On Branwen’s Horses

I have been thinking and writing about the Welsh legend of Branwen recently, in this micro-chapbook out with the Poetry Annals, Blind Horse Elegy (cover image by Victoria Brookland), and in the title poem itself which was a runner up in the Hopper Poetry Prize.

When I think of the story of Branwen, I think of the place where I grew up. It was the topmost street on the mountain, marking the border between a suburban estate and farming country. Climb over a fence, and there were fields of sheep and horses. Other girls in our street went horse riding at the farm, but my mother was not sympathetic. “Horse riding,” she said, “is an upper class habit.” 

Whatever class the horses belonged to, there was something primitive about life over the fence. I have written about the farmers: how they were always feuding. Poisoning each other’s animals. Burning down each other’s barns. But of course farmers have to be cruel, because animals are food and livelihood, not pets.

Branwen’s story had a kind of cruelty too. Her branch of the Mabinogi tells of her marriage, and her dowry of magnificent horses. How her brothers decide that she should be married to the King of Ireland, Matholwch, and they send her to sleep with him at Aberffraw. So they have festivities at Aberffraw, and after the feasting and talking, they go to sleep, and Matholwch sleeps with Branwen. We are never told in the story how Branwen feels about that.

Part of the dowry for Branwen’s wedding is a group of magnificent horses, and her half-brother Efnisien, who sounds half in love with her, does not know of her marriage until he comes across the horses. Efnisien is not a sympathetic character. His first response is to ask why he did not have a say in the decision to marry off his sister, and to say what an insult is to him. What Efnisien does next is part of a conversation between men about power.

He strikes the horses. He slices their lips “back to their teeth,” cuts their ears “back to their heads,” and their tails to their backs, and where he can take hold of the poor creatures, getting a grip on their eyelids, he cuts their eyes back to the bone.

When I heard the story as a child, I always found the damage to the eyes disturbing. Horse’s eyes are the largest of all land mammals, and how horrible the detail that Efnisien left them alive. 

Peculiarly, the story only sees these appalling acts in terms of utility:

“the horses were mutilated thus, to the extent that no further use could be got from the horses.”

This is also the reaction of Matholwch, Branwen’s husband, when he hears the news, noting that

“there was no longer any joy to be had from them.”

One of Matholwch’s men replies that the intention was to humiliate him, and so begins the conversation about power between Efnisien and Matholwch. No thought is given to the subjectivity or suffering of the horses themselves.

I first came across the story as a child reading the “Snow Spider” Trilogy by the Welsh author Jenni Nimmo: so disturbing, and the end of the story is so sad, when Branwen is cast aside by her husband. Her brothers come to rescue her, but Efnisien throws the child she had by her marriage into the fire, a disturbing act of patriarchal violence. There was so much I couldn’t articulate about the story as a girl, but which I recognize now. There are such moments in the process of growing up.

The story never questions why Efnisien is so cruel, but I do. In the myth, he is simply evil,  destined from birth to be brutal and unfeeling. But we know now that this is not the truth of things, if there is any such thing. In “The Root of All Cruelty?” for the New Yorker, Paul Bloom notes that people who commit cruel acts do have empathy, and understand how their actions make others feel – indeed that is what gives them pleasure. It’s horrifying, but it exists in the world, and we have to question why if we are to understand what dysfunctional societal norms are producing amorality, because I don’t believe that people are innately evil.

Understanding cruelty, however, doesn’t mean that you can necessarily rehabilitate people. or even understand the cruel things they do. Could Efnisien be forgiven for blinding and maiming Branwen’s horses? Could he be forgiven for killing her son? I suppose that we could come up with excuses about him being the half-brother, or about his seeming love for Branwen, but that feels too much like “himpathy.”

Perhaps we would be better off thinking about what happened to Branwen, the name meaning “White Crow.” I always hated the ending – how she died from a broken heart – but what if she didn’t die? What if she survived? How could she manage that? How would we manage it?

I find it hard to believe that the horses survived their ordeals, but I like to think that they live on in a New Year ritual from my valley in Wales. For the Mari Lwyd in Llangynwyd on New Year’s Eve, a hobby horse is made from a horse skull, bottles, and ribbons. It knocks on the doors of the town, trading rhymes for a few coins or a beer. For the poet Vernon Watkins in ‘The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd,’ the horse skull represents death and darkness stalking the living, and he asks us to pay attention.

It is New Year’s Night.

Midnight is burning like a taper, will be blown out.

It is the moment of conscience. The living moment.

The dead moment.



Branwen by Christopher Williams, painting [pictured in red gown by the sea].