Our island is having a scarecrow festival next month. We had one in 2019 and it was a great success, with lots of fun events, around a hundred scarecrows, and then at the end of the week a Highland Fair and Ceilidh. It was so successful that plans were made to do it again, in 2020…
So this year it’s back, and now my thoughts are turning to designs. Which is no small challenge, last time round there were some impressively creative offerings.
I’ve decided to tie in with visitscotland’s theme for 2022, ‘Scotland’s Year of Stories’. Our scarecrow is going to be Blodeuwedd.
Blodeuwedd appears in the Mabinogion, she’s a woman created from flowers to be the wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes who has been cursed never to have a human wife. Like many old stories there’s not a happy ending, not least for Blodeuwedd who is transformed into an owl and banished. Her story is the inspiration for ‘The Owl Service’, a novel by Alan Garner, which became a terrifying tv series in the 70s.
I thought I’d like to write my own take on her story.
So here it is:
Once upon a time in the land we now call Gwynedd, a young lad called Lleu Llaw Gyffes* was born. Now for a variety of reasons he became cursed, for starters his mother wasn’t best pleased about the manner of his birth – a long story and she had a point, secondly a bitter rivalry between siblings, and third, well they were generally quite popular. In fact he was subject to a number of curses, and a couple of protective spells. And the upshot of it all was that Lleu couldn’t marry any human wife, but on the plus side, killing him would be a complex process involving paradoxes, contortions, and highly specific weapons. Oh, and a goat.
After his birth and the various curses little is written about Lleu. Presumably he spent his childhood and adolescence setting the foundations for a lifetime of feuds, and getting into scrapes. Some possibly involving the more life threatening types of animals. Here his protective spells would have come into their own, most of his foes having difficulty figuring out the paradoxes, let alone finding time to spend a year forging a sword when everyone else was at Mass. Not to mention sourcing the goat. Eventually his thoughts might have turned to love, romance and marriage. Or at least a judicious match securing the future prosperity and expansion of his kingdom. And that’s where the problem arose, because as you will remember he was forbidden from marrying a human wife.***
Luckily for Lleu his older male relatives, who to be perfectly frank were responsible for the whole curse’n’spell mess in the first place, had wide ranging magical skills, and so a bride was found for him. Or rather made. Blodeuwedd was her name and she was conjured from flowers, specifically oak leaves, broom and meadowsweet. Now about this marriage, not much is recorded in the old tales, but it seems to me that a cold, dark, stone castle would be no place for a woman made of flowers to thrive.
What the old tales do tell, whether told around firesides or written in books, is that Blodeuwedd betrayed her husband and conspired with one Gronw Pedr to murder him. ‘Oh yes’, you might ask, ‘and how are they going to do that? Wasn’t Lleu’s life protected?’ And ‘well, you might reply, if you are given to talking to yourself, perhaps she used her flowery, feminine wiles to inveigle the secret out of him.’ Because folk do tend to try and blame the woman. And indeed somehow Gronw did manage to capture Lleu in a net, at dusk, while he was standing with one foot on a cauldron and the other on the goat and still keep a cool enough head to lob a spear at him. Not any old spear either, but one which had been forged sinfully during the hours of Mass.
Picture it, the spear is flying through the air towards Lleu. So at this point things are not looking too good for him, but before it makes contact, Lleu transforms into an eagle and soars away. Nothing is mentioned about the cauldron, net and goat, but if the goat had any sense it would have put quite a bit of distance between itself and the cauldron. Now, I don’t know whether Lleu had form in the old eagle transformation stakes, and if you ask me the paradoxes weren’t properly satisfied, but maybe I’m being picky. But the upshot of it all is that he survived to be nursed back to health by his uncles Math and Gwydion, who were the ones responsible for Blodeuwedd, and truth be told, for the whole sorry mess. They had caused the rift between Lleu and his mother in the first place. But that’s another story and not a very savoury one.
Back to Blodeuwedd, what became of her? She was turned into an owl and cursed to spend her days shunned by the other birds.
Let’s have a little think about that.
What exactly did she do? One minute she was happily growing in the forest and the next she was turned into a human and married off to someone she’d never met before. Now I’ll admit, even flesh and blood women had no agency back then and were likely to suffer the same fate, but shouldn’t we feel sorry for her?
Actually, despite the malice behind her transformation, Blodeuwedd was happier as an owl than she’d ever been as a human. Lleu was pretty dull, he only wanted a wife to produce an heir and continue his line. So that they could go on fighting their neighbours, stealing land and horses, and generally causing mayhem. As an owl, far from being shunned, Blodeuwedd reigned over the night, gliding on soundless wings, enjoying the night scented flowers which reminded her of home. Ok, she wasn’t a particularly benign figure to mice, voles and the smaller types of birds, but were you really expecting happy ever after for everyone? And Math and Gwydion who orchestrated all her transformations may have been pretty useful with spells, but their knowledge of bird hierarchy was flawed. Far from being shunned, Blodeuwedd was a sovereign of the birds and definitely a queen of the night.
Gronw? I’m afraid he got killed by a spear, which passed straight through a rock before piercing him. No eagle or other large bird transformations for him. A gory death was pretty par for the course in being a blood thirsty, kingdom hungry young warrior back then.
Lleu? His story doesn’t tell, but I like to think of him in his cold, dark castle watching the graceful creature flying outside with a certain degree of regret.
*Gwynedd is the north easterly county of mainland Wales, including the pointy bit, the Lleyn peninsular. It’s topographically pointy too, Snowdon is there.
**if you think that’s a mouthful the English translation is ‘the fair haired one with the skilful hand.
***this is not the time for goat jokes.