ST/Z/SS – Straith: Blackthorn

The Moon-month for Straith runs from 15 Apr – 12 May (shares with Saille)

Blackthorn is the tree of retribution.

Blodeuwedd, Queen of the Night and Lady of Dreams.

Blodeuwedd’s tale is very deep. She is by no means the dippy faithless-wife character usually portrayed but a shapeshifting goddess and one of the many faces of Sovereignty, the goddess who is the Earth. Sovereignty is how the Celts think of the Lady, the spirit, the planetary energy, that which lives and moves and holds our being. This concept is similar to how the Dineh people of New Mexico, the Navajo, speak of it; they say Dammas, that which moves.

Blodeuwedd by Glyn Morgan

Blodeuwedd constellates a part of this for the Celtic tradition. Her story is of the shapeshifter. She is asked by Gwydion, the Master Enchanter of Britain, to inspirit and help his wastrel son, Llew Llaw Gyffes, to become a worthy Guardian and king for the Land of Gwynedd. She agrees but asks him to make a form to embody her for her work in Middleworld. Gwydion does this by taking nine flowers and making a body to house her spirit … The Hanes Blodeuwedd gives it as follows (from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess)

Not of father, nor of mother Was my blood, my body. I was spellbound by Gwydion, Prime enchanter of the Britons, When he formed me from nine blossoms, Nine buds of various kinds: From primrose of the mountain, Broom, meadow-sweet and cockle, Together intertwined, From bean in its shade-bearing A white spectral army Of earth, and earthly kind, From blossoms of the nettle, Oak, thorn and bashful chestnut – Nine powers of nine flowers, Nine powers in me combined, Nine buds of plant and tree. Long and white are my fingers As the ninth wave of the sea.

The flowers Gwydion uses are … Primrose, broom, meadow-sweet, cockle, bean, nettle, oak, thorn chestnut. He makes a body for the goddess to in-form so that she can work effectively in Middleworld and initiate Llew into the mysteries of kingship.

Indian Eagle Owl

The tale is deep and poignant. Often Llew appears “cute” and clever – his name means Lion of the Clever Hand – as Gwydion tricks his way through life. But when it comes to marrying the goddess, being king, all he cares about is pleasure and hunting. That is no use to the goddess at all! So she tests and tries him. he has a special geas (fate) that he can only be killed in a certain manner, Blodeuwedd teases him into telling her what it is. She then gets together with Llew’s Tánaiste – his alter ego who takes on some of the work of being king – to ensure he goes through the initiation of death. he does, and shapeshifts into his totem bird, the eagle, flies off to an ancient oak tree at the base of the mother-mountain of Wales, Snowdon, which bears his totem’s name of Eyre, Eagle. Gwydion hunts for him and is helped to find him by his “aunt” Ceridwen in her totem animal of a great sow who is eating the dead flesh that falls from Llew as he sits in the oak tree. Gwydion calls him down and calls him back from his totem into his man-shape again. They go home and Llew is now able to take up the kingship. Blodeuwedd, her job done, returns to her totem form as Queen of the Night, the owl, and the story ends. Ive used the picture of an Eagle Owl as this combines the totems of both Llew and Blodeuwedd.

Owl Woman by Elen Sentier

Again, the Victorian storytellers make Blodeuwedd into a flighty, brainless, faithless female, seemingly unable to comprehend the underlying story-lore. However, this is gradually changing again now and Celtic shamans are showing her and all the faces of the goddess as they are rather than as is more comfortable for most men to see them … subjective. It is important not to fall into the trap of reducing the faces of the goddess to something that fits into you comfort-zone-box :-). One of her major purposes for us – as it was for Llew – is to test and try us to our limits, to get us out of our boxes so that we can awaken and grow.

In France the Blackthorn is called “La mere du bois”, the Mother of the Wood. I feel this has a lot of connection to Blodeuwedd in her Queen of the Night and owl-totem aspect. She is Lady of the Wildwood. This pic is the cover of my novel Owl Woman – not the blodeuwedd story but the image gives another idea of her.

Blackthorn is another witch tree, the “black rod” that enhances cursings. Its thorn causes deep and poisonous wounds. This runs with the usual concept of retribution.

  • Retribution – reprisal, reckoning, justice, comeback, settling of scores

Sit-with these words, see what comes to you, note the images you get and take them into your journey.

Witches are often accused (and sometimes rightly) of cursing people for vengeance. After pondering the words above how does this appear to you now? Are there times when such action could be appropriate? Do scores need to be settled? What happens if they’re not … do they stretch on and on into forever, tangling everyone in their sticky web? In current times everyone gets very “love-n-light” which can, and often is, a way of ducking conflict and not dealing with issues nor standing up for principles. Not a good thing!

Its ogham name, Straith, engendered the word strife. Straith helps us to learn about this part of life, how to do it successfully – which may sometimes be rough – and not to run and hide wanting a peaceful life. Strife is important. People are nowadays often content (especially in the west) with competition being a “good thing” but if you call it strife then it suddenly changes character. We are told “healthy competition” is good but strife is bad.

  • Strife – conflict, contention, fighting, rivalry
    Competition – rivalry, struggle, antagonism, opposition, contest, fight

Hmm! A quick jaunt through the thesaurus for both words shows an awful lot of similarity between the two, despite that one is currently PC and the other not :-).

Remembering what I said about how creatures choose their mates and guardians – in Uath, hawthorn – is worth thinking about here. The goddess tests her guardian, and us. She is certainly not all “love-n-light”! She uses the thorn trees, white and black, to test us through desire and through strife … which also a form of desire.

But she also requires “exchange”. The concept of retribution is about exchange. Exchange is about trade, barter, bargain. The word “retribution”  come from the idea of re-tribute; tribute is about honour, acknowledgement and respect; it’s also about payment, fees, tax and duty. When you put “re” in front of a word it signifies further iteration of the act/thing, do something over – e.g. re-issue, repeat, re-do. So re-tribute is about giving back the tribute that has gone astray.

This is possibly a different concept to what you may be used to, but it’s very much what the Celtic tradition is about.

Blackthorn hedge

The tradition is about “exchange”, we give, we take, both. Taking is also about enabling and allowing others to give to you, to tribute you. Giving is about returning that gift of tribute to those who have given to you. This exchange, for the Celtic shaman, can be between human and human, human and creature, human and plant, human and the planet, and it can be across worlds between the everyday world we live in and Otherworld. Wherever we make exchange is a place for retribution, for re-tributing.

As a tree, blackthorn usually blooms when cold, harsh north-east winds blow and such weather is called a “blackthorn winter”. It’s fruits are the sloe-plum, used to make excellent sloe-gin, a deep rose-pink liqueur with a wonderful sweet taste.

Blackthorn Sloes

In craft, blackthorn is used to “right wrongs”, another form of re-tribution. In this form Arawn, lord of Annwfn, the Underworld, has strong connections with Straith, blackthorn. One of Arawn’s jobs/titles is “writer of wrongs”. The witch can use this connection if s/he wishes and many do. Arawn is a face of the “Lord”, the witch uses the powers carried by the Lord to effect right-ings. The Lord’s energies, the masculine, is about centrifugal energy, outgoing energy that interacts with the world around it. This energy is a form of networking; networking across worlds. The Lady’s energies, the feminine, are centripetal and about containment, nurturing.

Blackthorn tests us, as does the Whitethorn, May or Hawthorn, but differently. Blackthorn comes first in its flowering. The darkness of the teacher, pain, before the delights of the other teacher, pleasure. We need both.

Elen Sentier
… behind every gifted woman there’s usually a rather talented cat …
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Celtic shaman – Elen Sentier Fferyllt – British Druid-Alchemy

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