Branwen, Goddess of Love and Beauty, daughter of Penardim and Llyr, sister of Bran the Blessed, King over all the Island of the Mighty, was loved by her people for her gentleness, compassion and beauty. As Mother of the king to come in the tradition of the Old Tribes of the British Isles, she is the embodiment of Sovereignty. She is the Center from which all life emerges. She rules over the Land, both its spirit and its manifestation. Her vision is long, seeing the whole, the greater scheme of things. Sometimes this knowledge can be too much to bear.
Branwen (“white raven”), is most likely an ancient Goddess whose sacred spot is Cadair Bronwen (Branwen’s Seat), a mountain peak in the Berwyn range of Wales. Cadair Bronwen is topped with a cairn that resembles a nipple from afar.
Branwen’s story falls within the category of the ‘Slandered Wife’. Parallels can be drawn with the story of Rhiannon from the first branch of the Mabinogion, in that both Goddesses are falsely accused and suffer persecution after their marriages to men from a world different than their own. These types of tales are numerous in a time when the old way of feminine autonomy and sovereignty was giving way to a male-dominated world.
We first meet Branwen on the day that the Irish King, Matholuch, came to call. His fleet arrived on the shores of Wales with a great shield pointing outwards as a token of peace. He called out to Bran that he had come to ask for the hand of Branwen in marriage. Bran was very surprised as never before had a woman of the old tribes, much less She who would give birth to the next king, left her people to marry a foreigner. Nonetheless, Matholuch was invited ashore and Branwen was called for.
She arrived in all her raven-haired, white-breasted beauty. She blushed deeply upon seeing Matholuch, tall and handsome with golden-red hair shimmering around him. His face lit up with joy and desire when he saw Her.
A feast was prepared and the two, the Goddess and the King, spent the evening in conversation as they fell in love with one another. Though Branwen dreaded the thought of leaving Her people, She was in the grip of first love and She knew that she had to go with him. Matholuch was also in the heat of first love, but he never lost sight that She was the gateway into the world of kings to come. In his mind their son would rule both Ireland and the British Isles.
Manawyddan was not in favor of their union, but he acquiesced to their brother the King’s decision – since Branwen wanted to go with Matholuch, it would be so. Her other brother, Nissyen also said nothing against the marriage.
The marriage feast and consummation were held at Aberffraw. For many days after, the men of Ireland and Wales hunted together in celebration. Night after night Branwen and Matholuch shared the fire of their growing love.
But Nissyen’s twin, Evnissyen, who was best at stirring up trouble, had been absent during all this time. When he learned of the marriage, he was angry to have been left out of the decision-making. In his anger he maimed the Irish horses in a terrible manner.
Evnissyen’s act of terror caused an uproar and threatened war between the two peoples. The Irish marched off to their ships, stoney-faced with anger. Deep in the hearts of Bran and his brothers, they knew that the only true atonement would be the death of Evnissyen in retribution for the Irish loss. But this they could not do as it violated the very essence of the way of the Old Tribes. So instead, Bran called to Matholuch to return and accept a face-price such as had never been offered before.
The two kings, with Branwen at their sides and their people all around, came together again to settle the matter. Seeing that Matholuch was still uneasy, Bran offered yet another boone to his face-price, the cauldron of rebirth. Any man who is killed can be thrown into this cauldron and will emerge to fight again. Bran the Blessed warned Matholuch that a wise king would not use this cauldron as these unearthly beings can do nothing but fight. Ultimately they could be a worse fate to deal with than the enemy on the battlefield.
And so it was settled and Branwen sailed to Ireland with her man. The people were dazzled by Her beauty and charm. They were happy for a few years. Soon their son, Gwern, was born. Matholuch felt sure his plan for his son to become king after him was well underway. Never before had a king’s son become the next king in Ireland. In the Old Ways it was decided by Druidic visions; the New Tribes decided kingship by violence.
Up to this point, news of the maiming of the Irish horses had not reached the ears of the Irish people as the High Druid had placed a “gessa” on them that forbade them to speak of the incident. But the High Druid died when Gwern was a baby and men’s tongues loosened with news of the insult. The Irish were furious, blaming Matholuch for not getting blood vengeance. Ultimately they demanded that the King put Branwen aside and punish Her for Her brother’s sin. And he, coward that he was, acquiesced to their demands.
For three years Branwen endured shame and daily beatings while working in the hot kitchen. She was alone, without a friend in the world, tormented by all around her. She endured it all with pride. But the one thing she could not endure was living with the shame that she had chosen such a weak man as her own. Finally one day she found a wounded baby starling. She remembered Her mother’s starlings that she had taught to speak as a young girl. An idea hatched in her mind and hope was reborn. She nursed the starling back to health and slowly taught it where to go, who to find, and what to say.
Finally the time arrived for the starling to fly. All night Branwen passed her power, her words and her need to the starling. With the dawn she released her friend into the air who flew away toward Wales, the Island of the Mighty.
It was a long and terrifying journey but the starling reached its destination. It found Bran and spoke the words Branwen had taught it.
Horrified at the news, Bran amassed the men of Wales and set out across the water to free Branwen. Upon their arrival, and due to Branwen’s urgings for a peaceful settlement, Branwen’s release was negotiated. The face-price for peace was that Branwen’s son, Gwern would be the Irish High King and the building of a house large enough to house Bran the Blessed, who was a giant among men.
But once again Evnissyen intervened and catastrophe ensued. During a celebration of the house building and Gwern’s kingship, Evnissyen threw Gwern into the fire, killing the boy who all loved.
War broke out between the two peoples that destroyed them both. At the end of that day many lay dead but worse was yet to come. The Irish made the fateful decision to use the cauldron of rebirth to obtain demon warriors. Terrible battles raged. Finally Evnissyen, who finally accepted responsibility for what had arisen, sacrificed himself by going into the cauldron alive and breaking it apart from within. Toxic fumes engulfed all and by morning everyone was dead, save those sheltered in the Halls of Tara and the House of Bran.
Bran sent word to the Irish that they would leave the island on the morrow to what peace and reconstruction could be had. Treachery once more reared its ugly head as the remaining Irish warriors ambushed the remaining Welsh, ultimately delivering a death blow to Bran in the form of a poisonous spear. Bran, not wishing to endure a lingering death asked his brother to cut off his head and carry it back to Wales. Branwen then died of a broken heart. Only seven men returned to the Isle of the Mighty, accompanied by the magical, talking head of Bran.
Branwen’s story is truly one of sorrow. But as Goddess of Love, love infuses her story from beginning to end. Through love she seeks to unite the two lands. With love, she forgives and continues to seek peace even after her years of suffering in the kitchen. She sought this peace not only for the people but also for the land. And yet she also knows how to set boundaries, having finally shut Matholuch out of her heart forever. And in the end it was She, Great Goddess of Love, not any of the men, who died of a broken heart at the destruction surrounding her. She made the ultimate sacrifice, dying to the old so that new life could be born again.
Branwen is associated with the starling, the raven, the cauldron and the cup. Her colors are white, silver and green. Her planet is Venus.
Call on Branwen when you can’t see the forest for the trees and She will help restore your vision to one of wholeness. Call on Branwen when you are challenged and lacking in empathy and She will help you feel love again. Call on Branwen for the courage to persevere during times of danger and fear. Learn from Branwen how to maintain your courage and determination during stressful situations. And finally learn how not to let duty to your relationships override your own Sovereignty.
Resources: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton, Celtic Mythology and Folklore, by Patricia Monaghan, http://www.sisterhoodofavalon.org/1-the-goddesses.htm, http://www.mabinogi.net/branwen.htm
Judith’s deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle Cards is available now. You can order your deck on Judith’s website. Experience the wisdom of the Celtic Goddesses!
Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her artwork. She continues to be inspired by the Divine Feminine in all of Her manifestations. Originally from New Orleans, Judith now makes her home in New Mexico where she paints and teaches part-time. Her work, which expresses her belief in the interconnectedness of all life, can be seen on her website at http://judithshawart.com