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.

Notes

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?

BRANWEN

Bedd Branwen
Bedd Branwen (Branwen’s Grave) at Aber Alaw.
A Neolithic standing stone here was later covered by a Bronze Age burial mound.

A honno oed tryded prif rieni yn yr ynys hon
(And she was one of the three great progenitors of this Island)

How far back before her story was told
Did she proffer the cup of sovereignty of the Island
Her giant brother – or other self – holding it as a cauldron
Before the spring which pulses beneath Loch Febuil flooded the fair plain
So that the one who plundered and the one who held the treasure became one
Long before the islands of Britain and Ireland were sundered
Before the wolf-grey seas rushed in and so they were separate
Brother and Sister in the legends of the land
(though he would be a bridge between them).
Who then sought sovereignty and where was its source?

Each of them buried deep in the Earth of the Island
Held it in safe keeping : She in a grave at Aber Alaw,
He under the White Mount where Arthur sought him
Taking the sovereignty to hold for his own:
The raid on the White Mount, the raid on Annwfn,
The raid for the Cauldron there and in Ireland
Retelling the story over and over again
(as Culhwch got Olwen and the Giant was vanquished)
Re-living the quest of Bran for the Cauldron
Beneath the spring where Branwen held it.

Notes

In the Welsh of the Second Branch of the Mabinogi Brân – or Bendigeidfran – is a giant and is brother to Branwen and Manawydan, offspring of Llŷr. Brân has a cauldron which came with another giant from under a lake in Ireland and is sent back to Ireland with Matholwch when he marries Branwen.

In the well-known Irish story of Bran Son of Febul he sets off in a ship to sail to the Otherworld and meets Manannan Mac Lir on the sea who directs him on his way.

The lesser known story about Bran Son of Febul is recounted in some verses recording an exchange between Febul’s Prophetess and Bran’s Druid. The druid recounts how he had a vision of treasure hidden under a spring and of Bran’s quest to recover it. The Prophetess tells of how beautiful the plain around the spring was before the treasure was taken and how the land was flooded because Bran’s expedition offended the female guardians of the spring. The resultant flood formed Loch Febuil, now known as Lough Foyle.

Arthur in the Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwn, from The Book of Taliesin, sails in his ship Prydwen to raid the Otherworld in search of treasure, in particular a cauldron. One of his men, Lleawc, thrusts his sword into the Cauldron. In the Welsh tale of Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur sails to Ireland to get a cauldron. One of his men, Llenlleawc, said himself to be an Irishmen, wielding Arthur’s sword, captures the Cauldron.

Brân’s head was buried beneath the White Mount to protect the Island of Britain. In one of the Welsh triads, Arthur is said to have dug up the head because he wanted to be the sole protector of the Island. So the symbol of sovereignty became the Crown.