A son of Llyr, the British god Bran is known for two things. The first is that he owned a cauldron that could resuscite any dead animal. The second is that, dead, his head continued to entertain the surviving members of his war-band for eighty-seven years.
The story associated with him begins with Matholwch, King of Ireland. He came to Britain to woo the hand of Branwen, Bran’s sister. Bran and Branwen were amenable but their half-brother Efnisien was not. In defiance he mutilated their horses. Hoping to sooth relations, Bran gave Matholwch his magic cauldron. Using his new gift he restored his horses and the marriage took place. Matholwch and his new bride went to Ireland.
But Matholwch never forgave the incident. Insulted at the slight given him he mistreated Branwen from the start of their marriage. Eventually she sent word to her brother of her plight. Bran responded by assembling an army. In the resulting battle the cauldron was destroyed by Efniesin, all of the Britons but seven were killed, and Branwen died of a broken heart. Bran, gravely wounded, told his own people to sever his head and take it with them as they retreated.
Even put in context, the cauldron and the living head seem like an odd pair of details to be attached to a British god. However, they are in a way connected, and their connection touches on some core aspects of Arthuriana. Magical cauldrons are normal features in Celtic mythology and legend, having cornucopic, healing, and even life-giving qualities. All of these attributes can also be seen in the grail, which sustains the grail court with food and whose proximity allows the grail-king to survive even though he has been mortally wound. But the holy grail is clearly Celtic, as has been seen. The giveaway is in its name – given as Corbenic and translated as something like Blessed Horn or cornucopia.
The second item seems absolutely fantastic at first glance, a talking head (insert joke). However, the Celts believed that a person’s head was mystical and contained the soul of that person. When Bran’s own people decapitated him they were able to preserve it because of its innate magic and Bran’s godly power. For the Celts, the story of Bran and his sister was a simple tale of betrayal built upon well-known cultural foundations.
During the twelfth century, the magical cauldron and the court of Bran tied in well with the developing continental mythology of the grail. The qualities of life-giving and food-producing sounded like the miracles of Christ himself while the life-beyond-death of Bran resembled the story of the grail-king as it had been told from Chrétien on. In the thirteenth-century, author Robert de Boron would even introduce the name Bron for the grail king, completing the integration of Bran to the story of the holy grail.