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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 46

338 Two of the bearers of the head are Manawyddan and Pryderi, whose fortunes we follow in the Mabinogi of the former. Pryderi gives his mother Rhiannon to Manawyddan as his wife, along with some land which by magic art is made barren. After following different crafts, they are led by a boar to a strange castle, where Rhiannon and Pryderi disappear along with the building. {99} Manawyddan, with Pryderi's wife Kieva, set out as shoemakers, but are forced to abandon this craft on account of the envy of the craftsmen. Finally, we learn how Manawyddan overcame the enchanter Llwyt, who, because of an insult offered by Pryderi's father to his friend Gwawl, had made Rhiannon and Pryderi disappear. They are now restored, and Llwyt seeks no further revenge.

The story of Branwen is similar to a tale of which there are variants in Teutonic and Scandinavian sagas, but the resemblance is closer to the latter. Possibly a similar story with their respective divinities or heroes for its characters existed among Celts, Teutons, and Norsemen, but more likely it was borrowed from Norsemen who occupied both sides of the Irish Sea in the ninth and tenth century, and then naturalised by furnishing it with Celtic characters. But into this framework many native elements were set, and we may therefore scrutinise the story for Celtic mythical elements utilised by its redactor, who probably did not strip its Celtic personages of their earlier divine attributes. In the two Mabinogi these personages are Llyr, his sons Bran and Manawyddan, his daughter Branwen, their half-brothers Nissyen and Evnissyen, sons of Llyr's wife Penardim, daughter of Beli, by a previous marriage with Eurosswyd.

Llyr is the equivalent of the Irish Ler, the sea-god, but two other Llyrs, probably duplicates of himself, are known to Welsh story—Llyr Marini, and the Llyr, father of Cordelia, of the chroniclers. He is constantly confused with Lludd Llawereint, e.g. both are described as one of three notable prisoners of Britain, and both are called fathers of Cordelia or Creiddylad. Perhaps the two were once identical, for {100} Manannan is sometimes called son of Alloid (= Lludd), in Irish texts, as well as son of Ler. But the confusion may be accidental, nor is it certain that Nodons or Lludd was a sea-god. Llyr's prison was that of Eurosswyd,343 whose wife he may have abducted and hence suffered imprisonment. In the Black Book of Caermarthen Bran is called son of Y Werydd or "Ocean," according to M. Loth's interpretation of the name, which would thus point to Llyr's position as a sea-god. But this is contested by Professor Rh[^y]s who makes Ywerit wife of Llyr, the name being in his view a form of the Welsh word for Ireland. In Geoffrey and the chroniclers Llyr becomes a king of Britain whose history and that of his daughters was immortalised by Shakespeare. Geoffrey also refers to Llyr's burial in a vault built in honour of Janus.344 On this Professor Rh[^y]s builds a theory that Llyr was a form of the Celtic Dis with two faces and ruler of a world of darkness. But there is no evidence that the Celtic Dispater was lord of a gloomy underworld, and it is best to regard Llyr as a sea-divinity.

Manawyddan is not god-like in these tales in the sense in which the majestic Manannan of Irish story is, though elsewhere we learn that "deep was his counsel." Though not a magician, he baffles one of the great wizards of Welsh story, and he is also a master craftsman, who instructs Pryderi in the arts of shoe-making, shield-making, and saddlery. In this he is akin to Manannan, the teacher of Diarmaid. Incidents of his career are reflected in the Triads, and his union with Rhiannon may point to an old myth in which they were from the first a divine pair, parents of Pryderi. This would give point to his deliverance of Pryderi and Rhiannon from the {101} hostile magician.347 Rhiannon resembles the Irish Elysium goddesses, and Manawyddan, like Manannan, is lord of Elysium in a Taliesin poem. He is a craftsman and follows agriculture, perhaps a reminiscence of the old belief that fertility and culture come from the god's land. Manawyddan, like other divinities, was drawn into the Arthurian cycle, and is one of those who capture the famous boar, the Twrch Trwyth.

Bran, or Bendigeit Vran ("Bran the Blessed"), probably an old pagan title which appropriately enough denotes one who figured later in Christian hagiology, is so huge that no house or ship can hold him. Hence he wades over to Ireland, and as he draws near is thought to be a mountain. This may be an archaic method of expressing his divinity—a gigantic non-natural man like some of the Tuatha Déa and Ossianic heroes. But Bran also appears as the Urdawl Ben, or "Noble Head," which makes time pass to its bearers like a dream, and when buried protects the land from invasion. Both as a giant squatting on a rock and as a head, Bran is equated by Professor Rh[^y]s with Cernunnos, the squatting god, represented also as a head, and also with the Welsh Urien whose attribute was a raven, the supposed meaning of Bran's name.350 He further equates him with Uthr Ben, "Wonderful Head," the superior bard, harper and piper of a Taliesin poem. Urien, Bran, and Uthr are three forms of a god worshipped by bards, and a "dark" divinity, whose wading over to Ireland signifies crossing to Hades, of which he, like Yama, who first crossed the rapid waters to the land of death, is the ruler.352 But Bran is not a "dark" god in the sense implied here. Cernunnos is god of a happy underworld, and there is nothing {102} dark or evil in him or in Bran and his congeners. Professor Rh[^y]s's "dark" divinities are sometimes, in his view, "light" gods, but they cannot be both. The Celtic lords of the dead had no "dark" character, and as gods of fertility they were, so to speak, in league with the sun-god, the slayer of Bran, according to Professor Rh[^y]s's ingenious theory. And although to distracted Irish secretaries Ireland may be Hades, its introduction into this Mabinogi merely points to the interpretation of a mythico-historic connection between Wales and Ireland. Thus if Bran is Cernunnos, this is because he is a lord of the underworld of fertility, the counterpart of which is the distant Elysium, to which Bran seems rather to belong. Thus, in presence of his head, time passes as a dream in feasting and joy. This is a true Elysian note, and the tabued door of the story is also suggestive of the tabus of Elysium, which when broken rob men of happiness.353 As to the power of the head in protecting the land, this points to actual custom and belief regarding the relics of the dead and the power of divine images or sculptured heads. The god Bran has become a king and law-giver in the Mabinogion and the Triads, while Geoffrey of Monmouth describes how Belinus and Brennus, in the Welsh version Beli and Bran, dispute the crown of Britain, are reconciled, and finally conquer Gaul and Rome.356 The mythic Bran is confused with Brennus, leader of the Gauls against Rome in 390 B.C., and Belinus may be the god Belenos, as well as Beli, father of Lludd and Caswallawn. But Bran also figures as a Christian missionary. He is described as hostage at Rome for his son Caradawc, returning thence as preacher of Christianity to the Cymry—a legend arising out {103} of a misunderstanding of his epithet "Blessed" and a confusing of his son with the historic Caractacus. Hence Bran's family is spoken of as one of the three saintly families of Prydein, and he is ancestor of many saints.358

Branwen, "White Bosom," daughter of a sea-god, may be a sea-goddess, "Venus of the northern sea," unless with Mr. Nutt we connect her with the cauldron described in her legend, symbol of an orgiastic cult, and regard her as a goddess of fertility. But the connection is not clear in the story, though in some earlier myth the cauldron may have been her property. As Brangwaine, she reappears in romance, giving a love-potion to Tristram—perhaps a reminiscence of her former functions as a goddess of love, or earlier of fertility. In the Mabinogion she is buried in Anglesey at Ynys Bronwen, where a cairn with bones discovered in 1813 was held to be the grave and remains of Branwen.361

The children of Dôn, the equivalent of Danu, and probably like her, a goddess of fertility, are Gwydion, Gilvæthwy, Amæthon, Govannon, and Arianrhod, with her sons, Dylan and Llew.362 These correspond, therefore, in part to the Tuatha Déa, though the only members of the group who bear names similar to the Irish gods are Govannon (= Goibniu) and possibly Llew (= Lug). Gwydion as a culture-god corresponds to Ogma. In the Triads Beli is called father of Arianrhod,363 and assuming that this Arianrhod is identical with the daughter of Dôn, Professor Rh[^y]s regards Beli as husband of Dôn. But the identification is far from certain, and the theory built upon it that Beli is one with the Irish Bile, and that both {104} are lords of a dark underworld, has already been found precarious.364 In later belief Dôn was associated with the stars, the constellation Cassiopeia being called her court. She is described as "wise" in a Taliesin poem.365


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