The illustration above is part of the repeating owl pattern on the famous owl service dinner set, examples of which are rather rare…
When I started to read the manuscript for Snowdonia Folk Tales I did something I often do if the author is someone I am in contact with and sent Eric a message asking if he had any preferences as to what the cover story might be. He was busy and didn’t reply for some time.
In the meantime I read through the book and found the story of Blodeuwedd, one that I already had a familiarity and fascination with as I had read The Owl service by Alan Garner when I was young. I also watched the excellent TV adaptation, scripted by Garner himself, when it was repeated in 1978, I would have been 15 then and at an age when it was to make a lasting impression on me.
Her story is of course part of the wonderful epic tale of the Mabingion, but I am not going to go into that here. This is her story.
I wanted to work with this story very much, I felt a connection with not only the woman of flowers but also my own teenage self that could be expressed through this image.
I started to make sketches, trying to work out how to depict the flower and owl aspects of a character I felt was more sinned against than sinning. This was a grown woman released upon the world fully formed and filled with desires and feelings she had no experience of coping with as she had not been through the process of growing from a child to an adult. A woman created for a purpose she had no choice about. She was made from wild things and then expected to be tame.
While I was trying to find the face of my woman of flowers Eric replied to my message, suggesting her story would be a good one to choose. I love it when this happens, and it has happened several times with this series.
I didn’t want to make an image melding the woman and owl aspects together into one character. I had seen many of these and somehow they seemed a little brutal to me, I almost felt that although her transformation is a punishment it is also the moment she is set free, back into the wild and able to express herself without regret.
The fact that she becomes an owl particularly, a creature throughout history and across many cultures regarded with fascination and awe seemed important to me.
Few other creatures have so many different and contradictory beliefs held about them. Owls have been both feared and venerated, despised and admired, considered wise and foolish, and associated with witchcraft and medicine, the weather, birth and death. Speculation about Owls began in earliest folklore, too long ago to date, but passed down by word of mouth over many generations.
Interestingly the Inuit believed that the Short-eared Owl was once a young girl who was magically transformed into an Owl with a long beak. But the Owl became frightened and flew into the side of a house, flattening its face and beak. So Blodeuwedd was not the only transformation of woman to owl in folklore.
In the end I decided to have the owl blending with the background behind Blodeuwedd, a fate that awaits her in the future as she wakes in her bower and looks out directly at us with eyes that although they have only just opened on the world, are full of self awareness. One day she will return to her woodlands as owl, but now she is about to enter our world, one whose rules she does not know and will never really understand.
Retold by Eric Maddern for Folk tales of Snowdonia
At first it seemed there would be no thwarting Arianrhod’s third curse. But Gwydion knew Lleu would never be a fully initiated man unless he had a wife. So he brought Math into the plan and together they spiralled deep into their most powerful magic. They gathered the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet, never usually found together, and arranged them just so. For three days and nights they chanted powerful spells and incantations. On the last morning, beneath the heap of flowers, lit by rays from the rising sun, there she was… the naked body of a young woman, her eyes opening for the first time. Lleu was overjoyed with his bride and that night, after the wedding feast, they slept together. Because she was made of flowers she was called Blodeuedd, the Woman of Flowers.
It could have been so simple. Lleu, the son of the Sun, married Blodeuedd, daughter of the Earth. He with eyes shining like the sun on pools of water, his back straight as a sunbeam; she as beautiful as the flowers of the Earth, singing songs to the sky. But life rarely is that simple. In time a cloud crossed their skies and their lives twisted into tragedy.
Math gave Lleu the cantref of Ardudwy (stretching from Maentwrog toward Dolgellau) to be his lands. There he and Blodeuedd set up court in Mur Castell (known now as Tomen y Mur) and all seemed well. But Blodeuedd wasn’t like other women. She’d heard about the laws of the land but she’d not grown into them. And though Lleu was kind to her and she liked him well enough, he never excited her. What she loved most was to go into the wildwood, to dance and sing. For at heart she was a tree spirit, a flower maiden. She left running court affairs to her senior women. Like a wild child she was more interested in mischief and play.
One day, when Lleu was away visiting Math and Gwydion, she heard the sounds of barking dogs, whinnying horses and shouting men as a hunt rode by her hall. The energy of the hunt excited her. Something about the raw, wild animality of it all set her pulse racing. After the hunters had felled the stag and baited the dogs she sent a messenger to invite them to dine with her. ‘After all,’ she said to her maidservants, ‘It would be bad manners not to.’
The leader of the hunt – Gronw Pebyr, Gronw the Radiant – was Lord of Penllyn, a cantref which stretched from the mighty mountain Cadair Idris in the south, to the head of Llyn Tegid in the east and right up to the sharp-peaked Cnicht in the north. To the west Gronw’s land adjoined Ardudwy, Lleu’s province. Perhaps Gronw had not noticed when he crossed the border; perhaps there was something fated in the way the stag led them to Mur Castell.
Inside the hall Gronw took off his boots and riding jacket, loosened his shirt ties and sat by the rough-hewntable with a leather mug of mead. Blodeuedd admired his powerful build, his thick beard, his laughing brown eyes. As the fire crackled and the candles flickered all the others disappeared in a buzz of merry chatter. Gronw’s eyes widened at the wonder before him. The woman of flowers. He’d heard of her beauty but in the flesh she was utterly entrancing. Her eyes, green as acorns, bewitched him. Her broom-yellow hair, loose over her shoulders, longed to be stroked. Her skin, creamy as meadowsweet, ached to be kissed. He was on fire. With no thought of consequences he reached out, drawn towards her delicate nectar like an intoxicated bee. Suddenly he was on his knees like a priest before his goddess. And she… said yes. She chose him, this half-wild man of beast and forest, and invited him into her bed.
They gave in to their passions all night long. He taught her so much of lovemaking. She showed him so much exquisite beauty. The next day in a daze he said he should leave but she said no, stay. His men long gone he stayed for a second divine night. But on the third day at last they talked of consequences. How can we live without this passion? We must be together. But what of Lleu? Come away with me. But he will seek us out. So he must be killed. That cannot be easily done. He is under a powerful protection. Find out the secret of his death. I will do it. Whatever it takes. For you…
Soon after Lleu returned to Mur Castell. But that night Blodeuedd was quiet and withdrawn. ‘What’s the matter, beloved?’ asked Lleu. ‘I’ve been worrying about you,’ said Blodeuedd softly, ‘and what would happen if you died.’ Lleu laughed. ‘Don’t worry about that. Unless God takes me I cannot be easily killed.’ ‘That’s a relief,’ said Blodeuedd. ‘But, there is a way, is there? Perhaps you should tell me so I can be sure it doesn’t happen. After all, a wife should guard her husband’s safety.’ Lleu smiled, touched by his wife’s care. ‘Well it’s all extremely unlikely,’ he said. ‘I can be killed neither inside nor outside, neither on foot nor on horseback.’ ‘I see what you mean,’ said Blodeuedd. ‘Sounds impossible.’ ‘Not only that,’ added Lleu, starting to enjoy the impossibility of it all, ‘I could only be killed by a spear that has been one year in the making, and then only on holy days.’ ‘So… is there a way someone could overcome all this?’ asked Blodeuedd, reaching out and stroking Lleu’s arm. Lleu paused, looked at his sweetheart, took a deep breath and confided to her his deepest secret. ‘If there was a thatched bathtub by the river, and if I was to stand with one foot on the side of the tub and the other on the back of a billy-goat, and if someone were to strike me with that year-in-the-making spear, then and only then would I die.’ ‘Good,’ said Blodeuedd. ‘That’s not going to happen is it!’
But the next day she sent a message to Gronw to start work on the spear. For his part he felt as if he had drunk a witch’s brew. He had only once choice. He’d never spent a year making a spear before. It would be the spear of spears. Taken from an ancient, bleeding yew, from a branch that was straight and true, Gronw whittled it down to the heart, hardened it in the fire, fletched it and tipped it with poison. After a year he sent the message: ‘I’m ready.’ Blodeuedd, for her part, had arranged for a thatched bathhouse to be built and had alerted the nearby goatherd.
Lleu was riding home from Caer Dathyl along the northern bank of the Glaslyn River. His horse knew the path and the reins lay slack in his hands. He came to a ford and the horse plunged in, the swirling river up to his boot heels. On the other bank Lleu glimpsed a smooth, rounded standing stone he knew well. Pryderi’s tombstone. He’d heard the story of Gwydion’s single combat with the Lord of the South, though not from Gwydion himself. Occasionally he caught twisted mutterings about Gwydion, oaths carelessly uttered by those who’d lost loved ones in the battle. ‘All for that stupid brother of his,’ he once heard. ‘Poor Goewin,’ some of the women had said. Gwydion might be a clever wizard and a good storyteller but he was not liked by everybody. He’d been a good uncle to Lleu, though, helpful and loving. He’d taught him secrets he’d revealed to no other man. Maybe Gwydion was making up for his dark past in his love for Lleu.
Blodeuedd greeted Lleu with a smile and a gentle kiss. Soon he was busy giving orders to his men and later telling Blodeuedd the news from Math’s court. He didn’t notice anything different about her. That wasn’t unusual. But inside Blodeuedd was different. For the first time in her fragile existence she was about to act. She was going to do something mighty. A chill breeze made the soft petals round her heart flutter and tremble. All the pieces of her plan were in place. Gronw had been told. Tomorrow was the day.
In the morning she squeezed Lleu’s hand and said: ’It’s midsummer’s day. Let’s go down to the river. I have a treat for you! Let me bathe you in my new bath house.’ It sounded good. Lleu was tempted. Besides, he liked to humour his wife. As they walked down the earthen path birds sang, the summer flowers bloomed. A thatched roof perched over a new wooden tub full of steaming water. Her maidens had done as she’d asked. ‘Come,’ she said, helping him to slip off his clothes. With a deep sigh he sank into the fragrant water. She soaped his muscled back and shoulders, washed his hair. Lleu dissolved in the pleasure of it, never for a moment suspecting a thing.
Blodeuedd didn’t fully comprehend what she was doing. She only knew that a strange memory of overwhelming desire was driving her on. She turned and nodded to the old goatherd who tethered a shaggy, long-horned billy by the side of the bathhouse. When Lleu was finished he stepped dripping out of the water and wrapped a cloth around his waist. ‘Look, a goat!’ she said. ‘What did you say about standing on a bath and a goat? How funny! You could do it now. If it happened once it would never happen again. But how? You’d slip wouldn’t you?’ ‘No,’ said Lleu, entranced by the water, sun, flowers, her laughing voice, not hearing the bees buzzing around her heart… ‘Like this.’
He rose up, one foot on the edge of the tub, the other, unsteady at first, on the back of the goat. She reached out her hand to steady him. Slowly he straightened to his full height. He took a deep breath. Through the oaks a shaft of sunlight fell upon him. Fresh, clean and invigorated he stood tall, let go of her hand and spread his arms. ‘There, you see!’
A wren hopping in a hawthorn was chirping fiercely. A shadow fell across the sunbeam. Too late he saw the spear speeding towards him, sneering, heart-hungry and shaggy with barbs. Too late, too late. It pierced skin, flesh, bone, heart… He crumpled and for a moment was suspended in the air. Then a dark shape fell upon him with wings spread wide. Claws sank into his shoulders, his body was ebbing away, shrinking, failing, falling apart. The great bird flapped its wings once, twice, three times – as if lifting the Earth – then flew off through the trees and was gone.
She stood. Where was he? Was this what Death means? Not even a warm hand gone cold. Just emptiness, a space. What was this in the corner of her eye? She wiped away a tear and looked up. A dark, raging passion was running towards her. Ah yes, this was why. This was what it was for. He swept her up in his arms.
Gronw the Radiant and Blodeuedd, Woman of Flowers, went to Lleu’s Hall and that night they slept together. The next day Gronw took possession of Lleu’s land so that Ardudwy and Penllyn were under his control. For many weeks Gronw and Blodeuedd enjoyed being together. But as the weeks stretched into months a gnawing feeling grew in Gronw. He knew this couldn’t last. He had murdered a man, a lord no less and one beloved by two powerful men. Sooner or later they would be on his trail to exact revenge.
When Gwydion heard what had happened he set out to find his nephew. He wandered wide until he came to a house in Arfon where he heard from a swineherd about a sow that left her pen every morning and ran swiftly off. ‘No one can catch her,’ he said, ‘No one knows where she goes.’ ‘Wait for me in the morning,’ said Gwydion. At daybreak he was there and followed the sow briskly up the Nantlle valley. She stopped under an oak tree and began to eat. When Gwydion got closer he realised to his dismay that she was devouring rotting flesh and maggots. He looked up into the tree and in the topmost branches spied an eagle. It did not look well. When it ruffled its feathers rotting flesh and maggots fell to the ground, so sustaining the sow. He sensed this bird was none other than Lleu, transformed and barely alive. So he sang an englyn, a powerful magical spell, and the eagle dropped half way down the tree. He sang a second and it came into the lower branches. Finally a third englyn brought the bird before his feet. And there, with his magic wand, he turned it back into Lleu. But Lleu on death’s door. He knelt down, scooped him up and carried him home. It took Gwydion a whole year, using all his healing powers, to bring Lleu back to health again. And when he did they knew the first thing they must do was to punish Gronw and Blodeuedd. Lleu wanted to take on Gronw. Gwydion said he’d deal with the Flower Maiden.
When Blodeuedd and her maidens saw Gwydion approaching Mur Castell they took off for the mountain. But the maidens were so fixed on looking back at their pursuers that they didn’t see where they were going and fell into a lake. All were drowned and the lake is still known as Llyn y Morynion, ‘The Lake of the Virgins’. Blodeuedd herself, however, did not meet this fate. To her pleading for mercy Gwydion said: ‘I will not kill you. You came from Nature and to Nature you shall return. I shall transform you into a bird. But a bird that dares not show its face in daylight for fear of being mobbed by other birds. All for the shame you brought upon Lleu’. With a sweep of his wand Gwydion turned Blodeuedd into Blodeuwedd, the flower-faced owl. And so is the owl still called today.
Gronw Pebr was shocked to hear that the man he thought he’d killed was after him. He fled to Penllyn. When Lleu caught up with him Gronw offered land and gold in recompense, but Lleu was not interested. ‘You must stand in the same place I stood,’ he said, ‘and allow me to throw a spear at you.’ Gronw tried to persuade one of his retinue to take the blow for him, but not one of them would. As a result they became ‘One of the Three Disloyal Warbands of Britain.’ So the two men went to the banks of the Cynfael River and Gronw stood where Lleu had been. At the last minute Gronw said: ‘Since I acted through the deceit of a woman, please, in God’s name, let me put that stone between me and the blow.’ And Lleu said he could. So Gronw lifted a huge stone and crouched behind it. Then Lleu, the Fair One with the Deft Hand, took aim and threw the spear, straight as a beam of light. It seared through stone and flesh, bone and heart. Gronw Pebr, Gronw the Radiant, Lord of the Beasts and Wildman of the Woods, lay dead, killed by the Lord of Light. The stone with the hole lies there to this day and is known as Llech Gronw, Gronw’s Stone.
As for Lleu he took back his lands and, according to the tale, after Math’s death became Lord of Gwynedd and ruled over the country well. And so ends this branch of the Mabinogi.
My thanks to Eric for allowing me to reproduce this story
And more about the history press folktales series here: http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/local-history/storytelling/