Kate Hewett stalks the magical Celtic character of Blodeuedd through the Welsh story she appears in, the Otherworld she appears from, the land that gives her embodiment, and the messages she sends when attempts are made to recreate her.
This winter, as I plunged into the ancient Welsh story cycle of the Mabinogion for the first time, I immersed myself in an accompanying exploration of Lustleigh Cleave, Dartmoor, where I live. With my greyhound cross lurcher trotting behind me, I have taken tracks that, only once you find yourself ducking under a tree, clambering over huge boulders, or entering a fairy glen, indicate their intended use by humans, wild animals, or supernatural beings. Although the Mabinogion stories are located primarily in North Wales, the recognisable imagery of greyhounds, wild stags and magical forests lay trails back to my roots and ancestors from the wider British Isles. As I follow paths that could lead me to civilisation, a mystical encounter, or a broken ankle, a strong sense of the Otherworld, woven into and alongside the physical reality, has arisen. Blodeuedd is the character who, for me, most strongly resides at this threshold.
I outlined her story to a friend who said it reminded her of those weird dreams you wake up from and, for a moment, can’t figure out what is real and what isn’t. For Blodeuedd is made out of ‘magic and enchantment’ (Davies, 2007, p. 58) from oak, meadowsweet and broom flowers. She is to be the wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes who has been cursed by his mother so he can only marry a woman ‘not from the race that is on this earth at present’ (ibid). However, being ‘totally otherworldly, incapable of human morality’ (Matthews, 2002, p. 90), it is not surprising she falls in love with the hunter Gronw, first seen in the forest at the liminal point between life and death, killing and skinning a stag. Blodeuedd plots with her lover to kill her husband. The method is ridiculously complicated, involving goats and bathtubs and a weapon that takes a year to make, and they fail in the attempt. As a punishment Gronw is killed and Blodeuedd turned into an owl.
On Dartmoor there are faces everywhere, if you know how to see them. Experiencing the character and aliveness of the place is a matter of softening the gaze, becoming receptive, and looking at things awry. This echoes descriptions of the Celtic Otherworld, to which there are no definite guides but multiple clues. As Caitlin Matthews describes it:
‘The Otherworld is the internal resonance of the everyday world. It exists out of time, simultaneously intersecting all time and thus accessible to visitation from any point in linear time. Within the Otherworld, spiritual beings can be met and essential wisdom teachings are available to those who have the correct keys.’
Certainly there is a nonsensical, rollercoaster, altered state quality to Blodeuedd’s tale, it blurs distinctions, being ‘not quite fiction, not quite mythology, almost folk story and almost history’ (Matthews, 2002, p. xv) just as she moves in and out of forms and is never quite flowers, woman or owl. This makes her otherworldliness clear, and hints at old understandings that our souls live many lives in different forms. Yet this is all recounted in a matter-of-fact way, and ‘the majority of the stories in the Mabinogion weave between the worlds, often within the same sentence’ (Matthews, 2002, p. 11). This reminds me vividly of my wanderings on Dartmoor.
Pre-Christian societies of Britain lived in a much closer relationship with Annwfn, and I contend that a lot of that was because they were more rooted to the land. Bloudeuedd’s Celtic roots are visible through her origins in nature, but by the time her story was transcribed in the middle ages the earth had lost her pre-eminence in the divine hierarchy1. Despite being made out of flowers, ‘the mother goddess no longer has any part to play, for man has assumed the creative function’ (Markale, 1986, p. 151) and so it was no longer primarily through the land that one accessed the divine.
Blodeuedd’s story shows a broken, patriarchal society that is still apparent today, with its denigration of women, nature and the goddess (Markale, 1986; Matthews, 2002). Blodeuedd can ‘confer nothing on her husband’ (Matthews, 2002, p. 92), and their union is sterile, with no children born. After she is gone Lleu continues his rise towards kingship whereas Blodeuedd is, in contrast, once again manifested by a sorceror into an unchosen form. When ‘she is transformed into a bird, her name changes from Blodeuedd (‘flowers’) to Blodeuwedd (‘flower-face’)’ (Davies, 2007, p. 244). This is presented as the punishment of a female who does not conform, but I can’t help wondering if the additional ‘w,’ taking the shape of the wings of an owl, is a form of word magic that gives her a greater degree of freedom in the manifest world. The ambiguity is another sign of her slipperiness, although if, as Sheehan (2009) suggests, she can no longer metamorphose and is eternally bound to her owl body, then that implies she is still here with us today. When I walk my dogs at dusk in the woods and hear the owls hooting overhead I wonder if one of those voices is hers.
Blodeuedd is forced into physical embodiment but while the sorcerer’s ‘great enchantment can create a physical body of living molecules it cannot ensoul his nephew’s intended wife’ (Matthews, 2002, p. 89). His endeavour is doomed to failure because ‘you must never take anything of the Otherworld’s’ (Kane, 1998, p. 109). The story tells us that by disrespecting the eternal rules of co-existence, there is bound to be suffering and bloodshed.
Given all this, in order to get to know Blodeuedd better I did not want to sit indoors and contemplate a written text, but instead followed the advice of Sharon Blackie:
‘… for me one of the most important pieces of work that we need to do is literally bringing the imagination back down to earth again, literally grounding it in our places so we listen for the stories, we listen for the [..] archetypal beings that want to interact with us.’
One sharply cold February day I decided to make a Blodeuedd sculpture in our garden. If trying to ‘guess at [the] inner spirit’ of Celtic paganism is like ‘working in the twilight on a heap of fragments’ (MacCulloch, 1911, p. 3) then I needed to find a different way to relate to the clues I had so far.
I found a wicker cone to form her body, wove arms from dried buddleia stalks and attached a circle of hessian tied with wire to serve as her head. I added magnolia flowers for her eyes, some ivy and cedar fronds as breasts and hair, plus dried hydrangea heads for her skirt. It was not a faithful recreation as it was too early in the year for oak, meadowsweet or broom to be in flower, yet accurate enough for her voice to come through. For, each time I went off to forage something else to add from the garden, I returned to find she had fallen over. When this happened three times, and I had become frustrated, my hands numb with cold, it occurred to me that she was telling me, quite clearly, not to continue. In meditation that morning I had scribbled down a short invocation to her, which included the lines:
Never shall the form of our Goddess
be moulded by the dark hearts of men
again. Your betrayal haunts our dreams.
Remembering this, I let her be, and permitted her disintegration back into plant forms.
Blodeuedd is thrust, by the will of men, into a world where sovereignty has been disrespected through a rape and where ‘war is declared and the land is set in uproar’ (Matthews, 2002, p. 85). Made from the tender and transient blooms of summer, she comes into a ‘dark world’ (Robinson, 2021) where men enable other men to be sexual predators. She needs an owl’s capacity to see through the darkness. She may betray her husband with Gronw, but the first betrayal is of her by her sorcerer creators Math and Gwydion.
A few days after I abandoned her sculpture I read the first of several retellings of her story, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (first published 1967). His reimagining of the threads of the fourth branch living on in a mid 20th-century Welsh valley gripped me from the start. He skilfully weaves the magical and practical together, creating a discombobulating sense of things not being quite right in a similar way to how I experienced Blodeuwedd at the boundary of the Otherworld, accessed through place. The characters need to help the owl huntress return to flowers to calm her destructive energy. She has a similar predatory energy in Gwyneth Lewis’ The Meat Tree (2010), an equally skilful science fiction retelling where a spaceship gradually consumes the mind and bodies of those who enter a virtual reality game. The injustice of her treatment is similarly and clearly portrayed in Sharon Blackie’s Flower-Face (2019), and Martin Shaw’s Blodeuedd of the Owl-Face (2020).
Now in some aspects, these more modern stories show signs of our current age. The filling in of her inner experience, absent from the medieval versions, belongs to our post-psychological world. But can it be purely coincidence that I, and all these other writers, felt the unfairness of her punishment, which is not explicit in the early written version of her story, so acutely? There appears to be something archetypal and alive in her, which Carl Jung might call ‘things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life’. If the Otherworld is beyond time, and she is fixed by her new name, Blodeuwedd can speak to us today, if we are able to connect to her via the ‘inner deep’ of Annwyn. In this way the story itself becomes a portal, and the four authors, and I, reached a shared ‘knowing through the text that opens out into our lives’ (George Quasha, 1983). Fixed eternally in the form of a owl, we all sensed her anger and feel the injustice of her punishment.
As we move through spring bracken will grow over many of the trails I followed on the moor this winter. The broom and oak are in flower and, in the deeper, damper valley clefts, meadowsweet will follow. My lurcher no longer accompanies me on my roaming but runs instead in heavenly fields. Magic is still present, but it shape-shifts.
In many stories of the Mabinogion, white animals symbolise the Otherworld and lead the characters towards deeper magic2. During one dusk stroll, while contemplating these questions, I saw two white deer, a stag and a hind, grazing on the land opposite my home. We stared at each other for a few, long, moments, before they ran off. Above is a photo I took of them later, on an iPhone, in twilight, at a much greater distance.
The blurriness of the image is as it should be. Just as Blodeuedd should not have been forcibly manifested from the Otherworld, nor should I attempt to bring her into too defined a form. We can still see those two white deer if we soften our gaze, become receptive and look awry. Her lesson is that it is enough for her to stay at the boundary. The important messages will still come through.
I am honoured that the land I live on taught me enough otherworldly language to understand some of what Blodeu(w)edd voiced. For flower-face is still with us, hooting through the portals of the Otherworld as the light dims on the hillside groves where the deer graze. And now, when I hear her calling, I know better how to respond.
Dedicated to my lurcher, Om, whose insistence on twice-daily walks helped deepen my love of Dartmoor.
1 The local nature of most British sanctuaries and the distribution of dedications show that the religion of pre-Roman Britain, like that of pre-Roman Gaul, was essentially a nature religion’ and the remaining evidence in France shows that ‘… the Gauls sometimes pictured their Gods as human beings, though this is perhaps a relatively late development.’ (Dillon & Chadwick, 2000, p. 140). In contrast, the fourth branch of the Mabinogion contains references to Christian practices, such as Sunday mass (Davies, 2007).
2In the first branch of the Mabinogion, Pwyll encounters white hounds chasing a stag which leads him to a meeting with the king of the Otherworld; also in the first branch Rhiannon, an otherworldly figure, is introduced riding a white horse; in the third branch Pryderi and Manawydan pursue a white boar who leads them into a magical castle; in Geraint son of Erbin Arthur hunts a white stag which triggers an adventure for Geraint; in Peredur son of Efrog there are magical sheep that can change colour from white to black.
Blackie, S., 2019. Foxfire, Wolfskin and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women. 1st ed. Tewkesbury: September Publishing.
Blackie, S. (2021) This Mythic Life [podcast]. [Online] Available at: https://sharonblackie.net/podcast/
Breeze, A., 1997. Medieval Welsh Literature. 1st ed. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
Davies, S., 2007. The Mabinogion. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dillon, M. & Chadwick, N., 2000. The Celtic Realms. paperback edition ed. Dublin: Phoenix Press.
Garner, A., 2014. The Owl Service. HarperCollins Children’s Books ed. London: HarperCollins.
Guest, Lady Charlotte., 1849. The Mabinogion. 2nd ed. Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5160
Hillman, J., 1983. Healing Fiction. 1st edition ed. Barrytown: Station Hill Press.
Kane, S., 1998. Wisdom of the Mythtellers. 2nd ed. Ontario: Broadview Press.
Lewis, G., 2010. The Meat Tree. 1st edition ed. Bridgend: Seren.
MacCulloch, J. A., 1911. The Religion of the Ancient Celts. 1st ed. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.
Markale, J., 1986. Women of the Celts. US ed. Rochester: Inner Traditions.
Matthews, C., 2002. Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain. 1st ed. Rochester: Inner Traditions.
Robinson, Katherine (2021). ‘The Mabinogion’ [Lecture]. SCH5461: Glorious Distortions. Dartington Arts School. 2 February
Shaw, M. & Hoagland, T., 2020. Cinderbiter: Celtic Poems. 1st edition ed. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press.
Sheehan, S., 2009. Matrilineal Subjects: Ambiguity, Bodies and Metamorphosis in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. Signs, 34(2), pp. 319-342.
Zeff, Zazie., 2021. Conversation with Kate Hewett.
Kate Hewett lives in the woods on Dartmoor, who whisper to her of the urgent need to return to harmony with the more-than-human. As she travels that ancient, obscured, yet still accessible path, her creative work aims to express some of the stark beauty, wisdom and magic she is encountering. www.katetaylorhewett.com
Brielle Elise is a Certified Professional Transformational Coach, creative, and devotee aspiring to awaken the profound feminine in women and culture through transformative coaching, storytelling, art, and creative writing.
Words and photos © Kate Hewett 2021. Header image © Brielle Elise 2021.