This is from a talk I gave some years ago about Bran the Blessed, who features in the second branch of the Mabinogion, the Tale of Branwen, daughter of Llyr.
It seems to me that the story of Bran was not just put together for entertainment, and that Bran himself was more than just a fictional or half-remembered historical king. The characteristic of the old stories that interests me is their long life being passed on by word of mouth. These stories would have changed and developed as they were told generation after generation, and I think there’s a parallel here to the ‘survival of the fittest’ in evolution, so that only those stories which resonate within us survive in the long term. At some level, these stories tell a truth, which is as relevant to us now as it ever was to our ancestors.
Apart from the otherworldly nature of Bran in the story, it may well be that Bran was one of the ancient gods of Britain. As in the other stories in the Mabinogion, which were written down in Christian times, the old gods appear as kings, queens and wizards. We have to dig beneath the surface of the story to uncover some glimpses of the meaning that Bran held for the ancient Britons. My interest in doing this is not so much historical or scholarly, but to try and see what significance Bran might have for the way we live today. So what does the story of Bran tell us?
Bran’s Buried Head
Let me start from the end of the tale, where Bran’s head is buried under the white mound in London:
“And they buried the head in the White Mount, and when it was buried, this was the third goodly concealment; and it was the third ill-fated disclosure when it was disinterred, inasmuch as no invasion from across the sea came to this island while the head was in that concealment.”
Bran’s head is a clearly a guardian talisman, but it is only effective whilst it is concealed under the white mount. The disinterral mentioned was by King Arthur, who according to another legend, decided that he wanted to protect Britain by his own strength alone, and dug up the buried head, which resulted in the fall of Britain to the Saxons. This episode provides a linkage between Bran and King Arthur, both guardians of Britain, and can be read as Arthur claiming for himself the mantle of Bran. We will see further links between them later.
The idea that Bran’s head was only an effective guardian whilst it was hidden in the earth gives a hint, I think, that Bran’s power is linked to the hidden depths of the earth. In a sense, he can guard the land because burying his head makes him (and his tribe) a part of the land itself.
Traditionally, the white mount is located at the Tower of London, the central Norman white tower having been built on top the white mount. Surprising there is still an echo of Bran’s guardianship at the Tower.
I don’t know how many of you have visited the tower of London, but you may know that they keep ravens there – the only place ravens now live for hundreds of miles around. And there’s a legend about the ravens, that if they ever leave the tower, then the tower would crumble and a great disaster would befall Britain. In earlier times the ravens lived there naturally, but nowadays they clip the ravens’ wings, so they can’t fly away. The fortunes of the Tower ravens reached their lowest point after the second world war, when only a single raven remained. There is a tradition that Winston Churchill arranged that young ravens should be brought to the Tower from Wales and Scotland. In any case, the ravens were soon restored, and a complement of six birds still guard the Tower. Now the significance of the raven is that it is Bran’s totem bird. His name, Bran, is the welsh for crow or raven. So the legend of Bran’s protection of the realm still remains current, and in some sense is taken seriously, at least on a symbolic level.
How does Bran’s head come to be this protective concealed talisman?
It may be that there is an element of a sacrificed king about the tale – someone who can go ahead into the land of the dead and from there provide protection and guidance for the tribe. There are clues to this in the story. The cauldron in the tale, which was originally in Bran’s care, was clearly a gateway between life and death, the difference being that the warriors returned unable to speak, perhaps a sign that they could not profane the mysteries they had experienced. In contrast to this, as Bran lies wounded, he tells his companions what will happen to them, already seeing into the future and guiding them, and then the greatest mystery: the severed head continues to speak and takes the whole company into the otherworld for their 80 year feast. Perhaps there is a parallel between the otherworld feast, and the burial of Bran’s head. The feast comes to an end when a door is opened, just as Bran’s guardianship comes to an end when his head is revealed. These episodes portray Bran as an underworld figure, rooted in the hidden secrets of the earth, but that’s not the whole story.
Bran the Giant
Remember that Bran was a giant. In legend, Britain was first inhabited by a race of giants, and they got a very bad press as being evil, cantankerous, and rather stupid, but Bran is very different in character to your typical big, stupid giant. A giant usually represents primal, earthbound qualities, and indeed this is recalled by an earlier section of Bran’s tale. When he waded through the sea to Ireland, some swineherds saw him approaching and thought it was a mountain moving through the sea, Bran’s eyes appearing to them like lakes, and his nose a lofty ridge on the mountainside. This is the traditional earthy giant, a son of his mother the earth. And yet, in most of the tale Bran has a very different character. He is generous and wise, and usually acts as a peacemaker rather than seeking war.
Bran is a different kind of giant I think – a giant in stature rather than bulk. It was said of Bran several times in the tale that no house ever built could contain him. I don’t think this just means that he was too big to fit, but that it was a kind of need that he should always have the sky open above him, so that the earth would be under his feet, and the heavens over his head. In this way, Bran the giant could always be a link between the heavens and the earth, or more to the point, Bran was a giant because he maintained this link. I feel this connection sometimes myself – when I stand outside, feeling myself grow tall under the stars, and then imagine Bran walking across the countryside, the ground shaking at his step, but with his head way up in the night stars.
Bran is to do with the hidden and mysterious, certainly, but not just with the earth. He is connected into the unseen, he works in the domain of the invisible fields that lie above and below the middle-realm that we inhabit – our familiar world of cars and shops. Like gravity, these fields permeate and influence us – but how often are we aware of them? Can you feel the earth’s gravity now, pulling you down into the earth’s embrace? But don’t forget that it is that same gravity which rules the majestic dance of the stars and planets. Physicists today identify four primordial fields from which the whole universe was built, and the only one we can directly sense if that of gravity. These fields are a scientific paradigm of the hidden roots of the world, linking everything that exists, just as the otherworld is a more human paradigm of the hidden connection between all that lives.
To return to the Tower of London – it is a rather dark and bloody place, and one can easily imagine a sacrificed king being buried there – there have certainly been plenty of executions there over the years. But amongst the military background there is a contrasting vision – the crown jewels, which are housed there now in a rather cave-like vault. There you can see the diamonds and rubies glittering like stars, treasures taken from the depths of the earth. Again this contrast reflects the connection between the earth and the heavens, and the connecting link. Bran is guardian of these hidden treasures, and we must go into the dark to find the light.
The crown jewels are not just for rich display, but are the symbols of Britain’s sovereignty, modern-day equivalents of the thirteen sacred treasures of ancient Britain. In the coronation ceremonies, the crown jewels are used, in effect, as magical instruments to bind the monarch to the land and to the people.
Bran the Bridge
In an earlier part of the tale, Bran and his men are marching across Ireland and they come to a river where the only bridge has been destroyed by the fleeing Irishmen to stop Bran crossing after them. In a curious episode, Bran says ‘he who would be a chief, let him be a bridge,’ and then Bran lies down across the river so that his armies can march over him to the other side. This saying of Bran is quoted as if it was a common proverb, and this episode is being given as the origin of the saying.
This idea of a chief being a bridge is one worth looking into. In ancient times, part of the role of the chief of a tribe was to build and maintain relationships with neighbouring chiefs on behalf of the tribe. In effect this has carried on into modern times in the guise of a passport. In the front of my passport it says:
“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let and hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”
In this sense, the queen is acting as our bridge when we go on holiday to Spain!
There is also another aspect to this role as a bridge, which is of more interest to us. The king was supposed to build and maintain another relationship – one to the otherworld, which was considered the source of power, justice and fertility. The king was in some traditions treated as the consort of the land, and the health of the land was the responsibility of the king – bringing a literal meaning to husbandry of the land.
This link between the king and the land is most famously presented in the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail. In this legend, there is a wounded king whose land is a wasteland, with the presumption being that it is the king’s wound that causes the wasteland. In the first part of the story, the rather naïve knight Perceval visits the wounded king and at the evening feast, the grail is carried out in procession in front of them. Despite his curiosity about the grail, Perceval asks nothing, because a nobleman friend had warned him about talking too much in polite company. The next morning the castle is deserted, and Perceval learns that his failure to ask a question about the grail had been a terrible missed opportunity to heal the king and the land.
Another tale continues the story of the grail at King Arthur’s court. The knights were all sitting at the round table when a thunderclap sounded and the grail magically appeared in the centre of the room, spreading a fragrant scent and filling each knight’s plate with their favourite food. Then the grail disappears, and King Arthur’s knights set off in quest of it.
In these stories the grail is both a means of healing and a horn of plenty, and in the later tales it is treated as a symbol of holy spirit descending to earth. Above all else, it is mysterious and holy. It is, like Bran the bridge, a link between heaven and earth, and between this world and the otherworld.
This brings us nicely back to where we started, with Arthur, having taken on Bran’s responsibility as guardian after having dug up Bran’s head, now following Bran’s advice and seeking to be a bridge in order to heal the land.
To summarise, an important part of Bran’s story is about guardianship and kingship, centred on the importance of maintaining connections between this world and the otherworld. Bran’s head can guard Britain because of his connection with the hidden depths of the earth. As a giant, Bran provides a connection between heaven and earth, and as a king he is a bridge to the otherworld.
But we shouldn’t just look on Bran as something outside ourselves, a figure of legend, perhaps telling us a little about the duty of ancient kings. I think the story is giving us clues as to how we ourselves can live a magical life.
Let’s look Bran the giant – no house could contain him. How would we apply this to ourselves? On a literal level perhaps we might spend more time outdoors, with our feet on the earth and our heads open to the sky above. This certainly would give us more opportunity for rich perception of the world around us – more food for the spirit perhaps. On another level, we are perhaps living in houses built of our habitual perceptions and thoughts, which whilst being very convenient and comfortable, may be rather limiting. Leaving this house may let us become giants as well – stretching up into the heavens, and shaking the ground as we walk!
What about Bran’s proverb on chiefdom – let him be a bridge. I think it is quite interesting here that the metaphor of a bridge is used rather than a gate or a door. We could interpret this to say that we need to maintain an open relationship with the otherworld. We should be seeking not so much to enter the otherworld, leaving this world behind, but to keep a leg in both camps, so that we can bring the riches of the otherworld through into this world. The relationship between the two is what is important.
The final clue I think is in the story of the grail: none of this is without effort. The grail may appear to us unbidden, as it did to Arthur’s knights, but it is then up to us to join the quest and go out and find it.