This bush is on fire, and we have misplaced god.
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.
We live in a time of amazing opportunities and heart-wrenching tragedies, a time when many of us live daily with the humming tension between wild enthusiasm and deep cynicism. Women in particular face challenging contradictions in this brave new age. In a society that celebrates equality, we see before us endless opportunities to pursue our dreams. And yet in many ways, the glass ceiling seems thicker than ever, and the balancing act of gender equality forever remains a perilous one.
It takes a long time to understand why she left. She'd arrived one day with a burst of rain, a glint of sunlight on wilting ice. She'd come with mud and wind and trampled dogwood petals pressed into the cracks of the sidewalk, with quickened breath and light, with the smell of cheap wax candles burning well past midnight... And then one day, just as quickly, she was gone again.
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 As the Spotted owl, we might experience Blodeuwedd as vulnerable, elusive and withdrawn, the unfamiliar Other who demands that we place our loyalty to her above our human concerns, who asks more of us than we are perhaps willing to give — the hag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.
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. 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. Who is Blodeuwedd? 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.
Not all of our companions will elbow their way into our lives and demand our attention. Some of them linger beyond the limits of our ordinary experiences, leaving only footprints and snapped twigs as traces of their presence. These are our guides to the depths of mystery and wilderness. They are dark wanderers who cross our paths only in the obscurity of a moonless night, whose form we seem to see only just on the periphery of our vision before it dissolves again into the tangled undergrowth of the unknown. They are the companions whose presence we sense with the thrill of uncertainty, that mixture of excitement and terror that gives rise to awe. Their breath is the sound on the edge of hearing that we catch just when we think we are alone. Lest we forget that nature is not only familiar and intimate, but deeply wild and strange. Lest we forget that some things are hidden, and will remain hidden. The bear is, for me, this kind of companion.