The Mabinogion: The Second Branch of the Mabinogi | Sioned Davies #Dewithon23

Bendigeidfran son of Llŷr was crowned king over this island and invested with the crown of London. One afternoon he was in Harlech in Ardudwy, at one of his courts; he was sitting on the rock of Harlech, above the sea, with his brother Manawydan son of Llŷr, and his two brothers on his mother’s side, Nysien and Efnysien, and noblemen too, as was appropriate around a king.

Before I started The Mabinogion, I believed that my love affair with myths and legends was waning. It was a love that had sustained me during most of my twenties and thirties, but I no longer sought them out like I once did. The obsession had petered out to a mild interest.

Or so I thought!

For Reading Wales Month with Paula @Book Jotter, the only unread Welsh book left on my shelves was Sioned Davies’ translation of The Mabinogion. So with some reluctance, I began. The book includes 11 medieval Welsh tales, four are clearly linked (now referred to as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi), but the other seven are what I think of as stand-alone stories.

The First Branch of the Mabinogi was intriguing, an interesting origin story about friendship, loyalty and trust, however it wasn’t until The Second Branch that I began to feel the old obsession stirring anew. Before I knew it, I was watching Youtube video’s, reading esoteric articles from arcane mythology sites to dig a little deeper into the story of Branwen and her half-brother Bendigeidfran, the giant King of Britain. I could (but won’t) go into untold detail about the significance of their names and their duality, the various relationship triangles at play, medieval tribal law, the honour code, the mythology surrounding horses and birds, the role of magic or the supernatural and the repetiton of the numbers seven and four.

Sometimes called Mabinogi Bendigeidfran, Mabinogi of Branwen, or Branwen Daughter of Llŷr, The Second Branch of the Mabinogi is a traditional caluminated wife story (where a woman, usually a wife, is falsely and maliciously accused of something she did not do and punished for it. The calumny usually invokes some kind of retribution, sacrifice or atonement).

Branwen is given in marriage to Matholwch, King of Ireland, during a magnificent feast hosted by her brother. All goes well until another half-brother arrives on the scene. Efnysien – the anti-hero, the Loki of Welsh mythology – his aim to meddle and create disorder. He claims that he should have been consulted about the marriage. In anger, he mutilates the ears, eyes and tails of Matholwch’s horses. A very unpleasant, disturbed young man indeed!

Naturally the King of Ireland is outraged.

Bendigeidfran, or Brân the Blessed appeases him by giving him new horses and a magical cauldron that brings the dead back to life (as is typical of oral stories, they contain stories within stories. This one, with it’s theme of resurrection, was no doubt inserted into the older narrative after the arrival of Christianity). Matholwch returns to Ireland with his new wife, horses and cauldron.

All goes well for a while, with the birth of a son, Gwern following soon after. However the people of Ireland eventually hear about the horses and outrage at the insult bubbles away requiring more retribution and more compensation. To appease his people, Matholwch has Branwen sent to work in the kitchens as punishment. She tames a starling so that she can send a message back to her brother to come and rescue her.

The ensuing invasion, battle and treachery results in a huge loss of life, including the new King Gwern and the dastardly Efnysien. Only Branwen, Brân and seven Welsh soldiers survive to sail back to Wales. Brân is then discovered to have a poisoned arrow wound from which he also dies. Branwen dies of a broken heart and was buried where she fell, beside the Afon Alaw in Anglesey.

Bedd Branwen (Branwen’s Grave)
Image Source

Brân’s head is cut off by his men (as they were instructed to do by Brân before he died), and eventually carried to London to be buried at White Mount (probably where the Tower of London now stands) facing France. The idea being that his staring head would keep Britain safe from future invasion from across the sea.

This story in particular, brought to mind many of the sub-plots in The Game of Thrones. Obviously George R. Martin is a fan of ancient myths and legends too. They share a great ruler called Brân, crows, ravens and other birds carrying messages, caluminated wives at every turn, giants and wedding feasts that end in bloodshed.

The other factor in this story that caught my eye was the name Branwen. It is close enough to my own name, which very rarely appears in literature, that I was curious to know more.

In the extensive notes provided by Sioned Davies (2007) in her OUP translation, she informs us that the original, older name may have been Bronwen (meaning white breast) and that more recent retellings moved to Branwen (white raven) ‘influenced by the name of her brother Brân‘, (Bendigeidfran* which means blessed raven). However some places cite that Bronwen was preferred by storytellers due it’s more feminine meaning. *In Welsh ‘f’ is pronounced ‘v’.

In the original manuscripts (written in Middle Welsh sometime between the end of the eleventh and the beginning of the fourteenth centuries) both versions of Bronwen and Branwen are used, often within the same retelling.

As an aside, in Welsh, ‘wen’ is the feminine variant, while ‘wyn’ is the masculine. The spelling of my name, Bronwyn, is a modern Australian variant that pays no heed to the Welsh naming tradition.

Christopher Williams | Branwen 1915
Image source: Glynn Vivian Art Gallery

The Four Branches of Mabinogi (Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi) began life as oral narratives – they are stories designed to be shared out loud. Various English translations existed for some of the stories throughout the 1700 & early 1800’s. However, it wasn’t until 1838–45 that Lady Charlotte Guest first published the full collection, which she called The Mabinogion, believing it was a useful plural form of Mabinogi.

At this point I will not have enough time to read any other stories from The Mabinogion for Dewithon – something to save for next year 🙂


  • The Mabinogion (1877) translated by Charlotte Guest
  • Harlech – the central location for this story – now has a castle which was built a few hundred years after the story took place, but one of its towers has been named Tŵr Bronwen (Bronwen’s Tower).
  • Branwen’s burial site Bedd Branwen (Branwen’s Grave, sometimes called Tomb of Bronwen) is believed to be in Llanddeusant, Anglesey. The cairn originally erected over the site has been dug up several times and is apparently in ruins with only one standing stone still in place (see image above).
  • #Dewithon23
Cadair Bronwen summit cairn looking towards Cadair Berwyn. Cadair Bronwen is so named because the peak is said to look like a nipple.

The meaning of my name was a sore point during my school days. After the first assignment asking us to research our names, I learnt to say that my name meant ‘white, fair or just woman’. The playground taunts made by smart-mouthed 10-yr-old boys over ‘white breast’ were too much for this shy, awkward girl to deal with.
Image Source: Espresso Addict, CC BY-SA 2.0
Title: The Mabinogion
Translator: Sioned Davies
ISBN: 9780199218783
Imprint: Oxford World's Classics
Published: 2008
Format: paparback
Pages: The Second Branch of the Mobinogi pp. 22-34
Dates Read: 11 March 2023 - 12 March 2023
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

12 thoughts on “The Mabinogion: The Second Branch of the Mabinogi | Sioned Davies #Dewithon23

  1. Oh dear, teachers really ought to be more careful when they send kids off to research personal things. Do you know , I actually knew a teacher who wanted her Cambodian students (remnants of families killed by Pol Pot) to research their family trees?


  2. The Four Branches are the heart of the Mabinogion, the original mabinogi, which Charlotte Guest then applied to the rest of the native tales (as I’m sure you’ve read in Sioned Davies’s introduction!). I try to read these at regular intervals plus any commentaries I have to hand, some academic, some (rather more dubious) modern antiquarian speculation.

    The Second Branch is my favourite, as it happens; Andrew Breeze suggests all the branches were written by a medieval noblewoman, a certain Gwellian (as I outline in my short review of his collected essays on the subject here:

    Liked by 2 people

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