The fourth branch of the Mabinogion is shaped by exchanges between Arianrhod and Gwydion. From the moment he brings her into the story by suggesting her as Math’s footholder (which seems such an innoncent idea: let’s get my sister, your niece, to do it!) the two are at odds. For the two men subject Arianrhod to a chastity test, since Math’s footholder must be a virgin, a magical condition laid down for his kingship.
Arianrhod fails the test in grand style, giving birth to not one but two boys. Math has one of them baptized and names him Dylan, but this son opts out of the family quarrels and goes to live in the sea. The rest of the story follows the career of the other son, Lleu, as Gwydion tries to get around the curse that Arianrhod has laid on her son.
In fact, to appreciate the importance of the battle between brother and sister, we need to go back to Lleu’s first appearance. Unlike his brother Dylan, who came into the world fully formed, Lleu is described as a “form” or a “something” in translations, but the text is vague as to what exactly, perhaps on purpose. Gwydion takes this form away:
Before anyone could get a second glimpse of it, Gwydion took it and wrapped a sheet of brocaded silk around it and hid it. He hid it in a small chest at the foot of his bed…
One day, as Gwydion was in his bed, and waking up, he heard a cry from the chest at his feet. Although it was not loud, it was loud enough for him to hear it. He got up quickly and opened the chest. As he opened it, he could see a small boy waving his arms free of the folds of the sheet and throwing it aside. (Davis’ trans.)
After that he finds a wet-nurse and the boy Lleu begins to grow at a prodigious rate. When he is four, and looking like eight, Gwydion takes him to Caer Arianrhod. His mother, however, rejects him angrily, accusing Gwydion of “putting her to shame”. Then she asks what his name is, and when Gwydion tells her he has none, she replies:
‘Well,’ she said, ‘I will swear a destiny that he shall not get a name until he gets one from me.’
‘By my confession to God,’ he said, ‘you are a wicked woman; but the boy shall have aname, though it displeases you. And you, it is because of him that you are angry, since you are no longer called a virgin. Never again shall you be called a virgin.’
Gwydion’s handling of the pre-natal Lleu is typical of pseudo-creation myths. These take the form of a male god who somehow manages to give birth to a child of his own. Zeus, who sewed the infant Dionysus into his thigh and who (unwillingly) gave birth to Athena from his forehead is a good example of this idea. Egyptian and Japanese myth have particularly organic versions of this. (Creation for them was a very maculate matter – spit, snot, tears and breath taking on life.)
More attenutated versions include the Norse god Odin and his brothers imbuing pieces of wood with life, to create the first humans, or Ptah making the first humans on his potter’s wheel, or Jehovah breathing life into dust/clay. (Eve’s creation, from a rib, takes us back to the concrete.)
What is interesting about this story is that it inverts what would be the normal sequence of events, in which a mother gives birth to a son, and then his father names him (tantamount to acceptance into the family) and later introduces him into the social world of men by arming him and arranging a good marriage for him. In this story, Lleu is only brought to term because of Gwydion’s intervention, and at each stage of Lleu’s maturity he has to overcome the obstacles that Arianrhod puts in place before Lleu can takes his place in male society.
Women: The Opposing Sex*
Gwydion is Lleu’s maternal uncle, a significant relationship in many cultures, and he probably would have been expected to take an interest in his nephew anyway, and perhaps even foster him when he was old enough. Whether you accept the idea that he is “really” Lleu’s father or not, their relationship explains his stake in this battle.
Being a resourcefufl man, and a magician, Gwydion disguises himself and Lleu as cobblers, and manage to pique his mother’s interest enough that she comes to visit them. While she’s there, Lleu picks off a wren that lands on their ship, causing Arianrhod to comment:
‘God knows,’ she said, ‘it is with a skillful hand that the fair-haired one has hit it.’
‘Indeed,’ he said, ‘and God’s curse upon you. He has now got a name, and it’s good enough. From now on he is Lleu Llaw Gyffes.’
Arianrhod is angry, and tells him that ‘you will be none the better for treating me badly.’ Gwydion tells her that he has done nothing of the kind, and she replies that she will ‘swear a destiny’ that Lleu will never be armed until she gives them to him.
Of course, Gwydion gets round this too, by coming in disguise, again, as bards, and then conjuring up an illusory army. Arianrhod and her women give them arms so they can fight, and Gwydion makes sure that Arianrhod gives Lleu his. Then he reveals the trick, and she reproaches him with his irresponsible trick (she says people could have been killed in the confusion.) She then curses Lleu again, saying he will never have a wife ‘from any race that is on this earth’.
Gwydion then goes to King Math, and complains about Arianrhod’s behaviour. Math decides that the two of them should use their magic to make a wife for him. So they took flowers from the broom, the oak, and the meadowsweet, and made a beautiful maiden called Blodeuedd, Flower-face.
She betrays him with another man, and the two plot and carry out his death. Gwydion, however, revives him through his magic. And he cursed Blodeuedd that she should be a bird, but one that all birds hate, and that hides from daylight: an owl.
History and Myth
Whoever wrote (or put together) the incidents that make up the Fourth Branch clearly had a battle of the sexes in mind. And while many (including some feminists) read it as an anti-woman story, I think it’s more complicated than that. While neither Arianrhod nor Blodeuedd are “good women”, their acts are motivated. Arianrhod’s anger springs from her shame, while the men who created Blodeuedd did not concern themselves over her mind overmuch. (In fact, she is a perfect of example of Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch.)
There may be a historical element as well: just before the composition of the White Book, the English queen, Isabella of France, deposed and murdered Edward II with her lover, Roger Mortimer. This, along with Lleu’s eventual claim to the throne as the “sister’s son of his sister’s son” (Z: 212) echoing Bleddyn ap Cynfyn’s claim through his mother Angharad.
In fact, these real-life examples reinforce the moral the story is telling; from the rape of Goewin through Arianrhod’s shaming to Blodeuedd’s treachery it could be summed up thus: “Women. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.”
To put in somewhat more abstract terms, the line of sucession depends on women, but women are not necessarily to be relied on. Even the most complasiant may well have plans of their own. Or, they may be hiding other, shameful, things.
Artificial v. Natural
Arianrhod’s unrelenting nature is very god-like; she is no more forgiving than Lugh towards his father’s slayers, or Artemis towards Acaeton. She has a great deal of autonomy, whereas the Blodeuedd story is like a very odd version of the Frankenstein myth – the creation turns out to have a life, and desires, of its own. The irony is that Lleu, who had a “parent” of either sex, turned out fine, whereas his wife, who had two “fathers”, was a disaster.
I could also point out that Mary Shelley’s story figures the monster’s creation as a birth, and Frankenstein refers to him as his “child”. (The Kenneth Branagh movie goes back to that imagery, to horrific effect.) It is easy to see Blodeuedd as a patriarchal construct, but it might be just as useful to see her as an artifical being altogether.
Lleu’s two births also contrast natural and artificial in interesting ways. Arianrhod “drops” him, a mere shape or thing, as if he had not come to term, after what could be seen as induced birth, and indeed Gwydion takes him away to a very primitive incubator. Lleu’s second birth in a chest is entirely clean, free of any of the icky bits. (So is Blodeuudd’s.) The pain and blood will come later, when the partly-natural meets up with the entirely artifiical.
I find it interesting that so many websites seem to concentrate on Blodeuedd as a spring goddess of flowers. She becomes an owl, which in Welsh folklore is a death-bird, so if she is a maiden goddess she is more Persephone than Kore. Perhaps one moral of the story is that out of artificial creation comes death, just as Frankenstein and his monster eventually end up circling each other in the icy wastes of the Arctic.
* I stole the title from a paper by Patrick Ford: “Celtic Women: the Opposing Sex,” Viator 19: (1988): 417-438.
Davies, Sioned (trans.) 2007: The Mabinogion, OUP. (Kindle)
Zeiser, Sarah E., “Performing a Literary Paternity Test: ‘Bonedd y Arwyr’ and the Fourth Branch of ‘Mabinogi’,”Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 28 (2008), pp. 200-215.