This article was first published January 14, 2021 on FolkloreThursday.com as Animism and the Living World of the Ancient Celts by zteve t evans
The ancient Celts were believed to practice a form of animism in their religion and belief system that provided a meaningful way for them to experience and make sense of the world they lived in. In this work we will discuss animism and the various aspects of animism that the ancient Celts possibly followed concluding with a short discussion of their belief system.
Rather than a religion, animism is more an expression of the energy connections that are believed to flow through all things connecting each to the other and to the greater consciousness. It is this greater consciousness that is the source of all energy and that endows everything with life and sentience. Many early creeds embraced aspects of animism and it is still found in many modern religions and philosophies.
The Celts were a varied collection of ethnic groups inhabiting a wide swathe of continental Europe from the west coast of Ireland to the Black Sea and other scattered areas. As a group they appear to have been bound together by common aspects of language, culture and religion rather than ethnicity. They worshiped a wide variety of gods and goddesses which varied from region to region as could the importance and attributes of those divinities. Animism is seen as the one of the threads that connected the beliefs of this vast and diverse group of people together.
In animism there is a belief that all things possessed a spirit and a consciousness that connects everything together. The sky, Earth and underworld were connected along with natural phenomena such as the weather and everything was all part of a greater conscious universe. Furthermore, even certain words objects and images had sentience and were alive and could be used in conjunction with the greater consciousness to benefit humanity. For the Celt, death was the transmigration of the souls while their ancestors were revered and regarded as alive.
Presented here is a retelling of the second branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi known as Branwen ferch Llŷr (“Branwen Daughter of Llŷr”). The name Branwen means “white, blessed raven.” (1)
The Second Branch of the Mabinogi
Brân the Blessed, son of Llŷr, was king of the island of Britain that was also known as the Island of the Mighty. He had a brother named Manawyddan who was also a son of Llŷr and a sister named Branwen who was Llŷr’s daughter. These three Brân, Manawyddan, and Branwen are sometimes known as the Children ofLlŷr. They are not the same as the Children of Lir, from Irish mythology although there may be distant associations or connections. In this story Brânwas a personage of such gigantic stature no building existed that could contain him.
One day at Harlech, one of his courts in Wales, he sat with his brother Manawyddan on high cliff looking out over the sea. They were accompanied by Nissien and Efnissyien, his two half brothers from his mother’s side that were of completely different character to one another. Nissien was a good man who always strove to achieve peace and harmony between two opposing forces. Efnissyien, was of a darker character instigating and causing conflict where there was none. These four were accompanied by various nobles ofBrân’s court. As they looked out over the sea they spied a fleet of ships approaching the Welsh coast. One of the ships had taken the lead and displayed upon its side a shield with its point positioned upwards as a token of peace
Matholwch, King of Ireland
Concerned about their intentions in Wales, Brân ordered his warriors to arm themselves and go down to meet them and discover their purpose.This was done and messengers brought back the reply that the ships belonged to King Matholwch of Ireland who came on an important mission in peace and friendship. He came seeking King Brân’s permission to marry his sister Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, fairest maiden in the world and one of the Three High Matriarchs of Britain. Such a marriage would create a powerful and influential alliance between the two kingdoms bringing great benefit to both.
Brân invited the Irish king ashore with all his retinue, servants and all their horses. The next day he and Brân met to discuss the marriage of Branwen. Brân decided in favor of the marriage and with his sister’s agreement the wedding was held the next day at Aberffraw.
The following day the Welsh and Irish guests gathered for the wedding feast. There was no building in existence big enough to hold Brân therefore a massive marquee was used instead.At the feast, the two sons of Llŷr – Brân and his brother Manawyddan – sat on one side. Matholwch, king of Ireland sat next to Branwen, the daughter of Llŷr, on the other. It was a happy occasion and the guests ate and drank their fill in peace and friendship. At last they retired for the night and Branwen became the wife of King Matholwch.
Efnissyen was greatly insulted that he had not been consulted about his half-sister’s marriage. In revenge he cruelly disfigured the horses of the Irish king slicing off their eyelids, lips and ears rendering them unfit for any purpose. When the stable hands discovered the malicious act they immediately informed King Matholwch.Initially, Matholwch was not convinced Brân had anything to do with it. Why would he have willingly given his permission for the wedding to go ahead and then performed such a senseless, cruel and insulting act to his guest and new brother-in-law?
After all, Branwen was the fairest and one of the highest maidens in the land, beloved of her family and people. He could rightfully have refused his marriage to her and offered someone else of lesser status instead. It made no sense at all. The more he thought about it the worse it seemed. His advisors persuaded him that it was intended as an insult and angrily Matholwch made ready to return home taking Branwen with him. On learning of the imminent departure of the Irish with his sister Brân sent a messenger asking why they were leaving without his permission and without even saying goodbye.
Matholwch replied saying had he known of the great insult he would suffer he would never have asked for Branwen’s hand in the first place. He declared his bemusement at why Brân had given him his sister in marriage only to insult him after. Brân answered, insisting the insult was not inflicted by him or his court and as his host his own dishonor was greater. To which Matholwch replied that though this was true the insult and injury he had suffered could not be undone.
Brân, not wanting the Irish to leave with such bad feeling, sent further messages. At last it was agreed reparations should be made to compensate the Irish king for the horses and the insult to his standing that he perceived he had suffered. An agreement was made that Brân replace the mutilated steeds. In further compensation he would also give a staff of silver and a plate of gold equal to the width of his face.Furthermore, the culprit would be named, but he warned that because he was his own half-brother he would be unable to put him to death. He asked Matholwch to accept what was offered and come and meet with him and once again be friends.
The emissaries of Brân gave Matholwch this message and the Irish king consulted with his counselors. Finally it was decided to refuse the reparations, which they considered generous, would bring dishonor on King Brân as well as King Matholwch and also themselves, his loyal subjects. Therefore, they resolved to accept them and meet with Brân.
The two met and in his conversation with the Irish king, Brân realized he was still not fully content. Desiring peace and friendship above all else he generously made him the offer of a magical cauldron known as the Cauldron of Rebirth, which returned the dead to life. At last Matholwch seemed satisfied and they ate and drank for the rest of that day. In the morning he set sail for Ireland taking his bride with him.
The Irish people were delighted at the return of their king accompanied by his bride. When at last he introduced her to his court and all of his nobles there was great joy. As was the custom, Branwen gave each one an expensive gift of royal jewellery which gave great honor to those who received and wore it. In the first year of her arrival in Ireland she was very popular and greatly loved. The Irish lords and ladies praised and lauded her and she enjoyed life very much. To crown it all she gave birth to a son named Gwern. In the second year of her marriage a dark cloud appeared from the past. The dreadful maiming of King Matholwch’s horses that had occurred on her wedding day was reawakened. Some of the Irish nobles seeking to make trouble for the king used this to make mischief for their own purposes.
The chief among them were Matholwch’s foster brothers who re-opened old wounds. They blamed and derided him for accepting an inferior settlement which they claimed was insulting. Stirring up hatred and resentment they turned upon Branwen demanding vengeance, taking out their malice upon her. They pressured and harried the king who eventually gave way to them. She was barred from his chamber and forced to work in the kitchens cooking and carrying out menial tasks for the court. For a woman of Branwen’s royal stature this was a terrible humiliation and indignity. To add insult to injury they ordered that she be given a blow upon her ear each day.
Knowing her King Brân would be wrath at such treatment of his sister they that advised Matholwch ban all travel between Ireland and Britain. This would prevent Brân hearing of the maltreatment of his sister. To further prevent news reaching Brân they imprisoned anyone in Ireland from Brân’s realm
Branwen and the Starling
For three years Branwen suffered this mistreatment. Her once happy life had been turned upside down to become one of humiliation, pain and misery. In desperation she raised and trained a starling. She taught it how to speak and understand human language enough for it to understand what kind of a man her brother was and how to find him.
Writing her troubles down in a letter she tied it to the bird in a way as not to impede its flight. Finally, she set it free bidding it find Brân and give him the message. Flying over the Irish Sea to the island of Britain it found Brân at Caer Seiont in Arvon. Settling on his shoulder the bird ruffled its feathers so as to display the message it bore. Seeing the bird had a degree of domestication and training Brân looked closely and saw the letter and read it. In this way he learnt of his sister’s troubles and grieved greatly for her.
Angrily he ordered a muster of the armed forces of the Island of Britain summoning his vassals and allies to him. He explained to their kings and leaders the mistreatment of Branwen his sister by the Irish and took counsel with them about what should be done.
Bran goes to War
The council agreed that the situation with Branwen was intolerable and decided on invading Ireland to set her free and punish the Irish. Therefore, Brân’s host took to the ships to sail to Ireland to the aid of Branwen. Being too large for any ship to carry Brân strode through the sea before them.
Strange news reached King Matholwch. Witnesses explained they had seen a moving wood approaching the shores of Ireland. Even stranger and more terrifying they had seen a moving mountain besides the wood with a tall ridge which had on each side of it a lake. The wood and the mountain moved together and were approaching Ireland fast. Puzzled by the news Matholwch sent messengers to Branwen to see if she could enlighten him. She told them it was the army of her brother Brân who had come to rescue her.
“What, then, is the great forest we see moving on the sea?” they asked.
“The masts of the ships of the Island of Britain,” she replied.
“What is the mountain that is seen moving before the forest?” they asked.
“That is Brân the Blessed, my brother. No ship can contain him and he needs none,” replied Branwen.
“What is the high ridge with the lake on either side,” they asked.
“Those two lakes are his eyes as he looks upon the island of Ireland. The ridge is his nose and he is angry at the mistreatment of his beloved sister!” replied Branwen.
The messengers returned to Matholwch bearing Branwen’s answer. Fearing to face such a huge army in battle he turned to his nobles for advice. They agreed it was too risky and decided their best option was to retreat over the River Linon, destroying the single bridge across after them. There was no other bridge and Brân would have to march miles out of his way to find another suitable crossing point.
Brân the Bridge
Brân and his army came ashore unimpeded but found the bridge over the river destroyed. Brân’s chieftains went to him saying, “Lord, the river cannot be crossed. The bridge is broken and there is no other crossing point for many miles. What would you have us do?”
Brân replied, “He who would be chief will be the bridge himself,” and laid himself down bridging the river with his body. In this way his host passed over to the other side.
Hearing how Brân had bridged the river worried King Matholwch who sent messengers expressing greetings, goodwill and proposals he hoped would placate him. He proposed that Gwern, his son, be given sovereignty of Ireland for the mistreatment of his sister, Branwen.
Brân replied, “Why should I not take the kingdom myself? I will take counsel. Until I have considered it no other answer will you get. Go tell your king.”
“Indeed, they said, “we shall bear your answer to him. Will you wait for his reply?”
“I will wait, but return quickly,” replied Brân. The messengers returned to their king with Brân’s answer and Matholwch took counsel with his nobles.
House of Betrayal
His counselors unanimously agreed it would be best to avoid direct conflict with the host of Brân fearing certain defeat at the hands of such a powerful army. Therefore a conciliatory approach was decided to appease Brân and put him at ease while quietly enacting a treacherous plot to defeat him. They decided to try to appease him by building a house big enough to hold his own gigantic self. It would also be big enough to hold his warriors and those of Matholwch. In this massive structure they would hold a great feast of friendship and make formal agreements and Matholwch would pay him homage. They hoped this would please and flatter him, making him more amenable to their other proposals. They also reasoned he would be more likely to relax and drop his guard which would leave him open to a deadly betrayal.
Matholwch was not sure Brân would accept the proposals. Therefore, he sent for Branwen for advice telling her nothing of the full scope of his treachery. After listening carefully at what he said she advised that she believed he would accept. Therefore, Matholwch sent messengers to Brân with his proposals. Brân listened and asked his own lords and also sent to his sister for advice. Knowing nothing of the betrayal and for the sake of peace and prevent the laying waste of the country she advised her brother to accept. Brân accepted and a peace was made with the Irish and a massive house was built as agreed. With the structure finished and the final preparations for the feast being made Matholwch pursued further his treacherous plot.
Brass hooks were fixed upon the pillars and a leather bag hung from each bracket. Each leather bag contained a fully armed Irish warrior. At the command of King Matholwch when Brân’s own warriors were in a drunken state they would cut themselves from the bag to assassinate the unsuspecting Britons
The great house of betrayal was quickly built and its interior was prepared for the great feast. Efnissyen, who had mutilated Matholwch’s horses, entered the hall to inspect progress. Seeing the leather bags he asked what was inside. He was told the King of Ireland had made a gift of flour for Brân which was contained in the bags. Efnissyen felt one of the bags and felt a man’s head. He squeezed it until his fingers met in the middle. He did this to each of the leather bags and crushed a man’s head in each one killing two hundred hidden assassins.
The Killing of Gwern
The two kings eventually entered the house with their followers and the proceedings began. The negotiations and agreements were made in a spirit of peace and friendship. Sovereignty of Ireland was conferred upon the young boy Gwern, the son of Matholwch and Branwen and nephew of Brân. After all the talking was over Brân called the boy to him. Gwern went willingly and showed him great affection. From Brân, Gwern went happily to Manawyddan and from one to another showing great affection with each he went to.
Efnissyen looked on and he grew jealous of the boy’s attention to others saying, “Why does the boy not come to me, his uncle? He is the son of my sister and is my nephew but he ignores me when I would be glad to give the boy my love!”
“Let the boy go to you if he wants to,” said Brân.
Gwern happily went to Efnissyen who taken by some dark mood without warning seized the boy by his feet and swung him head first into the roaring fire. Branwen screamed and attempted to leap into the fire after her son. Brân grabbed her hand and with his other hand placed his shield between her and the fire keeping her safe between his body and his shield.
Immediately the great hall was in uproar as the two sides rapidly armed themselves intent on killing one another. All the while Brân kept his sister safe between his shield and his body as the fighting ensued all around.
The Cauldron of Rebirth
The Irish immediately lit a fire under the Cauldron of Rebirth that had been part of the compensation Brân gave for the malicious disfigurement of their horses. They placed their dead in the cauldron and they were restored to fully fit fighting men save they had lost the power of speech and hearing.
Efnissyen, seeing the warriors of Brân were slaying the Irish noted they were also being slain. However, unlike the Irish, their dead did not return to the battle and the Irish were gaining the advantage. Feeling remorse and great guilt that he had been the cause of all this murder and mayhem he resolved to save Brân and his warriors. Therefore, he hid among the piles of the Irish dead waiting to be revived in the cauldron until he too was cast in. As soon as he was inside he stretched himself out to his full bodily dimensions causing the cauldron to burst asunder but bursting his own heart in the process. With this advantage removed from the Irish theBritons quickly gained the upper hand.
The Seven Survivors
Although the warriors of Brân eventually triumphed it was a pyrrhic victory costing them dear. Brân was mortally wounded from a wound in his foot from a poisoned spear. Of his army only seven lived and these were Manawyddan, Pryderi, Taliesin the Bard, Grudyen the son of Muryel, Ynawc and Heilyn the son of Gwynn Hen. Brân had shielded Branwen throughout the battle and she also lived.
Of the Irish people only five pregnant women survived who went and lived in caves. They gave birth to five sons and over time the Island of Ireland was repopulated incestuously.
The Assembly of the Wondrous Head
Knowing he was dying and being too large to bury or take back on a ship Brân ordered the seven surviving warriors to sever his head from his body. He instructed they carry it to the White Hill in London where they were to bury it facing the sea to deter invasion from France. He advised them this task would take many years. In that time they would spend seven years feasting in Harlech while being regaled by the Birds of Rhiannon. They would then travel to Gwales where they would spend a further eighty years and become known as, “The Assembly of the Wondrous Head”. All this time the head would be able to converse with them and keep them company despite it being severed. They would be untouched by time but eventually, the time would come when they would leave Gwales to journey to London where their task would be completed as he had instructed. He then ordered them to “cross over to the other side.” The seven survivors accompanied by Branwen crossed over to the other side (2) of the sea to Wales bearing the head of Brân.
However, as she turned to look back across the sea to Ireland and gazed around her at the Island of Britain she was overwhelmed with grief and anguish. Her heart broke in two and she groaned and collapsed and died of a broken heart. Thus, ended the life of Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr, Fairest Maiden of Britain. The seven survivors made a four sided grave on the banks of the River Alaw for her internment.
The Seven Survivors discovered the crown of Britain had been usurped by Caswallawn and Brân’s son had died of a broken heart after his companions were killed in an ambush by the usurper. Nevertheless, as Brân had ordered and in the manner he had predicted, his head was finally buried in London to deter any invasion of Britain from France. Here ends the Second Branch of the Mabinogi and the story of two of the Seven Survivors, Pryderi and Manawyddan are continued in the Third Branch, known as Manawyddan.