Ladies of Legend: Arianrhod and Blodeuwedd

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd., 2007) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, The Fairy Bible (Godsfield Press, 2008) by Teresa Moorey, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills

Trigger warning: references to rape and incest

Goddesses get a bad deal in popular legends, where they generally dwindle to ill-fated queens or villainous sorceresses. Arianrhod is a Welsh goddess of the moon, associated with spinning like the Fates from Greek myth. According to The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies and The Fairy Bible she is queen of Caer Siddi, also known as Caer Arianrhod, a place where the dead go to be reincarnated and where poets go in their dreams for inspiration. The Fairy Bible takes a particularly starry-eyed view of Arianrhod, holding her up as a feminist icon fighting against a patriarchal world. That’s an interesting point of view and worth arguing, but I don’t think anyone could say she was a good mother.

Arianrhod’s story is a part of the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh myths translated from medieval manuscripts by Lady Charlotte Guest between 1838 and 1849, and this one really begins with Math Ap Mathonwy, Lord of Gwynedd in the North and a totally judgmental magician who has a weird kink: when not at work or war, he absolutely must set his feet in the lap of a virgin. According to Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies, his nephews Gilfaethwy and Gwydion both fancy Goewin, who has the dubious honour of occupying that position, and they trick Lord Pryderi of the South in a deliberate attempt to start a war. Which works. All so that Math will be distracted and the brothers can break into his place to rape Goewin. Then Gwydion zips back to the battlefield to kill Pryderi.

It’s a cold comfort, but at least they don’t get away with it. Math is so furious when he finds out what happened that he forces them into the shapes of a different species every year for three years – and each year, one is made female while the other is left male, so that they produce incestuous animal offspring. COULD THIS BE CREEPIER. At the end of the three years, Math turns them back to men and Gwydion’s sister Arianrhod applies for the post of Virgin Footstool. There are probably perks we don’t know about. Only, as Eyewitness Companions: Mythology tells it, Math has a way of ensuring that applicants don’t fudge their resumes: he makes Arianrhod step over a magic wand (WOW does that sound like a dreadful euphemism) and she immediately gives birth to two sons – who may or may not be fathered by Gwydion.

So I guess that answers my question. It got creepier.

The first boy is named Dylan but Arianrhod refuses to name the second child. More than that, she curses him: he shall have no name unless she gives it, no weapons unless she arms him and no mortal wife EVER. See what I mean about terrible parenting? Gwydion is present to overhear this and takes the nameless boy’s side. Or maybe he just wants to pick a fight with his sister, I don’t know. Being a magician himself, he goes to Arianrhod’s household masquerading as a cobbler and takes the boy with him as an apprentice. Not realising that it’s her son she’s admiring, Arianrhod calls him Llew Llaw Gyffes – translating to, ‘the bright one of the skillful hand’ – thus breaking the first term of her curse. Next, Gwydion conjures up an illusionary invading army, leading a panicked Arianrhod to offer her visitors weapons.

So the boy is named and armed, but finding an escape clause for his love life is a harder question. Gwydion is a magician, however, and magicians don’t accept words like ‘impossible’. Or, for that matter, words like ‘an ethical no-go zone’. Math, who has some sympathy for Llew’s plight, joins forces with Gwydion to transform the flowers of meadowsweet, oak and broom into a beautiful woman. She is named Blodeuwedd.

Unfortunately, though hardly unexpectedly, Blodeuwedd is an actual person with actual feelings and she doesn’t fall for her intended bridegroom. Instead she chooses Gronw Pebyr and starts plotting to kill Llew. This is a) horrible and b) very difficult, because Llew may be the unluckiest man in the world, but he’s well-protected and can only be killed under very specific circumstances. Blodeuwedd wheedles him into revealing them and Gronw follows through, but as his spear flies towards its target Llew changes into an eagle and flies away. When his uncle finds out what happened, his rage is swift and vicious. He talks Llew out of a tree and turns him back into a man, tracks down Gronw to kill him, and then turns his attention on Blodeuwedd – who is not an angry, desperate woman to him, but an experiment gone wrong, the original Frankenstein with his creation. She is transformed into an owl, condemned to darkness and solitude for the rest of her life.

Which is a terrible punishment, unless you think like me and really love owls.

What Arianrhod makes of the incident is not recorded in any of the versions I have at present, but I rather think she would take Blodeuwedd’s side. An atrocious mother she certainly is, but a woman wronged by arrogant magicians would probably be guaranteed her sympathy.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!