Episodes 28 & 29: Second Branch of the Mabinogion

Bendigeidfran, son of Llŷr, was crowned king over this island….

We’re back in the world of Welsh Mythology in this second branch of the Mabinogion.

And as these stories are from a time before the Anglo-Saxon conquest Welsh mythology here is really the mythology of all of the island of Great Britain

And if you thought things were a little unusual in the first branch…. well they really step up this time.

In Part one there’s giants, magic, marriage, international diplomacy and the age old question of: Families. Who’d have them?

And that’s kind of the dull filler episode leading into Part 2, which is a genuine epic featuring talking heads, the non-talking dead, talking birds, not meant to be talking sacks, and I bitterly regret recording the whole episode without saying “A little bird told me”.

At time of writing the second part remains one of the longest episode of the podcast alone. I think it’s needed to tell this genre defying tale which has a huge number of twists and turns. There’s a whole plot with an invisibility cloak which is somehow kind of incidental!

As you might be able to tell this is one of my favourite stories from all of Welsh mythology and features some great characters, bizarre circumstances and one moment that genuinely left me stunned and flicking back over the page to ask “did that really happen?!” when I first read this story.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

Stories in summary (Warning – contains spoilers!)

The stories in brief, without the detail or discussion – not a transcript.

If you’ve already listened and just want a refresh, only want the bare bones of the story, or really don’t care about spoilers then please do click below to read on…

Our story begins with seven men. And a head. Just a head. But a very talkative head. And a very jolly talkative head at that.

They were all pretty damn jolly actually. And that was even though they spent their time day in, day out in one hall, never leaving. But never needing to – for there was everything they’d ever need here. Food and drink and good company. They’d make music and tell stories and they’d never feel ill, no sugar crashes, no hangovers. Not even ageing in fact.

They’d been here a very long time. Though they didn’t know how long for a sense of time was hard to maintain here and had been discarded decades ago. It was a good life.

Some more years passed still.

Until one day Heilyn asked: “what about the third door?”

“The third door?” questioned Pryderi.

“Yeah”, said a curious Heilyn. “There’s the two open ones – from them we can see the sea and the Island and it’s all very pretty. But about that door at the back of the room. The locked one?

For the first time in a long time a sense of unease seeped into the mood of the assembled company.

“There’s something….” said Pryderi, trying to remember..

But it was too late.. Heilyn was up and at it. He strode towards the door, lifted the bar, and flung the door open.

The weight of repressed memories smashd into him, he staggered backwards under the pressure of them. The wave of remembrance crashed through the room knocking his companions to-and-fro.

They remembered everything.

When they recovered a grim determination had taken the place of ceaseless joy. The eyes of the head had closed forever.

“We have to leave this place.” A simple statement of fact. There was no disagreement. In short order the seven left the hall taking the head with them. They had a duty to perform.

Let’s go back near enough a century. We’re on the Island of Britain, long before the arrival of the Romans or the Angles or the Normans. The people of the land were the Britons, who will eventually be confined to Wales alone. But then they were the only people of that island.

And the rulers of the Britons were an unusual royal family. Magic and supernatural power flowed in their blood.

They were all the children of Llŷr, a father who was no longer around.

There was Branwen and her two full brothers – Bendigeidfran or just Brân for short, and Manawydan. There were also her half brothers – Nisien, who was a peaceful, kind and good natured soul. And Efnysien. Who was not.

Brân was certainly the most notable of the family, for he was a giant. And not just a kind of tall person. No, a proper giant. As tall as the tallest trees. He was also King of the Island, which seemed reasonable.

And at the time of the story’s opening he had just concluded a successful treaty negotiation with the King of the Irish, Matholwch, who had come to Brân’s court at Harlech to ask for Branwen’s hand in marriage, and all the political advantages which came with that.

Whether Branwen was consulted is not made clear but what was done was done and everyone seemed happy with the new friendship between the lands.

But no one had told Efynisen about this. He’d been away and only discovered by accident as he was returning, as he came across a field of the Irish King’s horses. Demanding whose they were he was told all about the visit of the Irish and the subsequent marriage of Branwen.

And he was angry he’d not been consulted, that Branwen was given away without his say so. (Whether he was supposed to have right to consultation or not is unclear.)

But rather than complain to his own family he went straight for the nearest target at hand to take out his wrath on. That target was Matholwch’s horses. It was a savage attack, but rather than simply kill them, Efynisien ripped off their lips, cut down their ears and tails, and eyelids.

Supernatural power as I said.

When the Irish found out about the attack there was outrage. This was tantamount to war. They knew that Brân wasn’t involved himself, in fact he was furious about it, but that was beside the point. They were meant to have been under his protection, and not only had he failed to provide that but the damage was done by his own half-brother.

This was intolerable. They prepared to leave. The scales of social power had now shifted considerably. All the peace-treatying was about to be completely undone. And Brân, Giant King had only one real option if he wanted to undone the damage. Grovel.

And grovel hard he did. He would make things right with the Irish – he offered them a horse of his own for each one taken and gold and silver in excess of that. 

You may reasonably ask why Brân also didn’t offer Efnysien up, or try him himself. But he even admitted to the Irish that it would “not be easy for me to kill or destroy him”, though whether this was for reasons of an equal physical match up or of internal politics is not made clear.

For whatever reason he could not and so the price he would have to pay for peace became higher still. Eventually Matholwch and the Irish were convinced – what they were offered was so reasonable that to turn it down would be perceived as dishonourable.

But to get to that point Brân had to offer “The Cauldron of Rebirth”. Which was every bit as impressive as it sounds. For when a body who had been dead less than day was thrown into the cauldron it would emerge the next day, revived with all faculties – excepting that the power of speech would be taken away from them. 

Giving away immortality for diplomatic advantage seems like an incredibly expensive trade, especially on top of everything else that been offered already, but it reflects the extreme severity with which Efnysien’s actions were viewed

Oddly enough the cauldron had originally come from Ireland. It had belonged to a couple of giants, man and wife. They had been hounded out of the country extremely brutally. Apparently this happened because of the insulting, harassing and generally unacceptable actions of them and their rapidly growing children. (And I do mean rapidly here: from newborn to fully grown warrior in 6 weeks).

But we only have Matholwch’s word that this was the reason. And he was the one that did the hounding out. After their exile from Ireland Brân had accepted them into his Kingdom and been given the cauldron as thanks, because apparently everyone was just passing around the secret of immortality.

And they’d just been two regular decent giants as long as he had known them. Though maybe that’s because they saw him as one of their own.

The truth of their behaviour in Ireland may never be known. Though, I say with extreme foreshadowing, later events in the story do not give me much faith in Matholwch’s words.

Anyway – the Irish got the cauldron and all the horses, and gold and silver, Brân’s debt on behalf of Efnysien was repaid, the friendship between the two countries was back on.

Branwen was still married to Matholwch, and the couple set off to Ireland. And everything was fine for… a while.

It was a short while – a year. Long enough for Branwen to give generously to the Irish nobles and for her and Matholwch to have a son, Gwern.

And yet. There was a powerful faction in Ireland who had wanted war with the Britons. Ostensibly their reasons were because of the insult of Efnysien still. But given that had been paid back so well it feels like a fig leaf, and they really just didn’t like the Britons.

Which unfortunately included Branwen. 

And so she bore the brunt of their wrath. They banished her from her husband’s chamber and relegated her to cooking for the court. And every single day the butcher was tasked with a sickening ritual where, after cutting up the meat he would come to Branwen and punch her straight across the face. This is some seriously dark stuff.

You might be thinking that this would definitely cause a war. And so did Matholwch. So he cleverly put an embargo on all boats going from Ireland to Briton, and turned any ships of the Briton’s back. And if that failed they’d just imprison their crews. All so that no one could spread the news of what was happening to Branwen.

Which seems to be an eminently sensible long term plan by a strategic mastermind. 

Somehow this worked for three whole years. During which time Branwen kneaded bread and was violently assaulted day in day out.

How will the very stable genius Irish plan go? We’ll find out in the second episode…

To be continued…

After three years Branwen had come to accept now that no one was coming to save her. Why her brothers had forgotten about her is not entirely clear. But if she wanted out of this she’d have to take action herself. 

And she didn’t come from a normal family. A normal person would not have been able to train a starling to speak, convince it to cross the Irish sea and tell their brother – the Giant King Bendigeidfran what was happening to her and to come get her out. But Branwen could, and she did.

When the non-metaphorical very physical little bird told Brân what was happening, and gave him the letter in Branwen’s hand (to prove it wasn’t a lying little bird I assume) he was furious.

There wasn’t any debate to be had. The Giant King sent word to every corner of the Island and made it clear that this was not optional. Soon the warriors of all 154 cantrefs were assembled in what is now Wales.

This was war.

Seven nobles were left behind to rule, in the upcoming absence of every other soldier, noble and most of their retinues. 

There had never been an invasion force like it. The Irish sea was shallower back then and so the giant Brân was tall enough to wade across it. Along with an armada.

Matholwch, King of the Irish and domestic abuser, was relaxing when he got word from some terrified swineherds of some great and terrible mountain approaching across the sea.

“What do you mean men? Speak sense!”

But Branwen knew that they spoke precisely that, and she allowed herself the first smile in many years when she told her husband: “That’s no mountain! It’s my Brother!” 

The Irish didn’t waste any time preparing for the oncoming invasion: By which I mean they retreated with tremendous speed, over the Liffey, taking up all bridges behind them in a desperate move to slow down the invader.

Brân’s army reached the Liffey, he lay down. They walked over him. He stood up. And they continued.

This cunning plan undone in a matter of moments the Irish, who just had clearly not given the slightest consideration to what they’d do in this scenario, tried to make a rapid peace by giving into demands that Brân had not even made. 

They gave Branwen back. And she was joyfully reunited with her real family, but also full of actual tales of the horror of her treatment.

The Irish knew this would only be the start, and they went all in pretty quickly. The next thing they offered was that Gwern, that is Matholwch and Branwen’s son who was now a toddler, would become King of Ireland. With immediate effect.

Though of course someone would have to rule in his stead and it was clear that Brân could be that person.

And on top of that they’d give Matholwch over to Brân.

Now this is getting pretty close to unconditional surrender already. The country and the King? And yet Brân wasn’t entirely convinced.

So they upped their offer further: they also committed to build a palace big enough to fit the giant in. He’d never been in a building because of size. But they’d change that!

They’d make it here, in Ireland and they could have the feast to celebrate the peace, and presumably do the equivalent of crowning Gwern in it. 

And even that might not have been enough for Brân, who it seemed was really just spoiling for a fight. But it was for Branwen. And this was her call to make.

And so without any blood being spilled the children of Llŷr conquered Ireland and avenged Branwen’s treatment. For a while at least.

The Irish summoned all of their most skilled craftspeople to construct the palace big enough for a giant. And after much ceaseless toil they managed it.

But during the process of its construction and the utter defeat they were facing someone in the Irish hierarchy thought again. And wondered whether maybe they could turn things around: with a little sneaky scheming.

Efynsien arrived for the feast before any of the other Britons. I assume he was now at least partly back in the good books given his attack on the Irish King’s horses looked far more reasonable in retrospect. Foresighted even. 

The Palace was mostly empty. There were a few servants preparing and a couple of guards. Later on the feast would be brought to the place, but right then it was quiet. Oh, and there were innocuous sacks hanging from the pillars of that vast place.

Efynisen could tell they were innocuous because when he asked – “when it’s the sacks?” the answer from an Irishman came thus: “Flour”. Said with confidence.

Efynisen walked to the hanging sack. “Just flour?”

“Just flour” said the Irishman.. His voice wavering a little.

Oh good,” said Efynisen. He squeezed, using the strength that could hold down horses and cut off their eyelid. Squeezed the place where he felt the head of the soldier who was concealed within. And whose skull was crushed before he could even cry out.

The sack sagged.

“And this one?” asked Efnysien, walking to the next sack…

In the end two hundred bodies hung around the hall. Armed assassins who’d have crept out and executed the Britons as they feasted. Now just corpses.

And about the time Evynisen was reaching the last man the rest of his family arrived.

The feast began, and how different it must have been for those Irish men who knew the plan and what Evynisen had done compared to those who thought this was a genuine peace settlement.

Brân was inside for the first time enjoying the huge fire, around which sat Irish and Britons feasting and making amends. Efnysien didn’t reveal what he’d done to his own people, just looked smugly at the terrified Irish top brass.

And now it really was a peace settlement, for the Irish were out of other options. 

Gwern, soon to be King of Ireland toddled around in the midst of the merriment. His extended family had never had the chance to meet him before of course. This boy through whom they would rule. The giant lovingly holding the toddler must have been an odd sight, but Brân was taken with his nephew, who also met his other uncles – Manawydn, Nysien and Efnysien.

Efnysien took up the child when he came to him, hugged his nephew tightly.

And then, in one powerful fluid motion he threw the boy into the middle of the fire. 

There was a sickening crack, a burst of flames. For just an instant the room stood still, time treacled as Branwen raised her hands to her face and took a breath before giving a huge scream. As shocked horror spread across faces all around Efynisen smiles darkly.

Then time rushes back at double speed and there is commotion from every direction.

Brân has to hold Branwen back, stopping her jumping into the fire after Gwern, while with his other vast hand he picks up his shield. 

The Irish who’ve just seen the foreigner kill their prince and break the treaty don’t have time to figure out the subtleties of Efynsien betraying their own family. Weapons are quickly in hand. The Britons draw weapons to defend themselves and in no time at all fierce fighting has broken out.

Gwern was dead when he hit the fire. 

And Efnyisen, Efnyisen slips away.

It was all out war now, and while both sides had clearly expected the Irish to lose rapidly in such a conflict there was one thing that had not been taken into consideration.

For indeed on the first day it was a massacre of Irish warriors, the Britons lost few and it seemed like their victory was near.

But the next day every dead Irish man was back on the battlefield, a mute, but otherwise just as they had been before, and fervently seeking revenge for their own murders.

The Cauldron of Rebirth! That same which Brân had given up to secure peace with the Irish years ago was now being used against them. And to great effect.

Every day brought the same – the Britons would win the battles but the next day the Irish would be full strength again.

This was turning into a slow war of attrition. Where only one side was getting weaker.

The logic of the situation was stark and disastrous for the Britons.

Efnyisen watched all this in horror. Whatever his motivations for his horrendous act of kin slaying this was certainly not the outcome he wanted. He too had imagined an easy victory for his kin – and perhaps he even thought with Ireland subjugated they might come to see how he’d done the right thing in not letting a half Irish boy rule it. Even if he had been Branwen’s son.

But this was awful! He was filled with rage and fear. Though they would not see him he had to help his family.

And he had an idea of how.

That day when the Irish came to gather up their corpses to put them into the cauldron, Efnyisen lay in the pile of bodies, disguised as one of them. And, exactly as per his plan he was picked up, and thrown into the Cauldron of rebirth.

Inside he strained against the sides of the cauldron. Now he was supernaturally strong, but this was a distinctly magically cauldron, so while it shifted slightly it didn’t break. Efnysien redoubled, tripled his efforts. Gave it everything he had. Strained with all his muscles against the sides of it.

It seemed to be hopeless until, all of a sudden, it shattered. Pieces of shrapnel and corpses flew out in all directions.

And as it broke so did Efnysien, under the sheer strain of it all. And when the dust settled he lay in the ruins of a cauldron amongst the corpses, as dead as any of them.

The Irish advantage was gone. Their warriors would not be returning. But the invaders had lost many. Now things were almost even.

There was never any talk of surrender on either side. It had become abundantly clear that this was a fight to the death.

So the bitter war raged on in earnest.

And bloody and terrible carnage it was. Matholwch was struck down, and on the other side Nysien. But still the slaughter continued.

And it continued all the way up until every single Irish man lay dead. The country was left a barren, uninhabited wasteland. And of the Britons only nine remained – Manawydan, Brân and Branwen, and six others.

But of these Brân was in bad shape himself, having taken a blow with a poisoned spear.

It was clear to all that the giant King was dying.

Before he did so he ushered a prophecy – telling of what would happen to the party of survivors next. Amongst this he asked that his head be cut off and taken with them, to eventually be buried in London .

Tearfully they obeyed his instructions. Cut off his head, and returned across the ocean to what is now Wales, carrying it with them.

Unbelievably, the tragedy was not to end there. They’d not long set foot back on Anglesey when the pain of all the losses became too much for Branwen, who had lost her family, her son – everything and everyone. Getting home was no relief to her. There was no one left to greet her. She died of grief.

And then there were seven, carrying a head. They would go to Caradog, who had been put in charge, tell him of their “victory”. 

But still not yet was the tragedy over for they soon discovered that Caradog was no longer in control of the island.

For Caswallon had killed all but one of the men they’d left behind using a cloak of invisibility, and taken control of the island.

All that fighting. All that slaughter. And this was the result.

Now had it not been for Brân’s prophecies it’s difficult to say what the men would have done next – but they had tasks laid out for them by their King, and they would honor his requests.

So they went to the court Harlech to feast. And this was some serious next level feasting. For it lasted a whole seven years, with entertainment being provided by the magical birds of Rhiannon. 

But that had just been an appetiser, for next they set out to the small island of Gwales where an enchanted hall awaited them.

And it is here that we join the story at the start of episode one.

It was a greatly magical place and when they arrived at the island they lost all memories, the head of Brân came to life, and not a one of them thought it was strange. And there they stayed, feasting on food and drink that constantly replenished, for eighty happy years. Until Heilyn opened the door, and all the memories rushed back in that psychic tidal wave described in the opening to this story.

After that there was just one task to complete. The very last one Brân’s had instructed.

They took the once again inanimate head to London, and there they buried it, looking out to France.

And that is where this story ends: With the seven – Manawydan, Glifiau, Taliesen, Ynog, Gruddieu, Pryderi and Heilyn standing on the White Hill where today may be found the Tower of London.

And in the ground by their feet the head of the giant who had been their king. 

But this was not the end for the survivors and there were more stories of them yet to be told. But that will come in future tales.

So ends this Branch of the Mabinogi.

“Ac yuelly y teruyna y geinc hon yma o’r Mabynogyon”

– “And so ends this branch of the Mabinogion

Lady Charlotte Guest

Accomplished linguist Lady Charlotte Guest translated medieval Welsh tales into English, and in doing helped to create the Mabinogion that exists today.

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Illustrations of the Mabinogion

The view from Harlech today

There are some beautifully illustrated versions of the Mabinogion knocking around. See particularly Alan Lee’s illustrations in this edition: Mabinogion, Alan Lee but these are generally not public domain images. So if you want them you’ll have to buy the books.

And so images of stories from the Mabinogion are relatively scarce online, with most illustrations coming from various republications of Charlotte Guest’s translation that use the same drawings by S. Williams (I don’t have more detail on the guys name).

So I went for a little bit of a hunt for some more obscure public domain images.

Illustrations of the Second Branch

I find it interesting that while many modern pictures really focus on Bendigeidfran as a source of inspiration the illustrations I have been able to find have a distinct bent towards Efynisien and Branwen.

The full page illustration of the butcher beating Branwen is from an otherwise unillustrated version of the tale. This seems to be such a perplexing moment to choose from a story of such potential richness of imagery that I’m genuinely baffled.

Most of the images of the head, and indeed of Bran himself, show him surprisingly normal sized – as if they’re almost embarrassed by the “giant” bit of the story.

The one definite exception is the massive head by J.H.F Bacon that I’ve included at the top here, and which I absolutely love. It seems to sum up the feel of that scene so wonderfully, particularly flocked by the birds of Rhiannon.

For a story with such a range of fantastical images I’m sorry I can’t give you more – though I highly recommend a quick google for the less public domainy ones!

A few I uncovered were illustrated by Stephen Reid in Myths of the Celtic Race, Celtic myth & legend, poetry & romance (for the full head picture) and by T.H Robinson in Y llyfr cyntaf Pryderi fab Pwyll.

Birds of Rhiannon, the head, definite jolliness but maybe slightly bored like they’ve been there a very long time. I love it all

Harlech Castle

The rock of Harlech where the story begins is today the site of a castle, though not the one featuring in the story as this one was built by the English in the 1280s, long after this story is set (as much as it can be said to be set in any real time period).

Oddly enough while the rock of Harlech was once on the sea shore the castle is now almost a mile distant from the shore, sitting above roads and buildings on what was once the sea bed. This change has come about because of natural depositions but means the castle’s setting is rather altered from what it once was and is in the story.

On my own visit to the castle I was delighted to find it the home of flocks of black jackdaws. As Brân is the Crow or Raven King the presence of some corvids this seemed very appropriate.

There is a statue outside the castle that honours the legend, depicting Brân carrying Gwern. As with the book illustrations this seems to eschew the “Giant” part of the character and seems to be more dwelling on a more personal level of tragedy. It’s a firm fixture of the castle and a great place for an icecream.

Tower of London

While not technically featuring in this story the tower of London is much associated with the fate of Bendigeidfran.

It was built on the White Hill following the Norman conquest, long after Brân’s head was first buried and indeed dug up again.

The Raven’s at the tower are an internationally recognised symbol and though the direct link is impossible to prove there’s no doubt that this story marks the first known connection between Ravens and the tower.

Just as, according to the old legends the land was safe as long as the head of the Raven king was beneath it modern folklore holds that it is safe until the actual Raven’s leave it (which they’ll rather struggle to do given the captivity they are kept in).

This is an opportune moment to point out that King Arthur removed Bran’s head from the hill:

“because it did not seem right to him that this Island should be defended by the strength of anyone, but by his own.”

Or to put it more succinctly. Because King Arthur was a pompous, arrogant, narcissistic and yet insecure man, who in this instance may have doomed his people to suffering centuries of invasion. Probably one of his lesser crimes. I don’t like King Arthur.

“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”

Llyfr Coch Hergest – Translation at Mary Jones

Selected Sources

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