Y Mabinogi

The main tale of the medieval Welsh mythological cycle.

There are three manuscripts which feature the Mabinogi in whole or in part; the complete version is found in the White Book of Rhydderch (ca. 1340) and the Red Book of Hergest (1375-1425?). Earlier than these is the fragmentary Peniarth MS 6 (13th C.), where portions of Branwen and Manawyddan survive

The Tales
The Mabinogi contains four branches--"pedeir ceinc"--of interconnected stories regarding the kingdoms of Dyfed and Gwynedd:

Date of Composition

Mythological Elements

Historical Elements

A word whose meaning is often the subject of debate.

When Owen Pughe decided to translate tales from the Red Book of Hergest, he saw that what are traditionally the first four stories--"Pwyll pendeuc Dyfed," "Branwen uerch Llyr," "Manawyddan fab Llyr," and "Math fab Mathonwy," all end "And here ends this branch of the mabinogi--except for "Pwyll," which ends "branch of the mabinogion." This was a scribal error found in both the Red Book fo Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch, both coming from a common source.

There is no word mabinogion in Welsh. Pughe assumed that mabinogion is plural for mabinogi," (-ion is a common pluralizing suffix). However, it's obvious that he didn't understand the meaning of the word mabinogi, and assumed that, rooted in the word mab, meaning "son", it must refer to stories for children--fairy tales.

Years later, Lady Charlotte Guest book named her book The Mabinogion after Pughe's definition, and also believed they were stories for children.

But what is a mabinogi, if this is the wrong definition?

Guest assumed that a "mabinogi" was a story for children, as mab means "boy." However, these were not stories for children; they were recorded in several manuscripts for adults. However, the name stuck, and so we have always called this collection of tales--usually the eleven in the Red Book--The Mabinogion.

There is the Welsh god Mabon ap Modron, who appears in one of the tales--"Culhwch ac Olwen." He seems to be a divine youth who must be released from prision; the figure is based on the god Apollo Maponos, a god popular in northern Britain and parts of Gaul. However, "Culhwch ac Olwen" is not part of the Four Branches, and Mabon is not mentioned in the Four Branches.

The Four Branches seem to revolve around the Children of Llyr and the Children of Don; more specifically, they revolve around Pryderi, the son of Pwyll, nephew of Branwen, step-son of Manawyddan, and rival of Math's nephew Gwydion, who eventually kills him. If one examines what is known of Mabon ap Modron and his Irish counterpart Oengus mac ind Og, and compares it to the life of Pryderi, it becomes evident that Pryderi may be another form of Mabon, as W. Gruffydd discussed in Math vab Mathonwy.

Hamp argues that Pryderi is the father of Mabon, but I have not seen the paper for this yet. At any rate, all of this has led scholars to conclude that "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi" refer to the Four Stories about Mabon and his Family.

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Mary Jones 2003