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

The Crazy Owl of Gwyn ap Nudd

330px-Waldkauz-Strix_aluco

In ‘Y Dylluan’ (‘The Owl’) (1350), the medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym refers to the ‘Crazy Owl’ ‘of Gwyn ap Nudd’:

Piercingly she shrieked: I recognise her form,
she is the bird of Gwyn ap Nudd.
Crazy Owl that sings to robbers,
misfortune on her tongue and on her tune.

She will not be silent whilst he chants his prayer by starlight. He cannot sleep because of ‘the voice and screeching of the Owl, / her frequent outcry and her laugh, / and poetry’s travesty from her tongue.’ His description of her is far from flattering and becomes increasingly sinister:

Dirty she is, with two raucous cries,
big-headed, with a hateful shout,
broad-browed, and berry-bellied,
old wide-eyed catcher of mice,
busy, vile, and colourless,
shrivelled her voice, her colour that of tin…
and her face, like that of a gentle human being,
and her form, she-fiend of birds.

Speaking of her ‘wretched song’ he says ‘“Hw-ddy-hw” – a lively gasp – / with energy, by Anna’s grandson, / she incites the hounds of night.’ By the “hw-ddy-hw” we know Dafydd is referring to the tawny owl who is also known as the screech owl.

‘Anna’s grandson’ refers to Gwyn. In The Mabinogion, Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Lludd is the son of Beli Mawr who, in the Harleian Genealogies, is partnered with Anna. This may be mapped onto an older cosmography where Bel and Don are the ‘parents’ of Gwyn’s father, Nudd.

The ‘hounds of night’ are the Cwn Annwn, ‘Hounds of the Otherworld’, with whom Gwyn hunts the souls of the dead. This poem suggests the screech of Crazy Owl precedes Gwyn’s Hunt and that she flies at its head, terrifying, fiend-like with her human-like face.

In the final verse, Dafydd determines not only to scare the owl away with his song, but to ‘put… a bonfire in each ivied tree’, presumably with the intention of eliminating owls!

***

Gwyn is not the only god of hunting and the dead who appears with an owl. Charles Hardwick notes that the Hunter Hackelberg, who he identifies with Woden, the Germanic leader of ‘the Wild Hunt’, is accompanied by an owl named Tutursel:

‘Mounted on his white or dappled grey steed, the wild huntsman may always be recognised by his broad-brimmed hat, and his wide mantle, from which he is named Hakelbarend or Hakelberg, an old name signifying mantle-wearer. The hooting owl, Tutursel, flies before him.’

In the story of ‘The Hunter Hackelberg and the Tut-Osel’, the owl was a nun called Ursula who tormented her sisterhood and interrupted services with her ‘discordant voice’. Therefore they called her Tutursel. After her death, ‘from eleven o’clock at night she thrust her head through a hole in the tower and tooted miserably; and every morning at about four o’clock she joined unasked in the matin song.’

When the nuns realised the voice was Tutursel’s they refused to enter the nunnery until she was banished. Tutursel eventually met Hackelberg and found she delighted in his wood-cry “Hu Hu!” as much he delighted in her “U! Hu!” and she has flown with him since.

We do not know the story behind how Crazy Owl came to fly with Gwyn. Yet the reference to her ‘face, like that of a gentle human being’ may suggest she is of human origin or is a shapeshifter capable of taking human form.

***

In ‘The Fourth Branch’ of The Mabinogion, Blodeuwedd, a flower maiden, is transformed into an owl by Gwydion as a punishment for helping her lover, Gronw, to kill her husband, Lleu. This story may be based on an older seasonal myth where Blodeuwedd chose freely to be flowers whilst with Lleu in summer and an owl whilst with Gronw (a hunter god) in winter.

This story is paralleled by Creiddylad spending the summer with Gwythyr and winter with Gwyn. This led me to wonder whether Creiddylad takes owl-form on Gwyn’s Hunt. My meditations spoke otherwise – Crazy Owl is a separate person to Creiddylad with her own story*.

I’d like to end with this poem by Thomas Vantor, written in 1619, which describes the owl as a bright lady singing the dirge of the dying and puts me in mind of the Crazy Owl of Gwyn ap Nudd:

Sweet Suffolk owl, so trimly dight,
With feathers like a lady bright,
Thou sittest alone, singing at night
Te whit, te whoo, te whit, te whoo,
Thy note that forth so freely rolls
With shrill command the mouse controls,
And sings a dirge for dying souls,
Te whit, te whoo, te whit, te whoo.

*Crazy Owl’s story will appear in my next book Gatherer of Souls.

SOURCES

Dafydd ap Gwilym, Poems, (Gomer Press, 1982)
Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions, Folklore, (Forgotten Books, 2012)
Kristine Weinstein, The Owl in Art, Myth, and Legend, (Book Sales, 1991)
Marianne Taylor, Owls, (Bloomsbury, 2012)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
The Hunter Hackelnberg and the Tut-Osel

Peneverdant, A Lunar Cycle

I. Dark Moon

On a dark moon
the lady in the ivy
winds down the dark hill
and the falling graves.

All memory
is sliding into darkness,
the river’s tides
her open mouth.

She is waiting
for the return
of her tribe
on their oaken boats.

The moon is dark
over the river-
an eye, a maelstrom
between the worlds.

The fleet are ready,
the church is empty,
graves as hollow
as the old green hill.

She will be waiting
in the ivy
for the return
of her tribe
on their oaken boats.

II. New Moon

All is darkness
but the splash of the tide,
the wing of an owl.

Lady Ivy
recounts her losses
on the hill
and the bank
where the hangman
wore his cowl.

They are waiting
in the maelstrom eye
of the new moon-
the river’s entryway
to living day
and deep Annwn.

They are waiting,
her hidden tribe
on their oaken boats
in a slit of light,
an opening moonbeam
to row through
the night
to the old green hill.

III. Moon First Quarter

There is wisdom
in the eyes of an owl-
a demand,
a categorical imperative.

Behind cumulonimbus clouds
secretly moon’s orb
is swelling.

They row.
History is written
in their woad-
gods and goddesses,
an oak king,
the lakes and water courses
of their oaken fleet,
the moon’s eye
in the shining river
and all the laws of the deep.

IV. Full Moon

The moon is full
behind the clouds.
She casts no light
on the empty boats,
the processional route
around the old green hill,
the moving river of woad.

Lantern bearers
pass the old iron rails,
the gloomy gathering of graves
to assemble on the mound,
igniting the beacon fire.

By the wing of an owl
the clouds are moved.
The moon looks down,
victorious.

They salute her orb
in the shining river,
the gods of the hill
and the deep.

On this night
of opened graves
anything is possible
in the light of the beacon fire
before the lambent eye of the moon.

V. Moon Last Quarter

Night has fallen
from the moon’s closing eye.

The owl has flown
to the hunt.

The fire gone cold
with the lanterns’ glow
is eclipsed by street lamps
and brake lights.

The by-pass roars
by the old green hill.
The river is concreted
back in her new course.

Lady Ivy
winds down
the hill and the graves.
She waits
for the tribe to row
to the river-moon
on their oaken boats,
to her maelstrom-eye
between the worlds.