The Mabinogion: The Core of Welsh Mythology

The Mabinogion is a Welsh text written in the late Middle Ages. It consists of four branches, three romances, and several other ancillary stories and poems. Some of these stories would later become the stuff of Arthurian legends and the mythology around the Holy Grail. Let’s take a look at a quick summary of each of the Mabinogion’s four branches:

Pwyll Pendefig (Prince of) Dyfed

The First Branch of the Mabinogion

Pwyll becomes separated from his hunting companions and comes across a pack of dogs eating a dead stag. He drives the dogs away and lets his own hounds eat, angering Arawn, the lord of the otherworld. Pwyll agrees to trade places and appearances with Arawn for one year and a day. At the end of this time period, Pwyll fights Hafgan, Arawn’s enemy, mortally wounding him and earning Arawn the lordship over all the otherworld. Pwyll and Arawn meet again to trade places and appearances, and become friends because Pwyll did not take advantage of Arawn’s wife.

Pwyll and his retainers ascend a nearby mound and see a beautiful but mysterious woman on horseback, dressed in a gold silk brocade and riding a white horse. Pwyll sends the fastest horsemen to chase her, but she always manages to keep ahead of them, even though she seems to be ambling. Pwyll rides after her himself and calls after. She stops and says she wished he had asked her sooner, for she has been seeking him. The woman is Rhiannon, bound in marriage to Gwawl, whom she does not want to marry.

Pwyll and Rhiannon set their own wedding day a year from the date of their meeting. At the feast, a man arrives and asks Pwyll for a favor, and Pwyll responds that the man shall have whatever he asks for. The man reveals that he is Gwawl, and he wants Rhiannon as his own wife, and for the feast to be his own wedding feast. Rhiannon is unhappy with the exchange, and says that the feast is not theirs to give, since it belongs to the guests. Instead, she suggests that Gwawl returns in one year and that she will marry him at an equal feast.

The feast arrives and this time around, Pwyll comes to the feast disguised as a beggar. He carries an enchanted bag that Rhiannon gave him, and goes around asking for enough food to fill his bag. The bag never gets full, and finally Gwawl enters it himself to fill the promise. Pwyll closes the bag and his men beat it repeatedly—giving rise to the game “badger in the bag.”

Pwyll and Rhiannon marry and have a son. However, on the night of his birth, he disappears. Rhiannon’s six ladies in waiting smear dog’s blood on her while she sleeps, then claim that she cannibalized the child. But the child is then discovered outside a stable by Teyrnon, a local lord. He and his wife raise the child and name him Gwri of the Golden Hair. Gwri matures very quickly and his identity can no longer be hidden, as he resembles Pwyll. He is reunited with his parents and renamed Pryderi, or Anxiety. Pwyll dies and his son ascends the throne.

Branwen, Daughter of Lir

The Second Branch of the Mabinogion

Matholwch, King of Ireland, sails to Wales to ask for Branwen, sister of Bran the Blessed. Bran agrees and a celebration ensues, but the party is ruined when Efnisien, his half-brother, mutilates the Irish horses because he is angry that his permission was not sought in the match. Matholwch is offended until Bran appeases him with a magic cauldron, which can resurrect the dead, albeit without the ability to speak.

Matholwch is appeased and takes Branwen back to Ireland. Unfortunately, the Irish cannot let go of Efnisien’s slight, and Branwen is sent to live as a maid in the kitchens and beaten every day. She trains a bird and sends it across the sea to Wales, with a message for her brother Brian. Brian and Manawydan muster a huge horde of warriors and sail to Ireland.

The Irish want to make peace and invite everyone to a party. But they hang a hundred flour sacks from the rafters and fill them with men for a surprise attack. Efnisien discovers the trick and kills the men in the bags. In any event, the feast begins and things seem to be going well, until Efnisien picks up Branwen’s son Gwern and tosses him in the fire.

A battle breaks out, and the Irish are winning because they have the magic cauldron. Efnisien hides himself among the dead, and breaks the cauldron from within, dying in the act of doing so. Only a handful of Welsh warriors survive the battle, and they are commanded by a mortally wounded Bran to cut off his head and carry it back to Wales. The head regales them for seven years before they move elsewhere with it, where it regales them for eighty years. One day someone throws open the door and the sadness of what had befallen them washes over them, breaking the spell. They bury Bran’s now-silent head facing France to ward off invasion. Some say that is where the Tower of London now stands.

Ireland has only five pregnant women left, who give birth to five sons. Together, they incestuously repopulate Ireland—and thus the Second Branch ends with a Welsh jab at the Irish.

Manawydan, Son of Lir

The Third Branch of the Mabinogion

Manawydan has fulfilled his promise to bury the head of Bran. He joins his friend Pryderi and journeys to Dyfed, where Pryderi is reunited with his wife Cigfa. Manawydan falls in love with Pryderi’s widowed mother, Rhiannon, and the two are married. The four become great companions.

A magical mist descends upon the land, and it seems as if all animals and humans have disappeared except for the four. Pryderi and Manawydan travel to England and become tradesmen, but their work is so good they get chased out of town. They return to Dyfed and hunt a white boar, following it to a mysterious castle. Pryderi enters the castle and finds a strange fountain next to a gold bowl suspended by chains that ascend into the heavens.

When he touches the bowl, he gets stuck and cannot speak. Meanwhile, Manawyden has given up waiting and returns to Dyfed. Rhiannon is upset with him for leaving Pryderi, and she goes to find him herself…then ends up also getting frozen and being struck mute. The castle disappears suddenly.

Cigfa and Manawyden are sad, but they journey to England to become cobblers. Their work is so good, they get chased out of town. They return to the enchanted Dyfed, and Manawyden attempts to farm some wheat. Strangely, the fields are destroyed overnight before he can harvest them, one, and then twice. The third time he waits to see what happened, and sees a horde of mice devouring the wheat.

He catches one mouse and is going to hang it. A scholar, a priest, and then a bishop each come along and offer him increasing monetary reward to desist from hanging the mouse, since it would be beneath his station. Manawyden tells the Bishop he will not let the mouse go unless Pryderi and Rhiannon are returned, the enchantment over Dyfed lifted, and a promise made that no vengeance will be eked out on him. The bishop agrees to do this because the mouse is actually his wife, and he is actually Llwyd, friend of Gwawl, who is still upset at Rhiannon’s treachery. 

Manawydan, Son of Lir

The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion

Math, King of Gwynedd must always be at war or resting his feet in the lap of a virgin, or he will die. Math’s nephew falls in love with the woman who holds his feet, Goewin. Gwydion the Magician (who is also a nephew of Math) has a plan to aid Math’s (other) nephew: he tells Math about a new type of animal in Wales, pigs, and that he can get them from Prderi. Math heads to Dyfed with a band of men, posing as bards.

Gwydion regales the court with storytelling, and Pryderi is charmed. Gwydion offers to trade some dogs and horses for the pigs. The dogs and horses were actually conjured through magic, and a furious Pryderi wages war against Math. While Math is in battle, his nephew sneaks off to rape Goewin.

Gwydion kills Pryderi, and they return to the castle. Math wants to rest his feet in Goewin’s lap, but he cannot, since she is no longer a virgin. He takes her as his wife to save her honor and banishes his nephews, turning them into breeding deer, then boars, and wolves, year after year. They produce three children.

When the punishment is over, Math seeks a new virgin footholder, and Gwydion suggests his own sister Arianrhod. However, she is not a virgin, and when asked to step across Math’s rod to prove her virginity, she gives birth and runs away, leaving a second lump of flesh that Gwydion conceals in a chest.

Math baptises the first son and names him Dylan. But as soon as he contacts the water, he becomes a sea creature. The lump of flesh becomes a second child and Gwydion becomes very attached. He takes the boy to see his mother, but she is too ashamed and places a tynged on him that he can have no name unless she gives it. 

Gwydion plays a trick on her and disguises himself as a cobbler. The boy throws a stone at a bird and Arianrhod declares “The fair one struck with a deft hand,” effectively giving him the name Lleu Llaw Gyffes.

Arianrhod is upset at the ruse and places a second tynged on him that he cannot take up arms until she gives them. Lleu grows up. Gwydion disguises himself again as bards and entertains Arianrhod’s court with stories. In the morning, he tricks her into believing her lands are under attack, and suggests that she give Llew a sword.

Arianrhod is upset at the ruse and places another tnged on him that he shall never have a human wife. Math (who is reconciled to Gwydion) creates a woman out of flowers for him and named her Blodeuedd.

When Lleu is away visiting Math, Blodeuedd invites a passing nobleman to stay with her. They fall in love and come up with a plot to kill Lleu. But Lleu can only be killed when he has one foot on the back of a goat and the other on a bathtub, underneath a canopy, using a spear made over the course of one year of Sundays during mass.

Gronw amazingly makes the spear, and Blodeuedd tricks Lleu into demonstrating the position that would be mortally fatal. Gronw ambushes him, but Lleu does not die, instead turning into an eagle and flying away. Gronw takes Blodeuedd and the hand that Lleu left behind.

Gwydion finds Lleu by following a pig and lures him out of a tree with some poetry, which also transforms him back into a man. He and Math nurse Lleu back to life, and Lleu goes in search of Blodeuedd and Gronw to take revenge.

Blodeuedd hears this and flees. Her maidens are afraid and walk backwards to make sure they are not being pursued, but they fall into a  lake, and only Blodeuwedd survives. Gwydion catches up with her and turns her into an owl for revenge, calling her Blodeuwedd, meaning flower face (the shape of an owl’s face).

Gronw tries to appease Lleu with land or money, but Lleu wants only to throw a spear at Gronw in the same way. He accepts but asks that a larges stone be placed between them. Still, the spear travels through the stone and kills Gronw. Lleu succeeds Math as king.