Saille (Willow)

“Thus, among tree species, we can recognize on sight as wind-pollinated the bulk of catkin-bearing trees, including the hazels, birches, and poplars, for in all of them there is an abundance of loose pollen, no nectar, and no conspicuous insect-attracting feature. Willows, with their large nectarines, constitute an exception and are insect-pollinated.” – Steve Cafferty (Firefly Encyclopedia of Trees)

The Roots:

Saille, the willow, is the tree of the otherworld.

The willow is the conductor of relationships. She is the bringer of love, of poetic inspiration, of the element of water, of music, the moon and of the great goddess herself. She is associated to many different creatures of the Earth and to the very idea of magic.

Willow is the builder of bridges, between this world and the next.

The Trunk:

It is said that the willow tree can return from the dead, and there may be a kernel of truth to this.

The tree responds well to cutting, pruning and grafting. In Plants of Coastal British Columbia we are told that BC Natives would use poles from Hooker’s Willow for fishing piers because they would “take root” in the floor of the waterbed. The same source states that the Variable Willow grows “in the footsteps of retreating glaciers”, thus beginning the population process of the forest beneath the shadow of the ice ages.

In mythology the willow tree can be connected to many different goddesses. Saille is also associated to many living creatures in Celtic mythology like the crane, the bull, the bumblebee, the hawk[i] and the frog.

It is no mystery that the willow is a water tree, as it grows in damp places along riverbanks and lake shores. When the willow grows close to the water her roots reach into the life-giving liquid itself. To the Celts this must have been significant.

The Celtic ancestors believed that there was a thin veil between this world and the next. It was known that in places where reality bent, the veil between the worlds was thinnest. A mountaintop was sacred because it was neither part of the earth nor of the sky, beaches were neither of the land nor of the sea, and a forest clearing was neither a part of the woods nor separated from it. When it came to time, dusk and dawn were sacred because they were neither of the day nor of the night. Samhain was an especially good time to peer between the worlds for it neither existed in one year nor in the next. It was thus believed that many spirits could wander freely at this time and that humans could just as easily become lost to the other side as well. Babies born on boats were sacred under the same philosophy as well. One can also quickly see why rowan or mistletoe growing not on the ground but on another tree may have been especially significant, or why they would be harvested halfway between the full and the new moon. The list of places, times and events where the veil was thinner than usual could be considered as inexhaustible as the imagination is long.

Creatures such as frogs were considered sacred as they were neither a creature of the land nor of the water. For this reason so were many water birds as they were neither of the air nor of the water. The crane, swan, goose and duck make repeated appearances throughout Celtic mythology.

So to the Celtic people the fact that the willow tree, Saille, lived partly in the water as well as partly on the land was of a significant importance -as it likely was to many other ancient cultures as well.

Fred Hageneder in the Meaning of Trees lists the willow as being attached to the Sumerian goddess of love, Belili and in Greece to Persephone, Circe, Artemis and Hera and to the nine muses (which gave the gift of poetry to Orpheus). Hageneder also reminds us that the Irish Bards’ harp had the body of willow wood which is also significant as the bard was no mere musician, but a mystic and an inspired messenger of the gods.

Nor should we forget that the White Goddess-which Graves attempts to establish is but one and the same goddess in many forms throughout history-is also connected to “the Willow Grove” in her original form.

Willow’s being attached to the element of water, and thus to the moon, gives us many reasons for these spiritual or metaphysical connections, for most biologists say that life on this planet would never have occurred without the tidal effects of the oceans,  which are caused by the moon.

In the Druid Animal Oracle, Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm point out that there are two separate surviving Celtic monuments that both show a bull and three cranes with a willow tree. These first century AD monuments show us the significance of the relationship between these three beings. The number three is extremely significant in Celtic mythology and reappears over and over again in the form of triads, in art, in legends and in the images of the triangle. The three cranes depicted on the monuments thus signify a divine group. The crane is often attached to the willow tree elsewhere as well.

Graves also points out that cranes were believed to have bred, and breed, in willow groves.

This braid of connection is significant, for it is the crane that is directly linked to the Ogham. It is the “crane bag” that carries the carved Ogham sticks and the sacred treasures of the sea god Manannan. Though the original Ogham was a gift to humanity from the god Ogma Sun Face[ii], “Greek mythographers credited Palmedes with [the additional invention of Ogham glyphs], saying that he received his inspiration from observing a flock of cranes, which make letters as they fly”. “Crane Knowledge” would then come to mean knowledge of the Ogham specifically (Carr-Gomm).

The horns of the bull are often said to represent the moon (numerous sources). The bull then is just as likely to represent us, as humans, as a singular warm blooded creature of the earth, reaching towards the heavens. It is said that if a person is changed into the shape of a crane then it is only the blood of a bull that can change them back (Heinz[iii]).

Willow can then be used as a bridge builder and a harmonizer between this world and the next. Saille can be asked to petition the goddess in matters of the heart or to make peace where discord exists between various people in a spirit of cooperation. For just as the bumblebee exchanges with her, the willow, the labour of pollination for nectar, so to can we find a place of common ground in the world of the willow no matter what our differences.

Like all of the symbolism attached to Saille though, perhaps her greatest gift is to show us that the world that we perceive as fixed and static is more fluid than we could ever have imagined, and that perhaps -as many of the mystics of the past have claimed – it is but an illusion[iv].

The Foliage:

There is an old tradition of sitting beneath the willow tree while listening to the wind that blows through her leaves create the musical speech of poetic inspiration.

“Perhaps trees are mediators between the worlds: their branches reach far into heaven and their roots reach deep into the earth.” Saibne Heinz (Celtic Symbols)

[i] In the Ogham there are also certain birds, as well as trees, attached to each letter. The bird attached to Saille is the hawk.

[ii] Ogma “Sun Face” is the son of Dagda “the Lord of Knowledge”. He is a poet warrior god who also carries the souls of the dead to the otherworld. Little is known of Ogma but he is one of the younger generation of gods, known as the Tuatha De Danann. After a great battle against the Fomorii (the previous and dark ones) Ogma claimed a magical sword that would recite all of the things that it had ever done. (the Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology, Select Editions. 2002)There can easily be seen parallels between Ogma and Odin, who brought the runic alphabet to the Norse, or to Prometheus, fire bringer, type figures. What seems to separate Ogma from these other advancers of civilization however is that he does not seem to have been punished for giving the Ogham to humans. I have found that John Mathews description of the events leading up to the sharing of the Ogham with man in the Song of Talieson as intuitive as he describes the sacrifice and pain that was experienced by Ogma in the process of learning the Ogham in the first place.

[iii] Sabine Heinz uses German Celtic Historian Silvia Botheroyd as a reference here. As far as I know her work is only available in German.

[iv] The willow is also used in scrying and other forms of divination, dowsing, and also has healing properties. It is commonly known that aspirin is a synthetic representation of salicyclic acid found in “white willow bark”, which in its natural form does not have blood thinning properties.

Fearn (Alder)

“The path of knowledge is a forced one. In order to learn we must be spurred. On the path of knowledge we are always fighting something, avoiding something, prepared for something; and that something is always inexplicable, greater, and more powerful than us.” – Carlos Castanada (A Separate Reality)

The Roots:

The third letter before us is fearn, the alder tree[i].

Fearn is the tree of the selfless servant. The alder has strong links to both the warrior and the hunter of the tribe. In the Book of Ballymote, alder’s wood was said to be used for the creation of life protecting shields. According to Pennick, the wood from the alder tree was also valued for sword making, produced the best charcoal for metal smelting and “in later times was prized for gunpowder production”.

Fearn is a water tree and resists rot. It was a foundation wood for the original dwellings and was used for piers and had many other important constructive purposes. The alder also produced dyes from its bark, flowers and twigs. These were red, brown, and green accordingly.

Portions of the alder tree are edible. Fearn also has healing properties, for us, and for the forest itself.

Besides being the warrior, Fearn is also the great magician, the alchemist, and the shamanic healer. Alder represents many aspects of action and movement.

The Trunk:

All of us have walked a warrior’s path at one time or another throughout our lives even if it has been for but a moment. We accept challenge or are put into positions where we have no other choice but to stretch and grow. All of us have had moments in our lives, where we have had to overcome our fears and have had to push ourselves beyond our imagined boundaries, accomplishing the previously unimaginable.

War, hunting and magic were three of the great themes of the Celtic ancestors. The stories of Arthur, Bran, Taliesin, and of the gods and goddesses themselves reflect these values richly as do tales of historic heroes such as the great Queen Boudicca, who for a time was a threat to Rome itself.

Life was simpler then… and harder too. A clan, tribe, or village would grow, raise, and kill its own food. The people gave thanks to the spirits for they knew what it was like to be without when the game was scarce. Hunting was often a necessary sustenance that supplemented their food stores. These were tough times where lives were sometimes lost in pursuit of game, and parties that went out in search of food would sometimes never be seen again.

Lands also needed to be defended and territory disputes were often settled with violence. Food needed to be protected from marauding raiders and there were dark beings who were said to come from time to time in search for blood. In small communities everyone would know how to fight, because if the cause for battle came each person was expected to do his or her part.

Times are much more complicated now. Many imagine that the need for the warrior and the hunter have both vanished sometime between the industrial revolution and yesterday. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We are specialists now. Grocers and accountants are rarely called to arms. Soldiers go to war instead and police protect our cities. These warriors walk a more traditional path than many others do in today’s society. There are other types of warriors though, than just the classical archetypes.

Gandhi was a warrior as was Martin Luther King. So are environmental activists, prison guards and conservation officers. So it is that even the warrior in this day and age has become specialized and has many different types of wars to fight.

In his book Wiccan Warrior Kerr Cuhulain makes many astute observations about the modern path of the warrior. The author, a wiccan police officer and martial artist, quotes classical texts of war that state that the warrior only acts in response to aggression and is a man of peace (Musashi) or that he who victors without fighting is the greatest warrior of all (Sun Tzu).

In her Ogham section on alder, Erynn Rowan Laurie also includes as warriors workers at women’s shelters and fire fighters as those on the path. She expresses the importance of the modern warrior in our society and speaks to the warrior in all of us.

On her podcast Elemental Castings (# 37-a discussion panel on women and the changing face of paganism) T. Thorn Coyle expresses the “problems and pitfalls” of committing exclusively to nonviolence or in training and preparing exclusively for violence on the path of the warrior. She suggests that both paths offer lessons and learning’s that should be “brought to the table and shared”. Margaret Adler, author of Drawing Down the Moon, brings forth a very clear observation that I believe goes to the core of our sometimes squeamish relationship with the warrior. She questions, “When does the warrior with non violence disintegrate into non action and when does the warrior with violence go into abusive power over another?”  She then goes on to suggest that there is a part of both of these extremes that can co-exist together and, “be part of the same battle for survival”.

I myself have walked the path of the warrior in a sometimes hostile world. I have tried to find a balance in my life by honouring the warrior spirit that exists within me. I served in the Canadian infantry in Afghanistan but I was also very open about my disapproval of Canada going to war in Iraq (even participating in a peace march). I have arrested hundreds of people in my civilian job and have had multiple weapons and sometimes syringes pulled on me and have had to react with violence and hurt people – which has often left me feeling sick to my stomach even if I did not hesitate to react in the moment.  I have had the ability, and the capacity, to be able to protect more vulnerable people than me in other situations too though. Every situation that life brings me is different and offers me something new to reflect upon and to learn from. I want a world of peace but I do not see how that world in the foreseeable future can exist without people who are walking upon the warrior’s path protecting the more vulnerable[ii]. As long as there are those that prey on the weak I will find employment in one field or another if I should choose to do so. I will just have to remember to ask myself every day if I have stepped into a place of “abusive power over another” for I must be careful not to become consumed with intentions that deviate from the ultimate goal of love and peace for my brother and sister.

As we evolve-and become more and more specialized- violence in our society seems to generally decrease over time within our cities and societies. This trend comes alongside education and modern means of accountability showing us that there is another way.

A fading warrior of a different type is the hunter. She or he is a provider. Instead of manning the walls against the hail of enemy spears, they are protecting the collective from the woes of hunger and starvation.

This role too has become specialized as has that of the farmer, the herder, and the gatherer.  We step out now onto a narrow pathway of stone that leads us directly to a market. We buy hamburgers and not a portion of a cow, potatoes and not the life giving roots of a plant, and a loaf of bread but not the heads of the grain plants mixed with life giving water, yeast, and which has been thrust before the element of fire in preparation.

While it is true that the role of the hunter may have become more diminished during this era as well, perhaps there has never been a greater time for giving thanks for our plentiful hunt than there is today. The hunter in the days of our ancestors always gave thanks to the spirit of his prey, as did the farmer to the plants that he gathered during the harvest. This is so very important today.

It is said that two million people will die of starvation this year on our planet. That we should live with so much should not diminish our need for giving thanks. These people in a state of vulnerability are the poorest, most uneducated people, living in some of the least fertile places on our planet.

If we really want to be honest with ourselves, our fortunes and misfortunes too are braided in the past and with the spirit of the warrior. For many of us have so much today only because our ancestors had stronger, more ruthless, and better equipped armies.

Perhaps in time we will remember once more how to be thankful for what we have as a society, and set out once more upon the warrior’s path as we attempt to make right so many wrongs of today and yesterday.

The Foliage:

One who is capable of delivering wounds should also be able to heal. The alder provides many healing tools to us as humans and not just instruments of war.

According to the British Columbia Nature Guide, “The ancient Romans treated tumours with alder leaves, which modern scientists have since learned contain the tumour suppressing compounds betulin and lupeol.”

According to separate source, Plants of Coastal British Columbia, BC natives used a solution made from the bark of alder to fight tuberclerosis. The guide claims that this tonic has been credited with saving many lives. The author’s also go on to state that the alder “was also used as a wash for skin infections, wounds, and is known to have strong antibiotic properties”.

Alders are short lived but they appear quickly in areas of destruction after devastating forest fires and heavy logging. They appear as if by magic, in a group, and together they heal the very land.

Science is still trying to understand the mechanisms leading to nodulation in plants. There are certain plants, like the alder, that have a symbiotic relationship to an organism that lives in small bubble like formations, called nodules, within their roots. The organism, frankia alni, takes nitrogen from the air and converts it into a form that is useful for plants in the soil. In turn the alder provides these species with carbon harvested through its own photosynthesis. All plants need nitrogen, so the alder’s relationship is a benefit to the whole forest and not just to itself by being a part of this chemical transformation. In this way the soil becomes more nutritious for the whole forest than it was before.

Most “nitrogen fixers” are members of the legume family (symbiosis with Rhizobia bacterium) but Actinorhizal plants like the alder and a few other species also have this ability, although it is extremely rare.

And so it could be quite accurately said that fearn heals the very earth itself.

Alder is the great warrior, the mover, the motivator, the provider and the healer. Fearn provides for the collective in many ways. The tree then could also be seen as a role model for the perfect neighbour.

There is much to learn from this tree.

“The Otherworld communicated its messages still, yet these were cast into the immediate language and symbolism of everyday life. There was no shortage of communication between the worlds, just a shortage of experienced decoders.” Caitlin and John Mathews (the Western Way)

[i] Most scholars and practitioners list the Ogham order of the first group of five, the aicme, as B, L, F, S, and N. This is the way it appears in the Book of Ballymote and as it was apparently given by the seventeenth century Irish bard  Roderick O’Flaherty in his book Ogygia. My first introduction to the Ogham was in this order and it is what I subscribe to today.

Ogham scholar R.A. Macalister once put forth the theory that the original Ogham order was in fact B,L,N, F, and S. This was to support his theory that the Ogham could be linked to a Greek alphabet. Robert Graves subscribes to this theory as does John Michael Greer. This would mean that the third letter would be ash instead of alder, the fourth would be alder instead of willow, and the third would be willow instead of ash. Many have disputed this claim. I do not think that this theory is right or wrong. It is simply important to be aware that the same characters can sometimes be listed in a different order.

[ii] During the previous week I touched upon my occasional disapproval of new agers who believe that they are making the world a better place by ignoring particular problems. I believe in many ways that they are as much contributors to the problems on our planet, enablers, as those who prey on the weak and vulnerable in the first place. While the alder seems to support this personal outlook in many ways next week’s tree, the willow, may seem to agree more closely to the philosophy of the new ager.

Luis (Rowan)

“While the more easily available material equates each ogam letter with a tree, most of the letter names aren’t, in fact, the names of trees at all. Conceptually, they are far more akin to the Norse runes. Lus may be associated with the rowan tree but the word itself derives from a root that refers to either a healing herb or to the brightness of a flame, and it is from these definitions that a depth of meaning can be developed and appreciated.” – Erynn Rowan Laurie (Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom)

The Roots:

Stepping into the forest can become disorienting. There is a moment, of adjustment, where one’s perception begins to shift. Direction can become confused. There is a humming silence, steady and persistent, that exists behind the bird’s song. Time now seems to move in a different manner altogether. Reality becomes blurred.

Although there are many differences in opinion as to the meaning of this second tree we may still find that many of the experts agree on certain aspects of luis[i]. It is commonly agreed upon and understood that this is the tree of protection against evil. This was what our ancestors petitioned for from the rowan tree in generations past.

The Rowan then becomes an ally on the journey that we will undertake into the forest, and into the darkness of the unknown.

The Trunk:

There are two important questions that we must now ask ourselves. The first is about protection itself and the second is about evil.

What is protection? To understand protection we must look within and at our own belief system. One way to view protection is to see it as a shield around ourselves, or as some sort of a guardian spirit that aids us and shelters us from harm. There may be problems with this paradigm however. How would this type of protection aid one who may be on a path of power towards growth or recognizing the divine within? When the shield is gone the traveler will once more be susceptible to harm and attack.

A second way to look at the concept of protection is to view it as a request to be given the strength to overcome whatever roadblocks are discovered on that path before us and to repel evil. In this way protection is summoned from outside of ourselves as a way of fostering a deeper relationship with the divine and with ourselves. With every step that we take we become more and more connected to everything around us. Protection does not become a shield around us but the energies become a part of a process within us. In this way we step into relationship with the rowan and are not merely asking for a favour but working in cooperation with it.

This second way of viewing protection allows me to experience and grow. It allows me to stay in a place of power and not to submit to the ideas of helplessness which may eventually lead to a belief in being a victim. It is asking for help but not asking to be carried.

What is evil then? What is it that we need to protect ourselves against?

This is one of the oldest questions known to us as humans. At one time in our history wolves were considered evil and at another time they were sacred. Many plants and animals share this historic past. One could say that many things found in nature were at one time considered evil and perhaps even more things that are found in the realms of civilization.

To some the night and darkness are evil. To others evil only exists externally. Many believe in the concept of sin. What one believes to be evil can be deeply personal and a very frightening thing to look upon.

To ask for protection however we must understand the answer to this question even if it is a private matter, for we need to know what it is that we need protection from. Ravenous beasts or manipulative salesmen? Stalking witches or adulterous women? The devil of Christianity or the woes of addiction? Perhaps it is merely the allures of apathy?

There is a common belief amongst many on a spiritual path that evil is fear, which is the opposite of love, and that only love is real. There is something pleasant and divinely innocent in this belief and it is one that I look upon with some degree of fondness.

There is a dark side to this belief however. Many in our Western society who embrace this belief choose to turn a blind eye towards injustice simply because it does not exist within their immediate sphere of perception.

It may be true that the murderer and the thief deserve love and forgiveness. It may also be true that I should find a way to love my enemy. Should I then turn a blind eye to the rape on the street corner that is taking place NOW? Should I stay inside of my safe abode, seated upon my couch, so that I do not have to bear witness to starvation and poverty extreme? At what point does my acceptance of fear, or evil, by not validating its existence become enabling? One must also ask oneself what is the purpose of meeting the divine if one is not ready to protect their fellow man or woman? Is it to be a caretaker of both Earth and beast, to be a leader, a protector, a parent of children, a brother, a sister or a neighbour? Are we incarnated so that we can ignore the patterns of life around us? Why were we even born then?

Focusing on love alone is a drug. We can also focus on the noon day sun and deny that same sphere sets at night. We can have ‘minders’ if we are gurus, deny the existence of sickness, stay in the comfort of our own homes, and live in a fairytale where sickness, hunger, pain and suffering do not exist. While eventually this may become one’s reality the truth is that one would be disconnected from the whole. We exist as one. What happens to one of us happens to all of us. What ails the Earth also ails us. Apathy does not erase this truth but only allows the injustice to continue unhindered and unrestrained.

The universe is microcosmic and macrocosmic. What exists inside of me also exists outside of me. When my body becomes sick my immune system will fight it. The toxins will pass out of my body and the healing process will take place. It does me no good whatsoever to ignore the lump under my skin.  By being in denial there is a very real possibility that the sickness will spread, eventually to a point where healing is no longer very easy at all.

We tell ourselves, in this society, that the adult entertainment industry is okay but the evidence is undeniable that this business supports organized crime and human trafficking. We may tell ourselves that recreational drug use is okay, but again the evidence is undeniable that there is a machine in place that validates murder and takes advantage of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. These are the easy ones to spot too. What about our mass consumerism in the West and how this affects the rest of the world. What about the wanton abuse and depletion of the Earth’s resources? Not easy things to look upon.

So should we turn a blind eye? Should we carry on with love in our hearts and a smile on our faces? Have we truly transcended evil if we focus exclusively on love while others toil to repair the house in which we live? We are then nothing more than a guest. We are not a participant in the community in which we live but a self absorbed tourist. Ultimately the focusing on love alone while denying the existence of evil, or fear, or darkness, is an exercise in selfishness.

So evil may exist then. To each one of us that evil may be completely different and wear a unique face. But what exists outside of us also exists within. This is the difficult thing to stare at. For all things on this journey may be, and sometimes are, a mirror.

The evils that we see outside of ourselves are reflections of the ignorance that exists within our own hearts and minds. These are the most difficult meditations of all.

The Foliage:

A piece of rowan wood may be carried as an amulet of protection as could some leaves or berries (which possess a five pointed star). According to Robert Graves, rowan can be burnt to summon the Sidhe (faerie) to help in battle. Rowan stakes sometimes were also pounded through the hearts of corpses to incapacitate their ghosts.

Rowan crosses were made to ward off evil, and the trees were grown outside of houses, churches and in graveyards.

In the second part of the Prose Edda, Skaldskaparmal, believe to be written around 1220 by Snori Sturluson, the rowan tree is even said to have saved the life of the god Thor. Although the story does not seem to exist in the time of myth before the recording of this tale (Viktor Rydberg) it has become a very popular story of the protective and aiding nature of the rowan tree.

During a great journey to the frost giant Geirrod’s keep Thor had to cross the Vimur River. At one point while crossing the tumultuous river it seemed apparent that he would drown and be swept away and that his quest would not be completed. It is said that it was the rowan tree that leaned over and helped him to the opposite bank of the river by pulling him from the dark and raging waters, thus saving his life by offering him its branches. It is for this reason that the rowan tree may sometimes be called Thor’s Helper, alongside other names such as the quicken tree or the mountain ash[ii].

There is a very old tradition in which the rowan tree was asked for assistance. As we move into the forest we should not be afraid to ask for help and companionship from luis, the rowan tree. To ask for help though, we first need to be aware of our own shortcomings. We need to know what evil it is that we are facing and in what ways we may be weak to its influences.

We should also remember that every time we take something from the forest we should give thanks and offer something in return. In this way our relationship to it strengthens and develops.

Our minds become clearer now for the rowan is not a tree of protection alone. She is also a companion. She is a friend and an aid that offers clarity of mind and awareness as well.

These are also things that are important to possess, when a journey such as ours, or of any size for that matter, is undertaken.

Past the seeker as he prayed came the crippled and the beggar and the beaten. And seeing them…he cried, “Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such things and yet do nothing about them?”…God said, “I did do something. I made you.”  -Sufi Teaching 


[i] Robert Graves in the White Goddess speaks mostly of rowan’s protective qualities. Liz and Colin Murray offer “control of the senses” besides protection as an aiding attribute of the tree. John Michael Greer says the rowan is also a tree of “discernment” and “inner clarity”. Nigel Pennick says that the rowan can protect one from psychic perception and be “used for developing the power of second sight and protection against enchantment”. According to respected Ogham author Erynn Rowan Laurie luis offers “sustenance”, “teachers and teaching”, and is very closely linked to inspiration.

[ii] The Western mountain ash and the Sitka mountain ash are both shrubs native to the West coast of North America. According to the book, Plants of Coastal British Columbia, “Where ranges overlap these two species will hybridize with each other and with the introduced rowan tree (S. Aucuparia), which is found mostly near settlements”.

Beithe (Birch)

“The forest is an introverted wilderness, and it offers risk and refuge in equal measure. Robin Hood found sanctuary there, but so did Red Riding Hood’s wolf. While the armies of empires dominate the open plain, rebels and patriots gain advantage in the shelter of the trees-right beside outlaws, outcasts, and mystics. The woods provide food and building materials, and yet they also disorient and impede progress. Until relatively recently, North American staple food species like deer, elk, bison and caribou inhabited the forest from coast to coast, but so did wolves, bears, and mountain lions, creatures that continue to fascinate, terrify-and kill us-to this day.” – John Vaillant (the Golden Spruce)

The Roots:

When it comes to the Ogham, the birch is one of the only trees to have a universally agreed upon meaning. It is the sentinel of new beginnings and heralds the start of any new journey.

Where is it that we are journeying to? What beginning is it that we seek?

The Trunk:

The Ogham can be viewed as a mnemonic device. It can help us to remember various trees and their meanings. The Ogham will teach us about our foliage wielding brothers and sisters and it may part the clouds for us-for but a moment-offering us a partial view into the otherworld.

The Ogham guides us, but it will also get us lost as we search within that forest for the true meanings and understandings that are being offered to us.

First of all, we can never hope to understand the Ogham completely because it is a relationship constantly in motion. We have insights from writers like Macalister, Graves or Liz and Colin Murray but much of the origins and meanings of the Ogham are lost to us forever through traditional scientific means. We can journey into our collective unconscious and perhaps recall fragments of understanding but we will never know exactly what the Ogham was used for or the absolute meanings associated with each of the tree alphabet letters. Nor should we.

Often as pagans we dream of a past that never existed, of a utopian society in which man lived in absolute harmony with nature.

Even though the Celtic ancestors -as we like to remember them- were not directly responsible for the deforestation of Europe and the Middle East, they were far from innocent. As countries like Italy or Lebanan became treeless wastelands-or the homes for crops- the Druids kept sacred the forest and held it as holy. What we like to forget however, is that these same ancestors also practiced human sacrifice according to most historians. This was no utopia but a society more foreign than we could ever imagine. Even a cursory read through James Frazer’s ‘the Golden Bough’ would leave a normal person shaking their head in disgust. Pagan cultures all over the world practiced human sacrifice, held slaves, forced women into “sacred” prostitution, practiced infanticide, animal sacrifice, genocide and other various atrocities in the name of god or goddesses everywhere. The utopia that we dream of is a place on the other side of the veil. It does not exist here, nor has it ever.

The Ogham still guides us however towards a new understanding. It can still be as relevant within our ethical framework as it must have been (and this has been debated) to the founders that used it in the first place.

The Foliage:

This does not mean that the Ogham is something that can be compartmentalized, categorized neatly on a shelf, or tucked aside only to be retrieved for the occasional new age tea party for fortune telling purposes. The Ogham represents something many people have never experienced and it is a guide back towards finding the self, and the connection, that we thought we had lost forever.

Again I will state that the Ogham is a mnemonic device.

Why is this so important to understand as we take those first few steps of our journey?

The forest, the wilderness, is neither the tree farm that was logged 100 years ago nor the park that exists down the road. To step into a real forest, a wilderness, one quickly realizes that things here are very different. You can get lost if you are not careful. You can be killed or eaten by wild animals if you do not tread with confidence. Insects can devour you. Weather can destroy you. Food and water can avoid you. The disconnection from your cell phone or network of friends can blanket you with feelings of instant isolation. There are not 20 or 25 species of trees and plants here in this forest but sometimes hundreds or thousands.

It is easy to see something as organized as the Ogham as sterile, neat and tidy, but the reality is far different. A real forest is ancient. There are millions of invertebrates beneath your feet and you may never see the sun. You may build a fire at night, but what you attract may be far more dangerous than what you hope to repel. You will be forced to surrender to the forest and become one of its children. You can only request to become the student of those ancient trees, which stand hundreds of years old around you, and hope that they will accept you. A park tree is as domesticated as a housecat or a broken-in horse. It is still beautiful but it is not the same. These ancient beings have a wisdom that we may be compelled to try to understand. They have seen things that modern man regards as myth.

If you study the Ogham you will have to make a journey someday to one of these ancient places[i]. You will have to go alone into the wilderness like any of the mystics of the past. There is no other way. These forests are our Vatican. They will call to you when you are ready. Perhaps the words here are the first whisperings on the wind.

Perhaps this is the beginning.

“There is a very interesting relationship between wilderness and sacredness. All of the great monastic traditions-whether that’s Christian, Buddhist or Taoist-all find their roots in an experience of their founders going into the desert, into the wilderness, onto the mountains, and finding there something that civilization can not give them, a realization about themselves, about nature, about the divine.” – Martin Palmer (BBC’s Planet Earth)

[i] This is not something to be taken lightly. Have someone know where you are going. If you are stepping off of a well marked path you will need at a minimum: a compass, tools for making a fire, food and water. You should have a buddy who knows when to expect you back and who will call for help if you do not return. You will need weather appropriate gear and should have spent time researching the area and survival in that particular environment.

This warning comes from personal experience. After years of spending time in wild places from British Columbia to Arizona I had developed an overconfidence that had eventually became very cocky. One day I was in the forest with no compass or jacket, fishing in a remote spot and decided to head out after sunset following a mountain trail. A fog came in and darkness descended completely. I could not see the stars and could barely see the ground. I realized quickly that I had walked off of the path and became disoriented in a mountainous area. The weather became very near freezing and I sat down to wait for dawn. I believe I would have been fine, if not cold and hungry when the morning came, but someone was expecting me and called for help. A search and rescue team eventually found me in the early hours of the morning. I had been a half hour’s vigorous hike from where I had parked my car (even in the stillness of the night I could not hear the calls from where my vehicle was).

I mark this as one of the most embarrassing and humiliating moments of my life. It was a great teacher for me in many ways however. I am always prepared now. I always bring a knife and a compass and have a handful of food, water, a flashlight (I try to never use-when I do its red light), and the right clothes.

My over confidence wasted many people’s time and taught me once again that I am just a tadpole in a very big pond.

Living Library Blog

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Mythology of the Dark… because many associate humankind’s older, darker, paranormal accounts with Victorian or Neopagan imagery.

I would hate for some poor soul to be seeking here skipping leprechauns with butterfly wings, only to encounter ghosts, witches, headhunters, werewolves, the undead, shapeshifting animals, and trees with roots that stretch so far into the dank and dirty realms of the underworld that you’ll wish you packed your toothbrush.

No, that would not do at all now would it? Sure, you might find the occasional fairy dancing a jig here or there, but those hoodlums are likely only hanging around with the hopes of lifting your wallet.

So be forewarned, these tales emerge from a time of darkness and misery, where ghostly beings lurked around the curve of every road and where gods existed within the darkness and confines of every shadow. Some would believe, that these tales harbour grains of truth still, that there is, in fact, a world of dark and mysterious beings which exists in an overlapping realm parallel to our own.

It may be these folks – the believers – who will find the greatest contentment here. Others may simply find solace in this rolling darkness; a peace which they had once been told by their elders to fear…

Most often mythological or legend-based, the blog will sometimes be a cryptozoological shout-out, horror related, or an examination of a modern day haunting, as well.

So beware seeker, ye enter here at your own risk!

The Celtic Tree Ogham…


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