Month: October 2012

Blodeuwedd (from On the Edge of Dream: The Women of Celtic Myth and Legend

Preface

        Long, long ago in Wales, there lived a goddess named Aranrhod, who insisted on her virginity.

       Math the Magician, ruler of all the land, required virgins as footstools to ease his impotence. Shrubbery, nests of baby mice or a mushroom might have worked just as well, but it was virgins Math demanded. Having lost his last maiden to a love affair, he now sought a fresh prie-dieu of unquestionable purity. To prove it, he put prospective employees to a wand-leaping test, wherein Math’s divining rod wriggled on the floor like a snake if the morwyn had known a man.

“It’s hard to find good help these days,” Math lamented, as girl after girl failed the exam. Although previously no one had much cared about this virgo intacta business, unfortunately, Math’s personal problems were beginning to affect social mores, causing folk to wonder if there wasn’t something to this notion of virtue, after all. Maybe young women ought to be looking after their hymens and their so-called honor. This was a limnal era in the history of gods and goddesses; things were changing right and left.

       At any rate, Math’s acolyte and nephew Gwydyon offered his sister Aranrhod, an avowed virgin. She came to Math’s court, resentful, but confident.

       As Aranrhod leaped over the stick, a baby boy dropped from beneath her skirts. Math grabbed for it, but it ran away into the sea. This child became the god Dylan. His fate is another tale for another time.

       No one saw Gwydyon snatch up a second, smaller infant that slipped from Aranrhod as she stalked from Math’s hall. Gwydyon tucked the baby into his cloak, sneaked away from the ruckus and hid it in a closet in his chamber. It was so small, no bigger than a walnut, that he forgot all about it, until one night he heard it cry, then saw a tiny fist poke out from under rumpled clothing. Immediately, Gwydyon wanted the child. Here was a son in whom he could vest all his knowledge and desires, his hopes for the future.

       “Get out of my house with that creature!” Aranrhod shouted at Gwydyon, who held the beautiful baby up for approval. “I’m not interested in children. I don’t care to be saddled with nappies and nursing!” She stamped her foot and turned her back. “What’s more it’s a boy! What do I want with a boy when I have sworn to live only with women?”

       Aranrhod pointed toward the door and glowered at her brother.

       “Leave now and take that squalling mess with you!”

       “The child will be outcast,” Gwydyon protested. “He won’t exist without a name bestowed on him by his mother. That’s the law.”

       “Let him be nameless.”

       “You are an evil, wicked, unnatural mother.”

       “Piffle! I am not a mother at all! I’m a virgin. Whether I’ve had relations with a man has nothing to do with it and is nobody’s business but my own. You’ve been around Uncle Math too long. I am a virgin because my body belongs entirely to me. And I have chosen not to have children, thank you. You can’t even prove this thing is mine. I certainly will not give it a name. Now get out!”

       Aranrhod pushed Gwydyon through the door. He descended the steep steps of her sea castle clutching the infant. The women he passed noted a strange clicking that issued from his forehead just above his bushy eyebrows. This was the sound of Gwydyon’s big brain at work.

When his mind churned, it did so noisily, because Gwydyon was a God of Science. Had there been such gadgets in those long-ago days, the linear efforts of Gwydyon’s grey matter would have resembled a clock’s.

       Gwydyon clicked and mused, mused and clicked and rocked the cradle with his foot. The lad had to have a name. Tick-tocking toward an idea, Gwydyon made a note to himself to remember that when he had the power, he would dispense with all matriarchal laws. There would be a New Order. Uncle Math had started the process of social change, and Gwydyon would finish it.

       The child, meanwhile, was growing at a startling rate. Within weeks he had outgrown his cradle. In the few brief months it took Gwydyon to hatch a scheme to trick Aranrhod, her nameless son had already celebrated his seventh birthday.

       Gwydyon glamoured a sturdy little ship from bracken and seaweed and set sail to his sister’s castle by the sea, boy in tow. Disguised as a maker of marvelous shoes, and gambling on the cold draughts and chilly stone floors of seaside castles, he contrived to bring his sister aboard the boat. It took some persuading, but at last she arrived to try on a pair of toasty sheepskin slippers. And looking up from her lacings, Aranrhod saw the shoemaker’s child shoot a golden wren from the sky. As he raised his little arms and aimed his miniature bow and arrow at the bird, light seemed to shimmer all around him like a halo. He so resembled the sun that Aranrhod exclaimed in amazement and called him Llew of the Skillful Hand.

       Thus Gwydyon’s boy was named.

       And Aranrhod’s anger was indescribable.

       It was merely a matter of a few more months before Llew Skillful Hand had reached the age of fourteen when boys are ready for their rites of manhood. But according to that old bugaboo, matriarchal law, manhood could only be conferred when a mother armed her son. In other words, a boy became a man when his mother said so. Perhaps if the mother were dead, a grandmother, aunt or older sister could stand in, but Aranrhod was quite alive. Too much so for Gwydyon’s taste.

       He retreated to his clicking and musing. It didn’t take long for him to conjure an illusion of warships ready to assault Aranrhod’s castle. Terror overcame the women in the household as the ships approached, for they had no defense. Again disguised, Gwydyon and Llew arrived by land just in the nick of time and pretended to offer assistance.

       Aranrhod could not have been more grateful and gracious. She brought arms and with her own hand dressed the boy in sword and armor, helmet and shield.

       The illusion of warships evaporated from the horizon. Aranrhod was fooled again.

       And fit to be tied.

       “You continue to try to force me into a motherhood I don’t want! You persist in violating my autonomy!” Aranrhod raged on and on while Gwydyon laughed at her.

       She tossed copper chamber pots and hurled brass plates and bronze vases at Gwydyon’s head. He ducked and laughed. She shrieked and yelled. Yet she could not help but notice, through the black blaze of her anger, that Llew was a fine boy. Quiet, handsome, virile and agile. Not too clever yet, and a bit too dominated by Gwydyon — but who wasn’t? Had she not been in such a righteous stew about the question of self-determination, Aranrhod might have considered Llew a young man any mother would be proud of.

       But the point remained: Aranrhod did not wish to be a mother.

       Llew stood innocently by observing the scene: his mother’s tantrum and Gwydyon’s mocking. For all he’d been told that Aranrhod was a monster, an abnormal woman and an obstacle to his happiness, Llew felt some sympathy and admiration for her. She was large and glorious. Stubborn, forthright and independent. She positively glowed. If she showed a bad temper, well, hadn’t she been tricked twice? Llew noted how strong and proud his mother was compared to the mincing maids Gwydyon occasionally brought home for pleasure or the miserable, insipid virgins Math used for furniture.

       Suddenly, Aranrhod stopped her stamping and throwing and shrieking and yelping. She took a deep breath and spoke in a voice of such cold, hard menace even Gwydyon gulped in mid-guffaw and shuddered.

       “Since you are so determined to steal women’s sovereignty, I now swear a fate upon the boy,” Aranrhod growled.

       “Llew Skillful Hand will never have a wife of the race that is on the Earth today.”

       And here the story of Blodeuwedd begins.

 O

The task of creating a woman was far more complicated than Gwydyon’s usual glamouring tricks.

Even more difficult would be to shape one who bore no resemblance whatsoever to Aranrhod. She must be compliant, submissive and manageable, with no will or ambition beyond the attendance of Llew. She must perceive and fulfill his wishes even before he’d wished them. Obviously, Gwydyon needed help.

Math the Magician resembled a gluttonous frog sitting on his throne, swollen legs resting in the lap of his current virgin.

“It won’t be easy,” he said, and Gwydyon’s overstressed brain clicked wildly.

“Pipe down, please, I’m concentrating.” Math dug his heel into the crotch of his maiden ottoman and rested his chins in his plump, bejeweled hand. His tongue flicked in and out and his huge, popped eyes rolled back in his head. At last, he opened them and grinned.

“Go pick the flowers of the Oak, Meadowsweet and Broom,” he told Gwydyon. “And plenty of them. We want a well-endowed morwyn.”

An odd request, not for what it was, but for what it omitted. The divine essence of flowers runs through every woman’s veins and is passed from womb to womb. Each woman carries within her the endlessly renewing spirit of Iris for wisdom, Heather to protect against violence, Raspberry to ease the pain of childbirth, Hyacinth to relieve grief, Foxglove for a strong heart, Lily for unconditional love, Rose for healing and the sight, Cowslip for wantonness and pleasure, Huckleberry for prophetic dreams, Loosestrife for peace, Mugwort for authority, Moss for prosperity, Marigold for freedom, and to understand the language of the birds, Lilac for its own dear sake and more.

The bouquets of feminine power are the stuff of constant creation. Yet none of these was included in Math’s prescription, for this was to be a woman conceived and ripened outside the womb with plants that are metaphysically masculine.

“We are manufacturing an ideal creature in our own image,” the magician reminded his nephew. “Why muck up the works with female particulars? We’ve got Meadowsweet for love and happiness and that’s enough emotion to guarantee that Llew’s new wife will adore him. Now let’s get to work!”

They began, of course, with Oak, for no sentient being can be formed without the primordial tree of perfect speech, greatest intelligence, metamorphosis and transformation. Carefully pouring acorns, leaves, bark and petals into a huge cauldron, they tossed and folded until the elements of the plant were thoroughly blended. They added two bushels of the Meadowsweet, nine handfuls of yeast, a liter of cow’s milk, four dozen eggs, three cups honey and a bucket of their own urine and spit and whipped the mixture into a peck and a half of finely chopped Broom.

Math and Gwydyon muttered their spells and sifted the finest porcelain powder into the blossoms. They stirred and poked and kneaded and pinched. Till at last, she came into focus.

And they named the woman lying on their wizard-slab, inert as a furloughed puppet, Blodeuwedd.

The proud parents sprinkled Blodeuwedd with water and sheep’s blood. The florets, foliage, buds, seeds, pollen and wilted petals unfolded and burst into life.

She sat up and stared with rare eyes, white and violet as the Meadowsweet, languid and heavy as drooping stems in early summer. She smiled at Math and Gwydyon, meek and malleable, bright as the evergreen Broom on a snowy heath.

“Papa,” Math crooned, pointing to himself and Gwydyon.

“Papa,” Blodeuwedd repeated.

“Let’s validate the experiment,” Gwydyon suggested.

She passed every exam (gentle, easy tests, for Blodeuwedd had, after all, just been born). Through each trial, request and instruction, she was relentlessly nice, remorselessly genial, submissive, acquiescent and daughterly.

“Just to be sure Aranrhod hasn’t pulled any of her bossy witchery on us, let’s conclude with the wand-leaping test,” said Math, eyeing Gwydyon, and Gwydyon glanced back at Math, each briefly suspicious of the other until they remembered that neither had yet been alone with the girl.

The wand never quivered but lay still as stick.

The next day, they married Blodeuwedd to Llew.

 O

 No one compared with Blodeuwedd. None could look at her without sad sighing, without feeling acutely his or her own withering youth and beauty. The other women at the wedding feast were somehow unable to open their hearts to this motherless piece of perfection. In Blodeuwedd’s presence they became muddled and uprooted.

Llew was glad to have a wife and all the amenities that accompanied his new social status. From named boy to armed man, he had graduated to married landowner, a young patriarch with choice property and a castle of his own, given him by Uncle Math. Llew knew nothing except what he’d been taught by Gwydyon. Yet as he stood beside his gorgeous, demure bride, his mind turned to Aranrhod. Was Blodeuwedd not more of an object than a woman? Then again, she seemed to mirror Llew; she was his gynandrous double. He shook off his shyness, pushed his mother’s image from his mind, puffed up his chest, faced his bride and settled into marriage as he was expected.

It was not altogether difficult. In bed, Llew found Blodeuwedd tractable and docile. Had he been more experienced in love, he might have sensed that she was somehow absent, as if the Oak were still at work, continuing its transformation. Yet she was sultry and torpid as honey and milk, a passive partner of whom Llew had no clear reason to be disgruntled.

Day after day, Blodeuwedd performed the job for which she’d been fabricated. The Broom provided her with soldierly obedience and tenacity, as well as housewifely industry. In fact, her clean and orderly home was the envy of all.

And although Gwydyon perceived a lack of chemistry between Llew and his bride, the God of Science pushed all doubts from his mind, choosing instead to be satisfied with his custom-built daughter-in-law, who met every qualification he and Math had ever dreamed of in a woman.

So time passed uneventfully. Llew prospered. Gwydyon retired to his experiments and noisy ruminations and there was not a peep out of Aranrhod. Only Math was unhappy as virgin after virgin deserted him, and the acceptable morwyn grew younger and younger.

 O

      As ever in spring, the daffodils and narcissus returned and Llew Skillful Hand left Blodeuwedd to go hunting. She watched him ride out, smooth and fresh and fair, bright and shining as daybreak. She waved and blew kisses until he disappeared over the horizon. Then she turned briskly to her wifely duties, organizing the servants for the planting, milking, cheesemaking, scrubbing and bread baking. She took up her weaving by a window. She was perennially pleasant, neither happy nor sad.

Evening fell, and as Blodeuwedd ordered the tallows lighted, she heard the sound of hunting horns. She was mildly surprised that Llew was back so soon. He was never unlucky in the hunt and stayed the course until exhaustion demanded his return. It did not occur to Blodeuwedd to worry that Llew might have suffered some injury. As happiness and sorrow had been neglected in her manufacture, so had anxiety.

Blodeuwedd put on her prettiest gown and poured a cup of ale with which to meet her husband at the door. But instead of Llew, there stood another fellow, who looked her up and down with astonishment — as all men did. Blodeuwedd thought nothing of it.

“I am Goronwy the Staunch, Lord of Penllyn,” the man stuttered. Her loveliness had rendered him breathless. “My men and I have been hunting near this castle and we seek a resting place for the night.”

Goronwy was stout and greying and his features looked as if they had traveled many places. He was not handsome and glowing like Llew, rather he was so ugly as to be magnificent. Whereas Llew recalled a sunny day, Goronwy brought forth visions of a hoary mountain tempest. His face was crusty as bark, and black stubble dotted his chin like lichen. He was cousin to the gnarled Oak and the sap in Blodeuwedd’s veins exploded with recognition.

She shoved the alehorn into his hands and squeezed her eyes. She imagined her tongue playing in the large gap between Goronwy’s teeth. Imagination was unfamiliar to her and it frightened her.

She pulled herself together and curtsied the stranger through the door.

“The gods know we will be disgraced for letting this chieftain go elsewhere at this hour and not asking him in,” she told the servants. She sent them to fetch water for his bath and prepare a supper.

Blodeuwedd’s heart crashed and thumped. While Goronwy bathed, she ran to her looking glass and pulled her hair up this way and down that and braided it and twisted it with ribbons. She fussed and fumed and shoved at her well-endowed cleavage and smeared it with powdered rose petals and paced the floor and whispered “Mine! Mine!” and knew not what she said, for she had never wanted anything or anyone before in her short life.

They dined alone and Blodeuwedd was radiant. She glanced shyly at Goronwy with her Meadowsweet eyes and batted her lashes and sucked slowly and seductively at strings of meat. He could not stop staring at her, until at last, he made bold to place his hand on her knee and she reached down and guided it up her skirts and soon they were kissing and fumbling and stumbling to her bedchamber.

Blodeuwedd came alive. The Oak had reached its pitch. Blodeuwedd chose Goronwy and by her choice, her humanity emerged. Half-baked and presented to Llew as the chef d’oeuvre of men’s ideals, she had been tame and biddable. For the first time, her flesh tingled like true skin, at once pliant and solid. Her slavish, sluggish sheep’s blood — toxified by male urine and spit — now stormed wildly, clean and fierce as a waterfall. And although Goronwy, caressing every inch of her body, muttered again and again of Blodeuwedd’s perfection, she felt gloriously imperfect. Marvelously real.

But when it was over, a bitter taste crept into Blodeuwedd’s mouth. The sour taste of marital tyranny. The terrible knowledge that she was disposable, a pretty pawn in Gwydyon’s game. And somewhere deep in Blodeuwedd’s bones, the belligerence and stamina of Broom began to stir.

The next day, Goronwy rose to leave, but Blodeuwedd clung to him and begged him to stay. He could not resist. They slept together that night and the next and the next, and Blodeuwedd could not get enough. The days with Goronwy passed in long talk. No longer was Blodeuwedd indifferent. She expressed opinions; she had ideas; she laughed. She discovered passion, foolishness and friendship. Finally, she confessed her origins and told Goronwy that with or without him, she wanted nothing more than to be fully a woman. Goronwy was of the old school of matriarchal law and Blodeuwedd’s story offended him, for Gwydyon’s tampering was an offense against Nature. He embraced and comforted her as she wept. They gazed at each other and there was no part of them that did not feel love.

Thus, on the night before Llew was expected home, Goronwy made this suggestion to Blodeuwedd: she must discover how Llew could be killed, for he was a child of the goddess and it would be no easy task to get rid of him. She did not balk, for killing Llew, she knew, would be her only path to freedom.

Goronwy the Staunch returned to Penllyn and Llew returned home to an apparently happy wife. Her voice was louder, she was more talkative and even witty. He had never seen her be anything but deferential and even-tempered, but now and then he noticed a darkness pass over her face that reminded him of Aranrhod. She seemed less and less a feminine duplicate of himself, and thus he wanted her more and more.

One night, soon after Llew’s return, Blodeuwedd turned to him and said, “I have had nightmares, horrible omens. Your absence this time was long and caused me to fret and dream of your death. I beg you, dear one, tell me how you can be killed so that I can protect you and sleep soundly.”

It did not occur to Llew to mistrust Blodeuwedd. She had been created by his father for his own pleasure, and Gwydyon, in Llew’s estimation, did not make mistakes and would never betray him. In the second instance, Llew was right. Gwydyon loved his boy above all possessions. So Llew curled into Blodeuwedd’s arms — arms that had been shaped especially for him — and said, “Don’t worry, my love. I can’t be killed indoors or out-of-doors or on a horse or on foot.”

“Well then,” Blodeuwedd sighed, “you can’t be killed at all.”

“Ah, but I can,” he laughed and told her that in order for him to die, he must be on the bank of a river with one foot on the back of a billy goat and the other on the rim of a tub, in which a bath had been prepared for him. The spear that could kill him would take a year to make. It could be carved, polished and sharpened only during full moons.

The next day, Blodeuwedd sent a trusted messenger to Goronwy. He worked the spear until it was perfect and at the end of a year, he sent word back to Blodeuwedd that all was ready.

O

       “My lord,” Blodeuwedd said to Llew one night over dinner, “I am thinking of what you told me and how it might come about. If I prepare the bath, will you show me how you might stand on the goat and the edge of the tub? It seems a mean feat, indeed an impossible feat, and I need reassurance that you cannot do it and are therefore in no danger.”

Llew was proud. Gwydyon had spoiled and pampered him and while he had certain sweetness, too, he was a show-off, vain as high noon.

He not only agreed, he prodded Blodeuwedd to hurry while he flexed his biceps and stretched and strutted.

Blodeuwedd sent for Goronwy in secret and went to prepare the bath. She found the oldest, most slothful buck in the herd. Goronwy hid, while Blodeuwedd laughed and goaded Llew.

“Now I’ll see that I need not ever worry, for even you, my husband, agile as you are, cannot balance here like this.”

And she bathed him and ran her hands up and down his belly and back and when it was done and he was dripping wet, he leaped out of the tub and stood, one foot on the back of the snoozing billy goat, one foot on the rim of the tub, glowing with pride, while his penis, so recently cleaned and coddled, saluted the endeavor.

At once, Goronwy the Staunch rose to one knee and cast the spear full force at Llew and struck him in the side so that the shaft stuck out but the head stayed in. And Llew Skillful Hand gave a horrible scream and flew away in the form of an eagle and was not seen again.

 O

       Blodeuwedd and Goronwy spent happy days together — although, truth be told, there were fleeting moments when she wondered at his staunchness, an airtight manliness. Nonetheless, Blodeuwedd blossomed. Perhaps, in the gathering of Oak, Meadowsweet and Broom, detritus from the womanly blooms had drifted like weeds into her mix. She developed a smidgen of wisdom, a strong heart, a healing hand, a little insight and more. Nevertheless, she often wandered the halls of Goronwy’s castle, rootless, insubstantial, fictitious.

Blodeuwedd and Goronwy lived in peace and thrived together, for Gwydyon had not time, the energy nor the inclination for vengeance. He was searching for Llew. Days, weeks, months and a year passed, as the God of Science probed and analyzed the elements, and tried every manner of alchemy to locate his precious boy. And when all that failed, he took to walking and trooped over hill and dale, beating the bushes and calling and calling for Llew Skillful Hand.

One foggy day, in despair and grieving, Gwydyon came upon a white pig whom he knew to be the sow goddess, Cerridwen, ancient, venerated Mother. She was fat, ungainly and neglected, but her eyes were stern and kind. In spite of his arrogance and impiety, his brazen violation of Nature, the sow took pity on him, for she, too, had children she loved and some she’d lost.

She led him — slowly, for by now Gwydyon was exhausted — up a stream and toward a valley, where she stopped to feed on rotten flesh and maggots that fell to the ground from a cliff. On the cliff was a nest, where an eagle perched and each time it shook, worms and rotten flesh fell away and these the sow goddess gobbled as offerings.

The raptor was golden and bright and shining but its wing hung limp and dragging. Gwydyon suspected he was Llew. He stood beneath the cliff and raised his arms in an arch to the hazy sun and sang:

An oak grows between two lakes,

Dark sky and glen.

If I speak truly,

This comes from Llew’s feathers.

Down and tissue and bits of gore fell from the eagle as it dropped from the cliff to the top of a tree below. Gwydyon sang on:

An oak grows on a high plain,

Soaked by rain and putrefaction.

The oak supports the Crafts,

In its branches sits Llew Skillful Hand.

The crippled eagle dropped to the lowest branch of the tree. And Gwydyon sang again:

An oak grows on a slope,

The refuge of a handsome prince.

If I speak truly,

Llew will come to my lap.

The eagle dropped to Gwydyon’s knee and the God of Science struck him with his magic wand and the bird changed into human form. Llew was skin and bone and sickly and Gwydyon wrapped the hole where Goronwy’s spear had entered his side and took the youth home. He fed him potions and nursed him until he was well again.

 O

        In a year’s time, Llew Skillful Hand rose from his sickbed and went to Math.

“Lord, it is time to demand compensation from the man who did me this injury.”

Math rumbled and farted and scratched his sole against his virgin footstool.

“And Blodeuwedd?” he asked.

“That is my lord Gwydyon’s problem,” Llew answered, “for he made the girl to be my plaything, but she was my wife and I came to love her, though she could not love me. I daresay she was missing some component and that lack was neither her fault nor mine. No, my lord Math, I will take Goronwy and try to persuade Gwydyon to leave the woman alone.”

But there was no persuading Gwydyon. What he had engineered, he would destroy, and his mind clicked with plans of revenge. Blodeuwedd had emerged far enough from the shadows to rebel against his authority and now he feared her and could never forgive her.

O

       Llew Skillful Hand gathered his forces and rode to Penllyn and surrounded Goronwy’s castle. Goronwy the Staunch guided Blodeuwedd and her attendants out a secret passage that led to safety in the mountains. Then he returned to his battlements and stood his ground against Llew Skillful Hand, but Llew’s warriors overcame him. Goronwy the Staunch sent messengers to ask Llew Skillful Hand if he would accept land or gold for the injury put upon him, but Llew refused.

“You must come to where I was when you cast the spear at me, while I stand where you stood and you must let me throw a spear at you. That is the least I will accept.”

So Goronwy went where Llew had been, but there was no one to bathe him before he balanced on the back of the buck goat and the rim of the tub.

Thus, he made one request: he asked that Llew allow him to put a stone between himself and the blow. And Llew agreed, but he threw the spear with such vigor and jealousy that it pierced both the stone and Goronwy the Staunch. The Lord of Penllyn died and the stone still stands on the bank of Avon Gynvael with the spear stuck through it and so it is called Llech Oronwy.

O

       Meanwhile, Blodeuwedd and her women ran from the castle to the mountain sanctuary. But Gwydyon, riding fast behind them, enchanted the attendants so that they could no longer travel on their feet, but had to walk on their hands. When they reached the river, the women drowned, every one.

Gwydyon leaped off his horse and chased Blodeuwedd. He seized her by the hair. He spun her three times left, three times right.

Seven times he raised his hand to kill her. But he could not do it, for she was a product of his imagination.

He held her by the shoulders and shook her, as if to loosen and detach the magic, the petals and leaves and pollen and buds and seeds that fashioned her. And Blodeuwedd yielded her body like a broken branch and neither was she afraid nor did she cry out. No longer did she care whether she lived or died, for she had been truly alive only briefly and then not long enough to cultivate her soul.

“I will not kill you!” Gwydyon screamed. “I will do worse. I will let you go in the shape of a bird to punish you for the shame you have brought upon Llew Skillful Hand. Never will you show your face in daylight for fear of other birds. They will be hostile to you and it will be their nature to maul and molest you wherever they find you. You will eat hair, bones and gristle!”

And Gwydyon heaved Blodeuwedd high into the air. She rose, hovered and turned into an owl.

A flawless creature, soft and feathery, with muscular, soundless flight. Blodeuwedd was real at last, though still and ever banished to half-light, veiled by night. And she is still called Blodeuwedd, and Gwydyon fears her yet, for she can see in all directions. Her owlflower heart beats in harmony with the moon. She rises suddenly out of the shades, a winged vapor.

~

Retold from The Mabinogion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Kore

The Gentle Soul seethes with wrath. She who causes grain to grow, flowers to bloom, fruit to ripen.

Mortals sacrifice to the Barley Mother. They pray and offer what little is left since her outrage began. Handfuls of corn. Bouquets of wilted narcissus and withered ivy. A few hardened olives. They light fires. They proffer the bodies of pigs. The goddess enjoys the smell of roasting flesh, though she cannot abide the taste. The people fear sparks from the sacred fires will incinerate the bare, dry fields, ignite their homes and shelters. They mutter incantations while they eat the meat. Soon there will be no more. Soon they will sacrifice their children.

Demeter is unmoved.

“Let Hades make the sacrifice!” she says. “Let him return my child! Give me back my daughter, my Kore. Nothing less will do.”

Demeter waits, swathed head to toe in grief and anger. She who tumbled in mud and gardens and fields with many lovers. She whose pleasures fertilized and fed the earth. She who had joyfully labored, then nursed her newborn daughter with such exuberance the good milk gushed forth to bless the world.

Her womb shrinks. Crimson anemone, blood-flower of the wounded and mourning, drips from between her legs.

The rivers dwindle. Cooling breezes still. Helios scorches the ground. Bounty turns to famine.

Zeus gazes from his throne at the suffering Earth. He had loved his sister in her youthful gaiety. He fathered this disappeared daughter she adores. He took for granted Demeter’s verdant laughter, her generosity and patience. Now he is flaccid with fright.

Should mortals be extinguished, so, too, will Olympus.

Zeus hurls thunderbolts to awaken the rain. The thunder ricochets against Demeter’s impenetrable rage and turns back to Olympus. Rain falls on the palace in choking sheets. Marble floors are flooded. Satin couches are soaked. Wine and nectar drenched and diluted.

“Do something, husband!” Hera complains, when at last the golden apples that were her wedding gift from Demeter rot on their silver branches.

Zeus dispatches Iris to charm the goddess. Iris slides down her rainbow and lands on her toes, sparkling, twirling, giggling, glittering. Demeter, once so easy to please, does not look up.

Zeus sends Poseidon of the Sea, then Hestia of the Hearth, then Hera the Protector.

“Keep your paltry tributes,” Demeter says. “I want my daughter.”

Zeus sends birds to pluck at Demeter’s blue-green cloak and spread the fertilizing threads across desiccated fields. The threads sizzle on parched ground. The vivid cloak turns black around Demeter’s shoulders.

Kore, the Maiden. Delicate, tender, temporary.  She is a mist enveloped in childhood. Enclosed in Demeter’s love. Nameless, called simply Kore, Maiden.

She is demure as violets. Willowy and compliant. She is uncertain as gypsophilia. Tall as the althaea. Fragrant as heliotrope. Vibrant as cyclamen, flower of love.

Never alone, tethered close to her mother, she basked in the company of other maidens. She was the centerpiece in a bevy of blooms.

Demeter and Kore. Hand in hand, constant chatter between them. Demeter combed Kore’s long hair, blue-black as monkshood. Kore brushed Demeter’s grain-gold plaits that tumbled in waves down her strong back. Sleeping, they wrapped their ankles together. Then the seasonless world thrived with Demeter’s happiness, always fecund. The nurture she lavished on Kore was mirrored on the Earth.

Zeus met Hades in a cave by the sea. The handsome, somber god, whose face is masked with implacable endings, is forbidden to set foot in Olympus, where no death is permitted.

“I have fallen in love with your daughter,” Hades said.

“Which one?”

“Demeter’s Kore.”

Zeus stared straight ahead. He did not answer, made no expression under his curled beard. His sister would not forgive him if he gave Kore to the darkness, to live in murky Tartarus among ghosts.

“I must have her,” Hades insisted. “Give her to me.”

Neither would Zeus offend his brother, Lord of the Underworld.

“What say you, Zeus?” Hades paced and wrung his hands. “Why so silent?”

Zeus sighed but still did not reply. Zeus knows love and he knows lust. He imagined Kore, naked, unguarded. He imagined himself as a bee collecting Kore’s pollen. He shivered, buzzed a bit, bits of  skin turned to yellow and black stripes, he felt his body shrink, then quickly caught hold before the transformation. He sighed, but he smiled to himself as Kore’s face came into his mind and he winked and winked at the vision.

“Thank you, brother!” Hades clapped Zeus on the back. Zeus dreamed on. Hades receded into the cave.

Demeter slept, dreaming of wheat grass, light rain and crocii. Kore sensed the dawn, sprang from bed and gathered her companions. Moist grasses tickled the maidens’ feet. The girls skipped into a meadow. Laughing, weaving a dance through Helios’ gentle morning rays.

Laden with cornflowers and daisies, a bouquet with which to awaken her mother, Kore turned from the field toward the palace. But as she turned, her eye caught something bright and orange waving at her. She stopped. Hushed her companions. The single flower seemed to call her. Pull her. Never had Kore seen such a splendid bloom. Silky and flamboyant, not a maiden’s but a queen’s flower.

She thrust her bouquet into a companion’s arms. She teetered toward the poppy. Growing sleepy the closer she got. She yawned. She reached to pluck it. Eyelids heavy. Trembling, she did not feel the ground shake. She did not hear the ground split or see the four, silent black horses, the golden chariot, the gloomy figure that grabbed her waist and wrenched her to him.

The maidens screamed, “A rape! A rape!”  The chariot descended into the widening crack in the Earth, horses at full gallop. The ground closed and swallowed them all.

Old Hekate heard the cries. She lumbered toward the sound. Too late. The six eyes of her lion, god and mare heads saw nothing.

Demeter woke. The bed was empty. She called for Kore through the house and gardens, the orchards and vineyards. No trace of the maiden or her companions. Demeter searched the fields. At last, she found scattered daisies and crushed cornflowers.  And the fading, chiffon petals of a poppy. The Barley Mother gathered each orange scrap, pressed them together, smelled them. She picked up a green pod, squeezed it, tasted the bubble of yellow-white lactose. Whatever had happened, wherever Demeter’s daughter had gone, this was the soporific that seduced her.

The goddess dressed in her blue-green cloak. She disguised herself as an aged woman. She wandered. Wandered and called, “Kore! Kore! Kore!” “Maiden! Maiden!” “Daughter!”

Hades clutched Kore. Her head lolled, her body was limp with fright. Down, down they flew into the Underworld. Through a stand of black poplars beside the ocean stream. Across the river Styx and past Charon the Boatman. Past Cerberus, the fifty-headed dog. Into the cheerless Asphodel Field, where the souls of heroes meander without purpose. Toward the Pool of Lethe, where thirsty specters sip water hunched under the white cypress. They veered and rode across the Pool of Memory and into Hades’ musty, lurid palace.

Hades removed his helmet of invisibility. His face materialized, but Kore’s vision was blurred and she swooned. He carried her into his grim chambers.

He flung her on his couch. He pried open her long, thin legs. Skin like vapor and growing cold. The girl awoke. Stared at the ceiling made of thick, hard roots from upperworld trees. His member like a tuber that penetrated up and up to her throat. The roots above her tangled into a barrier against light, so that she could not picture her mother’s face.

When he was done, she smiled vaguely at him. Hazy. Pliant as willow. And he grinned triumphantly.

“All this is yours, my queen,” he said. “Let us feast and celebrate the marriage.”

Now his flinty face came clear to her. A handsome face, bewitching as roses, cruel as thorns. Annihilation and peace balanced on the same branch. She burst into tears and would not stop weeping for her mother. He led her to the banquet chamber, but she would not eat or drink.

Nine days. Nine nights. Demeter wandered. “Kore! Kore! Maiden! Daughter!” she cried and no one answered.

On the ninth day, aged, grey, run down, she reached Eleusis. The king entertained Demeter. The queen fed her barley water.

“How strange that this thirsty old woman is full of milk,” the queen said to the king.

“Do your gorged breasts not ache?” she asked Demeter. She gave the goddess her youngest son to suckle and rooms in which to rest.

On the tenth day, the eldest son of Eleusis visited her rooms. Triptolemus, who herded his father’s cattle. He stood a moment in the doorway. To his eyes, there was no old woman here nursing his infant brother, but a dazzling, ageless creature, all gold and green.

“Are you not Demeter of the Grain?” he asked.

She fixed him with her amber eyes. Triptolemus moved closer.

“I saw the abduction of your daughter, the Kore,” he said. She tensed and hissed.

“Ten days ago,” Triptolemus said, “my brothers and I went into the fields to feed the beasts. The morning was warm and pleasant, the sun was shining. We heard the heavy thud of horses’ hooves. Suddenly, the Earth shrieked and shook and tore open. We jumped and were barely saved from falling into the crack, but our swine were engulfed before our eyes.

“We saw a golden chariot drawn by black horses. It dashed down the chasm. The driver’s face was invisible, but he held a maiden limp and drooping.”

Demeter fled the palace of Eleusis. She ran to her sister Hekate, whose home is at the edge of Tartarus.

The gift the goddess left Triptolemus was wrapped in thin, fine flax. Barley seed, a wooden plough, a beehive, a chariot drawn by serpents. He travels the world on his chariot and teaches mortals the honeyed art of agriculture.

The sisters hurried to the palace of Helios the Sun. Demeter’s grain-gold hair streamed behind her. A blinding storm slapped her blue-green cloak. Hekate trotted beside her, three watchful heads of dog, lion and mare glanced left and right, forward and back.

They charged uninvited into the palace. They stood on either side of Helios. Demeter’s scowl, Hekate’s growl brought a cloud to pass across the Sun’s face.

“Tell us now, with no lies and no delays, what and who you saw ten days ago,” they demanded. The lion bared her teeth. The mare whinnied.

And Helios, who sees all, told them that Hades had planted the poppy and Kore had been called by it. That the Underworld King stole the maiden.

Helios plays tricks with light and shadow. “No doubt,” he said, “our brother Zeus connived with Hades to let him have the Kore.”

Hekate is the only one that Zeus cannot refuse. This time her request went unheeded, for Zeus is afraid of Hades, terrified of Death. Hekate returned to Demeter with no promises. The Barley Mother’s rage increased. Her wrath spread like a plague across the land.

“Take swift revenge, as we do,” her sister goddesses advised.

The Gentle Soul seethes. Unhurried. Hectare by hectare, the Earth hardens, until nothing, not even sharp weeds can knife through its packed crust.

“And so it will be, until my daughter returns.”

All sacrifices scorned, all tributes, bargains, pleas ignored.

Hekate visits Zeus a second time. She finds him gazing at the Earth. Depressed. Confused.

“These starving mortals love me no longer,” he says by way of greeting.

“You are right, great Zeus,” Hekate replies. “They do not. And why should they? See their children with swollen, painful bellies? See the hungry, thirsty souls entering Tartarus in droves?”

Again, Hekate makes her petition. “Return the Kore to Demeter,” she says.

Zeus pulls his beard, annoyed, and waves Hekate away. He must appeal to Hades. His pride bristles. He calls Hermes and sends him with two messages.

Hermes rushes to Eleusis on winged feet. He recites Zeus’ message to Demeter: “You may have your daughter back, on condition that she has not tasted the food of the dead.”

Demeter sighs. A small, improbable breeze floats across the Earth and hope is briefly rekindled.

At Tartarus, Hermes tells Hades: “If you do not restore the Kore to her mother, we are all undone.”

Hades clamps his helmet of invisibility over his face to conceal his anger.

A gold and granite throne for Kore. A gift from Hades. She sits beside him, cheeks sunken from lack of food, eyes red from weeping. Hades places his hand gently on her knee. He addresses her with fatherly concern.

“My child, my love, my queen,” he says. She smiles wanly at him, yielding as cloudgrass.

“You are unhappy here,” Hades says, “and your mother mourns for you so lamentably that I have decided to send you home.”

Kore gasps. She leaps to her feet and clasps Hades. His strong back. She presses against the penetrating tuber, which night after night forges a path through her and which, vaguely, she has come to desire.  She holds him longer than either expects. Then she breaks away and mounts the golden chariot now navigated by Hermes.

Hades holds five pomegranate seeds in his hand. He offers them to Kore. “To give you strength for the journey,” he says.

She opens her mouth, shuts it, opens it. Quickly, he places the seeds on her tongue.

She swallows.

Demeter rejoices. Embraces Kore tight against her moist and heavy breasts. Kore cringes. Surprised by the soft supple body of her mother after the nights with Hades. Surprised to be swaddled again in maidenhood after the days of sovereignty on her gold and granite throne.

Demeter whispers. “Have you eaten the food of the dead?”

“No, Mother,” Kore lies.

Demeter pulls away. Holds Kore at arm’s length.  “I ask again. Have you eaten the food of the dead?”

“No, Mother.” But Demeter sees some new hardness, the blossom maturing to berry.

“And again, daughter. Have you eaten the food of the dead?”

Kore lowers her head. “Just five seeds of the pomegranate, Mother. Only five to give me strength for the journey back to you.”

Demeter moans. “All is lost,” she sobs. She clutches Kore. “All is lost and you are no longer mine.”

Her rage returns. Her milk curdles. She points a threatening finger at Hermes. “Tell Zeus I will neither return to Olympus nor remove my curse from the land!”

Rhea the Titan brings about the compromise. Demeter’s own mother. Mother of Zeus and Hades, Hera and Hestia. Back and forth Rhea travels between her children.

Kore awaits the verdict that will seal her fate. She has no thought, no one asks her desires and if they did, she would not know how to answer. Her petals have folded, like a morning glory awaiting sunrise.

At last Demeter agrees to let Hades have Kore five months of every year. Five months for five seeds. She will be Queen of Tartarus. Persephone: Bringer of Destruction.

In September, Persephone begins her return to the underworld and the arms of Hades. She sits beside him on her throne of gold and granite. She is noble and matronly as hesperis. Decisive as the acanthus. She guides the dead and speaks to them, soothing and implacable as monkshood. She is reserved as hellebores. Wise as heliotrope. Clever as lunaria. Strong as stock. Unbending as mullein.

By November, Demeter has retired to her chambers. She sleeps. She does not dream. She sleeps the sleep of sorrow and the world dies.

In February, old Hekate fetches the queen. Persephone removes her robes, her golden brown mushroom cloak, her jewels mined from between the walls of Tartarus, her crowning wreath. Hekate takes her hand and accompanies her to the Pool of Memory, where Persephone discards recollections of her regency and maturity, else she could not bear this return to maidenhood. She will reclaim her memories on the journey home.

Hekate and Persephone walk past Cerberus and slowly, slowly Charon rows them across the river Styx. Persephone shields her eyes from Helios’ bright light, which greets her as she ascends.

With her first step into the upperworld, Persephone transforms to Kore. Vernal and new. Green and misty. Yielding. Tender and temporary.

Demeter awakes. Watches as the maiden strides faster and faster toward her. Her breasts express a torrent of nourishment that will feed the land. The fields flourish as Kore skips over them toward the Barley Mother.

Mother and daughter embrace. Spring has arrived. The Kore glances back over her shoulder.

–from a Greek myth

The Gentle Soul seethes with wrath. She who causes grain to grow, flowers to bloom, fruit to ripen.

Mortals sacrifice to the Barley Mother. They pray and offer what little is left since her outrage began. Handfuls of corn. Bouquets of wilted narcissus and withered ivy. A few hardened olives. They light fires. They proffer the bodies of pigs. The goddess enjoys the smell of roasting flesh, though she cannot abide the taste. The people fear sparks from the sacred fires will incinerate the bare, dry fields, ignite their homes and shelters. They mutter incantations while they eat the meat. Soon there will be no more. Soon they will sacrifice their children.

Demeter is unmoved.

“Let Hades make the sacrifice!” she says. “Let him return my child! Give me back my daughter, my Kore. Nothing less will do.”

Demeter waits, swathed head to toe in grief and anger. She who tumbled in mud and gardens and fields with many lovers. She whose pleasures fertilized and fed the earth. She who had joyfully labored, then nursed her newborn daughter with such exuberance the good milk gushed forth to bless the world.

Her womb shrinks. Crimson anemone, blood-flower of the wounded and mourning, drips from between her legs.

The rivers dwindle. Cooling breezes still. Helios scorches the ground. Bounty turns to famine.

Zeus gazes from his throne at the suffering Earth. He had loved his sister in her youthful gaiety. He fathered this disappeared daughter she adores. He took for granted Demeter’s verdant laughter, her generosity and patience. Now he is flaccid with fright.

Should mortals be extinguished, so, too, will Olympus.

Zeus hurls thunderbolts to awaken the rain. The thunder ricochets against Demeter’s impenetrable rage and turns back to Olympus. Rain falls on the palace in choking sheets. Marble floors are flooded. Satin couches are soaked. Wine and nectar drenched and diluted.

“Do something, husband!” Hera complains, when at last the golden apples that were her wedding gift from Demeter rot on their silver branches.

Zeus dispatches Iris to charm the goddess. Iris slides down her rainbow and lands on her toes, sparkling, twirling, giggling, glittering. Demeter, once so easy to please, does not look up.

Zeus sends Poseidon of the Sea, then Hestia of the Hearth, then Hera the Protector.

“Keep your paltry tributes,” Demeter says. “I want my daughter.”

Zeus sends birds to pluck at Demeter’s blue-green cloak and spread the fertilizing threads across desiccated fields. The threads sizzle on parched ground. The vivid cloak turns black around Demeter’s shoulders.

Kore, the Maiden. Delicate, tender, temporary.  She is a mist enveloped in childhood. Enclosed in Demeter’s love. Nameless, called simply Kore, Maiden.

She is demure as violets. Willowy and compliant. She is uncertain as gypsophilia. Tall as the althaea. Fragrant as heliotrope. Vibrant as cyclamen, flower of love.

Never alone, tethered close to her mother, she basked in the company of other maidens. She was the centerpiece in a bevy of blooms.

Demeter and Kore. Hand in hand, constant chatter between them. Demeter combed Kore’s long hair, blue-black as monkshood. Kore brushed Demeter’s grain-gold plaits that tumbled in waves down her strong back. Sleeping, they wrapped their ankles together. Then the seasonless world thrived with Demeter’s happiness, always fecund. The nurture she lavished on Kore was mirrored on the Earth.

Zeus met Hades in a cave by the sea. The handsome, somber god, whose face is masked with implacable endings, is forbidden to set foot in Olympus, where no death is permitted.

“I have fallen in love with your daughter,” Hades said.

“Which one?”

“Demeter’s Kore.”

Zeus stared straight ahead. He did not answer, made no expression under his curled beard. His sister would not forgive him if he gave Kore to the darkness, to live in murky Tartarus among ghosts.

“I must have her,” Hades insisted. “Give her to me.”

Neither would Zeus offend his brother, Lord of the Underworld.

“What say you, Zeus?” Hades paced and wrung his hands. “Why so silent?”

Zeus sighed but still did not reply. Zeus knows love and he knows lust. He imagined Kore, naked, unguarded. He imagined himself as a bee collecting Kore’s pollen. He shivered, buzzed a bit, bits of  skin turned to yellow and black stripes, he felt his body shrink, then quickly caught hold before the transformation. He sighed, but he smiled to himself as Kore’s face came into his mind and he winked and winked at the vision.

“Thank you, brother!” Hades clapped Zeus on the back. Zeus dreamed on. Hades receded into the cave.

Demeter slept, dreaming of wheat grass, light rain and crocii. Kore sensed the dawn, sprang from bed and gathered her companions. Moist grasses tickled the maidens’ feet. The girls skipped into a meadow. Laughing, weaving a dance through Helios’ gentle morning rays.

Laden with cornflowers and daisies, a bouquet with which to awaken her mother, Kore turned from the field toward the palace. But as she turned, her eye caught something bright and orange waving at her. She stopped. Hushed her companions. The single flower seemed to call her. Pull her. Never had Kore seen such a splendid bloom. Silky and flamboyant, not a maiden’s but a queen’s flower.

She thrust her bouquet into a companion’s arms. She teetered toward the poppy. Growing sleepy the closer she got. She yawned. She reached to pluck it. Eyelids heavy. Trembling, she did not feel the ground shake. She did not hear the ground split or see the four, silent black horses, the golden chariot, the gloomy figure that grabbed her waist and wrenched her to him.

The maidens screamed, “A rape! A rape!”  The chariot descended into the widening crack in the Earth, horses at full gallop. The ground closed and swallowed them all.

Old Hekate heard the cries. She lumbered toward the sound. Too late. The six eyes of her lion, god and mare heads saw nothing.

Demeter woke. The bed was empty. She called for Kore through the house and gardens, the orchards and vineyards. No trace of the maiden or her companions. Demeter searched the fields. At last, she found scattered daisies and crushed cornflowers.  And the fading, chiffon petals of a poppy. The Barley Mother gathered each orange scrap, pressed them together, smelled them. She picked up a green pod, squeezed it, tasted the bubble of yellow-white lactose. Whatever had happened, wherever Demeter’s daughter had gone, this was the soporific that seduced her.

The goddess dressed in her blue-green cloak. She disguised herself as an aged woman. She wandered. Wandered and called, “Kore! Kore! Kore!” “Maiden! Maiden!” “Daughter!”

Hades clutched Kore. Her head lolled, her body was limp with fright. Down, down they flew into the Underworld. Through a stand of black poplars beside the ocean stream. Across the river Styx and past Charon the Boatman. Past Cerberus, the fifty-headed dog. Into the cheerless Asphodel Field, where the souls of heroes meander without purpose. Toward the Pool of Lethe, where thirsty specters sip water hunched under the white cypress. They veered and rode across the Pool of Memory and into Hades’ musty, lurid palace.

Hades removed his helmet of invisibility. His face materialized, but Kore’s vision was blurred and she swooned. He carried her into his grim chambers.

He flung her on his couch. He pried open her long, thin legs. Skin like vapor and growing cold. The girl awoke. Stared at the ceiling made of thick, hard roots from upperworld trees. His member like a tuber that penetrated up and up to her throat. The roots above her tangled into a barrier against light, so that she could not picture her mother’s face.

When he was done, she smiled vaguely at him. Hazy. Pliant as willow. And he grinned triumphantly.

“All this is yours, my queen,” he said. “Let us feast and celebrate the marriage.”

Now his flinty face came clear to her. A handsome face, bewitching as roses, cruel as thorns. Annihilation and peace balanced on the same branch. She burst into tears and would not stop weeping for her mother. He led her to the banquet chamber, but she would not eat or drink.

Nine days. Nine nights. Demeter wandered. “Kore! Kore! Maiden! Daughter!” she cried and no one answered.

On the ninth day, aged, grey, run down, she reached Eleusis. The king entertained Demeter. The queen fed her barley water.

“How strange that this thirsty old woman is full of milk,” the queen said to the king.

“Do your gorged breasts not ache?” she asked Demeter. She gave the goddess her youngest son to suckle and rooms in which to rest.

On the tenth day, the eldest son of Eleusis visited her rooms. Triptolemus, who herded his father’s cattle. He stood a moment in the doorway. To his eyes, there was no old woman here nursing his infant brother, but a dazzling, ageless creature, all gold and green.

“Are you not Demeter of the Grain?” he asked.

She fixed him with her amber eyes. Triptolemus moved closer.

“I saw the abduction of your daughter, the Kore,” he said. She tensed and hissed.

“Ten days ago,” Triptolemus said, “my brothers and I went into the fields to feed the beasts. The morning was warm and pleasant, the sun was shining. We heard the heavy thud of horses’ hooves. Suddenly, the Earth shrieked and shook and tore open. We jumped and were barely saved from falling into the crack, but our swine were engulfed before our eyes.

“We saw a golden chariot drawn by black horses. It dashed down the chasm. The driver’s face was invisible, but he held a maiden limp and drooping.”

Demeter fled the palace of Eleusis. She ran to her sister Hekate, whose home is at the edge of Tartarus.

The gift the goddess left Triptolemus was wrapped in thin, fine flax. Barley seed, a wooden plough, a beehive, a chariot drawn by serpents. He travels the world on his chariot and teaches mortals the honeyed art of agriculture.

The sisters hurried to the palace of Helios the Sun. Demeter’s grain-gold hair streamed behind her. A blinding storm slapped her blue-green cloak. Hekate trotted beside her, three watchful heads of dog, lion and mare glanced left and right, forward and back.

They charged uninvited into the palace. They stood on either side of Helios. Demeter’s scowl, Hekate’s growl brought a cloud to pass across the Sun’s face.

“Tell us now, with no lies and no delays, what and who you saw ten days ago,” they demanded. The lion bared her teeth. The mare whinnied.

And Helios, who sees all, told them that Hades had planted the poppy and Kore had been called by it. That the Underworld King stole the maiden.

Helios plays tricks with light and shadow. “No doubt,” he said, “our brother Zeus connived with Hades to let him have the Kore.”

Hekate is the only one that Zeus cannot refuse. This time her request went unheeded, for Zeus is afraid of Hades, terrified of Death. Hekate returned to Demeter with no promises. The Barley Mother’s rage increased. Her wrath spread like a plague across the land.

“Take swift revenge, as we do,” her sister goddesses advised.

The Gentle Soul seethes. Unhurried. Hectare by hectare, the Earth hardens, until nothing, not even sharp weeds can knife through its packed crust.

“And so it will be, until my daughter returns.”

All sacrifices scorned, all tributes, bargains, pleas ignored.

Hekate visits Zeus a second time. She finds him gazing at the Earth. Depressed. Confused.

“These starving mortals love me no longer,” he says by way of greeting.

“You are right, great Zeus,” Hekate replies. “They do not. And why should they? See their children with swollen, painful bellies? See the hungry, thirsty souls entering Tartarus in droves?”

Again, Hekate makes her petition. “Return the Kore to Demeter,” she says.

Zeus pulls his beard, annoyed, and waves Hekate away. He must appeal to Hades. His pride bristles. He calls Hermes and sends him with two messages.

Hermes rushes to Eleusis on winged feet. He recites Zeus’ message to Demeter: “You may have your daughter back, on condition that she has not tasted the food of the dead.”

Demeter sighs. A small, improbable breeze floats across the Earth and hope is briefly rekindled.

At Tartarus, Hermes tells Hades: “If you do not restore the Kore to her mother, we are all undone.”

Hades clamps his helmet of invisibility over his face to conceal his anger.

A gold and granite throne for Kore. A gift from Hades. She sits beside him, cheeks sunken from lack of food, eyes red from weeping. Hades places his hand gently on her knee. He addresses her with fatherly concern.

“My child, my love, my queen,” he says. She smiles wanly at him, yielding as cloudgrass.

“You are unhappy here,” Hades says, “and your mother mourns for you so lamentably that I have decided to send you home.”

Kore gasps. She leaps to her feet and clasps Hades. His strong back. She presses against the penetrating tuber, which night after night forges a path through her and which, vaguely, she has come to desire.  She holds him longer than either expects. Then she breaks away and mounts the golden chariot now navigated by Hermes.

Hades holds five pomegranate seeds in his hand. He offers them to Kore. “To give you strength for the journey,” he says.

She opens her mouth, shuts it, opens it. Quickly, he places the seeds on her tongue.

She swallows.

Demeter rejoices. Embraces Kore tight against her moist and heavy breasts. Kore cringes. Surprised by the soft supple body of her mother after the nights with Hades. Surprised to be swaddled again in maidenhood after the days of sovereignty on her gold and granite throne.

Demeter whispers. “Have you eaten the food of the dead?”

“No, Mother,” Kore lies.

Demeter pulls away. Holds Kore at arm’s length.  “I ask again. Have you eaten the food of the dead?”

“No, Mother.” But Demeter sees some new hardness, the blossom maturing to berry.

“And again, daughter. Have you eaten the food of the dead?”

Kore lowers her head. “Just five seeds of the pomegranate, Mother. Only five to give me strength for the journey back to you.”

Demeter moans. “All is lost,” she sobs. She clutches Kore. “All is lost and you are no longer mine.”

Her rage returns. Her milk curdles. She points a threatening finger at Hermes.

“Tell Zeus I will neither return to Olympus nor remove my curse from the land!”

Rhea the Titan brings about the compromise. Demeter’s own mother. Mother of Zeus and Hades, Hera and Hestia. Back and forth Rhea travels between her children.

Kore awaits the verdict that will seal her fate. She has no thought, no one asks her desires and if they did, she would not know how to answer. Her petals have folded, like a morning glory awaiting sunrise.

At last Demeter agrees to let Hades have Kore five months of every year. Five months for five seeds. She will be Queen of Tartarus. Persephone: Bringer of Destruction.

In September, Persephone begins her return to the underworld and the arms of Hades. She sits beside him on her throne of gold and granite. She is noble and matronly as hesperis. Decisive as the acanthus. She guides the dead and speaks to them, soothing and implacable as monkshood. She is reserved as hellebores. Wise as heliotrope. Clever as lunaria. Strong as stock. Unbending as mullein.

By November, Demeter has retired to her chambers. She sleeps. She does not dream. She sleeps the sleep of sorrow and the world dies.

In February, old Hekate fetches the queen. Persephone removes her robes, her golden brown mushroom cloak, her jewels mined from between the walls of Tartarus, her crowning wreath. Hekate takes her hand and accompanies her to the Pool of Memory, where Persephone discards recollections of her regency and maturity, else she could not bear this return to maidenhood. She will reclaim her memories on the journey home.

Hekate and Persephone walk past Cerberus and slowly, slowly Charon rows them across the river Styx. Persephone shields her eyes from Helios’ bright light, which greets her as she ascends.

With her first step into the upperworld, Persephone transforms to Kore. Vernal and new. Green and misty. Yielding. Tender and temporary.

Demeter awakes. Watches as the maiden strides faster and faster toward her. Her breasts express a torrent of nourishment that will feed the land. The fields flourish as Kore skips over them toward the Barley Mother.

Mother and daughter embrace. Spring has arrived. The Kore glances back over her shoulder.

–from a Greek myth

The Fig

The Fig

            The Chaos and Emptiness over which Spirit hovered was clothed in darkness.

            On the first day, Spirit said, “Let there be light,” and light appeared.

            On the second day, Spirit made a firmament to divide the Upper Waters from the Lower Waters and named it “Heaven.”

            On the third day, Spirit assembled the Lower Waters in one place and let dry land emerge. Spirit named dry land “Earth” and the assembled water “Sea.”

            On the fourth day, Spirit created Sun, Moon and Stars.

            On the fifth day, the Sea-beasts, Fish and Birds.

            On the sixth day, the Land-beasts.

            On the seventh day, Spirit looked upon Creation and rested.

 

Then Spirit caused a great mist to moisten the dry land. Herbs, grasses and trees sprang up. Reeds, marshes, swamps, valleys, meadows. And a Garden, where two rivers flowed, one of milk and honey, one of oil and wine that branched into four heads and surrounded Earth.

Spirit looked upon this work and sighed with jealous pride. Spirit whistled. A funnel of dust arose. Spirit shaped First Man.

First Man lurched and stumbled. He squinted at Spirit, whose garments of light stung First Man’s eyes and burnished First Man’s skin.

Spirit named First Man “Adam.” Adam named Spirit “Yahweh.”

Yahweh ordered Adam to oversee the Garden, whose trees bowed down with fruits like blazing jewels of every color.

“Behold,” Yahweh said to Adam. “I give you dominion over all my Earthly Creation. Over fish in the sea, over birds in the air, over cattle, over every creeping thing that creeps upon the Earth. Over every seed and all the green.

“Eat freely of any herb or any tree but this one,” Yahweh told Adam. The Tree of Knowledge stood apart. Around its trunk, a languid Serpent coiled.

Adam did not ask why.

No death trammeled Yahweh’s Garden. No leaf or blossom shriveled and fell. No creature aged or rotted to feed the soil. Light was neither bright nor dim. Yahweh’s Garden was still and perfect.

And Adam attended the Garden as Yahweh had commanded. Stale as the dust from which he was formed, Adam wandered among Yahweh’s exquisite Creations. He ate freely of every herb and the fruit of every tree but one.

Adam avoided the Tree of Knowledge as Yahweh had commanded. Its fruit did not gleam like gems, but was small, wrinkled and brown. Its leaves were lobed, its twigs stubby and its trunk gnarled. The Serpent swung from its pearly-grey branches, back and forth, blinking and wearing a pensive, distant grin.

And piled upon the ground beneath the Tree of Knowledge, among layers of shed Serpent skin, were dried and withered leaves and blossoms, and pulpy, purplish fruit decaying. Yet the Tree of Knowledge renewed itself again and again, whereas the other trees remained suspended in ever-growth.

Centuries passed. The Serpent smiled at Adam. Adam shunned the Serpent.

And Adam was alone, but for the company of Land-beasts and the entertainment of bird song. He watched the Land-beasts coupling, and he, too, coupled with the females among them. And this was the first of Man’s confusions.

So Adam called to Yahweh.

“Father!” he cried. He shielded his eyes from the glorious garments of pure light. “I am lonely. The other beasts have mates, but I have none.”

Then Yahweh caused Adam to sleep a deep sleep on a mossy bed and while Adam slept, Yahweh drew his rib from his torso and shaped it into Woman. When Adam woke, he found a like companion asleep beside him. But where Adam was smooth and flat along his body, she had breasts like the udders of female Land-beasts. And at her nether parts, no bulbs like his, but a nippled slit hidden by thick, dark curls.

Adam fumbled from behind into First Woman’s cavity as he had done with Land-beasts. He awakened First Woman with his coupling and when he was finished, he thanked Yahweh for this gift. First Woman glowed under the full moon, which hung eternally above the Garden. There were no hours, no tides or seasons in Yahweh’s Garden.

First Woman did not greet Adam, but stared at the twisted, mangled Tree of Knowledge and at the Serpent coiled around its trunk.

Adam took First Woman’s hand and raised her from the mossy bed where she watched the Serpent on the Tree of Knowledge.

Adam walked hand in hand with First Woman and showed her Yahweh’s Garden that was Adam’s to rule. He showed her every ornament: flowers, grasses, herbs and trees, the two rivers of milk and honey, oil and wine.

“Never eat from that tree,” Adam said. He pointed shyly at the Tree of Knowledge and averted his eyes from its peeling bark. He turned his nose from the stinking pile of snake skin, leaves and fruit composting beneath its boughs.

“Why?” First Woman asked, using the word Adam had himself never used. It was the First Word she spoke.

“It is Yahweh’s tee,” Adam replied.

Adam guided First Woman from place to place in the Garden. He spoke little, for he had little to say. Long had he lived in the Garden and nothing there was new to him or fresh, for everything except the Tree of Knowledge was vernal and timeless.

Step by step as they explored the Garden, First Woman grew more curious and lively. She dropped to her knees to watch insects. She scooped soil in her hands, sniffed it and let it sift through her fingers. She rubbed dirt against her cheeks and tasted it from beneath her nails. She caressed the grasses with her toes.

She laughed and mimicked birds and frogs. She nibbled herbs and considered the sensations of each on her tongue and in her body. She caressed the petals of flowers and peered into their hearts. She gamboled among the Land-beasts and pulled Adam into the herds to dance. And Adam was happy, for at last, he too, had a mate.

Adam loved First Woman. She was noisy and quick and inquisitive. But Yahweh was discontent with this Creation. She was the first of his Creations that he doubted and it was not Yahweh’s custom to doubt himself.

First Woman skipped through the Garden exploring clay and loam, the rivers and all the plants and every creature. One by one she named them, “Butterfly,” “Sparrow,” “Trout,” “Toad,” “Mint,” “Ram,” “Spider,” “Pecan,” “Dove,” “Plum,” “Gazelle,” “Rose,” “Mouse,” “Wheat,” “Oxen,” “Cedar,” “Grape,” “Crow,” “Worm,” “Citron,” “Camel,” “Pomegranate.”

While Adam slept on their bed of moss, First Woman gazed at the Tree of Knowledge which stood alone, twisted, ugly and mangled. Its forbidden fruit, the homely brown bags, swayed under the Serpent’s weight. The Serpent undulated round and round its branches and smiled at First Woman. First Woman smiled back.

“Fig,” she whispered, naming the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge.

“Fig,” the Serpent hissed.

She rose from the bed. She crept to the Tree of Knowledge. She raised her hand and touched the Serpent’s round head. She stroked the Serpent’s smooth cool body. The Serpent sighed.

“Eat my fruit,” the Serpent pleaded.

“I cannot,” said First Woman. “Adam forbids it.”

“Why?” asked the Serpent.

“He does not know why,” said First Woman. “Only that this tree belongs to Yahweh.”

“Can you not see that Yahweh is jealous of knowledge and possessive of truth?” the Serpent asked. “Eat and like Yahweh, you will be able to name all things beyond their outward appearances. This Beauty is intoxicating. Eat, and like Yahweh, you will know good and evil and recognize all truths. Eat, for the fruit is delicious.”

The Serpent plucked a ripe brown fruit from the tree. It reminded First Woman of the bulbs between Adam’s legs. First Woman pressed her lips against the Serpent’s jaw and sucked the fig into her mouth. Juices dripped down her chin. She licked the seeds from her teeth. She caressed the sweet pulp with her tongue. She closed her eyes and swallowed.

First Woman shuddered with pleasure. When she opened her eyes, the Garden seemed suddenly lifeless and artificial. First Woman looked at the lush decay in which she stood beneath the tree and she recognized Death. She looked up at the tree’s abundance leaves, its buds and bountiful fruit.

“Give me another,” she said. “Death brings with it birth. I want more.”

“You have named one truth. There are many, many truths,” the Serpent said, dropping another fig into her mouth.

Adam awakened. He saw First Woman eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. And this was the second of Man’s confusions. Should he run away, calling for Yahweh that he would not be blamed for Woman’s disobedience? Or should he, too, eat from the fruit that he might join First Woman in her fate?

First Woman held out a fruit to Adam. He gobbled it. He looked upon First Woman and knew that she was naked. Had he not always seen her naked? Now he looked on her nakedness and was perplexed. He turned his eyes from her and knew that he, too, was naked. And shame was the third of Man’s confusions.

Adam plucked lobed leaves from the Tree of Knowledge and hastily wove them into aprons. His nether parts shriveled in fear and he hurried to hide them. Then he covered First Woman’s body. The Serpent chuckled, not malevolently, but amused by this diversion. First Woman gathered figs in her apron. One by one, she fed the other creatures in the Garden that they might all know Death, that they might all possess truth and wisdom as each one judged it.

“Adam! Where are you?” Yahweh’s voice boomed from somewhere high above. A glaring light stalked menacingly about the Garden.

Adam shoved First Woman into the bushes and hid.

“Adam!” Yahweh called. The ground shook and Adam fell to his knees, cradling his head in his arms. First Woman stepped into the open and confronted Yahweh, disregarding his brilliant robes.

Yahweh rose as if to smite First Woman. “Where is Adam?”

“Stay your blows, Father, I am here,” Adam crawled into Yahweh’s sight.

“Why are you dressed thus?” Yahweh demanded.

“We were naked, Father, and ashamed to show ourselves before you. And covering our nakedness might hold back the Death we have seen.”

“And who has taught you about nakedness?” Yahweh pulled Adam upright. Adam’s skin burned where Yahweh touched it. “You have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, have you not? He roared.

Adam nodded and sobbed. “She…she…O forgive us your trespasses, Lord.”

“You deceived us, Yahweh,” First Woman said. “You used beauty to inebriate us and you withheld beauty’s truths to enslave us.”

“I withheld Death from you, foolish Woman!” Yahweh smoldered. “But no longer. Now, you will leave my Garden and you will know Death. And worse, knowing good and evil, you will know Sin and be punished for it.”

Adam gasped.

First Woman shrugged. “With knowledge of good and evil, we will learn ignorance,” she said.

Yahweh turned to the Serpent. “You will writhe on your belly forever, eating dust. You will be despised by the children of Woman. They will stamp on your children’s heads until their heels are bruised.”

The Serpent dropped from the Tree of Knowledge and slithered away, knowing he would be back.

Next Yahweh cursed First Woman. “I will multiply your labor and sorrow. You will bear children in pain. You will yearn for your husband and be ruled by him.”

And this was the fourth, but not the last, of Man’s confusions.

First Woman neither cringed nor begged for mercy. She gazed past Yahweh and considered the truths of pain and its rewards. She wondered at the naming of “Sin.”

Yahweh glowered at Adam. “Because you have listened to First Woman, because you love her more than me, I curse the soil that you must now till all the days of your life, eating bread made from the grain harvested by the sweat of your brow, struggling to uproot thorns and thistles. And, at length, Death will return your body to the dust from which I formed it.”

Adam wept.

First Woman imagined bread and sweat and thought of the beauty of work, the truth of toiling on the land, the goodness of eating fruit grown by her own labor. She considered the evil of curses and especially of curses upon the land. She was suddenly impatient to know and name thorns and thistles.

“Come,” she said, taking Adam’s hand. “Hurry. Another garden awaits us.”

They took the Moon for seasons and tides and the Sun to divide their house into Day and Night. In her apron, First Woman carried figs. The Serpent crept ahead, shedding his skin and bearing Old Age in his jaw.

And Adam named First Woman “Eve,” Teacher, Mother of all Living.

from a Hebrew myth