Mor (Twin of Hazel or the Sea)

(Black Rock, County Kerry, Ireland. Photograph by K. Glavin)

“In the midst of the Irish Sea, almost equidistant from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and concentrating in itself the psychical and magnetic influences from these three Celtic  lands, and from Celto-Saxon England too, lies the beautiful kingdom of the great Tuatha De Danann god, Manannan Mac Lir, or, as his loyal Manx subjects prefer to call him, Mannanan-Beg-Mac-y-Leir. In no other land of the Celt does Nature show so many moods and contrasts, such perfect repose at one time and at another time the mightiness of its unloosed powers, when the baffled sea throws itself angrily against a high rock bound coast, as wild and almost as weatherworn as the western coasts of Ireland and the Hebrides.” – W.Y. Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911)

The Roots:

The twenty fifth, and final, letter of the Ogham is usually referred to as Mor, the sea.

There is much debate regarding this letter, however. The Ogham tract associates the final letter to the witch hazel[i] and lists the letter as Emancholl which apparently means “the twin” or “twin of Hazel.”[ii] This has usually been interpreted as the witch hazel or Beech; the Beech being the second choice because of the many similarities that are shared between the two trees.

Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets reminds us that the Witch Hazel was not indigenous to Europe and was likely not the original tree ascribed. He believes the letter should be attributed to the Scots Pine.

It was Robert Graves in the Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects that originally put forward the idea that this few represented the shirt of Manannan, which was found in the mythical crane-bag. Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle would later interpreted the meaning of this few as Mor, the Sea, as a result.

Most users of the Ogham – especially those who view the Ogham as a Tree Alphabet – do see this final letter as representing Mor, the Sea. Despite being a Tree Alphabet to most users of the Ogham, however, this is the one letter that deviates from the woodland theme.  It is almost always listed as representing the Sea.

Reconstructionists, on the other hand, tend to list this letter as Emancholl. These individuals do not view the Ogham as being a tree alphabet yet interpret the meaning of the few as being the twin of Hazel. As I have already mentioned, this would be the witch hazel or the Beech.

The Witch Hazel does not appear very often in the old tales. This is likely, as Pennick had already stated, due to the plant’s late arrival into this land of the Celts.

In Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde, there is a story of a healer using three witch-hazel rods in a from of divination. He does this to reveal a sick person’s ailments. In Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie the plant is used as protection against the fairies, alongside Rowan, and in conjunction with a Blackthorn staff and a bible.

The Beech is just as uncommon in these stories if not more so. Robert Graves in the White Goddess links the Beech tree to language, learning, literature and books. This is easy to verify due to the double meaning of Beech and Book in many languages including Old English and Old Norse[iii]. The tree is absent from the folktales, however, because the Beech is not native to Ireland and was only found in South England. Beech is not likely to have been the original tree associated with this letter either.

This leaves us looking backwards, towards that elusive “twin of Hazel” once more, looking for any clues. Perhaps we need to re-examine Coll, the Hazel, once more.

The most famous story of the Hazel in Irish Mythology is as an Otherworldly tree, or trees rather. These live on the other side of the veil. These trees provide the nuts of wisdom eaten by the salmon who in turn is eaten by Finn Mac Cool. The trees exist beneath the Sea and are said to be purple.

It is perhaps this reasoning, alongside Graves’ interpretation of Manannan’s shirt, which prompted Liz and Colin Murray to list this few as being Mor.

In the Celtic Tree Oracle Liz and Colin Murray link this few to the physical ocean itself, with travel, and to maternal links. They also claim that the letter represents “hidden knowledge that is only available when the moon and sea are full.”

John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook says that this few represents “beginnings, endings, and the influence of outside forces, symbolized by the sea; the arrival of a new factor, the workings of destiny.”

Nigel Pennick adds that this letter “goes beyond the conventional 24-fold divisions of things customary in the Northern Tradition (as, for example, the 24 hours in the day, the 24 half-months of the year, the 24 characters of the Welsh bardic alphabet, and the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark). Because of this, it [the 25th letter] is considered to be outside the conventions of the other 24 characters.”

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam:Weaving Word Wisdom says that this few is an “intensification of the other fiodh” She also believes, however, that the few can represent illness. She takes this second meaning from the word-Oghams found in the Ogham Tract[iv].

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the word-Ogham “sign of a weary one” as representing “exhaustion.” Caitlin Mathews does not mention this letter in her book Celtic Wisdom Sticks.”

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids says that this few represents magic and hidden knowledge.” Ellison uses the Witch Hazel to represent this letter and says that the plant can be used in binding spells.

Mor, the sea, represents that which is other. It can represent the Sea itself or the Otherworld. The Sea and Manannan are one and the same. The Sea does not represent the god. The Sea is the god.

The Trunk:

“As for the other miscellaneous objects found in the Crane Bag: if one thinks poetically, not scientifically, their meaning leaps to the eye.” – Robert Graves (the Crane Bag and other Disputed Subjects)

As previously stated the forfeda, or the items found in the crane-bag by poets, are listed as ‘the King of Scotland’s Shears’(the X), ‘the king of Lochlainn’s helmet’ (with his face underneath, the four sided diamond), ‘the bones of Assail’s swine’ (the double lined X out to the side of the line), ‘Goibne’s smith-hook’ (the P or hook symbol), and Manannan’s own shirt’, which “is a map of the sea showing lines of longitude and latitude.”

The shirt of Manannan is the final item found in the crane-bag. The stories involving Manannan Mac Lir in Irish, Manx and Scottish mythology are many. He is usually associated with the Tuatha De Danaan, but is in fact from the older race of gods the Fomorians. Here are some excerpts from James MacKillop’s Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. I have placed them together as a single entry even though this is an extremely condensed version of the complete entry:

“Manannan Mac Lir: Principal sea-deity and also otherworldly ruler of Irish and Goidelic traditions. He is sometimes, but not usually, numbered as a lord of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Through many texts over several centuries, some aspects of Manannán’s person remain constant. Although a shape-shifter, he is usually portrayed as a handsome and noble warrior, evocative of the classical gods Poseidon and Neptune, with whom he is often compared. He possesses a magical currach (‘the wave-sweeper’), but most often he travels over the waves with a horse, Énbarr or Aonbárr, usually in a chariot but sometimes on horseback. Nor can the armour of any enemy withstand his enchanted sword Frecraid [the answerer]. Among his supernatural powers is the ability to cast spells, féth fiada, which he teaches to the druids, and the ability to envelop himself in a mist that makes him invisible to his enemies, a facility shared by the Olympians in the Iliad. He often wears a great cloak that catches the light and can assume many colours, like the sea itself; with one sweep of it, Manannán can change destinies. An even more important possession is the crane bag that holds all his possessions, including language. He also owns birds, hounds, and magical pigs that can be eaten on one day but will be alive the next so that they can be slaughtered and eaten again. Among his wives are Fand [tears], herself a deity of water, and Aife, transformed into a crane by luchra, and from whose skin the crane bag was made. Although Manannán is not the central figure in any single narrative, his appearances dominate the action of many stories. No story tells of Manannán’s death, but allusions are made to his decline when he refuses to accept the succession of Bodb Derg. He is thought to have again assisted the Tuatha Dé Danann after their defeat by the Milesians when they dwindled into the small creatures who live under the earth. Prayers directed to him were thought to bring fishermen a bountiful catch.”

What seems most interesting to me is the succession of the items, or order, found in the crane-bag and the importance of the owners themselves. If we look at the King of Scotland, the King of Lochlain, Goibne, Asail and Manannan we see a procession of increasing power. The King of Scotland is, perhaps, the most mundane of the five males, while Manannan is the most Otherworldly and powerful. The items could also possibly be listed from semi ordinary (shears) to extremely powerful (the shirt of Manannan himself).

If we look at the symbols listed for each letter and their meanings we are perhaps given yet another clue. We begin with the Salmon, then we step into the Gold, then we use the Elbow, this is followed by the the food, Honey, and completed with the twin of hazel.

If the Salmon is the Grove, the Gold is the Fire, the Elbow is the work done transforming substances at the Forge and the Honey is the food of the gods, then we can only assume that the Twin of Hazel represents the ability to be in the Otherworld (by wearing Manannan’s shirt), as a result of having stepped through the previous symbols or states of being. Speaking more plainly, this procession of metaphors could perhaps be seen as a symbolic series of steps which were utilized in order to enter into the Otherworld. This could’ve even been, as unlikely as it may seem, a type of poet grading system – like the modern and generally accepted Bard, Ovate and Druid.

One must go into the Grove seeking wisdom like the Salmon. This is the step of intention and the tool seems to be the shears. Secondly, one must create a sacred space and build a there a fire. From here divination may also be engaged, as one’s sight is altered upon wearing the helmet. Next, one must do transforming work like that of Goibne the smith. Goibne works with the fire and alters the metals into powerful items with the aid of the hook. This is the state of magic making. Then, there is the eating of the honey, or sweet food, of the gods (like the regenerating pigs that are ready to be eaten at full tide). Once the food has been fully prepared, it is eaten and the transformation into a new being – or more powerful version of oneself – begins. Finally, one path taker can open their eyes to find that they are wearing the shirt of Manannan Mac Lir. They are then beneath the ocean in the Underworld, before the purple Twins of Hazel which had offered the wisdom to the Salmon that began the journey in the first place. It is at this place where we have finally realized our full journey and have stepped into the world of the others.

While my symbolic journey through the Forfeda is likely nothing more than my own musings or imagination, it brings me some sort of satisfaction to find that a thread does exists within these extra letters. I can then look back across the last half-year and see a continuous pathway through the forest that started at the very beginning, where Birch’s were swaying and whispering at the edge of the forest, beside the throne room of Manannan.

Eating the nuts of wisdom, I then discover that the journey never ends, it only begins anew and fresh.

There before me is the Birch once more.

The Foliage:

Samhain is a time to honour those who have passed before us, and those other ancestors long dead who we have never known on any conscious level. It’s a time to give thanks for all those things that we have, and a time to be thankful for all of those things that we are about to receive during the coming year. It is also a time to thank the spirits that have aided us over the past year and to make petitions against tricksters who may wish to bring chaos into our lives during the days ahead. In short, it is a time where the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, and a place where messages of any kind may be more easily heard from either side of this Celtic twilight.

Most of the sources that I referenced in this blog are writers that are no longer amongst the living. Colin Murray (no image attached) passed away in the eighties as did Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell. W.Y Evans Wentz who wrote the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries passed on in 1965, as did Sir James Frazer in 1941. Lady Gregory, author of Gods and Fighting Men, died in 1932. Alexander Carmichael (no image attached) who brought us the Carmina Gadelica passed away in 1912. Lady Wilde, mother of Oscar Wilde and author of Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, died in relative poverty in 1896. Lady Charlotte Guest who is famous for her translation of the Mabinogion passed away in 1895.

I would like to take this time to honour some of these men and women who have preserved our past and allowed me to research the Ogham and the forest lore of the Celts. All of the images below are taken from Wikipedia except for the drawing of Lady Wilde which was taken from sacredtexts.com.

(Joseph Campbell)

(Robert Graves)

(W.Y. Evans-Wentz)

(Sir James Frazer)

(Lady Gregory)

(Lady Wilde)

(Lady Charlotte Guest)

“There was always an element of fear and trepidation about this night – the eve before Samhain- and also one of expectancy. When the dead were abroad, certain kinds of divination could be practiced, which asked questions of the ancestors.” – Caitlin Mathews(The Celtic Spirit)


[i] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

[ii] Eryn Rowan Laurie. Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[iv] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

Uillend (Elbow or Honeysuckle)

(photograph by Sannse)

“Turn hither, O Fergus my master!” he cried. Fergus did not answer, for he heard not. He spoke again, “Turn hither, Fergus my master!” he cried; “and if thou turn not, I will grind thee as a mill grinds fresh grain; I will wash thee as a cup is washed in a tub; I will bind thee as the woodbine binds the trees; I will pounce on thee as hawk pounces on fledglings!” – Cattle Raid of Cooley (1914 Joseph Dunn translation)

The Roots:

Uillend is the third Forfeda and the twenty third letter of the Ogham. It is usually ascribed to the Honeysuckle which is also known as the Woodbine.

Liz and Colin Murray said that the Honeysuckle represented hidden secrets[i]. “Whereas the ivy is concerned with the search for self, the Honeysuckle shows the way in which to achieve this – the special dance or step that leads into the labyrinth of inner knowledge.”  The Murrays come to this conclusion based on the bird Ogham and the association of the letter to the lapwing[ii]. Interestingly, though, the Murrays used the incorrect Ogham symbol for the Honeysuckle. The hook is generally used and not what Robert Graves calls “the bones of Assail’s swine” which is the superimposed X that reaches out to the side of the line. The “hook,” they claimed, was representative of the Beech tree. For this reason the order that they placed the Forfeda in is different from many of the other lists. The Murrays’ order matches the order in which the Forfeda appear within Finn’s Wheel[iii]. Knowing this one tidbit can help identify an Ogham users school of thought. The Murray’s order is the adaption that embraces the Robert Graves’ philosophy found in the White Goddess, but takes it one step further.

John Michael Greer, in the Druid Magic Handbook, clearly subscribes to this order. Many other druids do as well. This is a testament of respect to the late Colin Murray and to Liz Murray as well. As usual, John Michael Greer adds his own deeply reflective insight by adding that Uillend represents “the influences of the subtle and seemingly insignificant, hidden messages.”

Many pagan users of the Ogham then take this one step further and create their own list of Ogham meanings without any foundation in Celtic knowledge. This can sometimes be a slippery slope as other mythologies are brought in (the common Odin-Ash misunderstanding traced to the mistranslated Prose Eda) or other gods and goddesses added from Greece or Egypt or sometimes even North America. It is easy to forget -when working with such a system- that if it truly is a Magical Alphabet, then this is a sacred language taken from a cultural context which is already imbued with its own spirits and divine beings that already exist within that context! Druids understand this and research the Celtic roots from a modern perspective.

Robert Graves and the Murrays studied these myths[iv] in depth as well. It is sad, then, that we are often quicker to take from another people’s beliefs than we are to try to learn from them. Examples of this type of cultural foraging exists all over the world. I am truly conflicted on this one, however. I often see this ‘cultural stripping’ from such a harsh place as being the continuation of the ethnocide attempts against the Irish stemming from previous eras, regardless of how innocent it may seem by naive practitioners with good intentions. On a good day, however, I can see the mutual love of the trees and what they represent by almost anyone who is attracted to the Ogham[v] including those modern Neopagan users. What makes me worry, truly, is that these innocent promotions of the Ogham have been bastardized into something that is more commonly seen in books and on the internet than anything that represents what the Celts actually believed. I often wonder if it’s too late.

At the other far end of the spectrum we have Eryn Rowan Laurie. She is a highly respected Celtic reconstructionist who comes from a historical, cultural, and magical perspective. She lists this few as representing the Elbow. She claims the meanings of the few are flexibility, change and measurement.

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman says that the word-Ogham “woodbine the strong” represents “discovery.” Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks uses the letter to represent the direction of west.

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids says that this few represents “drawing things together and binding.” Ellison also says that Honeysuckle can be used in protection spells.

Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets also mentions the Honeysuckle to Beech transformation. He states that regardless of the tree association the few has certain magical characteristics. These are, “hardness and resistance, the solidity of knowledge and tried-and-tested actions. It refers to the solidity of ancient wisdom, the cultural or physical foundation which must be in place before any constructions are made, either in the physical or the figurative meaning.”

The Honeysuckle rarely shows up in the old texts. The quote at the top of the page taken from the Cattle Raid of Cooley is the only instance that I am currently aware of where it makes an appearance in a witchy-spell within the myths or folklore. This is besides the Battle of the Trees, of course. “In shelter live, the privet[vii] and the woodbine, and the ivy in the season.”

I personally believe –nerdy conspiracy theorist that I am- that many of the monks recording the old texts still had one foot in the old beliefs. This seems apparent when reading what they left for us. The older myths especially are the stories and beliefs that would have been lost without them. I believe there’s much speculative evidence suggesting that the monks hid information within these stories. From this perspective, these two instances of the “tree” being mentioned would suggest that the Honeysuckle can be used for binding and for “shelter” or protection.

The following quote, taken from a much later time, seems to validate this:

“An old man in Uist said that he used to swim to an islet in a lake in his neighbourhood for ivy, woodbine, and mountain ash. These, sometimes separately and sometimes combined, he twined into a three-plied ‘cuach,’ ring, which he placed over the lintel of his cow house and under the vessels in his milk-house, to safeguard his cows and his milk from witchcraft, evil eye, and murrain[viii].” – Alexander Carmichael (Carmina Gadelica Vol. II. 1900)

The Woodbine and Rowan appear together in James Frazer’s the Golden Bough and are used in much the same way in Notes on the Folklore of the North-East of Scotland. Likewise, Popular Tales of the West Highlands: Vol. IV by J.F. Campbell which was written in 1890 also says that the Honeysuckle can be used as a protection charm against evil.

In Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by George Douglas, written in 1901, we find another casual mention of Honeysuckle. The story of the Habitrot, mentioned previously, says that this particular fairy knoll was visited by a bride and existed in the shade beneath the Honeysuckle and the wild roses. One could also word this as being “sheltered,” or protected, by these plants. These are some interesting correlations found throughout the old stories.

Uillend, or Honeysuckle, is a few of protection and binding. It represents subtle understandings and the foundations needed in order to find the self, which is the greatest hidden secret of all. Ultimately, this few is said to be one of flexibility and sweetness. Despite its appearance in myth, Uillend does not seem to have any direct connections to the individuals of legend or folklore except for the Habitrot.

The Trunk:

“As for the other miscellaneous objects found in the Crane Bag: if one thinks poetically, not scientifically, their meaning leaps to the eye.” – Robert Graves (the Crane Bag and other Disputed Subjects)

As previously stated the forfeda, or the items found in the crane-bag by poets, are  listed as ‘the King of Scotland’s Shears’(the X), ‘the king of Lochlainn’s helmet’ (with his face underneath, the four sided diamond), ‘the bones of Assail’s swine’ (the double lined X out to the side of the line), ‘Goibne’s smith-hook’ (the P or hook symbol), and Manannan’s own shirt’, which “is a map of the sea showing lines of longitude and latitude.”

While Goibne, or Goibniu, may not be as mysterious a figure as the King of Lochlain his hook certainly is. When does a smith use a hook? Is this hook even used as a smith’s tool at all? Why does Manannan have it?

The following quotes illustrate Goibniu’s attributes and characteristics. They are taken from Celtic Myth and Legend by Charles Squire written in 1905:

“Let it be granted, for the sake of peace, that Goibniu was only a man; none the less, his name was known to be uncommonly effective in an incantation.”

“Goibniu, in addition to his original character as the divine smith and sorcerer, gained a third reputation among the Irish as a great builder and bridge-maker. As such he is known as the Gobhan Saer, that is, Goibniu the Architect, and marvellous tales, current all over Ireland attest his prowess.”

Goibniu then boasts of his weapon making abilities when he is asked how he can fight the Fomorians. These boasts later seem to have much merit. The Fomorians launch an assassination attempt on him.

“I,” said Goibniu the Smith, “will replace every broken lance and sword with a new one, even though the war last seven years. And I will make the lances so well that they shall never miss their mark, or fail to kill. Dulb, the smith of the Fomors, cannot do as much as that. The fate of the fighting will be decided by my lances.”

“The Fomors decided to send someone to discover the secret of these prodigies. The spy they chose was Ruadan, the son of Bress and of Brigit, daughter of the Dagda, and therefore half-giant and half-god. He disguised himself as a Tuatha Dé Danann warrior, and went to look for Goibniu. He found him at his forge, together with Luchtainé, the carpenter, and Credné, the bronze-worker. He saw how Goibniu forged lance-heads with three blows of his hammer, while Luchtainé cut shafts for them with three blows of his axe, and Credné fixed the two parts together so adroitly that his bronze nails needed no hammering in. He went back and told the Fomors, who sent him again, this time to try and kill Goibniu.

He reappeared at the forge, and asked for a javelin. Without suspicion, Goibniu gave him one, and, as soon as he got it into his hand, he thrust it through the smith’s body. But Goibniu plucked it out, and, hurling it back at his assailant, mortally wounded him. Ruadan went home to die, and his father Bress and his mother Brigit mourned for him, inventing for the purpose the Irish “keening”. Goibniu, on the other hand, took no harm.”

Goibniu is the possessor of a magic cauldron[ix]. It is this item that he uses to give immortality to the Tuatha de Danaan.

“Thus the people of the goddess Danu preserved their immortal youth, while the ale of Goibniu the Smith-God bestowed invulnerability upon them.”

This collection of quotes, while all being taken from the work by Charles Squire, sporadically reappear in other texts as well. The appearance of Goibniu in these myths does lend us some interesting insights. He’s a magical smith, yet he also possesses the means to give immortality through the drinking of his ale. He was considered so powerful, in fact, that his name alone is used as an incantation.

So what do we know about Goibniu’s hook? We do not know anything. We can only speculate.

One is immediately drawn to the fact that Goibne is a smith, and might then conclude that the tool, this hook, is used at his forge. No smithy tools are usually referred to as hooks, however. Before we get ahead of ourselves and consider this possibility further let us first take a look at other hook-like items that could have been being referred to in these texts.

In the old stories we find mentioned both bill hooks and reaping hooks. These are the hand held scythe and the sickle. While both evolved into various weapons, there’s no real reason to believe that Goibne was a farmer or would have used a peasant’s weapon when he could have forged a magical weapon of any type. This possibility seems pretty easy then easy to dismiss.

Cauldrons had large hooks that held them over a fire. Would a cauldron full of ale need to be heated? The answer would be no. However, what is translated as ale is just as likely to have been any liquid concoction that was served. Suddenly the story of magical ale does not seem so impossible any more. The boast of invulnerability from Goibniu and the immortal youth of the drink of Danu suddenly remind us of the ancient, and still thriving, beauty and health industries. Many of our modern “discoveries” in these industries turn out to be very natural remedies indeed. One has only to consider the many mud and water treatments available for beauty as well as the various means implored to lengthen life. Boasts were also often extreme in Irish mythology. Thus, invulnerability and immortality are just as likely to be exaggerations for the protection against disease, age, or represent some sort of beauty enhancement.

I am also quickly brought back to the main characteristic of the crane bag. The items disappeared when the tide was ebbing and reappeared at full tide. Could these items, then, be in the possession of the owner at all times yet exist in both realms simultaneously at full tide?  When one considers the magic drawn from the flux of the seasons, certain times of the day and from certain points in the moon cycles the tide being full could possibly offer to us another possible clue. Could this high tide be that time in which the magical items were imbued with power and were then existing with one foot in each of those worlds? This would mean that Manannan would be blessing these items, from the crane bag, during the full tide and not owning them as originally thought. Perhaps these can only be used then?

Regardless, if Finn Mac Cool was a carrier of these items then perhaps they themselves were only representative of certain types of power, or magic, and not the physical objects that we may have originally thought? This is one possible theory. I have no evidence that there is any truth to this consideration, though. I can merely ponder.

(Fire Forge. Photograph by Tobias R, Metoc)

I asked Jay O’ Scalleigh, podcaster of Witchery of One [x], fellow pagan, blogger and blacksmith, if there are any smith tools that might be seen as hooks. His answer shed some possible light on this mystery.

My gut tells me that it could be a tool used to remove ‘clinkers’ from the forge….but that may be just as right or wrong as every other guess out there. Also, clinkers occur in coal forges and someone like Goibniu would most likely have used charcoal…not sure if charcoal produces clinkers.”

I think Jay may be onto something here. According to Wikepedia, coal was first used in London by smiths around 1257-1259 while building the Westminster Abbey[xi]. This use of coal would have likely spread rapidly throughout the isles. The Book of Ballymote was written in 1390 or 1391. The references to the crane bag’s contents seems to appear at an even later date. In the Crane Bag and other disputed subjects Robert Graves uses an Ann Ross quote that references a 1904 MacNeill quote to describe the items. The other place that I have found the same crane bag items listed is in Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory, also from 1904. Goibniu could have had a hook to pull out clinkers from the coal by the time the legend was recorded. These stories do clearly evolve over time. It would also seem, at least from the one conversation that I have provided the link to below[xii], that charcoal can produce clinkers. It would then appear that Jay’s theory is a solid one either way.

The third possibility to consider is the fish hook. This is a consideration made more valid because the item is in Manannan’s possession. There are no stories of Goibniu fishing that I am aware of, however, that would give considering this particular item any real validation.

If the Forfeda are also map markers in the forest then what could this elusive hook be representing at all?

Whether the hook holds up the cauldron or, more likely, pulls the clinkers from the smith’s fire may not matter as much as it may have originally appeared. The cauldron and the forge are both magical devices inspired by fire. This few is often drawn as a spiral which is a Celtic symbol of magic.

The Ogham Tract -word oghams- also said that this few represents the Elbow. The elbow could represents physical work.

I would hazard a guess that this few is represented by Uillend the Honeysuckle, or the elbow, as being a place where the spirits are summoned and worked with. It is from this place in the forest, that witchery and magic weaves reality.

Due to the seemingly missing records, this speculation will likely never be more than an educated guess. I would enjoy to hear any other theories out there, however.

…A big thank you to Jay O’ Scalleigh for all of the blacksmith information and for sharing his own intuitive workings with Uillend: There was no way that I would have found this information without his help.:-)

The Foliage:

If you have read this far, you are likely to have an interest in using the Ogham for divination purposes or are a magical worker of some sort. Whether you are a shaman, druid, witch, hybrid, or something else all together, the Ogham may call to you.

In the earlier days of the blog I challenged any reader, who may have not already been doing so, to look for the deeper symbolism found within the Celtic stories.

I now challenge anyone who is not already doing so, to take a look at some of these old stories in a new way, looking for that knowledge that is hidden in plain view. The original historians, the monks, most definitely seem to have been leaving information they thought was going to be lost before the reader. As already stated, I believe much of the stories are riddles in code. This hidden knowledge is then available for those who choose to look.

Suddenly, such a confusing poem as the Battle of the Trees, for example, seems to make a lot more sense as the trees of the Ogham are suddenly not just seen as a means of divination.

The Ogham also becomes a magical system.

“Goibniu who was not impotent in smelting… of painful plague died Goibnenn the smith.” – Book of Invasions (R.S. Macalister’s 1941 translation)


[i] The Celtic Tree Oracle.

[iii] See previous post.

[iv] Both also make the Ygdrassil/Odin error.

[v] The Ogham Tract lists trees for each letter but is not necessarily a tree alphabet.

[vii] This is a shrub of the olive family that produces poisonous berries.

[viii] Disease of cattle.

[ix] Charles Squire does not use the name cauldron but it seems to be implied.

[x] http://witcheryofone.libsyn.com/index.phppost_category=podcasts
also his blog at http://witcheryofone.libsyn.com/

An Introduction to the Forfeda (Extra Letters)

Introduction to the Forfeda
A version of the Neolithic triple spiral symbol

Read this post first: Ogham: the Forfeda, Diphthongs, or Extra Letters

“Some students find that using the forfeda enriches their experience with the ogam. Many of them would never dream of doing an ogam reading without them. Others find them problematic at best. These additional letters are not found in any of the stone inscriptions, and were added one at a time at a much later date than the original ogam letters were developed, they were certainly a part of the medieval ogam tradition and are a legitimate part of the system. The ‘Auraicept na n-Eces includes them in some of the ogam lists, but ignores them in others. It appears to me that even the medieval ogamists didn’t agree about their use.” – Eryn Rowan Laurie (Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom)

Ogham Vowels

The Roots:

Eryn Rowan Laurie, in the above quote, beautifully sums up both the allure and the confusion surrounding the Forfeda and their individual meanings. There seems to be little agreement, in fact, on what any of these letters represents to anyone.

These ‘extra letters’ are also sometimes referred to as diphthongs but more readily as Forfeda. Regardless of their name, they do present us with some problematic considerations.

The confusion begins with the number of letters to be included. Most lists contain five but some contain up to thirteen. These longer lists are rarer. We will be focusing here on the five forfeda that are presented most commonly by various experts.

The meanings and associations for these letters also varies widely, as do their names and letter associations[i].

The first letter Ea can also be found as Ch. It is generally referred to as Aspen or the Grove[ii] (Murray) but can also be woodbine or elecampane.

The second letter Oi can also be found as Th. It is usually listed as the Spindle Tree. Other occurrences are Ivy, Heather, Gooseberry or thorn trees.

The third letter Ui can also be found as Pe. This letter can even be drawn quite differently from time to time depending on the source. It can look like a frontwards or backwards P, a hook, or an outward single swirl. This letter is usually associated with the Honeysuckle. The other occurrences are the Beech tree (Murray), or the Woodbine and Ivy (John Mathews[iii]).

The fourth letter Io can also be found as Ph. This letter is usually the Gooseberry or the Pine. It can also be found as the Honeysuckle (Murray), the thorn, the guelder rose (Pennick) or the snowball (Pennick[iv]).

The fifth letter Ae can also be found as Xi. It is generally listed as the Witch Hazel or Mor, the Sea (Murray). It can also occur as the Beech or Pine tree. In the Scholar’s Primer it’s called “the twin of Hazel” which is where the association of Witch Hazel or Beech comes from as people try to interpret what this phrase meant.

Confused yet? Aren’t you glad there’s an introduction to the Forfeda, as opposed to us just jumping in with both feet?

The Trunk:

The Ogham Tract, or Scholar’s Primer, is the most common source used to determine the meaning of the Forfeda by reconstructionists[v]. As far as an Ogham divination or magical source the most common used list is the one that was proposed by Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle. This is the reason that I placed in brackets the expert’s names above who stood out independently from all the others. For the most part I follow the Murray’s listing despite their misplacement of Honeysuckle and Beech. ‘The Grove’ was their solution to the recurrence of Aspen[vi]. ‘The Sea’ replaced the confusing twin of hazel (maybe they were thinking of the Hazel beneath the sea that fed the Salmon?[vii]) or the Pine (this to me would be a repeat similar to the Aspen. Silver Fir was a mistaken identity and was actually the Scots Pine[viii]).

Before I confuse you any further, let me address the elephant in the blog post if you will. If you’ve been following the Ogham listing through this blog, or are aware of the Ogham at all, you’re probably wondering where the hell Robert Graves is on the matter of the Forfeda?

The White Goddess brought the Ogham out of the museums and universities, and handed it back to the bards and the mystics – where it also belonged. In the White Goddess, however, Graves barely even mentions the Forfeda and doesn’t contribute anything of significance to their meanings in a poetic sense whatsoever. A lesser known book titled the Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects, on the other hand, contained an essay by Graves on the Forfeda. The following passages quote portions of that essay.

“I can best make my point by quoting [Dr. Anne Ross’] three-page treatment of an important Celtic myth that of the Sea- God’s Crane Bag; and her general view of cranes in Celtic tradition. The Crane Bag, she informs us correctly, belonged in Irish legend to Manannan God of the Sea and had been made from the skin of Aoife (‘pleasing’), a woman magically transformed into a crane. In this context Dr. Ross quotes an early medieval Irish Text[ix] which she calls ‘full of interest from a mythological point of view’. It certainly startled me:

“‘This crane-bag held every precious thing that Manannan possessed. The shirt of Manannan himself and his knife, and the shoulder strap of Goibne, the fierce smith, together with his smith’s hook; and the king of Scotland’s shears; and the king of Lochlainn’s helmet; and the bones of Asil’s (Assail’s) swine. A strip of the great whale’s back was also in that shapely crane-bag. When the sea was full, all the treasures were visible in it; when the fierce sea ebbed, the crane bag was empty.’”  

Robert Graves then spends some time trying to solidify his Greek alphabet-Ogham connection that he had already dealt forth in the White Goddess. He then lists the numerous reasons why the crane was sacred to both the Celts and the Greeks. This is followed by references from Macalister’s Secret languages of Ireland and Calder’s The Scholar’s Primer. Graves tries to assure us that the poets used the Ogham as a secret code.

Introduction to the Forfeda
Picture taken from Charles Squire’s Celtic Myth and Legend, 1905

“That the crane bag was filled when the sea was in flood,” Graves continues, “but emptied when it ebbed, means that these Ogham signs made complete sense for poetic Sons of Manannan, but none for the uninitiated outsiders. The Crane Bag, in fact, was not a tangible object, but, like Athene’s Goatskin Bag, the Aegis, which contained the Gorgon’s head, existed only as a metaphor, No more than two of the regular twenty letters which it contained are described in pictographic form by the poets quoted by Dr. Ross; namely M and G, the initials of Manannan and Goibne the Smith. These consist respectively, of one, and two nicks of the diagonal letter group crossing the stem-line. They are here disguised in ridding pictorial terms as ‘Manannan’s Knife’ (stuck in his belt) and ‘Goibne’s shoulder strap’ (which crossed his belt to his sword) and are offered merely as samples of the more ancient letters. As for the other miscellaneous objects found in the Crane Bag: if one thinks poetically, not scientifically, their meaning leaps to the eye.”

These items are listed as ‘the King of Scotland’s Shears’(the X), ‘the king of Lochlainn’s helmet’ (with his face underneath, the four sided diamond), ‘the bones of Assail’s swine’ (the double lined X out to the side of the line), ‘Goibne’s smith-hook’ (the P or hook symbol), and Manannan’s own shirt’, which “is a map of the sea showing lines of longitude and latitude.”

Graves then starts to ponder over the meanings of these treasures. He thinks that the first letter, CH, may have been the beginning of the name of a Scottish King (as a mnemonic device used in much the same way that each tree was chosen to represent a certain letter) and that perhaps the King of Lochlainn (Norway or Norse settlement of Dublin) could have had a Th letter name, like Thor.

Graves then surmises that the bones of Assail’s swine are possibly the crossed stalks of sacred mushrooms (Mushrooms are ‘little pigs’ in Latin and Italian) that had been discarded, “as bones from meat.”  Graves has already explained Manannan’s shirt and he does not emphasize any further on Goibne’s fish hook.

“But I hear some conscientious reader complaining, ‘Hi, wait a bit! What about the strip of whale’s back in the Crane Bag?’ That was so easy that I left the explanation out. Ogham nicks make no certain sense without a stem line; and for a Sea-God the only possible stem line was the horizon-dark and slightly arched like the back of a whale.”

Robert Graves then puffs out his chest a bit, pats himself on the back enthusiastically, and then exits off stage to the left… thus concluding his essay.

Colin Murray, in the Celtic Tree Oracle, made it no secret that he was using both the Ogham Tract (Book of Ballymote) and the Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects as the two sources for his and Liz’s listings of the Forfeda found in their book.

“The knowledge of the Crane Bag as displayed in the interpretation by Robert Graves is a fine example of the poetic insight needed to relive the perception of the old poets and Bards and to understand their way of thinking.”

The book’s introduction then shares a Scottish folk poem from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica. In the poem, a monster is captured and forced to build a house before he will be released. This monster sings a song as he’s working, which basically says that he’s including every tree of the forest except for the wild fig and Aspen, and in a later version of the same song the Yew, the Blackthorn and the Ivy are the trees that are removed from the dwelling. According to Murray, by leaving out these trees the monster has essentially cursed the home owner from ever being reborn to a better life, as well as, “the determination and self knowledge that would be necessary for it to succeed.” Of course, again, the hidden aspects of the tale are only present for someone who has knowledge of the Ogham or the tree meanings in Celtic tree-lore. Liz and Colin Murray end part one of their introductions as follows:

“This brief introduction to the trees in the forest of Celtic knowledge should have provided an insight into the way the tree knowledge was described, revealing itself only to those with the appropriate understanding. This leads us on to actually using Ogham and its hidden meanings in the search for the inner man and woman.”

In the Ogham Tract it’s clear that the medieval experts didn’t agree on a meaning or listing for each tree found in the final set of letters. Robert Graves, on the other hand, did not suggest – even once – that the last five “extra” letters were trees at all.

Robert Graves, by defining more clearly the shirt of Manannan, left us with Mor, the sea, as the final letter of the Forfeda. At least that’s the most likely place from which Colin Murray took the meaning of  “the Sea” from.

I believe that Colin Murray, using the King of Lochlainn’s shears as a clue, decided that the first letter of the Forfeda was the Grove. In a mythological or symbolic sense, if the undergrowth of the forest were to be cut down, as a sheep would be sheared, the action could in fact create a Grove.

I also believe – and this is only a theory that cannot be verified – that Colin Murray was working on discovering the metaphorical meanings of the last few letters of the Forfeda. These were listed in The Celtic Tree Oracle as the Spindle, the Honeysuckle, and the Beech tree. Is it possible that Colin passed away before he could discover them? Perhaps he already had, and these were left in his notes unrecognized for what they really were, hidden in plain sight before the Celtic tree Oracle was ever published?

Also to be considered, John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman explores the possibilities of deeper meaning to all of the letters in the “riddling glosses” found in the Word-Oghams. He also presents clues associated with Finn or Fionn’s wheel, the Celtic Mandela diagram.

Introduction to the Forfeda
Finn’s Wheel

The Foliage:

The Forfeda offers us an opportunity for the student of Ogham. It seems clear, to me anyways, that these letters were added at a time when the Ogham had already become a magical alphabet, and when the Ogham was no longer just being used as a land marking device. The difficult nature of the Forfeda does give the Ogham student the opportunity to explore these “extra letters” and come to their own conclusions, however. These next five letters will be presented in a way that speaks to me. This is in no way the final say on anything. In fact, this section will be far more Neopagan than reconstructionist.

In the Celtic Tree Oracle the Forfeda are included as regular divination cards. These cards are, perhaps, similar to the major arcana of the tarot. Some systems use the Forfeda on a casting cloth upon the ground. The twenty letters are then thrown upon these “extra” five letters in an attempt at divination, as well.

Mythological and magically, these final letters seem to be missing their place within the myths and legends of the Celtic ancestors.  This is why the Manannan Crane Bag legend fit so nicely into my own system of study and meditation. It’s clear from the differences of opinion found in the Book of Ballymote – especially within the Ogham tract – that the truth of these letters may never be fully known. There’s a fine line to walk here then.

It’s important to remember, that this attempt at reconstruction may be nothing more than fallacy. This is especially true when one considers the historical sources and the contradictions that we’re left to work with.

There’s one final thing to consider, as well. In the Celtic Tree Oracle Liz and Colin Murray speak of Dr. Berry Fell’s discovery of Ogham carvings in America and Brenda Sullivan’s similar theories about rock carvings found in Africa in the appendix. These ideas have been thrown aside by scholars for a wide variety of reasons including time frame impossibilities and there being greater differences than similarities in the lettering[x]. Many of Robert Graves’ theories have been disproven and have not stood the test of time either. Though he came from a place of poetic inspiration he also riddled his writing with factual inaccuracies that are too many to name[xi].

I’ve always enjoyed the work of Joseph Campbell. In reading the Hero of a Thousand Faces or watching his famous interviews on the Power of Myth – taped on the Skywalker ranch – I’m reminded just how similar we can sometimes evolve as people, mythological and completely independent from one another. Dragons and little people exist within cultural beliefs found almost everywhere. So do ghosts and the undead. There are Cinderella motifs and the hero’s journey found all over the world. The shaman, and the otherworld in which he travels, is found throughout every region of our planet, as well.

It’s my personal belief, that these mystical encounters either spiritually, evolutionary or psychologically, are part of our human experience. I do not believe that because a shaman from Africa goes to a similar place (Otherworld) as a shaman from Hawaii or El Salvador that this must be because there was physical over-land or sea travel which brought the exchanging of ideas thousands of years ago. These lines many of the researchers of the past make in the sand, for similar arguments, are shaky at best. Perhaps similarities of belief are more innate than science can realize in its present infancy?

I believe that without Robert Graves the Ogham would currently be nothing more than a footnote in a legend, or a tourist attraction at the corner of a churchyard or on the back of some farmer’s field. I do not believe as he did, however, that our ancestors needed to carry the religious practices of the Greeks or Hebrews all the way to Ireland to create a new, previously nonexistent, magical system of beliefs. They already had their own[xii].

Whatever it is that I believe or look into, though, I must always be open to the possibility that my opinion may change due to new discoveries or to things that I’d previously overlooked. I feel that as we start to explore the Forfeda that this statement is an especially important one to make.

The opinions that follow, on the Forfeda, are not as fixed in my mind as most of the other letters of the Ogham.

“There is a forth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to – and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. Myth can teach you that.” – Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth, 1985)

 Introduction to the Forfeda


[i] Robert Graves was a poet not a historian. Many new Ogham users make the mistake of seeing him as an academic, and assume his work is historically accurate.

[ii] Occurring in the forest, but not a tree itself.

[iii] The Celtic Shaman.

[iv] Magical Alphabets.

[v] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

[vi] A partial reason?

[vii] Another partial reason? Read on to learn about the shirt of Manannan.

[viii] See the Ailm blog entry. Scots Fir was the name used for Scots Pine at the time that the Ogham Tract was written. The Silver Fir had not been introduced into Ireland at the time this tract was written. Like other variations of names in the tract (furz/gorse or Sloe/Blackthorn) the Pine and the Fir tree which were listed are actually the same tree. The variation in name is likely poetic flair, but may also have been a translation error.

[ix] MacNeill, 1904, VII, 21 (Robert Graves footnote)

[xii] We shouldn’t overlook the fact that it was most often Christian monks who wrote down the first Irish legends. Forever grateful we should be, they could not have helped but to have seen the Celtic world through their own religious paradigms, though. This would have coloured the old stories in many ways.