“Like all evergreens, the ivy is immortality and eternal life; it is also revelry; clinging dependence; attachment; constant affection; friendship.” – J.C. Cooper (An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. 1979)
The twelfth letter of the Ogham, in its tree form, is Gort the Ivy-plant. Though clearly not a tree, the Ivy has come to represent this letter of the Ogham alphabet. Ivy is listed as one of the “tree” choices within the Ogham Tract[i]. According to this text, Gort can just as likely be represented by grass, green pastures, corn, or corn fields.
Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids reminds us that Gort does literally mean “field.” In fact, the letter has been interpreted as representing grazing fields. For this reason, there are many different interpretations as to the exact meaning of Gort as it pertains to the tree-Ogham. Ellison says that this letter represents to him “the search for yourself and inner wisdom.”
John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman states that the word-Ogham phrase “sweetest of grasses” can be interpreted, or solved, as meaning “satisfaction.”
In Celtic Wisdom Sticks, Caitlin Mathews elaborates on the meanings that are associated with Ivy, as well as to those associated with the letter Gort. She begins by reminding us that grazing fields would have been incredibly important. In almost all of the Celtic literature, a person of wealth is measured by the size of his or her herd, or ability to produce milk or grains. The cattle that were seen to be a part of this wealth would have needed fields in which to graze. The association between Gort and wealth then becomes apparent.
There are some other important characteristics that Caitlin Mathews reminds us of in Celtic Wisdom Sticks. She tells us that the Ivy’s berries are poisonous, for example. She also says that Ivy is a symbol of the feminine, while Holly is contrarily the symbol of the masculine.
In Caitlin Mathews’ system of divination, the letter Gort does have a common association with wealth. In this way, she shares a similar view with the other Ogham writers already mentioned above.
Ivy can have various interpretations, though. Ivy, or Gort, can mean separate things to different students of the Ogham. This is due to the fact that we are actually dealing with two separate concepts; or so it would seem.
For the time being, for clarity’s sake, we will view the letter Gort and the Ivy plant as two distinctive and separate things. In order to examine the Ivy plant more closely, we need to remove the established associations for Gort, as far as “field or corn” for example, from this equation. Once we understand the Ivy plant more clearly, then we can look at Gort with clearer eyes.
The reason that there is so much confusion is that some of the users of Ogham are interpreting the meaning of “field” or “pasture” when they are speaking of Ivy. Others, contrastingly, seem to be talking about the Ivy plant itself, ignoring the references to fields and pastures. As a result, interpretations usually become somewhat hybrid-like and are a combination of the two fields of view.
Instead of drawing a line down the middle and trying to explain why various interpretations do exist, and where they came from in certain cases, I will instead focus exclusively on what the Ivy plant represents within Celtic literature. If it seems to the fellow Ogham enthusiast that I am leaving out much of what this Ogham letter has come to represent, then this is the reason. I believe that by understanding Ivy (which is clearly what Ogham users now equate Gort to) in its cultural context, that we will then be able to view this letter with a little more clarity.
If this need for distinction isn’t confusing enough, the Ivy plant that does appear within Celtic literature seems to possess two different faces as well. On the one hand, it is often associated with poverty, decay, and ruin. The Ivy, somewhat contradictive, can also be found within folklore to be a powerful magical herb.
Ivy representing decay and poverty does make sense. The vine is quick to claim abandoned ruins and gardens, it is abundant and often invasive, has been known to kill trees that it grows upon, and seems emblematic in stories of hauntings.
The following is taken from Wirt Sikes’ 1881 classic British Goblins[ii] for example:
“There is a Glamorganshire goblin called the Green Lady of Caerphilly, the colour of whose dress is indicated by her title. She haunts the ruin of Caerphilly Castle at night, wearing a green robe, and has the power of turning herself into ivy and mingling with the ivy growing on the wall.”
I have already discussed, previously[iii], how Ivy is often found in ruins covering doorways to the fairy kingdom. In this previous post, I questioned whether or not the appearance of Ivy in certain places might indicate a type of magical power instead of just being descriptive filler within the story? Perhaps, I wondered, the Ivy plant was a bridge to the Otherworld, similar to the Hawthorne tree? Regardless of what the answer to this question might be, it is undeniable that Ivy is mentioned as being found in abandoned sites in several stories.
Ivy’s connection to poverty and ruin is not always in relation to actual ruins, however. Sometimes Ivy is directly related to the loss of money. In the 1914 text Irish Witchcraft and Demonology, John Seymour tells us of one man’s encounter with a fairy that left him in a state of poverty. This man, of humble means, sold his horse – at a tough bargain one might add – to a stranger upon the side of the road. Upon returning home, he discovered that this “gold” had turned into Ivy leaves! At that moment he then knew that it had been a fairy that had tricked him and not a man at all.
This is not a particularly unique tale either. In the1911 text Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, W.Y. Evans-Wentz relates a similar type of occurrence:
“The peasantry in the Lough Gur region commonly speak of the Good People, or of the Kind People, or of the Little People, their names for the fairies. The leprechaun indicates the place where hidden treasure is to be found. If the person to whom he reveals such a secret makes it known to a second person, the first person dies, or else no money is found : in some cases the money is changed into ivy leaves or into furze blossoms.”
It would seem then that Ivy can represent the actual loss of wealth. Why wouldn’t the money have simply disappeared, though? Why did it have to be replaced with Ivy (or Furz)?
In the case of the horse, it would seem that the fairy initially gave something to the man that did physically exist. He gave him Ivy, instead of the money, to deceive him. There was clearly an illusion upon the Ivy leaves. In this first example, the Ivy had been an unwitting, or witting, ally in a deception designed to separate the man from his horse.
In the second example, the money seems to have actually transformed into the leaves and lost its value only because a condition was not met. By the nature of the second story, the Ivy should have always remained as wealth as long as the secret was never shared. In this case, the handsome prince – the wealth- is turned into a frog; or Ivy.
In either case the message is clear. Gold or money has wealth. Ivy is practically worthless. After all, its leaves were, and still are, incredibly commonplace.
(Cadw. Caerphilly Castle[iv])
Ivy does not always represent poverty or ruin, though. As a plant of power, Ivy can not easily be dismissed within the folklore. The previously mentioned stories may be merely relaying how worthless the currency had become, and not have anything do with Ivy’s magical powers at all. That does not mean that in the right hands these leaves would not perhaps possess great power. Perhaps, like many of the other great Celtic stories, there are multiple meanings at play? The horse owner loses both his horse and his gold, for example, and yet unwittingly holds in his hand great power or a symbol that does not now seem very clear to us.
Regardless of these possible hidden meanings, Ivy does have associations to poverty and ruin. This is only half of the story of Ivy however. As already mentioned, Ivy can be a powerful force as well.
Ivy is also found in the stories to be one of the fairy herbs of “great value and power.” As one of these power herbs, Ivy is listed alongside vervain, eyebright, groundsel, foxglove, the bark of the elder tree and the young shoots of the hawthorn[v].
In the previous Gort post, I shared the story of the Fairy Dance found in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, by Lady Wilde which originally published in 1887. In this story, a girl is protected from harm by some Ivy that was received from a friendly fairy. Although it is unclear as to what would have happened to her without this protection, it does become obvious that the other fairies in the story wish her harm. The Ivy protects her and the girl escapes.
Ivy’s protective properties are spoken of in various other texts as well. In the Carmina Gadelica vol. II, for example, we are informed that Ivy was sacred to the Celts and had various uses. It was “protective” of milk, dairy products, herds, flocks, and was used by lovers as “an emblem of fidelity.” Ivy was also used in conjunction with Rowan and bramble for protection against witches and evil spirits[vi].
In Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland published in 1825, Thomas Crofton Croker describes a separate ceremony that seems to further shed some light onto the mysterious powers of the Ivy plant:
“On the east coast of Scotland, the people resort to a peculiar method to avert the danger. During the month of March, when the moon is on her increase, they cut down branches of oak and ivy, which are formed into garlands, and preserved till the following autumn. If any one of the family should grow lean, or a child pine away, they must pass three times through this wreath.”
As a final example to illustrate the Ivy’s value as a magical plant, there is also a story found in J.F. Campbell’s 1890 text Popular Tales of the West Highlands vol. IV:
“A boy, some hundreds of miles away, told me that there was a man who built a house, and as often as it was built it was burned down; but they told him to put a bit of ivy into it[vii], and he did that, and the house was not burned that time.”
While one can easily note that the passage is relaying second hand information, it does illustrate once more the powers that were believed to be possessed by the Ivy plant. In this case Ivy protects the house from fire.
In Celtic folklore Ivy represented poverty and ruin, but was also an herb of great power.
According to Robert Ellison, because of Ivy’s “tenacity to cling to walls,” it is a perfect component in binding and friendship spells.
Ivy was more than just a magical herb, however. It is sometimes mentioned as a means of divination as well. In Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall published in 1870, William Bottrell tells us that Ivy was used by girls to scry into the future. This was a means by which they could discover the identity of their future husbands.
In the 1891 book Folklore of the Isle of Man, A.W. Moore gives a more specific example of divination using Ivy leaves.
“On the eve of new year’s day,” which was originally October 31st, Ivy leaves were put into a bowl to predict the coming year. There would only be one Ivy leaf in the bowl for every member of the family. Each of these leaves would be marked with a symbol or the name and each represented a separate individual. The leaves were then left in the bowl overnight. In the morning, if a leaf was found to have become withered, it would mean that person was going to die that year.
The Ivy plant could also see into the future.
“He staggered on under the weight of the corpse until he reached Kiltown Abbey, a ruin festooned with ivy, where the brown owl hooted all night long, and the forgotten dead slept around the walls under dense, matted tangles of brambles and ben-weed.” – W.B. Yeats (Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry. 1888)
[ii] “Despite the title, this book is actually a study of Welsh fairy folklore.” Sacred-Texts.com
[v] Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. Lady Wilde. This does not appear in the 1887 edition.
[vi] Alexander Carmichael. 1900.
[vii] It is not clear in the text who “they” are. The passage most likely refers to the fairies, but could have also been referring to the neighbours.