‘The Horn of Brân the Niggard from the North: whatever drink might be wished for was found in it.’
The Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain
Imagine taking it to a party:
speak a word and it will be filled
with any beverage you wish.
Mead, wine, bragget, beer…
I wonder if this old faery horn
could conjure Piña Colada,
I’d be the party’s heart and soul,
Yet at the end when I’m the only one
still drinking and no fancy cocktail
will satisfy my appetite
I’ll be thinking of miserly Brân
sipping from its rim with slobbery lips,
pork fat greasing his thick black beard,
sitting all alone with a hole in his heart.
Surrounded by treasure he’s slipping
away into the emptiness within.
All the mead in the horn cannot save him.
Only giving it up to a loquacious bard
or prophet can redeem him.
With one last wish I’ll drink to Brân
then put his horn in the twitching hand
of the drunkard snoring on the sofa
and leave like he did through a window
on the wings of a croaking raven
into the dawn mist.
Brân Galed ‘the Niggard’ was the son of Dyfnwal and Ymellyrn (his mother’s name is confusingly also spelt Mellyrn, Emellyr, Ewerydd, Ywerit, and Iwerydd). This places him within the Coel Hen lineage.
Brân was a contemporary of Rhydderch, Urien, Morgan, and Gwallog, and was perhaps present at the battle against the Angles on Ynys Metcaut. After the assassination of Urien, Brân joined Morgan and Gwallog hounding Urien’s cousin, Llywarch Hen, forcing him to flee from the North to Powys, and attacking Urien’s sons.
Brân’s place of origin and whether he ruled a kingdom remain unknown. His appearance alongside Gwallog and Gwenddolau in the list of northern warriors whose souls Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic god of the dead, gathers from the battlefield suggests he was important. Brân died in battle at an unknown place called Cynwyd fighting Pelis, Urien’s son.
Horns held a central role in Brythonic drinking culture. Every warlord owned a drinking-horn and shared its contents with his warriors in his feasting hall. In Culhwch and Olwen, getting the horn of Gwlgad Gododdin to pour for Culhwch’s wedding feast is amongst the impossible tasks. Gwlgad is the steward of Mynyddog Mwynfawr, ruler of the Gododdin tribe of Din Eidyn.
In The Gododdin Mynyddog feasted three hundred men for a year on mead and wine before their ill-fated attack on Catraeth. In the individual elegies we find out many of the warriors possessed horns: ‘Blaen on his feather cushion dispensed / The drinking-horn in his opulent court’; ‘Gwrelling – / His drinking-horn was handsome / in the hall of Eidyn.’
Brân’s epithet suggests that in spite of, or perhaps because of, the magical property of his horn – that it provided whatever drink one wished – he did not share it generously with his warriors.
In the marginalia of an early list is a story about how Myrddin gathered the treasures from the thirteen owners. They all agreed to hand their treasures over if Myrddin obtained Brân’s horn, assuming Brân was so niggardly he would never give it up. Somehow, Myrddin persuaded Brân to give him the horn and he took all the treasures to a glass house where they remain forever.
Guto’r Glyn suggests Taliesin played a role in Brân’s decision: ‘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.’ (Rhydderch, Senyllt, and Nudd Hael). In another variant, Hercules slays a centaur and obtains Brân’s horn from its head.
Brân’s horn was obviously significant and we might speculate it was originally the horn of a mythical beast. As real drinking-horns were usually made from the horns of cattle I wonder if it was the horn of an otherworldly bull, akin to the Brindled Ox, who was stolen from Annwn.
Peter Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Nennius, History of the Britons, (Book Jungle, 2008)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)