As Christmas approaches once again, I find myself wondering, wandering in a liminal space. Asking myself how to teach children that realizing their own inner Santa Claus is infinitely more challenging than believing in some unlikely literal jolly-old-elf, and infinitely more rewarding. Asking myself where I belong, where we all belong, and how we belong to each other. Asking myself how I can tell the stories of my ancestors, pagan and Christian alike, to the children of my partner. What can I say that will be meaningful and relevant for them, that will share with them the "spirit of the season" that I have come to know and love and value? What will I say when they come singing, a penny for my thoughts?
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 As the Spotted owl, we might experience Blodeuwedd as vulnerable, elusive and withdrawn, the unfamiliar Other who demands that we place our loyalty to her above our human concerns, who asks more of us than we are perhaps willing to give — the hag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.
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.
"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?
It is from the east, now, that something new approaches the Byrnecock estate. Along the thin road bordered by hedgerows that cut across the hillsides come a pair of gaslit headlamps, illuminating with their amber light the slanting rain that dashes down through a plume of rising steam. The hedgerows have been thinned by the season to a tangle of bare limbs and would cast long, haunting shadows of grasping phantasms across the dampened earth if not for the low, dense clouds that so thoroughly blot out the moon. The thin, wide wheels of the carriage spin steadily despite the rain, hardly slipping across the slick track of mud and fallen leaves. There is no sad, sodden beast trotting along mournfully before this carriage, no sound of hoofbeats muffled by the wet autumn litter. Instead, a kind of wide, flat cart and on it, a large cylinder of dark metal that sizzles slightly in the downpour. The hiss and sigh of small pistons pumping a series of nested gears on either side quite drown out the low conversation of the occupants who sit, rigid and poised, casting slim silhouettes on the fogged window panes from the dry interior of the cab.