Saturday, August 31, 2019

Reflection on Blodeuwedd

Blodeuwedd - mixed media painting. Oil pastels,
acrylic, watercolor pencil on canvas board
by Suzy, 2019
     The Welsh have a small collection of traditional stories that are gathered into a text known as The Mabinogion. The Mabinogion consists of eleven tales, known as The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, that were handed down in bardic tradition and first collected into a written text in the 12th and 13th centuries. The initial text was written in Middle Welsh. This text has been translated into English from the Welsh a number of times. The first person to translate the myths from The Mabinogion into English was William Owen Pughe, who published a few of the stories in 1795, 1821, and 1829. However, the first to translate all eleven stories was Lady Charlotte Guest, who published them in both English and Welsh in the mid 19th century. These tales have influenced many writers of fantasy, including J.R.R. Tolkien. Evangeline Walton wrote a four part series of novels based entirely on The Mabinogion. These books, while not initially written in the order of The Four Branches, should be read in the order of the original tales. The last book, The Island of the Mighty, is Walton’s retelling of The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, and it is in this book that I came to be touched by the story of Blodeuwedd. It is her tale I wish to explore with you today.
     Let me give you an overview of Blodeuwedd’s story. Her part in the myth is short, yet I feel that she is much more important than many realize. You see, Blodeuwedd is part of the story of Llew Llaw Gyffes, a magician and warrior destined to be king of Gwynedd. In order to understand Blodeuwedd, you must understand Llew. 
     It all begins when Gwydion, who is the nephew of Math, Magician and King of Gwynedd and a powerful magician himself, tricks his sister Arianrhod into trying out to become the new Footholder for Math. It is said that Math would die if he did not keep his feet in the lap of a virgin when he was not at war. Arianrhod is forced to undergo a magical test for virginity. However, she is not a virgin, and during the test she gives birth to a boy who is quickly named Dylan by Math and sent to the ocean to take on the attributes of a sea creature. Embarrassed at being found out, Arianrhod runs to the door. As she runs, something drops from her, which Gwydion picks up and stores away in a chest in his room. After many months, Gwydion hears cries from the chest. Opening it, he finds a robust baby boy. He raises the boy and trains him in magic. This is the second son of Arianrhod, incubated by his uncle Gwydion, to be raised as his son. In fact, there are some scholars who surmise that perhaps Gwydion himself is the father of his sister’s sons.
     After a few years, Gwydion takes the boy to Arianrhod. She is angry and embarrassed, and as a result, she curses the boy, saying that he will have no name unless she names him, and she does not intend to name him. Gwydion is the Trickster in Welsh mythology, and he soon tricks her into giving him a name: Llew Llaw Gyffes, meaning “the fair-haired one with the skillful hand.” As soon as she realizes she has named the boy, she curses him again, stating that he will never receive weapons unless they are given to him by herself, which of course, she does not intend to do. Again, Gwydion tricks Arianrhod into arming her son. Again, she is infuriated when she realizes she has been tricked again, and curses Llew that he will never have a human wife. This is where our story begins.
     Llew is a strong, powerful warrior and a magician, but he is lonely. Gwydion goes to his uncle Math, and the two of them make a beautiful woman out of flowers and name her Blodeuwedd, which means “flower-faced”. They present this lovely woman to Llew to be his wife. It seems they are happy together, but there is little depth to their relationship. Llew decides he needs to visit Gwydion and Math, leaving Blodeuwedd behind.
     Now, Blodeuwedd sees a passing man and his hunting party, and she is curious. Inviting them in for the night, she plays hostess to the man, Gronw Pebr. They fall in love and begin an affair. After awhile, the two conspire to murder Llew. However, because Llew is magical, he can only be killed in a very specific way: he can’t be killed in the the day or night, inside or outside, not riding or walking, neither clothed nor naked, and not by any weapon made legally. Blodeuwedd gets him to reveal the only way he can be killed, which is only at dusk while he is wrapped in a net, standing with one foot on a bath and one on a goat, near a riverbank with a spear that was forged over the span of a year only during certain hours. With this information, Blodeuwedd and Gronw attempt to kill Llew.
     Though the spear strikes Llew, he is instantly transformed into an eagle and escapes to hide in the trees, bleeding. Gwydion hears of what has transpired, and seeks high and low until he finds Llew, turning him back into a man. Once Gwydion and Math have nursed Llew back to good health, they gather the forces of Gwynedd and take back Llew’s lands from Gronw and Blodeuwedd. Blodeuwedd tries to run, but Gwydion turns her into an owl as punishment. Eventually, Llew kills Gronw.
     So here we are, with Blodeuwedd, the unfaithful wife, having been punished for her infidelity and her part in the attempted murder of her husband. She is the owl who must fly at night, and according to the story, is hated by all other birds. Yet, is this all there is to this story? That Blodeuwedd was shallow, unfaithful, and murderous? I don’t think so. I think there is more to the story.
     Consider Blodeuwedd, created by two men for the use of another. Taking flowers of oak and broom and meadowsweet, they magically created a beautiful woman with absolutely no thought of this woman’s autonomy; not even an idea that she might become a creature with her own desires, her own dreams, her own expectations of life. Indeed, at first she is quite innocent of her own existence; she is naught but the wife of Llew Llaw Gyffes, and as long as he stays with her, reflecting her own beauty back to her, she is satisfied. She knows nothing else. She has seen nothing more. She is content to exist solely for the pleasure of her husband. Then, he leaves her alone for a long stretch. 
     With Llew away, what is Blodeuwedd to do? She is no mere flowery housewife with tasks to be done; she is the Lady of the Manor, with servants to care for her every need – but one. She has not been raised a human woman to understand the value of friendships with the ladies in her household. She has not been taught the arts of needlecraft, painting, or music, or any other time consuming craft that high born women of her times would know. All she knows is that she feels, perhaps, a kinship with the flowers and the love, as she understands it, of her husband.
     For Llew’s part, he has not been given the opportunity to learn what love is, for he has been denied all the normal interactions of a growing young man of his culture. Gwydion raised Llew for Gwydion’s purposes, in which all that mattered was his ability as a warrior, a magician, and a would-be king. It is certain, I believe, that Gwydion cared little for matters of the heart. He went to Math for help creating a wife for Llew because having been cursed, Llew feared he would always be alone. That fear of loneliness and of never having someone to love would overshadow Llew’s abilities unless Gwydion figured out a way to provide Llew with the wife he would not have had otherwise. Blodeuwedd seemed to be the best they could do.
     This couple, he without knowledge of normal human interaction, and she without knowledge of anything but beauty, was brought together into a life in which neither was likely to provide all that the other needed. Certainly, Blodeuwedd had no idea what she needed – until she met Gronw. Now, here was a man who saw her only as a woman. He met her and fell in love with her, not with what she represented. Perhaps he spoke to her as if she might have an idea of her own. Perhaps he asked her what she might prefer, whereas her husband likely took it for granted that she would always belong to him, and do whatever he wanted to do, since she was literally made for him.
     When I first read about Blodeuwedd, I was disappointed in her for cheating on Llew. He was the tragic protagonist and she was the heinous trollop who betrayed her husband and helped her lover to attempt to murder him. However, as I thought about it, I found myself feeling sad for her. I began to see her as a character with few options. Her life was simply handed to her as is; without information and without choices. Who might she have become, if they had provided her with more than the fragility of flowers?
     Is there a cautionary tale in Blodeuwedd’s story? I think there is. I consider the error I made in reading her as a two-dimensional character, all flowers and fornication, and I realize that sometimes I make this error in real life. How often do I get to know a person only on the surface and think I understand what they are all about? How often do I judge an individual on their actions today without any knowledge of what led up to whatever it is I’ve observed? How many times do I approach others without giving thought to their basic humanity?
     As an owl, Blodeuwedd has become much more than a girl made of flowers; she is a symbol of death and rebirth. In her visage of an owl, she is wisdom, magick, and initiation. For the Welsh, the owl's cry can be a harbinger of death, and has been called the corpse-bird. Arianrhod herself, who is the Welsh Goddess of fertility and fate, has been known to shape-shift into an owl that she might better be able to see deep into the human subconscious. Blodeuwedd as an owl is a reminder that things are not always as simple as they seem. She reminds me that it’s useful to look at situations and interpersonal challenges with my spiritual eyes, for with wisdom and intuition I may be able to see what is right rather than simply what is easy.
     You can hear a beautiful song about Blodeuwedd the Owl by Damh the Bard, if you’d like. You can also watch a movie called Y Mabinogi AKA Otherworld that loosely tells four of the tales from the Mabinogion, including the tale of Bloeuwedd, wrapped around the stories of three modern Welsh teens.

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