There are many giants recorded in the folklore of Wales[*]. Sion Dafydd Rhys told of many of them in his 16th century treatise Olion Cewri , regarding them as remnants of the aboriginal occupants of Britain as asserted by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain. Many of these giants are seen in traditional fashion as ogres of one sort or another. In the literary tradition this is also the case for the giants in the medieval Welsh tale How Culhwch Won Olwen. Each of them display an ogreish appearance, including Ysbadadden Chief Giant whose daughter, Olwen, is sought by Culhwch. She is not a giant but she does have some extra-human qualities such as the fact that white clover springs up wherever she treads.
In the second of the Mabinogi tales, Bendigeidfran (Blessed Brân) is also taken to be a giant, though neither his sister, Branwen, nor his brother, Manawydan, are giants. Brân himself does not display an ogreish appearance and only seems giant-like in parts of the tale. The description of him at the beginning does not distinguish him in this way at all:
Bendigeidfran son of Llŷr was crowned king over this island and adorned with the crown of London. One afternoon he was in Harddlech in Ardudwy, in a court of his, and one afternoon he was sitting on the rock of Harddlech above the sea with Manawydan Son of Llŷr and two brothers of the same mother as he – Nisien and Efnisien – and other nobles as would be fitting for a king.
In fact nowhere in the tale is the word ‘giant’ (cawr) used to describe him. The reason for regarding him as a giant are:
- Because it is said he has never been contained within a house.
- Because of his giant-like appearance to the Irish when he is wading through the sea to attack them and his subsequent action of lying across a river so his followers can cross on his back.
The first of these may not necessarily indicate that he is a giant. Though he has not been contained within a house, he happily sits in a tent that has been put up for the wedding feast of Branwen and Matholwch. Not being contained in a house might be a geas – a fated taboo the breaking of which leads to dishonour or death. Geasa are common in the Irish tradition, and often lead to the downfall of heroes when one geas works against another. When the Irish build a house especially to hold Brân, it is not long after he enters it that fighting breaks out leading to him being fatally wounded. The Irish had previously built a house especially to trap the giant Llasar Llaes Gyfnewid and his wife Cymidai Cymeinfoll who then escaped and brought the Cauldron of Rebirth to Brân, enabling him to give it to Matholwch.
The second reason is more convincing. The Irish see what looks like a forest and a mountain crossing the sea. Branwen explains this to them as the masts of Brân’s ships and Brân himself next to them:
‘… that was my brother, come by wading, for there was never a ship could contain him.’
‘What was that lofty ridge with the lake on either side?’
‘The two lakes on either side of the ridge are his eyes for he is angry.’
But there is a contradiction. Earlier it was said that the sea was not so wide and deep as it is now, and there were just two rivers to cross – the Lli and the Archan – to go from Britain to Ireland. It is thought that the Lli is on the Irish side and could be Loch Laoigh (Belfast Lough) [**] On the Welsh side the candidates for the Archan are either the River Arth which currently runs into Cardigan Bay about 15 miles south of Aberystwyth or the River Ystwyth which has its estuary beside that town. Both of these rivers run into an area of sea now covering a legendary submerged plain called ‘Mays Maichghen’[**] of which the submerged lands of Cantre’r Gwaelod also form a part. There is a triad (No. 44) [***] which mentions Archanad or Archanat being carried up ‘the hill of Maelor’ on a horse called ‘Dappled’. Maelor is the giant who inhabited the hill (currently known as Pendinas) overlooking the estuary of the River Ystwyth. Brân’s crossing of a river here where a giant lived would be fortuitous.
There seems, then, to be an element of double-think in the crossing to Ireland by Brân and in the crossing from Ireland of Matholwch’s ships at the beginning of the tale. The sea is crossed in ships much as it would be now, and when the tale was written down, but at the same time there is no sea, only two rivers, as it is known was the case before sea levels rose in the more distant past [****]. Could there also be an element of double-think in regarding Brân as a giant? He is clearly not a giant in the sense of most other giants of Welsh folklore or in comparable literary tales. Yet he does take on giant-like characteristics at key points in the tale; and the final carrying of his head to the otherworld location of Gwales, the transition there by the singing of the Birds of Rhiannon, the supernatural nature of his head, all point to an other-than-human identity. Is he presented both as a medieval king, or one of the recent past for the medieval audience, but also as an aboriginal being from that more distant past when the sea levels were lower? By inspiring such double vision can gods inhabit our world while also inhabiting their own.
My reference for the original Welsh text of the Second Branch of Y Mabinogi : Ian Hughes (ed) Bendigeiduran Uab Llyr (Aberystwyth, 2017) and his introductory discussion for suggested river names in addition to the specific references below.
[*] For a comprehensive review of Welsh giant lore see Chris Grooms The Giants of Wales/Cewri Cymru (Lampeter, 1993)
[**] Patrick Sims-Williams Irish Influence on Medieval Welsh Literature pp.192-196 (Oxford, 2011)
[***] Rachel Bromwich (ed) Trioedd Ynys Prydein (Cardiff, 2006)
[****] For a discussion of the cultural geography of Britain at this time see Chapter 2 of Barry Cunliffe Britain Begins (Oxford, 2013).