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.
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 As the Spotted owl, we might experience Blodeuwedd as vulnerable, elusive and withdrawn, the unfamiliar Other who demands that we place our loyalty to her above our human concerns, who asks more of us than we are perhaps willing to give — the hag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.
In my latest post over on No Unsacred Place, I share the story from Welsh mythology of Mabon, son of Modron, in honor of the coming autumnal equinox. This story was originally published on the former site of Meadowsweet & Myrrh back in 2009. In the comment section of the original post, a reader asked, "I've never understood the connection between this tale and the Equinox. Can you help with that connection?" This was my reply: "In Druidry, the autumnal equinox is not actually called Mabon, but instead goes by the name Alban Elfed/Elued (Welsh, meaning 'Light of the Water/Sea'). ..."
The significance of Beltaine reaches beyond merely being an agricultural festival focused on fertility and fecundity in service to the community, with romance acting as a bit of grease we can indulge in now and then to keep the Wheel turning. The holy day at the height of spring is also a day of ecstasy in the original sense, a day on which the attraction of life-force can pull us beyond ourselves and into communion with a larger Mystery, beyond tensions that might keep us too rigidly locked into unhealthy or hampering community bonds once they have outlasted their benefit. Along with Samhain, the other hinge of the year, Beltaine serves as a liminal time, a time of thresholds and permeable boundaries. The great ecstatic mysteries of sex and death dominate both these holy days.