I propose that King Bran, ancient British giant and king, is actually fly agaric. The thinking behind this is as follows:
Mythic and Legendary Characters can be Encoded PlantsJohn Marco Allegro puts forward a compelling case in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross that Jesus was a mushroom, a god made flesh in the same way as Teonanácatl is in the native South American pantheon.
The poison apple in the story of Snow White (originally called Snowdrop in the German tale) is probably thornapple. The paralysing neurotoxic effect of consuming the thornapple is remedied by the galantamine in snowdrops. This would mean that the snowdrop plant has been encoded as Snow White.
The head of Bran is used for prophecyIn the tales of the Mabinogion, Bran's head is purposefully severed and taken away by his men. It is thereafter renowned for its powers of prophecy. Similarly, the head (or cap) of fly agaric has been used for prophecy through the ages.
The head of Bran is buried at the Tower of LondonBran's head, upon his own request, was buried at White Hill, where the Tower of London now stands. Burying the fly agaric head or cap will, under the right circumstances, start a new fly agaric colony.
Bran intended to continue to provide prophecy, and to protect the people of Britain from invasion. Indeed, it was said that as long as Bran was inhabiting White Hill (where the Tower of London now stands), the kingdom would be safe; but if he were not then it would fall.
Sound familiar? Bran is Welsh for raven. The legend has mutated into ravens being the guardians of the kingdom.
But how can fly agaric protect a nation?
Certainly militarily. In small amounts, the muscarine in dried fly agaric increases strength and stamina (by mimicking acetylcholine in the brain and body's muscarinic acetylcholine receptors). It also protects against the cold and removes fear. It is widely accepted that fly agaric is the berserker mushroom of the Vikings. There are also rumours of the ancient Britons battling whilst under the influence of mushrooms. Fly agaric would seem the likeliest choice.
Raven's BreadThe connection between fly agaric and ravens has survived in one form - the folkname for fly agaric of "raven's bread". Since the Welsh for raven is bran, this folkname is equally "Bran's bread".
A Giant's Accoutrements
Peter Lamborn Wilson shines the light of fly agaric on ancient Irish culture in the wonderful Ploughing the Clouds. Sharvan the Surly is given the task of guarding the magical quicken tree with its heavenly red fruit (likely a guise for fly agaric). Sharvan is a giant, like King Bran. He is described as having a great club tied by a chain to an iron girdle around his waist. In its mature and harvested form, the leg of the fly agaric looks very much like a club. There is a girdle around the fly agaric's waist, the remnants of the universal veil that covers the mushroom when it is first erupting from the earth. Bran is a giant who fits this description of the protector of the fly agaric.
Rialobran = King Oberon, King of the FairiesThere is an inscribed standing stone - or Men Scryfa - near the Men-an Tol in West Penrith, Cornwall. Around the 5th or 6th century, someone carved RIALOBRAN CUNOVAL FIL into it.
Rialobran can be translated as variously King Bran and Royal Raven. It is also considered synonymous with the Ryall, or Royal Obran, Obreon or Oberon, King of the Fairies (Harold Bayley in Archaic England: An Essay in Deciphering Prehistory from Megalithic Monuments, Earthworks, Customs, Coins, Place-Names and Faerie Superstitions P315). Talk of fairies, elves, dwarves in myth and legend is often a secret code referring to plants with psychoactive effect.
Out of interest, CUNOVAL FIL is generally translated as Son of the Prince of Glory, or as Son of Cunoval, an unknown character. It may also be a colloquial or vulgar Latin translation of Big Gana, or Big Ring. The Men Scryfa is very close to Men-An Tol, which features a giant stone ring. The mother of Oberon is Morrigan, also known as Morgana le Fay and Big Gana. (Guerber, H. A., Myths and Legends of the Middle Ages, p. 219). Thus we may see here mother and son together.
Let a King be a BridgeOne of King Bran's most famous sayings is to let a king be a bridge. In the Mabinogion he uses his body as a bridge for his people to cross an unpassable river. Similarly, fly agaric provides a bridge between the land of people and that of the otherworld. By eating fly agaric, the king provides the bridge to the benefits of the fairy world, including prophecy, insight and wisdom. These qualities also help protect a nation and are just as important as battle and war.
It's possible that this practice of the king consuming fly agaric is hinted at in the Mabinogion. Pwyll exchanges kingdoms for a year and a day with a character who appears to be King of the Underworld (Oberon). This character, known as Arawn in the tale, can be considered Oberon because of the colour of his dogs. Dogs are often encoded fly agaric in these myths, especially where the colours red and white are mentioned: Arawn's dogs are white with red ears. Arawn rules Pwyll's kingdom with the greatest wisdom and honour.
Association with the Cauldron of Rebirth
Experiments have shown that an exhausted body can be greatly revitalised by immersion in the muscarine of fly agaric. It also adds strength, stamina and bodily warmth to an unexhausted body. Again, this is due to the effect of the muscarine on the muscarinic acetylcholine receptors found throughout the body and necessary for movement. Muscarine is soluble in both water and alcohol, so the liquid in the cauldron could be either of these.
The muscarine of the fly agaric would also act as an antidote to the nerve toxins of thornapple. Thornapple is one of the plants that Don Juan gives Carlos Castaneda. Its effect is to diminish the acetylcholine necessary for the neurological signalling of thought, memory and movement. Perhaps there was an ancient rite that involved making people into zombies with thornapple, then bringing them back to life in the cauldron of immortality. It's certainly chemically feasible. Perhaps this would create a zombie army.
King Arthur Gets Rid of Bran's Magic and the Land becomes an Invaded WastelandKing Arthur famously declares that the land does not need Bran's protection any more. He kicks Bran's magic head out into the water. He says that his own strength should be enough. Unfortunately this is not the case, and before long the Saxons are invading and the land has become a wasteland.
Arthur is said to be a direct heir of Bran, using both the Celtic matrilinear system (a man's heirs are his sister's boys) and the new patrilinear one, in which the heirs are his own sons. Many of the tales told of Arthur were originally told of Bran. It doesn't seem as simple as Arthur being a Christianised Bran, as Bran is sometimes said to be the first British Christian, in his guise as Bran the Blessed. Indeed, early Christianity was itself a fly agaric cult, according to the findings of John Marco Allegro in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. It is perhaps more likely to be the land with and without fly agaric.
King Arthur's solution to the ruined land was the Grail quest. There is a growing body of opinion that the Holy Grail is actually fly agaric. In its mature form, the sides of the cap rise up, forming a goblet. Rain water collects in the cup. Muscarine from the mushroom dissolves in the rain water. It is possible to twist the base of the mushroom and lift the goblet from the ground. A drink from this grail will immediately stimulate muscarinic receptors throughout the brain and nervous system. This can have a profound effect, as if waking from an enchanted sleep, especially if suffering from certain illnesses.
The word grail was originally graal, which does sound suspiciously like the sound a raven makes. Bran is Welsh for raven.
The Fisher KingKing Bran is associated with the figure of the Fisher King in the Grail quest. "The immediate prototype of Chretién’s Fisher King has been recognized by a long line of scholars as Bran the Blessed, son of Llyr." R S Loomis, The Grail, p.55-56) Both are wounded in the foot or leg (perhaps because the mushroom is picked either at its foot or thigh). Bran is known as Pierced Thighs, receiving a mortal wound in his thighs before his head was cut off. The mushroom is picked and then its cap is removed.
A Giant Sleeping in the EarthIn Celtic lore, hills and mounds are often taken to be the bodies of gods and goddesses. What more natural place, then, for the sleeping giant to lie in his mycelium form? Giants are often symbolic of immense power in British lore. Bran is considered especially powerful, as indeed is the fly agaric.
Otherworldly HeritageBran's mother was the Morrigan, triple aspect of the crow goddess, governing war, fate and death. Her name can be translated as "Big Ring". Bran's father was Llyr, a giant and sea god. Put the two together and you have a whirlpool, still in modern times considered a portal to otherwhere.
No House can Hold HimIt is said of Bran that no house can hold him. This is generally considered to be because of his size, since he is a giant. It is possible that this is a reference to the impossibility of domesticating fly agaric. Even today, how fly agaric forms a union with the roots of certain trees is still a huge mystery. It still has not been possible to achieve this in the laboratory. Fly agaric is wild and untameable.
Some Final ThoughtsPerhaps it's the head of Bran - ie fly agaric - that inspired the great Celtic tradition of head hunting.
It's said that in prehistory, people would come to Britain for the quality of their dogs. As we have seen, dogs can be a guise for mushrooms, especially when they have red and white colouring. The evidence seems to suggest that the British Isles were the spiritual centre of a mushroom cult.