In ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, Gwyn states his presence at the death of Brân ap Ywerydd:
‘I was there when Brân was slain,
Ywerydd’s son of wide fame,
When battle-ravens croaked.’
Gwyn recites Brân’s name amongst the names of three famous northern warlords: Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, Gwallog ap Llenog and Meurig ap Careian* and also Llachau, Arthur’s son. It is clear Brân was slain in battle and that Gwyn was present as a psychopomp to gather his soul back to Annwn. Brân’s name must have held meaning for Gwyddno Garanhir** and the audience. Who is Brân ap Ywerydd? Scholars have attempted to solve this puzzle by identifying him with a number of mythological and historical figures.
Brân the Blessed
There exists a tradition which identifies Brân ap Ywerydd with Bendigeidfran ‘Blessed Raven’ or ‘Brân the Blessed’ son of Llŷr. Brân is a well known and much loved figure in British mythology who was fatally wounded in a battle against King Matholwch of Ireland. His severed head, buried beneath the Tower of London, served an apotropaic function protecting the Island of Britain until Arthur dug it up.
Scholars such as John Rhŷs and John Koch identify Iwerydd as the mother of Brân the Blessed. Koch says ‘Iwerydd (Atlantic) was a goddess from the Atlantic ocean, from the Western land of Hades, which could have been Ireland (Iwerddon). Iwerydd married Llyr and bore him two children named Brân (Raven) and Branwen (White Raven).’
The birth of Brân, his sister, Branwen, and perhaps their brother Manawydan by Iwerydd and Llŷr Llediaith (Irish Ler ‘the sea’, Welsh Llediaith ‘half-speech) makes sense within the context of Brân’s gargantuan stature and his affairs across the sea in Ireland.
If Brân ap Ywerydd and Brân the Blessed were identified, this would place Gwyn at the near-apocalyptic battle between the armies of Brân and Matholwch where the Irish dead are reborn from the Cauldron of Rebirth before it is broken by Efnysien. Of the Irish only five pregnant women are left alive. Just seven British survivors return with Brân’s head. If Gwyn attended the death of Brân the Blessed it might be suggested he also served as psychopomp to the victims of this terrible clash.
However, there are arguments against the identification of these two Brâns. Elsewhere, Brân the Blessed’s mother is named as Penarddun (‘Chief Beauty’). In ‘The Second Branch’ of The Mabinogion, Bendigeidfran is named as a son of Llŷr with Manawydan as his brother and Branwen as his sister. Nysien and Efnysien are sons of Euroswydd by ‘his own mother Penarddun, daughter of Beli.’
In The Triads of Ancient Britain, Llŷr Half-Speech is named as one of ‘Three Exalted (Supreme) Prisoners of the Island of Britain’. He was ‘imprisoned by Euroswydd’. It seems likely Euroswydd conceived Nysien and Efnysien with Penarddun whilst Llŷr was his prisoner.
Although textual evidence provides a stronger case for Penarddun being Brân’s mother than Iwerydd, within mythology we often find multiple genealogies which are equally valid. Iwerydd and Penarddun could also be titles for the same divinity. Therefore the identification of these two Brâns cannot be ruled out.
Brân ap Ymellryn
Grufudd Hiraethog identifies Brân ap Ywerydd with Brân ap Ymellyrn: a historical figure who appears in the poems attributed to Llywarch Hen. These are set after the assassination of Llywarch’s cousin, Urien Rheged, on the order of his jealous rival, Morgan, during a campaign against the Anglo-Saxons on Lindisfarne in 585.
Llywarch bore Urien’s head home. Afterward, Urien’s sons and Llywarch were driven from their lands in the Old North*** by Urien’s enemies who included Dunawd, Morgant, Gwallawg and Brân ap Ymellyrn. In The Death of Urien, Llywarch speaks of his plight (Pasgen and Elphin are Urien’s sons):
‘Dunawd, the chief of the age, would drive onward,
Intent upon making battle,
Against the conflict of Pasgen.
Gwallawg, the horseman of tumult, would drive onward,
Intent upon trying the sharpest edge,
Against the conflict of Elphin.
Brân, the son of Mellyrn, would drive onward,
Collecting men to burn my ovens:
A wolf that looked grimly by the banks of Abers.
Morgant and his men would drive onward,
Collecting a host to burn my lands:
He was a mouse that scratched against a rock.’
Llywarch flees to the court of Cynddylan in Powys. After Cynddylan is killed, he is again left homeless and destitute. A friend advises him to trust neither Brân nor Dunawd and to take refuge in Llanfawr:
‘Trust not Brân, trust not Dunawd;
Consort not with them in hardship.
Herdsman of calves, go to Llanfawr.’
Glyn E. Jones suggests Brân ap Ymellyrn may be identified with Brân ap Dyfnwal (Ymellyrn was his mother and Dyfnwal his father). This places him with Urien, Llywarch and their enemies Gwallawg and Dunawd amongst the descendants of Coel Hen within the lineages of the Old North.
Hiraethog identifies Brân ab Ywerydd with Brân Galed (‘the Niggard’). He is the keeper of a magical horn that appears amongst ‘The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’ ‘which were in the North’: ‘The Horn of Brân the Niggard from the North: whatever drink might be wished for was found in it.’ Most of the owners of the treasures (who include Gwyddno and Gwenddolau) are ‘Men of the North’ and lived during the 6thC.
In the marginalia of an early list is a story about how Myrddin asked for the treasures from the thirteen owners. They all agreed if Myrddin obtained Brân’s horn, they would hand their treasures over, assuming Brân was so niggardly he would never give his up. Somehow, Myrddin persuaded Brân to give him the horn and he took all the treasures to a glass house where they remain forever.
It has been suggested Taliesin played a role in Brân’s decision. In a poem by Guto’r Glyn ‘Miserly, niggardly Brân they used to call him, who of old was descended from the Men of the North; Taliesin, no mean magician, transformed him into one better than the three generous men.’ In some variants Taliesin is the collector of the treasures. In another, Hercules slays a centaur and obtains Brân’s horn from its head.
Brân at Cynwyd
In The Gododdin we find the line ‘Brân was at Cynwyd’. Jenny Rowlands notes ‘Cynwyd is attested as both a personal and place name’. It may relate to a battle where Pelis, son of Urien fought, or to his leadership of the Cynwydion (named after Cynwyd Cynwydion, another descendent of Coel Hen).
Considering the antipathy between Urien’s sons and Brân ap Ymellyrn, it seems possible Pelis and the Cynwydion fought against Brân ap Ymellyrn and his allies and are commemorated at Cynwyd. Brân may have perished there too. The location remains unconfirmed, although there is a Cynwyd near to Corwen beside the river Dee in Wales.
Can we ascertain Brân ap Ywerydd’s identification with any or all of these Brâns? Are we looking at one, two, three, four or five different figures? I think it’s safe to say that Brân the Blessed and the Brâns of the sixth century are entirely different due to the differences in timescale and mythological and historical context.
Within the context of Brân ap Ywerydd’s appearance in ‘The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, I think it most likely, like Gwenddolau, Gwallog and Meurig, he is a northern British figure from the 6thC. Brân ap Ywerydd, Brân ap Ymellyrn, the Brân who was at Cynwyd, and Brân Galed could be the same person.
We can tentatively piece together his story as follows: Brân was the son of Ywerydd and Dyfnawl and lived during the period of intense internecine conflict between the Brythonic kingdoms of the Old North as they fought against the Anglo-Saxons. Brân, Gwallawg, Dunawd and Morgant allied against Urien and Llywarch, arranging Urien’s assassination and driving Llywarch from the North. Brân later fought against Urien’s son, Pelis, at Cynwyd and perished and Gwyn attended his death. Brân was renowned for his niggardly nature and keeping his horn and his drink to himself. Sometime after his death, this fell into the realm of myth and became one of the Thirteen Treasures.
Gwyn’s association with Brân the Blessed cannot, however, be ruled out. As Gwyn is a ruler of Annwn and guide of the dead he could well have attended Bendigeidfran’s death too. The croaking ravens in each of the elegaic verses spoken by Gwyn invoke Brân’s presence as a reminder of the futile, destructive and seemingly unending nature of war.
Associations between ravens and the battlefield continue to endure in contemporary poetry. Speaking of the Iraq war in her modern rewriting of the traditional ballad ‘The Two Ravens’, Clare Pollard writes:
‘I watched the ravens feed on war,
and knew I’d watch for evermore.’
*Meurig ap Careian is a famous northern warlord if Careian is a scribal error and he is identified with Meurig ap Idno. I’ll cover this in a later post.
**Another ‘Man of the North’ associated with Porth Wyddno in the North and Borth in Wales.
***Some scholars associate Llywarch with Caerlaverock (Caer Llywarch) on the Solway Firth. Others have conjectured he may have ruled ‘South Rheged’ (Lancashire?) from modern-day Ribchester.
Clare Pollard, ‘There Wasn’t Even a Song in that Desolation: Poetry After a Decade in Iraq’
Heron (transl), ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir’, (2015)
John Koch, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, (ABC-CLIO, 2006)
John Rhŷs, Studies in the Arthurian Legend, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William F. Skene (transl), The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)