The Four Branches of the Mabinogi are the best known tales from the medieval Welsh prose collection known as the Mabinogion. The word “Mabinogi” originally designated only these four tales, which are really parts or “branches” of a single work, rather than the whole collection. The tales contain most of what is recorded of Welsh mythology.
The most mythological stories contained in the Mabinogion collection are the four interrelated tales, by a single author or storyteller, titled The Mabinogi in the manuscripts, or often “The Four Branches of the Mabinogi”. The use of characters’ names as titles for each branch is also a modern practice; they are not so named in the original manuscripts. One figure, Pryderi appears in all four branches, though not always as a central character.
- First Branch: Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed; which tells of Pryderi’s parents and his birth, loss and recovery.
- Second Branch: Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr; which is mostly about events following Branwen’s marriage to the King of Ireland. Pryderi is named but does not play a part in the tale.
- Third Branch: Manawydan, son of Llŷr; Pryderi returns home with Manawydan, brother of Branwen. Misfortunes follow them there.
- Fourth Branch: Math, son of Mathonwy; about Math and Gwydion, who come into conflict with Pryderi.
It has been suggested that originally these tales were all part of a tradition surrounding the life of Pryderi, and that later additions of material have since come to dominate the stories. It is unclear whether this is indeed the case, or if, alternatively, Pryderi himself was introduced to link legends of separate origins.
Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed
The first branch tells of how Pwyll, the prince of Dyfed, exchanges places for a year with Arawn, the ruler of Annwn (the underworld), defeats Arawn’s enemy Hafgan, and on his return encounters Rhiannon, a beautiful maiden whose ambling horse cannot be caught up with. He manages to win her hand at the expense of Gwawl, to whom she is betrothed. He does so by using a magic bag that can never be filled which he traps Gwawl in. His men proceed to beat Gwawl while he is in the bag. Rhiannon bears Pwyll a son, but the child disappears the night after he is born. Rhiannon is accused of killing him and forced to carry guests on her back as punishment. The child has been taken by a monster, and is rescued by Teyrnon and his wife, who bring him up as their own, calling him Gwri Golden Hair, until his resemblance to Pwyll becomes apparent. They return him to his real parents, Rhiannon is released from her punishment, and the boy is renamed Pryderi.
Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr
In the second branch, Branwen, sister of Bendigeidfran (meaning Bran the Blessed), king of Britain, is given in marriage to Matholwch, king of Ireland. Branwen’s half-brother Efnisien, angry that he was not consulted, insults Matholwch by mutilating his horses, but Bendigeidfran gives him compensation in the form of new horses and treasure, including a magical cauldron which can restore the dead to life. After returning to Ireland, Matholwch and Branwen have a son, Gwern, but Efnisien’s insult continues to rankle among the Irish and Branwen is banished to the kitchen and beaten every day. Branwen trains a starling to take a message to Bendigeidfran, who goes to war against Matholwch. His army crosses the Irish Sea in ships, but Bendigeidfran is so huge he wades across. The Irish offer to make peace, and build a house big enough to entertain Bendigeidfran, but inside they hang a hundred bags supposedly containing flour but actually containing armed warriors. Efnisien, suspecting a trick, reconnoitres the hall and kills the warriors by crushing their heads inside the bags. Later, at the feast, Efnisien, again feeling insulted, throws Gwern on the fire and fighting breaks out. Seeing that the Irish are using the cauldron to revive their dead, Efnisien hides among the corpses and destroys the cauldron, although the effort costs him his life. Only seven men, all Welsh, survive the battle, including Pryderi, Manawydan and Bendigeidfran, who is mortally wounded by a poisoned spear. Bendigeidfran asks his companions to cut off his head and take it back to Britain where it continues to live for sometime as they partake of an enchanted feast. Branwen dies of grief on returning home. Five pregnant women survive to repopulate Ireland.
Manawydan, son of Llŷr
Pryderi and Manawydan return to Dyfed, where Pryderi is reunited with his wife Cigfa and Manawydan marries Rhiannon (Pryderi’s mother from the First Branch). However, a magical mist descends on the land, leaving it empty of all domesticated animals and humans apart from the four protagonists. They stay in Dyfed and support themselves by hunting at first, then move to England where they make a living making saddles, shields and shoes of such quality that the local craftsmen cannot compete, and drive them from town to town. Eventually they return to Dyfed and become hunters again. While hunting, a white boar leads Pryderi and Manawydan to a mysterious castle. Pryderi, against Manawydan’s advice, goes inside, but does not return. Rhiannon goes to investigate and finds Pryderi clinging to a bowl, unable to speak. The same fate befalls her, and the castle disappears. Manawydan and Cigfa return to England as shoemakers, but once again the locals drive them out and they return to Dyfed. They sow three fields of wheat, but the first field is destroyed before it can be harvested. The next night the second field is destroyed. Manawydan keeps watch over the third field, and when he sees it destroyed by mice he catches one and decides to hang it the next day. A scholar, a priest and a bishop in turn offer him gifts if he will spare the mouse, but he refuses. When asked what he wants in return for the mouse’s life, he demands the release of Pryderi and Rhiannon and the lifting of the enchantment over Dyfed. The bishop agrees, because the mouse is in fact his wife. He reveals that his name is Llwyd son of Cil Coed and he caused the enchantment on Dyfed in revenge for an insult against his friend Gwawl, whom Pwyll, Pryderi’s father, humiliated in the First Branch.
Math, son of Mathonwy
While Pryderi rules Dyfed in south Wales, Gwynedd in north Wales is ruled by Math, son of Mathonwy. His feet must be held by a virgin at all times except while he is at war. Math’s nephew Gilfaethwy is in love with Goewin, the current footholder, and Gilfaethwy’s brother Gwydion tricks Math into going to war against Pryderi so Gilfaethwy can have access to her. Gwydion kills Pryderi in single combat, and Gilfaethwy rapes Goewin. Math marries Goewin in compensation for her rape, and banishes Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, transforming them into a breeding pair of deer, then pigs, then wolves. After three years they are restored to human form and return.
Math needs a new footholder, and Gwydion suggests his sister, Aranrhod, but when Math magically tests her virginity, she gives birth to two sons. One, Dylan, immediately takes to the sea. The other is raised by Gwydion, but Aranrhod swears that he will never have a name or arms unless she gives them to him, and refuses to do so. But Gwydion tricks her into naming him Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Lleu Skilful Hand) and giving him arms. She then swears he will never have a wife of any race living on earth, so Gwydion and Math make him a beautiful wife from flowers, and name her Blodeuedd (“Flowers”). Blodeuedd falls in love with a passing hunter called Gronw Bebyr, and they plot to kill Lleu. Blodeuedd tricks Lleu into revealing the means by which he can be killed, but when Gronw attempts to do the deed, Lleu escapes, though wounded, transformed into an eagle.
Gwydion finds Lleu and transforms him back into human form, and turns Blodeuedd into an owl (Blodeuwedd = “Owl,” more literally “Flower Face”). Gronw offers to compensate Lleu, but Lleu insists on returning the blow that was struck against him. He kills Gronw with his spear, which is thrown so hard it pierces him through the stone he is hiding behind.