Of Crows and Men: The Mystery of Bran

A white raven; they do not sing as sweet as Phoebus' bird but they do exist.
A white raven; they do not sing as sweet as Phoebus’ bird but they do exist.

Once upon a time all crows were white; did you know this?

That venerable gentleman Chaucer tells the tale of Phoebus, whom some call Apollo, who once had a lady love whom he kept in his earthly home and whom he loved so dear.  He also had a raven in a golden cage in that golden palace, as white as the snow, for in those days all Ravens and crows were white and could sing as beautifully as any known songbird.  And he taught the crow to understand the language of humans as well and to talk in human speech.

Yet, as well as he treated his lady love and as much as he thought she loved him, she would not, she could not be true.  She took a lover, not half as handsome as Phoebus, and no sooner would he leave to do his sunny work, than her lover came sneaking in the back door.  The raven saw all that transpired but said not a word; but when Phoebus returned home he cried “cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo.”

“Why do you cry out so, byrd?” quoth Phoebus. “Why syngest thow the cuckold’s song? Allas, what song is this!”  In his heart, Phoebus knew what the white raven was telling him.

Said the Raven, “by God, I sing not amis Phoebus.”

And Phoebus saw from the raven’s look and his words that the Raven told true.  Then wrath replaced adoration in his heart and the flaming Phoebus seized his golden bow and arrow and went to his unfaithful mistress and her lover and both of them he slew.  But Phoebus was not grateful for the Raven telling its master of the treachery and lechery of his beloved.  With his divine powers he turned the white bird’s feathers black and his voice that had been sweeter than a nightingales, he made hoarse and harsh forevermore.  And that is why to this day the raven and his kin are black as night and caw and croak and are doomed to feast on dead flesh for their meals instead of the sweetmeats and other treats that Phoebus once gave them.

An artist's conception of The Manciple's Tale by Chaucer. by dreaminferno on Deviantart
An artist’s conception of The Manciple’s Tale by Chaucer. by dreaminferno on Deviantart

What has all this to do with Bran?  Well, nothing to be honest, but it tells a bit about crows and ravens and their brother blackbirds.  They are sometimes despised and shunned as carrion beasts, but at other times revered and feared, for not only do they feast on the flesh of those who die in battle, but they seem preternaturally intelligent for beasts of the air.  They do not only show up after battle, but they have been observed gathering before the start of battle as if to know ahead of time that a battle is to be fought.  Moreover, in elder times they acted in concert with wolves, scouting ahead of a pack for prey for the wolves to attack; then they would report back to the herd and when the wolves finally downed their prey, the ravens greedily shared in spoils, cawing in triumph over the carcass.  This behavior was observed by the Celts of old; but so too by the Native American tribes of the American South, who called the bird colonah; this was also an epithet they gave to the leader of a war party, who would scout ahead of the main warband to find suitable targets for the warriors to attack.  As we shall sea, Bran is closely connected with these fey creatures, even to the present day.

In Welsh, the name for the raven is Bran, but Bran is also the name of an ancient hero/king who was both a sailor and a supernatural being connected with regeneration.  In fact, there were probably several ancient leaders called Bran.  There are a number of stories told by the Welsh about Bran, and also by the Irish; and sometimes the stories are fantastic and seem to make little sense, but that doe not necessarily make them untrue for all of that.  Bear with me and let us try to separate out these different Brans of Celtic lore and history and assign to them at least a rough chronology, much as an archaeologist might sort out fragments of pottery which he finds all in a jumble and tries to arrange them in order from oldest to latest.  Sir William Flinders Petrie pioneered this method long ago, although that was in another time for another civilization.

In the Voyage of Bran, he meets his brother upon the sea raveling by chariot across rolling meadows.  Go figure: it is Celtic myth at its  finest.
In the Voyage of Bran, he meets his brother upon the sea raveling by chariot across rolling meadows.

In his earliest incarnation Bran (or Brain Mac Febail to the Irish) is a god, whose brother is Manawydan fab Llyr (to the Irish, Manannan Mac Lyr); both gods were closely connected with seafaring and credited with the invention of celestial navigation, a discovery which probably dates to some time in the Mesolithic era.  In the Voyage of Bran (the Gaelic tale Imramm Brain) the hero/god is lured to take a voyage westward.  Two days out to sea he encounters Manannan/Manawydan.  This meeting would not be so unusual, save for the fact that while Bran is traveling over the rolling waves in a sea going vessel, Manannan is riding his chariot across rolling meadows of dry land.  He voyages farther west and encounters several fantastic lands in the middle of the sea.  During the stone age it should be noted, various parts of the Irish Sea and its adjacent waters were in fact dry land, and islands now beneath the sea were then above the waves, a fact not appreciated until recently and which folk memory apparently retained through long ages.

Bran surfaces in another tale which Geoffrey of Monmouth relates, a convoluted tale of Brennius and Belinus (or Beli).  Brennius is Geoffrey’s Latin rendition of the name Bran and he seems to relate a story that dates to some time in the Iron Age.  The two brothers feud over the kingship of Britain and then embark on various adventures and conquests on the continent.  They invade Gaul, sack Rome and one of the two invades the Balkans, making himself unwelcome their.  While one is tempted to dismiss Geoffrey’s story as a fabrication, there are just enough historical echoes to lead some scholars to believe this is a distant echo of some oral tradition still current in Britain in Geoffrey’s time, which may have been brought to the island by the Belgae in the Iron Age.  Livy records a sack of Rome by a Celtic tribe, while Pausanius tells of Delphi being looted and burned in the Iron Age by Celtic invaders led by two leaders named Brennios and Bolgius.  Some of the Celtic invaders even crossed into Anatolia where they raised further hell before they were stopped.

"Le Brenn et sa part de butin"  (Bran and his booty) by Paul  Jamin (1893).  Apparently the Celtic warlord's booty also included booty.
“Le Brenn et sa part de butin” (Bran and his booty) by Paul Jamin (1893). Apparently the Celtic warlord’s booty also included booty.

The sack of Rome (ca. 390 BC) was real enough and there is no reason to doubt that the leader of the combined British/Gaulish army was named Bran/Brennius- or its Iron Age equivalent.  Hower the sack of Delphi was undoubtedly by different Celtic invaders whose leader apparently shared the same name, since the two conquests occurred about a century apart; but Brendan MacGonagle in his Balkan Celts blog theorizes “that Brennos was not a personal name, but a military title given to the overall commander of a Celtic army drawn from different tribes.”  In this regard, the Celtic warbands acted very much like the Cherokee war parties of the eighteenth century.  In his article on “CATUBODUA – Queen of Death” MacGonagle also notes that Iron Age Celts often practiced excarnation: leaving the bodies of those who die in battle exposed for carrion beasts to consume.  Sometimes these were vultures, but in Britain it would have been ravens and crows.  During battle, war goddess appeared in the guise of a bird of prey, to carry the souls of the fallen brave away.  Unspoken, but related, may be the notion that the crows or ravens, by devouring the Celtic war dead, would absorb the souls as well as the flesh of the slain warriors.  This would explain several motifs connected with the archetypal Bran and their close connection with ravens.

Dinas Bran, with the Dee flowing below (1798)  by J M W Turner.  This was the citadel of  the Brennius who was likely the Comes of the Romano-Britons in the early fifth century.  It was also the site of the Alleluia Victory in 429 AD.
Dinas Bran, with the Dee flowing below (1798) by J M W Turner. This was the citadel of the Brennius who was likely the Comes of the Romano-Britons in the early fifth century. It was also the site of the Alleluia Victory in 429 AD.

Near the picturesque village of Llangollen, by the fast running River Dee, rises the hillfort of Castell Dinas Bran, believed to once have been the abode of Bran.  This Bran may be in fact a historical personage, although with oral tradition one can never be completely certain.  The hillfort was probably originally occupied in the Iron Age, but was probably reoccupied some time in the late fourth or early fifth century AD.  The ruins that one sees today date to the Middle Ages where it served to hold the Welsh hills against the barbaric English kings.

This Bran was the subject of another Welsh tale from the Mabinogion, collected in the Middle Ages but originating centuries earlier.  In this incarnation he is known as Bendigeidfran—Bran the Blessed.  While this Bran too has supernatural aspects, underlying the story seems to be a record of real events, probably occurring either in the late fourth or early fifth century AD.  This Bran would probably have been named Comes Brennius, and he was likely more Roman than Celt; but just as the Roman general Maximus became Maxen Wledig, later Welsh bards remembered him as one of their own.  The tale called Branwen verch Llŷr relates how Matholwych, an Irish king, came to seek the hand of Bran’s sister Branwen.  Bran consented and the match was made; however Bran’s trouble making brother was insulted that he was not consulted and made trouble, mutilating the Irishman’s horses.  For a time Bran smoothed things over and it seemed Branwen and her husband would be happy; but the Irish king was persuaded to punish Branwen for her brother’s insults and Branwen sent a raven with a message to her brother Bran asking him to rescue her.

Branwen sends a raven with a message to her brother Bran about her husband's abuse.  So starts the war between the Britons and the Irish.
Branwen sends a raven with a message to her brother Bran about her husband’s abuse. So starts the war between the Britons and the Irish.

Bran launched a fleet of ships to punish the Irish and then fought a might battle on Irish soil.   The Irish were defeated, but Bran himself was mortally wounded.  He instructed his surviving warriors to cut off his head and return it to Britain.  This they did, but found their king still kept conversing with them all the way back to London, where he was buried beneath the White Hill (later the Tower of London) with the promise that so long as his head lay buried facing Gaul, no enemy would ever invade the isle of Britain.  Behind all the fantastic imagery and exaggeration, seems to be an account of a punitive expedition, undoubtedly launched from the old legionary fortress of Chester, which was also located at the highest point on the River Dee still navigable by ships.  In the late fourth and continuing well into the fifth century, Irish incursions and settlements continued to plague western Britain and likely Bran’s ill fated raid was neither the first nor last British counter-attack.  A flock of ravens followed Bran to London and ever since have dwelt at the site where Bran’s head was interred, faithful bodyguards who dwell in the Tower of London forevermore.

Although not linked to this Bran by any scholar I know of, this unsuccessful attack on the Irish might explain why, in 429 AD, an Irish/Pictish army suddenly appeared in western Britain without any apparent local leader to resist the invasion.  When Germanus of Auxerre was summoned to lead the British to resist the invaders, he apparently fought them at Llangollen, which is coincidently where Bran’s hillfort lay.  Coincidence?  I doubt it; this was probably the mustering point for the local militia of the hill country, to which whatever regular troops were available also rallied—and probably including a few Saxon mercenaries in British pay to boot.  As I noted in my previous blog about Germanus, armies of men do not suddenly appear out of the ground and certainly the army Germanus led in battle did not.

 

In Rhonabwy's Dream, Owain's army of ravens defeats Arthur's men while they play chess.  Artwork by Lucy Burns, Welsh Artist (2013).
In Rhonabwy’s Dream, Owain’s army of ravens defeats Arthur’s men while they play chess. Artwork by Lucy Burns, Welsh Artist (2013).

Another tale from the Mabinogion tells, not about Bran, but of an army of ravens who seem to act like human warriors.  In the Dream of Rhonabwy where Owain’s teulu of ravens battle King Arthur’s knights and get the better of them, while their leaders play chess.  Owain had an army of Ravens, some three hundred in number, and they seem to have been inherited from father to son in that royal household; the ravens were loyal to their masters to the death, much as Bran’s teulu of ravens were to their master; for to this day Bran’s ravens stand guard in London protecting the realm against foreign invaders.

 

Close up of a Tower of London, one of seven who diligently guard the tower and protect the realm from harm.  The royal family is not superstitious, but on the other hand they don't want to tempt fate.
Close up of a Tower of London Raven, one of seven who diligently guard the tower and protect the realm from harm. The royal family is not superstitious, but on the other hand they don’t want to tempt fate.

Bran, Brennius, Brennios, or the other names this ancient hero goes by, may be a flight of fancy of the Celtic imagination–or not–but either way, the ravens who are so closely connected with him are real enough–and smarter than many humans.  No wonder that George R. R. Martin borrowed the raven motif from Celtic myth and history for his popular Game of Thrones book and TV series–and the deep magic of the corvidae may well be the real reason underlying the series phenomenal success.

 

 

 

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The Real Dance of the Dragons

The Welsh Prophecy of the Two Dragons, attributed to Merlin, is the foundation myth of Britain and may have a factual basis.  From a 15th century copy of Nennius' Historia Brittonum.
The Welsh Prophecy of the Two Dragons, attributed to Merlin, is the foundation myth of Britain and may have a factual basis. From a 15th century copy of Nennius’ Historia Brittonum.

 

In George R. R. Martin’s magnum opus, Songs of Fire and Ice, the latest published volume, A Dance With Dragons, as well as in the similarly named episode of the television series, makes passing reference to a curious tale about a young knight who attempts to slay a dragon by using a polished shield, thinking the dragon will see only its own reflection; the young knight is burned to a crisp for his efforts.  It turns out that this short tale is but part of a much larger fictitious history, called “The Dance of the Dragons, A True Telling” relating to a previous civil war in the realm of Westeros between members of the previous dynasty, the Targaryens.  It turns out that there are various versions of both the knight’s tale and the happenings alluded to in the referenced (non-existent) book.  Although at present a minor part of Martin’s fantasy mythos, the referenced history itself provides a foundational understanding to the later happenings of the realm that Martin has clearly modeled on medieval Great Britain.

As with other elements in his historical fantasy, Martin has borrowed story elements and motifs from actual British history and rewove them into his sub-creation which has now become a best selling phenomenon.  Although it plays but a minor role in his epic, it is not hard to see that it is heavily influenced by the semi-legendary real foundation myth of the Britain.  As one of Martin’s characters relates, the dragons (actually personifications of the warring members of the Targaryen dynasty) are not really “dancing” so much as warring with one another.  In this regard, the allegory is much closer to its British archetype than I think either fans of Martin, or academic historians of Dark Age Britain, may be willing to concede.

In Nennius’ Historia Brittonum and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, after the massacre of the Elders of Britain and uprising of the Saxons, the discredited monarch Vortigern retreats westward fearing both rebellious subjects and the mutinous Saxons and decides to build a castle with his remaining loyal followers at Dinas Emrys in Wales.  However, the masons are continually thwarted, as whatever they construct during the day is mysteriously undone at night.  Vortigern’s “wise men” tell him that a human sacrifice is needed to undue the magic spell cursing the site where he is trying to build a stronghold.  A boy born without any human father must be killed and his blood sprinkled over the site.  In due course such a child is found, but as he is about to be slaughtered he astounds the King and counselors with his own prophetic vision.

Another medieval illustration of the "Dance of the Dragons" as rendered in Nennius.  Egerton 3028 BM ms.
Another medieval illustration of the “Dance of the Dragons” as rendered in Nennius. Egerton 3028 BM ms.

The wunderkind proclaims that only he can solve the mystery of the collapsing castle.  He instructs the kingsmen to dig into the ground, where they uncover a pond; he then instructs them to drain the pond, where they uncover two dragons, red and white, who proceed to duel one another.  The astonishing vision is explained by the prophetic child as symbolic of Britain: the Red Dragon represents the Welsh, the white one the Saxons and the two “dragons” will fight for possession of the land of Britain until the Red Dragon at last vanquishes the White, but not after much bloodshed and destruction.  Such, in short is the tale, although Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth and others disagree on a number of details.

Not surprisingly, historians have dismissed the story as utter nonsense, labeling Nennius’ entire history as “pseudo-history” and Geoffrey’s—well they never did have much faith in Geoffrey of Monmouth as a historian anyway.  While clearly framed in mytho-poetical terms, the story relates some basic historical realities, albeit much disguised and distorted; however, that is beyond our main point here.  The Prophecy of the Two Dragons as related by Welsh tradition is in fact the basic foundation myth of Great Britain and as such transcends whatever historical realities which may be disguised in the story.  In later times it would be referenced again and again to cite one faction or claimant’s legitimacy, or lack thereof.  Not surprisingly, when Henry Tudor (or to give the Welsh spelling, Twdwr) fought at the Battle of Bosworth Field, he carried not the English St. George’s cross into battle, but rather the Red Dragon of Wales as his battle standard.  So as not to leave any doubt about his partisanship for the Welsh cause, Henry (in English terms Henry VII) named his first son Arthur, so that, as the ancient Welsh prophecy foretold, Arthur would once day rule again over a united Britain.  Unfortunately, though Henry VII ended the English Civil War—the War of the Roses—Arthur did not become king again, and the Welsh prophecy remains to be fulfilled.

It is easy enough to dismiss the Prophecy of the Two Dragons as pure fantasy, like George Martin’s works; but Welsh legends and myth generally have a factual basis, if one is willing to spend some time unraveling the entangled truth (most academics are not so inclined) and, more importantly, this legend has had a far deeper cultural impact on British history than any historical details which may be gleaned from it.  At a later date I may detail the historical background underlying the Legend of the Two Dragons, although it is convoluted and bound to stir disagreement as to interpretation; but for now let us just appreciate the foundation myth as myth and George R. R. Martin’s creative appropriation of it

British History and the Game of Thrones

Songs of Fire and Ice series of books by George R R Martin were the basis for the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.
Song of Fire and Ice series of books by George R R Martin were the basis for the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.

In honor of the start of the latest season of the popular sword, sex and sorcery television series, Game of Thrones, we will depart from our regular agenda of discussing what some regard as the equally fabulous Age of Arthur, and discuss the relationship between George R. R. Martin’s best selling novels and actual medieval history.  He has, with some justification, been labeled “the American Tolkien.”

Martin has acknowledged that much in his violent series of books is modeled on British history, although he has obviously tweaked the fantasy elements quite a bit—but even here he has borrowed more generously from Celtic British folklore and myth as well.  George actually comes from a Sci-Fi background, having won numerous accolades for his legitimate Science Fiction work.  Upon a time, the aficionados of Sci Fi and those of Fantasy never met: the science geeks looked down on the sword and sorcery bunch, priding themselves on basing their works closely on scientific theory.  Indeed, it often turns out that Sci Fi writers have been hard put to keep ahead of scientific fact, so rapidly have the speculations of fiction writers been turned into mundane science.  Perhaps that may have motivated the veteran Science Fiction writer Martin to turn to the “dark side” (so to speak) of Fantasy.  At any rate, with millions of fans hungering for more books to come out in the series, no one these days is complaining about his having betraying the “purity” of Science Fiction writing for Medieval Fantasy.

 

While we can’t cover the entire spectrum of Martin’s fantasy world, we will touch on one or two motifs and elements which are clearly borrowed from British history.  Obviously, the civil war which absorbs most of the series emulates the later medieval conflicts such as the Baron’s War and more closely the War of the Roses.  The similarity of the “House of Lannister” to the House of Lancaster virtually goes without saying, although not necessarily their sadism and incest.  The bloodthirsty course of the wars and the often equally violent acts of the subsequent Tudor dynasty are scarcely less replete in gore than their fictional counterparts.

One chapter which stunned television audiences in particular was the episode known as “the Red Wedding.”  For reasons best known to George, his wedding scenes tend towards the murderous and the Red Wedding is one aptly named, as drenched in gore as it is.  While others may take issue with me on this score, I cannot help seeing in this episode a strong reflection of an event famous in Welsh history, although English historians prefer to believe it never happened: the Brad y Cyllyll Hirion, translated alternately as “The Treachery of the Long Knives” or “The Massacre of the Elders of Britain.”  The incident occurred when Vortigern, the first ruler of a united Britain after the departure of the Romans, had come to become dependent on a mercenary army composed of German barbarians—the Saxons.  As was typical in the fifth century AD, their leader, Hengist, had ingratiated himself with the sovereign, to the point where Vortigern married Hengist’s daughter, Rowena, and become a virtual puppet ruler.  The Britains, unlike the Romans on the continent, however, did not meekly submit to barbarian domination.  Ambrosius, a Romano-British general, had revolted but was defeated and forced into exile.  Meanwhile, Vortigern, ever the skilfull politician, had cobbled together a compromise, reconciling Celt and Saxon.  The compromise was to be celebrated at a feast, which tradition holds was held near Amesbury.  However, at a pre-arranged signal, the Saxon warlords, ostensibly unarmed, drew knives from under their cloaks and attacked the Celtic “Elders”—the Senate that governed Britain under the elected sovereign.  Only a handful of native British leaders escaped the massacre and the Saxons followed their treachery by widespread pillaging, looting and rape.  Such, at least, is the Welsh version of the story.  Every since, any act of political deceit or treachery on the part of the English against the Welsh has been figuaratively referred to as the Brad y Cyllyll Hirion.  It does not take too much imagination to picture the treacherous massacre of the Red Wedding as borrowed in substance from Welsh historical tradition.

Also borrowed from Welsh lore is the central role of the Raven in the epic series of books: communication over vast distances is done by ravens, not messenger pigeons; likewise, one of the stark boys is called Bran, which is Welsh for raven, a bird with strong supernatural and prophetic ties in Welsh myth and legend.  We shall delve more deeply into Bran and his antecedents in a futrue essay, but for now, suffice it to say, the name strongly suggests supernatural powers of second sight and prophecy.

 

Peter Dinklage plays Tyrion Lannister for the television adaptation.
Peter Dinklage plays Tyrion Lannister for the television adaptation.

Well, a new season of mayhem, murder and naughtiness is upon us.  I leave one and all to enjoy Game of Thrones and await George R. R. Matin’s latest offering in print

 

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