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 As the Spotted owl, we might experience Blodeuwedd as vulnerable, elusive and withdrawn, the unfamiliar Other who demands that we place our loyalty to her above our human concerns, who asks more of us than we are perhaps willing to give — the hag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.
"One day I am sweet, another day I am sour," says the Irish trickster god Manannan mac Lir in his guise as the disheveled traveling buffoon whose hat is full of holes and whose shoes squish with puddle water when he walks. Manannan appears in folktales sometimes as a buffoon and sometimes as a richly dressed bard of talent and renown. When he is a buffoon, his words are sweet and his music sweeter; when he is a master of his craft, he comes off as a fake and an ass. When he is at home, he is a king whose otherworldly castle is thatched with white birds' wings. But the half-thatched homes of the mortal bards will never be complete. While the poets are away gathering their feathers, the winds have already swept away the last day's work. Which is the real god? The king, the poet, or the wandering buffoon? Which is the real writer? Which is the real me?
When my friend Carl McColman says that language is tricky, and that God is bigger than the limits of the human mind, we might imagine our words are just so many rigged-up rubber bands, paper clips and packing tape with which we are, MacGyver-style, trying to capture a wild and mighty wind. Yet our words are our own breath given form by our body and its movements, and where else have we drawn that breath but from the winds themselves? Our speaking is a shaping of the wind within us, released back into the wild to work its way into someone else's body, moving with the ebb and flow of sound waves, pressing in against their eardrums, stirring the tiny hairs of their skin. To talk about language this way is to break out of the metaphor of objects and containers, and to see words as experiences in themselves.
In my latest post over on No Unsacred Place, I explore in more detail what it means to take an ecological approach to polytheism through the concept of "natural theology," and the kinds of tough questions that this kind of inquiry might challenge us to ask: "Ecology does not reject the hard sciences that came before it, but brings together and expands upon them. In this same way, natural polytheism draws on an ecological approach to theology to build upon the insights of hard polytheism, challenging us to deepen our relationships with the gods by asking more challenging questions about their relationships with us, with each other and with the natural world. ..."