Blodeuwedd and the Owl Kind

I.
I’m wandering through a bleak windswept landscape in Annwn and screaming down from the skies come two haggard-looking owl-women who almost look like harpies with shabby feathers, bare breasts, and long claws. At first I’m afraid of them, but less so as I examine their faces, old, wise, grey.

They tell me they are ‘the Owl Kind’ – those who have gone into owls. They watch over families and communities until they stop watching for them. They watch over lands until they become unrecognisable. They watch over the dead and those who go between worlds – their owl eyes are always on them.

They can often be found in graveyards. They show me how they watch over the spirit of a child who is afraid to leave her grave where she thinks she is safe and wants to sleep forever because she died believing there is no life after death and the owlets who sit in a row on the fence who sing her songs.

They tell me the owl kind are becoming less and less as they are leaving the places families and communities have left, where they are forgotten, and fewer know how to or want to go into owls anymore.

They tell me owls watch over my land and to listen for them.

II.
Only once have I met Blodeuwedd, the woman conjured from flowers by Math and Gwydion, then transformed into an owl as a punishment for her part in the plot to murder her husband, Lleu. It was during a journey when I was tricked into Caer Gwydion and she helped me escape, picking me up in her claws and taking me to the Forest at the Back of the World where the Owl Kind dwell. At this point I knew they were connected, that Blodeuwedd was one of the Owl Kind, perhaps the most significant.

This has led me to suspect that when Gwydion and Math conjured Blodeuedd from the blossoms of oak, meadowsweet and broom, when they imbued the blossoms with spirit, that the spirit they unwittingly summoned to animate them was hers – flowers on the surface, owlish huntress and killer beneath. (Thus it’s no wonder she was attracted to the Hunter when he rode into her kingdom).

Perhaps in an older variant of the tale Gwydion did not turn Blodeuwedd into an owl as a punishment but recognised her true nature, that he, the trickster, had been tricked. She couldn’t be confined by his spell.

III.
In modern Britain owls are, rightly, revered as symbolic of wisdom. Yet, appearing wide-eyed and innocent and slightly goofy-looking on bags, pencil cases, cushions, earrings etc. the darker side of their nature (which was emphasised for many centuries in British folklore) has been forgotten.

In a chapter titled ‘Night’s Black Agents’ in The Folklore of Birds Edward A. Armstrong notes that ‘Over Europe and Asia, indeed, most of the world, the owl is, and has long been, a bird of witchcraft, death and doom’. He notes examples of sightings of owls – ‘the trees were covered with owls’ ‘there were a scret (screech) owl on his roof, scretting something horrible’ as precedents of death.

Spenser refers to the owl as ‘death’s dreadful messenger’. Webster writes ‘The Scritch Owle and the whistler shrill / Call upon our dame aloud / And bid her quickly don her shroud.’ Armstrong notes connections between ‘ratchet owls’ and the corpse-eating Gabriel Ratchets and Hounds of Annwn.

In ‘The Owl’ Dafydd ap Gwilym speaks of the ‘Crazy Owl’ of Gwyn ap Nudd who ‘incites the hounds of night’ and no doubt flies at the head of his hunt heralding the chase of the souls of the dead.

IV.
In The Witch Ronald Hutton suggests our associations between owls and witchcraft derive from the Classical figure of the strix. These large-eyed, hungry-beaked, grey-white feathered birds of ill-omen dwelled on the outskirts of Tartarus, feasted on flesh and blood and snatched away the bodies of the dead. The term striges was also applied to ‘women who practice witchcraft’ and ‘flying women’.

The striges seem closely linked to harpies ‘snatchers’. They are described both as ‘lovely’ and ‘repulsive’. By Virgil as ‘Bird-bodied, girl-faced things… abominable their droppings, their hands are talons, their faces haggard with hunger insatiable’. Their names are evocative – Aello ‘storm swift’, Ocypete ‘swift wing’, Celaeno ‘the dark’, Podarge ‘fleet-foot’. Seen as the embodiments of the destructive winds they served as ‘the Hounds of Zeus’ snatching away evil-doers to the Erinyes.

VI.
In Dante’s Inferno harpies are depicted in the seventh circle of Hell in the ‘Wood of Suicides’:

No green here, but discoloured leaves and dark,
No tender shoots, but writhen and gnarled and tough,
No fruit, but poison galls on the withered bark…

Wide-winged like birds and lady-faced are these,
With feathered belly broad and claws of steel;
And there they sit and shriek on strange trees.

Dante is horrified when he realises that the trees are the souls of suicides. Their transformation and their fate of being tortured by the harpies, who feast on the boughs, is described by Augustus:

When the wild soul leaps from the body, which
Its own mad violence forces it to quit,
Minos dispatches it down to the seventh ditch.

It falls in the wood; no place is picked for it,
But as chance carries it, there it falls to be,
And where it falls, it sprouts like a corn of wheat,

And grows to a sapling, and thence to a wild tree;
Then the Harpies feed on its leaves, and the sharp bite
Gives agony, and a vent to agony.

VI.
In ‘The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides’ William Blake provides a vivid depiction of the scene. This partly resonates with my personal vision of the Owl Kind in the Forest at the Back of the World, where the souls of the dead shift into trees, plants, and animals.

800px-The_Wood_of_the_Self-Murderers

Only I do not see the role of the Owl Kind, although they are hunters and devourers of the dead, as punitive. Like the Hounds of Annwn they are simply serving their role hunting down the dead and devouring their dead flesh before bearing their souls back to the otherworldy forest where they can heal.

Perhaps they have always been connected with suicides – teaching them to be tree, plant, flower, blossoming until their bloomy faces are the faces of owls and, like Blodeuwedd, they fly free.

SOURCES

Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, (Dover Publications, 1958)
Dorothy I. Sayers, Dante, Hell, (Penguin Classics, 2001)
Rachel Bromwich (transl), Dafydd ap Gwilym, Poems, (Gomer Press, 1982)
Ronald Hutton, The Witch, (Yale University Press, 2018)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William Blake, William Blake’s Divine Comedy Illustrations, (Dover Publications, 2008)
Harpy’, Wikipedia
Strix’, Wikipedia

Seeking Blodeuedd

Cherry Blossoms Conti April 2019

I.
I seek you
where the petals
of magnolia fall
and cherry blossom
see you fleeing the ideal
of pale flesh

running into the woods
seeing yourself everywhere
dew beads on bluebells.

Doomed to be beautiful
you want to tear off your face.

II.
You want to sink your talons
into Lleu for whom you were made,

who acts like such a mummy’s boy
even though his mother disowned him,
refused to give him a name, weapons, a wife.
You hate this explanation for your being
and sate your hatred on loving Lleu

who did nothing wrong except be a man
in the wrong time and place.

III.
You do not know who Gronw is
until he brings you the stag’s head,
antlers shadowed on your bedroom wall,
until you wake knowing you have

a soul and weep for the first time.

Seeing clearly you choose your fate –
you will kill to have your own way.

Eyes large and wide honeyed beak:
“Tell me how can you be killed?”

IV.
Every Sunday you help to polish
the shaft of the poisoned spear,
try to restrain hysterical laughter
as you round up the goats by the river,
strip him, sponge him in the bath,
help him into that ludicrous position,
one foot on the goat one on the rim,
stark bollock naked shining like the sun.

When the spear strikes the sun falls
from the sky and flies away as an eagle
and you are left in darkness already
a creature of the night – Flower Face,

petals wilting in your marital bed,
flying free embracing your dark truth.

When Gwydion speaks your true name:
Blodeuwedd he does not know what he
called up, bound, and released.

The Epiphany of Lleu Llaw Gyffes

Lleu

I. The Oak

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me why
he has pierced us
with his spear

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me why
ooze drips from our
rancid wounds

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me why
we are filled with
rot and maggots

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me what
visions we must see
in these leaves

Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree
Lleu-in-the-Tree

Tell me what
lessons we have
failed to learn

II. Lleu’s Lament

I am filled with bitterness:
black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, blood,
yet no theory of the humours
or anatomy of melancholy
explains my sad state

and no letting of blood
or application of leeches can
purge the badness within.

So I am here on this tree
telling the story of how I saw
the sun and it was Fool’s Gold.
My wife was made of flowers.
My armour turned to dust.
My fortress was rubble.

I have lost the meaning of my name.

I have come to doubt I even exist,
yet cannot close my eagle eyes.

Like the Eagle of Gwernabwy
I have watched civilisations rise and fall.
Like the Eagles of Pengwern and Eli
I have sunk my beak into flesh
and tasted rot and maggots.

I have seen the rotting corpses
on the battlefield at the end of the world,
the souls sparkling like iron pyrite
in the veins of the night skies.

I have looked into the abyss
and the bright lights do not console me.

I go with reluctance into Gwydion’s arms.

III. Lleu’s Resurrection

He does not want to live,
this putrid sack of dirty feathers,
bones, rotten flesh, stench,

still I clamp my mouth to his,

massage his reluctant heart
slippery and recalcitrant.

When this does not work
I call upon all the electricity
from Maentwrog Power Station,
take the paddles and recite

the words of a forbidden spell
stolen from the depths of Annwn
to bring life to the newly dead.

An ALMIGHTY FLASH –

his body jerks like frog’s legs
or the monster of Frankenstein.

He breaks the leathery bonds,
shakes off his feathers and rises
like the sun from my stony table
leaving a black charred shape.

A haze of smoke surrounds him.

His eyes are burning his hair aflame!

BEHOLD THE RESURRECTION
OF THE LIGHTNING GOD!

IV. Dinas Lleu

Lleu will not return
to Dinas Lleu tonight

woodbine twines the walls
as if in search for a lover

an owl circles overhead
with a hoot is gone.

Lleu will not return
to Dinas Lleu tonight

thistles break into the hall
to find an empty hearth

the fire long gone out,
a pile of black char.

Lleu will not return
to Dinas Lleu tonight

in the ashes I scrawl
with a feather the outline

of a bird against the sun
unknowing if it is the end

or beginning of a myth.

*I wrote this sequence of poems in a single morning shortly after finding out I’d got an infection following my hernia repair operation. Thankfully it seems to have cleared up now.

Caer Wydion

I go to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion.’
The Dialogue of Taliesin and Ugnach

I.
Beneath
the mountain
there is a fighter jet

emblazoned with the name GWYDION.

On the passenger seat
there is a single
mushroom.

EAT ME it says.

I’m a sucker for a trick.

A one-way flight to Caer Wydion.

II.
I take one bite.

It’s enough –
the plane dismantles
and the bonds of my atoms break.

Whatever is left is hurtled through space
to a fortress in a woodland
where trees bow down
to only one.

III.
In a giant’s crown
Gwydion holds court
with the eagle-headed Lleu

and his three animal children –

Hyddwn, Hwchddwn, Bleiddwn,
fawn, piglet, snarling wolf-cub
polite in their bibs.

Gilfaethwy sits beside him –
brother and bride and groom
with sow’s ears and a snout.

Gwydion wears polished silver antlers
and a wolf-skin coat studded
with stars on the inside.

He throws down his wand.

At the look on my face his courtiers
laugh until their sides split
and their insides

fall out and roll about the floor
like jellies still trembling
with laughter.

Of course I can’t help but step over
the wand of the enchanter
then watch helpless

as my insides fall out –
an hysterical woman clutching
her wandering womb.

IV.
Two men with pencils
in the pockets of their lab coats
and long silky ass’s ears

take me down to the basement

where homunculi with eyes
in their foreheads are singing
eerie prophecies in glass jars:

a dozen miniature Taliesins
with tiny imperfections like
missing ears, fingers, toes.

V.
Along an endless corridor
are countless doors opening
into rooms where hybrid plants
turn toward fluorescent lights
to the pulse of a water pump.

“Gwydion will never create
the perfect wife for Lleu.”

A feather light voice in my ear
then talons grip my shoulders

and bear me back to my home.

Fly Agaric, Coed Felinrhyd