Artist and Chief James Swan: on funerary rites, putting spirits to rest and the thunderbird (Part 3/3)

(Safe Journey. James UuKwaqum Swan*)

James, you were talking about letting the spirit of a person go after they’ve died by practicing what you called “dealing with things the right way…”

In our culture, we have a song called the yatsu-yatsu (sp?) and it lets the spirits go. We can’t have bad thoughts about a person, even from a photograph, or we will hang onto them. So we sing the yatsu-yatsu and it lets the spirit go.

We will also have a memorial ceremony, a potlatch. It’s really tough for people when a loved one has passed – to let them go – because we always want to have that person close to us forever.

Even with my dad’s death. He is always with me, my father (James Swan Sr). Half of what he was is always with me. Same with my mother, I am half of what she is. So my father, or my mother, will never be gone. I look at my daughter and I say to her, “Make (Grandpa) James” and she goes like this (makes a face). Jessie will make a frown on her face and when you will see it, it’s just the way he would look. So he’s always going to be around. All of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, they know who he is from his pictures, as well. His memory will always be around.

By putting pictures away when someone passes on we let their spirit go as well. When my dad passed away, all of the pictures of him we put away for one year after the memorial service. Usually, this is for four years, but our elders said only to do it for one year because all of our songs and dances were really popular back then and they wanted to have them back. They didn’t want them gone for four years, so we took them back one year after he passed away.

We had a memorial potlatch and took the pictures and songs back after we did the yatsu-yatsu. After all of the songs and dances were finished, we did ours and took them back that day. This was after the songs had been gone for one year. It was one year after my dad passed away.

In our belief, if something was really loved by a person we would also send that item with them when they died. We would take that special item and we would put it in a grave or in a cave with them. Nowadays, even if you went to our cemetery there are items there like somebody’s sewing machine. The sewing machine will be sitting on top of the grave of the person that loved that item they cherished so much. It is not very often that this happens any more, though.

So do people in your culture bury the deceased?

We do now, but I’m not going to be. I am going to be put up in a tree for one whole year waiting for my body to decay. I then want my bones put into a cave.

A cave? Is this the traditional place to be buried?

In caves, yes it is. The cave I want to be put in is in Manhousaht territory.

The old way.

Yes, the old way. Some people might say it won’t matter because I’ll be dead but I want it done this way. It’s all in my will.

Ahousaht School Mural of Thunderbird. 2012

James, you’ve been telling me about the spirits, and funerals, but I also wanted to ask you another unrelated question. I wanted to ask you whether your people have any stories about people coming from the stars or gods that live in the stars or anything like that?

Not that I’m aware of.

I’ve noticed that a lot of places in Ahousaht have paintings of the thunderbird on them. Can you tell me a bit about that story?

What we are told, from a long time ago, is that when you hear the thunder rolling out – when you first hear that thunder – it is actually rolling out to the ocean. It means that the thunderbird is actually going out to capture its prey; the whale.

Shortly after, you will hear it rolling back in, so if you listen very carefully you will hear the thunder roll, or rolling. It will roll out towards the ocean and it will come back in after it captures its prey. Every time you hear the thunder going out, that is the thunderbird that is going out hunting.

(I found out later that according to Nuu-chah-nulth lore, the thunderbird sometimes carries the sea serpent with him out to sea, and it is he who creates the lightning in the sky. Lightning is not very common off of the coast of Vancouver Island)

One of the things that we’re told is that there was this man that followed the thunderbird. He went over four mountains following the thunderbird. He saw the thunderbird going into a cave. The man followed it into the cave. The man then saw another man coming out of the chest of the thunderbird. So that is one of the reasons why you will see a man’s face on the thunderbird’s chest in our First Nation art.

So the man, is that the spirit of the thunderbird or a separate being?

I don’t know what it could be. It could be anything from the first visions and sightings of airplanes or it could be something else. When some people talk about UFOs that’s something that somebody actually saw. That is where that legend or tale came from in regards to that man coming out of the chest.

Even when I think about it, I think about a hanger. I think about an airplane when they say he got out of the chest of a bird. I think of an airplane with wings. That is kind of what I think of when I hear that story.

A long time ago our people went down to Victoria. They got into a canoe and went that way before we had motorboats and everything else. This was in the 1800s or late 1700s when Victoria was just being made. They went down there and they got scared because they heard this loud whistle. They found out later that it was from the train. So that’s where that whistle came from.

Our people heard that whistle for the first time and it spooked them. They came back. They never made it all of the way to Victoria.

Ahousaht Church. 2012

A lot of people in Ahousaht are Christian, or Catholic. There used to be two churches but your mom Mrs. Rosie Swan says that one burned down and now there is only one. Would you say that most people are now mixing the old beliefs with Christian traditions?

I think that there are a lot more coming back to the First Nation’s way. We don’t have a priest that stays in Ahousaht , but we have one that comes to Ahousaht. A lot of the old-timers, especially the ones who had it really rough in the residential schools had it shoved down their throat – Christianity and religion that is. My mom talks about it.

My mom prays to god and Jesus and I don’t disrespect her for that because I’m 100% First Nations. I pray to Nas (sp?), I pray to the creator. I don’t have any disrespect for Jesus or for god. I don’t have any disrespect for Allah or for any other religion or belief that anyone else has. I’m not saying it’s wrong.

What I believe in, in my culture, I practice to the best of my ability. That is what I have.

Thank you James for answering all of my questions, for showing me Ahousaht and your home, and for introducing me to your mom Mrs. Rosie Swan and your family. It truly was an amazing experience. Thank you.

You’re welcome! Now I need a coke! You made me talk for way too long! (laughs)

Whale near Ahousaht. 2012

Closing thoughts

James’ method of response to these questions was often layered and indirect. Each answer, however, would hold a great deal of information. When I first asked James Swan some of these questions, for example, he would sometimes seem to change the subject completely. He would then wrap around the topic slowly, before eventually responding to the question directly.

When I asked about Ahousaht ghost stories, James first explained his own scepticism – delicately – but seemed to be honor-bound by tradition to believe in the stories of the elders. Following this introduction and explanation, James then went on to tell me the original stories to the best of his recollection.

James would also usually include the original teller of the tale’s name. This method of storytelling allows the teller of the original story to be sourced. The story can then be linked to another person living or dead. It seems like a small thing, but it is this system of information-sharing that held many communities together for thousands of years. It’s easy to forget that reading and writing hasn’t existed on the west coast for very long. The Nuu-chah-nulth, like the Celts, had a strong surviving oral tradition instead.

As I wrote out these responses – from the recordings – I would sometimes suddenly realize that there were many things James had said that I hadn’t picked up on the first time. When talking about black magic, for example, he had a certain compassionate contempt for those who practiced this form of sorcery. Only later did I realize that James had listed out his own personal items (with his name on it) that a dark practitioner could steal to put a curse him, where those items could be found (usually unsecured), and how little he cared if they even tried to put a curse on him in the first place. I say “compassionate contempt” because contempt almost doesn’t suit the philosophical stance that James seemed to be taking. He had a genuine pity for these dark practitioners first and foremost. He knew that they would receive three times the negativity that they had directed at him. Much of the specific wording was edited out including where to find these personal items, but I included his response about the army labels to demonstrate his overall lack of concern, or perhaps his unshakeable faith.

There were a lot of topics we discussed that I couldn’t include due to the length of this post and the subject matter deviating too far from the original focus of the blog. Most fascinating to me were the conversations with Mrs. Rosie Swan and James regarding circle sentencing and criminals being sent to live in quasi-isolation on islands. We were also able to discuss the reasons for James joining the army, the return of the people to Ahousaht, the history of Manhousaht and the role of men in their culture. For good or for bad, the Nuu-chah-nulth truly are a male dominated society.

There has been a lot of suffering inflicted upon the people of Ahousaht and other First Nation’s people by agents of government in the not so distant past. Additionally, some Ahousaht families are said to be able to trace genetic differences in their family (like curly hair) to rapes committed by sailors aboard specifically named well-known historical vessels. The often-stated intentional spread of infectious diseases by early settlers is also well known… even outside of First Nation communities. There has also been a lot of publicity in recent years regarding the treatment of First Nation children in Catholic-run residential schools. Men in the name of religion, not so long ago, committed these atrocities on First Nations schoolchildren ranging from torture to rape. From the back of a boat, one of James’ aunts pointed out to me where the residential school was that they had all been forced to attend. My only response – unfortunately – on such short notice was, “I hear it was bad there?” She looked me directly in the eyes and silently nodded yes. There was no judgment there, but I felt guilty just the same.

According to James, the passing of time “has really brought a lot of healing” back to the people of Ahousaht. A return to the old ways seems to be helping a great deal as well. Problems like addiction or bootlegging become community issues to be dealt with by the elders instead of an excuse to cast members out of society forever. The Nuu-chah-nulth art, history, dancing, and storytelling must also give a whole new generation something to be incredibly proud of. At least they should be.

I feel honored that James trusted me enough to share these stories. With a new age moving in, much of the old lore might be forgotten or lost. James said that his mom, for example, is the last one in his family who remembers how to speak their language. This is a sad thing, for this is what the residential schools intended on doing in the first place. Children were beaten for speaking their own language. The ultimate goal, of course, was assimilation.

100 years ago a few writers went around the British Isles and asked other Celtic people about their beliefs while they shared their own. These same families changed over time, became modernized, and the world moved on. Fortunately, these early writers provided a snapshot into the belief and lives of the Celtic people of those times before most of it was lost. Hopefully, in this modern age of information, a greater amount of these stories will be written down and passed on from the Nuu-chah-nulth nation than those of other cultures like the Celtic Irish, for example. There seems to be many people committed to doing such a thing and in keeping the old ways alive. As we bear witness to this, I am sometimes left with a sort of longing, which seems to be wondering what my ancestors have long since forgotten?

The similarities between the Nuu-chah-nulth and the Celts is sometimes eerily blatant. There are clearly cultural differences, true, but the respect for the natural world becomes a commonality between the two cultures that entirely prevails. It would seem that when people have to grow, gather, or hunt their own food that they are prepared to be more thankful – in general – and are able to find a greater meaning from the natural world around them. When a person relies on the life of a fish from the sea – instead of a breaded piece of flesh from a box – it comes with a certain sense of understanding, respect and gratitude. Idealistically, the animal or tree is thanked for its sacrifice and we humans can in turn remain humble.

I fully intend on incorporating some of the practices James described into my own life. Since I’ve returned from the trip, I’ve been saving the bones from the salmon we eat. I intend on casting them back into the ocean while giving thanks for the fish’s sacrifice. I like the idea of respecting my food in this way. It’s something I don’t focus on nearly enough.

The Nuu-chah-nulth teaching I take from this experience is simple, it’s environmental, and it’s profound.  The law applies to all things from the spider to the wolf, from the darkest storm to the brightest day, from the twisted ancient tree to the brightest colored songbird.  The teaching is Hishuk ish tsawalk, and it means:

Everything is one.

(Father James Swan Sr. and Grandfather Luke Swan*)

(Jessie and James Swan*)

* These images are not the author’s and are used only with permission from James Swan

Artist and Chief James Swan: on First Nations ghosts, prayer and black magic (Part 2/3)

First Nations Ghosts

(Take Back Our Children mural detail. James UuKwaqum Swan)

James, do the Nuu-chah-nulth people believe in wandering spirits, or are there First Nations ghosts?

Whether I believe in it or not, there are ghosts. In our culture ghosts are stuck. They are souls or spirits. One of the things that I was taught, is that there’s another realm where our spirits go into. Some people believe, like the Catholic for example, that there is a heaven (holds his hand up high) and a hell (holds his hand down low) on the other side. These people are stuck between heaven and hell.

Our souls go into another room, another realm, and are always met by three people; three other people that are a part of our family. Anyone who has died or has went slowly has seen someone like their father or even my father coming to greet them and show them the way. They were there waiting for them to show them the way.

Sometimes, people don’t see good things. My grandfather talks about it. He says there is a hell and there is a heaven, although I don’t know the name for it, but it’s something that my grandfather talks about.

All of the things we see, in our culture, in our heritage, he says that they happen for a reason. He also says that all of the things that you dream about can happen if you really truly believe. That’s one of the things. I went down to the United States, for example, to go see a friend of mine’s son who was in the hospital. I turned to one of our songs and I prayed for him and he got up. The doctor said he wasn’t supposed to do that. He was supposed to be in the hospital for the rest of his life. He got up and left the hospital. It might be psychological but if you believe in it…

In society you talk about being stubborn. When I go out hunting or I go out fishing and I get cold in my mind I will say, “I am going to be warm when I get home and have a nice warm bath,” and I am not cold. In the army, the first time that I had to run 13 km (8 miles) I knew I would finish it even though I had never run it before. I puked, but I did it. I am stubborn.

So when you talk about ghosts one of the things I always tell myself is that I will believe it when I see it. Whenever I hear of ghosts, or Sasquatch or anything I think that I will believe it when I see it. But when you hear the stories of what people have experienced, of seeing my father, who was seen by one of my other relatives, I am sometimes disappointed. I think why doesn’t he come see me the way he does in my dreams? That is one of the places, I believe, there is a place for our spirits. In our minds and in our dreams.

When you talk about dreams; things you’ve done before but you haven’t – like Deja Vu – or something you’ve dreamt about. You are wondering, for example, “I have been here before, I’ve done this before, I have asked this before and it is the first time that you have ever done it for real. I believe that someone has given me that thought. Whether it’s a soul, a lost soul, an ancestor, a father, a grandmother, they have gone on and have given that thought. I am not saying out-of-body but that they are visitors that were in those places that give us those thoughts, that Déjà vu.

So I really want to see a ghost. I really want to see it to believe it. When I listen to the stories of my father and my mother and everyone else talking about ghosts and spirits, these stories you can’t dismiss them. You can’t dismiss the elders because then you are calling them a liar and saying that they are full of shit because in my language that is what you are saying. They are not. They raised you, they taught you, they gave you everything they could and told you stories of their life and maybe their story of a ghost.

There is actually one, she was actually dressed like a witch in Ahousaht. There are two different stories about this witch dressed in black. We call her a witch because she was dressed in black. She had a black hat on. There is no face. We know it’s a girl even though it has no face on it. My grandfather saw it.

Ahousaht at Low Tide. 2012

The first time I ever heard about this thing was when my grandfather saw it. There was a house fire at my mom and dad’s house and it burnt to the ground. My grandfather had been burnt inside and he went to my sister’s house. He had half his face burnt in the fire. The house burnt down when I was about sixteen years of age. What happened was that my grandfather was out on the deck – at my sisters – and he was looking down the hill. He said that he saw somebody then running away from that black hag, and my grandfather saw it yelling at them.

Another person experienced the same thing around the same time. They got so terrified that they jumped into the nearest house. They smashed a window and jumped in a bunk in the nearest house. That was probably about 30 years ago… quite a while ago.

My aunt talked about a thing too. She was reaching up into the attic once to grab an item she was going to sell, and a hand grabbed her wrist. She was fighting to get her hand out of there. It scared the bejesus out of her and she never did it again.

I also have a story of Jenny’s (sp?) Beach. There was an old lady that lived there and she lived there all by herself. They used to say that she used to talk to somebody and that somebody would carry wood and water for her. People witnessed the water and the wood come in there by itself so that she was taken care of. That was a long time ago my grandfather would talk about it.

Have you ever heard of stories about possession? Can a person become possessed by spirits in your culture?

Like I said before, my grandfather said we had a name for hell so my answer would be yes. I don’t think our people ever had possession before, though. Our culture was really strong before Europeans came.

One thing, people were not allowed to watch us during our cleansing whether we were in the ocean or up a mountain we never told anyone where our cleansing spot was. We never told them when we were going to go out and when we were going to come back. It was something that we did on our own; going up the mountain, finding our own pond or pool or going into the ocean in the morning in our own spot.

First Nations Ghosts
God’s Country. Near Ahousaht. 2012

We used to pray this way to get things right. Someone would pray to use the medicines to make him stronger, or to make him more powerful, or to conquer a whale, to kill a whale or a fur seal, or to do something that he wanted like being a warrior. These were the types of things he had to do to prepare himself. He had to fast for four days in order to do the stuff that he had to do when it comes to cleansing himself. In some cases you would see visions which would tell you something like what to do with your life, or how to do something, or give you songs in some cases or dances. All through fasting.

If somebody was watching you, one of the things we had to do was actually kill that person. This is because all of their bad stuff will be absorbed into us. You were talking about being possessed, possession. That is one of the things that I understand. Our culture tells us we should not have been there, that we should know better than to watch or to observe what that other person was doing to get things right.

Do people still fast?

I fast. It’s really hard not to eat for four days especially when we consider what we eat today. Back then it could have been easier because every day you had to go out for food but we usually had nothing. Back then we could smoke our fish but there was no refrigeration or anything.

I think if we don’t believe something our elders taught us now we are really missing something. It is important that we do not get off so easy. Otherwise you can become weak minded, because we are missing something in our life. Our teaching is Hishuk ish tsawalk, “everything is one.” It doesn’t just mean the resources we have it means the stuff we have inside of us too.

If we don’t deal with things like grief the right way it will leave a hole inside us and make us vulnerable. By dealing with things the right way, by having yatsu-yatsu and having the dance we deal with things the right way.

In the Nuu-chah-nulth culture are there such things as curses or people who can give you the evil eye?

They talk about black magic. Nobody likes to talk about them – I don’t know why – they are scared of them. One of the things we are told is that even a hair… My grandfather said to me, “You put your own hair away! You don’t trust anyone else! Every time you cut your hair you put the hair in the garbage and you tie it! You put your own hair away and you don’t trust anyone else!”

They will put a curse on you or hex you or whatever you want to call it. That’s the kind of thing my grandfather said to me in real life. I heard him saying this and I heard other people talk about it.

Like when you put your name on a container, like one on my boat that has James Swan on it. If somebody took something like that and they did something with it… well it had my name on it and it belonged to me and was mine. One of the things we are always taught is not to put your name on stuff you own. If somebody wants it bad enough they can take it.

That must have been difficult in the army?

(Laughs) Yeah! I have my name on everything!

Do you think anyone still believes in these things or practices them anymore?

Yeah, they do because they say that even some people in Ahousaht practice black magic or witchcraft or whatever you want to call it. Some people in our culture do.

All we are told is to pray if something bad happens. Pray for the people that you think are doing bad things. You never pray or wish them the same bad luck. You never do that because it will come back to you three times. So, if they do it to us you will see things happening to them really bad, and that is how you know it is them.

They pay a price for sending something off.

James Swan and Guy Louis Sr.
Artist and Chief James Uukwaqum Swan with Guy Louis Sr. at Tribal Canoe Journeys. 2012

More stories from Artist and Chief James UuKwaqum Swan next week regarding funerary rites, religion, and the mightiest of the mighty: the Thunderbird…

Straif (Blackthorn)

“Better the bramble than the black-thorn, better the black-thorn than the devil. He who would go in the bramble for me, I would go in the thorn for him” – Proverb (Alexander
Carmichael: Carmina Gadelica Vol. II. 1900)

The Roots:

The fourteenth letter Straif is the few of the blackthorn, which is also known as the sloe tree.

Blackthorn is often associated with misfortune and tragedy, but it can also be seen as a tree of great power. Robert Graves said that the blackthorn was “unbeloved by men”, claiming that it was both unlucky and that it was associated with black magic[i].

Liz and Colin Murray further claimed that this letter was a harbinger of necessary change and that it was a warning of a coming season of discontent[ii]. John Michael Greer –in more recent times- has a very similar meaning listed in the Druid Magic Handbook saying that Straif is the letter of difficult change. Greer says that there is no choice but to move forward during such trying circumstances.

What may be seen as great change by some, can also be viewed as mighty power by others.

Nigel Pennick calls the blackthorn, “a major tree of magical power”. He claims that the influences of the blackthorn reaches into both worlds[iii].

Eryn Rowan Laurie says that Straif is the few of spiritual work, secrets, shapeshifting, divination and change[iv].

The blackthorn is a tree -or thorn bush- of the Sidhe. Straif is connected to the Leanan-Sidhe and by association to the goddess Aine and the Ban-Sidhe. It is considered sacred to the fairies and was believed to be very unlucky to cut or harm the tree at certain times of the year, most especially May 11th and November 11th.

Straif, the blackthorn, is the tree of ill omens, transformation and power.

The Trunk:

In the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1902) W.Y. Evan Wentz lists the Lunantishee as tribes of fairy that were responsible for guarding the blackthorn or sloe trees. Sidhe is pronounced shee, so despite the confusing variations in spelling -and the lack of
recurrence of the above spelling in the old books- Wentz was speaking of the Leanan Sidhe.

The Leanan Sidhe is called the, “Spirit of Life” by Lady Wilde in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland (1911). She then calls the Ban Sidhe (Banshee)
the, “Spirit of Death”. The Leanan Sidhe would give inspiration to the musician or poet and would sometimes give men valour or strength in battle. The Ban Sidhe on the other hand, would foretell doom. The Sidhe –sometimes the Tuatha De Danaan- have very blurred lines in the Irish Celtic legends with the gods of the ancestors.

Interestingly enough, it was believed that the blackthorn was sacred to the goddess because of the contrast of the trees colors during various seasons. The white flower of spring symbolizes the beautiful, peaceful and life-giving aspect of the goddess while the black fruit of autumn symbolize the death dealing destroyer-of-life personae of the same goddess. The tree balances white and dark, but also has a red sap that can be seen as the third colour sacred to goddesses of the land[v].

It is likely that the blackthorn was a revered and respected tree associated with the Sidhe before the coming of Christianity and later became feared to greater degrees. The new faith brought the idea that spirits that did not exist in the Hebrew texts, were just as likely to be aspects of the devil or wandering demons seeking out the souls of non believers[vi].

It should be no surprise then that the Leanan Sidhe is sometimes seen as a vampire-like figure that makes men fall in love with her to steal their souls. The solitary version of the Leanan-Sidhe is also often seen as being Aine the goddess who is sometimes referred to as the Fairy Queen[vii].

The following story is taken from Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory (1904) and is found in Part I: Book IV: Aine.  It sheds some light on the contrast of beauty and darkness that makes up this aspect of the Leanan Sidhe:

AND as to Aine, that some said was a daughter of Manannan, but some said was the Morrigu herself, there was a stone belonging to her that was called Cathair Aine. And if any one would sit on that stone he would be in danger of losing his wits, and any one that would sit on it three times would lose them for ever. And people whose wits were astray would make their way to it, and mad dogs would come from all parts of the country, and would flock around it, and then they would go into the sea to Aine’s place there. But those that did cures by herbs said she had power over the whole body; and she used to give gifts of poetry and of music, and she often gave her love to men, and they
called her the Leanan Sidhe, the Sweetheart of the Sidhe.

And it was no safe thing to offend Aine, for she was very revengeful. Oilioll Oluim, a king of Ireland, killed her brother one time, and it is what she did, she made a great yew-tree by enchantment beside the river Maigh in Luimnech, and she put a little man in it, playing sweet music on a harp. And Oilioli’s son was passing the river with his step-brother, and they saw the tree and heard the sweet music from it. And first they quarrelled as to which of them would have the little harper, and then they quarrelled about the tree, and they asked a judgment from Ollioll, and he gave it for his own son. And it was the bad feeling about that judgment that led to the battle of Magh Mucruimhe, and Oilioll and his seven sons were killed there, and so Aine got her revenge.

(Merlin and the Fairy Queen. John Duncan.

The association of the powerful Leanan Sidhe, the Fairy Queen Aine, and likely the Ban Sidhe, to the blackthorn warns us that this is no tree to be trifled with. Its strong ties to the fairy kingdom are reminiscent of the powers of the hawthorn.

The blackthorn is, in fact, often considered to be a sister tree to the hawthorn. It can have very negative qualities, however, as it was a tree that was used – most especially the thorn- in black magic. It was believed that during the time of the witch hunts -the purging of the older pagan beliefs- that it was the devil himself that would prick the witch’s finger with a thorn as a sort of initiation. Thus the superstition of the blackthorn became further compounded over time through fear and persecution[viii].

Straif, the blackthorn, has protective qualities as well. Besides being used in hedging it was also thought to provide protection against ghosts, those restless spirits, that were found throughout Ireland[ix].

The tree of fairies and witches, the blackthorn not only exists in both worlds simultaneously, it exists –it can be argued- more in the Otherworld than it does on the land before us. The tree can protect us, but it can also harm us if we are not careful and respectful. Straif, the fourteenth few, is the tree of magical power and

The Foliage:

The Blackthorn does not grow in Western North America but has naturalized in parts of Eastern North America[x].

Blackthorn, or prunus spinosa, is part of a family of 200 species. The blackthorn is related to the plum, apricot, almond, peach and cherry trees. Thus, the blackthorn’s closest relatives in the Pacific Northwest are the cherry trees. The similarity is apparent, if and when the sloe become a tree.

This is one of the problems that Eryn Rowan Laurie warned us about. When the tree of the “Ogham Tree Calendar” does not exist in a certain region what does one replace it with when the need for working with that plant directly surfaces?

In its tree form the similarity to cherry trees is apparent. The cherry trees do not seem to ever become the thorny shrubs that are more common for the blackthorn though. What tree would replace it in its absence then? This is no easy question to answer and each person must find their own understanding if they are to pursue this path.

For me the answer lies in the blackberry.

The blackberry is a thorny plant that grows in shrubs. Like the blackthorn it grows a white flower in spring. Like the blackthorn it also produces a dark purple-black fruit in fall. Interestingly enough, it also seems to have taboos and superstitions attached to it.

According to Robert Graves the blackberry was associated with the devil, and the fruit was either never picked –or like the blackthorn- was considered unfortunate to pick at certain times of the year. Also like the blackthorn the blackberry was considered very unlucky[xi].

The fit is not as perfect as it might initially appear, however. The blackberry rarely grows into anything resembling a tree. The native Trailing Blackberry grows along the ground while the introduced and widespread Himalayan Blackberry also mostly grows along the ground. I have seen individual branches in the forest growing straight into the air, at heights around ten feet or more, but the stems looks nothing like the trunks of trees[xii].

The blackberry is as good a substitute for the Ogham letter as I have found for my area however. What once was a mnemonic device to my ancestors became both meaningful and magical to them over time as it has for me. The important thing for me –as it should be for you as well- is to find something that honours your own path and feels right to you. As long as we remember not to sell our own discoveries as the gospel of our ancestor -and to treat the path with reverence and respect- then the Ogham path of knowledge and wisdom has much to teach us both of the past and of the possible future, as well as of the unseen realms.

Straif is not only a dark tree of power and magic, it is also mysterious and wise. In our journey through the forest it can take us places that we never imagined that we could go.

“The blackthorn’s scented white blossoms, and their contrast with its dark, spiny branches, symbolizes the general theme of light and darkness with which the plant has
been associated since ancient times. The dangerous, long spikes and the red “blood” that flows in the veins of the blackthorn tree enhance the dramatic effect even further. The blossoms, the fruits and the crimson sap display the three colours of the Great Goddess: white, black, and red. And as its name suggests, this tree has been associated with the dark aspects of life, such as night, death, and the underworld.”
 – Fred Hageneder (The Meaning of Trees)

[i] The White Goddess.

[ii] The Celtic Tree Oracle.

[iii] Magical Alphabets.

[iv] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[v] The Meaning of Trees. Fred Hageneder.

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

[vii] Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. James MacKillop.

[viii] Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook.

[ix] Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology.

[x] Native Trees of Canada. Department of Forestry. 1966.

[xi] The White Goddess.

[xii] Plants of Coastal British Columbia. Pojar and MacKinnon

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