BRAN: THE RAVEN
Though many, no doubt, think of cereal when they hear the word, Bran, the word is an oft-used term, in the ancient Celtic world. To the Celtic peoples of Britain, Ireland, and no doubt more than a few tribes on the Continent, the word Bran translates as raven, and denotes a man of strength, of battle, of intellect, and skill in arts and other such forms of culture. This can be seen in the many men who bore the prefix bran or bren, or the meaning bran--ie. raven--as part of their name, for instance, any of the various Brennos' (son of the raven) of the Gallic Tribes, or the Irish cognate Brian. These men come to mind right away when the name is spoken. In light of the historical references to two separate Brennos', however, it has been speculated that the name Brennos might actually be a title (as in king) (1), rather than the use of the word, as a proper name.
But from where did the most reverent name come? One need only look to the surviving tomes of the mythologies of the Welsh and Irish Celts to find a last vestige of this answer: Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, The Voyage of Bran, and The Help of the Men of Dea.
In these stories, we find two kings named Bran. In the more well-known of the tales, Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, Bran the Blessed is king of Britain, who gives his sister Branwen (white raven) in marriage to the Irish king Mallolwch; but all does not go well, during the betrothal, as Bran's mischievous brother Evnissyen takes offense to the marriage, and causes all sorts of trouble. Bran mends the rift between the Irish King and himself by handing over the Grail, and the wedding takes place, although Branwen is not treated as well as Bran expects, within the marriage. Some time later, Branwen sends a raven to inform her brother that she is being mistreated, and though Bran tries to make peace once again with the Irish, Evnissyen steps in to make a mess of things. A battle ensues, Bran is wounded severely, and, sure of his impending death, and fearing what will become of his people, he orders his head lopped off and taken with the Welsh survivors, on their journey home. He promises they will not be left without his cousel, and as they move from town to town, they find his words true, as his head survives and speaks, comforts, and counsels the dejected band as if nothing at all were amiss. It is only through folly that the magic is finally lifted, the head dies, but not before Bran makes a last wish known to his followers: they are to bury the head at the Tower of London, so that he can guard London, ever after.
A funnily morbid little tale, to be sure, but herein we see his raven, and the tendencies given to it (see note 7 below) quite plainly, in the actions of Bran, himself. He is tenacious, prophetic, and fierce, when necessary, but his counsel and guidance only flags when his words go unheeded.
We see Bran as the Good Counselor again in the Irish tale of The Voyage of Bran(2). Here, Bran, son of the Druid Febal, is visited by a woman of the Celtic Otherworld, who bids him journey to her home, the Land of Women, wherein he may catch a glimpse of, to put it succinctly, paradise. Bran gathers a fleet of several ships, and a band of twenty-seven companions, and they journey to the mythic land. While they leave one companion behind on the mythic Isle of Joy, Bran and his remaining companions eventually arrive at their destination. Here they are made welcome by the Island's queen, given comfortable beds, plates of food and mugs of wine and/or mead that are never emptied, and bid remain.
But once agian, Bran is plagued by troublemakers. His cousin, this time named Nechtan (the Daghda? (3)), is struck with a bout of homesickness. He begs Bran to return to Ireland, and though Bran is not in the least bit happy about it--nor is the queen, who gives him a warning not to set foot on Irish soil, nor to return to the Land of Women--off he goes. On their arrival in Ireland, Nechtan ignores the queen's advice--and Bran's example--and jumps overboard, to land on the beach, and dies instantly. Upset, and possibly annoyed, Bran leaves the Irish port, and the people who proclaim he and his journey ancient and legendary, and there ends that portion of his saga.
When we come upon him in Lady Guest's tale (4), however, his word is finally heeded. Here, his son comes to him and asks his assistance in gathering the Tuatha de Danaan to come to the aid of the Men of Dea(5). Bran seeks them out, explains the situation, and the Tuatha de Danaan assemble for battle. And this is the last we hear of Bran, son of Febal/Bran the Blessed.
So who was/is he, and what do his tales give to the modern world? He is clearly a god who in his example offers us many models on which to build our own foundation: He is adept at overcoming obstacles, and is not at all afraid of the unknown; indeed, he seems all too eager for adventure. He is quite... passionate, shall we say? One need only remember he is the favorite of the queen of the Land of Women, to see that. He is the eloquent poet, in the telling of his saga to the people at the Irish port, and in his recording of it in Ogham--a Druid Poetic script. He is a king, and as such a negotiator and guiding hand, if one only chooses to listen to his advice--unlike the fellows of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr and The Voyage of Bran(6). He is a healer, given the soothing effect he has on his companions that the end of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, and quite possibly, he is a Druid of the Tuatha de Danaan with all the knowledge that would go along with such a post. And the variety of tales shows Bran himself to be as adaptable as the raven (7); which leaves one to wonder, is it any wonder that these tales don't line up in time and space. Why should they, if a raven--the Raven--itself is so wily, clever, and unknowable?
And so Bran seems to stand as an abundant example for us, of what it means to be clever, flexible, tenacious, eloquent, creative, wise, and strong. But this is just my theory; however I think it goes a far way to explaining the endurance of Bran and his ravens throughout the ancient Celtic world. Even through centuries buried beneath clay, ink and ash, from that, the Raven emerges as strong and steadfast as ever.
1. Ellis, The Celtic Empire, pg 27
2. Not to be confused with the more-than-likely much later, watered down, and Christianized The Voyage of Saint Brendan, or is it easily confused, on purpose?
3. Ellis, The Druids, p 134
4. Note this tale takes place in Ireland, so its place in the timeline of the Bran saga is one that leads to much confusion, and leads one all the more to believe these timelines and lands don't exist on a linear, logical plain of existence.
5. Presumably Dea and Ireland are one and the same.
6. However, someone has; even today, ravens are kept at the Tower of London, in accordance with Bran's directive.
7. "Ravens, Legendary Birdbrains", by Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, January 1999, p 104, 113
Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, from The Mabinogian, Translated by Jeffrey Gantz, 1976
The Voyage of Bran Translated by Alfred Nutt and Kuno Meyer, 1894
The Help of the Men of Dea, from Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Guest, 1904
The Celtic Empire, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1990.
The Druids, Peter Berresford Ellis, 1994
"Ravens, Legendary Birdbrains", by Douglas H. Chadwick, National Geographic, January 1999, p. 100-115.