Mythology Explained: Branwen Daughter of Llyr

Good afternoon!

Apologies on the late post, work has been kicking my butt all week and I have an author signing on Saturday afternoon so my dedication to blogging has been somewhat slack this week.

If you’re tuning in for the first time, Mythology Explained is a hair brained experiment in explanations meant to turn your world upside down in the hopes that you understand Celtic myth. It’s not scientific, it’s not even academic, it’s really just for fun.

This week I’m covering Branwen Daughter of Llyr. I haven’t even reread the story yet so I need to go do that first and then I can explain to you what happens.

The Mabinogian
Branwen Daughter of Llyr

Part 1: The Cauldron of Healing

Ben son of Llyr (okay his name was Bendigeidfran) was crowned King of England and invested with the crown of London. One day he and his brothers, including Nisien and Efnisien, went down to the shores and saw 13 ships coming their way. Curious, they went down to the shore to meet them. As it turned out, Math (Matholwch) King of Ireland wanted to come ashore and ask for the hand of Branwen Daughter of Llyr.

Ben had a feast set in Abberfraw. He decided that he would give his sister to Math. They spoke the whole night of the agreement. That night Math slept with Branwen.

Meanwhile while asleep Efnisien came around Abberfraw and asked one of the men what was going on. The man told him that Math and Branwen were to be wed. Efnisien got upset because Branwen was his sister too and Math did not ask him if he could have her. Therefore he marred Math’s horses so that they were no longer usable.

Math found out about it and felt both disgraced and insulted. He left, but he was confused because it made no sense. Why let him sleep with such a beautiful, fair, and good maiden and then ruin his horses? Still he took his leave.

Ben found out what Efnisien had done and because of it he had his men call Math back in peace offering him much more goods than he was offering during the original discussions. Math came reluctantly but he didn’t seem happy about it. Ben then said that he had a cauldron he would include in the deal. Ben said, “Should a man of yours be killed today, cast him into the cauldron, by tomorrow he will be as good as ever – but he will be without speech.”

Math wondered how Ben had acquired the cauldron, and recalled two people who he met in Ireland that had emerged from a lake which became named the Lake of the Cauldron. A giant man with reddish yellow hair came out carrying the cauldron on his back. His wife was twice the size of him and came behind him. They greeted him and said they were having a son that would be warrior ready only a month and a fortnight after being born.

Math didn’t know what to think of it, but he let them stay in his place and they caused nothing but havoc, molesting, insulting and pestering people. So the people created a giant iron cage and had them take counsel in it when the iron was hot. The man however broke free and took his wife with him.

Math assumed then that they had gone to England where they gave the cauldron to Ben.

Part 2: Branwen’s Slap

Branwen lived with Math in Ireland for two years before Math’s men heard of the insult Ben has paid to him. They then demanded that Branwen be punished and so they did by making her cook for everyone. They also hit her on the ears everyday.

Branwen raised a starling and sent a message to her brother Ben in the Isle of the Mighty. Ben and his men set out, leave Caradawg son of Bran and 7 of his men in charge of the Isle of the Mighty. As no house could hold Ben, neither could a ship. Math’s men saw what they to be a moving forest with a moving mountain where the sea used to be. Math told the men to ask Branwen about it and she explained that the forest were the ships and masts and that the mountain was her brother. And that he was angry.

So Math’s men tried to escape by crossing a river and destroying the bridge over that river, but Ben came anyway, and he laid down saying that he would be a bridge. So they laid wood over it and the men crossed anyway. Then Math surrendered and Math’s men told Ben that Gwern, Branwen’s son was being named King of Ireland. Ben asked why he shouldn’t just take over as King of Ireland himself, but then they said they would talk to Math to see what he would give him.

Math decided to give him a house. A house big enough to house Ben and everyone in the court. So the house was built, but then Math was sneaky. In the corner of each of the 100 rooms of the house he hung a hide a bag on a nail. When Ben and his brothers came Efnisien was the one to notice the bag. He kept asking about it, but Math’s men kept telling him there was flour in it. So Efnisien kept killing the warrior that was actually hidden inside each bag. He did this until all 100 of the warriors were dead.

Then they sat and there was peace. Gwern visited each of his uncles except for Efnisien. Efnisien asked Branwen why her son won’t come to him and so Branwen told Gwern to go to Efnisien. And when Efnisien had the boy he threw him into the fire.

Everyone grabbed their weapons a quarrel about to break out, but then, they remembered the cauldron and so all the dead warriors Efnisien had killed were put into the cauldron. There was then not enough for the Isle of the Mighty warriors, so Efnisien disguised himself as an Irishman and went into the cauldron and broke it into four pieces. In doing so he shattered his heart.

Because of it only seven men from the Isle of the Mighty escaped from Ireland and Ben was struck with a poison arrow. Because of the poison, it was ordered that Ben’s head be chopped off and buried in London facing France.

Part 3: Ben’s Head

Branwen and the 7 men who escaped took Ben’s head across Wales to London. They were to stay in Harlech for 7 years with Rhiannon, then go to Gwales in Pembroke for 80 years, and then open the door to Aber Henfelen in the direction of Cornwall. They can stay there and the head untainted until they open the door and then they have to go immediately to London to bury the head. They were also told that the head would be good company for them until they buried it.

The reached Aber Alaw in Talebolion and Branwen was overcome with grief for ruining two islands. She died there.

When they arrived in Harlech they heard from the people that Caswallan son of Beli was being crowned King of the Isle of the Mighty. Immediately they asked what happened to Caradawg son of Bran, but they said that Caswallawn came against them and killed all his men and he died of grief. They said that Caswallawn fought dirty by putting magic on himself so that Caradawg couldn’t see him. And the only one that Caswallawn showed mercy to was Pendaran of Dyfed who escaped into the woods.

So they spent 7 years in Harlech with Rhiannon at a feast.

Then they went to Gwales in Pembroke and saw the three doors, two were open and the one facing Cornwall was closed. That was the door they weren’t supposed to open. So they spent 80 years there and the head was as comforting as if Ben were still living with them. They forgot all about the troubles they had gone through and did nothing but feast and take pleasure.

Then one day Gwyn did something. He opened the forbidden door and there he saw all the loss they had suffered, the kinsmen they lost, the ill they had suffered, as if it was happening all at once. At that moment they could stay no longer and went to bury the head in London.

Part 4: The Five Women

All the seven left in Ireland were Five pregnant women who would then bear Five sons who would then continue the lineage and divide Ireland into five districts. And they collected gold and silver until they were wealthy.

This ends this branch of the Mabinogian.

My thoughts:

I don’t know about you, but spending 87 years with a giant head just sounds like endless fun.

Also, if I were Math’s men, I wouldn’t have been stupid enough to think that a mountain crossing an ocean couldn’t cross a river.

I like the use of doors in this, how opening a door can remind you of the reality you live in.

I also liked the part about the cauldron, although I wish they had put it to better use in this tale.

I really thought Efnisien should have died sooner. Or someone should have played Badger in the Bag with him.

I have NO idea how to hide a warrior in a bag but I really want to try it.

Hope you’re having fun, next week we look at Manawyden son of Llyr!

Namaste,
Rhi