I've just been reading up and learning about ancient Welsh literature. As far as I can understand, the Mabinogion is a body of Welsh prose literature which is sourced from two ancient manuscripts, the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, and which consists of the following eleven stories:

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi

  • Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed (Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed)
  • Branwen ferch Llŷr (Branwen, daughter of Llŷr)
  • Manawydan fab Llŷr (Manawydan, son of Llŷr)
  • Math fab Mathonwy (Math, son of Mathonwy)

The Three Welsh Romances

  • Owain, neu Iarlles y Ffynnon (Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain)
  • Peredur fab Efrog (Peredur son of Efrawg)
  • Geraint ac Enid (Geraint and Enid)

And other stories (not counting Hanes Taliesin [The Tale of Taliesin] which is later and does not appear in the White or Red Books):

  • Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig (The Dream of Macsen Wledig)
  • Lludd a Llefelys (Lludd and Llefelys)
  • Culhwch ac Olwen (Culhwch and Olwen)
  • Breuddwyd Rhonabwy (The Dream of Rhonabwy)

If I'm correct that the term "Mabinogion" refers to the loose collection of all of these stories together, then why? Specifically, why are only four of the stories called "Branches of the Mabinogi" if all of them are parts of the Mabinogion? As far as I can tell, those four are all interlinked by shared characters such as Pryderi, while the others are more independent stories (or maybe some linked with each other but not with the first four?) But then why is the term "Mabinogion" used to cover all eleven?

Basically, I suppose I'm asking for the origin and development of the term "Mabinogi"/"Mabinogion", and how it came to be used for which stories. If this terminology is a more modern invention, not in the original manuscripts, then why did "Mabinogi" end up being used on just four stories while "Mabinogion" came to apply to all eleven stories?

2 Answers 2



Why are the first four tales called the “branches of the mabinogi”? This is easy, because that’s what the tales call themselves! Here’s the opening of Manawydan fab Llŷr on folio 182v in the manuscript of the Red Book of Hergest:

Description below

Above the beginning of the story, the scribe has written in red, “llyma y dryded geinc or mabinogi”, meaning “here’s the third branch of the mabinogi”. The word “geinc” (modern “cainc”) means literally “branch” but metaphorically a portion or episode of a larger tale. All four of the branches end with the formula, “ac uelly teruyna y geing honn [yma] or mabinogi”, meaning “and thus ends this branch [here] of the mabinogi”.

(Note on orthography: in medieval spelling the sound /v/ was written “u”, but in modern spelling it is written “f”, so that “uelly” corresponds to modern “felly” meaning “thus, so” and “teruyna” is related to modern “terfyn” meaning “limit, boundary”.)


How did these eleven tales come to be collectively known as the “Mabinogion”? The word itself is mysterious since it only appears at the end of Pwyll: the other three branches have “mabinogi”. This must mean that it is a scribal error of some kind. Sebastian Rider-Bezerra reports the following theory:

The form Mabinogi, which occurs at the end of the Second, Third and Fourth Branches, is already plural. The error made in pluralizing an already-plural form can be explained by a scribe’s error, at the end of the First Branch in the Red Book of Hergest, transposing the plural ending of a word directly above mabinogi, to inadvertently create the more famous title “Mabinogion”.

Sebastian Rider-Bezerra (2011). ‘The Mabinogion Project: A Brief History of the Mabinogion’. University of Rochester.

Here’s the ending of Pwyll and the beginning of Branwen on folio 179v in the manuscript of the Red Book of Hergest:

Description below.

In this manuscript, the scribe wrote out the ending formula for Pywll in black, “Ac uelly y teruyna y geing honn or mabynnogy”, and the on the next line wrote the opening formula for Branwen in red: “llyma yr eil geinc or mabinogi” meaning, “here’s the second branch of the mabinogi”. At the end of the line in red, the letters “on” appear in black, but boxed off in red.

Rider-Bezerra’s explanation is the scribe lost track of where they were, and copied the “on” from “honn” on the previous line. This doesn’t seem very plausible in the Hergest document, but perhaps the error was in the exemplar, and the Hergest scribe has simply copied the error, but indicated their dissatisfaction with it by boxing off the erroneous “on”. (If “honn” had been spelled “hon” in the exemplar, a common variant, then it would be easier to imagine how the error might have been made.)

However the error occurred, the suffix “-ion” is a common plural ending in Welsh, for example “cantorion” (singers), so “mabinogion” has been interpreted as representing a plural form of “mabinogi”. Sebastian Rider-Bezerra says that this interpretation originated with William Owen Pughe:

William Owen Pughe (1759–1835)’s best-known work, the Geiriadur Cynmraeg a Saesoneg (Dictionary of Welsh and English), a Welsh–English dictionary including words both modern and archaic, was published in 1793. In this Dictionary the following entry is given for “mabinogion”: “mabinogi, s. m. pl -ion (mabinawg): Juvenility; juvenile instruction; the amusement of youth, the title of some ancient tales.”

Sebastian Rider-Bezerra (2011). ‘The Mabinogion Project: A Brief History of the Mabinogion’. University of Rochester.

You can see an 1873 edition of Pughe’s dictionary on the Internet Archive, where the entry for “mabinogi” is on page 311. Pughe’s definition was based on the observation that “mabinogi” starts with “mab” meaning “boy”. (But this has long been considered doubtful: see below.)

Based on his theory about the word’s meaning, Pughe planned to publish a translation of all the medieval Welsh tales, not just the four branches, under the title “Mabinogion”. This project was not completed, but his work is thought to have influenced Charlotte Guest (1812–1895) whose translation of the stories into English, the first complete translation to appear in print, was published under the title The Mabinogion in seven volumes from 1838–1845. The name has stuck ever since.

Meaning of mabinogi

If “mabinogi” does not mean “children’s story” as suggested by Pughe, what does it mean? Unfortunately, there is no consensus.

It has long been recognized that word contains the regular Welsh word for ‘son, boy’, mab. It was thought, therefore, that the tales had something to do with youth, either tales for boys, perhaps for their edification, or apprentice tales for those learning the story-telling art. Alternatively, it was noticed that mabinogi translates Latin infantia in a fourteenth-century aprocryphal gospel of the boyhood of Jesus. On the basis of the French form of the word, enfance, it was thought that the tales were histories of the birth, boyhood deeds, later feat of arms, of certain heroes. The difficulty in all of these guesses is that they fit none of the four branches of the mabinogi, nor do they fit the four branches as a whole.

Patrick K. Ford (2019). The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales, p. 2. University of California Press.

Eric Hamp published a theory (‘Mabinogi’, Transactions of the Honorable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1974–1975, pp. 243–249) that the word “mabinogi” meant the collection of stories relating to the Brythonic god Maponos. The trouble with this theory is that Maponos does not appear in the four branches, and so Hamp’s theory is that the four branches we have are only part of a larger mythological cycle in which Pryderi fab Pwyll, a character who appears in all four extant branches, was the father of Maponos. (Note: I have not read Hamp’s paper, but only secondary sources like Ford and Fulk, so I may be misrepresenting it.)

Robert Fulk recently criticised Hamp’s theory on etymological grounds, and proposed an alternative:

It has been some forty years since the present writer was first struck by the phono- logical resemblance of the name Mabinogi to Old Irish Mac ind Óc ‘The Young Son’, a name that appears frequently in the critical literature on the Four Branches. It is an epithet of Óengus, son of the Dagda and Boann, often regarded in the literary commentary as the Irish equivalent of Maponos.

Robert D. Fulk (2019). ‘The derivation of the name Mabinogi’. Studia Celtica 53, p. 50.

The difficulty with Fulk’s theory, however, is the same as with Hamp’s: Mac ind Óc no more appears in the four branches than does Maponos.

  • Great answer, as usual, thoroughly covering all the different aspects. (I just got time to finish reading it now!)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 4, 2022 at 5:24

Origin of the Mabinogi and meaning of 'mabinogi'.

Lady Charlotte Guest, who first published a translation to English of the complete Mabinogion between 1838 and 1845, marvelled at many of the strange names of people and places arising therein. Deeming these to be the earliest features of the tales and the least likely to change, she wondered from whence they had come – the obvious implication being that they had not come from Wales. One therefore needs to know what is the historic background to these tales, and it is not disputed that there clearly is an Irish influence in the composition of the four legends called "The Four Branches of the Mabinogi".

New Research Findings

Recent multidisciplinary research in Ireland has uncovered that historic background. In short, the research findings are that “The Four Branches of the Mabinogi” originated in Ireland near the pre-historic royal palace labelled Regia Altera in Ptolemy’s map of Hibernia.

Professor John Carey* (who trained in Celtic Studies at Harvard University and has expertise in Middle Welsh and Old Irish) has argued convincingly that there was a “pervasive Irish influence on the composition of the first three branches of the Mabinogi” through a cluster of texts that probably came from Ireland to Wales in the ninth century. He deduced that Welsh bards drew freely on these materials, re-weaving their contents with the Welsh landscape “in a spirit of intellectual self assertion”.

The word ‘mabinogi’ is not Welsh, nor does it derive in any way from ‘mab’ or ‘mabyn’ or ‘mabinog’, (see these in e.g. Geiriadur Prifisgol Cymru), nor has it an agreed meaning in Welsh literature, apart from what is conjectured by some Welsh academics. Nor is it Old Irish.

These mabinogi tales were seized at sword-point in Ireland by Welsh Normans, and redacted when taken to Wales. Many of these strange names of people and places [e.g. Caer Dathyl (Cathair Dá Tul), Annwfyn (An Ubh Éín), Arawn (Aedh Rán), Rhiannon (Ríoghan Án)] are the original Irish words, retained by the Welsh translator(s) but written phonetically in Middle Welsh. [Note: Almost all place-names in Ireland today are Irish words written phonetically in English; in some medieval documents Irish place-names were written phonetically in Latin. In writing phonetically two features are to be noted: 1. often two or more Irish words are fused together to form one English word and 2. no spelling rules exist. Consequently various scribes have indulged their fancies in their methods of representing sounds.]

'Mabinogi' decodes as 'maoith binn óige' meaning “the sweet(-sounding) anguish of youth”. [Note: 'maoith' is pronounced 'mway']. "Sweet-sounding" confirms that these were tales composed for narration to an audience; "anguish of youth" is apt because characters such as Branwen, Mallolwch, Rhiannon, Pwyll, Goewin, etc. were all young people who fell in love, sometimes with very tragic results. Of course, the original version of these tales is not now known.

As above stated, “The Four Branches of the Mabinogi” originated in Ireland near the pre-historic royal palace labelled Regia Altera in Ptolemy’s map of Hibernia. Among associated landscape features is the hill-top setting of an extant pre-historic tumulus overlooking an ancient ford on the River Suck which tallies perfectly with that of Pryderi’s grave in the legend 'Math fab Mathonwy'. This royal palace is also the Caer Sidi of Welsh literature, so called for the following reason: The extant ruins of this mountainside fortress lie in territory formerly inhabited by the Tuatha Dé Danann. These tribes, on being finally overwhelmed, lived on forever in hills and mountains as the fairies of Ireland. Whence Regia Altera became known in Wales as Caer Sidi, which is Cathair Sídhe in Irish, meaning ‘the fortress of the fairies’.

The Middle Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwn describes the seizure of texts of legends and poetry at sword-point from terrified monks in a raid by Welsh Normans on a medieval abbey which had been erected within the still extant ramparts of this Caer Sidi palace.

[Further research findings are presented in “Reclaiming the Spoils of Annwfyn: Regia Altera and the Landscape of the Mabinogi”, a free ebook accessible online at https://221.ebook777.com//080/Reclaiming-the-Spoils-of-Annwfyn-Regia-Altera-and-the-landscape-of-the-Mabinogi.pdf]

*John Carey, Ireland and the Grail, (Aberystwyth, Celtic Studies Publications, 2007).

  • Welcome to the site, and thanks for this information! It took me a while to read and understand your answer, but I've now upvoted it.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 13, 2022 at 6:34

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