Bendigedfran ap Llyr/Bran the Blessed
The name in Welsh means "Blessed Raven, son of the Sea"
However, there is also an argument that his name comes from the Gaulish figure Brennus, which might instead derive from *brig-, meaning "exhalted", and tied to both the names Brigantia and the Welsh word for king--brenin from *brigantos, consort of Brigantia.
Bendigedfran son of Llyr, King of Britain, in context of y Mabinogi and the Welsh Triads, seems to have ruled sometime around the beginning of the first millennium. He is named as the son of Llyr, the personification of the sea, with his siblings Branwen and Manawyddan. His half-brothers Niessin and Efniessin were sired by the Roman general Ostorius (Welsh: Eurowyssed) and his son is given as Caradawc, who was later--maybe as late as the eighteenth century--confused with the historical Caratacus, who fought the Roman legions and was later handed over to Ostorius.
In Branwen uerch Llyr, the second branch of the Mabinogi, Bendigedfran goes off to rescue his sister Branwen, who is being abused by her husband the king of Ireland. In the battle for his sister (and for a magic cauldron), he is wounded, peirced in the thigh, and has his head cut off. Doing so lets him bring the Seven Survivors of Prydein to the Otherworld to feast for 80 years.
The Book of Taliesin refers to the story of Bran:
Bum y gan vran yn Iwerdon.
Gweleis pan ladwyt mordwyt tyllon.
I have been with Bran in Ireland.
I saw when Morddwydtyllon was killed.
Refering back to a line from the tale:
Ac yna y dywot Mordwyd Tyllyon, “Guern gwngwch uiwch Uordwyt Tyllyon.”
"That was when Mordwyt Tyllion said 'Dogs of Gwen, beware Mordwyt Tyllion!'"
Mordwyt Tyllion means "pierced thighs", and is usually assumed to refer to Bran himself.
Bran is likely identified with the Brennius of Geoffrey of Monmouth. In Welsh versions, he is called Bran, while Geoffrey's Latin calls him Brennius. In Geoffrey, he is the younger brother of Beli/Belinus. They quarrel over the kingship, with Belinus gaining it, and Brennius only having Northumbria. Brennius marries the daughter of the king of Lochlann, angering Belinus, and war breaks out over Britain, during which Brennius' wife is taken prisoner. Brennius is driven into Gaul, accompanied with only twelve men. He is taken in by the Allobroges tribe, marries their princess, and becomes known for his generosity. He raises an army to invade Britain again, but is dissuaded by his mother Conwenna.
Brennius and Belinus make peace, and decide to invade Gaul together and take possession. After this is successful, they sack Rome, presumably refering to the story of the historical Brennus' sack of Rome as told in Livy. Belinus then returns to Britain, while Brennius stays in Italy, pillaging. His death is alluded to by Geoffrey, who seems to be confusing Livy's story with that of Pausianas' regarding the sacking of Delphi. Pausianas' version, Brennus drinks poisoned wine and commits suicide. In Justin's version, he is wounded in an earthquake followed by a storm, and takes his life with a dagger.
Geoffrey's Brennius has some obvious connections to Bran, namely his generosity, his raids, and his rivalry with Belinus, reflected in Bran's family and their rivalry with Beli's family. Another interesting element is Brennius' marriage to the daughter of the king of Lochlann; Lochlann, though identified with Scandinavia, is also usually a stand-in for the Otherworld.
The Latin traditions refered to by Geoffrey also bear a relation with the Mabinogi. Geoffrey likely knew Livy's History, as well as that of Pausianus, and perhaps Justin. In those histories, there is a Gaulish leader named Brennus; in Livy, he sacks Rome. In Pausianus and Justin, a Brennus and his companion Bolgius (Belgius in Justin) sack Delphi. There are a number of correspondances between the historical Brennuses and the mythical Bran:
It is possible that the second branch of the Mabinogi retains Iron Age legends much in the same way that that the third branch does regarding Cassivellaunus. Indeed, the second and third branches are closely related, and the redactor saw fit to have one flow into the next in a way not seen in the other branches.
Other British Traditions
There are other traditions of a Bran that possessed not a cauldron of rebirth but a horn of plenty, listed among the Thirteen Treasures of Britain. However, this is Bran the Stingy, and his relationship to Bran the Blessed is unsure. Certainly Bran the Stingy could be related, despite his name. Guto'r Glyn refers to him in a poem, where he is changed from a miser to a generous king by Taliesin; this may represent a tradition not recorded in the Mabinogi, as Taliesin is mentioned among the Seven Survivors.
The Fisher King
Some scholars have concluded that Bendigedfran ap Llyr is the origin of the Fisher King of the Holy Grail myth. It helps that the Fisher King's name in Robert de Boron's Le Roman du Graal happens to be Bron (sometimes Brons).
In de Boron's romance, Bron is the brother-in-law of Joseph of Arimathea. He helps lead the followers of Joseph to Britain, similar to the wandering company of the head, particularly in the wanderings which are associated with the west. He is associated with the sea (being the Rich Fisher), as is Bran. He possesses the Holy Grail, like Bran and his cauldron. He is wounded in the thigh, like Bran. In the Didot Perceval (generally believed to be a prose version of de Boron's lost romance), Bron lives in Ireland--again, to the west.
Helaine Newstead draws comparisons between Bran and a number of Arthurian figures, who she says are derived from Bran: Bron, Bran de Lis, Baudemaguz, Brandus des Illes, Evrain, and Brangor, among others. Newstead's conclusions are that
An interesting allusion is found in Chretien's Erec to Bilis:
Li sire des nains vint aprés,
Bilis, li rois d'Antipodés.
Cil rois don je vos di, fu nains
Et fu Bri frere germains.
De toz nains fu Bilis li maindre,
Et Bri ses frere, fu graindre
Ou demi pié ou plainne paume
Que nus chevaliers del reaume.
The lord of the dwarfs came next, Bilis, the king of Antipodes. This king of whom I speak was a dwarf himself and own brother of Brien. Bilis, on the one hand, was the smallest of all the dwarfs, while his brother Brien was a half-foot or full palm taller than any other knight in the kingdom.
Newstead notes that Bilis is sometimes called Belin. No more is said, but it does point to a continuing tradition connecting Beli and Bran.
de Boron, Robert. Merlin and the Grail: Joseph of Arimathea, Merlin, Perceval. trans. Nigel Bryant. Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2001.
Ford, Patrick. The Mabinogi, and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1977.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. trans. Lewis Thorpe. NY: Penguin, 1966.
Justin. Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus. translated, with notes, by the Rev. John Selby Watson. London: Henry G. Bohn, York Street, Convent Garden (1853).
Livy. History of Rome. Editor Ernest Rhys Translator Rev. Canon Roberts. Everyman's Library. E.P. Dutton and Co. New York: 1912
Newstead, Helaine. Bran the Blessed in Arthurian Romance. NY: Columbia University Press, 1939.
Parker, W.M. "The Mabinogi of Branwen" The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. 2003. URL: http://www.mabinogi.net/branwen.htm
Pausanias. Pausanias' Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918. WWW. Perseus Project. Starting URL: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Paus.+10.19.1
de Troyes, Chrétien. "Érec et Énide". Arthurian Romances. trans. W.W. Comfort. London: Everyman's Library, 1914.
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Mary Jones © 2004