Muin (Grape Vine)

“It must be born in mind that the Celtic peoples are identified solely by their language and cultures, of which, of course, language is the highest form of cultural expression” – Peter Berresford Ellis (the Druids)

The Roots:

Muin, the eleventh letter of the Ogham, is one of the most misunderstood and mysterious letters of the old Irish alphabet.

Muin is usually associated with the vine of the grape. The Ogham originated in Ireland, however, where the grape was never successfully grown even as a cultivated species.

Muin does not actually mean vine at all – which is finium or finemain – but means a thicket of any thorny plant[i]. According to Robert Graves the plant that the Ogham letter originally referred to was likely to have been the blackberry[ii].

To further add to the confusion, the grape in its purest of forms rarely appears in Celtic myth[iii]. Even wine was a rare commodity and was only found more commonly with the advancement of the church and the holy rite of communion.

This does provide us with some clues, however. Wine was so rare that usually only the priests partook of the wine communion. It became a sacred and revered object. Wine was a drink that would have been known of, yet unobtainable, by the common people[iv].

The process of wine making, like ale or mead-making, is an alchemical one. It should not be a surprise then that the grape, indirectly through wine, becomes a symbol of the greatest religious fusion tale of the Western world. That is the tale of the Holy Grail.

Erynn Rowan Laurie equates Muin to communication, most especially as it pertains to expressed emotions. Liz and Colin Murray link Muin with prophecy – which to them was when one spoke more perceptively and truthfully. John Michael Greer agrees with them but also adds that Muin is a few of insight and intoxication as well.

Nigel Pennick believes that Muin is the gathering together of various items that are needed on ones path or journey. Robert Graves says that the grape is indicative of joy, exhilaration and wrath. He goes on to say that wine, the transformed grape, is the “poet’s drink” of poetic inspiration, which may send one “spiralling towards immortality”.

As is most easy to see, Muin’s meanings are not very agreed upon at all!

What further confuses the researcher is how quickly most Ogham writers abandon Celtic myth and begin to explain their theories by using other cultural references most especially those of the Greeks or Romans. What would the grape have meant within the context of the Celtic tree alphabet however?

The answer is incredibly uncertain. We have various interpretations of Muin to contemplate. The few, or letter, in its grape form is also clearly a more recent addition. Also, there are very few Celtic references to reflect upon in relation to the grape
or even to wine.

For these very reasons I personally find that the legend of the Holy Grail and the eleventh few, Muin, are inseparable and even symbiotic. The Grail is many things, but most important of all, it is the symbol of healing brought to us from the Otherworld.

It is the drink of the Grail, which is wine or blood, which heals the wounded king and ultimately the land itself.

The Trunk:

Whole books have been written on the Holy Grail. Scholars to this day continue to debate many aspects of the Grail tradition as it is commonly accepted.

The Grail story is a fusion of Celtic legend, Christian Catholic idealism, medieval upper class culture, the influence of esoteric Islam, the Jewish Kabbalah as well as other possible Eastern influences. The earliest story -as it is now understood of the grail- surfaced at the end of the twelfth century from a French poet named Chretien de Troyes. It is generally accepted that there were previous stories of the same sort circulating orally through the courts by Breton, Welsh and Anglo-Norman story tellers. Chretien influenced other story tellers and -even though the legends fell out of favour at times- the Arthurian tales continue to fascinate and enthral people to this day.

The grail prototype was the cauldron that we have spoken of many times before. In the Mabinogion there is a cauldron quest in which Arthur is involved. There is also a much earlier poem found in the Book of Taliesin in which Arthur and many of his men go to the Otherworld to retrieve a sacred cauldron. Only seven of them return[v].

Christian scholars, along with nationalists who want to claim the Arthur stories as their own, often deny that the grail is a descendant of these cauldron quests. Some claim that the Grail stories sprang up completely independently of these legends, while others that the symbols represented are common throughout the world and may hold similar meanings to various peoples around the globe. There are even many conspiracy theories  around the Holy Grail in which some claim that the Grail is in fact the actual cup that Jesus used at the last supper, that the tradition is Catholic/Jewish, and that Celtic mythology had no influence whatsoever.

It is all very confusing, but I can’t help but wonder why no one seems to contemplate the obvious? If the tradition is Catholic/Christian then why use Arthur and the Celts – now sporting the latest and most fashionable medieval armour- in the stories at all? Is it just a coincidence that Arthur and his men sought after an otherworldly cauldron and that Arthur and his men –as told in the courts of France no less- later sought after an otherworldly cup? The very fact that Arthur is there at all proves a Celtic origin. As likely as water runs downhill, so it is that other Celtic images exist in the stories in an altered
form as well. For the church to admit a pagan origin would be terribly embarrassing for a story tradition that has never been officially rejected. Christians don’t often like to admit the pagan roots of many of their stories and traditions, even one such as this one which exists on the fringes. There are also those with the outdated belief that the Celts were mindless barbarians who contributed nothing. These ideas can usually be traced back to cultural conflicts.

(The Cauldron of Inspiration. E. Wallcousins, 1912: An early Grail prototype. The nine maidens keep the cauldron warm with their breath.)

An exhaustive study of the material at hand is very possible[vi].

The Holy Grail has become a Celtic symbol to many whether this is warranted or not. To me there is no doubt. The Arthurian legends speak of the mysteries of the land and of the Otherworld.

Whether the Grail is actually recovered or not differs from story to story. The common theme however is that the Grail offers healing to the wounded, which is most often a regal representative of the land itself.

The drink is wine, sometimes blood, and it pours forth from the ever elusive cup that was said to have been brought to the lands of the Celts by Joseph of Arimathea and buried at Glastonbury. This story was introduced by Robert De Baron.

The cup represents the female divine which is absent from Christianity, but which resonates with many people who are drawn to the old stories.

Without the female divine the king is wounded, the land is barren and the end is looming catastrophic.

The Holy Grail is elusive, like wisdom herself, and seems to only be found by the purest of hearts.

Many seek the Grail. It is the cup, however, that chooses who she will appear to.

As we have moved through the forest of myth -being led by the whispers of the Ogham- we have eventually found our way symbolically to the Otherworld, which is a land of metaphoric imagery and learning, transformation and power.

It is here that we may drink of the sacred wine that will heal us once more and make us whole.

Muin speaks to us from beyond the veil, from a time when wine was unavailable to the common man[vii].

The cup beckons to us to make a toast, and touch her once more to our lips.

The Divine welcomes us home.

The Foliage:

Several types of grapes exist naturally throughout eastern North America. In western North America -from British Columbia to California- grapes are grown to be made into wine. Most vineyards offer wine tours and bottles of their product are usually available at a reduced price…

It is impossible for me to think of grapes without remembering my time in Afghanistan.

I was part of the battle group for task force 3-09 and we would often patrol areas around villages in the province of Kandahar. We were mostly operating out of the Sperwan Ghar area. The villages in the area were on the border that divided controlled, or friendly, territory and that which was unfriendly and patrolled by the Taliban.

The villages were surrounded by grape fields that grew up along mud walls in cleverly irrigated maze-like enclosed areas. The hot sun would beat down upon the plants that provided shelter for shade seeking lizards and the occasional cat. Children would run and play in these desert gardens and old, tired looking men with salt stained shirts would move dirt with shovels to manipulate the direction of the plant feeding water. There was a beauty for me there; especially in those vines.

To avoid IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) we would often painstakingly crawl over walls and through irrigation ditches as we maintained a deterring presence from those who liked to threaten or harm the simple villagers. We were literally travelling through people’s back yards. Some of these were beautiful. It was a marvel to see these crops grown in much the same way as they must have been since the very beginning.

I was left with a sense of stepping back in time. Sheppard’s led goats across rock strewn ground seeking out slivers of grass and men walked camels along pathways beside mud compounds and buildings that looked to be hundreds of years old. There was the occasional car, the odd motorcycle or bicycle and the rarely seen water pump that made the whole watering system work. Other than these few tools, that made life slightly easier, the patterns of life had remained relatively similar to our ancient ancestors across the globe, from the Mediterranean to the Holy Land.

Historians once believed that religion was born from the domestication of plants and animals. Humans were then able to settle in one place as the food was available to them. Religion then arose to “promote social cooperation”.  The excavation of the site of Gobekli Tepe (9600 – 8200 BC) in Turkey is starting to bring to the fore-front a completely separate theory. Never mind that the architectural marvel believed to be dated at the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution, – which was described as “finding out that someone had built a 747 in their basement with an X-acto knife”- it also made Klaus Schmidt (a German Researcher) reconsider common held beliefs about ancient organized religion. Some are now starting to believe that “wonderment in the natural world” gave birth to religion, which in turn led to the creation of stationary places of worship. These places of worship like Gobekli Tepe created an epicentre. People then found ways to grow food for large groups of people gathering near these sacred sites[viii].

The parallel to modern Afghanistan makes this connection seem easy. People grow food, pomegranates, grapes and small fields of wheat, to trade or consume. They grow the more lavish opium or lesser – but still lucrative- marijuana to sell for provisions or tools to continue to exist in a meagre way. For many of them it is just the filler that exists around a daily devotional practice to an Abrahamic god of the desert. Every morning, and every evening, the call to prayer is chanted forth into the awakening, or settling, day in reverent song.

It is a simple life.

They do not have the luxuries of the west but still they smile. They do not have television, shopping malls, movie theatres, Starbucks, air conditioning, Internet or ice cold drinks. They do not drink alcohol; even wine. They are happy, though, even with so little. They seem to have everything that they need in the moment[ix].

Of course, I am only speaking for half of them. The other half, the women, have less than anyone can imagine.

Perhaps they too, these men of the desert, need a Grail myth. Perhaps they too need to reconnect with the feminine divine which can then restore the balance?

For the Great Mother, the Holy Grail, brings healing and prosperity for all.

“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” – Rumi


[i]Nigel Pennick. Magical Alphabets.

[ii] The White Goddess.

[iii]There is an Irish story of St. Brendan from the late 9th or early 10th
century. The saint is sailing on an epic journey seeking the Land of Promise.
One of the places he discovers is the Island of the Grape Trees. James MacKillop.
Dictionary of Celtic Mythology.

[iv] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communion_wine

[v] The Spoils of Annwfn or Preiddeu Annwfn

[vi] See the Holy Grail: Its Origins Secrets & Meanings Revealed, Malcolm Godwin for a spiritual tradition perspective and the source for much of the above information. See also the Holy Grail: the History of a Legend, Richard Barber for a more scholarly, yet different perspective from the one I offer. There are many, many books on the Holy Grail including the Grail: a Secret History by John Mathews, the Holy Grail: History, Myth, and Religion by Giles Morgan and on Arthur – King Arthur: the Man and the Legend Revealed by Mike Ashley.

[vii] And even more unavailable to women.

[viii] See, the Birth of Religion, National Geographic June 2011, for the complete article. Charles. C. Mann

[ix] My tour in Afghanistan taught me many things. I remember how after extreme hardship the local people would carry on, after what to my western eyes would seem to be an extremely short period of time. That was not my only observation worth sharing here, though. I will ever after be suspicious of the media after my tour as well. Reporters would write stories of events they were not even present for from the safety of KAF (Kandahar Air Field), stating that they were “reporting from Afghanistan”. I would compare this unethical practice to writing a story on Florida’s everglades from a hotel suite in New York. The events reported were always fictitious and dramatic. These would also either be pro-military or anti-military and were rarely truth based.

Quert (Apple)

Apple. The Pome fruit and tree bearing this fruit is celebrated in numerous functions in Celtic mythology, legend and folklore; it is an emblem of fruitfulness and sometimes a means to immortality.”  – James MacKillop (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)

The Roots:

The apple represents the allure of the Otherworld.

Quert is the tenth letter of the Ogham. References to things beyond the number nine are found throughout Celtic myth. The Tuatha De Danann try to keep the Milesians beyond the ninth wave of the ocean for example, so that they would not be able to land on the shores of Ireland in the Book of Invasions. Brigit is attended by nine virgins, so she herself is the other that makes ten. Ten is the perfect number because all of the other numbers exist within it, yet it is the return to singularity (Cooper).

There are many Celtic tales, too many to mention here, that have connections to the apple. Yns Avallach, or Avalon, is the final resting place of Arthur and is usually called the Isle of Apples. Cuchulainn follows a rolling wheel and apple to find a great female warrior teacher[i]. One of the Irish names for the Otherworld was Eamhain Ablach, the realm of apples (Laurie). In Irish legend there is even a magical Silver Bough that carries nine apples which sing people to sleep (Paterson) – again that nine plus one. Thomas the Rhymer, who we have also spoken of before, was given an apple by the queen of the fairies that gave him the gift of prophecy. Many other legends associate Merlin, Olwen, Gwen, the romance of Diarmuid and Grainne, and the Tree of Mugna to the apple. Cu Roi is a hero that is only killed after his wife has betrayed him and revealed the secret hiding place of his soul, which is within an apple in the belly of a salmon.

Erynn Rowan Laurie[ii] associates the Ogham letter with madness and insanity. Although Laurie does not associate these letters with trees – but sees them more akin to the Norse runes[iii] -the symbolism of the apple does seem to support her position in some of the myths regardless.  Merlin is often associated to the apple grove which he could bring forth with him from place to place. Sabine Heinz[iv] reminds us that Merlin hid in the treetops when he became insane after a battle. Those that were considered too strange or “touched in the head” were often, even in relatively recent times, said to have been “taken by the fairies” so perhaps there is a connection to those such as Thomas the Rhymer as well to the concept of madness?

With the introduction of Christianity to the Isles, the apple also became synonymous with temptation and evil. The apple, or quert, is often also associated to romantic love and sex.

The Trunk:

The Otherworld can be described as a place that is elusive yet nearby. It seems to exist alongside us. It is a place where time and age do not matter, the otherworldly women and men are beautiful, animals can talk, the sun always shines, the birds always sing and beauty is amplified.

It is in this land that the gods seem to reside and sometimes the ancestors. The Otherworld is a place of heroic deeds, never ending banquets, whimsical love affairs, and items of great power that can be brought back to the land of the living.

Although the Otherworld is often associated with things made of glass, it is more often than not stumbled upon in the most mundane of manners.

A hero is walking through the wood and follows a white animal or becomes lost and finds him or herself in a completely foreign land. This may take place after there is a storm, fog, or mist.

The Otherworld is where the Sidhe, also known as the Tuatha De Danann, reside in Ireland. It is the land of the fairy, the fair folk, or of great lords that reside over the dead.

There is a story of Connla son of Conn Cetchathach of the Hundred Battles. In the story Connla is approached by a beautiful fairy woman who tempts him to come with her to the other side. She offers him an apple and promises him the relief from old age and even death. He leaves with her, but will not return even with the allure of his father’s kingdom and is never seen again.

(Childhood’s Favourites and Fairy Stories, Project Gutenberg)

Those superstitious of the fairies still warn us today to avoid eating the food of the fair folk… lest one never be able to return to the land of the living. There is a suggestion that this is because the food either tastes so good or intoxicates one to never want to return to the land of men again.

The Otherworld is found far away from the trappings of civilization. It is found on the sea by accident when sailors stumble upon unknown islands, or it is found deep within the wilderness.

The Otherworld is found when the hero is out hunting. It is found when the heroine is minding her own business. It is found when an item, usually food or drink, is found unattended and is unassumingly consumed.

It is likely that the Otherworld is a metaphor for the lands that are seen when one’s perception is shifted. This may happen through trance (perhaps shamanic like percussion), drug induced states (maybe aminita muscaria or possibly wine), dreaming, meditation or even enlightenment.

We must remember though that those that seek the Otherworld rarely find it, while those that do not – similar to Taliesin or Amairgin’s acquirement of wisdom– often find themselves on the other side altogether.

Some do not return.

The Foliage:

The apple, as we know it, has only been around since the classical age. The crab apple of the Americas was never cultivated but the small tart apple was used as a food source by the native people nonetheless[v].

According to Jared Diamond[vi], the apple tree was one of the later plants to be cultivated by ancient peoples. The art of cultivation in which the apple tree was domesticated was a complicated and difficult process that is known as grafting today. Grafting was discovered and developed in ancient China. The grafting, and growing of apple orchards, spread across the known world of the time, through Greece and Rome, and eventually into the lands of the Celts themselves.

This was thousands of years after the cultivation of such plants as the olive, grape or fig.

While it is interesting to note that the oak has never been domesticated as a food source, it is also interesting to recognize that the apple tree will quickly become wild once more. According to Hageneder[vii], the orchard apple is sweeter and bigger than the crab apple and the tree has lost its thorns. Trees that naturalize and leave the orchard, however, are often found to grow thorns once more.

The apple, Quert, has a long list of health benefits and even medicinal properties that continue to be studied in awe. The fruit absorbs contaminants from its environment however, so one should try to eat the organic fruit whenever it is possible.

“In the 19th century in Lower Saxony, Germany, the first bath water used by a newborn baby was poured over the roots of an apple tree to ensure that the child would have red cheeks, and, if it was a girl, large breasts too.” – Fred Hageneder  (The Meaning of Trees)


[i] This seems to be a type of divination.

[ii] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom

[iii] The Ogham is often seen as a tree alphabet but, as I have discussed in previous posts, this is not entirely accurate. I choose to use the Ogham as a tree alphabet on my own path. In my opinion Erynn Rowan Laurie’s book has the most accurate perception of the Ogham.

[iv] Celtic Symbols

[v] Tree Book: Learning to Recognize Trees of British Columbia

[vi] Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

[vii] The Meaning of Trees

[Image] http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19993

Coll (Hazel)

“All ancient cultures, whether they prayed to one god or many, acknowledged trees as being able to elevate the human consciousness to higher forms of perception, and to receive messages from the higher planes (or the deeper Self), hence the worldwide abundance of traditions of tree oracles and sanctuaries… Some divine messengers, such as birds, might have wings but most have leaves. And the leaves of the Tree of Knowledge are the letters of the old sacred alphabets, which early humans plucked from the tree, and which gave them writing to enable them to preserve the word.” – Fred Hageneder (the Meaning of Trees)

The Roots:

Coll, the hazel, is universally seen as the tree of wisdom and is usually associated with the salmon.

Jacqueline Memory Paterson calls hazel “the Celtic Tree of Knowledge” as well as “the Tree of Immortality” and “the Poet’s Tree.”

As well as being linked to the salmon many writers relate the hazel to the crane. This includes Robert Graves, Eryn Rowan Laurie and Nigel Pennick. The crane of course is often seen as the bringer of knowledge, or wisdom, and has strong ties to the Ogham[i].

Robert Graves in the White Goddess also states that Coll is linked to arts and the sciences.

The Celts believed that the hazel had the power to give wisdom, inspiration or knowledge and the tree is associated with many deities. The Mabon was found beneath the hazel tree by Arthur’s men in some tellings of the story that is found in the Mabinogion[ii], and Aengus the Celtic love god carried a hazel wand. Gwydion had a special use for Coll in the Battle of the Trees[iii]and one of the earliest kings of Ireland was named Mac Coll, which means the ‘son of the hazel’. Hazel is also associated to Fionn mac Cumhail and the goddess Sinend.

Coll’s number is nine, and as Pennick points out this would have likely been the most auspicious of numbers to the Celts as it is comprised of three threes.

The hazel, or Coll, is also usually associated with beauty and the hazelnut is sometimes referred to as “the food of the gods”.[iv]

Hazel has a darker side however, for when she is cut she will secrete a poisonous milk to repel her enemies[v]. In the old stories she can also be dangerous, for those that willingly seek out inspiration or “knowledge” are just as likely to find death instead.

Before the Holy Grail there was a sacred Cauldron of Inspiration. Before the Cauldron of Inspiration there was a holy well of knowledge that existed in the Otherworld.[vi] This was where the magical hazel with the purple leaves grew, both flowering and providing nuts at the same time.

The search for knowledge or wisdom is both the modern, and ancient, versions of the search for the Holy Grail.

The Trunk:

The quest for magical items and powers is commonly found throughout the myths of the Celts. There are otherworldly women, horses and dogs that give the hero that is attached to them special powers or insights. There are weapons, cauldrons and even foods that are sought out in the great adventures of old. There are bones that always produce soup, fairies that serve their masters, and all too often there are missing friends or loved ones that have rendered the hero or a close friend incomplete in their absence.

The most interesting tales of all are those that pertain to the search for wisdom, which in Celtic lore is poetic inspiration, or what is sometimes referred to as “all knowledge”. Those that gain these insights are bold and powerful and become able to manifest marvels even greater than that of the mightiest druids of the times.

Unlike other hero quests this search is for something insubstantial that cannot be held in the palm of ones hand or savoured upon the tongue. It is the one item that most clearly does not exist in one realm or the other but in-between the worlds themselves. Perhaps for that reason it is the one treasure that is prized above all others.

There are two types of tales in this regard and the hazel is the key to understanding them both. The first of these stories are the tales of the seekers.

The goddess Sinend is said to have traveled to the Well of Knowledge, or Connla’s Well, beneath the sea in search of wisdom. At this well were the hazels of inspiration that in the same hour sprang forth flowers, nuts and leaves which fell into the water and fed the salmon. Sinend followed the stream until she reached “the Pool of the Modest Women” at which time the well moved further away from her. Sinend tried to pursue the well but was overcome by the water’s strength. She was then forced back to the land of Ireland. In the process Sinend was killed by the water that overcame her. Thus the river Shannon came to be. A similar story tells of the death of the goddess Boand, who was viewing and making light of a similar well and was killed in the process. The river Boyne was born from her actions.

The goddess Ceridwen sought wisdom from the Cauldron of Knowledge for her ugly son, but lost it forever to the boy who would later become Taliesin. Finneces, a druid of Ireland, waited seven years for the Salmon of Fec, who carried wisdom, to be his. He too was deprived of the wisdom that he sought.

The second set of stories pertains to those that have actually found the gift of wisdom such as Fionn mac Cumhail or Taliesin.

The druid Finnegas had waited for seven years for the salmon of wisdom, for it had been foretold that he would eat its flesh and thus gain poetic knowledge. Fionn mac Camhail went to the old druid to learn poetry from him and was present when the fish was found. Bringing Finnegas the cooked salmon Fionn confessed that after burning his fingers on the fish, he had put them into his mouth. It had been foretold that whoever tasted one portion of the fish had to eat it all, so Finnegas sat the boy down and made him eat the meal in its entirety. The old druid had realized that the prophecy had spoken not of him, but of the young Fionn who would gain wisdom from eating the salmon. This misunderstanding of the prophecy had to do with the similarity of their names.

Across the water a similar series of events would play out in what is now England. Gwion Bach was stirring the cauldron of the hag Ceridwen when three drops of the potion splashed onto his fingers. He put the fingers into his mouth and immediately gained many forms of power and knowledge. One of the things that Gwion realized right away was that Ceridwen was going to kill him for gaining the knowledge in place of her son. He fled and changed into a hare while Ceridwen pursued him fiercely in the form of a hound having already discovered the slight. He then leapt into the water and became a fish while Ceridwen came behind him in the form of a female otter. Gwion then leapt far into the sky and became a bird in flight but still Ceridwen came, this time in the form of a hawk. Finally he dived into a pile of grain and became a single kernel. Ceridwen, in the form of a hen, found him and gobbled him up. Nine months later Ceridwen gave birth to Taliesin. She put him into a leather bag and threw him out to sea. He was eventually found in a salmon weir by the unlucky Elphin who would never be considered unlucky again. Taliesin would serve him well as the greatest of bards and bring him wealth in many forms.

The story of Taliesin was very likely more similar to Fionn’s story in times of antiquity but the parallels are still obvious. The cauldron has replaced the sacred well but still contains wisdom which comes in the form of accidental droplets upon the hand. The salmon symbolism is strong in the Taliesin story as well.

There are some key elements of these stories to consider. First of all, no one who seeks wisdom seems to find it. Second of all, those who do find it do so accidentally.

I also find it interesting that those who go directly to the source find only death. Those who seek the same wisdom indirectly, be eating the salmon – which is cooked even- from the pool, instead of directly from the well seem to fair a little better. Even so, the initial transfer is that of just a few drops onto the hand of a young boy that gives the recipient the poetic knowledge. Fionn mac Cumhail would become Ireland’s version of Arthur leading the Fianna on many adventures. Taliesin, likewise, was often referred to as the greatest of bards and plays very prominently in Celtic legend.

We have discussed symbolism before, most especially when we explored the Oak. In the myths of the Celts the symbols are not placed randomly. Everything once had many meanings and connotations, even if the story had been reshaped and lost over time and in the retelling or putting down to paper. Thus, it should not surprise us when a meal of a single kernel of grain becomes a child, or if that child is later fished out of a salmon weir in May, -as many stories suggest- when the salmon do not run. The stories take place in the Otherworld and we can only hope to understand their deeper meanings by reflection and meditation.

I find the story of Sinend to hold half veiled parables as well. The Well of Wisdom evaded her and it seemed to have done so because of her inability to pass the Pool of Modest Women. Modesty, of course, is the character trait of the “reserved” or of those who are humble. The story suggests that the very act of searching for the Well of Wisdom itself prevents one from finding it.

In the stories of the Celts poetic wisdom is found by doing menial tasks and by the young of heart. It is also never gained directly. This “all knowledge”, or inspiration, is found only when it is not sought out. When these conditions are met, wisdom is gained. If the conditions are not met the quest will end in naught.

Death may be found instead[vii].

The Foliage:

Searching for knowledge can be difficult in this day and age. While everything is as easy as a Google search and only a mouse click away the information is endless. There is so much material to sift through that the process can quickly become overwhelming.

The first Celtic spiritual book that I was drawn to was the Tree Oracle by Liz and Colin Murray back in 1988. The seed was planted. I hungered to learn more on a subject that seemed so unobtainable in my small Canadian prairie town.

Five years later in 1993 a friend gave me a copy of a book on “Druidry.” Suffice it to say now, that was the beginning of a difficult and painful detour along the pathway of my spiritual development. I found books by other “Celtic” authors and read many others that seemed to add to my knowledge base and give me understanding. Unfortunately, I would now consider the authors of these books misinformed at their best, and fraudulent at their worst.

By the time I discovered that certain books were published just to make money it was too late. A few years had been spent memorizing material from authors that seemed to me-in the pre Internet days-to be legitimate. It was only after I met a fellow on a similar, though more advanced, path that I started to realize that there were people who would make money off of the ignorant in the name of spirituality, religion or historical mythology. Thanks to my friend Jaysun’s [viii] mentoring at the time, I was able to find more legitimate authors and sources of information and the path of my life seemed to open up before me.

I spent a year studying the bardic grade of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids-through their distance learning- and I worked through some of Caitlin and John Mathews books, most notably Singing the Soul Back Home. Along the way I learned the basics of Zen, how to run energy, meditate, and became more aware of the power of intention.

No matter where my path took me I always carried the Ogham with me, however, either physically or in my heart.

It was a hard road as far as finding legitimate information but over the years I have learned to choose what I read carefully.

When I pick up an unknown author I first look to see if the book contains an index. Unless it is a well laid out coffee table book, the lack of an index is painful and I usually determine that it is not worth using as a basis for research[ix]. I also look to see who the author is and what they have written. Are they an academic? Are they an “expert of the week” covering a different religion every month like some sort of tourist with little depth or understanding? What else have they written? What do their most flattering peers say about them within the book or on the back cover? Who are those peers? What do their critics say?

I also look at the reference pages. Unless the author can translate old Irish they had better be listing the academics or the writers whose research they are using. Unfortunatly I automatically assume that if the author is referencing a “mainstream flashy” book they are likely quoting faulty knowledge- at least when it comes to anything Celtic[x]. A book, like a tree, needs healthy roots to grow.

Then I usually go onto Amazon and read what other readers have to say about the book, especially if it is by an author that is unknown to me. There are likely a lot of people who have read the book before me. What do they have to say? I have found in life that like-minded people will be drawn to the same sorts of materials and will often have a lot of insight that can also help me make up my mind.

I will take my time choosing what book I will buy because I want to know its strengths and weaknesses before I read it. I want to know that I am going to gain something from the text and that it will advance my knowledge in some way and not be the source of cloudiness or misinformation.

When I do read the book, I will then try to approach it with the innocence of a child, while still letting my inner sceptic look over my shoulder. Writers are just human after all, and some of the books that were written even fifteen years ago are using information that is no longer current.

Just imagine though, if you can, a time when an author would actually go to a museum and pour over old documents for hours every day, and only being allowed to do so after years of education. Imagine doing this for a lifetime before being able to write a book on the subject that anyone would take seriously. Not only did these original older authors give us a foundation to stand upon and to begin the conversations on things such as the Ogham, they made things available to us– with the Internet especially- thatwould have never been accessible to even the most well connected researcher 100 years ago.

I can use the Internet to download any text that’s considered public domain before 1926 for free. I can visit museum websites, run programs to translate for me (if I were that savvy), and find recommendations from websites and various scholars as to where I need to go to seek out information next. Never has the uninitiated in history had access to so much powerful information. How much of what I read can be trusted however?

I like Robert Graves for his knowledge of mythology, for example. His view on analeptic memory is interesting and worth much reflection. However, his assumptions were based on other assumptions that were still based on other assumptions, which were often lacking in fact at all. The house of cards that he builds in the White Goddess is so painful to watch that by the end of the book one is left wondering how people could have taken anything he said as gospel at all. This man had some Knowledge, however, and shared many of his understandings with the reader. Nowadays, I just have to sift through all of his theories and try to determine which ones are valid. By the time he compares “platonic love” to “homosexual idealism” a normal person would most likely be questioning all of his so called “proven” conclusions. I take what I must. I try not to dismiss Graves completely as he started many of the Ogham conversations, wrote a very lengthy book on a type writer (we often forget), and did, in fact, have a relationship with the Ogham in his own way. His index and footnotes are somewhat redeeming as well.

The perfect book for me always has foot notes.

Even the best intentioned writers or researchers have varying perspectives. No two people view anything in exactly the same manner. In this way even the translations of various texts can have completely different meanings.

Whether I read Caitlin or John Mathews, Philip Carr-Gomm, Peter Berresford Ellis, Tom Cowan, Eryn Rowan Laurie, or even the slightly more whimsical – but still informative – Jacqueline Memory Paterson, I can always learn something.

And as I stir that cauldron upon that river bank of old, perhaps I too will one day have that fire that will burn within my head.

By the nut of the hazel, the flesh of the salmon and the water of the well, let it be so.

“The druid quest is a quest for wisdom and knowledge. This search leads finally to the oldest animal, Bradan the salmon, swimming in the Well of Wisdom at the source of all life…This well or sacred pool has nine hazel trees growing around it, and it is their nuts which feed the salmon of the pool and render them wise.” – Phillip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm (the Druid Animal Oracle)


[i] The White Goddess, the Druid Animal Oracle, Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, an Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, etc.

[ii]Hageneder’s version has the Mabon not in a prison cell but beneath a hazel tree. This is an easy speculation to make as the salmon carried the heroes to the place where the Mabon was found imprisoned.

[iii] Cad Goddeu or the Battle of the Trees is part of the Book of Taliesin. The hazel is the only tree that doesn’t seem to be fighting physically in the battle. She is sometimes an “arbiter” (judge) and sometimes it is translated that “Ample [was her] mental exertion”. A version is found in the White Goddess by Robert Graves. A different translation of the poem may be found here at the Celtic Literature Collective: http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/t08.html

[iv] Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook. Jacqueline Memory Paterson.

[v] This refers to an Irish Story, the Ancient Dripping Hazel which is told briefly in the book Magical Alphabets by Nigel Pennick.

[vi] The Holy Grail: its Origins, Secrets, and Meanings Revealed. Malcolm Godwin.

[vii]In the lands of the Celts, however, death was often perceived as a rebirth or transformation. Perhaps Sinend gained her prize after all?

[viii] Since I had originally written this entry I felt inspired to reconnect with my old friend Jaysun. I was surprised – though I should not have been – and impressed with some of his current projects. His podcast, as one commenter put it, fills a niche in the podcast world by offering the personal experiences of one practitioner. His blog and podcast can be found at http://witcheryofone.libsyn.com/ and the podcast is also on iTunes.

[ix] The exception for me is Fire in the Head by Tom Cowan. I love this well researched book and hope that a future edition wil contain an index and more references.

[x] The Wiccan Warrior by Kerr Cuhulain is a good “mainstream flashy” book. I am sure that there are others but most are very ad-like – as far as pictures and lay out – yet very disappointing when it comes to accuracy. Sadly, at one time these books were much more respected and the publishers were much more likely to publish respected authors.

Tinne (Holly)

“Salvation, claimed the Romantic philosophers and writers, lay not in a tame and planted landscape, but in the raw wilderness.” – John Vaillant (the Golden Spruce).

The Roots:

The holly – much like the oak- is associated with gods of lightening and thunder, male virility and war.

Robert Graves says that the oak and the holly are “twin brothers”. The two tree’s symbolic meanings seem to verify this.

Pennick equates Tinne with fatherhood, balance and strength. Liz and Colin Murray list holly’s attributes as those of the warrior and of balance. John Michael Greer calls holly the tree of courage and of challenges.

Over time the holly has come to be associated with Christ and Christmas. The red berries supposedly replicated the blood of the Christ and the holly leaf came to be seen as representing the crown of thorns worn at the crucifixion. Traditionally the Winter Solstice was the time that the holly king was killed, destined to rise again, by the oak king. The early church carefully selected pagan dates of celebration as a time to introduce Christian themes, and so the holly became a Christmas symbol to this day[i].

Erynn Rowan Laurie states that the energy of Tinne can be linked to wealth, craftsmanship, and the arts. She also informs us that the holly tree has associations with severed heads and is strongly connected to the Celtic warrior.

The Trunk:

As we celebrate the Summer Solstice we are reminded that even though the warm days are just beginning, the Earth is now starting to move further away from the Sun, heralding the return of winter.

Frazer describes in great detail the death of the “Oak King” in the Golden Bough. It is the Oak King that is killed, or sacrificed, at this time of the year by the Holly King, only to return again during the Winter Solstice -when the roles are reversed- to kill the Holly King once more in an endless cycle that mirrors the rhythms of the earth.

This cycle is often linked to the Goddess Creiddylad – mentioned briefly in the Mabinogion – as representing the Earth Goddess that the two suitors are fighting and dying for. The Oak King is the god of the sky and of light while the Holly King represents the time of darkness and of the underworld. Creiddylad spends half of the year with one king, and half of the year with the other. Human sacrifices were believed to be used to help promote these yearly cycles and to appease the spirits of the land[ii].

As stated above, Laurie associates holly to the severed head, taking the symbolism beyond that of just the warrior or the Holly King. The severed head, according to Celtic historian Anne Ross, was a religious symbol, “as representative of the Celts’ spirituality as the sign of the cross is for Christianity.”[iii]

The severed head is incredibly prevalent in Celtic symbolism and myth. Some even go so far as to refer to the Celts spirituality as “the cult of the severed head.” As Caitlin Mathews explains in the Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom[iv] however, the Celts did not worship severed heads per say, but venerated the head as “the seat of wisdom and of the soul”.

(Skull on a gravestone edge, Durisdeer, Scotland)

The symbol of the severed head, or the sacrifice of the Oak King to the Holly King, may seem a little brutal to us in this day and age, but do these core elements of the old legends still have a place? Certainly we do not want to see human or animal sacrifices return in any way shape or form but perhaps there is an alternative. Maybe the symbols of the brutal and bloody ways of our ancestors can offer us some wisdom that is still relevant today?

One does not have to look very far to find that the Celts did in fact hold many things that we would find dark or disturbing quite sacred. These myths bring us time and time again to war, hunting, trickery through magic, death, the severing of heads, dark supernatural beings, deception, and as we have seen before… even rape, adultery and murder.

While it is true that our ancestors also held many things that are beautiful and peaceful sacred, why is it that so many pagans in modern times cling to these imbalanced ideas alone and ignore the darker aspects found in the wealth of the lore?

The Ogham at its surface seems incredibly charming, but once the forest – the actual woods – is entered there are many things that can no longer be seen as fluffy, soft, and harmless. The sun is not always shining. It is not always summer or spring. The creatures of the forest, including ourselves, are not always well fed or content. When we are not freezing we are dripping with sweat, or at the very least we are covered in insects that like to bite us and steal our sustenance, making us weaker – a part of the cycle of life and death. Our ancestors did not harbour any illusions as to the brutality that could be found in nature.

The Celts did not worship from a city park or an English garden. They did not see fairies as cute little Barbie dolls that fit inside of their palms like some sort of child’s toy[v]. They saw nature for what it was, for what she still is, and were rewarded by stepping into relationship with the very land.

By downplaying that relationship – by ignoring an exploration of the rougher side of nature – we allow ourselves to shrink back from our own power and capabilities. We can safely summon the elements by facing different directions within the sterile confines of our homes but do we really know the elements? You can call fire… but can you make fire? I am not asking about the fire that is made with matches or a lighter but from the friction of moving two sticks together or with a bow? You can summon the element of water but can you take water from the land or capture it from the air in times of need – for that is life itself? Can you work with the earth and make things grow? Can you hear the wind speaking that whispers through the leaves in the trees or let the stars navigate you through the darkness to safety?

I have said it before. The forest can be a very dangerous place. If you have spent time alone in the woods, in a real forest, you have learned to have a healthy respect for it. People die each year going into those very lands that tens of thousand of people profess to be the bosom of the Great Goddess herself. People yearly -in North America alone- fall to their death, starve, dehydrate, freeze, get heat exposure, suffer sprains and breaks, get lost, catch diseases from insects (West Nile, Lime Disease etc), are hunted and sometimes killed by animals (especially bears or cougars), drown by slipping into rivers and sometimes just plain disappear.

By seeing Nature in all of her terrible beauty we can truly step from infatuation into relationship, for to not be able to view her completely is to not see her at all. Until then it is just make believe. An ignorant relationship disconnected from the divine in all of her glory, and ultimately with the divine within you.

If you choose to step into relationship -away from infatuation- with Nature herself then Tinne, the holly, can be your guide.

The Foliage:

The holly is the first tree of the Ogham that does not grow naturally in most areas of Western North America.

No matter where one lives, even if it be on Ireland herself, there will be places in which some of the trees of the Ogham do not grow.

Apparently there are holly farms in British Columbia[vi] but I have never set foot on, or even seen one myself. BC is, after all, a very large place. There are many holly trees growing along the streets in Vancouver -where I live- and I have even found a beautiful specimen in a park in the West End beside a yew tree and close to a magnificent oak[vii]. I have also found a naturalized tree – though stunted as it competes with mighty conifers for light- with a couple of saplings nearby at the trail head to Tower Beach near the University of British Columbia (within two weeks of posting this I had found two different sites of naturalized trees in the Vancouver area).

No matter how hard I look however, I will never find a forest of holly trees in my neighbourhood.

This should not discourage me.

Laurie cites this as one of the main reasons that the Ogham should be viewed as more akin to the Nordic Runes as opposed to a “tree alphabet”. She says that instead of modifying the list in some way to make it local or relevant she has, “Chosen to work primarily with the name-meanings and with the phrases or kennings associated with each ogam fid (letter), rather than the trees themselves.” Laurie encourages that we can carry concepts with us and that we are not necessarily tied down to, “one geographical area” that we may feel limited to while working with trees that are absent.

I like to work with the Ogham as a tree alphabet, however. For me it makes sense. I can go and sit beneath a holly tree, I can read about it, and I will likely even dream of it. If the gods are willing, perhaps one day, I will even get a chance to walk through a forest where the holly is still king.

Even in my home town where the winters would kill most attempts at growing holly, I could get a cutting from a floral shop during the Christmas season to work with. After all, the alder and the willow there in Northern Saskatchewan are -like the hawthorn here -more like shrubs than trees but I can connect with them still nonetheless. While a clipping is not even close to the same thing as a shrub, perhaps it too is somewhat of a start.

I believe that the trees of the Ogham are representatives of all trees and of all plants, much like the Celtic legends are representative of the life lessons found in all cultures[viii]. As most teachers of various practices will tell you, you can dig many holes upon the land or one deep well in which to draw water.

For me, the Ogham is that well, the tree alphabet works, and I like the difficult journey that sometimes leads me to new places and kingdoms in search of greater knowledge.

Trees are something I can touch and marvel over, and they never cease to amaze me.

Today for example – to celebrate the beginning of the half-year where the holly is king-I drank my first yerba mate. It was smooth and foreign but I enjoyed the tea’s earthy undertones that existed within the spicy chai version that I sipped upon. I was shocked to find out that yerba mate, which is made from a type of holly leaf of course, had been called by many indigenous South Americans as “the drink of the gods”. The list of known and suspected health benefits was staggering as it stood even a head taller than green tea[ix].

As I drank the tea that was a gift from the holly, I could not help but smile knowing that science had confirmed what those South American natives seemed to have known all along.

I then stepped into a place where Tinne, the holly, had become king once more.

“To know, to truly know the forest is to love it, and whoever loves it will fight for its welfare. Therefore we invite all to spend great amounts of time in the woods, doing nothing in particular but wandering about or just sitting still.” – Steve Comar, Mahican Nation (Canadian Geographic June 2010)[x]


[i] Paterson, Hageneder, Farmer-Knowles, and Cooper.

[ii] This connection is made by many such as Hageneder but does not seem to appear directly in legend.

[iii] Fire in the Head.

[iv] Chapter 4, section 3 – Consulting the Ancestors.

[v] For a fascinating conversation on this very subject please listen to Elemental Castings podcast episode 12 between T. Thorn Coyle and R.J. Stewart where they compare the minimizing of the fairy kingdom to the minimizing of the power that exists within ourselves.

[vi] http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/aboutind/products/plant/holly.htm

[vii] Alexandra Park.

[viii] Joseph Campbell.

[ix] 2010 Teaopia magazine/brochure

[x] Get in the Grove article text quotations from Ontario’s Old Growth Forests: A Guidebook Complete with History, Ecology, and Maps by Michael Henry and Peter Quinby (2009)

Duir (Oak)

“By the time a tree is full grown, the underground root system is enormous; a mature oak tree, for example, has literally hundreds of miles of roots to tap the soil’s resources in an endless quest for water. Each drop is collected by the root hairs and passed along, from one cell to the next, up the trunk and to the leaves, and in such a way that none of the precious moisture and minerals collected by the roots leaks back into the soil.” – Richard Ketchum (The Secret Life of the Forest)

The Roots:

Duir, the oak, is the tree of strength and of honour. It is also the tree of male virility.

It is the seventh tree of the Ogham and has universally agreed upon meanings without exception. Even those that do not hold trees sacred seem to have a reverence for the oak. It is present on many coats of arms, is the national tree of many countries, a totem tree of states, cities and counties and is the tree of the province of Prince Edward Island here in Canada. The oak also symbolically adorns many military uniforms from ancient to modern times.

The oak is often said to have been the most sacred of trees to the Celts, and to the druids in particular. The tree is revered by the Teutonic, the Romans, The Greeks, and Hebrews and in as far away lands as to even have been respected by the Chinese[i]. The oaks referred to in the bible are interpreted as “holy trees” – not oaks literally- and the Christians often preached beneath them in the early middle ages[ii].

Oak is the tree of many gods and goddesses, especially those of lightening and thunder. Duir makes an appearance in many tales and can be connected to Taranis (Celtic Zeus), Brigid (later St. Briget), Myrdin (Merlin), Arthur’s round table, Herne the Hunter, Robin Hood, Gwydion, Blodeuwedd, Lleu, and to the fairies alongside the Ash and the Hawthorn. The Oak also shares a special symbolic relationship with the mistletoe.

Duir promises us the strength to speak the truth, to hold our ground and to live a life braided with courage and honour. Oak is the tree of kings, queens and prophets.

The Trunk:

Lleu of the Skilful Hand was cursed by his mother.

Lleu was a child of immaculate conception as he had fallen out of his mother, Aranrhod -alongside his brother – while her purity was being tested. This was being done by the King, Math, to determine if she was pure enough to become his virgin foot stool…

In the time before time there lived such a ruler of the land as Math son of Mathonwy.

Math could only live if his feet were in the lap of a virgin – that is Goewin- except in times of war. So it was, that his two nephews Gwydyon and Givaethwy would make circuits of the land on his behalf.

All was well for a while, until Givaethwy fell sick with love for Goewin. Gwydyon perceived his state and he schemed a way to separate the king from the virgin on behalf of his cousin. And so by stealing the sacred pigs of a Southern lord a war was started and Math was forced to leave his chamber.

When Math returned to his chambers he was told by Goewin that she was no longer a virgin as his nephews had taken her by force in his very chambers. Math then took the beautiful Goewin as his wife and punished his nephews severely.

For a year and a day they were turned into a stag and a hind so that they would breed with one another and have a son.

For a second year and a day the cousins were turned into a boar and a sow so that they would breed with one another and have another son.

For a third year and a day Gwydyon and Givaethwy were turned into a wolf and a she-wolf so that they could breed and conceive a final son.

After this time of punishment Math forgave them and brought them back, turning them once more to men.

Math then asked of Gwydyon who he should take to be his virgin foot stool and Gwydyon stated that this should be none other than his sister Aranrhod.

Math summoned Aranrhod and made her step over his wand to test her virtue and two boys fell from her. One was noticed by everyone and one was not noticed, as Gwydyon kicked him under the bed and hid him from sight. The one boy, Dylan, was baptised and raised by the king while the second, later to be named Lleu, was raised in secret by Gwydyon for a while.

When he was four -but looked to be eight- Aranrhod found out about him and cursed him to have no name until she gave him one, no weapon unless she gave it to him and no wife of the human race.

Aranrhod was tricked and named the boy Lleu of the Skilled Hand because of his skill in hitting a wren in the leg perched on a ship while he was disguised as a shoe maker. Later disguised as bards in Caer Aranrhod, Gwydyon conjured up an illusionary invading force of ships and Aranrhod -with two young women- armed them both. Thus Lleu had both a name and was armed through the magical deception of his uncle Gwydyon.

Aranrhod was furious and proclaimed that Lleu would never, ever, have a wife. Gwydyon and Lleu then went to Math and complained about Aranrhod, described how they had overcome the curse of the name and of the weapons, and asked for his help.

Math and Gwydyon then summoned up the form of the most beautiful woman from the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet and thus created an immortal wife for the lad. She would be named Blodeuedd.

(Blodeuedd, Christopher Williams 1930[iii])

The couple were happy for some time, until Lleu left to visit his uncle Math.

Blodeuedd offered shelter to a passing hunter, named Goronwy, and the two fell in love and began to plot Lleu’s murder.

This would not be an easy task, for even after Blodeuedd coaxed from Lleu his only weakness, the conditions they had to set out for his death would not be easy to arrange and yet they had to be perfect.

Lleu could only be killed by a spear made for one year on Sundays while people were in mass[iv], while standing with one foot on a goat’s back and the other on the edge of a bath tub (not indoors or out, on horse or on foot) beneath a thatch roof on a river bank.

Under the assumptions of trust and love Lleu was tricked into meeting all of the conditions and struck by the poisoned spear that was thrown by the hidden huntsmen Goronwy. He immediately turned himself into an eagle and flew away critically injured.

Math and Gwydyon were distressed and saddened. So Gwydyon set out to find Lleu and did so only by following a pig to the base of a large oak tree with a rotting eagle in it. By chanting three times he called the eagle down to him in stages where he could strike him with his wand and turn him back into a man.

Lleu was now skin and bones and it took him one year to be cured before he could set out to avenge himself.

Goronwy was found and killed by Lleu’s hand as he threw a spear through a stone and broke his back. Blodeuedd was found and was transformed forever into the owl by Gwydyon.

“You will never show your face to the light of day, rather you shall fear other birds; they will be hostile to you, and it will be their nature to maul and molest you wherever they find you. You will not lose your name but will always be called Blodeuedd (flower face).[v]

Thus Lleu was avenged…

The Foliage:

The stories of the Celts were told by the bards, who were mystics, and held keys to enlightenment. Let us consider that numbers have meanings and perhaps referenced individual Ogham letters and likely had other mystical properties as well. There were three women who armed Lleu and Gwydyon (2 + 1 other – Aranrhod) three animals that the cousins became for a year and a day (two wild and one other, two herbivore and one other), three main women in this tale (2 + 1 other – Blodeuedd made from three flowers), and three birds (2 + 1 other -Wren), and the cousins had three sons. As the wand would possibly be of Hawthorn (or possibly Hazel) and the spear would most likely be of Ash, then we could also consider that the three fairy trees made an appearance as well.

There are other numbers to consider as well. The boy was four but looked eight. There were two sons born of the virgin, two cousins, and two in the pair of Gwydyon and Lleu. Numbers were sacred and held special meanings to the Celts and we can be sure that they held a special meaning within their tales[vi].

Let us consider then the Oak itself. The ground before us is fertile by the time that the flower of the Oak appears as Blodeuedd. Eventually the Eagle rests on the old tree at the end of the relationship, dies a type of death and is reborn. So we bear witness to the complete life of the tree from flower to old tree. Let us also not forget the two illusions of Gwydyon of the ships which would have been made of Oak. First there was one ship and then there were so many ships that they churned up the sea.

There are also many things that are “in between” in this tale as well. The river bank, the tree top, woman not a woman (made of flowers), man not a man (virgin birth), virgin not a virgin, and plenty of shapeshifting. The queen or bride of a king is usually considered to be the goddess or to be the land itself. If this is the case then what would be the purpose of the different types of women in the story? What could we learn from the defiled virgin who becomes a queen, the mother who is denied the right (?) to be a stool, and the adulterous wife who is the essence of nature herself?

Let us also be reminded of the impossible things in this story beyond magic and shapeshifting. Bards do not usually bear arms and for a king who cannot survive without the lap of a virgin, even for a night, Math does quite well for three years and three days before even seeking one out. Even then he does not seem to ever get a replacement “stool”. There are other details of the story I did not retell, such as Math’s ability to hear any whisper yet Gwydyon alone plots aloud plainly but remains unheard.

Duir is said to be the root word for door. To open the door to deeper and higher understanding, at least as the Celts would have done, we need to be able to see in symbols. We have already been told to do so from those such as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and now perhaps by the tellers of the old tales as well.

In our dreams we know that symbols hold meanings. In our tales we learn that there are many more hidden messages yet. Perhaps someday we may step through that doorway that exists in the forest, and see the language that is used by the gods.

May Duir, the oak, let it be so.

“The oak is possibly the most widely revered of all trees. The earliest spirits of Greek mythology were oak-tree spirits called Dryads, and it was believed that oak was the first tree created by God from which sprang the entire human race.”  – Jacqueline Memory Paterson (Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook) 


[i] Cooper.

[ii] Hageneder.

[iii] This image is of a drawing, painting, print, or other two-dimensional work of art, and the copyright for it is most likely owned by either the artist who produced the image, the person who commissioned the work, or the heirs thereof. It is believed that the use of low-resolution images of works of art for critical commentary on: the work in question, the artistic genre or technique of the work of art or the school to which the artist belongs on this web site qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. Any other uses of this image might be copyright infringement. – Wikipedia Image.

[iv] This is the second Christian reference in the tale, as the boy Dylan was earlier baptised. This is a testament of the times that the tales were finally put into writing.

[v] The quote is from The Mabinogion. The above story is my own version taken from this same original source and also from The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology.

[vi] Three is the triad of birth, life, death or start, middle, end, etc. For an interesting summary of Celtic numbers see Celtic Symbols by Sabine Heinz.

Huathe (Hawthorn)

“The druids knew about many medicinal plants and were skilled fortune tellers… Furthermore, they preferred to teach their hand-selected pupils in the forest because they were convinced that the essentials of life could be learned from trees.” Franjo Terhart (Beyond Death)

The Roots:

Hawthorn is the first tree of the second aicme, group of five, in the Ogham.

Huathe, the hawthorn, is the tree of the otherworld. It is one of the three trees that make up the “fairy triad”, along with the ash and the oak. It is believed that the fairy realm can be directly accessed through this tree, especially when it is flowering and with greatest of ease at Beltane, which is the beginning of the light half of the year.

Huathe, hawthorn or whitethorn, is the tree of May, which is the month of chastity and restraint. So it is that the Otherworld can be accessed more easily by those who are pure of heart, which are those who can access a childlike nature of open mindedness and playfulness.

Many people associate Huathe with ill fortune and bad luck. It is a tree of great potential and has the power to unlock the mysteries of other kingdoms. It is more likely that the hawthorn has a nature that reeks of caution to the uninitiated than it is actually “bad luck”. It is still believed in many parts of the old country that chopping down a hawthorn will bring one ruin, as the protective spirits can be vindictive and vengeful. For this reason it is also a tree that is sometimes sought out by those who practice the darker arts.

Like the birch, the hawthorn’s meanings and associations are agreed upon to a large degree[i]. Its powers however seem to defy explanation and are left for the practitioner to experience for themselves, with a thinly veiled warning from those that have gone before.

The Trunk:

Ballyvadlea Ireland set the stage for a grim series of events in March of 1895. It had been reported to the local constabulary that Bridget Cleary, wife to Michael Cleary, was missing by a concerned friend. An inquiry became an investigation, which eventually revealed a burnt body in a shallow grave.

Nine people were initially charged for the murder while other people in the village were later revealed to have been aware of the events that had transpired, or to have been participants in the actual killing. This included Bridget’s husband, her father, her cousins, and her neighbours.

The motive for the crime-which is sometimes inaccurately described as the last witch burning of Ireland- was found to have been one in which the townsfolk believed that they were torturing a changeling (a shapeshifting fairy imposter) and were only trying to retrieve Bridget back from the fairies.

Michael Cleary is said to have stated that his wife was two inches too tall and much too fair or beautiful to have been her at all. The rest of the townsfolk seemed to agree in his assessment as they either participated in, or were accomplices to, the murder. Eventually Michael Cleary served 15 years for the killing.

The case at the time was highly political. The English used the murder as proof that the Irish could not govern themselves because of their whimsical and uncivilized beliefs. The murder became international news, is said to have influenced Gerald Gardner – the modern father of Wiccanism- and has since been the source of several books and movies[ii].

Fairy abduction has been reported in myth and legend since the earliest of times. A well documented case in 1646 was that of Anne Jefferies in St. Teath England. After her reported abduction – which she did not like to talk about- she apparently had the powers of clairvoyance, did not need to eat, and had the power to heal.

Thomas the Rhymer who lived from 1220-1298 in Scotland was also said to have disappeared for a time and to have returned with powers. This was later explained away as him having been with the fairies, most especially one which was his “fairy bride”. He became a noted bard and also had prophetic skills, even accurately predicting events such as the death of Alexander the 3rd.

Katherine Mary Briggs’ Encyclopedia of Fairies is a good place to start exploring the phenomena of fairy encounters. This well researched text references over one hundred books and historical documents and discusses the two cases above alongside many others. While there are many different theories as to the source of these encounters-from mental illness to communion with demons- Briggs suggests that fairies may be categorized as either “diminished gods or the dead”.

It is easy to dismiss these early encounters as fanciful and unlikely but the phenomenon continues to exist today only in an altered form. Alien abductions are believed to occur by many people. It is a common belief today that we are visited by beings from other planets for a variety of theorized reasons. Whatever one chooses to believe, whether it is a type of mental illness or a genuine phenomenon, perhaps the beings involved are one and the same.

The Anne Jefferies account of 1646 describes her being approached by small humanoids, a pricking sensation before everything went black, and a sensation of being taken through the air. When she awoke the humanoids were her size and a fight ensued between the being who wanted to keep her (with the red feather) and the others who decided she could not stay. When it was determined that she had to be returned there was a pricking sensation once more before darkness returned and she was brought back to the land of the living.

The fairies of Ireland are the Sidhe, or the Tuatha De Danann. The Tuatha De Danaan are often described as having arrived in “flying ships” to take Ireland by force from its previous owners the Fir Bolg. Ireland was then taken away from them by the ancestors of present Ireland, the Milesians, led by the great poet Amergin. The Tuatha De Danann went underground and became the Sidhe, or fairies.

Let us consider that many common UFO sightings describe lights that come out of mountaintops or sometimes even out of lakes. Whether or not we believe in the idea of aliens, fairies, or inter dimensional beings there are many mysteries from our past that seem to prohibit scepticism. Consider the following…

Construction by “stone tool” ancients of buildings we are still unable to reconstruct with today’s technologies. 1400 ton building blocks, precision cuts of blocks that even lasers cannot duplicate, structures that align perfectly with constellations, and various marvels across the globe. We are supposed to believe that these structures, such as the great pyramids, were constructed with stone tools before the invention of the wheel?[iii]

Even today there are crop circles found around the globe that self proclaimed hoaxers are unable to duplicate, scientists are unable to explain, and that continue to defy logic. Although the most common theory seems to be alien communication, some call these findings “fairy circles”[iv]. Perhaps, whatever they are, even if there is a simple psychological explanation, aliens and fairies are the same thing.

It is the hawthorn -and its association with the fairies- that makes us pause and consider these possibilities-and perhaps many more- during our symbolic journey.   

The hawthorn is also associated with the mythical goddess figure of Olwen who is found in the Mabinogion[v]. She is the daughter of Yspaddaden Penkawr, the chief giant hawthorn[vi]. It is said that her footprints produce white trefoil, or sometimes hawthorn flower petals, and that this is the origin of the Milky Way (Hageneder).    

Diminished gods, the dead, or something else altogether? 

The Foliage:

The wolf is often associated with the hawthorn. The Ogham Tract found in the Book of Ballymote says that a pack of wolves is like the thorns of the hawthorn. “A terror to anyone is a pack of wolves”.

Like the hawthorn and the fairy, the wolf is a creature that we cannot decide if we love or hate. In folklore and mythology it is either noble, or a menace. Like the alleged changeling of Bridget Cleary or the beautiful bride of Thomas the Rhymer the wolf is also seen as either a powerful enemy or a beneficial and otherworldly friend.

The hawthorn with her beautiful and mystical flower masks a thorn with wound inflicting capabilities. The fairy with its magical allure and gifts of power, also promises madness and even death.

The wolf offers us faithfulness, intuition, community, monogamy, strength, night vision, and the instinctual ability to hunt and to survive [vii]. It also can be viciously savage, steal livestock and has been known in times of hunger – although rare- to attack humans.

While it is easy to see anything as either good or bad the truth is that there is nothing in nature that is so black or white. The fears of our ancestors hunted the wolf to extinction in many places. The last wolf in Scotland was killed in 1743 and the wolf was killed out of fear to the point of being endangered-and sometimes extinct- in many parts of North America.

The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park and the recolonization of wolves in Glacier Park has been closely monitored and studied by scientists. It has been observed that elk and coyote populations dropped as elk herds were forced to stay on the move and the coyote suddenly had a natural enemy, vegetation stabilized on shorelines, aspen and willow trees thrived, many insect eating birds returned, overhanging branches of stabilized trees fed trout-which returned-, eagles and ravens also flourished and beavers returned. The entire watershed became healthier in just a couple of decades all from the reintroduction of a single-often villainized- species[viii].

We cannot afford to minimize or glorify any species on our journey through the forest. A clear perception is needed, braided with a healthy dose of respect.

The fairy folk are seen as beautiful as they are terrible but perhaps they are something in between.

The wolf is wild, intelligent and free, yet it is the bringer of nightmares and often associated with evil. It is believed by the Nordic ancestors that the Fenris wolf, the devourer of worlds, will bring about the destruction of all there is.

The truth is that the wolf too is more likely to exist somewhere between the two extremes of good and evil.

The hawthorn, or Huathe, is the bringer both of good luck and of bad. Hawthorn is the beauty with the thorns. She reminds us that perceptions can shift, and that awareness- with a healthy dose of caution- can make her an ally, as opposed to a tree that should be feared by the weak of heart.

 “Marie-Louise Sjoestedt makes an important point in this regard, namely, that in the wilderness ‘the conditions of the mythological period still prevail’. These conditions include the close familiarity that humans, animals, and spirits enjoyed with each other. The wildwood bears the mark of the earliest paradisal stages of creation, hence the earliest mark of the Creator.” Tom Cowan (Fire in the Head)

 


[i] The exception may be Erynn Rowan Laurie who links the concepts of loneliness, misfortune, nightmares, war, anxiety and many others to Huathe. Laurie reminds us that behind challenge is growth, or opportunity, however. She relates the Ogham letters as concepts or energies – akin to the Norse runes- and not necessarily representative of particular trees which accounts largely for her differing interpretation of the huathe from Graves, Pennick, Liz and Colin Murray, Greer, Hageneder, Cooper, and Farmer-Knowles.

[ii] Rossell Robbin’s Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. See also the archived New York Times article from October 2000 entitled the Fairy Defense by David McCullough http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/08/books/the-fairy-defense.html

[iii] For references to the above statements, and one theory shared by some, see the documentary series Ancient Aliens on the History Channel. The series contains many thought provoking statements from various scientists and scholars that cannot be easily dismissed. It seems to lack counter arguments for many of the points discussed however.

[v] A well known collection of 11 medieval Welsh prose stories

[vi] Yspaddaden is often believed to be a corruption of Ysbydd, hawthorn.

[vii] The Druid Animal Oracle. Phillip and Stephanie Carr Gomm.

[viii] Most recently Mother Earth News June/July 2011

error: Content is protected !!
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap