Great Queen's Aviary: Birds of Rhiannon and Brunissen

by JoHarrington

From the legends of Wales and Catalonia, an ancient song of divinity may still be discerned. But only by those brave enough to hear the Great Queen's birdsong.

I remember once listening in exhausted delight to the dawn chorus. A weird night had brought us listless and dreaming without ever once having been to bed. Now over a reviving cup of tea, I let nature's sweet music wash over me.

"You realize that it's not as pleasant as it sounds?" My friend interrupted my waking slumber.


"They're singing that they survived. They're passing on the news of the night, alerting others to which members of the flock froze to death, and which got eaten by predators."

Reality swung strangely through my reverberating perspective. "Really?" Illuminated by a different light, the birdsong seemed suddenly desperate, not pleasant at all.

"Yeah." My friend confirmed and we sat in silence listening, a little bit wiser and slightly less at ease. "Sorry to burst your bubble."

But my mind had already moved on, through legend and songbird sounding from elsewhere. Into a mythic cycle concerning the divine Great Queen, whose remit spanned the globe and all its worlds. The birds of Rigantona sang where realities crossed or overlapped; to hear them was often to shatter the facade of your own.

"The birds of Rhiannon." I slowly replied, lifting my tea mug in salute to the Great Queen's local aspect. "Bubbles are meant to be burst."

The Birds of Rhiannon

'Culhwch and Olwen' is the oldest surviving tale to mention Rhiannon. But then time was never linear, even in our world and certainly not in Annwn.

The giant Yspaddaden Penkawr demanded so much from the heart lorn, love struck Culhwch in return for the right to marry Olwen.

So many of the ancient British treasures, and keys to its mythical cycle, were included in the bride price. The giant's daughter was evidently worth it all.

Culhwch thought so too. He and Arthur, together with the latter's warband, searched the realms - above and below - to collect them all. To secure the hand of Olwen.

And what was that amongst them? What did they include?  The songbirds of Rhiannon - Adar Rhiannon - fundamental to the Matter of Britain, where the Songs wove reality and explained it all.

Yspaddaden Penkawr asked for 'the birds of Rhíannon, which bring the dead back to life and put the living to sleep. I want them to recreate that night for me.'

What night he meant is not known to us, nor what happened within it. Rhiannon's birds will sing that Song for him alone, as they will for all of us. Our personal journeys noted in their trill - conferring immortality; luring us into Dream; letting us be to live our lives; lamenting the loss of the blind and the dead; waiting for their will to hear - ready with a new dawn chorus to sing them back to life again.

As may be guessed, the birds of Rhiannon are not those generally recorded in guidebooks to the wildlife of Wales. They are there, but they are everywhere too; ubiquitous, native to nowhere, yet seeing anywhere just the same.

Rhiannon's birds roost upon the Tree of Life. Their birdsong rings with Mysteries out of time; secrets pertaining to some other space; or histories from another dimension. All that was, is and will be, or could have been and now playing out in worlds running parallel to our own, might factor in their chorus. They chirp music so big that untrained human ears must block them out for the sake of sanity and a single fixed reality.

Only the visionaries and poets - all of them half mad anyway in Celtic legends - can safely heed the call of Rhiannon's songbirds. Following the kind of haunted pathways described by T.S.Eliot in Burnt Norton, the first of his Four Quartets:

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

That's where we'll find Rhiannon, their queen; the Great Queen of us all. Yet the position She once held may be illuminated better by visiting Her counterpart, the sorrow-filled Brunissen, Lady of Monbrun, and the powerful spells cast over consciousness by Brunissen's birds.

The Birds of Rhiannon Gifts

Rhiannon's birds bring messages of wisdom and knowledge for any with the ability to keep their wits, even after hearing them.

Rhiannon in Another Guise: The Songbirds of Brunissen

Glimpse Her again in the persona of Brunissen, from an ancient tale preserved in Old Occitan, a language echoed in modern Catalan, found in that same region.

In the Roman de Jaufré, we hear of a young knight leaving the sanctuary of Arthur's court to survive such adventures lost in the Forest of Brocéliande. Jaufré, son of Dovon, finally finds himself inside the marble walled orchard of Monbrun, where birds sing him gently to sleep.

Inside the orchard, Brunissen with her retinue of knights reside in sorrow. Four times a day and four times a night, they weep in anguish. Only the songbirds confer comfort enough to seize their sobbing, affording a lifeline back to sanity and sense.

But Jaufré ap Dovon's arrival and slumber has silenced the birds. None can hear them while he languishes in dream.

Some translate Brunissen as Dark Queen or Crow Queen. The 'brun' in both Her name and that of her palace orchard relates back to the raven 'bran' in the minds of some Celtic scholars. She is the Dark Queen of the Dark Stone.

To others in the academe, 'brun' owes more to the Romance languages than any Celtic lexicon. Then She becomes Brown Queen of the Brown Mountain.

An aspect of Morrighan versus an apparent Earth Goddess - like there is any contradiction there.

In punishment for the silencing of Brunissen's birds, She sends Her knights to awaken the exhausted Jaufré.  Three times that occurs, each occasion more violently. From a sharp shaking at first to the entire retinue descending to beat him at the last.

Yet Jaufré is not harmed even then. His armor protects him from the onslaught, but only physically. His eyes have opened wide enough to see Brunissen; his ears discerned the birdsong surrounding Her. His psyche cannot close down enough to let him sleep beyond that moment. Only now does Brunissen bring him into Her Great Hall at Monbrun.

Within the Dark Court there has been mourning for seven years, Jaufré learns, but none will tell him the source of the sorrow. Only that the songbirds soothe it.

He thinks that Brunissen sleeps beside him, lulled into oblivion by the birds. Enchanted by Her beauty, he cannot close down too - the birdsong works differently upon him now, creating the soundtrack to his restless wonder. In staying awake, he does not shut them out, nor down. Yet Brunissen's eyes are merely closed, She is contemplating him.

Midnight sounds and with it a scheduled interlude of waking in despair. The whole court weeping in open distress, darkness descending against the cacophony of discordant birdsong. Jaufré cannot cope and escapes Monbrun.

The rest of the story concerns Brunissen's champions in pursuit of the errant knight. He continues into much peril and outrage, in a land populated by ladies leading him into lessons framed around quests.

There's the Old Crone barring his way by magic, whom Jaufré must appease and persuade before he's able to stop the seven year flogging of the Tortured Knight. There's also the daughter of the giant Augier - who appears so divinely beautiful upon Jaufré's white horse that Augier does not discern his own off-spring until she disembarks from the mare.

Finally Jaufré found the clarity, wisdom and courage not to be overwhelmed by the darkness of Monbrun. Assured by Brunissen's seneschal of the warm welcome awaiting him, Jaufré returns of his own free will, yet quickly feels intimidated in the midst of the birds. It's only as Brunissen reaches out to him, and he does not flee, that he is deemed worthy of Her hand.

In marriage, the worlds of Jaufré and Brunissen come together in perfect harmony. There is sorrow in Monbrun no more.  The beautiful gardens never fail to bloom; a vast bounty harvested to always fill to bursting the banquet tables and larders. While in the orchard, golden branches evermore bore fruit, rich and ripe, picked within the interwoven music of fertility trilled from the tree-tops by Brunissen's birds.

The Celtic Great Queen as Lady of the Crossroads

Straddling the worlds, Monbrun became a crossroads with its Lady at the center.

It's never stated why Brunissen stayed for seven years in such sorrow. Yet the reason is implicit in what caused her to stop.

Monbrun existed in a state of disconnection from the world. We see it in its physical location, buried deep inside the Forest of Brocéliande, but also in the lack of visitors prepared to accept its strange, dark reality.

We only ever see one. Jaufré ventures inside its precincts without even knocking on the front door. He uses the magical song of Brunissen's birds solely to send himself to sleep. His unwillingness to hear them means that they fall silent, even inside the boundaries of Monbrun.

The Lady leads him into her very walls, allowing him to experience, listen and observe. But Jaufré cannot stand too much reality different from his own. What he can't reject in slumber, he removes by taking flight.

Brunissen's sorrow lay in that lack of a bridge between Monbrun and the world. However, Jaufré had the potential to forge one.

Connection made, Jaufré could never truly leave Brunissen's Great Hall behind him. He'd already visited. He'd already seen and heard. He carried that with him as he fled and sought out other adventures. There were lessons inherent in each quest placed upon his path. He would gain understanding enough to want to find a route back to Monbrun.

The Ladies who guided Jaufré along the ways were never named. But heard as a reprise sung softly between the lines, we know them anyway. They are all called Brunissen.

In Her persona was held inspiration, opportunity and destiny; a glimpse outside the everyday, where layers of reality could be lifted as revelation. Where gateways to other worlds awaited those with the courage to pass beyond their framework, even though the unknown is inevitably perceived as darkness, mist or fog.

Brunissen and Her birds can lift such veils, or bring them densely down. The Great Queen has the capacity to both bring the dead to life, and lull the living into sleep. She offers, leads, guides, advises, hints or makes blatant our choices, but will neither enforce nor compel. Maybe greater visions will entice those with the potential to awaken, or those close to grasping awen, but ultimately all is our choice.

We sleep, dream or continue on seemingly dead, lost to the fog. Or else cease our spiritual slumber by asking the Great Queen to make it stop.

What we hear in the birdsong is destiny forged in self-determination, as true for Brunissen as it is for Rhiannon, and Morrighan, or every other aspect of the Lady of the Crossroads.

Only we can seek Sovereignty in all Her realms.

Only our choices can penetrate the blackness of Monbrun. We navigate our own barges - fueled with free will, entrusting faith to set a Fateful course through the shimmering unknown - to hold any hope of finding Annwn.

There is nothing accidental here. Each individual must indicate their readiness to awaken; take the decision to stop their slumber; signal willingness to see.

Only we can raise the mists of Avalon.

The Great Queen waits at the gate, visible to all who hark Her birds and their songs of wisdom. Her knowledge glows golden, a beacon of light in the darkness to those who would risk drawing near. All instinct fills the land surrounding her with a deathly sense of dread, as beyond Her gates comfort zones shatter, realities grow thin and sanity must find a new consensus to remain steadfast.

But those with understanding enough to reach her need only ask. She will reveal the entrance, opening the ways. A terrible invitation, as the unknown gapes and nothing can be known without stepping into its midst. Only those willing to risk it all pass through Her gates.

As guide, She doesn't always lead. Sometimes She follows. Sometimes She journeys alongside, and sometimes She's nowhere to be seen.

Rhiannon holds the center of the whole wheel. Restricting Herself or any to the view from just one spoke would be to deny the realities from all the rest. She lets it turn through each and every fortune - including the shadow ones unseen - and counts them all the same.

We can stop whenever we want to. But to embrace it all is to gain riches beyond rubies and gold - wisdom for ourselves and all our kind, a bountiful harvest in perpetuity and the opportunity to hear true harmony in Rhiannon's own birdsong.

Music Inspired by the Birds of Rigantona

Not songbirds but modern day bards have found their muse in the Great Queen. After all, She is also the Goddess of Inspiration.
Annwyn, Beneath The Waves

'The Birds of Rhiannon' is track twelve on this album by Faith and the Muse. All of the songs are inspired by British legends from a world which worshipped the Great Mother and Her birds.

View on Amazon

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'Liberty Enlightening the World' is the official title of this iconic American landmark. But how much do you know of the history and legends behind the Statue of Liberty?
Gigantic white dogs, screeching hags taking to the air, rogue candles lighting the darkness and owls outside your window, all part of dying if you're Welsh.
It's one of the great 'what ifs' of history. What would Britain have been like if the Gunpowder Plotters had blown up the House of Lords on November 5th 1605?
Updated: 01/12/2015, JoHarrington
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MBC on 01/07/2016

I love learning more about Rhiannon and her birds. Thank you. I can't wait for Spring Equinox. I am at my computer here in Colorado and looking out at the gently falling snow. It's just beyond Winter Solstice so I'm happy to be warm and alone. But the itch of spring is there in the background. I'm a birder so I can't wait for spring! I enjoyed this article.

JoHarrington on 10/27/2014

Nope, it's not pinging anything in my memory. I'll seek it out online and report back.

frankbeswick on 10/27/2014

The song of nature is The Moorsong. Does this ring a clearer bell? If you went through a Buchan phase I imagine that you have read it. The Grove of Ashtaroth is a story that is effective in the sense that I found it disturbing, but that's because I am not a fundamentalist.

JoHarrington on 10/27/2014

You know, that rings a bell, but I can't place it. I wonder if I read it many, many years ago, when I was going through something of a John Buchan phase. I've read so many books over the years, that it's sometimes hard to recall the details of them all!

frankbeswick on 10/27/2014

Did you ever read John Buchan's short story, The Rime of True Thomas? It is about the songs of nature, though only to a degree about birds. The story is found in Supernatural Tales, a collection of short stories by Buchan,edited by Jim Greig. Within the collection is also found The Grove of Ashtaroth, which along with The Rime of True Thomas, is one of my favourite short tales and a challenge to the cruelties of religious fundamentalism.

Buchan was something of a paradox, a moderate Presbyterian, who was interested in exploring pagan themes. This short story collection would repay your attention and delight you.

JoHarrington on 10/27/2014

I'm glad that you thought so, and I hope you enjoy it.

MBC on 10/26/2014

I love paganism. Very interesting page. I'm in a hurry but will be back to read more thoroughly.

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