Dirty Magic: Seiðr, Science, and the Parturating Man in Medieval Norse and Welsh Literature

Dirty Magic: Seiðr, Science, and the Parturating Man in Medieval Norse and Welsh Literature

Higley, Sarah Lynn

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 11 (1994)


Who can describe the nightmarishness and richness of “The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion”? Brutal situations are reported with a blithe impartiality in this early fifteenth-century Welsh text, showing a preoccupation with supernatural and transgressive aspects of birth, gender, nature and nurture and the magic that subverts them. I summarize it briefly: Math Son of Mathonwy, ruler and sorcerer, can hear everything that is spoken in his kingdom. However, he cannot live when he is not engaged in warfare unless his feet lie in the lap of a virgin, Goewin, as though he is forever still emerging from the womb. When his cousin Gilfaethwy lusts after her, Gilfaethwy’s brother Gwydion, also a sorcerer, devises a plan to get her out from under Math’s feet. Gwydion causes war to break out between Math and his neighbor and kinsman, Pryderi; Math rushes off to battle and out of earshot, and Gilfaethwy rapes Goewin. Math changes him into a hind and makes him mate with Gwydion (turned into a stag). For three years the two brothers endure this ordeal, and switching gender with each new transformation they bear between them a fawn, a pig and a wolfcub which they must bring to the fortress gates. These Math turns back into boys and baptizes. Math needs a new virgin, so Gwydion, a man again and reconciled with his cousin, offers his sister Aranrhod. Math tests her virginity with his magic wand when she steps over it on the floor, and she drops a full-grown boy, Dylan Eil Ton, but also “a certain little thing” (ryw bethan) which Gwydion wraps in a silk cloth and deposits in his clothes chest at the end of his bed. Nine months later a baby boy emerges. Outraged at this fleshly evidence of her unchastity, Aranrhod imposes tynghedau (“destinies”) on the child she rejects: he will never get a name unless he get it from her, he will never get equipment unless he get it from her, and he will never marry a woman of the human race. Gwydion must comply. Through trickery and shapeshifting, he thwarts the first two curses: Lleu Llaw Gyffes gets a name and martial equipment from his mother.

Through magic, Gwydion turns the flowers of the oak and the broom into a wife for him. Gwydion imposes his own tynghed on Lleu, making him impervious to any mortal blow so long as he avoids standing with one foot on a washtub and the other on a billygoat at the edge of a river under an awning at dusk. In a naive moment, Lleu not only confides this weakness to his “false” wife, but demonstates the position, enabling her and her lover to kill him. He escapes, nonetheless, in the form of an eagle. Perched on a branch and shaking out the maggot-ridden flesh from his feathers for the hungry sow beneath, he is finally spotted by Gwydion who restores him to human form and turns the flower woman into an owl. And that, says the Fourth Branch, is how the owl came to be called “Flower Face” (Blodeuwedd).

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