Nature, Technology & Artifice: Traps of a Trickster Goddess
In his book Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde notes that there are almost no examples recorded of female tricksters among the world’s many mythologies. This may be for several reasons, including biases among those collecting and recording the stories. The Trickster’s frequent associations with greed, gluttony and, in particular, lust might also have been problematic for traditional societies, in which a female could reasonably expect sexual promiscuity to eventually result in pregnancy, and all the family and social obligations that go with it — binding ties at odds with the wandering nature of the Trickster. And yet when we look at the defining characteristics of a Trickster god as Hyde explores them, it becomes undeniably clear that Blodeuwedd embodies the spirit of the Trickster.
Hyde describes the Trickster as “the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox.” The Trickster is fundamentally amoral, a boundary-crosser as well as a creator of boundaries. The story of Blodeuwedd’s betrayal clearly suggests this duplicitous nature, and the liminal manner of Lleu’s attempted murder reveals her as a goddess adept at negotiating and, if necessary, transgressing boundaries. Hyde also emphasizes the basic fluidity of the Trickster’s self-identity, the aimless wanderer who has many skills at once and yet no skills in particular. He writes that “trickster figures are ridden by their appetites” — their hungers (literal, sexual, social and existential) driving them to lie and steal, to slip the traps of expectation and order, and to sometimes get caught in them. In an appendix in Paul Radin’s book The Trickster, Carl Jung writes that:
[The] trickster is both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being, whose most alarming characteristic is his unconsciousness. . . . He is so unconscious of himself that his body is not a unity, and his two hands fight each other.
How many of these descriptions seem to fit Blodeuwedd. She is herself literally the work of trickery and artifice. Her physical body is not a unity, but a cobbled-together assortment of twigs and blossoms given a kind of unnatural animation through the magic of Gwydion. And although she is designed by men far more powerful than she is for one specific purpose — to serve as Lleu’s wife and queen — yet she thwarts that purpose through lies and deceit, following the call of her own hunger, her own passion and desire. As a result she is cursed, like so many other trickster figures, to aimless wandering in the wilderness, a social outcast. She is both subhuman and superhuman, both bestial and divine. She is the thief who steals away the beloved from the rightful king, except that it is her own self that she steals away — is this theft, or reparation? Either way, it is a kind of abolition.
As a trickster goddess, Blodeuwedd is a boundary crosser, blurring the lines between the Otherworld and this very world in which we live. In modern Paganism, there is a certain approach to hard polytheism which takes for granted the non-physical and transcendent nature of the gods, and yet the story of Blodeuwedd’s creation challenges any easy distinctions we might try to make on this subject. She is not a transcendent deity separate from the natural, material world but is made out of the stuff of physical existence. In most versions of the story, it is said that she is created from the blossoms of oak, meadowsweet and broom. In a poem attributed to Taliesin*, she speaks of being made “before the world began”:
Not of mother, nor of father was my creation.
I was made from the ninefold elements:
From fruit-trees, from paradisal fruit;
From primroses and hillflowers,
From blossom of the trees and bushes;
From the roots of the earth I was made;
From the bloom of the nettle;
From water of the ninth wave.
Water of the ninth wave — that is, waters from the boundaries between this world and the Otherworld. The ninth wave is the threshold that the sacred pilgrim crosses on his journey to the lands of the fey, the youthful and the dead; yet it is also the threshold that marks the transition from rooted belonging into exile and diaspora. This is a goddess familiar with dislocation and disconnection.
In the story of Blodeuwedd’s creation, we see a tension between transcendence and immanence, but also a tension between what is natural and what is unnatural. She is crafted from the roots of the earth and the blossoms of the trees, in intimate harmony with the natural world from which she is made. Yet she has neither mother nor father, cutting her off from any family ancestral lines that might inform her place in society, and she is crafted and enchanted by magicians. The artificial nature of her creation locates her outside of the natural order of the ordinary processes of birth and death, despite her having a human form and being designed for a very human purpose.
In this aspect of the goddess we see the tension between the natural and the unnatural that also exists in every piece of human art, artifice and technology. On the one hand, we use the raw materials of nature as a medium to craft our tools of self-expression and to assert our will in the world; while on the other hand, we use those tools to exert control over the natural world: to tame it, reshape it and redefine it, and even attempt to escape from it or transcend it. As the product of Gwydion and the companion of Lleu, both gods of skill and trickery, Blodeuwedd is a piece of magical “technology,” a tool of the gods who made her, a tool designed to subvert fate and escape the natural laws which restrict them. But she is also a deity in her own right — a goddess who embodies within her very being the ambivalence of human technology and how it mediates our relationship with the natural world.
As a trickster, she is caught in the trap of her own creation, and yet as every trickster eventually does, she slips the traps that culture and nature alike have set for her.
*Translation by John Matthews, Taliesin:The Last Celtic Shaman