(Black Rock, County Kerry, Ireland. Photograph by K. Glavin)
“In the midst of the Irish Sea, almost equidistant from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and concentrating in itself the psychical and magnetic influences from these three Celtic lands, and from Celto-Saxon England too, lies the beautiful kingdom of the great Tuatha De Danann god, Manannan Mac Lir, or, as his loyal Manx subjects prefer to call him, Mannanan-Beg-Mac-y-Leir. In no other land of the Celt does Nature show so many moods and contrasts, such perfect repose at one time and at another time the mightiness of its unloosed powers, when the baffled sea throws itself angrily against a high rock bound coast, as wild and almost as weatherworn as the western coasts of Ireland and the Hebrides.” – W.Y. Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911)
The twenty fifth, and final, letter of the Ogham is usually referred to as Mor, the sea.
There is much debate regarding this letter, however. The Ogham tract associates the final letter to the witch hazel[i] and lists the letter as Emancholl which apparently means “the twin” or “twin of Hazel.”[ii] This has usually been interpreted as the witch hazel or Beech; the Beech being the second choice because of the many similarities that are shared between the two trees.
Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets reminds us that the Witch Hazel was not indigenous to Europe and was likely not the original tree ascribed. He believes the letter should be attributed to the Scots Pine.
It was Robert Graves in the Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects that originally put forward the idea that this few represented the shirt of Manannan, which was found in the mythical crane-bag. Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle would later interpreted the meaning of this few as Mor, the Sea, as a result.
Most users of the Ogham – especially those who view the Ogham as a Tree Alphabet – do see this final letter as representing Mor, the Sea. Despite being a Tree Alphabet to most users of the Ogham, however, this is the one letter that deviates from the woodland theme. It is almost always listed as representing the Sea.
Reconstructionists, on the other hand, tend to list this letter as Emancholl. These individuals do not view the Ogham as being a tree alphabet yet interpret the meaning of the few as being the twin of Hazel. As I have already mentioned, this would be the witch hazel or the Beech.
The Witch Hazel does not appear very often in the old tales. This is likely, as Pennick had already stated, due to the plant’s late arrival into this land of the Celts.
In Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde, there is a story of a healer using three witch-hazel rods in a from of divination. He does this to reveal a sick person’s ailments. In Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie the plant is used as protection against the fairies, alongside Rowan, and in conjunction with a Blackthorn staff and a bible.
The Beech is just as uncommon in these stories if not more so. Robert Graves in the White Goddess links the Beech tree to language, learning, literature and books. This is easy to verify due to the double meaning of Beech and Book in many languages including Old English and Old Norse[iii]. The tree is absent from the folktales, however, because the Beech is not native to Ireland and was only found in South England. Beech is not likely to have been the original tree associated with this letter either.
This leaves us looking backwards, towards that elusive “twin of Hazel” once more, looking for any clues. Perhaps we need to re-examine Coll, the Hazel, once more.
The most famous story of the Hazel in Irish Mythology is as an Otherworldly tree, or trees rather. These live on the other side of the veil. These trees provide the nuts of wisdom eaten by the salmon who in turn is eaten by Finn Mac Cool. The trees exist beneath the Sea and are said to be purple.
It is perhaps this reasoning, alongside Graves’ interpretation of Manannan’s shirt, which prompted Liz and Colin Murray to list this few as being Mor.
In the Celtic Tree Oracle Liz and Colin Murray link this few to the physical ocean itself, with travel, and to maternal links. They also claim that the letter represents “hidden knowledge that is only available when the moon and sea are full.”
John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook says that this few represents “beginnings, endings, and the influence of outside forces, symbolized by the sea; the arrival of a new factor, the workings of destiny.”
Nigel Pennick adds that this letter “goes beyond the conventional 24-fold divisions of things customary in the Northern Tradition (as, for example, the 24 hours in the day, the 24 half-months of the year, the 24 characters of the Welsh bardic alphabet, and the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark). Because of this, it [the 25th letter] is considered to be outside the conventions of the other 24 characters.”
Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam:Weaving Word Wisdom says that this few is an “intensification of the other fiodh” She also believes, however, that the few can represent illness. She takes this second meaning from the word-Oghams found in the Ogham Tract[iv].
John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the word-Ogham “sign of a weary one” as representing “exhaustion.” Caitlin Mathews does not mention this letter in her book Celtic Wisdom Sticks.”
Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids says that this few represents magic and hidden knowledge.” Ellison uses the Witch Hazel to represent this letter and says that the plant can be used in binding spells.
Mor, the sea, represents that which is other. It can represent the Sea itself or the Otherworld. The Sea and Manannan are one and the same. The Sea does not represent the god. The Sea is the god.
“As for the other miscellaneous objects found in the Crane Bag: if one thinks poetically, not scientifically, their meaning leaps to the eye.” – Robert Graves (the Crane Bag and other Disputed Subjects)
As previously stated the forfeda, or the items found in the crane-bag by poets, are listed as ‘the King of Scotland’s Shears’(the X), ‘the king of Lochlainn’s helmet’ (with his face underneath, the four sided diamond), ‘the bones of Assail’s swine’ (the double lined X out to the side of the line), ‘Goibne’s smith-hook’ (the P or hook symbol), and Manannan’s own shirt’, which “is a map of the sea showing lines of longitude and latitude.”
The shirt of Manannan is the final item found in the crane-bag. The stories involving Manannan Mac Lir in Irish, Manx and Scottish mythology are many. He is usually associated with the Tuatha De Danaan, but is in fact from the older race of gods the Fomorians. Here are some excerpts from James MacKillop’s Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. I have placed them together as a single entry even though this is an extremely condensed version of the complete entry:
“Manannan Mac Lir: Principal sea-deity and also otherworldly ruler of Irish and Goidelic traditions. He is sometimes, but not usually, numbered as a lord of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Through many texts over several centuries, some aspects of Manannán’s person remain constant. Although a shape-shifter, he is usually portrayed as a handsome and noble warrior, evocative of the classical gods Poseidon and Neptune, with whom he is often compared. He possesses a magical currach (‘the wave-sweeper’), but most often he travels over the waves with a horse, Énbarr or Aonbárr, usually in a chariot but sometimes on horseback. Nor can the armour of any enemy withstand his enchanted sword Frecraid [the answerer]. Among his supernatural powers is the ability to cast spells, féth fiada, which he teaches to the druids, and the ability to envelop himself in a mist that makes him invisible to his enemies, a facility shared by the Olympians in the Iliad. He often wears a great cloak that catches the light and can assume many colours, like the sea itself; with one sweep of it, Manannán can change destinies. An even more important possession is the crane bag that holds all his possessions, including language. He also owns birds, hounds, and magical pigs that can be eaten on one day but will be alive the next so that they can be slaughtered and eaten again. Among his wives are Fand [tears], herself a deity of water, and Aife, transformed into a crane by luchra, and from whose skin the crane bag was made. Although Manannán is not the central figure in any single narrative, his appearances dominate the action of many stories. No story tells of Manannán’s death, but allusions are made to his decline when he refuses to accept the succession of Bodb Derg. He is thought to have again assisted the Tuatha Dé Danann after their defeat by the Milesians when they dwindled into the small creatures who live under the earth. Prayers directed to him were thought to bring fishermen a bountiful catch.”
What seems most interesting to me is the succession of the items, or order, found in the crane-bag and the importance of the owners themselves. If we look at the King of Scotland, the King of Lochlain, Goibne, Asail and Manannan we see a procession of increasing power. The King of Scotland is, perhaps, the most mundane of the five males, while Manannan is the most Otherworldly and powerful. The items could also possibly be listed from semi ordinary (shears) to extremely powerful (the shirt of Manannan himself).
If we look at the symbols listed for each letter and their meanings we are perhaps given yet another clue. We begin with the Salmon, then we step into the Gold, then we use the Elbow, this is followed by the the food, Honey, and completed with the twin of hazel.
If the Salmon is the Grove, the Gold is the Fire, the Elbow is the work done transforming substances at the Forge and the Honey is the food of the gods, then we can only assume that the Twin of Hazel represents the ability to be in the Otherworld (by wearing Manannan’s shirt), as a result of having stepped through the previous symbols or states of being. Speaking more plainly, this procession of metaphors could perhaps be seen as a symbolic series of steps which were utilized in order to enter into the Otherworld. This could’ve even been, as unlikely as it may seem, a type of poet grading system – like the modern and generally accepted Bard, Ovate and Druid.
One must go into the Grove seeking wisdom like the Salmon. This is the step of intention and the tool seems to be the shears. Secondly, one must create a sacred space and build a there a fire. From here divination may also be engaged, as one’s sight is altered upon wearing the helmet. Next, one must do transforming work like that of Goibne the smith. Goibne works with the fire and alters the metals into powerful items with the aid of the hook. This is the state of magic making. Then, there is the eating of the honey, or sweet food, of the gods (like the regenerating pigs that are ready to be eaten at full tide). Once the food has been fully prepared, it is eaten and the transformation into a new being – or more powerful version of oneself – begins. Finally, one path taker can open their eyes to find that they are wearing the shirt of Manannan Mac Lir. They are then beneath the ocean in the Underworld, before the purple Twins of Hazel which had offered the wisdom to the Salmon that began the journey in the first place. It is at this place where we have finally realized our full journey and have stepped into the world of the others.
While my symbolic journey through the Forfeda is likely nothing more than my own musings or imagination, it brings me some sort of satisfaction to find that a thread does exists within these extra letters. I can then look back across the last half-year and see a continuous pathway through the forest that started at the very beginning, where Birch’s were swaying and whispering at the edge of the forest, beside the throne room of Manannan.
Eating the nuts of wisdom, I then discover that the journey never ends, it only begins anew and fresh.
There before me is the Birch once more.
Samhain is a time to honour those who have passed before us, and those other ancestors long dead who we have never known on any conscious level. It’s a time to give thanks for all those things that we have, and a time to be thankful for all of those things that we are about to receive during the coming year. It is also a time to thank the spirits that have aided us over the past year and to make petitions against tricksters who may wish to bring chaos into our lives during the days ahead. In short, it is a time where the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, and a place where messages of any kind may be more easily heard from either side of this Celtic twilight.
Most of the sources that I referenced in this blog are writers that are no longer amongst the living. Colin Murray (no image attached) passed away in the eighties as did Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell. W.Y Evans Wentz who wrote the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries passed on in 1965, as did Sir James Frazer in 1941. Lady Gregory, author of Gods and Fighting Men, died in 1932. Alexander Carmichael (no image attached) who brought us the Carmina Gadelica passed away in 1912. Lady Wilde, mother of Oscar Wilde and author of Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, died in relative poverty in 1896. Lady Charlotte Guest who is famous for her translation of the Mabinogion passed away in 1895.
I would like to take this time to honour some of these men and women who have preserved our past and allowed me to research the Ogham and the forest lore of the Celts. All of the images below are taken from Wikipedia except for the drawing of Lady Wilde which was taken from sacredtexts.com.
(Sir James Frazer)
(Lady Charlotte Guest)
“There was always an element of fear and trepidation about this night – the eve before Samhain- and also one of expectancy. When the dead were abroad, certain kinds of divination could be practiced, which asked questions of the ancestors.” – Caitlin Mathews(The Celtic Spirit)