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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.