In the second of the "Four Branches", Pryderi, come to man's estate, and married to a wife called Kicva, appears as a guest or vassal at the court of a greater god of Hades than himself--Brân, the son of the sea-god Llyr. The children of Llyr--Brân, with his sister Branwen of the "Fair Bosom" and his half-brother Manawyddan, as well as two sons of Manawyddan's mother, Penardun, by an earlier marriage, were holding court at Twr Branwen, "Branwen's Tower", now called Harlech. As they sat on a cliff, looking over the sea, they saw thirteen ships coming from Ireland. The fleet sailed close under the land, and Brân sent messengers to ask who they were, and why they had come. It was replied that they were the vessels of Matholwch, King of Ireland, and that he had come to ask Brân for his sister Branwen in marriage. Brân consented, and they fixed upon Aberffraw, in Anglesey, as the place at which to hold the wedding feast. Matholwch and his fleet went there by sea, and Brân and his host by land. When they arrived, and met, they set up pavilions; for "no house could ever hold the
blessed Brân". And there Branwen became the King of Ireland's bride. 1
These relations were not long, however, allowed to be friendly. Of the two other sons of Llyr's wife, Penardun, the mother of Manawyddan, one was called Nissyen, and the other, Evnissyen. Nissyen was a lover of peace, and would always "cause his family to be friends when their wrath was at the highest", but Evnissyen "would cause strife between his two brothers when they were most at peace". Now Evnissyen was enraged because his consent had not been asked to Branwen's marriage. Out of spite at this, he cut off the lips, ears, eyebrows, and tails of all Matholwch's horses.
When the King of Ireland found this out, he was very indignant at the insult. But Brân sent an embassy to him twice, explaining that it had not been done by his consent or with his knowledge. He appeased Matholwch by giving him a sound horse in place of every one that Evnissyen had mutilated, as well as a staff of silver as large and tall as Matholwch himself, and a plate of gold as broad as Matholwch's face. To these gifts he also added a magic cauldron brought from Ireland. Its property was that any slain man who was put into it was brought to life again, except that he lost the use of speech. The King of Ireland accepted this recompense for the insult done him, renewed his friendship with the children of Llyr, and sailed away with Branwen to Ireland.
Before a year was over, Branwen bore a son. They called him Gwern, and put him out to be foster-nursed among the best men of Ireland. But, during the second year, news came to Ireland of the insult that Matholwch had received in Britain. The King of Ireland's foster-brothers and near relations insisted that he should revenge himself upon Branwen. So the queen was compelled to serve in the kitchen, and, every day, the butcher gave her a box upon the ear. That this should not become known to Brân, all traffic was forbidden between Ireland and Britain. This went on for three years.
But, in the meantime, Branwen had reared a tame starling, and she taught it to speak, and tied a letter of complaint to the root of its wing, and sent it off to Britain. At last it found Brân, whom its mistress had described to it, and settled upon his shoulder, ruffling its wings. This exposed the letter, and Brân read it. He sent messengers to one hundred and forty-four countries, to raise an army to go to Ireland. Leaving his son Caradawc, with seven others, in charge of Britain, he started--himself wading through the sea, while his men went by ship.
No one in Ireland knew that they were coming until the royal swineherds, tending their pigs near the sea-shore, beheld a marvel. They saw a forest on the surface of the sea--a place where certainly no forest had been before--and, near it, a mountain with a lofty ridge on its top, and a lake on each side of the ridge. Both the forest and the mountain were swiftly moving towards Ireland. They informed
[paragraph continues] Matholwch, who could not understand it, and sent messengers to ask Branwen what she thought it might be. "It is the men of the Island of the Mighty 1," said she, "who are coming here because they have heard of my ill-treatment. The forest that is seen on the sea is made of the masts of ships. The mountain is my brother Brân, wading into shoal water; the lofty ridge is his nose, and the two lakes, one on each side of it, are his eyes."
The men of Ireland were terrified. They fled beyond the Shannon, and broke down the bridge over it. But Brân lay down across the river, and his army walked over him to the opposite side.
Matholwch now sent messengers suing for peace. He offered to resign the throne of Ireland to Gwern, Branwen's son and Brân's nephew. "Shall I not have the kingdom myself?" said Brân, and would not hear of anything else. So the counsellors of Matholwch advised him to conciliate Brân by building him a house so large that it would be the first house that had ever held him, and, in it, to hand over the kingdom to his will. Brân consented to accept this, and the vast house was built.
It concealed treachery. Upon each side of the hundred pillars of the house was hung a bag, and in the bag was an armed man, who was to cut himself out at a given signal. But Evnissyen came into the house, and seeing the bags there, suspected the plot. "What is in this bag?" he said to one of the Irish, as he came up to the first one. "Meal,"
replied the Irishman. Then Evnissyen kneaded the bag in his hands, as though it really contained meal, until he had killed the man inside; and he treated all of them in turn in the same way.
A little later, the two hosts met in the house. The men of Ireland came in on one side, and the men of Britain on the other, and met at the hearth in the middle, and sat down. The Irish court did homage to Brân, and they crowned Gwern, Branwen's son, King of Ireland in place of Matholwch. When the ceremonies were over, the boy went from one to another of his uncles, to make acquaintance with them. Brân fondled and caressed him, and so did Manawyddan, and Nissyen. But when he came to Evnissyen, the wicked son of Penardun seized the child by the feet, and dropped him head first into the great fire.
When Branwen saw her son killed, she tried to leap into the flames after him, but Brân held her back. Then every man armed himself, and such a tumult was never heard in one house before. Day after day they fought; but the Irish had the advantage, for they had only to plunge their dead men into the magic cauldron to bring them back to life. When Evnissyen knew this, he saw a way of atoning for the misfortunes his evil nature had brought upon Britain. He disguised himself as an Irishman, and lay upon the floor as if dead, until they put him into the cauldron. Then he stretched himself, and, with one desperate effort, burst both the cauldron and his own heart.
Thus things were made equal again, and in the
next battle the men of Britain killed all the Irish. But of themselves there were only seven left unhurt--Pryderi; Manawyddan; Gluneu, the son of Taran 1; Taliesin the Bard; Ynawc; Grudyen, the son of Muryel; and Heilyn, the son of Gwynn the Ancient.
Brân himself was wounded in the foot with a poisoned dart, and was in agony. So he ordered his seven surviving followers to cut off his head, and to take it to the White Mount in London 2, and bury it there, with the face towards France. He prophesied how they would perform the journey. At Harlech they would be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing to them all the time, and Brân's own head conversing with them as agreeably as when it was on his body. Then they would be fourscore years at Gwales 3. All this while, Brân's head would remain uncorrupted, and would talk so pleasantly that they would forget the flight of time. But, at the destined hour, someone would open a door which looked towards Cornwall, and, after that, they could stay no longer, but must hurry to London to bury the head.
So the seven beheaded Brân, and set off, taking Branwen also with them. They landed at the mouth of the River Alaw, in Anglesey. Branwen first looked back towards Ireland, and then forward towards Britain. "Alas." she cried, "that I was
ever born! two islands have been destroyed because of me." Her heart broke with sorrow, and she died. An old Welsh poem says, with a touch of real pathos:
"They made her a four-sided grave," says the Mabinogi, "and buried her upon the banks of the Alaw." The traditionary spot has always borne the name of Ynys Branwen, and, curiously enough, an urn was found there, in 1813, full of ashes and half-burnt bones, which certain enthusiastic local antiquaries saw "every reason to suppose" were those of the fair British Aphrodité herself. 2
The seven went on towards Harlech, and, as they journeyed, they met men and women who gave them the latest news. Caswallawn, a son of Beli, the husband of Dôn, had destroyed the ministers left behind by Brân to take care of Britain. He had made himself invisible by the help of a magic veil, and thus had killed all of them except Pendaran Dyfed, foster-father of Pryderi, who had escaped into the woods, and Caradawc son of Brân, whose heart had broken from grief. Thus he had made himself king of the whole island in place of
[paragraph continues] Manawyddan, its rightful heir now that Brân was dead.
However, the destiny was upon the seven that they should go on with their leader's head. They went to Harlech and feasted for seven years, the three birds of Rhiannon singing them songs compared with which all other songs seemed unmelodious. Then they spent fourscore years in the Isle of Gwales, eating and drinking, and listening to the pleasant conversation of Brân's head. The "Entertaining of the Noble Head" this eighty years' feast was called. Brân's head, indeed, is almost more notable in British mythology than Brân before he was decapitated. Taliesin and the other bards invoke it repeatedly as Urddawl Ben (the "Venerable Head") and Uther Ben (the "Wonderful Head").
But all pleasure came to an end when Heilyn, the son of Gwynn, opened the forbidden door, like Bluebeard's wife, "to know if that was true which was said concerning it". As soon as they looked towards Cornwall, the glamour that had kept them merry for eighty-seven years failed, and left them as grieved about the death of their lord as though it had happened that very day. They could not rest for sorrow, but went at once to London, and laid the now dumb and corrupting head in its grave on Tower Hill, with its face turned towards France, to watch that no foe came from foreign lands to Britain. There it reposed until, ages afterwards, Arthur, in his pride of heart, dug it up, "as he thought it beneath his dignity to hold the island
otherwise than by valour". Disaster, in the shape of
came of this disinterment; and therefore it is called, in a triad, one of the "Three Wicked Uncoverings of Britain".
289:1 Retold from Lady Guest's translation of the Mabinogi of Branwen, the Daughter of Llyr.
290:1 Rhys--Lectures on Welsh Philology--compares Matholwch with Mâth, and the story, generally, with the Greek myth of Persephoné.
292:1 A bardic name for Britain.
294:1 This personage may have been the same as the Gaulish god Taranis. Mention, too, is made in an ancient Irish glossary of "Etirun, an idol of the Britons".
294:2 This spot, called by a twelfth-century Welsh poet "The White Eminence of London, a place of splendid fame", was probably the hill on which the Tower of London now stands.
294:3 The island of Gresholm, off the coast of Pembrokeshire.
295:1 The Gododin of Aneurin, as translated by T. Stephens. Branwen is there called "the lady Bradwen".
295:2 See note to Branwen, the Daughter of Llyr in Lady Guest's Mabinogion.
297:1 Tennyson: Idylls of the King--"Guinevere".