“When a cow hesitates to cross, the person driving her throws a stalk or a twig into the ditch before the unwilling animal and sings the ‘Feith Mhoire,’ Vein of Mary, to encourage her to cross, and to assure her that a safe bridge is before her. The stalk may be of any corn or grass except the reed, and the twig of any wood except the wild fig, the aspen, and the thorn. All these are forbidden, or ‘crossed’ as the people say, because of their ungracious conduct to the Gracious One. The reed is ‘crossed’ because it carried the sponge dipped in vinegar; the fig-tree because of its inhospitality; the aspen because it held up its head haughtily, proud that the cross was made of its wood, when all the trees of the forest–all save the aspen alone–bowed their heads in reverence to the King of glory passing by on the way to Calvary; and the thorn-tree because of its prickly pride in having been made into a crown for the King of kings.” – Alexander Carmichael (Carmina Gadelica Vol. II. 1900)
The thirteenth letter of the tree-Ogham is Ngetal, or Reed. Reed is the most common association for this letter. Ngetal may also be found as Broom or Fern, however.
Within the previous Ngetal post, we discovered that Reed was a neopagan addition to the Ogham[i] and not the original association to the letter at all! Reed, as a choice for this letter, was first promoted within Robert Graves’ the White Goddess. Liz and Colin Murray later adopted Graves’ interpretation for Ngetal -as the Reed- within the Celtic Tree Oracle. Most neopagan users of the Ogham today can trace their information on the Ogham directly to these two sources. As a result, Reed is the most common interpretation for Ngetal.
The more academic users of the Ogham – as far as authenticity – usually interpret Ngetal as the Broom plant or the Fern. This is indisputably more accurate. For the purposes of this blog, however, I will cover the Reed in the sections below. As far as the Broom, we will cover it four weeks from now when we take a look at the Gorse. The reasons for this will be explained at that time. I have no plan to research the Fern; at least not at this time.
John Mathews, Caitlin Mathews, Eryn Rowan Laurie and Robert Elison are all examples of individuals who approach the Ogham from a historical or reconstructionist perspective. Liz and Colin Murray, John Michael Greer, Jacqueline Memory Paterson, Nigel Pennick and many other individuals on the other hand, come from the neopagan background as far as the Ogham. This second group tends to also believe in the Tree Calendar[ii].
John Mathews interprets the Ngetal word-Ogham, “physician’s strength,” as meaning “healing.” As we covered previously, the word-Oghams are phrases or sayings found within the Ogham Tract alongside each of the trees[iii]. John Mathews interprets many of these kennings within his book the Celtic Shaman.
Robert Elison says that Ngetal represents “working and tools” within his book Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids. Elison also says that the Broom has long associations to healing, as well as being used as a magical tool.
In Celtic Wisdom Sticks, Caitlin Mathews says that the word-Oghams for Ngetal are very “obscure” but that they all seem “to stem from an older Irish word to do with wounding.” Caitlin Mathews’ system of divination seems to use both wounding and healing as possible interpretations for Ngetal.
Ngetal represents healing and sometimes wounding. These interpretations are take-aways from the Ogham Tract and should not be seen as having any direct relationship to the Reed found within Celtic mythology or folklore. The Reed is never even mentioned within the text[iv]!
The Reed was a Robert Graves invention. If we intend on using the Reed plant to represent Ngetal, then we should at least be aware that it is not authentic. This is especially important because the Ogham is a symbol of a real living people and not some abstract idea taken from a book.
The Irish and other Celts suffered many generations of persecution and ethnocide. As a result, much of the past has been lost. There are many who now struggle to reclaim what has been lost or forgotten to bring things back into balance. These are the reconstructionists.
The neopagans choose, on the other hand, to use the original Ogham as inspiration for their own belief systems and not as a fixed system. The following look at the Reed, found within Celtic folklore, will cater more to this second group.
The Reed of Celtic folklore possess various Otherworldly attributes. It is usually found to be either a weapon or a musical instrument. The Reed is almost always used by spirits or fairies and not by humans.
In fact, the Reed was often a symbol of evil in folklore. As the opening quote revealed, the Reed was considered to be one of the plants that had betrayed Jesus at the time of his execution. We can only assume, then, that the Reed would possess great power in the hands of the godless.
In the case of the Cluricaune found in Thomas Crofton Crocker’s 1825 Fairy Legends and Traditions of South Ireland, the Reed was an aid to flight. The Cluricaune – who was similar to the leprechaun – would ride the Reed stalk in the same way that the stereotypical witch would ride a broom.
In the 1899 book the Prophecies of Brahan Seer by Alexander Mackenzie, the Reed begins to take on a more sinister use:
“Some years ago, if not even still, many in the Western Isles believed in the existence of the ‘Gruagach,’ a female spectre of the class of Brownies to which the Highland dairymaids made frequent libations of milk. The Gruagach is said to have been an innocent, supernatural visitor, who frisked and gambolled about the cattle-pens and folds. She was armed only with a pliable reed, with which she switched all who annoyed her by uttering obscene language, or would neglect to leave for her a share of the dairy produce. Even so late as 1770, the dairymaids who attended a herd of cattle in the Island of Trodda, at the north end of Skye, were in the habit of pouring daily a quantity of milk on a hollow stone for the Gruagach. Should they neglect to do so, they made sure of feeling the effects of her wand the next day.”
The following Scottish lowland fairy is found in the 1870 book Fairy Mythology of Various Countries by Thomas Keightley. This fairy sounds considerably more ruthless than the Gruagach:
“They carry quivers of ‘adder-slough,’ and bows made of the ribs of a man buried where three lairds’ lands meet; their arrows are made of bog-reed, tipped with white flints, and dipped in the dew of hemlock; they ride on steeds whose hoofs would not dash the dew from the cup of a harebell. With their arrows they shoot the cattle of those who offend them; the wound is imperceptible to common eyes, but there are gifted personages who can discern and cure it.”
The snake-slough quiver holds these poison arrows constructed from Reed grass. In this case, the Reed has come to represent more than just punishment but death itself; at least to the cow.
(Vipera Berus – Common European Adder. Photo by Marek Szczepanek[v])
Not only a weapon however, the Reed is sometimes found to be connected to music. The following story predates folklore, coming instead from the age of legend. It is found within the 1900 book Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx. (Vol. I ) by John Rhys[vi]. The story has many similarities with the Irish tale the King with the Horse’s Ears found in other texts[vii].
“One of Arthur’s warriors, whose name was March (or Parch) Amheirchion \ was lord of Castetlmarch in ILeyn. This man had horse’s ears (resembling Midas), and lest anybody should know it, he used to kill every man he sought to shave his beard, for fear lest he should not be able to keep the secret; and on the spot where he was wont to bury the bodies there grew reeds, one of which somebody cut to make a pipe. The pipe would give no other sound than ‘March Amheirchion has horse’s ears.’ When the warrior heard this, he would probably have killed the innocent man on that account, if he had not himself failed to make the pipe produce any other sound. But after hearing where the reed had grown, he made no further effort to conceal either the murders or his ears.”
In this tale the Reed can only produce the music of truth. The irony is, of course, that the dead are telling the one secret that they had been killed for knowing in the first place. As they say: the dead tell no lies. In this story, the Reed is connected to music and to the dead.
In the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz we find another example of Reed’s connection to magical music[viii]:
“Bean chaol a chot uaine ‘s na gruaige buidhe, ‘ the slender woman of the green kirtle and of the yellow hair,’ is wise of head and deft of hand. She can convert the white water of the rill into rich red wine and the threads of the spiders into a tartan plaid. From the stalk of the fairy reed she can bring the music of the lull of the peace and of the repose, however active the brain and lithe the limb; and she can rouse to mirth and merriment, and to the dance, men and women, however dolorous their condition. From the bower could be heard the pipe and the song and the voice of laughter as the fairies ‘ sett ‘ and reeled in the mazes of the dance. Sometimes a man hearing the merry music and seeing the wonderful light within would be tempted to go in and join them, but woe to him if he omitted to leave a piece of iron at the door of the bower on entering, for the cunning fairies would close the door and the man would find no egress. There he would dance for years—but to him the years were as one day—while his wife and family mourned him as dead.”
In this case, ‘the slender woman fairy’ enjoys a wide range of possible uses for her Reed pipe. She can both “rouse” and put to sleep. With the Reed in hand, she is as powerful as the bards of old.
The Reed in folklore and mythology is a plant both respected and feared.
The Reed does not seem to appear directly, as an herb, within any of the traditional folkloric spells. It can be used, however, in any binding or braiding spell. The Reed is also associated with music.
The following passage is from Lady Wilde’s 1887 text Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland:
“Before an accident happens to a boat, or a death by drowning, low music is often heard, as if under the water, along with harmonious lamentations, and then every one in the boat knows that some young man or beautiful young girl is wanted by the fairies, and is doomed to die. The best safeguard is to have music and singing in the boat, for the fairies are so enamoured of the mortal voices and music that they forget to weave the spell till the fatal moment has passed, and then all in the boat are safe from harm.”
In this instance, music is a means of repelling the negative magic of the fairy kingdom. It does not seem to matter, either, what type of music it is, or even if its good music at all. The key is, simply, to make music in order to survive.
Although there does not seem to be any Celtic spells regarding the Reed, there is one Danish spell, found in Fairy Mythologies of Various Countries, that does contain a Reed spell. In it, a nail is placed inside of a Reed which is then placed inside of a boat[ix]. This is to protect the boat from a river spirit who is called “the Neck.” The Neck can often be seen singing and playing the harp. Like the Celtic fairies, the Neck seems to have a repulsion of iron.
The Neck has a connection to both music and water, much like the Reed itself.
“Frail is the reed, of riches an emblem.” – Red Book of Hergest (1382-1410)
[i] In its tree form.
[ii] The Tree-Calendar was a poetic argument put forward by Robert Graves within the White Goddess. Graves argued that the Ogham – in its tree form- could actually be a calendar with various trees representing each month; for example Birch for January, Rowan for February and Alder for March. Graves then put forward an argument as to why each tree represented that particular month based on observations of nature and various mythological references. Unfortunately, Graves may not have known that the Celtic New Year began at Samhain, modern Halloween, and did not begin the year at the same time as our modern calendar. The Ogham was created and used during a far earlier period. Liz and Colin Murray tried to rectify this error within the Celtic Tree Oracle by moving the trees to new months such as Birch for November. While it made more sense on one hand, as far as tradition and accuracy, all of Robert Graves’ arguments for why each tree represented each particular month were destroyed. Some neopagans do continue to promote the Tree-Calendar for various reasons.
[vi] John Rhys gives a reference for this story as being the 1860 Brython. This text in turn gives a 1693 source.
[vii] Patrick Kennedy’s 1891 book Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts is one such example. These stories differ in that the instrument is a harp made from a tree such as a Willow instead of a Reed. There are also other differences.
[viii] This sample was actually written by Alexander Carmichael and is attributed to him in the book. The exact quote also appears word for word in the Carmina Gadelica vol. II.
[ix] Thomas Keightley. 1870.