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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What’s the Matter with the Matter of Britain?

Dueling scholars engaged in "close textual analysis"
Dueling scholars engaged in “close textual analysis”

What’s the Matter with the matter of Britain? Quite a bit, apparently.

Stories of King Arthur, his knights and various and sundry other personalities from fifth and sixth century AD Britain have been circulating for a millennium and a half now, there is no more consensus as to what happened, how and in what order they occurred than when scholars first started to seriously study the period. 

While I have been interested in the subject since boyhood and have delved into the scholarly literature dealing with the period for more than a score of years, I remain what would be classed in the category of dilettante scholar.  Of course, such an appellation might justly be applied to a number of other scholars who have worked beyond the pale of academia, such as the esteemed Edward Gibbon, Sir William Flinders Petrie, or, more relevant to the present discussion, Geoffrey Ashe, to name but a few.

It may be flagrant hubris on my part, but in this and following entries I will try to straighten out the Gordian Knot which the period following the Roman occupation has become.  In the words of the late great President Lyndon Johnson, the time has come to take the bull by the tail and face the situation.

Sub Romans engaged in mortal combat.
Sub Romans engaged in mortal combat.

This is not to imply that there are not many brilliant minds at the work in the field, men and women who have forgotten more about the subject than I shall ever learn, and whose credentials far outshine mine by light years.  It is just that since the mid seventies, there has been no genuine progress in our overall understanding of the era’s history, no coherent model around which one many organize the myriad facts and artifacts.  There is not even a consensus about the chronology of the era.

This is not to say there have not been many excellent technical studies, monographs and narrow focus analyses done in that time. Moreover, there has been a great deal of progress in the archaeology of the period, as techniques have improved and some false a priori assumptions been discarded (at least by some archaeologists).

But archaeologists require an agreed upon chronology and coherent historical model upon which they may organize their voluminous finds.  This was a situation which plagued Near Eastern archaeology for many years, until Egyptologists finally straightened out the chronology of the successive pharaonic dynasties and the concomitant material culture associated with them. This in turn allowed Syro-Palestinian and Mesopotamian archaeology to also get their affairs in order.

To be sure, there is no shortage of putative chronologies floating about; every book on fifth century Britain, or dealing with King Arthur (or denying him) has one.  As a rule, no two writers share the same chronology, nor are any of these putative chronologies reliably tied to the better known and more certain chronology of continental Europe at the time, the crucial century which witnessed the fall of the Roman Empire.

As an symbol of how contentious the Matter of Briton has become, there is also no consensus even when it comes to what to name this period.  Now nomenclature is really the least of the problems, but it is symptomatic of the divisiveness which plagues the study of the era.

Dark Age Britain would be good; except that many scholars argue, with some justification, that the period following the Roman occupation was not dark at all, only our knowledge about it.  Still, I find the term of some use, since it leads us to compare the situation in Britain (and Europe) to other periods which have suffered analogous political and economic downturns which lasted for extended periods.  That such periods of contraction often set the stage for subsequent periods of fluorescence in no way diminishes the usefulness of the concept.

How about Sub Roman Britain, a term much favored by the minimalist school, among others?  Well, first off, sub means “below.” Since when is a period which follows–comes later, below?  Certainly in the archaeological record, the stratigraphy of finds from this period (assuming archaeologists are intellectually willing to even recognize them) would be above those of the Roman era.  Historically, the era is after the Romans, so how in any logical way is this period a “sub.?”  If anything it should be the Supra Roman era.  Moreover,the use of the term Sub also has the implied connotation of being inferior, such as sub standard, sub human, etc. If you are down on Celtic culture and Celtic history in general–as many Minimalists seem to be–it might be appropriate to describe the people living in the British Isles after the Romans (ostensibly) left as a “sub” species of the humans, but it is inherently a biased term, loaded with ethnocentric assumptions.  I do not view it as at all appropriate.

Then there is the less pejorative Post Roman Britain; fair enough, if you want ignore the great amount of continuity from Roman Britain in both material culture and society that many scholars argue for the era.  It is certainly better a term than Sub Roman, and for the majority who eschew the historical reality of Arthur, it is a convenient circumlocution.

With mention of He Who Shall Not Be Named, we come to the most hotly debated, yet most appropriate, name for the era: The Age of Arthur.  Arthur is the central figure of the era, tales of whom have been told and retold for some fifteen hundred years.  Arthur as a historical personage is problematical, no question; yet he dominates the era, rightly or wrongly.

One historical school, led by its dominant historian, whom I gather has extraordinary talents in the area of excoriation and ridicule (as well as linguistics) has written, ex cathedra it would seem, that the leading personality of the age is to be banned from the history books.  He has succeeded in making Arthur an anathema—and the previously well respected Welsh historian John Morris with him.  Archaeologist Leslie Alcock–who was spared Morris’s excommunication–retreated into “agnosticism” (as one writer described it).

If we obey this excommunication by one historical school, then Arthur of the Britons—and The Age of Arthur—must be “rejected from our histories.”  Ring the bell, close the book, snuff the candle: Arthur is officially a non-person.

So what should we call it?  David Dumville and his minions would prefer to wipe the slate clean, as it were, and just leave the fifth century—or most of it–a blank.  Failing that, they prefer to refer to the period as Sub Roman.  As I gather their attempt at chronology, nothing much happened until the 440’s and precious little after until Gildas and the sixth century arrived.  Of course by focusing in on negative assertions, they neatly avoid having to prove any assumptions of their own, some of which are quite dubious when analyzed.  Celtic sources in general and Oral tradition and folk memory in particular are to be ignored and only the “reliable” texts of the period not on the proscribed list to be used—mainly, I take it, Gildas and the Anglo Saxon Chronicles.

If this period is indeed “Sub Roman,” then Sub-Britons, by extension, must be those Celtic speaking untermensch who somehow skulked about the Roman ruins for a time, grubbing for worms and slugs or picking grains of wheat out of horse dung for food, occasionally coughing “gollum, gollum,” during that nondescript interlude between the exit of the Romans and the time when “real” civilization began again—i.e. the English history of the English people.  After all, doesn’t Bede virtually say as much?  There was no Arthur, no Celtic revival—but then also no educated upper class Briton named Patricius who brought Christianity to the Irish, who in turn revitalized Western Civilization in the ensuing centuries.

In fairness, the minimalist do have a legitimate point; the Historia Britonum, Skene’s “Four Ancient Books,” and above all Geoffrey of Monmouth, not to mention the innumerable hagiographies and lesser texts bearing the on the period, all are unreliable or faulty in some fashion.  But if one were intellectually honest, so too are the Minimalists’ favored texts, Gildas and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.  None of the written sources relating to the period should be regarded as truly reliable.  We will go into specific sources in later blogs, but suffice it to say that the surviving texts are all copies of copies that were written a minimum of a century or so after the events described—and often poorly at that—not to mention the authors’ agendas, stated or implied, and so they are all bound to be problematical to some degree.

For the fifth century AD, there is really only one known document which actually survives from Britain: the Virgilius Romanus, now residing in the Vatican Library.  Although at least one scholar would like to posit it to the eastern Roman Empire, most academics, I think, are willing to concede it is of British origin.  It is a copy of the Virgil’s Aenead—and while it has some nice pictures which are of some use insofar as costume and technical aspects of the era, it contains no text relevant to the history of Arthurian (excuse me, Dark Age/Post Roman/Sub/Supra ) Britain.  To give you an idea of how bad the situation is for the Arthurian era, compare it with Assyriology.

In Assyrian history, by contrast, there survives a virtual mountain of texts, written contemporaneously with the events they describe, carved in stone or graven into indelibly baked clay, and surviving documents even include the personal correspondence of the kings in question.  That there has not been a major synthesis of Assyrian history since Olmstead’s History of Assyria is not for reliable lack of source material, more’s the pity–just lack of will.

A Savage Rabbit doing away with a rival thesis at a scholarly conference.
A Savage Rabbit doing away with a rival’s thesis at a scholarly conference.

Another phrase to describe the period after 410 AD has come to my attention as well and while it is not widely used, it too has its merits.  The Brittonic Period encompasses that period after the withdrawal of Roman authority to the final triumph of the Saxons toward the end of the sixth century.  Chirs Snyder (Snyder 1998) has suggested this term, not only because it lacks the pejorative sense of the others but also because it focuses our attention on the Britons, who otherwise get lost in general surveys of Roman and medieval Britain. The period between 410 and 577 is not a void and it should not be treated as such.  While there is much to recommend Chris Snyder’s term, it has yet to attain widespread usage.  Hopefully this may change.

Perhaps, to paraphrase a former head of the Federal Reserve System, maybe we should “call it a banana.”  I think not, however.  In following blogs I shall alternately refer to the era under consideration alternately as the Brittonic Era or Period, Post Roman Britain, Dark Age Britain or the Age of Arthur, or perhaps a few other terms as I see fit.  Perhaps none of them is entirely accurate or correct, but they will do for now.  I am, in any case, more concerned with chronology than nomenclature.

In following articles on this site we will try to bring to bear approaches to the Matter of Britain that have either been rejected or ignored to elucidate the fifth and early sixth centuries.  This may include varieties of comparative approaches, using methods has by political scientists (for example Brinton Crane), anthropologists (Robert McAdams) and Orientalists (Henri Frankfort, Thorkild Jacobsen) who have previously used those techniques to illuminate aspects of other periods and cultures, some highly literate, others proto-historic.  In surveying much of the historical argument about Arthur and the few written sources for the period, scholars seem to be singularly sequestered within their own bailiwick.

Similarly, events transpiring within the Roman Empire during the same period are not irrelevant in assessing events in Britain.  Analogy to contemporaneous behavior within the empire I believe are relevant in assessing later traditional accounts relating to fifth century events in Briton by both the Britons and their enemies.  There was a small body of water separating Post Roman Britain from continental Europe, not an ocean; yet to judge by the works of some English historians of this period, one would think the Atlantic intervened between the two bodies of land.  Other criteria which lately seem to have been more observed in the breech than the observance are worth employing in regard to studying the “Matter:” common sense, for one; Occam’s Razor for another.  More of that anon, however.

This is all a bit rambling, admittedly, but in trying to establish a general framework within which we shall discuss future topics, some summarization is warranted.  Future entries will hopefully be more specific and narrower in focus.  We aim to sort out at least some of the issues in these entries.

I have been working on several longer studies relating to the Age of Arthur, one dealing specifically with chronology, and others dealing with other neglected but important aspects of the period.  One would hope that, in time, those specialized studies will find proper venues in print.  If not, so be it; the reader may have a good laugh at my expense.

CKC Hic Fecit