Species Mentioned: One owl, probably a tawny owl (S. aluco). Hated by all other birds.
Source: ‘Math’ fourth of the ‘Four Branches of the ‘Mabinogi’, the most important epics of medieval Welsh literature.
Date of Source: c.1000-1250 A.D.
Highlights: This source is symptomatic of the suspicion and low esteem owls were considered with in medieval Britain.
Blodeuedd, the most beautiful woman in the world plots to murder her oh-so-boring demi-god husband. She nearly succeeds but her husband turns into an eagle and flies away. Blodeuedd is then hunted down and permanently changed into an owl, the most ignoble of all birds. Said husband is changed back into a human with no lasting damage. Don’t worry, it’s totally fair.
THE TEXT AND ITS DATE
‘The Four Branches of the Mabinogi’ are four separate texts found in manuscripts from the mid 13th century onwards. There are only minor differences between the manuscripts, but there are enough archaisms to suggest that the surviving texts have probably been copied and modernised from a single older tradition.
‘Math’ is the fourth of the ‘Four Branches’ and is actually not present in any manuscript until the fourteenth century. However all of the ‘Mabinogi’ tales are thought to have the same date, c.1000-1250, for a variety of historical and linguistic reasons. This date range is sufficient for our purposes and there is no reason to attempt to fine-tune it here. See my earlier post on the harvest mice army from the ‘Third Branch’ for more details.
‘Math’ is the longest of the ‘Four Branches’ and is made up of a long series of episodes. A large part of it concerns a character called Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Lleu is often thought to be a ‘euhemerised god’: an Iron Age god who has been made into a hero to allow people to safely tell his story in stories for Christians. There is very little evidence for this theory: There was a hero with a similar name in Irish legend, there were a group of Gaulish gods called the Lugoves, and there may possibly have been a single god called Lugos, but linking the characters requires several complicated twists of logic and leaps of faith. It is safer to take the story as we have it today without attempting any ‘reconstruction’.
THE STORY (scroll down for the owl scene)
The owl in ‘Math’ is introduced at the climax of the story, and it’s worth explaining the significance of the scene before we get there. The following might not be exactly the perspective of the medieval author, but it is correct in all essential facts:
Lleu Llaw Gyffes, our boring hero, lives a charmed life, and can only be killed when a series of impossible challenges are met. He cannot be indoors or outdoors, he cannot be on horseback or on foot and he cannot be killed except with a very special kind of weapon. As a sort of matching drawback he was also not supposed to be allowed a name, any weapons or a wife. Unfortunately his foster-father managed to trick the world into letting him have all these things as soon as he grew to full size, most importantly including creating a wife for him out of flowers (broom (C. Scoparius) and meadowsweet (F. ulmaria)). They creatively call her Blodeuedd (Flowers).
With the exception of Achilles, very few protagonists are interesting enough to endure this sort of immortality and Lleu is not one of them. The attention of the story switches to Flowers. She is unhappy in her marriage and plots to kill off Lleu so that she can marry a less boring man, Gronw (gron-oo).
It isn’t hard for the two of them to find out about Lleu’s weaknesses. Being gullible the hero never questions why Blodeuedd needs to know how he can be killed. Lleu explains he has to be standing over a bath, outside but inside a bathing hut, with one foot on the back of a goat. The slightly perplexed Blodeuedd requests a demonstration. Lleu immediately leaves court and brings some tools to start happily building his crime-scene.
Imagine that scene: Lleu starts demonstrating how ridiculously contrived the conditions of his death would have to be. Meanwhile Blodeuedd is nodding admiringly, and continues to nod when Gronw jumps out and throws a magic spear into Lleu from the bushes. It turns out that they weren’t playing pretend after all.
At this point the authors of the story seem to have realised that by killing Lleu they have just set a dangerous precedent for bored wives everywhere. They decide instead to have Lleu fly away as an eagle (H. albicilla?). His foster father finds him, turns him back into a human and heals all his wounds. Something finally clicks for Lleu and he realises that maybe Blodeuedd didn’t really want to know about his death out of worry… It’s vengeance time!
Blodeuedd, unlike Lleu, is not an idiot and has fled the scene of the crime with Gronw. Unfortunately she can’t flee nearly far enough to escape the justice of her husband and is hunted down. Here’s where the owl comes in:
‘I will not kill you. I will do worse. Namely, I will release you in the form of a bird’ he said. ‘And because of the shame you have brought upon Lleu Llaw Gyffes, you will never dare show your face in daylight for fear of all the birds. And all the birds will be hostile towards you. And it shall be in their nature to strike you and molest you wherever they find you. You shall not lose your name, however, but shall always be called Blodeuwedd.’
Blodeuwedd is ‘owl’ in today’s language. And for that reason the birds hate the owl: and the owl is still called Blodeuwedd (Davies, 2008, p.63).
You might nave noticed that Blodeuedd’s name has changed slightly. Originally just ‘Flowers’ she has now changed to being called ‘Flower-face’. Parker (2007) has suggested that this ‘underlines the importance of naming and identity in the Four Branches’. Davies (2008, p.244) suggests the name change ‘reflects the image of the owl’. However minor orthographical changes in names are common. Perhaps the change more simply reflects how little the scribes care about their female protagonist.
A more useful commentary on what’s happening here is given by Green (1992, p.172-3). She points out the distinction between the maligned-hero, Lleu turning into a noble eagle, and the villainous wife Bloddeuedd turning into an ignoble owl. The description of the owl here alone is enough to show that it is considered as a low status bird. I previously showed how a poetic comparison of heroes with herring gulls instead of hawks or eagles was an insult, and it is becoming clear that in medieval Britain the birds could be arranged in a hierarchy of status. This will become clearer when we look at the ‘Parliament of Fowls’ in a future post.
It is commonly said that the species of bird intended here could be the European eagle owl (B. bubo). This owl has a large wingspan of 1.38-1.7 metres (4.5-5.5 ft – Hume, 2002, p.260) and it would be easy to imagine this bird was once a human. The idea is possibly also influenced by a popular children’s retelling of ‘Math’ called The Owl Service. It is actually not ecologically impossible. Yalden (2009, pp.58-60) has shown that the eagle owl may be a native of Britain. There are possible archaeological remains up until the Iron Age.
However the idea is unlikely. There are no British archaeological records later than the Iron Age, and comparatively few records up until then. The likelihood is that the bird became extinct in Britain long before the medieval period (ibid).
There are not many ecological clues to the species of bird in the text, but it does refer to a nocturnal existence and Blodeuwedd being harassed by birds wherever she is found. This description is indicative of the tawny owl (S. aluco). Tawny owls, unlike, for example, barn owls and short-eared owls are rarely seen before dark. The latter description is also a good clue. It is a clear reference to the way smaller birds will ‘mob’ birds of prey, and most especially owls. All owls are frequent targets of this behaviour but it happens most commonly to the tawny owl, which also happens to be the most common bird in Britain today (Bunn et al., 1982, p.77).
From a literary point of view it is interesting that the text almost seems to set owls against ‘birds’ as if they cannot be compared to ordinary birds at all. The text is most easily interpreted as suggesting that owls are the pariahs of the bird world and not accepted by other birds. However it could just as easily mean that owls were not seen as birds at all, similar to the way bats are often described.
There are no hints that any owl was ever called ‘Blodeuwedd’ outside of this story.
The presence of an owl origin myth kind of story is not ecologically significant for Gwynedd, or wherever in Wales ‘Math’ might have been written. There is no doubt that owls and especially tawny owls are native across Britain and were abundant in the medieval period. However the description does seem to encode some cultural ecological knowledge about how songbirds and corvids will mob tawny owls.
This statement also adds to our inferred hierarchy of bird status. Owls are beneath ordinary birds and almost the opposites of the noble eagles, just as the heroic-Lleu is the opposite of the traitorous-Blodeuedd. Mobbing them is a natural reaction to their ignoble nature.
The owl continued to have a poor reputation throughout the medieval period. Its nocturnal habits seem to made it a deeply suspect creature, and endowed it with a connection with witchcraft in later times. This undoubtedly contributed to its persecution after the ‘Acts for the Preservation of Grayne’ in the sixteenth century. Ultimately owls do seem to have escaped the level of persecution unleashed upon Britain’s raptor populations. It remains unclear whether the owl was spared by choice, because it prayed on pest species and did no harm to livestock; or by chance, because it was harder to find. Cynically, after last week’s post about the decline of the adder which continues to this day, I would suspect the latter.
Bunn DS, Warburton AB & Wilson RDS (1982) The Barn Owl. T&AD Poyser, London.
Green M (1992) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. Routledge, London.
Parker W (2003) The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Bardic Press, 2003 online ed.
Yalden D (2009) The History of British Birds. Oxford University Press.
Davies S (2008) The Mabinogion. Oxford University Press.
Hume R (2002) Complete Birds of Britain and Europe. DK, London.