The Retelling of the Mabinogion Fourth Branch: Blodeuwedd
Here is a brief outline. Math ruler of Gwyneth was a warrior. During peacetime his feet were always to be held by a virgin woman. The maiden Goewin had this duty, but she was desired by Math's nephew Gilfaethwy. Gilfaethwy's scheming brother Gwydion, who excelled in telling stories, told Math of the need to wage war in the South. In Math's absence, Gilfaethwy attempts to woo Goewin and rapes her.
On Math's return, Goewin could no longer serve as foot holder, and when Math learned of the attack he married Goewin and punished the brothers by transforming them into animals. His spell turned Gilfaethwy and Gwydion into deer, then wild boar, then wolves; the punished beasts bred, and their human offspring were adopted by Math and Goewin.
With their punishment complete, a supposedly repentant Gwydion suggested his sister Arianrhod to be Math's new foot holder. As part of an initiation ritual Arianrhod stepped over a magic wand, and this act conjured two boys into existence, one who Gwydion hid from Arianrhod and Math for four years. When Arianrhod discovered the boy, in shame she swore she was the only person who could name him, arm him, or allow him to marry.
Gwydion tricked Arianrhod into naming the boy Lleu, and because Arianrhod would not allow him to marry, he worked with Math to create a wife for Lleu made from meadow flowers. This meadowsweet wife was named Blodeuwedd. But Blodeuwedd did not love Lleu instead falling in love with a huntsman called Gronw Pebr. Knwoing she could only be free from Lleu if he was dead she tricked the apparently invincible Lleu into revealing the circumstances under which he could be killed. Lleu admitted he could be vanquished if he stood under a roof, with one foot in a bath, the other on a goat, and was pierced by a spear that took 12 months to carve. A year later, Gronw Pebr speared Lleu in these circumstances - but Lleu did not die, rather he transformed into an eagle.
The injured eagle flew to a tree, and its feathers and the tree's leaves began to rot like meat. Gwydion coaxed the dying eagle from the tree, and once on the ground he then changed Lleu back into human form. Gwydion and Lleu plotted revenge. Lleu threw a spear at Gronw, who hid behind a stone for protection; but Lleu's spear pierced the stone and Gronw was killed.
Gywdion found Blodeuwedd and turned her into an owl, sentencing her to live the remains of her life in solitude. Lleu, fully recovered and with Gwydion plotting at his side, ruled Gwyneth.
About these wild wisdom soul stories. You take this as you wish as a mythic exploration, spiritual gift, positive psychological programming whatever … but I offer it to you in the hope that it will serve you some good purpose. The tree teachings, #forestbathing #meditations and wild wisdom soul stories are not pre-planned, I don’t have the year ahead mapped out with neat little diagrams and to do lists and pre-prepared old last years’ materials. No ... these are the fresh green shoots of inspirations sent forth from the trees. I don’t care what your belief system is … in times of mass extinction, and #climatechange , my conviction is that if we connect personally with trees and nature this can only serve both us and the #earth well … I hope you agree. Each being and story featured each week is of course a brief glimpse. If you feel drawn to a particular one you could study it in greater depth and pay homage to the culture within which it arose.
The Current Retelling
The medieval retelling by monks of the ancient stories known collectively as the Mabinogion presents ancient wisdom within Christian context. Of course the monks had their own agenda to pursue and within this the need to undermine the old beliefs and translate them into Christian context. Hence, for example why we see the two main female figures in such a negative light. To illustrate, Arianrhod does not 'name' her son because it was believed in ancient times that to give ones true name away was to give ones' power away. It is also true to say that in many ancient cultures one earned ones' true name through rite of passage. In this case her son earns the epithet "the fair-haired one with the skilful hand". This is a culture where you weren't just given your dues, you had to earn them.
How much more do you value something when you have to earn it?
There is neither time nor space to go into the Christian retellings and interpretations here other than to explain why they rewrote the story.
The Christian mission was to obliterate all knowledge and mention of the old god/old knowledge. These old beliefs were extremely hard to eradicate, so embedded were they in cultural consciousness. Hence the absorption of pagan festivals into the Christian calendar and the format of stories we see today. One clue as to the ancient nature of this original story or ritual, is the fact that what the monks wrote down were originally oral stories. These then were ancient oral transmissions in a culture where knowledge was retained in memory, not in writing.
Despite the Christianisation of this story the central ritual with its key themes and characters remains. The very fact that Bloddeuwedd is transformed in to an unfaithful woman, a betrayer of men, tells us that here we have an extremely important element of the story. This story is powerful because it conveys the ability to cross boundaries. She is both vegetal and animal woven into human guise. To Christian monks this was heresy.
This rewriting of the story is a direct and blatant attempt to break the power of the central tenet. The main cultural initiators here are rebranded as unethical, as untrustworthy, as tricksters, cheats, charlatans and worse. The monks turned this ancient knowledge into a warning about human folly and suffering and shows how following ancient tradition is a betrayal of (their) modern human society and Christian orthodox. More importantly they encouraged a cultural reassessment of and use for stories.
In other words, society was brainwashed in to seeing them Only as receptacles of human knowledge or entertainment held for human benefit.
It’s cleverly done and it has been deluding people ever since.
So, let us get to the heart of the matter...
Who is Blodeuedd?
Blodeuwedd is an incantation, a charm or spell. She is made of 9 plants. We see similar spells in the Battle of The Trees and in the Anglo Saxon 9 herb charm. Something of her true nature is revealed when she flies away as an owl.
At the heart of what we see in modern times as a folk tale or myth is in fact a ritual. However,
the ritual itself is no less mythic for that. In fact, it is all the more powerful a story.
In the work of Taliesin he nicknames Math ‘Hen’ meaning old. Often used as a nickname for a bear in the days when the mention of it directly was a taboo. There are many variations of the name but at the root of them all is that Math was known as a bear or the ‘son of a bear’. The ancient tribes of the circumpolar regions worshipped the bear as a god or as a messenger, or go between to the gods. Their ancient beliefs had mankind as descended from bears.
One of the most ancient stories passed down by tribes’ people from around the world is the story of how their tribes are descended from bears after a human female consorted with a male bear. Of the two sons that Arianhrod had, Dylan was described as blonde, a known descriptor for bear. He ran away to the water a place known as a haunt of bears as they are very proficient fishers, we return to this later. Arianhrod, whose name can be interpreted as 'Silver Wheel,' is herself linked to the circumpolar stars. These stars are intimately connected with bear mythology. Corona Borealis, for which she is named, is a small constellation in the Northern Celestial Hemisphere. Its brightest stars form a semi circular arc. Many cultures likened the pattern to a circle of elders, an eagle's nest, a bear's den, or even a smoke hole.
Blodeuwedd's maidens are both offerings thrown into the river and spirits returning to their realm. As we see later, water again features in the tale. The other brother is brought up for four years by Gwydion and here is the thing, he grows far faster and bigger than any normal human child. In other words, he too is a bear or descended from a bear. He is certainly not a 'normal' human, but something otherworldly. Later we see the exchange between himself and the Lord of The Forest. Who is the Lord Of The Forest? (I leave that for you).
A ring also features here. The medieval retelling states a ring is made through a stone when a spear pierces it. In any event a ring is featured in a number of ancient bear rituals. The ring is used in a number of ways both as mastery of the bear but also as a way to see the spirit world. In many cases it was considered dangerous to look directly at the bear and so as a spirit being it had to be viewed through a ring. In throwing the spear the story is telling us that by piercing the stone the spear is entering the spirit world. And so, it goes on and on, like that ……
What Blodeuwedd is teaching us.
I could write at great length about this ritual transmission of knowledge but of course we are looking at the Tree Teaching about Chestnut and the Breath. What does the goddess Blodeuwedd have to teach us? If we look at her story we see that this is a cyclical tale of death, rebirth and transformation. Gwydion is the shaman that summons her as the vehicle for the ceremony and transmission. ‘She’ is however more than this, they/it are a spirit in their own right. The figures in this myth are both humans, archetypes, spirits and gods. Layers within layers, cycles within cycles and the outcome of all this is the deep knowledge that all is one. Where does the god end and the human begin?
It is not enough to take these tales and put human interpretations upon them. The stories or transmissions are not just human lessons and the sharing of human knowledge with each other. Rather, these stories have to be seen in the context within which they emerged. That is, a world were humans are part of a greater cosmos, where each being had its role to play in the ecology of place and time. These stories are not just interpretations of knowledge gleaned by humans to survive, they are transmissions from the land itself. The oral tradition is not just one of retaining knowledge, it is an act of remembering. And this is important because the act of remembering is an act of honouring.
If we are content to sit with stories as just that, human stories to share with other humans, then we are missing a great storehouse of knowledge and wisdom in which is embedded an enormous gift of deep native culture. Having spent years investigating our native inheritance as seen in our bear history and culture among other things, this story is witness to something very ancient indeed.
In the Breath Tree Teaching what we learned is how interdependent we are upon trees for life. The transmission of knowledge that Blodeuwedd teaches us is that in taking a life, a life must then be given. In other words, there has to be an exchange. We as humans have forgotten the exchange. We breath in we take in oxygen gifted by the tree, we breath out we gift carbon dioxide for the tree.
“But this is basic ecology it has nothing to do with gifting” I can hear a sceptic say. To which I answer that when we stopped seeing the bones of life as gifts that was when the trouble started. When we stopped seeing the inherent exchange in living and dying we started to see ourselves less as a partner with the land and the land as more of a resource. And the moment we did this was the moment we started on our current trajectory of environmental disaster. This is basic ecology. Native people the world over understand the balance between human need and needs of the world they live in.
Blodeuwedd is the spell, the charm, the instrument of the transmission, and she is the transformer. She is the tool and the enabler. She is the initiator, she is a voice of nature itself.
To speak of #rewilding humans is to speak of reconnecting back to the land to see ourselves as part of it rather than separate. We see this in the fundamental act of #breathing. The #chestnut teaches us that when we step beyond our limited human thinking of labels and opinions i.e. this is a chestnut, it is non-native, it is a pest, we then see something much deeper and more fundamental.
What you see written each week here is just the start, a mere skimming over of a depth of knowledge, but my hope is that it is enough to get you started following the scent of a trail back to home and a better way of living.
Bloddeuwedd as both ceremony and spirit is the conduit and teacher to this deeper understanding of our place as humans in the natural world.
She is a woman, but she is made of flowers. She is a woman but she is an owl.
Blessings Amanda Claire x
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