What Would Efnisien Do?

Efnisien isn’t nice. He is the kind of character who “would provoke conflict between two brothers, [even] while they were at their most amicable.”[Will Parker’s translation]. He bears grudges, mutilates horses, and kills men by crushing their skulls in the fingers of his massive hands. And yet, almost everything that happens in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi happens because of him, from the initial provocation of Math to the ultimate destruction of the cauldron, which brings the conflict to an end. Even his most shockingly barbaric action – throwing Branwen’s beloved son, Gwern, into the fire – may be more significant than it appears:

“It seems most likely that the significance of Gwern was more pronounced in this bardic tradition. The place of the alder (gwern) was prominent in Cad Goddeu (‘The Battle of the Trees’), and a later bardic riddle identified Bran by ‘the high sprigs of Alder’ in his hand’. This riddle, and the Battle of the Trees, lies close to the esoteric core of the Mabinogi as a whole” — Will Parker

My time on Anglesey brought me face to face with Efnisien. In fact, the title of this blog post is taken from a brilliant t-shirt worn by one of the priests of the ADO. At first it felt strange to spend so much time with a character who seemed less important, a mere half-sibling of the House of Llŷr, and so violent too, but with the guidance of the order I began to understand his significance. Even so, it has taken me years to find his voice.

Yesterday evening, walking home, a long trail of thoughts led me back to a Jacobean tragedy I read at school, ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. It’s famously gory (spoiler: everybody dies) and, in a way, it has its own Efnisien: Bosola, the malcontent. Bosola, as I remember him, comes from a poor background, but somehow finds his way to a priviledged education where he rubs shoulders with wealthy and influential peers. Once his time as a student is over, Bosola finds he has no place in their world, but cannot comfortably return to his own; he becomes an outsider in both, finding the problems in each and picking away at them until something happens.

Bosola has been on my mind recently. Politics has taken an ugly, populist turn, with everyone accusing one another of abandoning “the working class” and no-one doing anything to help them. Questions and analyses are attacked and disregarded as “elitist.” What would Bosola do, I wonder, with his working class roots and his elitist education?

It hit me as I walked home: what Bosola would do is what Efnisien would do. Efnisien speaks to me through Bosola, and this is how I hear him – because I am the malcontent, caught between my background and my educated peers, and I am not comfortable with either of these worlds. So I chafe, and provoke, and argue – but, until now, I have done it without understanding why.

The strength of the outsider is a lesson so clichéd that I never really bothered learning it. Though I have always felt caught between worlds – always too much of one thing and not enough of another, anywhere I go – I never saw it as a strength. I only wanted to belong. It strikes me as appropriate, as someone who has venerated the House of Llŷr since childhood, that the half-sibling on their periphery should be the one to teach me how to make the most of not belonging.

Efnisien is a dangerous influence but a powerful ally.


a tangled web

5. Members of the family – genealogical connections.
6. Other related deities and entities.

In the Mabinogi, Manawydan sits at the centre of a web of relations between the Houses of Llŷr, Beli Mawr and Annwfn. He is, along with Branwen and Bendigeidfran, one of the children of Llŷr at the heart of the Second Branch. Unlike his sister Branwen (the ‘white’ or ‘sacred crow’) and his brother Bendigeidfran (the ‘blessed crow’), Manawydan has no discernible corvid connections – although, as I have mentioned before, I associate him very strongly with the cormorant; not strictly a crow, but known in Welsh as morfran, ‘sea-crow’. Of their father, Llŷr, very little is written. His name means ‘ocean’ and his epithet Llediaith, or half-speech, suggests either foreign origins or a form of speech which is only partially intelligible – which, as a poetic expression of the sounds and strangeness of the ocean, works for me.

Manawydan’s mother is Penarddun, the ‘chief fair one’, who is either the daughter or the sister of Beli Mawr, depending on your reading of the geneaology. Beli himself is also the father of Aranrhod of the Fourth Branch, making Manawydan a cousin to Lleu Llaw Gyffes and to the oceanic Dylan Eil Ton. Beli is often interpreted as cognate with Belenus, the ‘fair shining one’, a solar deity worshipped throughout the Gaulish and Brythonic regions. The idea of Manawydan belonging to both the ocean and the solar or celestial realm, by lineage, fits well with my experience – and the magical, illusory, mist-wrapped qualities expressed in his stories seem to draw on this dual heritage of sea and sky.

Penarddun herself is also mother to Nisien and Efnisien, the two half-brothers of the children of Llŷr. Efnisien in particular drives most of the action of the Second Branch; first mutilating the horses of Matholwch, then foiling the plot to ambush Bendigeidfran, before throwing Branwen’s son Gwern on the fire and finally destroying the cauldron of rebirth, sacrificing himself in the process. Efnisien and his brother Nisien were conceived when their father, Euroswydd, imprisoned Llŷr, who thus became one of the three ‘exalted prisoners’ of Britain named in Trioedd Ynys Prydein.

In the Third Branch of the Mabinogi, having returned to Britain as one of seven survivors of the raid on Ireland, Manawydan marries the mother of his comrade Pryderi: Rhiannon – about whomthere is more to say than I could possibly squeeze into this blog post! In marrying her, Manawydan marries into the family most closely connected with the realm of Annwfn, on which the First Branch centred. A lot has been written about the symbolic significance of Rhiannon as a goddess of sovereignty and the land; her marriage to Manawydan, son of the ocean, seems to draw on a mythical motif of the marriage between land and sea (Naomi writes beautifully about the marriage of Cailleach Bheara to Manannán mac Lir: https://leithincluan.wordpress.com/2014/09/19/stories-from-the-pilgrimage-pt-1/).

Complex and dry though it may seem, this tangled web of relationships, marriages and filial connections is a beautiful expression of the nature of Manawydan as a deity. He is married to the land, yet apart from her; a son of both ocean and sky, with a father indescribable (or at least undescribed) and only half-intelligible, and a mother named for her luminous beauty. He is the point at which land, sea and sky all melt into one another on the shore, when the otherworldly Western isles feel as though they are just out of reach over the horizon, beyond the setting sun.