BRAN AND THE SACRED KINGS OF THE ALDER MOON
by Imré K. Rainey
Sacred Kings are just one part of the mystery of the Alder moon, but a very important one, and one that is easily misunderstood. What exactly is a Sacred King? Who is Bran? How are the Sacred Kings and Bran connected? Through an analysis of the following legend of Bran, and a comparison of this story with the Christian legend of the Grail, we will begin to see the connections.
The Story of Bran the Blessed, King of Britain
Bran, king of Britain, son of Llyr, was standing at Harlech looking out to sea from the cliffs. “There is that in Ireland that I must have, for without it the land will fail,” exclaimed the king. He chose an entourage of his men to sail unto Ireland with him. They would leave Bran’s son Caradwc and seven wise men to watch over Britain, and offer Matholwch, the Irish king, Britain’s friendship.
Upon arrival, Bran and his men were greeted and escorted to Matholwch’s house. Matholwch accepted Bran and his men as friends, and invited them to a feast in honor of their new alliance.
When the feast had been proceeding for a time, Bran asked Matholwch, “Tell me, O King, whence had you that cauldron which is in the centre of the hall, but from which no one is seen to eat?” “Well that you may ask,” answered Matholwch, who proceeded to tell of a strange couple that he encountered one morning while hunting by the Lake of the Cauldron. When asked their purpose in his land, they responded that they were searching for a place to stay, as the woman, who was very ugly and carrying the very cauldron in question on her back, was great with child and would soon give birth.
Now Matholwch, being an honorable king, would not have it said that any went unhoused in his land, so at his home they were to stay. After a year, his court demanded that they be sent away because of their disturbing appearance and conduct, and so the King had a house of iron built within which they would reside. However, the plan was not only to move them out of the castle, but also to rid Ireland of the terrible family.
And so, once the frightening brood was in the house, Matholwch’s men heated its iron walls. The court stood back and watched as the walls grew hotter and hotter. And when the walls were at their hottest, glowing white as death, the family dashed against the walls, broke them, and escaped. When the house had cooled and the King’s men searched the remains, they found the cauldron that Bran saw before him. Its properties were described as that of resurrection.
“And who is this wretched woman of whom you speak?” asked Bran. “Cerridwen!” exclaimed Matholwch.
The feasting continued until finally all of Matholwch’s men, including himself, passed out. Bran rose to his feet and collected his men. He threw the cauldron onto his back and they sailed back to Britain.
The time was not long until Bran could see the King of Ireland approaching Britain on the sea. Quickly, Bran sent his men to meet Matholwch. In return for renewed friendship, Bran offered his sister, Branwen, to the Irish king. Matholwch accepted and Bran arranged a feast to honor the joining of the King of Ireland and his sister. However, Bran’s brother grew angry at the arrangement and mutilated the Irish horses. Deeply insulted, the Irish sovereign departed without taking leave. Upon hearing of this, Bran sent the King new horses and many treasures, in return for peace.
Years passed and Branwen bore a child to the Irish king, yet the Irish people could not forgive the insult that had been directed towards their King long ago. They demanded that Matholwch reject Branwen. In order to keep his people happy, the King did so. In hopes of maintaining her child’s safety, Branwen attempted to accept her husband’s rejection. After much heartache and humiliation, Branwen finally broke down and sent one of Rhiannon’s (British Goddess of the Underworld) birds with a message to Bran. Enraged, Bran sailed to Ireland with his ships. Matholwch realized what had happened and fled across the river Linon, breaking the bridge away behind him. Upon Bran’s arrival, Branwen left the Irish court and joined her brother.
Bran laid himself across the river and his men ran over him towards the Irish. Seeing Bran’s great display of strength and size, Matholwch quickly offered to give Branwen’s son the throne in return for his own safety. Branwen urged Bran to accept and a great feast followed in the Irish castle.
Matholwch met Bran at the feast and handed his throne over to Bran, who, in turn, crowned Branwen’s son. The new king went to his family seeking blessings, but was thrown into the fire by Bran’s jealous brother. Great fighting broke out and the cauldron was destroyed. Bran received a wound in his thigh, which would soon take his life, from a poisoned spear. The Brits fled with Branwen, who soon died of grief; the mortally wounded Bran; and the remains of the cauldron.
When at a safe distance, Bran gave instructions to his men. On their route to their destination they were to stop twice and feast as gods with food and ale. During these times they would forget all their troubles and woes while listening to Rhiannon’s birds, who had the power of enchantment. These feasts were to last many years. Finally, upon completion of their travels, they were to cut off their King’s head and bury it in the White Hills of London, their final destination.
This version of the myth was extrapolated from The Song of Taliesin.1
The story of Bran the King of Britain originates in The Mabinogion. The story is told by different authors, and so has different translations and slightly different variations. For example, the cauldron appears both as Cerridwen’s and also Branwen’s (this will be looked into later). Its property is resurrection, yet some versions say that the resurrected could not speak of what they had experienced in death, while other versions say that the resurrected could not speak at all. The context of the story also changes slightly; however, for our purpose, John Matthews’ version will suffice.2
The story of Bran is centered around a cauldron which originally belonged to Cerridwen or, in other versions, to Branwen. Cerridwen, as defined by Barbara Walker,3is the Triple Goddess, or the three aspects of the Goddess — maid, mother, and crone — in one (she is especially recognized as the crone aspect). In this view, Cerridwen can be associated with Morrigan, the “threefold goddess of the Celts of Gaul and Britain.” Further, “the second aspect of her trinity [was] Babd.” Babd, according to Walker, is the Welsh Branwen, the other keeper of the cauldron. Once it becomes clear that Cerridwen and Branwen are simply different aspects of the same entity, the dual ownership of the cauldron is understood (keep this in mind).The Holy Grail
In Christian legend, one comes across the story of the Holy Grail. According to Chrestien de Troyes4 the legend of the Holy Grail originates with Jesus and the Last Supper. The grail is the chalice in which the mystery of Jesus’ blood during the Holy Eucharist took place, and/or the container in which Jesus’ blood was collected when he was removed from the cross. Either way, the chalice, or grail, held within it the blood of the Christ through which one could be healed or receive eternal life.
Once empowered, the grail was to be protected so that it would not land in evil hands. Arthurian legend, originally made popular by de Troyes, tells of the battles that took place over the possession of the holy relic. While protecting the grail, the Fisher King (the guardian of the Grail) was mortally wounded — castrated — by a spear, but managed to keep the grail from falling into evil hands. He was then given eternal life by God and set to stand by the Holy Grail as its guardian until the chosen knight appears, who will ask the question that will give the Fisher king back his virility, thus returning the land to fruitfulness.
The legend of the Holy Grail asserts that the Grail is of Christian origin; however, the previous discussion of Bran and the Cauldron of Inspiration makes it clear that not only is the Holy Grail not originally Christian, but that it is an alteration of the Celtic legend. The Holy Grail is most definitely Cerridwen’s cauldron (or Branwen’s). Both the Grail and the Cauldron possess the power to restore life. The Fisher King is Bran. In Perceval, or The Story of the Grail, de Troyes5 tells of the great feast and generosity shown Perceval by the Fisher King who housed him for a night. In the story of Bran, we learned of the great feasts and generosity of Bran, the King of Britain (Britain is also known as the Isle of the Mighty, which is complementary to the Grail Castle where the Fisher King’s mighty knights dwell). The Fisher King was mortally wounded by a spear, while protecting the Holy Grail, as was Bran mortally wounded by a poisoned spear, while protecting the remainder of the cauldron.
When Perceval first saw the Holy Grail during his stay in the Grail Castle, it was being carried by a beautiful young woman; however, later, he was again in the company of the woman and she was old and wretched to his eyes. The association between the young, beautiful bearer of the grail who later appeared as an old, wretched hag and the multiple identities of Cerridwen and Branwen as young maidens and frightening crones is uncanny and cannot be ignored. Also, Robert Graves6illustrates the belief that Mary, Jesus’ mother, was the first owner of the Holy Grail. Mary was a maiden who, as a virgin, gave birth to the Christian son of God. She later witnessed the killing of her son. She can easily be identified with the Triple Goddess who, as the Maiden, or virgin, is pregnant with the god, becomes the Mother at his birth, and, after witnessing his death with the turning of the wheel of the year, evolves into the Crone. It is, therefore, obvious that the Holy Grail legend is derived from the story of Bran and his quest for the Cauldron of Inspiration.Sacred Kings
The Celtic society greatly depended on farming and the fruitfulness of yearly harvests. In relation, the Celtic king was much more than a mundane tyrant. In Celtic legend, the kingship of the land was dependent upon the queen, who was considered the earthly incarnation of the Goddess, and personified the land. The king, as well as being the ruler, actually personified the people. Upon the king’s marriage to the queen, he was in effect marrying the Goddess, and wedding the people to the land. It was, therefore, believed that whatever fruit he sowed as king (fair rulership, strong children, etc.), was reflected by the fertility and well-being of the land and people. Caitlin Matthews7 describes this concept with the example of King Conaire mac Mess Buachalla:
Good is his reign. Since he assumed the kingship, no cloud has veiled the sun for the space of a day from the middle of spring to the middle of autumn. And no dew-drop has falled from grass till midday, and wind would not touch a cow’s tail until noon …In his reign, each man deems the other’s voice melodious as the strings of harps, because of the excellence of the law and the peace and the good-will prevailing throughout…
…the land under Conn, who has married Becuma, an Otherworldly woman outcast from the Blessed Islands: “Conn and Becuma were a year together…and there was neither corn nor milk in Ireland…”
The king, again, accepted responsibility for his actions at the beginning of his rule. If the land and people suffered because of him, then he would have to make amends, and sometimes the only acceptable offering was his life. (Notice the elements of the legends of Beltane and associated celebrations, when the Celtic people celebrated the fertility of the land. In legend, if not necessarily in historical fact, the people offered the Goddess of the land the May King as a sacrifice to ensure fruitful harvests. The king was also symbolized in the character of the Fool, who voluntarily chose to be the king for a day and then be sacrificed in the Wicker Man, because the king had failed his people. The May Queen, who sentences him, is the character who represented the Goddess.) Finally, to complete the sacrifice of the sacred king, his head must be taken.
Bran was a sacred king, as will be illustrated by the fol-lowing elements. His land prospered and his people adored him because of his kindness, yet when his people were killed in great numbers and he, himself, was fatally wounded during the last battle with Matholwch, he could no longer successfully serve. His remaining countrymen had to be protected, so he offered himself as a sacrifice and ordered that his head be cut off and buried in the White Hills in London as protection for his people.
The Hazel Nut