Flowers Made of Claws: On Blodeuwedd's Power

The story goes like this. Our hero, Lleu Llawes Gyffes, angers his mother, Arianrhod, for reasons that I won’t get into here. In retaliation, Arianrhod curses him to a life lived without a human wife. As a workaround to this curse, the magicians Math and Gwydion create for Lleu a wife out of flowers. The flowers are oak and broom and meadowsweet, and the woman’s name is Blodeuwedd. Lleu isn’t around much, and while he’s away Blodeuwedd falls in love with Gronw Pebr, the Lord of Penllyn. Together, they plot to murder Lleu. Blodeuwedd tricks Lleu into revealing to her how he can be killed. As he’s a hero-god, this is no easy task. Lleu can only be killed in a situation of almost absurd liminality: at dusk, wrapped in a net, one foot in a bath and one on a goat, next to a riverbank, with a spear that has been forged for a year only while everyone is at mass. Blodeuwedd manages to arrange this—but when Gronw’s spear hits Lleu, Lleu is transformed into an eagle. The magician Gwydion returns Lleu to his human form, and Lleu murders Gronw. Gwydion also turns Blodeuwedd into an owl, subjecting her to a scorned life lived out in the cover of darkness.

I was twelve years old the first time I read this story. I liked the story the same way I liked all the other Celtic stories of gods and heroes. They satisfied my craving for adventure, and they connected me to my ancestors. But it wasn’t until I read Blodeuwedd’s story as an adult that it made a real impression on me. Blodeuwedd seemed like the most complex figure in this story, and I was hungry for more. But when I went searching, I was disappointed to find that most of the literature on Blodeuwedd flattens her. It often reduces her to nothing more than a treacherous wife. She becomes a passive woman, capable only of reacting to the situations around her. This stripping of her agency does her such a disservice. She’s more than a secondary character, much more than Lleu’s unfaithful wife. But really, the myth itself shows us that. Blodeuwedd was a miracle of a woman created from flowers; each of these flowers is rich in folklore, offering us a deeper understanding of her character.

Meadowsweet is maybe the least surprising element of Blodeuwedd’s creation. Also known as “queen of the meadow,” it’s a sweet-smelling member of the rose family. It has a potent, almond-like fragrance. That sweet scent was supposed to gladden hearts and lift spirits, so it was often used as a strewing herb. It’s associated with brides, and was a popular flower choice for bridal bouquets and posies. In traditional witchcraft, it was used in love charms. The Irish hero-god Cuchulainn was bathed in meadowsweet to calm his fits of rage. With all of that in mind, it’s easy to conjure an image of a wife made from meadowsweet. She would be gentle and soft and easy. She would be tenderness and light. And Blodeuwedd was those things. It’s easy to be dismissive of those qualities, but there’s also a power there. Gentleness is unassuming. Tenderness is non-threatening. A woman made from meadowsweet would have the ability to calm tempers, to change moods, to bring lightness into a room. It’s not an assertive strength, but it’s a strength nonetheless.

Like meadowsweet, broom flowers are associated with weddings and brides. It was common to include a decorated bundle of broom at weddings, and also to make a staff of broom to keep in the bride’s house the night before the wedding. Ashes of broom were used to treat dropsy, and the flower’s strong smell was said to tame wild dogs and horses. So, like meadowsweet, there are associations with gentleness and an ability to temper aggression. That being said, there’s also some negative folklore surrounding the broom flower. In Southern Scotland, it was considered bad luck to bring a broom plant into the house. There’s also an old rhyme from Sussex that goes “Sweep the house with blossed broom in May / Sweep the head of the household away.” Both of these bits of folklore bring a darkness to Blodeuwedd’s character and offer some foreshadowing of her attempted murder of Lleu.

But really, I think the most interesting flower in this trio is the oak. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to fit Blodeuwedd’s character. While broom and meadowsweet make perfect sense as bridal flowers, oak is something entirely different. Of all the trees that the Celtic people held sacred, oaks were king. They’re giant trees, living for centuries. They’re associated with strength and endurance and steadiness. If we view Blodeuwedd as merely a flighty and faithless wife, the inclusion of oak in her creation story doesn’t make sense. But, with some reflection, those qualities of might and power really do suit her.

Oak is a tree that represents, among other things, faithfulness and constancy. An oak is well-rooted. It lives long and large. It is steadfast above all. That does seem like an odd choice for a woman famous for cheating on, and subsequently trying to murder, her husband. Blodeuwedd has a reputation for being flighty and capricious. She’s seen as a woman who is quick to give away her heart. But that view assumes that her heart was ever given to Lleu in the first place. Blodeuwedd was a woman created specifically for Lleu, but he didn’t do anything in particular to earn her love. He assumed a claim on her heart, but what right did he have to it? He assumed Blodeuwedd’s love, because he assumed that she had no choice. But she did. She was faithful to something, but it was her own desires, not a husband who did little to deserve her faithfulness.

The oak is also famously associated with strength and power. Which, again, doesn’t fit Blodeuwedd at first glance. The introduction to my copy of the Mabinogi refers to her as “shy, cautious, almost retiring,” and I can see where that reputation comes from. Celtic folklore is full of warrior women, and it’s true that Blodeuwedd isn’t one of them. But she has a quieter strength that shouldn’t be dismissed. She’s a sly woman, and she uses her power subtly. We see this in the way she manages to trick Lleu into telling her how he can be killed. We see it in the way she ropes Gronw into her plan. And despite the fact that Lleu’s death can only be brought about through a feat of spectacular liminality, Blodeuwedd nearly does it. Her power is quiet and cunning, and it shouldn’t be dismissed.

Blodeuwedd is so often seen as a passive secondary character in Lleu’s story, but the folklore of these plants shows us an altogether different image of her, one that has great depth. It’s astonishing to see. Honestly, Blodeuwedd really shouldn’t have any depth. She’s an Eve-like character, a woman created out of inanimate objects in order to satisfy a man’s need for companionship. Like Eve, she wasn’t supposed to have any agency, but she had it all the same. She worked hard to create independence for herself, and she did, in a way. She changed her circumstances using a free will she wasn’t even supposed to have. To me, that’s nothing short of a miracle.