The story of Bran is told in the Mabinogion, a cycle of Welsh legends. The legends appear in either or both of two Medieval Welsh manuscripts the: Red Book of Hergest (Llyfr Coch Hergest), and the White Book of Rhydderch (Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch).
Mabinogion means 'tales of youth'; although this only applies to a few of the stories it became the name of the entire collection. The Mabinogion is one of the masterpieces of world literature. The stories are partly based on early medieval historical events interlaced with Celtic mythology and folklore, including that of the ancient Celtic gods and goddesses.
The Mabinogion consists of the four connected narratives (called 'the branches') followed by additional stories. The Four Branches of the Mabinogi are the most mythological stories and the oldest of the collection. They include:
- Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed (Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed)
- Branwen Ferch Llŷr (Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr)
- Manawydan Fab Llŷr (Manawyddan, son of Llŷr)
- Math Fab Mathonwy (Math, son of Mathonwy)
It is from the second of the branches: - Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr that the story has been adapted.
The White Book of Rhydderch was written around 1350, and the Red Book of Hergest about 1382-1410. Scholars agree, however, that the tales are older than the existing manuscripts, and probably came from earlier texts written somewhere within the 12th century. The tales themselves may have been told for many hundreds of years before being written down.
Who was Bran?
In Celtic mythology there were two tribes of gods that were always at war the Don, who symbolized the sea and death and the Llyr who represented life and light.
Bran Fendigaid or Bendigeitvran was the Celtic God of Regeneration. He was the son of the Sea God, Llyr and, maternally, the grandson of Belenos, the Sun God.
Bran was more of a king than a god in the Welsh myths. He was supposed to have been at one time king of Britain.
His family included his sister named Branwen (Bronwen); a brother named Manawyddan and two half-brothers - Nissyen and the troublesome Evnissyen. In the Welsh Triads, Bran was named as one of the "Three Blessed Kings of Britain". Some people that study myths think that Bran was a god in a older religion that existed before the Celts, later becoming part of the Celtic myths. His name means Raven, and this bird was his symbol.
In Celtic mythology he appears as a semi-humanized giant. Giants occur in all early mythology and no creatures are more varied. They range from god like heroes to dangerous but not very clever tyrants. Giants were believed to be survivors of a race that flourished before mankind or sometimes they were descended from the gods. No giant was more loved than Bran.
Bran lived at Castell Dinas Bran, the home of the later Kings of Powys. He was so big no buildings were larger enough to shelter him so an elaborate or giant tent or pavilion was erected.
Why a magic cauldron and a talking head?
Magic, magicians, and the supernatural played a significant role in Celtic mythology. This story involves two magical 'devices' the Cauldron and the head of Bran himself.
Cauldrons were very important in Celtic Mythology. Different magic Cauldrons had different powers. There was the cauldron of plenty that was never empty and supplied great quantities of food and a cauldron of rebirth. Bran's was a cauldron of rejuvenation or rebirth it brought slain warriors to life again. It was therefore very important in the story in helping the Irish and making things very difficult for the British.
The idea of a head that could continue to talk after it has been cut from the body seems a very strange thing. However, the cult of the head was a highly popular one amongst the Celts. Stone-carved heads have been discovered from across the Celtic World and, in Provence on the Continent, a gruesome skull-covered altar has been unearthed.
Roman records occasionally refer to Celtic peoples as head-hunters who kept the severed heads of their enemies as trophies. In this story the head is used as an 'oracle' offering advice and guidance to those with it and as a talisman to protect the country from invasion.
Are there other similar legends?
Head of Bran
This legend is very old and is thought to have helped shape the legends of King Arthur or at least have an influence on them, as both contain similar elements and ideas.
Bran's Magic Cauldron is probably that sought by King Arthur in the Welsh poem, the "Spoils of the Annwfn". It is also thought by people that have studied the old stories that the cauldron in the Bran stories became the Holy Grail in the Arthurian legends.
There are other similarities when Arthur travels to the Celtic Otherworld and, only seven men survive, just like in Bran's journey to Ireland.
The wound to Bran's foot, inflicted by a poisoned spear, which caused his lands to fail, is echoed in that of the Arthurian Grail guardian, known as the Fisher King. The Fisher King, just like Bran's head, could feast with his followers indefinitely and his forename was said to be Bron (or Brons) most likely a transformation of Bran.
Bran may also be the original inspiration for other Arthurian characters like Brandegorre, Bran de Lis, Brandelidelin or Ban of Benoic.