Some of you will know that I am birthing a trilogy.
An integral part of my new book series are re-tellings of Celtic myths. Book One tells the story of Blodeuedd, the Welsh enchantress from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion. Book Two takes up the tale by exploring the international theme of nine maidens who dwelt amongst orchards on islands, focusing on characters from Celtic myth. Book Three is told back from a Utopic future with the myths as its blueprint. As I create these tales I am serialising them on my Patreon page. The prologue is here, below:
History remembers me as a betrayer, a temptress, an adulterer, and ultimately as an accomplice to murder – a sad reflection indeed upon my role.
I had been prepared for Queenship all of my life. Inevitably, I would be Enchantress, as all women become, but my destiny bid me first to sovereignty.
I was raised by my grandfather, Math, wizard-king of Gwynedd, as was the custom of my day; the elder leading his granddaughter along the path of initiation. We were a high-born family; our magic revered throughout the land, remembered for and remembering the intricate patterns of nature’s cycles. In a society long since severed from its tap root, we were the only conduit.
We always knew that I was on the path of sovereignty and that is was not the easiest of roles, but when your life purpose is given, spoken to you, as a young child, life takes on a certain timbre; freedom lying in the nuances of individual moments of individual days, the exquisite weave of the tapestry in golden, emerald and silver threads that would create my part, whilst all the while aware of the picture being woven, splendid, against a backdrop of snow white linen.
History remembers me as manipulator as if we were but puppets, but that is not how it was. We were players on a mighty quest, each step as intricate yet affirming as the golden pieces of a Gwydll* set, marching inexorably towards the silver.
As I told you, our freedom lay in the choice of each individual moment; how best to play our move to enable the finished picture to emerge…
I’d been through childhood and the rites of maidenhood when the story you have been handed down begins. My innocence tempered with a sturdy realism and a depth of feeling that went far beyond a villager’s wants and needs. Not for me the satisfaction of the physical with a child the only reward. I could step further, indeed, expected nothing less, and I could lead the way there too. Young though I was , I knew what I wanted, how to allow my life to unfold and what I expected of a consort.
Grandfather Math, though the legend paints him as a little foolish, allowing a foolhardy nephew to wreak havoc for the sake of a little prestige did not suffer fools gladly. He was a proud, aquiline man, taller than average statue. He commanded respect yet spoke softly, never demanding, and I had learnt well at his feet.
Yes, it is in this way that a princess would take up the reins of leadership, Nor were we subservient. A wizard-king had no power if he had no Queen-in-training to guide, and to lend authority and authenticity to his reign.
The power of the House of Dôn was passed through the female line and though we paid lip service to the whims of the Celtic speaking society we inhabited, we observed the traditions of the people we called ancestors. All of those traditions were known to us, passed on by bards and cyfaydds, or storytellers, on winter evenings on the strum of a harp or the beat of a skin drum, and though we lived very much in our times, we never forgot the observances that kept the balance of power in harmony, for we understood that when this faltered, the fragile ecosystem of which we were a part would crumble, and then only the explosive passion of the volcano, the terror of the tsunami, the fury of the ice and the slow rumblings of quakes whipped up by almighty storms could bring back the equilibrium.
In this way then, the elder would teach his granddaughters, much in the same way told to us in the myth of Merlin and Nimué. She too has been labelled seductress, sorceress, betrayer, even perhaps, murderess; power hungry and praying upon an old grey beard. She was none of this, of course, any more than I, Blodeuedd, betrayed Lleu, though the tales will seem to suggest otherwise…
I know the tale of my kinsman Taliesin, though the name is a title, not his given name, is well known. Yet though my tale should stand beside it, mirroring the ways of my people, it does not. This is the tale of my initiation into the Shining Ones, and may it inspire you to recall that nothing exists without its polar equal.
Throughout the land of the Cymry to this day, the shapeshifting of Taliesin, pursued by Ceridwen the Hag, the Crone, the Wise Woman in guise too, is etched into picture books, onto the walls galleries and museums and into the repertoires of bards and storytellers to this day. Stirring the cauldron for a year and a day, as apprentice sorcerer, burning his thumb on a drop of liminal liquid, just as Finn was burnt by the Salmon of Knowledge in the west in the tales of our kin, these images have travelled down across the Ages reminding us of how we once knew that to be a human is not a light thing, to be taken in vain, but rather a thread of epic proportions, co-creating the weave for the Age to come. In our hands lies the tale of the next Age. In our heart lies the transformative power of creation. Our head can destroy all we hold dear, or revere the majesty of life itself…
The Cwmry knew the fallibility of the of the human ego. In their tales are written the motifs of our development, should you have ears that can hear.
For one of the male persuasion the journey began at the seashore and an initiation into Elphinhood. Later, as a mature man, he might progress to Merlinhood. Later, if that was his calling, he would take the rites to become the Taliesin, the Enchanter. Finally, as elder he would initiate his granddaughter into the powers of the family line.
First, how did boy become man? Certainly not through keeping company with lesser beings. No. He was first fostered by his uncles, his mother’s brothers, then sent to learn the skills of warriorhood from the strong wild women of the north and then, and only then, could he be said to have crossed over from boyhood.
He set out into the world with an appetite for adventure strong in his belly; an apprentice to life. It was at that point that the untried youth was at the mercy of life in the guise of the feminine.
Why is it that you do not focus on the path of the feminine, I can hear your question. Was this not to be your tale, and I say, have patience, for a tale worth telling must first weave the backdrop, provide the chalice for your submersion.
We are in the Iron Age, a time of warriorship and a newly fledged sense of masculine selfhood. Delve deeply inwards and you will get a sense of how that is. Flexing muscles and decisiveness, courage and strength. A desire to assert oneself, to make a difference in the world, a force for action and leaving a mark. It can be foolhardy, explosive, demanding and petulant; a roaring fireball of fecund seed bearing intention. It can be responsible or erratic, but always it is goal-orientated.
Would a force such as this be loosed in the world with no temper? Enter the Enchantress. She takes on many guises; some say it depends on your bloodline, others, on the integrity of your heart, but whatever the truth of that, nonetheless, should a youth wish to try out his manhood, he will inevitably, meet with an Enchantress. She will have no time for his brotherly comradeship, learnt with his foster brothers, care nought for his swordmanship or crafty manoeuvres, she’ll look him in the eye, then cast lashes downwards, captivating his very soul. It is his heart she is here to craft.
On the seashore, as Clíona, Queen of the Oceans, she enchants our young hero, teaching him the oceanic depths of emotion. So love struck does he become that she must send the singing birds of the Otherworld to soothe his aching heart when he finally departs her domain. Having learnt the art of love and his susceptibility to connections of the heart he can step out into the world a kinder, more compassionate man. By and by, and by and by it’s time for a wandering hero to settle down, raise a family, and tend to a people and their land. When he has reached this time the Enchantress reappears in a seemingly inaccessible form. She will appear in dreams, ride ahead and then vanish, or impossible tasks will be set before the fledgling king in order for him to win her hand. Sometimes she is the loathly lady, so hideous many a warrior baulked at even giving her a glance, let alone a kiss or a warm bedtime embrace.
It takes a measure of kingship for the developing male to step up to this challenge. Often he fails, over and over, tripping over his own sense of how things ought to be. Only when a man learns integrity and determination can he approach an Enchantress of this ilk…
Would you be a king? Meet the Enchantress…
She is here to teach him of his role in the world and is not for the faint hearted. In the kingly time of his life a man must show his mettle in more ways than skill with the tools of his craft. He must deserve a woman such as this. Her beauty shines in and out. Her words speak truths only the depths of a gaze in to her eyes can interpret. Over and over will she test him;
Can you be a bright, shining star in spite of what your instinct tries to tempt you with.
Can you listen for your inner calling no matter how others act and expect you to behave?
Can you say No and let it be a bond that protects many and hurts none?
Can you take on the mantle of steward for the precious land beneath our feet with not a thought for profit?
Can you stand beside a strong woman and not shy away but look lovingly into her eyes and await good counsel?
The ones who pass this initiation can claim sovereignty by accepting her hand; becoming the consort of her heart, becoming the lover of her guidance and this way make wise decisions that harm none.
We live no happily after stories in life. This is the product of a goal-orientated thought with only the span of an arrow shot.
If you would hear a story as natural as waves breaking on the shore, if you would clamour for more truth, listen to the winds of change as the seasons turn. If you would understand a true story, that satisfies only those whose hearts are open, then remember this; winter follows summer every turn of the year.
My tale is of this type. It is cyclical. It has no end, for there is no end. It contains within it all the elements of a well-rounded life.
Let us, briefly, then, return to the king and queen. Of course they are happy, for a while. That is the way of it. Challenges arise and are met. Children are born, projects develop, maturity grows, roles change.
I believe this where I, Blodeuedd, come in.
As I told you, I was born for sovereignty, learnt at my grandfather’s feet. There came a time, later, when it was time for my initiation into the Summer Queen. This is an early summer rite. The legends tell I was made by grandfather and my uncle, fashioned out of flowers. Actually, well, if you believe that, you have lived under a patriarchy for too long.
Just as the myths of our kin, the Irish, tell us how the stages of male development were tempered by the roles the feminine played, so was female development tempered by the male. Taliesin was first transformed into that very feminine symbol, the hare, to be chased by Ceridwen as a greyhound, so was I transformed into meadowsweet, oak flower and broom. There were more too, but I can no longer tell you what they were, only that they were the flowers of their time. The wizards Gwydion and Math were my initiators, as Ceridwen was to my kinsman. When the ceremony was over I was Summer Queen and ready to meet he who was to be my consort, bedecked in the flowers of the ritual.
So many tales remain to teach of that ceremony when woman becomes that enchanted and enchanting being capable of transforming a man through love.
In Britain, Gywdion, the trickster, the Green Man, my uncle, still adorns church walls, where his image was carried to acknowledge his role in the turning of the seasons. In truth he is the male within the female, the creative force that fills her out and makes her whole. When a woman meets her particular Gwydion it is a powerful time. For me, it was no different, though I knew him for what he was; the outer to represent the inner. The one to catalyse the blending of strength with vulnerability, passion with love, intention with truth.
So when I met Lleu I was in my Summer Queen role; a powerful initiator for his early kingship state. Newly initiated myself this was a tender, raw and intense time. We were in love, we were alight with passion, we were purposeful. And through his marriage to me Lleu became ling of a territory of our land, of Gwynedd. If this were a tale told in your times this might well be where the story ended. It would tell you nothing of our life together, of what we accomplished, learnt and of how we grew. It would tell you nothing of what happened next…
As the story of my kinsman Taliesin will tell you, a man does not attain his higher states by remaining the same. From hare he became salmon, and from there a small bird, before finally Ceridwen, in the form of a hen, pecked him up as a kernel of corn, to rebirth him as a Shining One. She’d chased him across land, water and air, as hound, otter and hawk before he could be worthy of his radiant state.
Lleu too, must have his initiation. Legend will tell you he went riding with his men, whilst I stayed home with my maidens. As I said, we lived within the bounds of the Celtic-speaking society of our times. What happened next was to be our second, double initiation. First I, and then him, as before, were to enter liminal space, to be transformed.
A Shining One rode into my life. Of course I recognised him, and knew him as that, and knew him to be the one with whom I could learn and grow.
Lleu was a golden boy, enthusiastic like a young hound, but as a skilful lover capable of meeting a woman he had barely begun to notice it as a thing to aim for. His comradeship with his foster brothers was the still focus of his love and connection, the feminine as yet uncharted waters; mysterious and other.
The scene was set for change.
Legend casts me as an adulterer, betraying my husband. In my tradition what happened was simply the next stage of our development…
I sat at the window embroidering with my maidens around me. The seat beneath me felt warm and soft, the late summer sun balmy upon my face. The finely worked linen on our laps gradually took on form as we laid stitch by stitch of gleaming golden, emerald and ruby hue across it. Outside, the wild grey green hills of my land stretched before me like so many heaps of soft woollen shawls; enticing a yearning I could not name. Outwardly, I was content; I was warm, well fed, and had companionship. Inwardly, my heart was constricted. I was bored, angry and frustrated. I had a husband, we lived amongst riches for our times, we had status. My heart longed for something more. Something compelling, something that could never be denied was not being met within me. The young Lleu, when he was not abroad in our lands with his foster brother entourage, was as a gangly wolf hound around me; playful, affectionate, physical. It was not enough. I challenge any woman amongst you to deny the aching need for the deepening of love that we call intimacy.
I was born to this. I was a summer queen. I had touched on the deepest expression of love more than once in my young life. My heart demanded it now.
As if by royal decree something moved in response on the horizon. I stared intently, squinting my eyes near closed as if to coax in a little more condensed light as the shapes coming over the brow of a distant hill slowly took form. Were they horsemen? Was my lord Lleu returned already? Had he heard my heart’s yearning? As the figures came into view, I saw that they were indeed horsemen, riding fast; I could almost feel the joyfulness with which they coursed down the southerly hillside, the sun playing with the metal of buckle and ornament on their garments, sending glimmers of white gold dancing across their bodies and mounts. These were fine young men, well born, led by one whose stature, on his fine white stallion, showed me that he was not my Lleu.
Then who, pray, was he? I sent down my first maiden in waiting, for she was the bolder of my young entourage, to find out what she could. Who were these fine men who had lightened our afternoon’s leisure with their bold scamper down our home hills? I was flush from the spectacle of the ride I had witnessed. Alive from the infusion of joy I had experienced; their joy as they galloped into sight, I felt my heart beat with a rhythm I had almost forgotten, these months that I had stayed, a playmate in a castle full of soft cushions, sweet wine and succulent flesh, amiable company and life of ease. I felt my heart alive.
I waited. Expectant, impatient. Heart bounding.
I kept my gaze on the scene outside. The rider on the white horse had gone far ahead of his men now. It seemed he had fixed on his prey. Though my seat was too distant to pick out detail on the sloping stage of the drama playing out before me, my intuition said hare and my heart played a double beat; one for the hunter’s success, the other for the hare’s escape.
Breathless, the lady returned. Her cheeks were flushed, her manner agitated. It was as though she had been hunted herself.
“They be hunters, ma’am. Come from Penllyn over yonder. He be the king of those parts. Ma’am it’s a royal hunting party!”
“Why then, “ said I, “It would be churlish not to invite them for refreshment.’ I sent maids running hither and thither, summoning cooks, rallying the downstairs people to ready the feasting hall, and finally, having a message sent to the horse mounted hunter, to please come and be honoured by the court of Lleu.
As the whirlwind of activity I had created carried on around me I sat still at my window, watching the figure on the white horse. In the flurry of orders, I had taken my eye off the hunt, and knew not who had been the victor of that noble chase. The king had slowed his pace now and his hunters were gathering in force at his back. They were close enough now for me to hear their shouts and laughs, manly and loud. For a moment, my hackles rose. Was I to be party to more juvenile behaviour? For a moment I regretted my decision. It was discourteous not to invite the king of a neighbouring territory to feast, though, and a snub could cause a skirmish or two on the borders. I loved our people and did not wish to cause offence.
“My lady, King Gronw Pebr bids me tell you that he shall be most honoured to dine with you this eve,” my first lady had returned to my side. I could tell by her wide eyed face that we would not be disappointed by the king’s company.
“Show the royal party to the guest quarters,” I commanded, inwardly keeping my breathing as even as I could. Pebr! The Shining One! I knew now what it was I had called in, and I was apprehensive.
In the absence of his fellow lord Lleu, it was Gronw Pebr’s duty to accept his household’s hospitality, and mine to host a visiting lord. This was the convention of our day, a way of cementing pacts and bonds that kept our borders clear and safe. An ill turned word could cause offence that would have far-reaching repercussions; a feast could soothe and placate.
Yet I was aware of something more. My yearning had catalysed the start of a chain of events that had been foretold. Though I knew them to be deeply significant and as natural as autumn follows summer, still a part of me mourned that part of me that was to give way to the new.
I followed my lady in waiting to the entrance of our home to await the arrival of our guests once they had seen that their mounts would be taken care of in our stables.
We had ample room for a band of hunters. Lleu and his men were abroad and their stalls empty yet even had we had a full complement; our livery was more than adequate to house and groom a small army.
The afternoon sun was low on the horizon when a man of stocky build yet with the stride of a taller man; confident, self-assured, comfortable, made his way towards the arched gateway of our inner courtyard. As he approached, the lowering sunlight seemed to frame his head so that his hair gleamed red gold around his face. A Shining One indeed.
As he neared the entrance to our hall, where I stood waiting with my ladies around me, I caught my breath involuntarily. The hunter’s sweat stained leather breeches and gherkin moulded his muscular body as if they were a second man, lithe and supple, moving in tandem with the bronzed taut skin they partially covered. My nostrils caught his scent, mixed with that of his white steed and the wild broom that grew over our hillsides, a complex aroma that was both earthy and exotic, and all male.
For all of this, I stirred not a muscle, until he drew close enough for our eyes to meet. Deep grey eyes looked gravely into mine. Not a glance, a cursory acknowledgement of my womanly curves, not a lascivious leer, or an indifferent courtesy, but a meeting. For a second of forever he held my gaze, and saw deeply into my being. I had been seen, truly, for who I was beneath the lightly tanned skin, beneath my Irish eyes, moss green, and misty soft, beneath my coronet of worked silver and auburn curls, beneath my green satin gown with its brocaded edges worked in amber beads, beneath my queenly demeanour and stately stance, beneath all pretence that I was a woman content in her position, he saw me.
I saw him too. Deep pools of grey that caught the light of the torches that had been lit against the swiftly approaching dusk and darkened, seeming green in their depths, looked at me with frank open-hearted vulnerability. Here was a man in his power. Here was a man who knew that strength was in the presence of the moment. Here was a man who would respond swiftly whatever the stimuli, here was a man who knew his depths and looked for them in others. Here was a man who could meet me.
Frozen in time our eyes held, captivating the other. Was he shorter than I, were his eyebrows thick and bushy, did his nose seem more bulbous than necessary? Truth be told, had he been a dwarf from the Otherworld he would have enchanted me thus, with eyes that opened onto his soul and let me in. I saw that he was enraptured by my gaze too. If this had been our final moment of life we would have left well satisfied.
“Welcome, my lord,” I affected a slight courtesy and waved my arm before him. “There is a good fire in the hearth, the spits are turning, a hog roasting and the mead is spiced and warming.”
“A welcome fit for a king,” he replied to my courtesy, lowering his head in acknowledgement.
“Did my sire hunt down his quarry?”
“I let her go,” this last spoken with a penetrating meaning his eyes carried forth. “it was not her time.” I knew then that he had felt my dual heart’s desire for the escape of the hare.
“That is well,” I turned and led the way into the warm and smoky feasting hall. The evening torches were lit, the cooking fires blazing, the tables spread with richly brocaded cloths of green and gold. “You will be rewarded for her life.”
The serving men had laid our places side by side as befitting a queen and her royal guest, at the head of the hall where no evening draughts would cool our food. Around us, his best men, and my ladies in waiting laughed and caroused, each glad of the company of newness, novelty, and the delightful distraction of otherness. Gronw was watchful, attentive, a true leader, scanning the room; were his men respectful, were they being treated courteously. He made sure my platter was full of the choicest pieces of meat and bread, and served my lady in waiting too. He listened to my reports of the late summer’s work, how the barley had done, how the coppicing was going in the hazel woodlands, and asked after my Lord Lleu. In turn, I asked after his fortune this hunting trip, showed curiosity for his lands to the east, and filled my lord’s goblet with the heady sweet mead our retainer made with his own hands and skill each year.
The evening passed and the minstrels began to serenade our final courses as the maid servants brought in silver platters laden with roasted honeyed hazelnuts and blackberries soused in the last of the summer wine. Thick yellow cream from the dairies came round in earthenware jugs and the mood turned nostalgic as it is wont to do at a certain time of night. Hiraeth* for the moments when life reached a peak and we became inebriated upon our own joy welled up, and each of us, deep in with our memories, cast shadows of our past upon the faces of our companions. How would it be if this one, right here, could recapture with me now, the enchantment of that perfect moment. The bittersweet knowing that comes with a memory of true happiness shared with another was heavy in the air that lay between us, thick with the fragrant smoke of the lavender that had been laid over the cooking fires to induce a good night’s sleep.
One by one couples wandered off to lay on the sheepskins in the warmer corners of the hall, warm skin and the smell of the household hounds all bound up in huddles of aliveness in the gradually darkening space, as one by one the torches burnt down and the household prepared for night time. It was as if an enchantment lay over the household, and of course it did. I knew it did. I knew what it was. And I did not resist.
The Shining One and his entourage had answered my yearning and there was no going back. As if in a dream I took the king by the hand, noticing its calluses, the dark auburn hairs that lay adorning its back, and the long elegant fingers that had been so sensitive as they had stroked my hound as she lay between us at table. There were no words. There was no need.
To continue reading subscribe to my Patreon page for as little as £5 a month. Note that the £3 tier is only for readers who have already read book 1.
The Cywmy: the Companions. The Welsh name for themselves.
*Hiraeth: Welsh – nostalgia for a person, time, place or experience that you do not presently have access to.
Davies, S , 2007, The Mabinogion, OUP, pp 58-64