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/

Ngetal (Reed Grass)

“Ngetal is the month when the terrible roar of breakers and the snarling noise of pebbles on the Atlantic seaboard fill the heart with terror, and when the wind whistles dismally through the reed-beds of the rivers. In Ireland the roaring of the sea was held to be prophetic of a king’s death.” – Robert Graves (The White Goddess)

The Roots:

The reed is the most commonly associated plant to this thirteenth letter, Ngetal. The Ogham Tract[i] lists Ngetal as either the broom or the fern –and not as the reed- so this letter often causes confusion.

It seems to have been Robert Graves that left us with the association of Ngetal to Reed Grass. This may have been to more easily associate each of the Ogham letters to the corresponding line found in the Song of Amergin -as he made his poetic comparison- or to perhaps make a stronger argument that the Ogham was once used as a Celtic tree calendar[ii]. It may have even been possible that he did not want two such similar plants as the broom and the gorse –found later in the Ogham- to both be a part of the
same list of letters[iii]. This of course is simply my own speculation. We may never know why Graves chose to list the thirteenth letter of the Ogham as the Reed, but it seems to have been further promoted by most writers that followed him.

Eryn Rowan Laurie, along with other reconstructionists, list this letter as being associated with the broom plant, but as noted many times before she does not see the Ogham as a tree alphabet at all but similar to the runes instead.

Nowadays, most do see Ngetal as being the Reed. We must remember that the Ogham’s association with trees was likely initially mnemonic only. However, we do know that the Ogham was used for magic and likely for divination, but we cannot know for certain how the letters were utilized at all[iv]. The tree alphabet has become a tool used in such a fashion in modern days as it may have became over time a tool of power to the ancestors as well. For these reasons the reed seems to fit most comfortably within the list of the plants found in the Ogham today.

The reed is obviously not a tree at all. The Celts had many uses for the plant however. They often used it in the thatching in of the roof, which would have been the final step in completing any dwelling construction. The reed would also have likely been used for flooring material in winter. The reed rod was a type of measuring stick used by the ancestors as well[v].

James Frazer speaks of the king with the reed sceptre in the Golden Bough showing us that the reed is no ordinary plant. According to Graves the reed was used to make arrow shafts and this may be why it is named in the Battle of the Trees as the “swift pursuing” one[vi]. Liz and Colin Murray also associate the reed to the arrow and say that it is the letter of “direct action”, “overcoming obstacles on a journey”, and can be used as a spiritual weapon[vii].

Robert Graves further claims that the reed was a tree to Irish poets[viii]. The research of Nigel Pennick gives us compelling reasons to believe this. Pennick reminds us that the pen of Irish scribes was composed of reed and that, “The reed was also the material from which a sort of paper or papyrus, known to the Welsh as plagawd was made”[ix].  The reed was also used for braiding together baskets and could then be synonymous with Celtic knot artwork.

Ngetal in the Ogham Tract is also considered to be a few of healing. This listing –though more literally being those powers of the broom plant- is made by many Ogham teachers including John Michael Greer.

The reed is also associated with music. Historically it was used in wind instruments near the mouth piece to help create the music sound. This piece of the instrument is still called the reed today. A type of Asian giant reed is usually the preferred material for this construction nowadays, but some instruments still use the traditional reed grass[x]. It should also be noted that the reed sometimes appears as its own musical instrument in Celtic fairly tales.

Ngetal, the reed, is associated with higher learning, advancement, music, healing, action and art. It is this few that brings to us all of those gifts that makes us that most unique of animals.

The thirteenth letter, the reed, is the few of being divinely human.

The Trunk:

It is said that the Cluricaune, an Irish fairy being, rides the reed through the air[xi].

The Cluricaune looks like a little old man appearing in “antiquated dress.” He is usually found wearing a pea-green coat with large buttons and oversized shiny shoe buckles.

The Cluricaune is often “detested due to his evil disposition[xii].” People will often try to use him and become his master, but he can be cunning and will try to come out ahead. The Cluiricaune can sometimes be startled as he’s making shoes. He has an incredible ability to vanish, however. It was believed a person could make the Cluricaune tell them where hidden treasure was, or get from him a “magic coin.”

The Cluricaune apparantly likes to smoke and drink; making his beer out of heather. The Cluricaune smokes from a small kind of pipe which is sometimes still found by farmers as they plough their fields.

The Cluricaune is a trickster, but he is loyal to one particular family and will stay so as long as a single family member survives. Despite being a mischievous fellow, he usually has a degree of respect for “the master of the house.” The Cluricaune will protect the home and ward off unseen dangers. He can be extremely upset if he is forgotten. however.

Like other fairy beings, the Cluricaune likes gifts to be left out for him. His connection to wine cellars seems a little suggestive. It is not unheard of for a Cluricaune to let the wine run out of a cask if he deems the household occupants covetous. The Cluricaune was basically a spirit world mobster.

The Cluricaune is said to be as, “ugly as a shrivelled apple”, but he whistles at his work which he seems to enjoy immensely.

He rides through the air with “great velocity” on a reed shaft from place to place. It is said that those who ride with him may take days or even weeks to return home.

(Cluricaune. Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland)

The stories of the Cluricaune remind us to be mindful of the spirits and to leave gifts for them. Whether these tales are contrived or whether they have a basis in truth -however unlikely or Otherworldly this may seem- there is always something to take away from these old stories.

Why a reed? If the story’s make believe then what’s the purpose of the reed in the tale if we are aware of the importance of plants to the ancestors? Why not another tree or branch? If the story does have a metaphysical foundation then what powers does the Cluricaune find within the reed? Is flight literal -or more likely- something far more metaphoric?

There may be more to the reed than meets the eye.

The Foliage:

Reed grass may have an important role to play in the future of water treatment and organic sewage management[xiii].

The reed absorbs impurities from water and is used in small neighbourhood treatment ponds or marshes. “Treatment ponds are small versions of constructed wetlands which uses reed beds or other marshland plants to form an even smaller water treatment system”[xiv]. Micro organisms that live on the roots of the plant -or in the bed litter- treat the water that runs slowly through them.

The Stanley Park Storm Water Treatment Wetland in Vancouver is just such a project. The wetland was created to deal with the runoff of polluted rain water from the Stanley park causeway and from the Lion’s Gate Bridge. The water was originally allowed to flow freely into the streams, Lost Lagoon, Beaver Lake, and into the Pacific Ocean itself[xv]. Now it is treated in a holistic manner to lessen any impact that may be caused from the runoff.

The marshland, “Acts as a settling pond, natural treatment and filtration system for storm-water run off”. Large particles are first captured by a filtration system, then sunlight and micro organisms effectively tear apart contaminants. Slowly the water passes through deeper pools -and marsh staging areas- where reed grass and other native wetland plants break the contaminants down even further. The goal of the project is to, “Keep storm water contaminants in a controlled area so as to protect the surrounding area”[xvi].

The process of using reed beds for sewage treatment is actually quite similar. The water moves through the reed grass and the microorganisms that live in the roots and the litter break down the contaminants while utilizing the nutrients that are being offered in return.

The reed, as it turns out, is a very understated tree after all.

Not only is the reed a steed of the fairy kingdom, it is the bringer of music and healing, art and kingship, learning, advancement and action and it even possesses the ability to aid in the healing of the land.

Ngetal, the reed, the thirteenth few of the Ogham, is the teacher that always was and always will be. It grows just beyond the shore, and in doing so, exists partially in one world, and partially in the next.

“The basket greatly resembles in its functions a ‘portable cauldron’ and leads, like it, in the development of the Grail… The basket is one of the thirteen treasures of Britain and is often an object of gifts. The meaning of abundance is represented in ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’. In order to win Olwen, Culhwch had, among other things, to obtain the basket of Gwyddneu Garanhir. Everyone would find in it the food he wished, even if the whole world gathered around him.” – Sabine Heinz (Celtic Symbols)


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

[ii] For further discussion please refer to the White Goddess. Graves makes a complicated conclusion that the Song of Amergin and the Ogham were both devices referring to a Celtic tree calendar and to each other. Many accept the Celtic Tree calendar as fact however unlikely the reality of this notion is to scholars. I plan on talking about this more in the future.

[iii] The Broom and the Gorse are both non-trees already and would probably have similar or identical meanings in the Ogham as they are similar looking and are very closely related. We will return to these plants when we cover the seventeenth letter of the Ogham, Ohn.

[iv] If at all possible read Charles Graves’ (Robert’s grandfather) On the Ogam Beithluisnin which lists the appearance of the Ogham in many myths and legends. The copy I own is found in the Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom by Caitlin and John Mathews.

[v] Magical Alphabets by Nigel Pennick.

[vi] This is Robert Graves’ version, there are many different translations.

[vii] The Celtic Tree Oracle

[viii] The White Goddess

[ix] Magical Alphabets

[x] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reed_(instrument)

[xi] Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Croker.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Eyewitness Handbooks: Herbs by Lesley Bremness.

[xiv] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reed_bed

[xv] http://newcity.ca/Pages/lostlagoon.html

[xvi] Ibid.

Coll (Hazel)

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

The Roots:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trunk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death may be found instead[vii].

The Foliage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perfect book for me always has foot notes.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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