Hidden historical heroines (#25: Blodeuwedd)

 

Blodeuwedd in Bloom by Selina Fenech-SelinaBlodeuwedd was known to Welsh mythology as the wife to the hero and demi-god Lleu Llaw Gyffes.

Lleu’s mother, the goddess Arianrhod, has an immediate dislike for her son, resulting from the embarrassment which his birth caused her (a complicated story for another time!). Refusing to acknowledge him, she placed a tynged – a powerful curse – upon the small boy: he shall have no name unless she gives him one, something she’s not prepared to ever do.

Luckily, the boy had two powerful protectors – his mother’s brothers, the magicians Math and Gwydion. Gwydion disguised the boy as a shoemaker’s apprentice and brought him into the presence of his unknowing mother. When she observed the youth kill a wren with a single stone, Arianrhod commented off-hand that “the fair-haired one (“lleu”) has a skillful hand (“llaw gyffes”)”. The gleeful Gwydion revealed the youth was her unwanted son, and that she has just given him a name – Lleu Llaw Gyffes.

Furious, Arianrhod placed a second tynged on the boy: that he shall never be armed unless she herself arms him. However, Gwydion came through for his nephew again a few years later, once Lleu has reached the age to be armed. He disguised himself and the boy as bards and thereby gained entrance to his sister’s stronghold, Caer Arianrhod. That night, Gwydion conjured a phantom army, setting all of Caer Arianrhod into a panic. Arianrhod handed weapons and armour to all in her castle so they could rush to her defence, including the younger bard. The second curse dispelled, Gwydion revealed himself and his deception.

Blodeuwedd's creation

The humiliated Arianrhod placed her third and final tynged on her unfortunate off-spring, completing the triad of emasculation – she denied her son a name, then the right to bear arms and now she denies him a mate. Lleu can take no wife from any race that exists on Earth.

There seemed no way around this final, devastating curse but, when Lleu became of a mind to take a companion, Gwydion and Math took: “the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they conjured up the fairest and most beautiful maiden anyone had ever seen. And they baptized her in the way that they did at that time, and named her Blodeuwedd,” which translates literally as “blossom faced”. The two were married, and set up court at Lleu’s castle, Tomen y Mur.

In the myth, Blodeuwedd is a ‘Gwenevieve’ archetype; when her noble husband is out gallivanting and adventuring and originating myth, she falls in love with Gronw Pebr, a hunter who happens upon her in the forests. Desperate to free herself from the yoke of marriage to someone she does not love nor ever would have chosen, Blodeuwedd begins to plot with her lover, for if Lleu Llaw Gyffes were no more, she would truly be free.

Unfortunately, Lleu Llaw Gyffes is pretty much immortal; he can not be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made. In desperation, Blodeuwedd resorts to feminine wiles, flattering her husband into revealing his secret. Lleu was obviously very secure in his wife’s subservience and obedience, because he readily tells her that he can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net with one foot on a cauldron and one on a goat and with a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at mass.

Somehow, the tenacious Blodeuwedd manages to set up this exact scenario. A year later, she brings up the subject again, pretending that she does not understand the specifics of how her husband’s death could happen. Lleu goes so far as to literally re-enact it for her, cauldron and goat and all. At the optimum moment, Gronw leapt from the undergrowth with a spear he had worked on every Sunday for the last year to strike down his rival.

Blodeuwedd and Gronw

Instead of dying, Lleu transforms into an eagle and escapes. His trusty Uncle Gwydion comes to the rescue one final time, tracking Lleu-the-eagle down, transforming him back to his human form and nursing him back to health before helping him defeat the treacherous Blodeuwedd and Gronw, who have been ruling over his lands together in his absence.

A humbled Gronw immediately begs the hero’s forgiveness. A hard-faced Lleu says he will only give it if Gronw submits to a spear strike, much the same as the one that he gave to Lleu. At first, Gronw tries to find someone from among his men who will take the blow for him, but Gronw is not well-loved, and there are none willing. Nervously, Gronw finally agrees to take the strike, with the proviso that he can hold a large stone to shield his body from mortal harm. It matters naught, as Lleu’s throw is so powerful and true that it pierces the stone and kills Gronw outright. A holed stone in Ardudwy is still known as Llech Ronw (Gronw’s Stone).

And so what of the unfaithful Blodeuwedd? Upon her husband’s return, she attempted to flee back into the forest from which she had been produced, but her creator Gwydion soon found her. In punishment for her transgressions, Blodeuwedd is transformed into an owl, so that she can never show her face in the daylight again and to forever suffer the enmity and harassment of all other birds.

 

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