Severed Heads and Sovereignty

Three wells of the world – so the Norse myth says
One guarded by Mimir’s head, from which wisdom flows.

Three heads in the well – so the folk tale tells it:

(“Fair maid, white and red,
Comb me smooth and stroke my head;
And every hair a sheave shall be
And every sheave a golden tree.”) *

What they say will be, will be.

Prophetic voices out of wells.
So Febul’s seeress says:
“This sea of grey water was once a fair green land with white flowers.
It was Bran who brought it, the flood that drowns the land”.

It was the Head of Brân who spoke to those who came back across the sea
For bliss to reign until the door is opened – until the seal is broken
Like Branwen’s heart – would that she had spoken and proffered the cup
But she was absent from this company, an echo sundered from a body.

Come back Branwen to our feast, our Otherworld sojourn where you offer
The drink that sustains us from the Cup of Plenty and the Mead of Belonging
So there is no door we must not open, no usurped land we cannot claim
So we may inherit and inhabit the land together in your name.


According to Ynglinga Saga The Vanir cut off Mimir’s head and sent it back to the Æsir so Odinn preserved it in herbs and placed it by one of the three wells that rise under Yggdrasil. According to Snorri’s Edda “Under the root that goes to the frost giants is the Well of Mimir. Wisdom and intelligence is hidden there”. In the Seeress’s Prophecy in the Poetic Edda, Odinn hid his eye there which he gave in exchange for wisdom.

Severed heads are a recurring theme in Celtic myth, often discussed in terms of a ‘cult of the head’ as in Anne Ross’ Pagan Celtic Britain. But here I see this as a sundering of Brân from Branwen who together embody the sovereignty of Ynys Prydain (see also notes to the previous post).

* Words adapted from by George Peele in his play The Old Wives Tale (1595) ~> from a folk tale ~>

At the end of the second branch of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Brân’s head is cut off by his own instruction after he is wounded in the foot (in the Welsh tale of Peredur while the lamed King entertained him a severed head on a platter is carried through the room instead of a grail as in the Grail legends). Branwen dies of a broken heart and is buried, so is absent from the sojourn in Gwales over which the head of Brân presides.

Meanwhile the sovereignty of Ynys Prydain has been usurped and cannot be regained, so Manawydan in the Third branch cannot inherit and retreats with Pryderi to Dyfed. There he marries Rhiannon and restores sovereignty – by confronting an Otherworld adversary – on a different plane entirely from that of the secular power usurped by Caswallawn.

Is this now our task?

6 thoughts on “Severed Heads and Sovereignty

  1. It has always seemed to me that Manawydan’s withdrawal to Dyfed takes the action onto another plane entirely, so what happens afterwards is difficult to know. He was of course on another plane entirely for 87 years after returning from Ireland , and yet returns to the ‘real’ world as if no time at all has elapsed.

    If he is, himself (like Manannan), an Otherworld host, then what happens in Caswallawn’s world might itself be a diversion from his Otherworld business.

  2. I find the idea of Branwen’s restoration to the otherworld feast on Gwales intriguing…

    Following Lyle’s comments I’m thinking about how we never find about what happens after Manawydan outwits Llwyd and Rhiannon and Pryderi are returned. I don’t get the impression that he challenged Caswallawn but perhaps managed to live a whole life alongside Rhiannon and his step-son in Dyfed.

  3. We certainly have our Caswallawn here in the US, usurper of the Presidency. Having resigned myself to the status of a stranger in a strange land, much like Manawydan, what task then must I carry out, what adversary subdued, on the Otherworldly plane to restore my own sovereignty?

    1. Good question!

      We each need to do what we can in the ways we can. It might seem ineffectual, but just remember how insignificant it seemd to Cigfa when Manawydan held a mouse captive.

      It doesn’t excuse us from action at the political level, but we must not think our psychic work insignificant either.

      1. Your point is well taken, as not only Cigfa, but the retinue of false Christians, tried in turn to disparage the merit of this curious ritual by appealing to the Humble Chieftain’s rather meaningless lordly status. It was only by allowing himself the voluntary ‘free fall’ descent in his social standing that Manawydan forced a parallel diminution in the stature of his adversary (Parker 2005) to that of a tiny mouse. By this wise manipulation in the correspondence of ratio, by which one adversary is curiously dependent on the other, that Manawydan masterfully secures the salvation of Dyfed from the enchantment of the wasteland.

        I find in the Third Branch remarkable illumination in the way of the taoist sage:

        The Master views the parts with compassion,
        because he understands the whole.
        His constant practice is humility.
        He doesn’t glitter like a jewel
        but lets himself be shaped by the Tao,
        as rugged and common as a stone.

        This disengaged living in the serene stillness of tawelwch is our portal to Awen.So it is that we must empower the faerie alignment in our lives through our rituals, offerings, our divinations and journeys to the Otherworld, in order to overcome the crushing adversity of worldly enchantment at the scale of infinity.

  4. A very resonant weaving of stories! It feels like a game of chess, or perhaps a song, where the pieces or notes are cauldrons, disclosures, severed heads, wells and lakes. Much to ponder.

What do you think?