These days our society is moving further and further from the simple conception of gender as a binary: male or female, man or woman. We are beginning to recognize that gender is complex. In the natural world, scientists continue to discover undeniable examples of how sexuality is multifaceted and fluid, from the parthenogenesis of blacktip sharks to the three distinct sexes of the midshipman toadfish. But we're not there yet. Binaries have kept us trapped for a long time, defining us by what we are not or what we supposedly cannot do, rather than by who we are and what we're really capable of.
Our knowledge, instead of leading us to certainty, betrays us — guiding us deeper into the confused complexity of the forest, the dark wilds of unknowing. This is holy bewilderment. This is the horizon that is forever receding and can never be reached; the periphery that is everywhere and nowhere. We find ourselves spinning in circles. We look for a centered self that isn’t there, and when we find it, it is deeply bizarre. We are confronted by an Other that can never be centered or normalized. This is the call of the Wild One. Welcome to the hunt...
We Pagans have a love affair with the past that leads us to try to model the rituals and practices of ancient times as closely as possible. But we live in a different world today. Despite the ornate beauty of certain approaches to ritual, I wince at the wastefulness I see sometimes. Can this really be what the gods want from us? Are we so busy trying to do ritual “correctly” that we fail to do it well?
What were you expecting? A tame goddess who can be bribed with easy offerings? A pleasant springtime girl who asks for nothing but your adoration in return? An owl-feathered maiden of the forest to indulge your taste for the exotic and the dark? Were you hoping for a bedtime story with a moral at the end? Blodeuwedd's story isn't over. It is on-going. It is forever unfolding in every moment, in every place where nature and culture conflict and comingle, in every breath that weaves us as human animals into the more-than-human world. It would be too easy to approach Blodeuwedd through mythology and ritual alone, to disconnect her from the messy, erotic, death-riddled real world of broom blossoms and barred owls.
In the Pacific Northwest, Blodeuwedd's darker aspect manifests as innocent victim as well as hapless intruder. Not one or the other, but both. As the Spotted owl, we might experience Blodeuwedd as vulnerable, elusive and withdrawn, the unfamiliar Other who demands that we place our loyalty to her above our human concerns, who asks more of us than we are perhaps willing to give — the hag who demands a kiss as the price of sovereignty. As the Barred owl, she is the adaptable trickster again, the wanderer driven by hunger into new lands, whose appetite and determination threaten to overturn the current order. Seeing the owl in the goddess, we also see the goddess in the owl. Do we sacrifice the one in service to the many, without that one's consent? Do we kill this one owl, or eradicate this one species, for the sake of the balance and prosperity of the whole?
How do we understand the innocence of Blodeuwedd as the Flower Maiden, and her punishment as the Owl-Faced Old Maid? 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. 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. She is a goddess of exile and displacement, and for that reason she is also a goddess of invasion.
Blodeuwedd embodies the spirit of the trickster. 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, this is a goddess familiar with dislocation and disconnection, and one who embodies within her very being the ambivalence of human technology and how it mediates our relationship with the natural world.
Part of my identity as someone with a Celtic spirituality is the inescapable fact of exile. I am not only a person with Irish heritage living in the multicultural milieu of modern America, but I am also a polytheist and Pagan trying to connect with my ancestors across millennia of lost traditions from my place in a monotheistic, Abrahamic mainstream culture. It is within that diaspora — that exile — that I will have to discover, or forge, an authentic spiritual life.
In my latest post over on No Unsacred Place, I explore the meaning of pantheistic faith in the face of the "hour of adversity" and the role that satire and deep play have in helping us through times of spiritual crisis and community strife. How does pantheism cope with the "hour of adversity" and the inescapable reality of physical death? What can the bardic tradition of satire in Celtic mythology and folklore tell us about how we can confront a loss of faith in our spiritual lives as well as in our political leadership?
There's a lot of navel-gazing and turning inward in the Pagan and New Age communities, as people seek an antidote to the self-sacrifice and self-denial found in so many Christian traditions. But this focus on the self can so easily become an excuse to withdraw, to flinch away from the difficult work of putting down roots and reaching out to find nourishment and connection in others. Connecting with others always means an ebb and flow of energy, a willingness to give as well as receive. Establishing healthy, porous boundaries takes work — and when a person already feels drained and powerless, it can seem like too monumental a task to face. But by turning away from that task, by refusing that connection in order to "take care of ourselves first," we so often discover that we've cut ourselves off from our own deeper power. Instead of feeling rested and revived, we only end up feeling weak and even more vulnerable. Our roots are too shallow to feed our hungering souls.