“Another form of divination was called coelbrini or ‘omen sticks’ in which the Druids used sticks, in some cases wands of hazel inscribed with Ogham, which were cast upon the ground, their fall then being interpreted.” – Peter Berresford Ellis (The Druids)
The ninth letter of the Ogham, in its tree form, is the Hazel.
Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks says that the Hazel is associated with wisdom. This is generally a universal interpretation for the tree as discussed previously.
Caitlin Mathews also assigns Hazel some divinatory interpretations within the system found in her book. The Hazel, it would seem, is also related to peace.
Robert Ellison speaks of the Hazel’s many magical uses within Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids. The Hazel, he informs us, can be used for shapeshifting, protection, or to have wishes granted. Ellison also relates Hazel to wisdom. He adds intuition as well.
In the Celtic Shaman we are told by John Mathews that the word Ogham – kennings – say that Hazel is “the fairest of trees.” He equates this poetic phrase with beauty.
The Hazel, or Coll, is often associated with wisdom. This interpretation refers to the nuts of the magical Hazel tree, as well as to their direct, or indirect, ingestion resulting in wisdom.
In the previous post regarding Hazel we discussed this topic in detail. This time, we will focus instead on the wood of the Hazel tree itself instead of on the nuts.
While the nuts of the Hazel that are found in legend have properties of wisdom, the wood of the tree itself is associated with peace. Some might claim that this wood has shapeshifting properties as well.
The white Hazel staff, or wand, is a symbol of peace.
Found within the Tain are references to the herald of a king bearing a staff of white Hazel[i]. This herald is seen as a non-combatant simply because he carries the Hazel.
In the Celtic Tradition by Caitlin Mathews we are also told that the Hazel signifies peace:
“Samhain was a feast of peace and friendship, during which no weapon was lifted. Midir advises Oengus to approach Elcmar on this day, since Elcmar will be carrying only a staff of white hazel, signifying peaceful intention.”
Within Joseph Dunn’s translation of the Tain we find that Cuchulain was forced to fight and kill three enemies at the same time. This was normal enough for him, but he was also forced to fight their three charioteers! Charioteers were usually seen as non-combatants, like heralds, in war. These charioteers not only attacked Cuchulain, however, – making it six on one – but their weapons of choice were staffs of Hazel.
The story found in the Tain seems to indicate that not only did Cuchulain continue to fight against impossible odds, but that his enemies refused to honour the Celtic customs of combat and etiquette practiced at the time.
Furthermore, this symbol of peace may have had a more significant meaning than we realize during the testing of the Fianna. These Fianna were the High King of Ireland’s elite soldiers and they were under the command of Finn. The selection process for the Fianna was arduous. One of the tests that prospective Fianna had to pass involved the wood of the Hazel both directly and, possibly, indirectly.
During one of the tests the Fianna prospect was buried in a pit up to his waste. He was then given a Hazel “stick” and a shield. 9 spears were then cast at the young recruit. None of them could hit him or mark him in any way.
If we see the Hazel as a symbol of peace then the message seems clear. Despite being a warrior, one should also be able to wield the weapons of peace.
There is another link to the Hazel found within the tale as well. This connection is much more indirect and its meaning can only be contemplated.
It was Balor, the one-eyed, whose head was cut off and hung from a Hazel tree by Lugh. The head dripped poison into the ground and the roots of the tree soaked the liquid up. After some time, the god Manannan saw the tree and had it taken down so that he could have a shield made from it.
Taking the tree down turned out to be costly. The poison was so great that many of Manannan’s men were killed (two sets on nine[ii]) while many more (nine as well) were struck blind[iii]. A shield for the god was crafted from the wood. Manannan’s magical shield would eventually become the inheritance of Finn.
If we consider that the Fianna undergoing these tests were emulating Finn himself, then the significance of the shield may also bear reflection. The shield used during the trials could have also been made from, or have represented, the Hazel as well.
What this would mean, though, may not be so clear. Instead of promoting peace or wisdom this item seemed to give only death.
As Robert Ellison noted the Hazel can also be associated with shape changing. This statement seems to initially be a comparison between the shape-shifting Taliesin and his Irish counterpart Finn. While Finn ate the salmon that had ingested the nuts, Taliesin only ingested a few drops of the content from a cauldron. The similarities between the two stories are apparent. The story of Taliesin never directly mentions the Hazel nut, though. Finn does not seem to have the same power to shape shift on command. The stories may have a slight apple to oranges feel to them when they are compared directly.
There is another story that may solidify the shape shifting argument, however. This is also a story involving Finn. It can be found in Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by T.W. Rolleston, Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory, and in other places as well. This is the story involving the Dark Druid.
While the story is actually somewhat lengthy, the facts regarding the Hazel may easily be summed up. The “Dark Druid” is obsessed with Finn’s wife Sadbh. To steal her the druid – who sometimes seems to have possessed her in the first place – strikes Sadbh with his wand. Not only does she turn into a deer, but she’s forced to follow him as the holder of the wand. Sadbh becomes lost to Finn forever.
While the Hazel nut may give its consumer the power to shift forms, the wielder of the Hazel wand seems to be able to shift the forms of others. While the information seems scarce regarding this matter, the prospect is not entirely unlikely. Hazel seems to be linked to shape shifting.
The Hazel is also given a very high place in Irish mythology. It seems to be one of the three great treasures of the Irish landscape in at least one tale.
When Amergin meets the three women of the Tuatha De Danaan he is given their names and the names of their husbands[iv]. One of the husbands is named ‘Son of the Plough,’ another of the husbands is named ‘Son of the Sun,’ and the final husband is named ‘Son of the Hazel[v].’
Thus the women were married to the sons of abundance. In the harsh and often tumultuous lives of the Celts the symbolism would have been apparent.
Ireland was a land of fertility and of peace.
Jacqueline Memory Paterson shares an interesting spell that uses Hazel in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook. Paterson states the following to be a seventeenth century spell used to see “faeries.”
One must first gather some wild thyme from the side of a hill where “fairies still live.” Mix a half litre (pint) of salad oil with rose and marigold water (these flowers should be picked from the east). Shake the mixture until it is white. Put the liquid into a glass container.
Now add the wild thyme, buds of hollyhocks, marigold flowers, and the buds of young hazels. Finally, add the grass of a fairy throne (tussock). Allow all of the ingredients to dissolve for three days in the sun.
The concoction can be stored and used when it is needed. Paterson says that this can either be used by, “anointing the body and/or ingesting.”
“The nuts would fall into the water, causing bubbles of mystic inspiration to form, or were eaten by salmon. The number of spots on a salmon’s back were thought to indicate the number of nuts it had consumed.” – James MacKillop (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)
[i] Joseph Dunn, Lady Gregory, etc.
[ii] Coll is also associated with the number nine. This would have been an important number to the triad obsessed Celts. The number nine is composed of three threes.
[iii] Lady Gregory. Gods and Fighting Men.
[v] Not necessarily in this order.
* image at top of post is from superstock.com