While writing my work-in-progess Raven, book 1 of the Raven Chronicles, I’ve been delving into the myths, stories and imagery of ravens. One of these stories, that of Bran and his sister Branwen, I would like to share with you.
The Welsh word for ‘raven’ is bran and its most well-known association is with the tale of Bran the Blessed and his sister Branwen. His status is somewhere between a deity, a giant and a king. He appears as a king of Britain in a collection of Welsh medieval manuscripts called the Mabinogion. The tales draw on a wide variety of ancient mythology and narrative traditions. Four of these tales, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, are interrelated and are mostly mythological in origin.
It is in the second of these tales that Bran and his sister Branwen play a big part. Branwen, sister of Bran, the king of Britain, is given in marriage to Matholwch, the king of Ireland in an attempt to strengthen the ties between them. But Efnisien, Branwen’s half-brother, is extremely annoyed that his is not consulted in this matter and to blow off some steam, mutilates Matholwch’s precious horses.
In an effort to appeace the resulting explosive situation, Bran offers gifts to Matholwch, among them a magical cauldron that can restore the dead to life. His peacekeeping efforts seemed to pay off and the happy couple sail back to Ireland and some time later Branwen gives birth to their son Gwern.
The insult of the mutilated horses however, is not forgotten and soon Branwen is banished to the kitchen and receives a daily beating. With no Whatsapp to notify her brother, Branwen trains a starling to bring him the sorry tale of her mistreatment.
Enraged, Bran declares war on the Irish. He sends his warriors by boat and, giant that he is, wades across the Irish Sea himself. The Irish hasten to offer peace and, always a big hit, a feast in honor of Bran and his men in a newly built house for the occasion. In the big house they hang a hundred sacks of flour which, like a Trojan horse, turn out to contain armed warriors.
Efnisien, suspecting trickery, takes a look before the feast and at the discovery of the warriors in their sacks, crushes their heads while still hidden in their flourbags. Easy to piss off, Efnisien is extremely insulted that they tried to pull such trickery and in his rage kills poor Gwern by throwing him in the fire.
All hell breaks loose and much fighting and killing is the result. When Efnisien discovers that the Irish use the magical cauldron to revive their dead, he hides among their dead bodies and is thrown into the cauldron with them for revival. In a last effort, which costs him his life, he destroys the caudron while in it.
The sole survivals of this epic battle are seven Welshmen, among them Bran. He is however, mortally wounded by a poisoned spear. He asks his companions to cut off his head. The head is taken back to Britain and continues to entertain for eighty years. Or, in Bran’s own words:
“The head will be as good company to you as it was at its best when it was ever on me.”¹
After that extensive party, they were to bury the head in London, facing France.
And Branwen? She survives but once at home, dies, literally, from a broken heart.
And whether as an oversight or a kindness, only five Irish women survive, all pregnant and they repopulate Ireland. The myth stays silent on the identity of the fathers.
¹ Translation by W.M. Parker, Branwen ferch Lyr: The Second Branch of the Mabinogi, accessed april 3rd, 2014,
Wikipedia, Four Branches of the Mabinogi, accessed april 3rd, 2014, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Branches_of_the_Mabinogi
Samantha Fleming, Raven in Mythology, accessed april 3rd, 2014,
posted by Clara, Raven in Celtic Mythology, Avesnoir, accessed april 3rd, 2014,
Barry Reilly, Bran, the Sleeping Guardian, Druidry, accessed april 3rd, 2014,
Translation by W.M. Parker, Branwen ferch Lyr: The Second Branch of the Mabinogi, accessed april 3rd, 2014,