s half brother Efnissyen discovered that the King of Ireland’s horses had been gathered into the stables, and was outraged to learn of the marriage between Matholwch and Branwen. The insult of not being consulted, was too much for Efnissyen, and he horribly mutilated the horses ears, mouths, eyes, and tails. Matholwch learned that his horses had been rendered completely useless, and without sending word to Bran, he began to make preparations to depart back to his own land.
When Bran learned of Matholwch’s imminent departure, he sent messengers to inquire what was wrong. Despite their attempts to reassure Matholwch that this insult was not the king’s doing, he couldn’t understand why he had been treated in this manner, following his marriage to the beautiful Branwen. Unable to make the king of Ireland see beyond his humiliation, the messengers returned to Bran, and reported all that had taken place.
Bran was unwilling to let Matholwch depart in such a disagreeable fashion, and sent His brother Manawydan and two other men, strong and tall, to give Matholwch a ransom consisting of a silver rod and a gold plate. He told them to explain to Matholwch that is was none other than the terrible Efnissyen, his own half-brother, who mutilated his horses, and that he would accept Matholwch’s return upon the Irish king’s own terms, except he would not be able to destroy Efnissyen lightly.
Matholwch took council, and it was agreed to accept Bran’s offer. Another feast was arranged, but, as they sat together, Bran could sense Matholwch’s unhappiness, and so he offered to replace the king’s horses, and give him a magical cauldron, that would completely restore the injured dead (minus the power of speech) back to life. At hearing this, the king of Ireland’s previous good spirits returned, and the following night, after receiving payment of the horses, Matholwch inquired of Bran the origins of the wonderful cauldron.
The cauldron originated from Matholwch’s own realm, and was brought over to Briton, by a man named Llasar Llaes Gyfewid and his wife Cymidei Kymeinvoll, who had both escaped death, after being trapped in a burning house of Iron. Bran said that it was strange for Matholwch to know nothing of this matter, and so Matholwch admitted he did know something, and recounted what had taken place back in Ireland.
During a hunting expedition, Matholwch was overlooking a lake named, ‘The Lake of the Cauldron’, when he witnessed a large evil-looking fiery-haired man emerge from the water, with a cauldron strapped to his back. A pregnant woman, twice the man’s size, followed behind him, and they both approached the king.
The large man proclaimed that his wife would give birth after the period of a month and two weeks, to a warrior armed and ready for battle. Matholwch entertained the monstrous looking couple for a period of a year and four months, when they began to cause trouble amongst the people, until the people were on the point of rebellion, and demanded that Matholwch would have to get rid of them, or they would depose him.
Because the couple were unwilling to leave, an iron chamber and a fire of charcoal was constructed, by all the the smiths of the land. The man, his wife, and all their children were placed inside the chamber, along with a plentiful supply of food and drink, and when they were all intoxicated, the great fire was lit. Surrounding the iron chamber, each man worked a pair of bellows until it glowed with the heat. From the centre of the chamber the man charged at the wall and broke through with his shoulder, and he and his wife escaped, although all their children perished.
It was soon afterwards that the couple arrived in Briton, and gave the cauldron to King Bran. They caused the king of Briton no trouble, despite becoming numerous, and even helped fortify the land with prodigious bands of fighting men.
Bran and Matholwch continued on enjoying the feast, until all were overcome with sleep. Then Matholwch and his bride set sail for Ireland, and they were greeted with joy by all the people. To all the noble men and woman upon visiting their new queen, she would bestow gifts of precious jewelry, and that first year she became greatly loved, and gained many friends. Eventually, Branwen became pregnant, and she gave birth to a son, who was named Gwern, and he was taken to be brought up in the best place of all the great men.
That following year, the insult that Matholwch received while in Wales became known throughout Ireland, and the king’s foster brothers and closest friends began to openly insult him. It caused such an uproar that the King was forced to take revenge upon Branwen, to appease the people. He drove her out of his quarters and forced her to work in the kitchens and bake for the court. Matholwch also had the butcher go to Branwen everyday and beat her ears, after chopping up the meat. The king was advised to imprison all who would travel to Wales, and all traffic back and forth from Ireland to Wales was forbidden.
Branwen’s punishment continued in this manner for three years, during which time she tamed a starling upon her kneading trough, and trained it to understand speech, and taught the bird concerning the nature of her brother Bran. She wrote a letter explaining her fate, and tying it to the bottom of the bird’s wing, she sent it away across the ocean.
The starling found Bran at Caer Seint, and flew upon the king’s shoulder, ruffling it’s feathers, and exposing the letter from Branwen. The letter was read, and Bran, greatly upset to hear of the disgraceful treatment of his sister, dispatched messengers across his kingdom, to make known her fate. After taking council it was decided that they must go to war against the country of Ireland, leaving behind seven elders to rule, the chief of the seven elders being Bran’s son Caradog. And so, Bran and his fleet set sail towards Ireland, and Bran waded beyond the Lli and Archen rivers, carrying a group of minstrels upon his back.
A number of Matholwch’s swineheards saw Bran and his ships approaching their shores, and reported it to the King. They described to Matholwch a strange sight, of a forest upon the ocean, where no tree had been seen before. The King was puzzled and asked if they saw anything else. The swineherds told him that there was also a huge mountain with a high ridge and two lakes either side, and all, including the forest, were advancing. Matholwch reasoned that no one, if not Branwen, would know what this was, and messengers were sent to ask her. She told them that it was none other than the men of Briton coming across the ocean, having learned of her disgrace. The forest upon the ocean was a great fleet of ships, with masts made from alder trees; the mountain was her brother Bran, wading across the sea, because no boat could contain him; the great ridge upon the mountain was Bran’s huge nose, and the lakes either side were his piercing and angry eyes.
All of Ireland’s warrior men were gathered as one, and they took immediate council. There seemed to be little option other than to withdraw beyond the river Llinon, that contained loadstones, making it impossible for ships to cross. And so, they crossed the river, destroying the bridge behind them. Bran and his fleet reached dry land, near the river’s bank, and his nobles brought to his attention the danger of the loadstones upon the river bed, and they asked how they should proceed? Bran answered them, saying, “he who is the head, let him be the bridge as well”, and lay across the river, allowing his armies safe passage across. And those word’s of Bran became a famous proverb.
As Bran stood up, messengers arrived with greetings from the king of Ireland. They told Bran that Matholwch was willing, in Bran’s presence, to pass the kingship of Ireland over to his nephew, Gwern, to make amends for the wrong committed against Branwen, and afterwards Matholwch would reside either here or the Island of Briton. Bran, wanting the sovereignty of Ireland to pass directly to himself, was unwilling to listen, and impatiently sent the messengers away, demanding that they present him with more favourable terms.
Matholwch and his men came together, and it was decided that the sovereignty of Ireland should be handed over to Bran, and a great house should be built, large enough to contain, not only Bran, but also the men of Ireland on one side and the men of Briton on the other. In this manner, they would surely guarantee peace by paying Bran due reverence, who had never before been contained within a house. Bran took council with his men, and it was decided that they would accept Matholwch’s terms of peace, on the advice of Branwen, wanting no further harm to befall the land.
The house was constructed with a hundred pillars, and a sack was hung upon each pillar, concealing an armed warrior, and in this manner the people of Ireland set a trap. Efnissyen, as ruthless as ever, inspected the house, and noticing the sacks, he asked what was inside one of them. Upon being told that the sack contained flour he put his hand into the sack, crushing the warrior’s head. He did the same for every sack until he came upon the last one, and feeling that this warrior’s head was protected with armour, he crushed it the same as the others, singing;
“Unusual Flour within this sack
a warrior crushed in the attack!”
At that moment, the men of Ireland and Briton entered the great house of Bran from both sides, and when there was peace, Gwern was crowned the king of Ireland. Bran called the boy over to him, and from Bran he passed to his brother Manwydan, and then with love, to Nissyen, the man of peace. Efnissyen asked why the boy would not come to him also, even though he was the king of Ireland, he would still like to show his love. Bran conceded, and the boy happily approached Efnissyen, who at that moment, knew in his heart that he was about to murder the child. Before anyone could stop him, Efnissyen sized Gwern by the feet and tossed him into the fire. Branwen when tried to leap into the fire and save her burning Child, but Bran held her back, with one hand, holding his shield with the other. In the chaos that ensued, Morddwydtyllyon (whose name means ‘pierced thigh’) cried out, and everyone reached for their weapons.
The Irish lit a fire beneath the cauldron of rejuvenation, filling it with the bodies of the wounded dead, and the following day all were completely restored, apart from the ability of speech. Witnessing that the Irish alone were raised from death, Efnissiyen, cursed himself for the evil he had wrought upon his own people, and lay down among the slain bodies of the Irishmen. Two men, both naked and exposed, cast Efnissiyen into the cauldron, and he stretched himself out until the cauldron shattered into four pieces, and his heart exploded.
In this way, the Britons won the battle, though only seven men remained standing. The seven were, Pryderi, Manawyddan, Gluneu Eil Taran, Taliesin, Ynawc, Grudyen, and Heilyn. Bran himself, was wounded in the foot with a poisoned spear, and gave orders for his head to be cut off and transported to Briton, and there buried in the White Hill of London, with it’s face towards France. He told his men that they had a long journey ahead of them, spending seven years feasting in Harlech, while the birds of Rhiannon sang, and the head would be as much alive to them, as Bran had ever been. Then at Gwales they were destined to spent another eighty years, again in the company of the undecaying head, until the forbidden door is opened, looking out in the direction of Cornwall.
They Cut off Bran’s head, and set sail, as their king had commanded them. Accompanying the seven was Branwen, who, looking back upon the country of Ireland, and towards the Island of the Mighty, died of a broken heart, and was finally buried in a four-sided grave.
The men continued on towards Harlech, and were met by a number of men and women, who informed them that Caswallawn, son of Beli, had conquered Briton, and, wearing a magical cloak that rendered him invisible, had slain six of the seven elders. Caswallawn kept alive Caradog, the son of Bran, because he was his nephew, but when Caradog saw only the sword that killed the men, he had died of a broken heart. A boy called Pendaran Dyved, who served the seven elders, escaped into the forest, and Caswallawn was crowned king in London.
Finally the men reached Harlech, and while feasting, three birds appeared, and sang to them such sweet melodies, that every other song in comparison seemed dreadful. The Birds seemed to be both near, and at a great distance far across the sea. After a period of seven years the men journeyed to Gwales, and came upon a Royal hall above the ocean. Inside the great hall were three doors, two open and one closed. The men feasted in the presence of the head of Bran, and in a state of unparalleled joy, untouched by the sorrows of the past, they remained suspended in time for a period of eighty years.
Cursed with curiosity, it was Heilyn who finally opened the forbidden door, and the spell was broken. The men were flooded with the knowledge of all the evil that had come upon them, including the death of their King. Because of this they set out immediately in the direction of London, and buried the head of Bran in the White Hill, known as one of the Three Fortunate Concealments, because the head of Bran had the power to protect the land from foreign invasion. Eventually the head would be dug up, and this would become known as one of the Three Unfortunate Disclosures.
And this tale is known as ‘the Men who set sail to Ireland’.
Only five pregnant women survived the great war in Ireland, who resided in a cave in the heart of the wilderness. They all gave birth at the same time to five sons, and when they reached manhood they each took one of the five mothers as wives. And so, Ireland was eventually repopulated. They divided Ireland between them into the five provinces, and travelled to where various battles had taken place, discovering large quantities gold and silver, and became rich.
And that is the end of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, concerning the punishment of Branwen, one of the Three Grievous beatings of this Island; and of the Company of Bran, when the Britons avenged the wrong committed against Branwen in the country of Ireland; followed by the feating in Harlech for seven years with the birds of Rhiannon, and the period of eighty years at Gwales, in the presence of the head of Bran.