The Goddess, the Broom and the Barred Owl, Part 3
Blodeuwedd’s Seduction: The Ethics of Invasion
How do we understand the innocence of Blodeuwedd as the Flower Maiden, and her punishment as the Owl-Faced Old Maid? Is her betrayal her fault, or the fault of those who made her? Does she have free will, or was she predestined to make the choices and take the actions that she did, designed as she was? Does she have any personal responsibility for her choices, or an ethical framework to guide her actions? To what extent is the morality of her actions determined by (or judged according to) her place in human society and the natural world?
These are questions that cut to the quick of the human condition. We are animals whose wanderings have taken us to all corners of the earth, bringing us into new ecosystems where we adapt our environments to suit our needs and desires far more quickly than we ourselves can adapt to them in response. As a result, we often feel a sense of alienation and displacement, a fundamental disconnection from the natural world around us.
And yet, aren’t we also natural beings, whose creation is rooted in the earth? The predator that hunts and kills its prey is not committing murder; it is only doing what is in its nature to do, and so we consider its actions to be beyond the usual bounds of the human conception of justice. Are we really all that different from the predator? If we humans are ourselves natural creatures, just one more animal living embedded in a more-than-human community — then where exactly does our own sense of justice come from? Do we have free will or personal responsibility, or are our endless migrations and our tireless consumption of the planet and its resources simply the predestined result of our inherent nature, our will to survive and our desire to thrive? Is it a good idea (or even really possible) for us to adopt an ethical framework guided by a sense of justice that applies solely to the human species and cuts us off from the larger world in which we live?
Blodeuwedd is a goddess created in the image of the human being, for a very human purpose: to love and be loved. And yet she retains (as do we all) the undeniable influences of the natural world from which she was made, a more-than-human world in which love and life-force intermingle and overwhelm as the indomitable eros of passion. She exists in a liminal state, very much like our own species (that place where “the falling angel meets the rising ape“). She is a goddess of exile and displacement, and for that reason she is also a goddess of invasion.
In the web of life in which everything has a proper and harmonious place as part of a greater dynamic balance, those beings who wander aimlessly without place or purpose — or who refuse to submit to their fate as decreed by the greater order of things — can potentially pose a threat to that balance, causing disruption and harm in their desperate desire to survive. Love of life can lead us astray. In the utter innocence and fierce love of the goddess there exists a lurking danger, where wildness shades into chaos and disharmony.
We can see this potential within the very means of Blodeuwedd’s making, just as in the waters of the ninth wave that flow in her veins. Although the oak and meadowsweet blossoms used to create her bestow upon her the qualities of sovereignty, sweetness and beauty befitting a queen, the broom has long been associated with the liminal qualities of the threshold and the wilder, unyielding side of passion. Folk tradition holds that it was unlucky to bring the plant into the house, especially during the month of May, and yet evidence shows that it was used widely for making besoms, rope and other domestic tools. Around the same time that the earliest known versions of Blodeuwedd’s story were passing from oral tradition into written manuscripts in medieval Wales, we also find among the written records of the period claims of witches using broomsticks to vaginally administer hallucinogenic “flying ointments,” exciting them to demonic ecstasies. Later, the tradition of “jumping the broom” as a ritual practice to join a couple in an informal (not legally-recognized) marriage was said to have originated among the nomadic peoples living in England and Wales. These Travelers were also said to take the blossoming of the sunny yellow flowers of the broom plant in the spring as the annual sign to pack up their winter camp and resume their wanderings.
With its associations of domestic cleansing and stability in tension with these stories of illicit lovers’ unions, wild witches and wandering gypsies, the broom is a plant of “ambiguity and ambivalence, contradiction and paradox” even in its native ecosystem. But for me as an American living in the Pacific Northwest, the broom’s ambivalent nature strikes at the heart of questions about invasion, colonialism, and cultural and ecological disruption.
In a blog post this past spring, I examined the ambivalent relationship that human beings have with invasive species, non-native plants and animals that have been introduced into ecosystems (either intentionally or unintentionally) through human activities and have caused great harm or imbalance in those ecosystems as a result. I chose to focus specifically on one particularly damaging invasive species: Scotch broom. I had been struck by the beauty of Scotch broom when I first moved to Seattle, before I’d known anything about the local bioregion and the damage this species has caused. It was one of the first plants with whom I’d felt a connection — but I eventually learned it was an intruder, a foreigner in this land…. much like myself.
The beauty of this plant dominates especially in the spring, when it is easy to spot the delicate golden-blossomed stands growing along roadsides. It leans out over the shoulders of highways, bristling with slender green stems that rustle in the wind that’s stirred by passing cars. It reclaims neglected empty lots in the midst of the urban jungle, breaking down concrete and pushing its way up through crumbling sidewalks. Modestly nondescript during the wintry rainy months, this evergreen shrub reveals itself with the warming spring weather, a fresh reminder of bright summer days to come. As the days grow longer, it suddenly seems to be everywhere.
But that is exactly the problem. Originally a native of western and central Europe, broom was first introduced to the pacific coast of North America in the mid-1800s as a garden ornamental. Fast-growing and hardy, it was later used to prevent erosion and stabilize banks and sand dunes along newly built roadways. But despite its delicate appearance, broom is a survivor. It embodies the same hardy, pioneering spirit as those early settlers who brought it to the sunny coasts of California. Able to establish itself in disturbed and nutrient-deficient soils, it is a plant of thresholds and liminal places. For that very reason, it often outcompetes native plants of the Pacific Northwest that have been threatened by human encroachment, spreading quickly to dominate disrupted landscapes. Give Scotch broom an inch, and soon you’ll have miles of its dense stands invading the land, elbowing out natives, preventing reforestation and greatly reducing biodiversity.
The more I studied and explored my relationship with Scotch broom, the more I realized that I was also inviting the goddess Blodeuwedd into my life. She is the delicate and beautiful maiden who is underestimated by all, taken for granted but not so easily dismissed. She is driven by her own tenacious desire and survival instincts to challenge her captivity, to destroy the old order and create a new one in which she is free to be who she truly is. Like the invasive Scotch broom, this maiden — made partly of the broom’s golden blossoms — was brought into a new way of life by men who hoped to control her and use her for their own purposes. The arrogance of these men led to their own downfall (as well as their eventual transformation and restoration). In the same way, our all-too-human arrogance at exploiting “natural resources” like the Scotch broom as mere tools to serve our needs — as ornaments for our gardens and technologies for controlling erosion in our disrupted and polluted landscapes — has led to the imbalance and sometimes the outright destruction of the very ecosystems on which we depend. Will we, too, find a way to transform our relationship with the land? Can our love of the goddess — and her betrayal — challenge us to become more gracious custodians and kings?
In looking at this bioregionally-unique manifestation of Blodeuwedd as a goddess, we are brought sharply back to the questions of justice, balance, punishment and restoration. On the one hand, we can recognize the threat that invasive Scotch broom poses to a healthy ecosystem. We might come to the conclusion that the only real solution is to eradicate it completely, poisoning it with pesticides or ripping it out of the soil, even if our methods leave a ravaged landscape in its place. On the other hand, the fact that it is both beautiful and potentially useful can lead us to focus instead on its possible benefits and seek to cultivate it for our own purposes, even if doing so means driving out native species. In either case, however, we run the risk of continuing to see Scotch broom from a purely human-centric perspective: do we use it as a tool to satisfy our own needs, or eradicate it in order to restore the ecosystem to the way we think it ought to be?
Blodeuwedd challenges us to see Scotch broom not only as an invasive species, but as an amoral, or innocent, expression of tenacious life-force. Every invasive species is, in a sense, a reflection of our own displaced and wandering natures. Our attitude towards the Scotch broom reveals a great deal about our attitudes towards the more troubling and ambivalent aspects of human culture. The maiden goddess challenges us to question our presumed role as arbiters of life and death, and our right to judge which species live or die.