Four Branches of the Mabinogi
Most mythological stories contained in the Mabinogion collection are collectively titled The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, which concentrate largely on the exploits of various British deities who have been Christianised into kings and heroes. The only character to appear in every branch is Pryderi fab Pwyll, the king of Dyfed, who is born in the first Branch, is killed in the fourth, and is probably a reflex of the Celtic god Maponos. The only other recurring characters are Pryderi's mother Rhiannon, associated with the peaceful British prince Manawydan, who later becomes her second husband. Manawyadan and his siblings Brân the Blessed (Welsh: Bendigeidfran or Brân Fendigaidd "Blessed Crow"), Branwen and Efnysien are the key players of the second branch, while the fourth branch concerns itself with the exploits of the family of Dôn, which includes the wizard Gwydion, his nephew Lleu Llaw Gyffes, and his sister, Arianrhod.
Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed
The first branch tells of how Pwyll, the prince of Dyfed, exchanges places for a year with Arawn, the ruler of Annwn (the underworld), defeats Arawn's enemy Hafgan, and on his return encounters Rhiannon, a beautiful maiden whose horse cannot be caught up with. He manages to win her hand at the expense of Gwawl, to whom she is betrothed, and she bears him a son, but the child disappears soon after his birth. Rhiannon is accused of killing him and forced to carry guests on her back as punishment. The child has been taken by a monster, and is rescued by Teyrnon and his wife, who bring him up as their own, calling him Gwri of the Golden hair, until his resemblance to Pwyll becomes apparent. They return him to his real parents, Rhiannon is released from her punishment, and the boy is renamed Pryderi.
Branwen ferch Llŷr
In the second branch, Branwen, sister of Brân the Blessed, king of Britain, is given in marriage to Matholwch, king of Ireland. Branwen's half-brother Efnysien insults Matholwch by mutilating his horses, but Brân gives him new horses and treasure, including a magical cauldron which can restore the dead to life, in compensation. Matholwch and Branwen have a son, Gwern, but Matholwch proceeds to mistreat Branwen, beating her and making her a drudge. Branwen trains a starling to take a message to Bran, who goes to war against Matholwch. His army crosses the Irish Sea in ships, but Brân is so huge he wades across. The Irish offer to make peace, and build a house big enough to entertain Bran, but inside they hang a hundred bags, telling Efnysien they contain flour, when in fact they conceal armed warriors. Efnysien kills the warriors by squeezing the bags. Later, at the feast, Efnysien throws Gwern on the fire and fighting breaks out. Seeing that the Irish are using the cauldron to revive their dead, Efnysien hides among the corpses and destroys the cauldron, although the effort costs him his life. Only seven men, all Britons, survive the battle, including Pryderi, Manawyddan and Bran, who is mortally wounded by a poisoned spear. Brân asks his companions to cut off his head and take it back to Britain. Branwen dies of grief on returning home. Five pregnant women survive to repopulate Ireland.
Manawydan fab Llŷr
Pryderi and Manawydan return to Dyfed, where Pryderi marries Cigfa and Manawydan marries Rhiannon. However, a mist descends on the land, leaving it empty and desolate. The four support themselves by hunting at first, then move to England where they make a living making saddles, shields and shoes of such quality that the local craftsmen cannot compete, and drive them from town to town. Eventually they return to Dyfed and become hunters again. While hunting, a white boar leads them to a mysterious castle. Pryderi, against Manawydan's advice, goes inside, but does not return. Rhiannon goes to investigate and finds him clinging to a bowl, unable to speak. The same fate befalls her, and the castle disappears. Manawydan and Cigfa return to England as shoemakers, but once again the locals drive them out and they return to Dyfed. They sow three fields of wheat, but the first field is destroyed before it can be harvested. The next night the second field is destroyed. Manawydan keeps watch over the third field, and when he sees it destroyed by mice he catches their leader and decides to hang it. A scholar, a priest and a bishop in turn offer him gifts if he will spare the mouse, but he refuses. When asked what he wants in return for the mouse's life, he demands the release of Pryderi and Rhiannon and the lifting of the enchantment over Dyfed. The bishop agrees, because the mouse is in fact his wife. He has been waging magical war against Dyfed because he is a friend of Gwawl, whom Pwyll, Pryderi's father humiliated.
Math fab Mathonwy
While Pryderi rules Dyfed in the south of Wales, Gwynedd in the north of Wales is ruled by Math, son of Mathonwy. His feet must be held by a virgin, except while he is at war. Math's nephew Gilfaethwy is in love with Goewin, his current footholder, and Gilfaethwy's brother Gwydion tricks Math into going to war against Pryderi so Gilfaethwy can have access to her. Gwydion kills Pryderi in single combat, and Gilfaethwy rapes Goewin. Math marries Goewin to save her from disgrace, and banishes Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, transforming them into a breeding pair of deer, then pigs, then wolves. After three years they are restored to human form and return.
Math needs a new foot-holder, and Gwydion suggests his sister, Arianrhod, but when Math magically tests her virginity, she gives birth to two sons. One, Dylan, immediately takes to the sea. The other child is raised by Gwydion, but Arianrhod tells him he will never have a name or arms unless she gives them to him, and refuses to do so. But Gwydion tricks her into naming him Lleu Llaw Gyffes ('Bright, of deft hand'), and giving him arms. She then tells him he will never have a wife of any race living on earth, so Gwydion and Math make him a wife from flowers, called Blodeuwedd (possibly 'Flower face', though other etymologies have been suggested). But Blodeuwedd falls in love with a hunter called Gronw Pebr, and they plot to kill Lleu. Blodeuwedd tricks Lleu into revealing the means by which he can be killed, but when Gronw attempts to do the deed, Lleu escapes, transformed into an eagle.
Gwydion finds Lleu and transforms him back into human form, and turns Blodeuwedd into an owl, renaming her Blodeuwedd and cursing her as well in the process. Gronw offers to compensate Lleu, but Lleu denies and insists on returning the blow that was struck against him. Gronw pleads to hide behind a rock when he attempts to kill him. Lleu agrees. He kills Gronw with his spear, which is thrown so hard it pierces him through the stone he is hiding behind.
A large tradition seems to have once surrounded the Battle of the Trees, a mythological conflict fought between the sons of Dôn and the forces of Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld, and seemingly connected to the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. Amaethon, one of the sons of Don, steals a white roebuck and a whelp from Arawn, king of the otherworld, leading to a great battle.
Gwydion fights alongside his brother and, assisted by Lleu, enchants the "elementary trees and sedges" to rise up as warriors against Arawn's forces. The alder leads the attack, while the aspen falls in battle, and heaven and earth tremble before the oak, a "valiant door keeper against the enemy". The bluebells combine and cause a "consternation" but the hero is the holly, tinted with green.
A warrior fighting alongside Arawn cannot be vanquished unless his enemies can guess his name. Gwydion guesses the warrior's name, identifying him from the sprigs of alder on his shield, and sings two englyns:
- "Sure-hoofed is my steed impelled by the spur;
- The high sprigs of alder are on thy shield
The Dream of Macsen Wledig
This account is so different from Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of Maximian (as Geoffrey calls him) in Historia regum Britanniae that scholars agree the Dream cannot be based purely on Geoffrey's version. The Dream's account also seems to accord better with details in the Triads, so it perhaps reflects an earlier tradition.
Macsen Wledig, the Emperor of Rome, dreams one night of a lovely maiden in a wonderful, far-off land. Awakening, he sends his men all over the earth in search of her. With much difficulty they find her in a rich castle in Britain, daughter of a chieftain based at Segontium (Caernarfon), and lead the Emperor to her. Everything he finds is exactly as in his dream. The maiden, whose name is Helen or Elen, accepts and loves him. Because Elen is found a virgin, Macsen gives her father sovereignty over the island of Britain and orders three castles built for his bride. In Macsen's absence, a new emperor seizes power and warns him not to return. With the help of men from Britain led by Elen's brother Conanus (Welsh: Kynan Meriadec, French: Conan Meriadoc), Macsen marches across Gaul and Italy and recaptures Rome. In gratitude to his British allies, Macsen rewards them with a portion of Gaul that becomes known as Brittany.
Lludd and Llefelys
Another mythological story included in the Mabinogion collection is the tale of Lludd and Llefelys. Lludd is king of Britain, and his brother, Llefelys, is king of France. Lludd's kingdom is beset by three menaces: the Coraniaid, a demonic people who can hear everything; a terrible scream that is heard every May Eve that terrifies the people; and the continual disappearance of the provisions of the king's court. Lludd asks Llefelys for help, speaking to him through a brass tube so the Coraniaid can't hear. Llefelys creates a potion of crushed insects in water which destroys the Coraniaid when sprinkled on them. The scream, he discovers, comes from two dragons fighting. He gets the dragons drunk on mead and buries them in Dinas Emrys in what is now North Wales. He then overcomes the wizard who is stealing all of Lludd's provisions and makes him serve Lludd.
Guest included Hanes Taliesin in her translation of the Mabinogion, despite the absence of this tale from the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest. Subsequent scholarship has identified the tale as post-medieval; as such it is left out from most modern editions of the Mabinogion. Still, elements of the tale predate this presentation. This tale is distinct from the Book of Taliesin, which is a collection of poems attributed to Taliesin.
According to the story Taliesin began life as Gwion Bach, a servant to the enchantress Ceridwen. Ceridwen had a beautiful daughter and a horribly ugly son named Avagddu (elsewhere known as Morfran). Ceridwen determines to help her son by brewing a magic potion, the first three drops of which will give him the gift of wisdom and inspiration (awen). The potion has to be cooked for a year and a day, so Ceridwen enlists a blind man named Morda to tend the fire beneath the cauldron, while Gwion Bach stirs. Three hot drops spill onto Gwion's thumb as he stirred, and he instinctively puts his thumb in his mouth, instantly gaining wisdom and knowledge. The first thought that occurs to him is that Ceridwen will kill him, so he runs away.
Soon enough Ceridwen engages Gwion in a transformation chase in which they turn themselves into various animals – a hare and a greyhound, a fish and an otter, and a bird and a hawk. Exhausted, Gwion finally turns himself into a single grain of corn, but Ceridwen becomes a hen and eats him. Ceridwen becomes pregnant, and when she gives birth she throws the child into the ocean in a leather bag. The bag is found by Elffin, son of Gwyddno Garanhir, who sees the boy's beautiful white brow and exclaims "dyma dal iesin" ("this is a radiant brow") Taliesin, thus named, begins to recite beautiful poetry.
Elffin raises Taliesin as his son, and the two become involved in several adventures. In the presence of Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd, Elffin claims that his wife is as virtuous as the king's wife, and that Taliesin is a better bard than the king's. Maelgwn locks Elffin up and sends his boorish son Rhun to defile Elffin's wife and steal her ring as evidence. However, Taliesin has Elffin's wife replaced with a kitchen maid, thus preserving Elffin's claim. Taliesin then humiliates Maelgwn's bards with his skill, and frees his foster-father.
History of the Kings (f.75.v) King Arthur
Culhwch and Olwen
While Culhwch and Olwen, also found in the Mabinogion collection, is primarily an Arthurian tale, in which the hero Culhwch enlists Arthur's aid in winning the hand of Olwen, daughter of Ysbaddaden the Giant, it is full of background detail, much of it mythological in nature. Characters such as Amaethon, the divine ploughman, Mabon ap Modron, the divine son, and the psychopomp Gwyn ap Nudd make appearances, the latter in an endless seasonal battle with Gwythyr ap Greidawl for the hand of Creiddylad. The conditions placed on Culhwch by his mother are similar to those placed on Lleu Llaw Gyffes by Arianrhod, and Culhwch's arrival at Arthur's court is reminiscent of the Irish god Lug's arrival at the court of Nuada Airgetlám in Cath Maige Tuired.
Owain, or The Lady of the Fountain
The hero of Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain, is based on the historical figure Owain mab Urien. He appears as Ywain in later continental tradition. The romance consists of a hero marrying his love, the Lady of the Fountain, but losing her when he neglects her for knightly exploits. With the aid of a lion he saves from a serpent, he finds a balance between his marital and social duties and rejoins his wife. The narrative is related to Chrétien de Troyes' French romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion.
Peredur son of Efrawg
Like the other Welsh romances, scholars debate as to the work's exact relationship to Chrétien's poem. It is possible Peredur preserves some of the material found in Chrétien's source. The sequence of some events are altered in Peredur, and many original episodes appear, including the hero's 14-year sojourn in Constantinople reigning with the Empress, which contains remnants of a sovereignty tale. The Holy Grail is replaced with a severed head on a platter. Despite the differences, however, influence from the French romance cannot be discounted, particularly as its first part hardly matches the second.
As in Percival the hero's father dies when he is young, and his mother takes him into the woods and raises him in isolation. Eventually he meets a group of knights and determines to become like them, so he travels to King Arthur's court. There he is ridiculed by Cei and sets out on further adventures, promising to avenge Cei's insults to himself and those who defended him. While travelling he meets two of his uncles, the first plays the role of Percival's Gornemant and educates him in arms and warns him not to ask the significance of what he sees. The second replaces Chrétien's Fisher King, but instead of showing Peredur the Holy Grail he reveals a salver containing a man's severed head. The young knight does not ask about this and proceeds to further adventure, including a stay with the Nine Witches of Gloucester and the encounter with the woman who was to be his true love, Angharad Golden-Hand. Peredur returns to Arthur's court, but soon embarks on another series of adventures that do not correspond to material in Percival (Gawain's exploits take up this section of the French work.) Eventually the hero learns the severed head at his uncle's court belonged to his cousin, who had been killed by the Nine Witches of Gloucester. Peredur avenges his family, and is celebrated as a hero.
The narrative corresponds to Chrétien's romance Perceval, the Story of the Grail.
Geraint son of Erbin
The romance concerns the love of Geraint, one of King Arthur's men, and the beautiful Enid. The couple marry and settle down together, but rumors spread that Geraint has gone soft. Upset about this, Enid cries to herself that she is not a true wife for keeping her husband from his chivalric duties, but Geraint misunderstands her comment to mean she has been unfaithful to him. He makes her join him on a long and dangerous trip and commands her not to speak to him. Enid disregards this command several times to warn her husband of danger. Several adventures follow that prove Enid's love and Geraint's fighting ability. The couple is happily reconciled in the end, and Geraint inherits his father's kingdom.
The narrative corresponds to Chrétien's Erec and Enide, in which the hero is Erec.
The Spoils of Annwfn is a cryptic early medieval poem of sixty lines found in the Book of Taliesin. The text recounts an expedition to the Otherworld, led by King Arthur, to retrieve a magical cauldron. The speaker relates how he journeyed with Arthur and three boatloads of men into Annwfn, but only seven returned. Annwfn is apparently referred to by several names, including "Mound Fortress," "Four-Peaked Fortress," and "Glass Fortress", though it is possible the poet intended these to be distinct places. Within the Mound Fort's walls Gweir, one of the "Three Exalted Prisoners of Britain" known from the Welsh Triads, is imprisoned in chains. The narrator then describes the cauldron of the Chief of Annwn; it is finished with pearl and will not boil a coward's food. Whatever tragedy ultimately killed all but seven of them is not clearly explained. The poem continues with an excoriation of "little men" and monks, who lack in various forms of knowledge possessed by the poet.