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Thread: The legend of the Men Scryfa

  1. #1
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    The legend of the Men Scryfa



    The Men Scryfa is an ancient, tall standing stone near Land's End in Cornwall, with a rich tradition of legend associated with it. Its name means "Inscribed Stone" in Cornish, since it has something written on it: "RIALOBRANI CUNOVALI FILI," translated as "Royal Bran [a name meaning "raven"], son of the Glorious Prince." Current archaeological evidence suggests that the standing stone itself dates to the Bronze Age, consistent with many of the other standing stones that dot the Cornish countryside, but the inscription is clearly much younger, dating to ca. 500CE.

    Analysis of what, exactly, the inscription means, has focused mainly on local tradition, as we don't have anything written down about it until over a millennium after it was inscribed. All sources I could find about it, however, including Hunt, Bottrell, Lach-Szyrma, etc., were consistent about what the story was: Rialobrani, or Ryalvran in Cornish, was a giant, and the son of a Prince who established a Christian church in that area of Cornwall. He held a hillfort (variously Lescudjack, Caer Bran, or others), but was driven from it, before returning and winning a battle in which he was killed and buried, with the Men Scryfa erected to mark his grave. At the Men Scryfa, he waits to return, to protect Cornwall from future invasions.

    Now, most sources have taken these stories at face value: Ryalvran was probably a local warlord, now lost to history, who died in battle. But I think there is much more to Ryalvran than that, and the answer should be obvious to any Brythonic historian. Here's my proposal...

    "Ryalvran" ("Royal Bran") must be the Cornish variant of the Welsh "Bendigeidfran" ("Blessed Bran"), the legendary king of the British in the second branch of the Mabinogion. Mabinogion scholars are virtually unanimous in their analysis of Bendigeidfran, declaring him to be an ancient character from pagan mythology, and not an actual king. However, unlike Bendigeidfran's legendary father, Llyr, scholars generally haven't attempted to associate him with a pan-Celtic or pan-Brythonic archetype. Well, here's your pan-Brythonic archetype. There is too much evidence of the association between the Mabinogion's Bendigeidfran and the Cornish oral tradition about the Men Scryfa to ignore:


    • Ryalvran's burial place is not indicative of him having been real royalty. Actual Dumnonian royalty (like Tristan and Donyarth) got new monuments upon their death, not traditions that they are buried at a more ancient site, as seems to be the case with Ryalvran. Also, the euphemism for his father, rather than using an actual name, is apparently unique.
    • Ryalvran and Bendigeidfran both have the naming pattern [positive adjective] Bran (meaning "raven").
    • Ryalvran and Bendigeidfran are both said to have ruled from a fortified place by the sea.
    • Ryalvran and Bendigeidfran are both said to have been giants.
    • Ryalvran and Bendigeidfran are both said to have died in battle.
    • Ryalvran and Bendigeidfran are both said to have continued to have supernatural powers after their death, and to have continued to protect their people even after they were buried.
    • Ryalvran and Bendigeidfran are both said to have been members of families who introduced Christianity to their land.
    • Ryalvran and Bendigeidfran are both said to have had glorified fathers, possibly indicating a suppressed tradition that they were born of deities. Indeed, for Bendigeidfran's father, Llyr, we have a direct link between him and the Irish sea god, Lir. For Ryalvran's, it's less clear, due to the use of the euphemism "Cunovali," but it's probably not a stretch to assume that Cunovali refers to Llyr or a similar deity.


    As far as I know, I'm the first to make this connection so completely, so I'm interested in any input from anyone else interested in Celtic tradition. I have read about supposed connections of the name of the hillfort Caer Bran to either Ryalvran or Bendigeidfran... I would go farther and say that they all derive from the same tradition.

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    I like your ideas regarding Men Scryfa, Sparkey. It`s not a pillar I know very well , but may look it up now. I do know some people have mentioned it in regard to St. Patrick but I can`t see why they would think this :)

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    Quote Originally Posted by hope View Post
    I like your ideas regarding Men Scryfa, Sparkey. It`s not a pillar I know very well , but may look it up now. I do know some people have mentioned it in regard to St. Patrick but I can`t see why they would think this :)
    I don't remember a St. Patrick connection, but it's possible that it could have to do with the "initial introduction of Christianity" part of the legend. Also, Ireland is an important location in the second branch of the Mabinogion... in fact, most of the action takes place there.

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    I looked that stone up Sparkey, it`s a curious inscription for sure. It seems to be in Latin yet doesn`t look like "proper" Latin (although the picture I saw could be poor one). It seems to me to read Royal Raven Son Of Cunoval but the translation on the picture says different.


    As an edit: The St. Patrick links seems to be as there is a "Ram" on it , but I don`t see one. Even at that if there is one I cannot see the connection to St.Patrick except that he was a shepherd in Ireland whilst in captivity here. I think we can probably rule that "thought" out.
    Last edited by hope; 06-04-12 at 15:09.

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    Cornish archaeologist Craig Weatherhill has responded to my proposal as such:

    Quote Originally Posted by Craig Weatherhill
    According to the legend, Rialobran (Rialvran) was the son of a king (Cunoual/Kenwal) whose castle - Lescudjack Castle, Penzance - was overrun by a usurper (Irish?), killing Cunoual and orphaning the boy who was brought up in exile. When grown to manhood, Rialobran returned to challenge the usurper. A great battle took place at Goon Ajydnyal, close to Men an Tol, which culminated in single combat between the prince and the ususper. Rialobran died and was buried beneath the stone now called Men Scryfa (which might have been a Bronze Age menhir), so the prince never became king.

    Because the local hero died, the story has a ring of truth to it. His father would only have been a regional king(let) under the overall rule of the reigning king of Dumnonia.

    I don't think either man named on the stone had any connection with Bendigeidfran or Llyr; Bran being a reasonably common element in personal names; e.g. the an whose name is preserved in the farm hamlet of Brane, earlier Bosvran, "Bran's dwelling".

    Inscribed stones like Men Scryfa are early Christian monuments, and there is the hint of an incised cross on the stone. They were set up in one of two types of location: in an early enclosure (lan) of the Celtic Church; or beside an important trackway. The Men Scryfa stands between two parallel routes of the Tinners' Way track (Old St Ives Road), and just west of the point where they meet near the Four Parish Stone (Men Crows).

    ...

    "When the cold mists fill the air / You can see him standing there / His blood-stained tunic still he wears / On the field of White Down". So runs the final verse of the song about the Rialobran legend by my good old friend Jan Beare.

    As it stands, the legend seems very local in character, but I do see some similarities with the Bran legend. There are some legends - John of Chyannor, for example - which have parallels even in mid-Europe. The Jack the Tinkeard legends have several definite links with the Irish story of Lugh Lamhfhada. The Men Scryfa stands very close to Carn Galva, stronghold of a protective giant (a protector of the local people) named Holiburn, and it's been noted that Holiburn and Rialobran are not a million miles apart. (Hannibal's Carn, the next hill to the NE, is different - that's named after an 18th century farmer called Hannibal Thomas).

    I have little doubt that some trackside inscribed stones are re-used menhirs, but I don't think archaeology has either confirmed or disproven this. Certainly some menhirs in Brittany were heavily Christianised.

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    Well done in getting this , it`s very interesting.

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    1 out of 1 members found this post helpful.
    Sparkey, just came across a good book if you are interested in the old legends in general. "Celtic Myths and Legends" by Peter Ellis. It covers the stories from Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland Wales and Brittany.

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    Hi Sparkey - I also like your ideas about Men Scryfa! I am currently looking at information about two sites for possible connections with Bendigeidfran - Caer Bran, which is near Men Scryfa, and Branodunum, a Roman fort at Brancaster in Norfolk. In the latter case, John Koch makes an interesting connection between a defensive sea fort named after Bran, and the burial of Bendigeidfran's head in London as a protection against Saxon oppression. I wonder if the same can be said for Caer Bran. I guess there is always the doubt about Bran being a common name though.

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    Quote Originally Posted by llunamaton View Post
    Hi Sparkey - I also like your ideas about Men Scryfa! I am currently looking at information about two sites for possible connections with Bendigeidfran - Caer Bran, which is near Men Scryfa, and Branodunum, a Roman fort at Brancaster in Norfolk. In the latter case, John Koch makes an interesting connection between a defensive sea fort named after Bran, and the burial of Bendigeidfran's head in London as a protection against Saxon oppression. I wonder if the same can be said for Caer Bran. I guess there is always the doubt about Bran being a common name though.
    Caer Bran is more ambiguous for me, because we seem to be going based off of a name, rather than uninterrupted folk tradition like we have with Bendigeidfran and Ryalvran.

    Here's one way I think about it. Jack is a common name, but we also know what stories we think about when we hear about a "Jack story"... it will be something about a young man who deals with giants. Jack stories have actually arisen from different folk traditions ("Jack and the Beanstalk" seems to be an independently derived English folk story from the Cornish folk story "Jack the Giant Killer"), but they've been combined into a sort of common archetype that we would recognize now. So, if we heard stories about old stones in the ground that went: "Here lies Jack; he fought against giants using his cunning and protected this land," we'd have a pretty good idea about what folk tradition it came from. However, if we heard then of a nearby hill fort called "Jackfort," the connection wouldn't be quite as clear... just a possibility.

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