Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Woman Made of Flowers

I should be painting.  There's really no excuse; I have a show coming up in January and want some new pieces to put in it. Of course I'll show acrylics, like "Adam's Apples," but lately I've been wanting to do some things in pencil and pen and ink, the media I once used most. Then I gave them up for a long time and now I'm enjoying them again.  Also, I haven't drawn or painted people in many years but suddenly I feel the urge to try my hand at mythic and/or folklore figures.  So here's one, the Welsh Blodeuwedd.

There are at least two ways of looking at Blodeuwedd, the woman made of flowers. This is the first:

The Welsh goddess Arianrhod cursed her son, Llew Llaw Gyffes, saying that he would never have "a wife of the race that now inhabits the earth."  But  the gods Math and Gwydion circumvented her curse by creating a bride for Llew Llaw from flowers, Blodeuwedd, "the fairest and most graceful that man ever saw" (Graves 308).  Some time after the two were married, Llew Llaw went off to visit Math and while he was gone a hunting party came by, led by Gronw Pebyr; when he and Blodeuwedd met it was love at first sight. And so they plotted the death of her husband by treachery, since he could not be killed in any ordinary way, but with the help of Gwydion he was resurrected and took vengeance on Gronw Pebyr. Gwydion then transformed Blodeuwedd into an owl (which is the meaning of her name), that is "hateful to all other birds" (Graves 312).

But consider the story from Blodeuwedd's point of view.  Created by Math and Gwydion to be more beautiful and desirable  than any mortal woman, she is given no choice in how to live her life or with whom to live it. Instead, she is punished terribly when she follows her own heart, rather like the biblical Eve.  According to Barbara Walker, Blodeuwedd is the Welsh goddess of spring, the maiden face of the goddess, and Llew Llaw Gyffes and Gronw Pebyr alternate in the role of sacred king, slaying or being slain year after year and then being resurrected to begin the cycle again (111).

Blodeuwedd's identification with the owl is interesting, since that bird is also associated with Athena, the goddess of wisdom (among other things) as well as with Lilith, "the witch [Adam] loved before the gift of Eve" (Rossetti), a figure of loathing and terror in the Judeo-Christian tradition (though her actual origins go back much further) who has been reclaimed by feminist theology as a figure of empowerment and strength. It's all quite a bit more complex than a simple story of love, death, and revenge.

I was surprised when I uploaded this photo to see a shadow behind Blodeuwedd's face; it is from another drawing on the next page of the sketchbook, this time of the third face of the goddess, the crone.

 Robert Graves. The White Goddess, Amended and Enlarged Edition. 1948. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. "Body's Beauty."
Barbara Walker. The  Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.  1983. New York: Castle Books, 1996.

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