Branwen, White Raven
Goddess of Sorrows
I’m writing this article at Samhain, the time of the year when the veil between the worlds is thinner and Witches remember and honour their beloved dead. How do Witches understand grief and sorrow? One way is by using the story of Branwen as a blueprint for guided meditation. I offer this story and these ideas to you to help you understand and learn from the sorrows in your life.
Once upon a time Branwen, White Raven, sister of the giant Bran the Blessed King of Britain was given to Matholwch the King of Ireland in marriage to make peace between the two nations. During the betrothal feast Efnisien their half-brother arrived and was furious that the marriage was to take place without his approval. In anger he mutilated the horses of Matholwch. War almost broke out then and there but Matholwch was appeased by Bran who gave him a magical cauldron which could bring the dead to life, although they would remain mute following their revival.
Branwen went to live in Ireland but was treated cruelly by her husband Matholwch as punishment for Efnisien’s mutilation of the horses, though not before she gave birth to an heir, Gwern. Branwen became a kitchen slave and was beaten and starved. During her time in the kitchen she tamed a starling and sent it across the Irish Sea with a message to her brother about her sad life and Bran brought a force from Wales to Ireland to rescue her.
When Bran arrived Matholwch agreed to give the kingdom to Gwern, his son by Branwen, to pacify Bran, but the Irish lords did not like the idea, and many hid themselves in flour bags tied to the pillars of a huge newly built house made to honour Bran. They planned to ambush Bran’s forces. Efnisien, checking out the house prior to the arrival of Bran and his men, guessed what was happening and killed the hidden men. All was not well and at the feast to celebrate Gwern’s becoming King of Ireland, Efnisien in an unprovoked moment of rage threw his nephew Gwern into the fire and kiled him.
War broke out and all the Irish were killed except for five pregnant women while only seven of the Welsh survived to return home with Branwen, taking with them the severed head of Bran. On landing in Wales at Aber Alaw in Anglesey Branwen died of grief that so much destruction had been caused on her account. She is buried in a square grave.
Branwen, the White Raven, is an aspect of the Goddess who can never die, so what is the deeper meaning of this story? In every belief system in the world we find the figure of the Lady of Sorrows. She is the Mother who understands our grief, our pain and all our losses. Examples are Kwan Yin, who will never go to the Otherworld until all the souls of the world are liberated from suffering, Mary weeping at the foot of the cross where her son hangs dying, or Isis searching for the dismembered body of Osiris. Native American stories tell of Mother Bear who carries our sorrows for us. We have all experienced grief and pain that changes us and teaches us compassion and hopefully not bitterness!
What is the meaning of your sorrow? What are your fears and shadows? Why have they come to you and what have you learned from them? Wiccans understand that Efniessin is the God of Chaos. You may think that he is an evil character but he is the force that stirs the Cauldron, keeping the Universe moving in its cycle of change, of death and re-birth. His existence is crucial or our energy would stagnate and die.
One way to work with the images of this story is to create a square altar to represent the grave of Branwen. Take as much time as you need to understand all your sorrows, meditating on them, writing about them and contemplating their lessons. You can ask the starling to help! When you are finished take some small pebbles or stones, smooth and round, and paint an image of your sorrows on them, one sorrow per stone. Place them on the altar and ask Branwen, Goddess of Sorrows to hold them for you until you are ready to heal and let them go. When you are ready you can take the stones and throw them into running water under the Full Moon. The secret of this ritual is then to never talk about these sorrows again, to let them fade away into the water, leaving only their lessons and the compassion and wisdom learned from them. Allow the grief to leave you forever with the blessings and the help of Branwen White Raven.