The Tragic Tale of Welsh Goddess Branwen and her Death by Broken Heart

Branwen is an ancient Goddess from Wales. She is also a major character of the famous book Mabinogi (Mabinogion). Although she is often related to folklore, there are some interesting pieces of evidence suggesting that the goddess could have been based on a real woman from history.

Branwen is known as a goddess of love and beauty, a beautiful lady from the mountain peak in the Berwyn range of Wales. It is difficult to find out exactly when her cult began. Legends say she was a daughter of Penarddun (or Penardim) and Llyr.

Later, tradition says that Branwen married the King of Ireland, but the marriage didn’t bring peace between the Welsh and Irish. The Old Tribes of the British Isles considered her the king’s mother and saw her as the embodiment of Sovereignty. She was seen as the center of everything in the kingdom, a woman with visions showing the greater scheme of things. However, her knowledge was believed to be too much for her sometimes. The name Branwen means ”the white raven”. The most popular story about her is the tale of a mistreated wife.

Branwen (1915) by Christopher Williams.

Branwen (1915) by Christopher Williams. (Fair Use) The artist shows Branwen sitting on a rock by the water as she perhaps dreams of her life in Wales.

Matholwch and Branwen

Branwen’s story starts with a scene when her brother, Bran the Blessed (Bendigeidgfran), King of Britain is sitting on a rock near the seaside. He was watching the vessels of Matholwch, King of Ireland. The Irish King was coming to Wales to ask for Branwen’s hand in marriage.

When the celebration for the union started, Branwen’s half-brother named Efnisien arrived to the feast and asked the purpose of the gathering. When he discovered the reason behind it he was extremely angry.  He couldn’t stand the idea of Branwen marrying the Irish King, so he mutilated Matholwch’s horses. The Irish ruler became very offended and uneasy by his reaction. But Matholwch felt better when he received his gift from the host of the party – a magical cauldron which could bring the dead back to life.

Matholwch and the cauldron.

Matholwch and the cauldron. (Owen M. Edwards)

As it is written in the Mabinogi:

“Something I do know,” said he, “and as much as I know I will tell thee. One day I was hunting in Ireland, and I came to the mound at the head of the lake, which is called the Lake of the Cauldron. And I beheld a huge yellow-haired man coming from the lake with a cauldron upon his back. And he was a man of vast size, and of horrid aspect, and a woman followed after him. And if the man was tall, twice as large as he was the woman and they came towards me and greeted me. ‘Verily,’ asked I, ‘wherefore are you journeying?’ ‘Behold, this,’ said he to me, ‘is the cause that we journey. At the end of a month and a fortnight this woman will have a son; and the child that will be born at the end of the month and the fortnight will be a warrior fully armed.’ So I took them with me and maintained them. And they were with me for a year. And that year I had them with me not grudgingly. But thenceforth was there murmuring, because that they were with me. For, from the beginning of the fourth month they had began to make themselves hated and to be disorderly in the land; committing outrages, and molesting and harassing the nobles and ladies; and thenceforward my people rose up and besought me to part with them, and they bade me to choose between them and my dominions. And I applied to the council of my country to know what should be done concerning them; for of their own free will they would not go, neither could they be compelled against their will, through fighting. And [the people of the country] being in this strait, they caused a chamber to be made all of iron. Now when the chamber was ready, there came there every smith that was in Ireland, and every one who owned tongs and hammer. And they caused coals to be piled up as high as the top of the chamber. And they had the man, and the woman, and the children, served with plenty of meat and drink; but when it was known that they were drunk, they began to put fire to the coals about the chamber, and they blew it with bellows until the house was red hot all around them. Then was there a council held in the centre of the floor of the chamber. And the man tarried until the plates of iron were all of a white heat; and then, by reason of the great heat, the man dashed against the plates with his shoulder and struck them out, and his wife followed him; but except him and his wife none escaped thence. And then I suppose, lord,” said Matholwch unto Bendigeid Vran, “that he came over unto thee.” 

However, Matholwch didn’t know that if he brought the dead back to life with the cauldron’s powers they would be mute. He first believed that he received the gift in kindness, but with time realized the cruelty behind the gift.

When he finally took Branwen to Ireland, Matholwch treated her badly, as if he wanted to punish her for her brothers’ actions. The conflict between Wales and Ireland escalated when Branwen sent a message to Wales asking for rescue. This plea for help started a long and bloody war, which ended with the death of many men and women of both realms. Branwen also apparently died from her insufferable grief. It is said that she was buried beside the river Alaw.

Branwen with her bird in the court of Matholwch in Ireland. A scene from the Mabinogi.

Branwen with her bird in the court of Matholwch in Ireland. A scene from the Mabinogi. (Public Domain)

The Bedd Branwen

Her tomb has never been forgotten. For many centuries, people who live in the area of Llanddeusant on Anglesey in Wales have believed that they know the location of the tomb of the “real Branwen.” The site is traditionally called the Bedd Branwen, but there is no inscription to identify it. The location was excavated during the 19th century, but professional research wasn’t completed at the site until the 1960s by Frances Lynch’s team. They discovered several urns which still contained human ashes.

The site of Bedd Branwen. It was dismantled by a local farmer around 1813, however later excavations at the site led to the finding of a number of cremation vessels.

The site of Bedd Branwen. It was dismantled by a local farmer around 1813, however later excavations at the site led to the finding of a number of cremation vessels. (Eric Jones/CC BY SA 2.0)

According to the old Welsh stories, it is the burial place of brave Branwen, but there is no way to confirm that. Researchers still argue if her story is based on real events or is pure myth. If the tomb does belong to her, it means that Branwen lived during the Bronze Age Period. This suggestion brings more questions about her life, mythology, and roots of the Welsh traditions.

The Overlooked Goddess

Many ancient deities have become popular in modern culture. But Branwen is not as well-known as other northern goddesses, such as Morrigan and Brighid. She appears in some movies and books, but most people who mention her name are those related to pagan beliefs. Modern believers in her powers say that Branwen is associated with the raven, the symbol of the cauldron, and the cup. She is typically depicted in green, white, and silver, and connected with the planet Venus.

However, the possibility that Branwen could be a real person makes her even more fascinating. A big problem about myths from the territory of the current United Kingdom and Ireland is that many stories are actually partially true, but described as legends. On the other hand, many legendary stories which are believed to be real are, in fact, fiction.

A modern depiction of Branwen.

A modern depiction of Branwen. (Judith Shaw)

It is easy to get lost in the pre-Christian tales written by monks. Nonetheless, in the case of Branwen, she seems to be so close to the Welsh culture that it would be really surprising if her story does not have some truth behind it.

Top Image: A painting of Snowdonia in Wales by Mansel Lewis. (Public Domain) Detail: Branwen (CC BY SA)

By Natalia Klimczak, Source

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