The Second Branch concerns the fate of the children of Llŷr . Brân the Blessed (Bendigeidfran, or Brân Uendigeit) son of Llŷr is the High King of the Island of Britain, ‘exalted by the crown of London’. Here we move away from the localised perspective of the other three Branches and take in events on a pan-British scale. By reference to these wider developments, the Second Branch situates the action of the Mabinogi at a definable point in the framework of Medieval Welsh historiography.
The Second Branch might therefore be seen as the panoramic view – documenting a shift in the regional geopolitics of the insular world as a whole, contextualising the more local developments enumerated in the other three Branches of the Mabinogi. In this respect it fits into the traditional Welsh ‘meta-narrative’ first discussed at length in the section on Llud and Llefelys above. The Sons of Beli Mawr, as we might remember, were remembered in the Welsh tradition as the last native British dynasty to hold sway over yr ynys Prydein holl ‘The Whole of the Island of Britain” – the alpha and omega of the Welsh tradition of historical prophesy. As well as representing this potent vision of pan-British sovereignty, the Sons of Beli Mawr had a number of other important resonances for the Medieval Welsh imagination. Medieval genealogists reckoned them as the ancestors of the Gwr y Goggledd, the Men of the North – the semi-Romanised Britons who dominated the kingdoms of Rheged, Strathcylde, Elmet and Gododdin during the fifth- and sixth centuries and later became a significant element in the North Walian royal houses of Gwynedd and Powys. Through these same bloodlines, the Sons of Rhodri Mawr emerged as dominant force in the tribal politics of Medieval Wales. In typological terms, the Sons of Beli Mawr would have represented the Sons of Rhodri Mawr on a higher, mythical arc. In such a way, the Second Branch might be seen as a covert justification for the rising hegemony of the Sons of Rhodri Mawr, and the senior branch of this kindred in particular, as we will see below.
The children of Llŷr were only partially affiliated with Sons of Beli Mawr, being the offspring of Penarddun daughter of Beli Mawr and the non-Belgic Llŷr Lledieith, a maritime figure evidently based in the Irish Sea area. This might be seen as the beginning of the process which saw the Belgae assume sovereignty over the tribes of Britain – first by marriage, and then by force of arms. Little is known about Llŷr himself from the Welsh tradition, other than the fact that he was once king of Britain, and that he was imprisoned and deposed by his rival Euroswyddi . The Second Branch is set against the background of these events. The dynasty of Llŷr has been restored through the person of his son Bendigeidfran, but with Efnisien son of Euroswydd lingering as a menacingly presence at the royal court. By the end of the Branch, following a bloodbath of apocalyptic proportions, the sovereignty is seized by Caswallon son of Beli Mawr, representing a reassertion of the senior Belgic bloodline. In this way, the stage is set for the final act in the cycle of the Sons of Beli Mawr – the tale of Caswallon, which would have once included not only an account of his enmity with Julius Caesar, but also a sub-tale involving a romance with a legendary beauty known as Fflur, whom Caswallon pursued to Rome in the guise of a cobbler. Sadly, nothing survives of this key medieval Welsh legend beyond a handful of tantalising references in the triads and the gogynfeirdd poetry.ii
The Second Branch itself begins with the High King Brân (Bendigeidfran) sitting in state on the rock of Harlech – looking westwards, significantly, out across the Irish Sea. The events that follow lead relentlessly towards the climax of the Branch, in which the one hundred and fifty districts of Britain rise up in anger to avenge the injury of the king’s sister Branwen ‘one of the three Chief Matriarchs of the Island of Britain’. But the tale of Branwen ends on a muted, strangely ethereal note – with the armies of Britain reduced to seven men, the decapitated king suspended between life and death and these seven survivors feasting and drinking in a magical island palace, curiously disengaged from the world of time and space.
This dramatic shift in atmosphere reflects the fact that the Second Branch seems to be a fusion of more than one distinct streams of tradition. The first of these was a body of warrior mythology evidently known to the bardic author as ‘The Assembly of Brân’. This legend may well have its ultimate origin in the tribal-historical lore of the Belgic people, who seem to have initially emerged in northern Europe following the abortive Sack of Delphi in 279 BC by led by the Gaulish warlords Brennus and Bolgiosiii . The same event is also echoed in the Galfridian tradition, in the story of the feuding brothers Belinus and Brennius, who are representing as feuding over the sovereignty of Britain, before uniting to lead a glorious rampage through Europe, culminating in the sack of Rome. In the Second Branch, the Brennus’ Sack of Delphi has become Bendigeidfran’s invasion of Ireland, but certain crucial details in the Second Branch account (e.g. the fording of the river using an improvised bridge, the effective suicide of the warhost’s leader, and the subsequent conveying of his remains to a distant sacred centre) bear a specific resemblance to the circumstances Brennus’ campaign. Although it is overlaid with memories of more recent military adventures, as we shall see, the original core of the myth of the Assembly of Brân would appear to lie in this Belgic account of the Sack of Delphi and its aftermath. As both archaeology and numismatics would tend to confirmiv , it was out of the upheavals caused by the great Balkan hosting and its subsequent dispersal that elements of what was to become Belgic culture first began to arrive in northern France. The name of the Belgae is a genitival form, we might note, literally means ‘(host) of Bolgios’.
This Belgic foundation myth, which would have originally relayed the events of the Sack of the Delphic and its disasterous aftermath, seems to have been organised into the structure of the tragic ‘Peaceweaver’s Tale’, a widespread Indo-European epic form which can also be seen to underlie Homer’s Iliad and elements of the Germanic Völsunga tradition. In this classic heroic-age mythos, the abuse or abduction of a totemic royal female is identified as the cause of a mutually destructive tribal war. Often in such tales, there are attempts (sometimes by the abused princess herself) to reconcile the two feuding sides. These attempts are doomed to failure, and the tale typically concludes in characteristic tragic style with an orgy of violence often taking place in the great house or hall in which the rival hosts have been assembled. Out of this carnage a mere remnant are left standing, and the Odyssian wanderings of these survivors often forms an appendage to this tale. We might assume that this section of the original Belgic origin myth accounted for the dispersal of the hosts of Brennus and Bolgios across Europe following the sack of Delphi – an event which (as we have seen) is verified by history, archaeology and numismatics.
This Gaulish diaspora is recalled in the chronicles of Strabo, in which it is noted that one branch of Gaulish hosting wandered far and wide before settling in the Toulouse area of what is now southwestern France, carrying with them the mortal remains of their leader Brennus, who had taken his own life shortly after the miraculous Greek victory at shrine of Apollo in Delphiv. Here, in keeping with Iron Age Celtic magico-religious practice, the body of Brennus along with a substantial amount of looted gold from the temples of Delphi was cast into a certain lake where they remained undisturbed for the best part of three hundred years. According to Strabo, the curse of Apollo lingered on this gold. When it was unwisely removed by the Imperial Consul Servilius Caepio in 107 AD, misfortune immediately struck this Roman official, who ended his days a broken man in exile – just like Brennus before him. The same motif of cursed gold, stolen from its watery confines, survives in the Germanic tradition of the rhinegold, which is represented as the root cause of the tragic misfortunes relayed in the saga of the Nibelungenleid. The equivalent symbol in the Second Branch would be the mysterious Peir Dedani, or Cauldron of Rebirth. Although this cauldron is not central to the plot (in the way that the rhinegold is to the Nibelungenleid, for example) its initial association with Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid; its role as a bargaining chip in a failed negotiation process; and its final destruction at the hands of the war-monger Efnisien all bring it into close association with the cursed gold of the Germanic stories. These objects embody the relentless relay of violence and revenge with which defines the essential atmosphere of the Tragic Peaceweaver Tale and its related variants.
We might assume this foundation myth was still in circulation among Belgic communities of southern and eastern Britain during the immediate pre-Roman period. Astonishingly, it seems to have survived – albeit in a highly distorted form – far beyond this into the medieval era, recalled in the Second Branch under the heading of the ‘Assembly of Brân’. So just how can we account for this persistence of tradition over thirteen or more centuries, enduring the upheavals of the Roman occupation, the arrival of Christianity and the Anglo-Saxon invasion?
A key piece in the jigsaw, it would seem, was the sub-Roman tribes of the north of Britain and the Hadrien’s Wall area. Unlike the more affluent south, this part of the province was never fully Romanised (‘Romanised’ in the sense of having a fully developed villa economy and a network of market towns and district capitals. Instead, it remained a militarised frontier zone, with Roman life confined to the barracks and the coloniae. In the rugged uplands of the North the native Celtic tribes – the Brigantes, the Novantae, the Votadini, the Damnoni and the Selgovae – would have leant their support to the Roman army as affiliated foedorati, but otherwise would have retained much of their pre-Roman patterns culture and social organisation. It was perhaps as a result of retaining their own military traditions that these Gwŷr y Gogledd ‘Men of the North’ were capable of holding out against the Anglo-Saxon invasions after the collapse of Romano-British government in the south. The post-Roman kingdoms of Strathclyde, Gododdin (< Votadini), Rheged and Elmet formed an important bastion of Brythonic power which endured well into the Early Medieval period.
The lineages of these northern royal houses survive in a number of Cambro-Latin manuscripts, reminding us of the importance of this element within medieval Welsh genealogy vi . A number of the names in these genealogies testify to the legionary affiliations of these semi-Romanised northern British warlords, e.g. Padarn Pesrut (< ‘Paternus Red Cloak’), Edern (< Aeturnus), Coel Hen (< Coilius the Old, who may be identical with ‘Old King Cole’). But more significant that this, for our present purposes, is the fact that they all claimed Beli Mawr as their ultimate progenitor. Clear evidence, in other words, of the continuity of a Belgic tradition among these Brythonic warriors of the north. vii
It is a distinct possibility, then, that these semi-Romanised men of the north kept alive the origin mythology of the Belgae, before it eventually passed into the Welsh tradition as the Ysbydawt Urân , ‘the Assembly of Brân’, as recounted in the Second Branch. But it is equally apparent that this medieval story had accrued much else around this archaic Belgic core. Memories of more recent military adventures may account for some this overlay. A body of narrative-historical lore from southern Ireland offers some suggestive leads. The Annals of Tigernach record a tradition that in AD 217 ‘Benne Brit, King of Britain’ invaded Ireland and devastated the Irish armies of Art son of Conn. This same tradition is recounted in a more expanded form in the Irish mythical saga of Cath Mag Mucrama, a text of considerable significance in our understanding of the Second and Third Branches. We find a number of key resemblances to the tale of the Assembly of Brân, including the improvised bridge, the cowardly Irish king, and the decapitation of the British warlord. But what, if any, were the historical foundations of this tale?
It has been suggested that name ‘Benne Brit’ may derive from a Roman form such as Bennius or Benignus. While there are no Roman records of this individual, or any imperial expeditions into Ireland, it is by no means inconceivable that the traditions of Cath Mag Mucrama and the Annals of Tigernach are based on a kernel of proto-historic fact. It is known that Agricola considered an Irish invasion, famously opining that the island could be subdued with a single legion. It is also noted that, around the same time, an Irish prince was given refuge by the Imperial authorities, following a revolt (seditione) in his own kingdom. This concurs with Irish record, which identifies early centuries of the Christian era as a period of social unrest, during which time the ‘subject peoples’ (aithech tuatha) mounted a sustained challenge to the authority of the established warrior caste. It seems likely that Roman support may have been given to these dispossessed chieftains (like the one mentioned as residing under the protection of Agricola), with an eye to establishing a network of pro-Roman puppet kings on the western side of the Irish sea. The expeditions of shadowy figures such as Benne Brit probably consisted of native British warriors and other foederati, sent with the unofficial sanction of the Imperial authorities, to intervene in Gaelic tribal politics in support of these client interests. This is precisely the situation described in Cath Mag Mucrama, and it is far from impossible that memories of such an Irish expedition – carried out by the semi-Romanised northern foederati – might have endured among these Gwŷr y Gogledd, merging with the tradition of the original Belgic hosting and ending up as something similar to the medieval tale of the Assembly of Brân.
This Irish connection brings us on to the other branch of tradition represented in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, known by the medieval author as Yr Yspydawt Urddaul Benn ‘The Assembly of the Wonderous Head’. This takes place towards the end of the tale, after the carnage of the war in Ireland, during the Odyssian wandering of the Seven Survivors. In an extraordinary sequence, the warlord Bendigeidfran, having been mortally wounded in the foot with a poisoned spear, orders his head to be cut off from his shoulders by his own men, and taken to London, where it is to be buried in the White Hill, on the site of what has become the Tower of London. Bizarrely, the head continues to live on after its removal from Brân’s body, and is present during a sequence of intense otherworld events experienced by the survivors on their extended journey towards this chosen destination. This episode – one of the most poignant and beautiful in the whole of Medieval Celtic literature – undoubtedly draws on pre-existing received tradition, elements of which have roots deep in the pre-Christian past.
As well as invoking the archaic Celtic motif of the Living Head, about which we will have more to say below, this ethereal coda to the Second Branch draws on a seam of insular Celtic tradition which finds some notable parallels elsewhere in the medieval writings of Ireland and Wales. The core of this tradition lies in the pre-Christian conception of an Island Otherworld in the western ocean, described by Roman writers as a significant aspect of the belief system of the native populations of Gaul and Britain. However, a rich otherworld island mythology seems to have flourished on both sides of the Irish sea in the Early Christian period as well. While the medieval accounts of the island otherworld undoubtedly have their roots in the pagan past, they also received an important lease of life by being assimilated into the patristic traditions of the peregrinatio, and Christian visions of the prelapserian paradise. This Christianised Otherworld tradition flourished in Ireland during Early Middle Ages, giving rise to the distinctive narrative genres of the Echtrai (otherworld adventures) and the Immrama (voyage myths). It was this literature that seems to have inspired the writers of the School of Taliesin, who in turn were an important influence on the author(s) of the Mabinogi.
Of particular interest here is the 8th century poem Immram Brain, which is related to the Second Branch episode in a number of significant respects. First of all, the Irish cognate to Manawydan fab Llŷr – Manannan mac Lir – plays an important part in the action. The hero, Bran, bears the same name as the Welsh king of the Second Branch (although he is not represented as a son of Lir or a brother of Manannan in this account). As in the Medieval Welsh tale, themes of temporal and spatial distortion are explored – in this case as Bran encounters Manannan mac Lir riding his chariot across what appear to the Irish prince to be the waves of the ocean. Manannan himself is confronted with the equally paradoxical spectacle of Bran rowing his coracle across ‘a pleasant plain with an abundance of flowers’. This poetic vision of the interconnectedness of time and psychic experience – composed more than a thousand years before Einstein first published his Theory of General Relativity – is testimony to the subtlety and sophistication of the concept of the Otherworld in the Medieval Celtic West. It was clearly far more than simply an island in the sea, or an underground kingdom. Later on in the Immram, Bran and his companions arrive at the sought-after ‘Land of Women’, where they feast endlessly (from miraculously refilling dishes), and make love with the island’s inhabitants. During this sojourn, time passes in an anomalous way. The voyagers feel they have been on the island for just one year, but find when they leave that many years have passed. This is a motif of faery lore in the later Celtic tradition, in the stories of Thomas the Rhymer or Robert Kirk, but also one that features prominently in the Second Branch, as we shall see.
The poets of the School of Taliesin seem to have been influenced by these Irish visions of the Otherworld, and their work in turn appears to have fed into the Mabinogi tradition. This is particularly clear from the oft-quoted lines of verse found on page 34 of the Book of Taliesin:
Composed is my chair in Caer Siddi
The plague of old age oppresses not the one therein
It is known to Manawyt and Pryderi
The organs play before a fire
And around it peaks of the ocean streams
And a fruitful fountain above it
Sweeter than white wine is the drink therein
‘Caer Siddi’ appears to be a literary borrowing from the Irish Sidhe, and was used by the School of Taliesin to denote the otherworld experience. These poets were appropriately vague about the location of this faery otherworld – which was sometimes depicted as an underground realm, sometimes as an island the sea, sometimes in a sub-aquatic location. As in the Irish tradition, the psychic element of the otherworld experience was at least as important as its physical location. In the Second Branch, the first otherworld sequence occurs at no more exotic location than Harlech in Ardudwy, where the action of the Second Branch began. Here the survivors begin a feast for seven years, while the birds of Rhiannon sung ‘far above the ocean, yet it was clear as if they had been right next to them’ (from other sources, we know that the song of these birds ‘could wake the dead, and lull the living to sleep’). After this, the survivors continue their roundabout journey to London, via the Island of Gwales (probably the island of Grassholm off the coast of Pembrokeshire). Here the survivors discover a mysterious house, ‘a fair and kingly place’, in which all their needs are satisfied. They feast for eighty years, during which time ‘all grief was forgotten’, and the effects of time seem to be stilled. The spell is eventually broken when one of their number opens a forbidden door. Immediately ‘everything they had lost, and all the bad things that had happened to them…became as clear as if it was rushing in towards them’.
The precise nature of the relationship between the Irish Immram Brain, the poetic visions of the School of Taliesin and the Second Branch of the Mabinogi remain somewhat obscure. The presence of Manawydan (a.k.a Manannan, Manawyt) in all three is undoubtedly significant. This magical figure – who plays an important part in Irish folklore and mythology – seems to have originally emerged as a kind of tutelary deity, representing the Irish Sea in general and the Isle of Man in particular. This doubtlessly made him a source of superstitious concern for sailors, fishermen and anyone else entrusting their lives to the changeable moods of the western seas. In popular medieval culture, one can be sure that Manawydan/Manannan had a central place among that motley array of saints, old pagan gods, talismans, relics and ritual practices which acted as a vital link with the unpredictable natural forces on which these coastal communities depended for their livelihood. In the literary tradition, on the other hand, he seems to have become a central figure in a specific bardic meditation, in which the mutability of time and perception was visualised through the wonders of the Island Otherworld. It is unclear whether this mystery was of pagan or Christian origin. Most likely, it arose out of a fruitful interaction of the two.
One of the more disconcerting features of the Otherworld feasting at the end of the Second Branch, for modern readers at least, is the presence of the severed head of Bendigeigfran among the revellers. For us, the image of the severed head speaks of nothing but violence and barbarity, and a severed head which lives and speaks merely compounds this horror. However, we need to understand that for the medieval audiences involved, this image may have had a quite different resonance. We might consider for a moment the superficial barbarity of the image of the crucified Christ, against the powerful and broadly positive associations triggered by this icon in the mind of the Christian believer. As a legacy perhaps of the ancient Celtic cult of the head, the image of the tête coupé might have also resounded with a distant echo of the sublime in the minds of Medieval Welshmen. Certainly, medieval audiences seemed to have felt no need to elide this detail – as we have seen the episode as a whole seems to have been known as Yspydawt Pen Urddaul ‘The Feast of the Wonderous Head’ to our twelfth-century author. Like the birds of Rhiannon, the Wonderous Head of Brân seems to represent a connection to a higher reality, an indwelling divinity that (through separation from the body) disengages itself from its temporal confines. That this profound moment of apotheosis should be accompanied by a mysterious, generalised psychic elevation is not inconsistent with these archaic structures of thought.
The severed head of Brân would have also carried another rather more specific association in the minds of twelfth-century Welshmen. As we suggested elsewhere, the killing of the eleventh-century tyrant Gruffydd ap Llywelyn had some marked formal similarities with the death and decapitation described in the Assembly of the Wonderous Head. Another parallel can be found, as we shall see, in the ‘Grail Castle’ episode of the rhamant of Peredur – which may well draw on the same sources. The key point about the death of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (which occurred in 1063 or 1064), was that so many of those in power during the following century had direct links to individuals who had been either complicit or directly involved with this violent deposition of the hated tyrant – it was the guilty family secret par excellence. Welsh sources of the time reflect this moral ambiguity. We might see in the Assembly of the Wonderous Head and Castle of Wonders episode various attempts to provide a discursive instrument through which to neutralise or sublimate these problematic emotions of collective guilt.viii
We might remember that such typological equations, ‘veiled references to contemporary events’ as Proinsias Mac Cana once described them, represent an important function of certain genres of medieval Celtic narrative, in which the lines between history and prophesy become notoriously blurred. A quick glance of this simplex of the family trees of the Gruffydd ap Llywelyn and Bendigeidfran respectively reveals some other potentially significant parallels:
As can be seen from this diagram, the key similarity lies in the fact that both Gruffydd and Bendigeidfrân had a pair of half-brothers on their mother’s side. Both also claimed affiliation with the dominant bloodline (that of Beli Mawr and Rhodri Fawr respectively) through this female figure. It seems unlikely that these parallels were entirely accidental, in a lineage-obsessed society such as we find in the court communities of Medieval Wales. To understand the significance of these genealogical structures, we need to understand a little more about the faultlines and tectonic shifts of Welsh dynastic politics in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
By the twelfth century, there were three main branches of the Welsh ‘royal tribe’, that is the descendents of the great warrior-king Rhodri Mawr (d. 877 AD). The first of these branches was the House of Aberfraw, descendents of Rhodri’s elder son Anarawd. The other two main houses, Dinefwr and Mathrafal were descended from the offspring of Rhodri’s other son Cadell. By the final quarter of the twelfth century, the Houses of Dinefwr and Aberffraw were thriving as a result of the ousting of the Normans from North and West Wales; while Powys-based Mathrafal was suffering from the ravages of internecine violence and internal division. The period from the mid’50s to the early 90s saw the southern house of Mathrafal – in the person of Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd – emerge as the dominant player on the Welsh tribal-political stage. The very last years saw of the century saw the emergence of a powerful young dynast in the Gwynedd-based House of Aberffraw – Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, who would go on to dominate Wales throughout the first half of the twelfth century. It was against the background of these changes that the Mabinogi was being composed, around the end of the twelfth century.
If this was the case, it was probably a secondary motivation. The key reference of typological significance in the Second Branch was the re-emergence of the senior Belgic branch, through the person of Caswallon ap Beli. This, in typological dynastic terms, was a clear pointer to the branch of Anarawd (see diagram above) and the House of Aberffraw. The author of the Second Branch seems to be confirming that this represented a more ‘pure’ descent from the sons of Rhodri Mawr, just as Caswallon was the direct father-to-son heir of Beli Mawr. Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, son of Angharad (the great-granddaughter of Hywel Dda) on the other hand, was in an analogous position to Bendigeidfran in terms of the nature of his claim and his position within the dominant kindred. His father (a relative outsider, like Llŷr Lledieith) had married into to the dynasty of Rhodri Mawr, and it was largely on this basis that Gruffydd had legitimised his kingship. This can be seen by the following diagrammatic representation of the genealogy of the Second Branch alongside a simplex of the family tree of Rhodri Mawr, as seen in the diagram above.
The identities of Bendigeidfran, his half-brothers and their typological correlates are effectively elided by this clear distinction between the senior branch of the House of Beli Mawr, and the lesser, marginal dynasties it eventually comes to dominate. The two traditions at the heart of the Second Branch – the Belgic ‘Assembly of Brân’ and the mythology of the Island Otherworld – neatly express the synergy of archetypal forces at play within these differentials of tribal identity. In the end it was the latter tendency that would prevail. The dynasty of Llŷr are in a sense the archetypal losers in the struggle of geo-tribal dominance.
But all of this was intended to carry historic as well as political resonances. The deposition of the House of Llŷr by the Sons of Beli Mawr might be seen as tribal-historic short-hand for long-term prehistoric events, i.e. the shift away from the Irish Sea axis and towards the southern and eastern centres of power. In this respect, the Second Branch might be said to compress three millennia of Insular history into a single generation of events. This eastward realignment was indeed the general trend from the decline of the megalithic/beaker cultures (the major conduits of which were the Atlantic seaways) to the rise of the Belgic hegemony, with its cultural bearings firmly orientated towards Channel/North Sea Continental connections. Here we see the Second Branch as tribal history at its most condensed.
Of course, as with the rest of the Mabinogi, there is a lingering taste of irony implicit in these dynastic and inter-tribal machinations. The action is set, as the audience would have undoubtedly been aware, in the final hour of native independence. It represents a passing cultural era, a world that was soon to be vanquished by the legions of Claudius, rendering the victory of Caswallon tragically superfluous. Thus the severed head of Bendigeidfran, the atavistic powers of which seem to have offered little protection, ends up serving as little more than a memento mori, a sly dig at the vanity of kings, a carnivalesque acknowledgement of the inevitability of both death and renewal. The Second Branch succeeds in encapsulating this complex of narrative psychodrama and typological dynastic-political reference while still remaining true to its traditional sources. It tells the story of the Children of Llŷr, and the war host of the Island of the Mighty. It is also the story of human injustice and the persecution of an innocent woman. It is the story of a voyage overseas, and the tragic death of a king on the battlefield. It is concluded with the Assembly of the Wondrous Head, a ritual feast where the Birds of Rhiannon sang before the Children of Llŷr , where laws of time and space were mysteriously suspended. The Second Branch as a whole is shot through with a potent combination of wonder and nostalgic yearning, that distinctive emotion the Welsh knew as hiraeth. A fitting mood, perhaps, for the contemplation of the splendour of a distant and irretrievable past, the memories of which were on the point of fading from the terrestrial map of geopolitical validity into the celestial distance of myth, like the melting of the sunset over the Western Sea.
A complete, annotated translation of the Mabinogi of Branwen is available at http://www.mabinogi.net/branwen.htm.
The totality of the references to Llŷr Lledieith in the medieval literature of Wales are as follows. First of all, he is counted as one of the ‘magical prisoners’ alongside Gwair and Mabon in the 52nd triad. Here it is noted that he was imprisoned by a certain Euroswydd, who would later also become the husband of Penarddun daughter of Beli Mawr, to whom Llŷr was formerly betrothed. An isolated bardic simile in the Book of Taliesin describes an event as ‘no longer than the wedding feast of Llŷr’, suggesting that the this first marriage was some brought to a premature end, presumably by the deposition and imprisonment by his rival Euroswydd.
Llŷr’s epithet, Llediaith, literally means ‘Half-Tongued’ or ‘Of Indistinct or Accented Speech’. This ends weight to the idea that he may have represented a semi-Gaelicised element from the Irish sea area. He may be identical with the Irish figure Ler, remembered as a patronymic in the name of the mythical Mannanan mac Lir (=Manawydan mab Llŷr). Both names literally mean ‘ocean’ or ‘sea’, suggesting a link to some kind of maritime background. The name Llŷr Marini – who appears as a patronymic in another branch of Welsh mythology – is suggestive in this context.
It is unclear what, if any, relationship might exist between this figure and the ‘King Leir’ of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia, who provides the prototype for Shakespeare’s King Lear. Bromwich (TYP, p.429) is probably correct to suggest that Geoffrey’s aged king, and the story of his troubled relationship with his three daughters, was inspired by medieval popular tale rather than any specifically Welsh antecedent.
iiSee TYP 77-78, 81-82 176-178
iiiThis theory was first systematically explored by John Koch ‘Bran: Brennos: An instance of Early Gallo-Brittonic History and Mythology’ Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 20 (Winter 1990) pp. 1-20
iv Archeologist Veneceslas Kruta notes that “the formation of the Belgic peoples in Gaul must be bound up with the arrival, in the mid-third century BC, of fairly large but disparate groups, originally from the Celtic territories along the Danube” (The Celts of the West' London:Orbis, 1985 p.18). This would fit with the Greek accounts of a Gaulish diaspora following the Sack of Delphi in 279 BC. Further confirmation is found in the clear derivation of Belgic coin designs from the Greek ‘staters’ of Alexander III (d.323 BC) and Philip II (d.336). These Greek prototypes of Belgic coin designs may have formed part of the looted horde brought to northern France by the remnants of the hosts of Brennus and Bolgios. Alternatively, they may have come into the possession of the Gaulish warriors during their mercenary service in the Macedonian army in the generations leading up these events. Either way, this represents clear proof of a connection between the Belgae and the Balkan/Danubian region of third/fourth century BC.
v This group came to be known as the Tectosages, another branch of whom headed east from Delphi and settled in Western Turkey (Stabo IV, 1, 13).
vi A medieval tradition recorded in the ninth-century Historia Brittonum links these Gwŷr y Gogledd to North Wales via a group of fourth century sub-Roman dynasts known as the Sons of Cunedda, who were believed to have been sent to Wales to ‘drive out the Irish’, and subsequently settled in the kingdoms of Gwynedd and Powys. It was from this element that the medieval Sons of Rhodri Mawr traced their descent.
vii On the face of it, this is somewhat surprising considering that the Belgic heartland was in the south and east of the island in the pre-Roman era. Clearly, the Belgae came to represent the concept of native British sovereignty amongst the Celtic tribes far beyond this southern heartland. In claiming descent from Beli Mawr and his mythical progeny, these northern British warlords were laying claim to this mantle of pan-British, pre-Roman sovereignty
viiIn many respects, the killing of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn and the sublimation through myth that seems to have followed adheres to the pattern of the classic ‘primal horde’ complex as described Sigmund Freud (‘Totem and Taboo, London 1919. p.226 ff.). Briefly, it was Freud’s suggestion that totemistic myths owe their origin to the patricidal guilt of ‘the primal horde’. Drawing on the ethological data of Darwin and Atkinson, Freud suggested that the deposition of a dominant male through a temporary alliance of marginalised younger males represents in a perennial occurance in primate societies. In human societies, this process is accompanied by a degree of patricidal guilt which is dealt with by fetishing the victim by evolving a complex set of rituals and taboos, culminating in a commemorative feast in which the flesh of a forbidden totem animal (representing the flesh of the murdered victim), is symbolically ‘cannibalised’ by the entire clan community. According to Freud, it is through such attempts by the primal horde to sublimate its ambivilant feelings towards the original patricidal crime that the earliest forms of religious expression are born.