Celtic Gods and Goddesses: Branwen

(Branwen, courtesy of gods-goddess.wikia.com)

The story of Branwen is mighty sad. We've talked before about her brother, Bran the Blessed, and his magnificent cauldron. Like Bran, Branwen is a Welsh deity, but her story is also rooted deeply in Irish literature, too. Her story comes from some of the earliest prose stories in all the British Isles. While they were written down in the 12th century, they stemmed from an older oral tradition.

The Mabinogion
The Mabinogion is the Welsh text that contains Branwen's tales. It contains four parts, or arms, and all are related to the Welsh character Pryderi, son of the gods Pwyll and Rhiannon, though he isn't always the main character. One entire arm is dedicated to Branwen, the Branwen ferch Llŷr.

Bran the Blessed 

Branwen ferch Llŷr
Bran the Blessed is the king of Britain. The Irish king Matholwch sails across the Irish Sea to ask for Bran's sister's hand in marriage. This marriage would form a very powerful alliance. Bran agrees, but Branwen's halfbrother, Efnisien, is upset that his opinion was not considered. He mutilates Matholwch's horses in outrage. In turn, Matholwch is outraged. 

To quell this outrage, Bran gives Matholwch his wedding gift-- the magical cauldron that can restore the dead to life. Matholwch is pleased with this and the wedding continues, after which the now-king and queen of Ireland return to regin their isle.

Matholwch and the Cauldron

But the Irish are angry to hear what happened while their king was away, and they take it out on their new queen. She is abused, beaten, and forced into slave labor around her own castle. The only friend she has is a tamed starling, which she flies across the Irish sea with a message to Bran.

The British king summons his best warriors and sales across the sea to rescue his sister. Matholwch is afraid of going to war with Bran, especially after he sees the massive man lie down to make a bridge for his men across the river. He agrees to give his kingdom to his own son, Gwern, so that the two isles might come to peace. Bran is pleased with this.

But he is tricked into staying at a large house with one hundred flour bags. Except they don't have any flour-- they have Irish warriors who disagree with their king's idea of peace and are waiting to attack the sleeping British.

Efnisien expects a trap and kills the warriors by squishing the bags. When the British are asked to a feast in honor of striking up a peaceful deal with the Irish, the very same shit-stirrer grabs his nephew, Branwen and Matholwch's son, Gwern, and throws him into the fire. Branwen tries to save him, but is held back by her brother, Bran.

Needless to say, a massive battle breaks out, and many die, including Bran, Matholwch, and even Efnisien, who sacrifices himself to destroy the magical cauldron, which the Irish are using to bring their dead back to life.

The Cauldron of Rebirth, by artist Iwan Bala

Without her son, her husband, or her brothers, Branwen dies of a broken heart once she is safely returned to Wales.

While Branwen's story is devastatingly tragic and sad, she is considered a Celtic Goddess of Love, particularly in Wales. Her burial site, the Bedd Branwen, remains in Llanddeusant, Anglesey on the banks of the Alaw river. It was dug up in 1813 by a local farmer, who only left one standing stone. In the 1960s, an archeologist found (and hopefully returned) several burial urns, which gives credence to the belief that this very mythological story comes from a very real one.

The Bedd Branwen in Llanddeusant, Anglesey 

The Symbols of Branwen
Branwen's name means 'blessed, white raven,' which is one of her main symbols. She's also represented by starlings, as they were her only friends in her time of need. If you are searching to make an altar to Branwen, you will need to use the colors green, white, and silver. A cauldron or cup is also an appropriate symbol to represent her wedding gift. 

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