A Cymric Hero and God, also known as Bendigaidd Frân; Bendigeidfran: Blessed Raven
Brân (Bendigaidd Frân; Bendigeidfran) is a Cymric (Welsh) deity and hero known from the Mabinogi of Branwen Ferch Llŷr and the poem, the Cad Goddeu where he is represented as an alder deity. He is one of the High Gods of the Celtic pantheon and a Raven god of battle as well as a psychopomp, transferring the spirits of the deat to the otherworld.
Brân is the hero of the second branch of the Mabinogi. He is usually referred to by the apellation bendigeit or blessed. A giant, he was the son of Llŷr and Penarddun he was the brother of Branwen and Mathonwy as well as the half-brother of Nissien and Efnissien.
Literally, Brân is the Cymric word for corvid, whether crow or raven. Though mythologically Brân is associated with the cigfrân., the raven. Brân is an all-purpose father deity, who is a patron of the arts and is accompanied by the raven as a symbol of his wisdom and his leadership of the people in time of need. The attribute of a raven as the symbol of a leader is attested by the fact that the modern Cymric word for king is brenin. Moreover, the mythological leader of the Celtic invasion of Macedonia in the tird century BCE is known as Brennos and it may be that Brennos is a Gaulish version of Brân.
In the Mabinogi of Branwen ferch Llŷr Brân’s chief court lies at Harlech on Cardigan Bay. Desirous to forge an alliance with the Irish Brân marries his sister, Branwen to Matholwch the king of Ireland. However, their brother Efnissien was not well pleased with the match and in outrage he maimed the Irish horses at the wedding feast, causing grave offence. In response to this Brân felt obliged to give his magic cauldron to Matholwch. Though the Irish king was pacified with this offering and despite Branwen giving him a son, Gwern, his courtiers persuaded him to banish her to the kitchens to perform the most menial tasks. She, however, had a pet starling and she sent this across the waves to alert her brother to her predicament.
On learning of Branwen’s plight Brân immediately gathers an army and leads them across the Irish sea. He bestrides the waves, the poets and bards of his court upon his shoulders as the remaining warriors progress in ships behind him. Fording many rivers, in which course Brân utters the famous statement boed ben bïd bont (he who is the leader must be their peoples’ bridge). Brân’s men won the ensuing battle and Matholwch was forced to accept terms ’ that he would abdicate in favour of Gwern and that for the victory feast a house would be built that would house Brân himself (not a small feat because of his prodigious size). However, at the ensuing feast the Iris hid themselves in flour sacks to attack the Cymry. Efnissien, sensing treachery threw the flour sacks onto the celebratory pyre and then he threw Gwern atop the sacks. As a result, battle was rejoined. Using Brân’s cauldron the Irish were able to re-animate their dead, though they could not speak as a result, and the fighting was fiercer than ever. However, in recompense for his misdeeds Efnissien threw himself into the cauldron, managing to destroy it and himself in the process. Eventually the battle ended with neither side triumphant. Brân himself was wounded in the foot with a poisoned dart and only survived long enough to instruct his seven surviving companions that his head be struck off and buried in Gwynfryn (the White Mount in Caer Lunnein or London). At Brân’s death darkenss fell across the face of Britain and all the crops failed.
They brought the head back to Harlech where it continued to talk and entertain them. For fully seven years they knew nothing but joy and happiness. Eventually though they had to make their way to London. However, they sojourned on the island of Gwales (Grassholm) where the head regailed them once more and they lived there for eighty years, entirely unaware of the passage of time until one of their number opened the door facing Cornwall and the spell which was upon them was broken. Dejected the companions made their way to London where they buried Brân’s head, alining him so that he faced the continent as a protection against invasion.
It is this legend that directly leads to the myth of the ravens of Tower Hill (if they fly away then Britain will fall to invasion). Brân’s healing cauldron is also interesting in that there is an image on the Gundesdrup cauldron (shown above) which some have interpreted as a sacrificial scene. But could it be a scene of Brân’s magical cauldron in use?
An interesting echo of this tale is found in the Irish story of Bran: One Irish tale tells how Bran fell asleep, one day, while listening to the beautiful song of a goddess with whom he fell deeply in love. She sang of a mystical Otherworld far away on a Westerly Island. So the following day, Bran and his three foster-brothers and twenty-seven warrior-followers set off in their ships to find this wondrous land. On their journey, Bran encountered his half-brother, Manawyddan, God of the Sea, and eventually reached the land of Women. Here the goddess greeted him and they spent a whole year together happy and fulfilled. Eventually though, some of Bran’s men wished to return home, but the goddess warned them that if they were to step foot on the British Isles, they would crumble to dust for, in reality, many centuries had passed since they had left home. Bran, however, ignored her warning and returned home. On reaching the shore, however, the first man to step ashore found the goddess’ warning to be true, and his fellow mariners were forced to sail the seas for evermore. Again, Bran is associated with an isand where time stands still.
Brân is also mentioned in the Cad Goddeu where he can only be defeated if someone guesses his name. Gwydion does this by recognizing Brân’s tree-emblem of the alder. Thus is Brân defeated and Gwydion becomes victorious. It should be noted in this context that Brân’s nephew (the son of his sister, Branwen) is Gwern (in Cymric Gwern means ‘alder’) and as Brythonic matrilinear succession often went from ruler to his sister’s firstborn then, by association, Brân must also be considered as an ‘alder’ deity, which makes sense of Gwydion’s recognigion of Brân’s tree emblem.