Bran the Archdruid

Bran the Archdruid

in Weapons from Paradise

 

This magnificent figure – the last Archdriud of Britain in the days of the Roman invasions, converted by Joseph of Arimathea and the father of a lineage of early saints – seems to have appeared full-grown out of the imagination of the Welsh antiquarian Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams). Morganwg’s “discovery and translation” of a previously unknown series of the Triads of the Isle of Britain (these were lists of stories that bards were supposed to know) is now believed to have been an invention of his own fancy.

That did not prevent the Archdruid from casting such a spell over my imagination that he became the center of an epic story, one man able to encompass the wisdom of all ages.

His legend cast its powerful magic upon several Anglican scholars of the romantic period. Bran was supposedly the father of the historical Caractacus (Caradoc), war-leader of the British tribes against the Roman invasion of the island. Caradoc was at last captured and taken to Rome, and paraded in chains through the Arch of Victory. His heroic speech before Claudius, recorded by Tacitus, earned him his life and relative freedom as a hostage.

His children, already converted by Joseph of Arimathea, also were taken to Rome with him, where they were important in the early Church. Linus’s sister was Claudia, wife of Pudens, mentioned in the letters of St. Paul. Another, St. Cyllin, who returned to rule Britain, was the ancestor of Cole and Constantine the Great and Arthur. Bran the Archdruid offered himself to Rome as a hostage for the well-being of his family. He was converted in Rome, returning to Britain with Aristobulus (of the seventy apostles), and was supposedly the first to introduce writing to British culture.

These names are listed in lineages independent of Iolo Morganwy’s Triads, but their traditions are sketchy.

I spent years researching, in the days before the Internet, to see if there could be any historical truth to this figure. During this period, I dreamed that I found an old book: The Triads of Bran the Archdruid. It was an oversized printed translation, out of print and forgotten in some dusty archive, of a little-known medieval manuscript. The idea of such a book burned with inspiration for me, fueling more searches for out-of-print material, and a more careful reading of Bromwich’s edition of the Triads of Britain, as well as what I could find of Iolo Morganwyg’s versions. Frustrated at not finding my dream book, I yielded to my imagination to hear Bran himself recite the original version. King Evalak’s eulogy of the Archdruid was likewise taken from this imaginary material.

I saw him as the best possible example of pre-Christian wisdom. His conversion was not easy, but that’s what makes him the subject of epic. More in the essay, “The Religion of Bran the Archdruid”.

 

The Weapons from Paradise

 

The Thirteen Treasures of the Isle of Britain is a list of magic talismans associated with Arthurian lore, attached to the Triads. Among them are the “four hallows” of the Grail, whose origin is in Irish myth. I have not only drawn attention to a distinction between the Christian relics of the Holy Grail and the mythological weapons of the gods, but I have built an entire narrative around that distinction.

In Irish legend, the gods brought weapons of power from paradise, the “land beyond the north” (beyond time) in order to battle the giants (Fir Bolg) for possession of Ireland. These were the sword of Nuadha, the spear of Lugh, the cauldron of the Dagdha (the cauldron of Bran in British myth), and the stone of Fal (which shouts when the true king stands on it; this supposedly still exists in the seat of the Winchester coronation-throne).

In my narrative, the relics of Christ’s passion that come to Britain with Joseph of Arimathea, fulfill the divine hope that the myth represents. The relics are: the Grail, the spear of Longinus, the Red-Cross shield of Evalak, and the sword of the Archangel.

The shield re-appears later in my history as the shield of Arthur, as in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, with an icon of the Mother of God painted in one quarter of it.

There are also two swords throughout Arthurian legend. One is Excalibur (Latin), originally Caliburn, or in Welsh Caledfwlch, which is the sword of the god Nudd, same as the Irish sword of Nuadha Silver-Hand. This is the sword that flames “in the hand of a righteous man”. The other is variously Solomon’s sword or the sword that beheaded John the Baptist. I have made the two one, and added a history of Solomon’s sword to claim that the Archangel gave his sword (the flaming sword that guarded Paradise) to Joshua; this Solomon inherited.

 

The Legends of Longinus

 

The hagiography of the martyr Longinus, the Roman centurion who stood watch at the cross of Christ, is as ancient as any tradition in the Orthodox Church. Even in the earliest iconography, he is included in the icon of the crucifixion. The earliest martyrologies make him a native of Thrace, a man impaired by poor vision which was healed by the blood and water from Christ’s side when, according to the scripture, he pierced Christ with his spear. He reported the earthquake and the empty tomb at the watch of Christ’s burial to Pilate; when instructed to say that the disciples stole the body, he instead joined the disciples, becoming first bishop of Caesaria, Asia Minor, where he was martyred.

Medieval legend made his spear one of the relics associated with the Holy Grail. This is not only because of the association of the pre-Christian Celtic grail and spear, but also because of the liturgical association of the chalice and spear. Both are specifically referred to in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which according to Orthodox Tradition, was an abbreviation of the Liturgy of St. James from apostolic times. The two relics are associated in the moments after the Great Entrance, leading up to the climax of the divine offering. That this association is as old as the Eucharist is evidence enough for  me to have associated the sacred relics in the possession of Joseph of Arimathea, as the Grail legends have done.

There are no medieval traditions I know of that bring Longinus to Britain. His tomb is in Asia Minor or, in one tradition, as far west as Italy. The tomb of a Longinus the centurion, a native of Thrace, in the first-century Roman cemetery in Colchester, holding his spear and mounted victoriously on horseback, was not identified with the legend, as far as I know, until recent centuries. But even this is enough for those fascinated with legends (i.e. poets).

Even in the original hagiography there are puzzles for the scholar. How could a Thracian become a legionnaire, much less a centurion? The Thracians were a conquered people from northern Greece, famous for warfare on horseback, who were employed as auxiliaries to the legions, but who could not earn Roman citizenship (a prerequisite for the legionnaires) until they were retired as fighting auxiliaries. Likewise, no man impaired by blindness could enter the Legions, much less become a commander to them!

If one gives scholarship more weight of truth than ancient hagiography, one solves all problems: hagiography is the machinations of legend, nothing more.

If one gives hagiography and tradition the precedence of truth over the blind guesswork of meticulous scholarship, one might come to a different conclusion. He would begin by asking: how did Longinus’ spear come to the aid of the Grail? Only by association in Celtic legend, as though there is nothing more than this to the fullness of the promised revelation in Christ, when Joseph stood under the outstretched spear with the cup in his hands, weeping?

A true Orthodox scholar is a pilgrim and searcher. I await the work of one such to discover the truth behind these questions.

Meanwhile, my firm belief that lost truths are the source of legend has led my imagination into the land of poetry. I have made Longinus a letter-bearer of the first Christian communities, bringing his spear to give to Joseph of Arimathea. By poetic intuition I made his physical blindness also our spiritual blindness (as the hagiographers have done), and the illumination of his eyes to be also the most exalted spiritual illumination. Therefore I have imagined him (as Romanos the Greek hymnographer might have imagined him) as one of the great apologists (mystic theologians) of the earliest centuries. A Greek (Thracian), I have made him a disciple of the first of Greek theologians, Dionysius the Areopagite (following ancient hagiography and completely ignoring the last five centuries of scholarship on the “pseudo-Dionysius”).

What I have written is meant to stir the imagination. This is not scholarship; nor is it meant to take the place of true hagiography.

 

The Star-Map

 

Bran enters an ecstasy of song as he indicates the entire catalogue of mythology depicted in the constellations. The brilliant hierarchical order of their arrangement around the center of the turning universe at the pole star was suggested to me in a beautiful but hard-to-find book: The Glorious Constellations by Giuseppe Maria Sesti ; introduction by Elémire Zolla ; translated from the Italian by Karin H. Ford.

His thesis is that the turning stars represent time and history; the still pole of the heavens represents eternity. The meaning of the quest of mythological heroes is connected to the journey to the paradise-land beyond time, often depicted as a fruit-bearing tree in a mystic garden.

This universal iconography, as it were, is contrasted later with the iconography of the new universe. This happens when the narrator finally meets Joseph of Arimathea, later in the poem. The little mud-wattle chapel of Joseph vanishes, where it is replaced by a vison of the great cathedral of Glastonbury built by St. Dunstan. I show the cathedral fully frescoed in the Byzantine iconographic program, each icon in its proper place in relation to the altar and dome as a representation of the Uncreated heavens replacing the created stars.

 

The Council of the Kings

 

The narrative framework of Books V – VIII is the Council of the Kings of Britain during the Roman invasion. Several of these have already concluded alliances with Rome. Bran the Archdruid wants to inspire them to fight. In his view, Rome represents the death of ancient and authentic tradition in the face of a new gross materialism, grandiose and pretentious. His view is that of Rene Guenon and the Perennialist philosophers.

 

The Song of the Tribes of Britain

 

These ancient Celtic tribes are all authentic. One will find here the origins of the names of several cities and counties still existing in England. The lore recited is a mixture of history, archeology, and myth. Much of it comes from the lively pseudo-history of Geoffrey of Monmounth’s History of the Kings of Britain.

 

Evalak the King of Avalon

 

The alliterative Joseph of Arimathie, printed by Wynkyn de Worde: Skeat’s edition, with the appendices of the other 14th century lives later printed by Richard Pynson. I feel lucky to have seen even in microfilm this text which, in its original edition, was as important to the history of printing as it was Middle English literature.

My use of this material is an example of my main purpose in composing the epic; an attempt at the recreation, though in literary fiction, of the original story from which the legends sprung.

Evalak in the alliterative Joseph of Arimathie was king of an unknown or mythical country (Sarras) encountered during his wanderings toward the final destination in Britain. Since the mythical Avalloch of Avalon and the historical British war-king Arviragus (according to the Roman poet Martial) are so often identified with Evelake of the Grail legends, I see no reason not to plant this part of the history squarely in the original Avalon of Joseph of Arimathea.

The argument of the king’s bard with Joseph will be recognized from this story.

To the two dreams of Evalak, given in allegorical fashion in the alliterative Joseph of Arimathie, I give the theological interpretations.

 

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Comments
One Response to “Bran the Archdruid”
  1. I can’t wait to this epic is printed. I’ll be the first to pick up a copy. Or print one. Whatever I have to do! Three cheers to you, dear friend. I needed to read this today.

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