A severed head on a round table

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In the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Brân the Blessed, the giant and King of Britain, is mortally wounded whilst rescuing his sister Branwen from her abusive husband, the King of Ireland. He tells his companions, the seven survivors of that brutal expedition, to cut off his head.

‘Take the head’ said he ‘and bring it to the White Hill in London, and bury it with its face towards France. And you will be on the road a long time. In Harlech you will be seven years in feasting, the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. The head will be as good company to you as it was at its best when it was ever on me. And you will be at Gwales in Penfro for eighty years. Until you open the door facing Aber Henvelen on the side facing Cornwall, you will be able to abide there, along with the head with you uncorrupted. But when you open that door, you will not be able to remain there. You will make for London and bury the head. Cross over to the other side.’

All occurs as Brân had foretold, and the Company of the Wondrous Head, as his friends are now known, take the head to London:

However long they were on the road, they came to London, and they buried the head in The White Hill.

And that was one of the Three Fortunate concealments when it was buried, and one of the Three Unfortunate Disclosures when it was unearthed: since no affliction would ever came to this Island from across the sea, as long as the head was in that concealment.

Who unearthed the head? None other than Arthur, King of the Britons, who:

disclosed the Head of Brân the Blessed from the White Hill, because it did not seem right to him that this Island should be defended by the strength of anyone, but by his own.

We are told, elsewhere, that Merlin later reburied – but, as with so much else concerning that mysterious gentleman, it’s hard to know whether that is a past or future event…

Still, what happened to the head? What did Arthur do with it? I like to think that it returned to life, and was as convivial at Camelot as it had been at Harlech and Gwales. Perhaps Arthur placed the head reverently on the Round Table of Camelot, or in one of his camps at Celliwig or Caerleon, for Brân to entertain the assembled warriors with song and merriment, as he had entertained the Company of the Wondrous Head so many years earlier.

For us, Druids of the modern era, there is a great deal of important material to be extracted from this seemingly minor story.

We must recall that the Celts were a tribal, and warlike, people. This form of society has been incredibly common for much of human history, and of course particularly in resource-poor areas. Families joined together to form clans; clans formed together to form tribes… and fought against neighbouring tribes for cattle, women, land…

From the clans of Scotland, to the clans of Crete, to the clans of Chechnya and Dagestan, the same patterns are clear: incredibly conservative and restrictive societies, with male pride and violence as central values, and an incredibly destructive culture of cross-generational feud and vendetta.

In all these areas, there was no central authority able to impose its rule in any effective way to control violence and introduce (or impose) a formal system of justice – until the rise of the modern state.

In the specific context of Wales and Britain, this is precisely the background to the Matter of Britain and the tragedy of Arthur. In his book Britannia – The Failed State, historian Stuart Laycock argues convincingly that Iron Age Britain was populated by tribes which essentially loathed each other, and which were involved in constant conflict.

Under Roman rule, with its strong Imperial state authority, tribal feuds and vendettas were suppressed – but not forgotten. With the retreat of Roman power, these historic enmities were violently renewed – to the extent that the post-Roman British kingdoms were unable to cooperate in the face of barbarian invasion, allowing the Saxons to defeat them one by one.

This is the context for Gildas, excoriating the rulers of the British for their divisions. The great achievement of Arthur lay in finally uniting the tribes, which enabled his resounding defeat of the Saxons at Mons Badon. The great failure of Arthur was that the resulting peace did not last for more than a couple of generations.

Arthur, after all, was a warrior. His rise to leadership, whoever the man behind the myths really was, lay in his strength at arms and his military prowess. It is no surprise that such a man would dig up the head of Brân the Blessed, because it did not seem right to him that this Island should be defended by the strength of anyone, but by his own. But Arthur’s peace did not endure, and his people were slowly vanquished. Arthur’s story, then, is one of peace achieved by violence, and of ultimate failure.

In our own times, the achievement of peace through ever more violent methods is a mainstream narrative, almost unquestionable.

As Druids, though, we must question it. More: we must provide leadership to achieve peace through other methods. To do this, we must look not to the methods of Arthur; we must look to the methods of Brân the Blessed.

What were these methods? Not pacifism, certainly. Brân was a warrior king – but for him, war was a last resort. We see that in the Second Branch he repeatedly uses negotiation and diplomacy, reparation and restitution, and the rules of honour to avert armed conflict, and to achieve a harmonious peace. When all other methods fail, though, the sword and the spear become the tools of statecraft.

There is more, though. Why did burying Brân’s head, facing the continent, protect the island of Britain?

It is because of what the head represented.

In part, it represented the strength and martial prowess of the men of the Island of Britain; not for nothing was it also known as the Island of the Mighty. Brân’s warriors were no less formidable than Arthur’s.

Yet… Arthur’s achievement was precisely his success in getting the warriors of the tribes of Britain to unite under his leadership, and it was no easy achievement. When Brân finally felt he had to resort to war, though, he mustered the warriors of the whole of Britain… and they came when he called, willingly. These were the warriors of the same tribes that Arthur led. These tribes were willing to unite for Brân, as they were not for Arthur. Why?

Brân was a greater king than Arthur because his authority rested on a firmer framework. Note that in the Second Branch, Brân tells his companions that his head would be the best company they had known. This is the company of a Bardic society: poetry, music, story-telling, and mirth.

Brân was the leader of a Druidic culture.

We saw in an earlier post that the Druids of Gaul maintained peace between the tribes by means of periodic gatherings and feasts, in which the Druids adjudicated on grievances, and ordained solutions. We know from Caesar that this system originated in Britain, and was brought from there to Gaul. We now know that similar feasts were held in Britain, in which attendees brought pigs from all corners of the Island to be slaughtered and consumed in great inter-tribal feasts.

This is how inter-tribal conflict was controlled; how grievance was prevented from festering into feuds and vendettas that would bring tragedy to generation after generation.

The Druids brought peace, justice, and common law through obedience to the Gods. The Bards fostered a common culture, and a deference to shared ancestors.

These are the values that we see brought to the fore in the Second Branch, and these are the virtues that Brân, and his severed head, represented. They are the values of the Druids, who were destroyed by the Romans – the Romans whose heritage Arthur claimed.

“Come”, his head invited foreign enemies, “Come, if you dare, to the Island of the Mighty. Here, you will face men of reknown, and mighty warriors. Here, you will face tribes united under their Gods; tribes united by law, and by culture, and by shared feasting together. Here you will face the wisdom and magic of the Druids, here you will face the contrivances and devices of our Ovates, here you will face the war-songs of our Bards, who will satirise you so that you dare not look each other in the eye and your nerveless hands drop your swords from shame. So come! If you dare…

And so Brân kept the Island of the Mighty safe. But Arthur dug the head up…

Perhaps it is in our time that Merlin will bury the Wondrous Head once more. Or, perhaps, it is we Druids who will have to do it for him…

Image credit: Head of John the Baptist by Rodney on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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