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362 Study Questions: "Branwen Daughter of Llyr" from The Mabinogion

Vocabulary: branch, triads, Mabinogi, englyn, yonic symbol

Identifications: Bendigeidfran, Nisien, Efnisien, Branwen, Matholwych

Lecture Notes: Bendigeidfran, Manawydan, and Branwen are children of Llyr. Who is Llyr in Celtic mythology? The Cauldron that restores life in this Welsh tale is probably a pagan predecessor to what mysthical item in medieval Christian legends? What ancient Celtic custom is probably the origin of the account of Bendigeidfran's head being buried in London, facing toward France?

Introduction Questions: none

Read-along Questions:

  • Where are Bendigeidfran, Manawydan, Nisien, and Efnisien sitting at the start of the story? Why is this appropriate?
  • According to the opening paragraph, how are the twins Nisien and Efnisien different in their behaviors and personalities?
  • Who has come sailing over the ocean in thirteen ships as Bendigeidfran and the others sit on the rocks of Harddlech?
  • Why has this king come to contact them? What does he seek?
  • During the parley, Bendigeidfran is housed in a tent rather than a building. Why?
  • What does Efnisien do to Matholwych's horses? What is his stated reason for this action, and does it seem realistic as a motivation?
  • To make amends to Matholwych and resume the peace talks, Bendigeidfran offers him gifts of gold and silver and a magical item. What is this magical item and what powers does it have? Why is this suitable as amends for the dead horses?
  • The restorative powers have one limitation in what they will not restore. What is that one power or ability they cannot bring back?
  • Where did Bendigeidfran obtain this magical item?
  • Why do the people of Ireland rebel against Matholwch?
  • What action does Matholwch take against his wife Branwen to appease his Irish followers?
  • Matholwych bans coracles in Ireland while Branwen is being punished. What are coracles? Why does the ban them?
  • How does Branwen contact her brother to let him know of her husband's abuse?
  • Since Bendigeidfran is too big to fit in a boat, how does he cross the Irish sea?
  • The Irish choose to set up their last stand across the Llifon (Liffey) river because it has loadstones at its bottom. What are loadstones, and why would they make problems for armed soldiers?
  • When the Irish cross the Llifon river and break the bridge across it, how does Bendigeidfran get his allied forces across the river?
  • What does Efnisien do when he discovers enemy soldiers in the "bags of flour"?
  • What does Efnisien do to his nephew, the half-Irish, half-Welsh offspring of his sister Branwen and King Matholwch?
  • Through what means do the Irish end up creating nearly endless reinforcements as they fight the Welsh?
  • What action does Efnisien do to stop the Irish reinforcements? Do you think his action is a suitable form of redemption for his earlier crimes?
  • How many men escape the battle alive?
  • What is the final instruction Bendigeidfran has for his body?
  • How does Branwen die?


A: "What are they [the horses] doing there?" he asked. "The king of Ireland is here and has slept with . . . thy sister; and these are his horses. . . " And thereupon he set upon the horses and cut off their lips to the teeth, and their ears to the heads, adn their tails to their backs, and where he could clutch their eyelids he cut them to the very bone. And he maimed the horses thus till there was no use could be made of the horses."

B: "I will give thee a cauldron, and the virtue of the cauldron is this: a man of thine slain to-day, cast him into the cauldron, and by tomorrow he will be as well as he was at the bst, save that he will not have the power of speech."

C: Not less than three years continued thus. And meantime she reared a starling on the end of her kneading-trough and taught it words and instructed the bird what manner of man her brother was. And she brought a letter of the woes and the dishonour that were upon her. And the letter was fastened under the root of the bird's wings, and sent toward Wales.

D: "What is the forest that is seen upon the sea?" they asked. "The masts of ships and their yards," said she. "Alas, said they, "What was the mountain that could be seen alongside the ships?" ". . . My brother, that was, she said, coming by wading. There was never a ship in which he might be contained."

E: "What is in this bag?" said he, to one of the Irish. "Flour, friend," said he. He felt about him till he came to his head, and he squeezed his head till he felt his fingers sink into the brain through the bone.

F: "By my confession to God," he said in his heart, "an enormity the household would not think might be committed is the enormity I shall now commit." And he arose and took up the boy by the feet and made no delay, nor did a man in the house lay hold on him before he thrust the boy headlong into the blazing fire.

G: And he crept in among the dead bodies of the Irish, and two bare-breeched Irishmen came to him and cast him into the cauldron as though he were an Irishman. He stretched himself out in the cauldron, so that the cauldron burst into four pieces, and his heart burst also.

H: "And take the head," he said, "and carry it to the White Mount in London, and bury it with its face toward France." . . . However long they were upon the road, they came to London and buried the head in the White Mount. And when it was buried, that was one of the Three Happy Concealments, and one of the Three Unhappy Disclosures when it was disclosed, for no plague would ever come across the sea to this island so long as the head was in concealment.



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