The Raven – Corvus corax – is hatching. An early nesting bird, and the biggest of the Covids. They were pushed to the west and north by farmers and game keepers but are making a comeback and finding towns convenient for their scavenging habits. So they, again, cover most of the UK except the eastern areas.
Their habits, and their black plumage has made them harbingers of death. In poetry Ravens glut on blood like the warriors whose emblem they are. Here is a very famous quotation from Y Gododdin, a medieval poem but thought to derive from a poem by the great poet Aneirin from the 7th Century
‘He glutted black ravens on the rampart of the stronghold, though he was no Arthur.’
This is one of the much argued-about references to Arthur in the ‘Was he a real person’ argument.
The Raven was also the symbol of the God-King Bran. Bran was one of the legendary Kings of Britain and his sister, Branwen, was married to the King of Ireland. To cut a long story short, which I hope to tell in further detail on another occasion, Branwen was exiled by her Irish husband to the scullery. She trained a starling to smuggle a message to her brother.
Bran took an army over the Irish Sea to restore her to her rightful state, but the ships were becalmed and so Bran blew the boats across the sea – he was that mighty a man.
Bran was mortality wounded in the battle that followed, having previously given away his cauldron of immortality to the Irish King in recompense for the insults given to the Irish by his brother.
So, the dying Bran, told his companions to cut off his head and take it back to the White Hill in London. His head was as good a companion on the way back as it was on the way out, and the journey home took 90 years.
At last they got to London where he told his men to bury his head on the White Hill, and as long as it were there Britain would be safe from foreign invasion.
This was one of the Three Fortunate Concealments and is found in ‘the Triads of the Island of Britain.’
But many years later King Arthur saw no need for anybody or anything other than himself to protect the realm so he had the head dug up. Thus the Saxons won the Kingdom from the Britons. This was one of the Three Unfortunate Disclosures.
The White Hill is said to be Tower Hill with its summit at Trinity Gardens, although Primrose Hill is sometimes offered as an alternative. If we want a rational explanation for the story, there is evidence that Celtic cultures venerated the skull, and palladiums play a part in Celtic Tales.
A Palladium is something that keeps a city or country safe, and was named after a wooden statue of Pallas Athene, which protected Troy. Perceiving this Odysseus and Diomedes stole the Palladium from Troy shortly before the Trojan Horse episode. The palladium then went to Italy (I’m guessing with Diomedes who is said to have founded several cities in Italy), and ended up in Rome.
The Romans claimed to be descendents of Trojan exiles led by Aeneas so it was back with its rightful owners. It protected Rome until it was transferred to the new Roman capital at Constantinople, and then disappeared, presumably allowing the Ottoman Turks to conquer the City of Caesar.
So what was Arthur doing destroying the palladium that kept Britain safe? Vanity is the answer the story gives. But, perhaps, it’s a memory of Christian rites taking over from pagan rituals. God, Arthur might have thought, would prefer to protect his people himself rather than they rely on a pagan cult object.
The story of Bran’s head is inevitably linked to the Ravens in the Tower who, it is still said, keep us safe from invasion, and so we clip their wings and get in a tiz when one goes missing.
Sadly, and I am probably more sad about this than most others, Geoffrey Parnell,who is a friend of mine told me that while working at the Tower of London he searched the records assiduously for the story of the ravens and found no evidence of the tale before the 19th Century and concluded that it was most likely a Victorian invention.
The Welsh Triads give a total of three palladiums for Britain.
The Head of Bran the Blessed, son of Llyr, which was concealed in the White Hill in London, with its face towards France. And as long as it was in the position in which it was put there, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to this Island;
The second Fortunate Concealment: the Dragons in Dinas Emrys, which llud son of Beli concealed;
And the third: the Bones of Gwerthefyr the Blessed, in the Chief Ports of this Island. And as long as they remained in that concealment, no Saxon Oppression would ever come to this Island.
All good but then came the three unfortunate disclosures:
And there were the Three Unfortunate Disclosures when these were disclosed.
And Gwrtheyrn the Thin disclosed the bones of Gwerthefyr the Blessed form the love of a woman: that was Ronnwen the pagan woman;
And it was he who disclosed the Dragons;
And Arthur disclosed the head of Bran the Blessed from the White Hill, because it did not seem right to him that this Island should be defended by the strength of anyone, but by his own.
Gwrtheyrn is Vortigen, the leader of the Britons after the fall of the Roman Empire in Britain, one or two leaders before Arthur.
The Dragons were making a terrible noise, causing miscarriages and other misfortunes, and King Ludd, whom legends says gave his name to London (Ludd’s Dun or Ludd’s walled City), had them buried in a cavern in Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia. The Dragons represented the Britons and the Saxons. Vortigern in trying to build a castle in Snowdonia at Dinas Emrys disturbed the Dragons and their disclosure caused the Saxon conquest.
Gwerthefyr is Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, who was keeping the Saxons out, but his father betrayed his own people for the lust of Rowena the daughter of Hengist, the Saxon.
After Vortimer’s death his bones were buried at the chief ports and they kept the country safe. But they were moved to Billingsgate which allowed the Saxons to land safely on the Kent coast and consolidate their increasing hold over Britain and turning it into Englandw
Written in February 21 revised in February 23 and 24