“I was made from the ninefold elements. From the roots of the earth I was made; from the bloom of the nettle; from water of the ninth wave.”
As an animist, my relationship with the gods is rooted in my relationship with the land and its many beings. Yet so many of my gods are in exile from the lands of their origins.
We share that in common. I may have the lilting melodies of old emerald isles singing in the marrow of my bones, but I carry Appalachian coal dust in my blood. And these days, I draw breath from winds that have crossed an ocean unknown to both the lands of my ancestors and the land of my birth. Each of these landscapes has shaped me in their own time, in their own ways. My body resonates in a three-part harmony of longing and belonging.
Just as each new place has changed me, my gods have changed as well — their blessings drawn from the rocks and rivers of new landscapes, their voices carried on different winds. Despite what modern Western society would have us believe, culture is not infinitely exportable. Religion, like every aspect of human culture, arises out of the resonances of a particular place and time, adapting to the changing communities of life that give it expression.
So what does it mean for an American living in the Pacific Northwest to worship deities of Ireland and Wales? In part, it means that many of my gods are — like myself — pilgrims and strangers in a new world, still finding their feet and learning what it means to move in this new land with grace and respect. Their lessons today are often lessons of ambivalence, dislocation and longing. For me, no goddess has been more insistent in her teaching than the flower-faced maiden, Blodeuwedd.
Goddess of Dangerous Innocence
My first glimpse of Blodeuwedd was a crude bit of graffiti I once spotted on the side of a pale yellow wall during my daily walk to work. Initially I mistook the graffiti for a bit of black mold or a rusty water stain bleeding through the cracks of the brick in the shape of a sacred mountain, reminiscent of the black ink landscape paintings of Taoist tradition. Rebellious nature reclaiming the neglected spaces of an all-too-human landscape of concrete and right angles. Only when I stopped and looked closer did I realize it was actually a spray-painted stencil of a large-breasted naked woman presenting her backside to the viewer, her long dark hair rippling out away from her like a river disappearing over a distant horizon. The contrast between the accidental, idyllic mountain scene that I’d seen at first glance and the crude obscenity of the actual graffiti struck me profoundly in that moment. Not one or the other, but both.
Who is Blodeuwedd? In Welsh mythology, she was the flower-faced maiden crafted out of the blossoms of oak, meadowsweet and broom by the magician-god Gwydion to be a wife for his nephew, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Made to suit the desires of men, she was the ideal woman, perfect in every way and far superior to the flawed human women whom Lleu had been forbidden to marry. Blodeuwedd was soft, delicate, beautiful, and completely loyal. That is, until she fell in love with a brawny huntsman who came along during her husband’s absence, and together they plotted to kill Lleu and usurp his place as ruler of the land. Blodeuwedd seduced Lleu into revealing his vulnerability on the bank of a river at dusk on the equinox — liminal in both time and place — where the huntsman struck the young god down with a nearly fatal blow. For a time, she ruled as queen by her lover’s side. But Lleu’s wound did not kill him, and when he finally returned to take his revenge for her betrayal, he transformed her into an owl and cursed her to haunt the night hated by all other birds.
How could I worship such a goddess? For a long time, the story of Blodeuwedd provoked little in me but resentment and disdain. I rolled my eyes at how typical her “feminine weakness” seemed to me, how insulting it was that she should be so fickle and easily won over by the first handsome stranger to flex a bit of muscle her way. Far from celebrating her passionate love, or admiring her youth and beauty as a maiden goddess of spring, I couldn’t help but think of her as just another example of a sexist patriarchy enforcing its stereotype of women as either innocent saints, or duplicitous sluts.
I did not come to appreciate Blodeuwedd until I came to see her as an initiator of the Self. Although I could not connect to the young flower maiden, I found that sometimes I could hear her whispering as the owl-faced old maid of the forest. She moved on silent wings, slipping like a dark knife into the heart of the moonless night. She was a lady of the shadows that are cast by longing. Young people today are noisy, she whispered. Young people are cobbled together from bits and pieces of beautiful things. They make themselves a patchwork of expectation and desire. But the shadows they cast tell another story, a story of wholeness to be found in the dark…
Listening to this owl-faced goddess, it seemed to me that her transformation had not been a punishment at all, but a triumph. Through it, she had become whole once more. She had asserted her freedom and claimed her place in the sacred web of wild and thriving life.
In myth, Blodeuwedd was an intrusive goddess, an invasive presence that sought to overthrow the rightful order of the kingdom. But her betrayal was not born of malicious intent. It arose out of innocence and love, the undeniable passion of eros, life-force itself. And so it is possible to see her also as the goddess of the land, asserting her wildness and sovereignty in the face of oppressive forces that sought to control and manipulate her. (Lleu’s near-death experience brought him face to face with his own inner wildness, the graceful and airy strength of the eagle, as well as the cycles of death and decay that feed the cycles of life. And so he too is transformed into a more fitting and gracious king.) Blodeuwedd is not the biddable, naïve maiden goddess of springtime puppy love. She is a goddess of dangerous innocence, an innocence so pure that it threatens to undo our easy assumptions about the world and our place within it.
She is saint and slut, queen and outcast, welcoming hostess and frightening wild thing.
Not one or the other, but both.
Photo Credit: The images in this post are copyright and appear courtesy of dadaduck.