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, as all too often happens, on account of a bitter rivalry between siblings. And thirdly, well curses were generally quite popular. In fact he was subject to a number of them, and a couple of protective spells. The upshot of all this being 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 for the next few years. 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 didn’t have the best foundation. 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 were they going to manage 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 keeping a cool enough head to lob a spear at him. Not any old spear mind you, but one which had been forged sinfully during the hours of Mass.
Picture it now, 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, whether it was something he’d been practising up at the castle or if his uncles had a part in this as well. And if you ask me, the paradoxes weren’t properly satisfied either, 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.
And 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? She’d lived in a bright, scented world, where she could enjoy the cool tang of the earth after rain, and then was plonked into a castle which was all mineral and metal, and perfumed with death.
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’d 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 darkness, 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. Which 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.
Our scarecrow will feature Blodeuwedd mid-transformation, part flowers, part owl. And don’t worry, no swans (or owls) were harmed in the gathering of said feathers, they were foraged last Autumn by my niece.
If you liked this story I have more here, on the stories page.