Bran, the Sleeping Guardian
by Barry Reilly
The Iron Age hill fort of Caer Bran stands proudly on the summit of Brane Hill in the far west of Cornwall. It is well worth a visit, especially as it has recently been cleared of scrub and gorse, for it has excellent views in all directions. In the past it would have been an ideal place from which to keep watch over the surrounding countryside. Within the enclosing defensive ditch, there are three ring cairns which date back to the Bronze Age, thus indicating that Caer Bran was probably an important ritual site. The later Iron Age rampart, which was built with stone, was never completed for reasons that we may never know.
According to Craig Weatherhill, a local historian and author, Caer Bran was first recorded in the 14thC as Kear Bosvran, which was middle Cornish for the “ hill fort at Brane “. The name Brane is derived from Bran or Vran and it means either Raven or the old Celtic god Bran. Therefore it is most likely that the name Bran, as a place name, can be traced back to the Iron Age.
As it happens, the 14thC is about the time that the tales of “The Mabinogion “ first appeared in written form. These tales owe their origins to the fascinating world of Celtic myth. In one of these tales, we are introduced to Bran the Blessed, King of the Island of the Mighty.
There are many indications that Bran is descended from an early British god and we shall deal with this aspect in greater depth, later on in this article.
The name Bran can also be found locally as the name of a war-leader whose title is recorded on the Men Scryfa (inscribed stone ). The inscription gives his name as Rialobran, which can be read as “The Royal Raven.” This inscription dates from the 5th or 6thC and this puts it into the early Christian era, sometimes known as “The Age of Arthur".
In this article I want to explore the various aspects of the name Bran, beginning with the Raven, then moving on to Bran the Blessed and finally the local warlord. I hope to convey a sense of connection with the mindset of our Celtic ancestors and to deepen our understanding of the way they lived and how they viewed the world in which they lived.
West Penwith is a place where ravens can be seen flying freely, often uttering their distinctive call. They are large birds, full of character, and they dominate any space by their sheer size and presence. They have a heightened, almost supernatural, awareness of being observed, and this, together with their intelligence, makes the raven a very formidable bird in the natural world. For the Iron Age Celts, as well as for the later Saxon and Viking warriors, the raven “enjoyed “ a rather sinister reputation, due in part to their presence on any battlefield and in part to their black, unearthly appearance; but there is more to the raven than just the physical aspect.
Our Iron Age Celtic ancestors saw the world through different eyes to ours. They believed that the material world we live in represented just one level of existence. Beyond and within this world lies the Otherworld, the world of gods, spirits and of forces that could guide them and help them. Animals in their spirit forms could be used to take messages to and from the Otherworld; they could also act as guides or guardians to any who wished to undertake a spirit journey to the realms of the gods. A spirit animal could also serve as a guide on the final journey to the realms of the dead.
The Iron Age Celts revered the raven as a bird of great importance, hence their practice of burying a raven, with its wings outstretched, at the bottom of a shaft. The most likely explanation for this is that they believed that the raven’s spirit would act as a messenger between this world and the Otherworld.
The early Irish myths and sagas, first written down in the 8th century, give us a fairly clear idea of how the Celts regarded the raven … with awe, respect and an element of fear; this was a bird to have on your side for it could not only be a powerful ally, it could also be a cruel and vengeful enemy. In the myths, we are told how the god of light, Lugh, was warned of the coming of his Fomorian enemies by ravens who also came to his assistance in the battle that followed, the second battle of Magh Tuiredh.
However, the raven was not always so obliging. The Irish saga “The Tain” tells us how the hero, Cu Chulain, gained the enmity of the fearsome Badhbh, a triple-aspected goddess of war, who, together with her sisters Macha and Mor-Rioghain ( collectively known as “The Morrigan”), would fly over the heads of warriors in battle and give out terrible, blood curdling screams. In the Ulster Cycle we are told how she incites Cu Chulain to his final battle knowing, that he is going to die. A chilling description is given of how she shape-shifts into the form of a raven and waits to pick his corpse clean! This tale stresses how important it was for a warrior not to fall out with the spirit of raven.
One way for the Celtic warrior to keep the raven on his side was to wear an emblem on some part of his armour to both act as a talisman to protect the wearer and to frighten the enemy. An extreme example of this is a battle helmet, found in Romania. This iron helmet, probably a cavalryman’s, is fitted with a bronze raven, whose hinged wings would flap with the violent motion of a cavalry charge. This would at least distract and at best terrify any opponent of the “Raven Warrior".
Another aspect of the raven was its ability to fly over enemy lines and to be able to view the disposition of the enemy. Our ancestors believed that skilled individuals could shape-shift, take the form of a bird (usually a raven) in order to perform this task. Therefore any war-leader who had the gift of raven knowledge and who could rely on their backing in battle would have a considerable advantage over his foes, at least in the eyes of his followers!
During the third and second centuries BCE, the Greeks and Romans clashed with the Celts and had cause to regret it. Their careless disregard for their own lives and their terrifying appearance overwhelmed their opponents, who were used to a more orderly form of warfare. The warlord of the Celtic armies was known as “Brennos”, which was not a personal name but a title denoting “Battle Lord". Etymologically “Brennos" is related to “Bran” and its meaning in this context is “Raven King “. Quite possibly the Battle Lord was regarded as being of semi-divine status and as having the raven god on his side.
In the context of the supernatural otherworldly qualities of the raven it is worth noting that these abilities were usually possessed by women. In most of the ancient tales, it was generally accepted that men were more powerful and active than women in the everyday, material world. However, in the inner, otherworldly realms it was a different matter altogether. Here women reigned supreme. Therefore powerful figures like the Irish Morrigan and her British descendant Morgan le Fey, display a quality to be found in woman that required them to be treated with great respect. These mythical, semi-divine and powerful archetypes could be called Raven women and as Cu Chulain discovered to his cost, it was best to keep them on your side.
Bran the Blessed
Bran is often described as an old Celtic god, yet there is little contemporary evidence from Brythonic (Britonic-Welsh) sources to support this idea. The earliest reference that I have been able to find is in the old Welsh tale “Branwen Daughter of Llyr.” This tale, written in the 14th century, tells the story of a Welsh king who was the ruler of “The Island of the Mighty” (Britain). He had a sister named Branwen, which transalates as White or Sacred Raven. Branwen agreed to marry Matholwch, King of Ireland, in order to secure a peace between the two nations. Unhappily the peace lasted for only a short time because word got back to Bran that his sister was being ill-treated and abused. To avenge this insult and to rescue his sister, he gathered together a large army and crossed the sea to Ireland.
He was, we are told, a giant of a man and this was to stand him in good stead as he was able to wade across the sea carrying his harpers on his back. In that manner they kept their instruments and their strings dry. When his army came to the River Shannon they found that the Irish had retreated across it and had broken down all the bridges. With the words “Let him who is a chief be a bridge,” Bran lay across the river and allowed his army to pass over him.
Then followed a bloody battle, complicated by the Irish use of a cauldron of rebirth that could revive any dead warrior. When the battle was over all the British and Irish, save a few, were slaughtered. Bran himself was mortally wounded by a poisoned dart in the foot. He gave his seven surviving companions the order to cut off his head and take it back with them to Britain. This they did.
The head of Bran was eventually buried in a place called White Hill where it would act as a Protector and Guardian of Britain. Unfortunately, according to legend, Arthur (yes him!) decided that it was his job to be the Guardian of Britain and so he ordered Bran’s head to be dug up and cast into the sea.
This legend still carries some weight today, as the Tower of London stands on the site of White Hill and in the Tower are kept “The Royal Ravens.” During the last war the ravens were killed or dispersed during a bombing raid. Winston Churchill, (who at one time had been a Druid and therefore knew his mythological history), ordered them to be replaced. It is a matter of historical fact that we were not invaded during the war (unless you count the Americans ) and so the power of the legend holds true!!
The Old Celtic God
In the above story Bran, as an old Brythonic god of the Celts, has been so overlaid by the Medieval mind set that he has all but vanished under the weight of the subsequent writings. Therefore I can only speculate as to how the Iron Age Celts would have viewed him.
His size shows that he was a god of great status, perhaps second only to the great sun god, Belinus. He was a warrior god, a war leader and his spirit would probably be invoked as an inspiration for any war lord about to lead a campaign against the foe. The theme of the severed head is a reference to the Celtic belief that the spirit lived on in the severed head and that the spirit in the severed head of a defeated enemy could be imprisoned and, if treated with respect and reverence, would actually work on one’s behalf in the otherworld. After a battle, the victors would ride home with their grisly trophies which they would display in various prominent places. It is likely that a proportion of the heads would be dedicated to the goddess of battles ie. The Morrigan, as a token of the fruits of victory and to give thanks for their assistance.
Bran was also seen as a bridge and I think that this was a bridge, or conduit, between this world and the otherworld. This would give him the status of a magician-king and his link with the supernatural qualities of the raven would make him a very powerful deity; one well worth invoking for his divine protection. In the later Christian version of his story, Bran is given the epithet “The Blessed “ as he was credited with bringing Christianity into Britain; a connection with a totally different otherworld altogether.
In Cornwall, there are many places named after Bran: Brane, Polbrean, Park-an-Vrane, Trevrane, to name but a few. Wales too has its share of Bran names: Cwmbran, Aberbran and Castell Dinas Bran. This could indicate that Bran was seen as a divine protector of an area in the same way today that a parish is associated with a Christian saint. It is just possible that Bran was regarded as a divine guardian for the area of West Penwith in which Caer Bran is at the epicentre. David Giddings, a local archaeologist, told me about a previous vicar of St. Buryan who believed that St. Buriana was invented by the church in order to displace the popularity of Bran. This may or may not be true but it is a fact that the newly formed Christian church built on sacred places and sometimes incorporated and overlaid earlier beliefs and archetypes. (In fairness it should be noted that by doing this the church preserved a lot of the earlier traditions.) Bran would have a been a hard candidate for the Celtic church to take on board, so there could be some foundation for this idea. St. Buriana’s feast day is on May 1st., the same day that is celebrated as Beltainne, the day of the sun god Bel, who was another prominent figure in this area.
It is more likely that Bran declined in stature because political and spiritual circumstances moved on. There are many similarities between the tales of Bran and Arthur. One is that Bran is the raven while Arthur is the Cornish version, the chough. It could also be that Arthur’s revealing and disposing of Bran’s head, (known in the Triads as “one of the unfortunate disclosures”) was a statement that Arthur, being a more acceptable figure to the thinking of the time, was a replacement as a semi-divine protector. As the wheel of time turned, Arthur too was to be replaced by “St.George of Merrie England”.
The concept of a warrior guardian still holds true today in the form of St.Michael, the patron saint of the French parachute regiment. Many years ago I was on a joint exercise with the French paratroops and we were jumping out the back of a C130 Hercules. When the French jumped they dived, head down, arms outstretched and they looked like a cluster of Battle-furies or Valkyries, swooping down to the enemy below. I don’t know if they frightened the enemy but they certainly frightened me!
Rialobran, The Royal Raven
In West Penwith, near the Men-an Tol, is the Men Scryfa, the inscribed stone. The stone is a Bronze Age menhir with a 5th or 6thC inscription dedicated to Rialobran, the Royal Raven. As we have seen, this would have been a title and not a personal name.
The legend of Rialobran is worthy of mention: an enemy from the East took the lands of West Penwith and made his base at Lescudjack Castle, overlooking Penzance. Rialobran, together with his warband met and fought this un-named foe. In the battle he lost his life but it is possible that he was the victor, albeit posthumously, because the monument was erected to his memory. This would indicate that “The Ravens” won the day and held the field. For the hero; he lost his life but gained immortality and that for him would have been the ultimate prize.
In Wales there are mountains called Brenin Llwyd (The Grey King) and Y Brenin Nudd (The Mist King). These names give the mountains character and atmosphere. Welsh tradition has it that in the mountains of Snowdonia lies the secret burial place of King Arthur. This burial place is guarded by two great eagles, who in reality (?) are two shape-shifted Druids. This legend reflects the power that such places can have on the human mind and how they can act as an inspiration for the weaving of legend and mythology, all of which contribute to ancestral memory.
Caer Bran may not be the equal of Wales’s mountains in height but it can certainly rival them for atmosphere. I live in a valley at the foot of Caer Bran and when the hill-top is shrouded in mist I am aware of the awe that our ancestors felt towards these special places and I consider myself to be very fortunate to be able to share it with them. Although the hill-top has never been archaeologically excavated it would come as no surprise to me if a high status warrior’s grave were to be discovered for I have seen pairs of ravens circling the hill-top on more than one occasion. So you never know, it could just be...
Belerion by Craig Weatherhill. Pub. Alison Hodge 1981.
Caer Bran An Archaeological Assessment. Cornwall Archaeological Unit. 1997.
Celt and Greek by Peter Berresford Ellis. Pub. Constable. London
Dictionary of Celtic Mythology by James MacKillop. Pub. OUP.1998.
Druid Animal Oracle by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm. Pub. Simon & Schuster Inc. 1994.
Mabon and the Guardians of the Land by C. Matthews. Pub. Inner Traditions International ,2002.
The Mabinogion by Jeffrey Gantz. Pub. Penguin Classics, 1976.
…….And finally I would like to thank my own “Raven woman”, Kate, for her perceptive comments.