“If the Hawthorn and Blackthorn have many berries, the ensuing winter is expected to be severe.” – A.W. Moore (Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man. 1891)
The fourteenth letter of the Ogham, in its tree form, is Straif. This letter is generally associated with the Blackthorn, or sloe, tree.
The Blackthorn has a very dark and dangerous reputation within Celtic folklore. It is almost always associated with the dead, other types of spirits, or to the Underworld.
The kennings, or word-Oghams, found within the Ogham Tract[i] are interpreted by John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman. The phrase “strongest red,[ii]” for example, is supposed to further elaborate on the meaning of the letter Straif[iii]. John Mathews interprets this phrase as representing “anger.”
Robert Ellison says that the Blackthorn represents “trouble and negativity” within Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids. He also says that the Blackthorn can be used, “for protection, repelling and dissolution spells.”
Caitlin Mathews’ divination system found within Celtic Wisdom Sticks does not always allow for each letter to be summarized easily into a single phrase, keyword, or idea. This oracle allows for separate interpretations for each of the four navigational directions. For example there will be a separate meaning for Straif in the North position, in the West position, and so on. While many of the letters have a more unified theme between these four interpretations, Straif in this case represents a tangled variety of meanings within the book. The ideas found therein are related to: showing oneself, hiding oneself (cunning/camouflage), discernment, and unity.
While the Blackthorn may seem to have a wide range of possible meanings within the Ogham tract and elsewhere, these interpretations are much more similar to each other than we may originally realize. The tree is often interpreted as representing things that are associated with “negativity.” These negatives can be anger, strife, poverty, bad luck, pain, suffering, harmful fairies, or even ghosts. This is no coincidence. These interpretations for Blackthorn can often be traced directly back to the tree’s folkloric associations.
Straif, or the Blackthorn, is the tree of the dead.
There’s no question about it, the Blackthorn is by far the witchiest tree found within the Ogham[iv].
The first example I will share comes from the time of myth. In it we have the “three times fifty” men of Da Derga armed with Blackthorn sticks. This can be found within Lady Gregory’s 1902 classic Cuchulain of Muirthemne. In it, the inn keeper Da Derga arrives with these 150 men brandishing Blackthorn clubs. It’s never entirely clear in the story either, whether or not the inn exists in this world or in the Otherworld. If we are to assume that the story takes place in the Otherworld, then these soldiers are the Sidhe. These Sidhe (pronounced she) are the earliest form of fairy recorded in Irish myth.
By the time of folklore much has changed. The Sidhe, for example, have transformed. They have lost their god-like status and became protectors of the natural world instead. The Lunanti-shee (Sidhe) are a type of spirit that guards the Blackthorn trees specifically. This Blackthorn specialist is found discussed within W.Y. Evans 1911 book Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. This protector of the Blackthorn is listed as one of the reasons why it is especially bad luck to cut down one of these trees.
The Lunantishee can not claim exclusive rights to the Blackthorn, however. There is an apparition, for example, who carries a Blackthorn club in Joseph Jacob’s 1892 Celtic Fairy Tales. An angel found within Lady Gregory’s 1906 Book of Saints and Wonders who appears as a bird in a Blackthorn tree. There is even a giant’s daughter who compels a prince to create a Blackthorn forest from a single twig. This tale is found within Joseph Jacob’s 1892 Celtic Fairy Tales.
(Illustration by John D. Batten. Celtic Fairy Tales. 1892)
The angel in the tree seems like an especially strange addition, though, especially considering that the Blackthorn is an enemy of Jesus. According to the 1900 text Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmicheal, the Blackthorn is one of the trees that betrayed Christ at the Crucification along with the Reed, the Aspen and the Fig tree[v]. Stories such as this one are often suspected to be tales that pre existed Christianity; only changing enough to continue existing.
The Blackthorn tree, after all, must have been feared by the early superstitious Christians. In the hands of a pagan, a single staff or wand could wield incredible power. In Tales of the Fairies and the Ghost World by Jeremiah Curtin, published in 1895, we find that the Blackthorn stick can be used to call on fairies and for protection from ghosts. In the 1917 book Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie, the Blackthorn in conjunction with the Rowan and Witch-hazel offers protection from the spirits of “the Under-world.” There are also sailors found within J.F. Campbell`s 1890 collection Popular Tales of the West Highlands who use a Blackthorn stick to help them travel “three castles underground.”
One of the most interesting Blackthorn tales, however, can be found within Lady Wilde`s 1887 text Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. It would seem as if the Blackthorn also has a certain unexplained power over the werewolf-like shape shifters of Ireland. In this story, we are introduced to a farmer named Conner who is missing two of his cows. He takes his Blackthorn staff and leaves his home in search of the animals. Eventually, Conner finds a strange house and is invited in. The hosts turn out to be strange, cold, and not very empathetic, however. When it finally becomes clear to Conner that these strangers will be of no help, he loses his temper and chastises them completely:
“Then the eldest of the young men stood up. ‘Wait,’ he said, ‘we are fierce and evil, but we never forget a kindness. Do you remember, one day down in the glen you found a poor little wolf in great agony and like to die, because a sharp thorn had pierced his side? And you gently extracted the thorn and gave him a drink, and went your way leaving him in peace and rest?’ ‘Aye, well do I remember it,’ said Connor, ‘and how the poor little beast licked my hand in gratitude.’ ‘Well,’ said the young man, ‘I am that wolf, and I shall help you if I can, but stay with us to-night and have no fear.’ So they sat down again to supper and feasted merrily, and then all fell fast asleep, and Connor knew nothing more till he awoke in the morning and found himself by a large hay-rick in his own field. ‘Now surely,’ thought he, ‘the adventure of last night was not all a dream, and I shall certainly find my cows when I go home; for that excellent, good young wolf promised his help, and I feel certain he would not deceive me.’ But when he arrived home and looked over the yard and the stable and the field, there was no sign nor sight of the cows. So he grew very sad and dispirited. But just then he espied in the field close by three of the most beautiful strange cows he had ever set eyes on. ‘These must have strayed in,’ he said, ‘from some neighbour’s ground;’ and he took his big stick to drive them out of the gate off the field. But when he reached the gate, there stood a young black wolf watching; and when the cows tried to pass out at the gate he bit at them, and drove them back. Then Connor knew that his friend the wolf had kept his word. So he let the cows go quietly back to the field; and there they remained, and grew to be the finest in the whole country, and their descendants are flourishing to this day, and Connor grew rich and prospered; for a kind deed is never lost, but brings good luck to the doer for evermore, as the old proverb says; ‘Blessings are won, By a good deed done.’ But never again did Connor find that desolate heath or that lone shieling, though he sought far and wide, to return his thanks, as was due to the friendly wolves nor did he ever again meet any of the family, though he mourned much whenever a slaughtered wolf was brought into the town for the sake of the reward, fearing his excellent friend might be the victim. At that time the wolves in Ireland had increased to such an extent, owing to the desolation of the country by constant wars, that a reward was offered and a high price paid for every wolf’s skin brought into the court of the justiciary; and this was in the time of Queen Elizabeth, when the English troops made ceaseless war against the Irish people, and there were more wolves in Ireland than men; and the dead lay unburied in hundreds on the highways, for there were no hands left to dig them graves.”
This is a very interesting and symbolic tale. Not only does Conner carry a Blackthorn staff, he extracted one of the tree`s thorns from the side of the wolf when it was just a pup! The message is clear. Conner may be a friend of these unusual wolf-men, but it is the Blackthorn, somehow, that has allowed this relationship to exist. This tale is believed to have been passed down in oral tradition from a much earlier date. The last wolf of Ireland was killed in 1786[vi].
Blackthorn is the one tree of the Ogham, which lends incredible power to the most humble of all people; the commoner. For that, it is both feared and loved.
The following passage is taken from the 1881 book British Goblins by Wirt Sikes:
“Where a well of the requisite virtue is not conveniently near, the favourite form of charm for wart-curing is in connection with the wasting away of some selected object. Having first been pricked into the wart, the pin is then thrust into the selected object—in Gloucestershire it is a snail—and then the object is buried or impaled on a blackthorn in a hedge, and as it perishes the wart will disappear. The scapegoat principle of the sin-eater also appears in connection with charming away warts, as where a vagrom man counts your warts, marks their number in his hat, and goes away, taking the warts with him into the next county—for a trifling consideration.”
The same spell appears in John Rhys 1900 text Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx. In this other book we are also informed of a type of divination that involves the Blackthorn. It involves the thorn of the tree or shrub.
According to the oral tradition of the time, the thorn was thrown into the well of a certain parish. This ritual was performed by young women who wanted to know if their love was real. If the thorn floated then it was good news; the love was in fact real. If the thorn sank, on the other hand, it meant that the love was not sincere.
“Blackthorn. This thorny shrub was thought to provide protection against ghosts in Ireland and has long been popular in lightweight walking-sticks. It should not be cut on 11 May or 11 November.” – James Mackillop (Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998)
[iii] The document seems to be describing the magical properties of each letter in its tree form. Another explanation, however, could be that the descriptions found within the Ogham Tract are mere mnemonic devices. This is hard for me to personally believe given the symbolic nature of Celtic poetry and art.
[iv] I am referring to the Ogham in its tree form.
[v] An interesting side note: Straif does not actually mean Blackthorn but sulphur (Caitlin Mathews). With the introduction of the church, sulphur would come to have associations with hell and with the devil. J.C. Cooper. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. 1979.