Changeling. The widespread belief that fairies or other malevolent spiritual forces might secretly substitute one infant for another is amply represented in Celtic oral tradition. Irish corpán sídhe, síodhbhradh, síofra; Scottish Gaelic tàcharan, ùmaidh; Manx lhiannoo shee; Welsh plentyn a newidiwyd am arall (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology).
The Fairy Changeling
(Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. Lady Wilde. 1887.)
ONE evening, a man was coming home late, and he passed a house where two women stood by a window, talking.
“I have left the dead child, in the cradle as you bid me,” said one woman, “and behold here is the other child, take it and let me go;” and she laid down an infant on a sheet by the window, who seemed in a secret sleep, and it was draped all in white.
“Wait,” said the other, “till you have had some food, and then take it to the fairy queen, as I promised, in place of the dead child that we have laid in the cradle by the nurse. ‘Wait also till the moon rises, and then you shall have the payment which I promised.”
They then both turned from the window. Now the man saw that there was some devil’s magic in it all. And when the women turned away he crept up close to the open window and put his hand in and seized the sleeping child and drew it out quietly without ever a sound. Then he made off as fast as he could to his own home, before the women could know anything about it, and handed the child to his mother’s care. Now the mother was angry at first, but when he told her the story, she believed him, and put the baby to sleep–a lovely, beautiful boy with a face like an angel.
Next morning there was a great commotion in the village, for the news spread that the first-born son of the great lord of the place, a lovely, healthy child, died suddenly in the night, without ever having had a sign of sickness. When they looked at him in the morning, there he laid dead in his cradle, and he was shrunk and wizened like a little old man, and no beauty was seen on him any more. So great lamentation was heard on all sides, and the whole country gathered to the wake. Amongst them came the young man who had carried off the child, and when he looked on the little wizened thing in the cradle he laughed. Now the parents were angry at his laughter, and wanted to turn him out.
But he said, “Wait put down a good fire,” and they did so.
Then he went over to the cradle and said to the hideous little creature, in a loud voice before all the people–
“If you don’t rise up this minute and leave the place, I will burn you on the fire; for I know might well who you are, and where you came from.”
At once the child sat up and began to grin at him; and made a rush to the door to get away; but the man caught hold of it and threw it on the fire. And the moment it felt the heat it turned into a black kitten, and flew up the chimney and was seen no more.
Then the man sent word to his mother to bring the other child, who was found to be the true heir, the lord’s own son. So there was great rejoicing, and the child grew up to be a great lord him-self, and when his time came, he ruled well over the estate; and his descendants are living to this day, for all things prospered with him after he was saved from the fairies.
Parasitic cuckoo birds regularly practice brood parasitism, or non-reciprocal offspring-swapping. Rather than raising their young on their own, they will lay their egg in another’s nest, leaving the burden on the unsuspecting parents, which are of another species altogether. More often than not, the cuckoo chick hatches sooner than its “stepsiblings” and grows faster; eventually claiming most of the nourishment brought in and may actually “evict” the young of the host species by pushing them out of their own nest (Wikipedia).
According to Katherine Briggs in Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967), the changeling is more often male than female. This stolen child usually has blonde hair and a fair complexion. Briggs says it’s believed the dark fairies steal human babies in order to use them for breeding; thus introducing “fair” blood into their fairy gene pool. Most accounts of changelings in the fairy tales can be traced to Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends. Several other sources are given in Brigg’s text, however. Either book can offer insight into how to retrieve a stolen child if need be, or how to protect one’s own child from being stolen in the first place.
I’ve written about the Bridget Cleary case previously in the Hawthorn Ogham post. To recap: In rural Ireland in 1895, Bridget Cleary’s husband, neighbours, and relatives, murdered her and burned her body. The motive? They were convinced Bridget was a fairy changeling. The active participants of the murder (9 initially charged) maintained their story throughout the entire court case.
In the land of the Celts – from lonely moors to haunted castles –the bat has long been associated with witches, ghosts, and other tragic beings of the night…
In the 1949 Encyclopedia of Superstitions by Edwin and Mona Radford we find one such example: In Scotland, it was said that when a bat rose quickly from the ground and then descended again, that “the witches hour had come.” This witches hour was, of course, “the hour in which [the witches] have power over every human being under the sun who are not specially shielded from their influence.”
The bat in Celtic folklore wasn’t always bad, though. In A. W. Moore’s 1891 book Folk-lore of the Isle of Man we’re told, “fine weather is certain when bats fly about at sunset.” Likewise, Fredrick Thomas Elworthy reported in his 1895 book the Evil Eye that, “in Shropshire it is unlucky to kill a bat.” George Henderon, in the 1911 book Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, also said “the bat was regarded with awe in the midlands.”
“A bat came flying round and round us, flapping its wings heavily.” – the Bard Iolo Morganwg (1747 – 1826)
Sometimes, the bat could be a fairy (ghost or other discarnate spirit) in disguise. In Thomas Crofton Croker’s 1825 book Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland we’re given one such example: The Phooka – who sometimes took the form of a bat – was basically a trickster-being who hijacked people’s bodies and took them out for a joy ride… a trick modern people might call possession. The story implies that it’s the soul being taken on the journey and not the physical body itself.
“The Phooka would take his victim on great adventures as far away as the moon, [he] compels the man of whom it has got possession, and who is incapable of making any resistance, to go through various adventures in a short time. It hurries with him over precipices, carries him up into the moon, and down to the bottom of the sea.”
Other mythical beings are also associated with the bat. In 1886, Charles Gould in Mythical Monsters identified the Celtic dragon’s wings as those of a bat as opposed to those of a bird. In the 1900 book Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, by John Rhys, we also learn of the Cyhiraeth. “This spectral female used to be oftener heard than seen,” said Rhys. She was usually believed to be a death-messenger, similar to the Banshee, but one who was more likely to be heard than seen. If the title or name of a person could not be heard and understood clearly, then it was assumed that the hearer of the Cyhiraeth’s message would die themselves. Sometimes, instead of words, she would flap her wings against a window at night as a warning that death was coming. The source Rhys quoted in the book said that these wings were leathery and bat-like.
The greatest surviving tale of the bat, however, is the story of the shape-shifting enchantress Tehi Tegi found in A. W. Moore’s 1891 Folk-lore of the Isle of Man:
“A famous enchantress, sojourning in this Island, had by her diabolical arts made herself appear so lovely in the eyes of men that she ensnared the hearts of as many as beheld her…When she had thus allured the male part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a progress through the provinces, and being attended by all her adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white palfrey, in a kind of triumph at the head of them.
She led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable, and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which, driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers, to the number of six hundred, in their tumultuous waves. After which, the sorceress was seen by some persons, who stood on the shore, to convert herself into a bat, and fly through the air till she was out of sight, as did her palfrey into a sea hog or porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the bottom of the stream.”
In this way, the enchantress Tehi Tegi was able to capture the hearts of men through her otherworldly beauty, before dissolving into the shadows in the form of a bat. This, of course, was only after she’d sacrificed the 600 worshippers she had come for in the first place.
In modern times, the bat has become emblematic of Halloween. Halloween, as we know, is the descendent of the Celtic holiday Samhain. In this way, the bat has now become an object of festive tradition instead of a creature loathed or feared.
The bat in Celtic folklore hasn’t lost all of its dark powers completely, however. In Ireland, it’s still said that, “bats commonly become entangled in women’s hair… if a bat escapes carrying a strand of hair, then the woman is destined for eternal damnation[i].” Some people also believe that a bat entering into the home is a sure sign that death will soon follow[ii].
If you’re a lowly man, you could be in trouble if this particular bat portends the arrival of the mighty Tehi Tegi. In this case, the Bat in Celtic folklore might signify a dark destruction for you, as well.
According to lore, the spider in Celtic myth was a beneficial being. It appeared in the old texts suddenly, emerging from some now-forgotten lost older oral tradition, creepy-crawling onto the pages of recorded folklore from out of nowhere.
One of the earliest mentions of the spider can be found in Waltor Gregor’s 1881 book, Notes on the Folklore of the Northeast of Scotland. Here, we discover the spider was once a well-respected creature:
“Spiders were regarded with a feeling of kindliness, and one was usually very loath to kill them. Their webs, very often called ‘moose wobs,’ were a great specific to stop bleeding.”
The author adds the following statements for good measure:
“A spider running over any part of the body-clothes indicated a piece of new dress corresponding to the piece over which the spider was making its way.”
“A small spider makes its nest—a white downy substance—on the stalks of standing corn. According to the height of the nest from the ground was to be the depth of snow during winter.”
Lady Wilde later echoed these sentiments – those of a beneficial spider – in her 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. She claimed the Transylvanians and the Irish shared the belief that one should, “Never kill a spider.” The text implies this would attract misfortune.
Although Celtic stories involving the spider are difficult to find, they do exist. One tale, involving the Spider, for example, occurs in Elsie Masson’s 1929 Folk Tales of Brittany:
Two brothers are travelling through a forested countryside, when they come across a beggarly old woman. The first brother ignores the woman, while the second gives her all of his coins. As a reward, the old lady gives the generous brother a walnut, which she claims contains a wasp with a diamond stinger.
The older brother becomes annoyed at his younger brother’s generosity, but opts to continue the journey without much further discussion. As they’re riding, however, the brothers come across a young boy who’s shivering in the wind. The younger brother gives the boy his cloak without any thought, much to the dismay of his older brother. The child in return gives him a dragonfly (winged needle), which is being held in a cage made from Reeds. The child claims that the dragonfly was captured from within a hollow tree[i].
The brothers continue on their way, until eventually, they come upon an old man who says that he cannot walk. Filled with compassion, the younger brother gives the old man his horse. In return, the old man gives the generous brother a hollow acorn (Oak nut), which he claims contains a spider.
By this point, however, the older brother is furious. Angry at his younger brother’s foolishness, the older brother leaves him cold, penniless, and without a mount. He tells the younger brother that he will not share his horse, his coin, or his cloak, nor will he wait for him any longer. The older brother seems quite convinced that the younger brother will learn his lesson if he’s forced to walk and to suffer, so he leaves him. As the older brother rides away, however, a giant eagle snatches him from the saddle and carries him into the clouds. The younger brother, horrified, witnesses the act and sees that two eagles have committed it. One of these eagles is white, and the other one is red.
The younger brother, distressed, wonders aloud as to how he will be able to rescue his older brother. Seemingly, from out of nowhere, he hears three tiny voices from out of his pocket. These voices beg to help him. Seeing a possible answer to his dilemma, the younger brother unleashes the three deadly insects. The spider springs forth and immediately weaves a ladder towards the heavens from upon the dragonfly’s back. The group then ascends into the sky, and into the lair of the giant responsible for the kidnapping.
A battle of epic proportions ensues. The wasp stings out the eyes of both eagles and the giant. The spider then attacks, and wraps, the giant within its steel–like web. Suddenly, the eagles switch sides, blindly pecking the giant to death through the spider’s binding webs. The eagles both die on the spot, however, because as the story goes, a magician’s flesh is incredibly poisonous.
(Tom Thumb Spider. Jemina Blackburn. 1855)
In the aftermath of carnage, the dragonfly and wasp transform into horses and attach themselves to the Reed cage, which has now become a coach. The spider, on the other hand, has become the carriage’s groom. The brothers get in, and the coach carries them through the sky[ii]. The carriage then carries the brothers to their horses, where the younger brother also finds a much fuller coin purse and a diamond-studded cloak. Upon arrival, the carriage disappears and the three insects, which have already been transformed once, now assume their true forms. In their place are three shining angels which light up the sky. The brothers fall to their knees and thank the divine beings for all of their aid and for saving their lives.
This tale, though Christian by the time of its recording, echoes a much older belief that all of nature, however humble it may appear on the surface, could in fact be a sacred spirit or divine being in disguise.
The Spider was said to have its own powers though. Sometimes that power was beneficial, and sometimes it brought nothing harm. For example, in the 1899 Prophecies of Brahan Seer by Alexander MacKenzie we learn that:
“A spider put into a goose-quill, well sealed, and put around a child’s neck, will cure it of the thrush[iii].”
Somewhat contrarily, Alexander Carmicheal’s 1900 Carmina Gadelica says there’s a “bloody flux” in cattle believed to be caused by the animal swallowing a water insect or a Spider, believed to have caused the bleeding in the animal.
Understandably, the Spider also has ties to the loom or spinning wheel; which in turn suggests a much older goddess connection. In John Rhys 1900 Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx we find the following quote (where the author’s discussing the differences between the Welsh and Breton languages):
“Cor and corryn are also used for the spider, as in gwe’r cor or gwe’r corryn, ‘a spider’s web,’ the spider being so called on account of its spinning, an occupation in which the fairies are represented likewise frequently engaged; not to mention that gossamer (gwawn) is also some-times regarded as a product of the fairy loom.”
Within the Carmina Gadelica we find a more specific connection:
“’Bean chaol a chota uaine’s na gruaige buidhe,’ the slender woman of the green kirtle and the yellow hair, is wise of head and deft of hand. She can convert the white water of the rill into rich red wine, and the threads of the spider into a tartan plaid.”
In 1978, J. C. Cooper stated in An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols that:
“The spindle is an attribute of all mother goddesses, lunar goddesses, and weavers of fate in their terrible aspect.”
While the statement does seem a little broad, this is likely true in regards to the Celts, as well. In Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by George Douglas, written in 1901, we find the following statement:
“In the old days, when spinning was the constant employment of women, the spinning-wheel had its presiding genius or fairy. Her Border name was Habitrot.”
Perhaps, it’s from these two statements that we’re able to surmise an older, and more divine, connection to the Spider. In Thomas Rolleston’s 1911 Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race, for example, we find a story containing similar symbolism to those found in Greek or Norse mythology:
“Finn, it is said, and Conan the Bald, with Finn’s two favourite [sic] hounds, were watching the hunt from the top of the Hill of Keshcorran and listening to the cries of the beaters and the notes of the horn and the baying of the dogs, when, in moving about on the hill, they came upon the mouth of a great cavern, before which sat three hags of evil and revolting aspect. On three crooked sticks of Holly they had twisted left-handwise hanks of yarn, and were spinning with these when Finn and his followers arrived. To view them more closely the warriors drew near, when they found themselves suddenly entangled in strands of the yarn which the hags had spun about the place like the web of a spider, and deadly faintness and trembling came over them, so that they were easily bound fast by the hags and carried into the dark recesses of the cave. Others of the party then arrived looking for Finn. All suffered the same experience— the bewitched yarn, and were bound and carried into the cave, until the whole party were laid in bonds, with the dogs baying and howling outside.”
The hags set about to murder the hapless men, but Goll mac Morna arrived and cleaved two of them in half. The third sister, Irnan, having been initially spared, later returns for vengeance. Goll mac Morna[iv] is finally forced to slay her as well:
“He drew sword for a second battle with this horrible enemy. At last, after a desperate combat, he ran her through her shield and through her heart, so that the blade stuck out at the far side, and she fell dead.”
As a reward, Goll mac Morna is given Finn’s daughter, Keva of the White Skin. The story is incredibly symbolic. If we take the tale as being metaphoric, instead of more literal, then clearly the three hags, and their webs, represent one’s own fate or destiny. While Finn and his men (already semi-divine) are powerless, Goll mac Morna (an exterior force) is able to free them.
The idea of fate, however, was contrary to the teachings of the church. Over time the hags, much like the spider, had become “evil.” The following example from St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan’s 1914 True Irish Ghost Stories illustrates a full negative shift away from the older more favourable viewing of spiders. Long before Marvel created the comic book hero spider man – or even spider woman for that matter – this creepy specter was said to be gracing the walls of one particular Irish manor:
“A strange legend is told of a house in the Boyne valley. It is said that the occupant of the guest chamber was always wakened on the first night of his visit, then, he would see a pale light and the shadow of a skeleton ‘climbing the wall like a huge spider.’ It used to crawl out onto the ceiling, and when it reached the middle would materialize into apparent bones, holding on by its hands and feet; it would break in pieces, and first the skull, and then the other bones, would fall on the floor. One person had the courage to get up and try to seize a bone, but his hand passed through to the carpet though the heap was visible for a few seconds.”
While the tale’s unlikely in a literal sense – at least as far as traditional hauntings go – it does show us that the spider lost its status as a “kindly” being by this point, and instead wore a cloak of blackened “evil.”
At one time, weaving was a necessary practice in the daily life of a Celtic community. As trades became more specialized or industrialized, however, and folk came to view nature as something separate and evil, the spider, the spinning wheel, and the act of weaving itself, lost their mystique, their value, and even their sacredness.
Like it or not, if nature’s ever to be viewed as sacred once more, then so must the Spider. To gaze upon a spider’s web, as it reflects an intricate array of light and complexity, one can be reminded that there’s more to the creeping quiet Spider than initially meets the eye. Sacred or not, the Spider shows itself to be an amazing product of evolution. To the Celtic people of the past, this observation must have been nothing short of divine.
[i] The Hollow Tree is usually a Yew.
[ii] Ancient Alien theorists would claim that this story of flying through the air is indisputable evidence that Aliens co-existed with humans in the past.
[iii] An oral fungal infection.
[iv] Goll mac Morna is described as: “the raging lion, the torch of onset, the great of soul.” He disappears in between the two battles and is not ensnared by the web. The story suggests he’s not human.
“There are about 45 species of Crow in the world known by a variety of common names, including Ravens, jackdaws and rooks.” – Candace Savage (Crows)
Both the Raven and Crow have made many iconic appearances throughout Celtic myth and legend – and later in folklore as well. In earlier times, these black birds were often believed to be aspects of the Morrigan, some other divine being, intelligent allies of the downtrodden, or hapless souls who had been transformed through foul magic. Slowly, however, these birds lost their status as divine messengers and instead became servants of the devil, representing death and dying. Truth be told however, the Crow and Raven have always symbolized death.
Lady Guest’s 1877 translation of the Mabinogion is a collection of 11th Century Welsh Tales. Within its pages Taliesin claims:
“I have fled in the semblance of a crow, scarcely finding rest.”
In the ‘Notes’ section of the Mabinogion, Lady Guest says that in some versions of the tale of Owain, the hero has “an army of Ravens.” W. Y. Evans-Wentz elaborates further in his 1911 book Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. He claims that Owain had a Crow, “which always secured him victory in battle.” This avian champion did so with the aid of 300 other black-plumed Crows.
In Charles Squires 1905 Celtic Myth and Legend Gwynhwyvar’s father Ogyrvan’s (ocur vran) name meant “Evil Bran or Raven,” which was “the bird of death.” Within the text we’re also told that Bran’s (Bran the Blessed) name meant Raven. Bran is said to be the “Celtic Hades,” or god of the Underworld.
According to John Rhys in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, in Cornwall, it was believed that Arthur did not die in battle at all. Instead, he was turned into a Raven, which was “a form in which he still goes about.” For this reason, the author claimed that even to that day – the year being 1900 – that a Cornishman would not willingly fire upon a Raven.
The Raven and the Crow were aspects of the Morrigan in Ireland. The Morrigan was sometimes seen as a trio of goddesses whose names were Macha, Babd and Namain[i]. These “war goddesses” often took on the form of the black bird[ii]. In Lady Gregory’s 1904 Gods and Fighting Men the Morrigan is sometimes called “the Crow of Battle” or the “Battle Crow.” In Charles Squires’ 1905 Celtic Myth and Legend it’s said that:
“Wherever there was war, either among gods or men, she, the great queen, was present, either in her own shape or on her favorite disguise, that of a hoodie or carrion crow. An old poem shows her inciting a warrior: Over his head is shrieking, A lean hag, quickly hopping, Over the points of the weapons and shields, She is the grey-haired Morrigii!”
Cuchulain – along with many other heros in Irish myth – was followed by the Goddess Morrigan in her Raven form his whole life. When he did eventually die, “a crow comes and perches upon his shoulder[iii].”
In the 1902 Cuchulain of Muirthemne by Lady Gregory, one of the daughters of the evil Irish druid Calatin appears to Cuchulain in the form of a Crow. Having been influenced by the Morrigan herself, she does this in order to lure Cuchulain into battle.
In Lady Gregory’s retelling of the 12th Century Tain, we’re also told that Cuchulain said after killing his own son:
“I am a Raven that has no home.”
George Henderson in Survival in Belief amongst Celts – published in 1911 – says that the famous bull[iv] also found in the Tain Bo had at one point taken many other forms including that of the Raven.
In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 Popular Tales of the West Highlands we’re told that a “Ravan was the son of the King of Lochlin.”
Not every Raven is black, however. The Tuatha De Danann queen Eriu (Erin[v]) is described in Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men:
“In the one moment she would be a wide-eyed most beautiful queen, and in another she would be a sharp-beaked, grey-white crow.”
Over time, many other cultures and religions influenced and shaped the beliefs of the Celts. The old gods became fairies and devils, and in turn the Raven and Crow of the Celts became the never-tiring pawns of Satan. Next week, we’ll continue our exploration of these birds in The Raven and Crow of the Celts – Part II: Fairytales and Folklore.
[i] This third name is not always consistent and the three in one aspect is not always agreed upon. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. James MacKillop.
[iii] Celtic Myth and Legend. Charles Squire. 1905.
[iv] The bull’s name is Donn Cualnge.
[v] Eriu, or Erin, is one of the three queens in which Ireland was named after.
*Layendecker image: Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race. T.W. Rolleston. 1911
“When the broom and the whin were rich in blossom it was looked upon as an indication of a good crop.” – Waltor Gregor (Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland. 1881)
1) The Roots: Background information
2) The Trunk: Celtic Mythology and Significance
3) The Foliage: Spells using the Plant
The seventeenth letter of the Ogham is Ohn. In its tree form this letter is usually listed as Gorse. According to Robert Graves, some Ogham lists use the Scotch Broom instead[i].
Gorse is also known as Sea Gorse, Furz, Furze, Furse or Whin. It is a close relative to the Broom plant belonging to the same tribe Genisteae. The main differing quality between the two plants is the Gorse’s sharp thorns. In Cad Goddeu –the Battle of the Trees- Broom even seems to be the parent of the Gorse when the story relays to us that, “The Brooms with their offspring [arrived?]: the Furz was not well behaved, until he was tamed…[ii].”
James Frazer in the Golden Bough says that the Furz and the Broom were often used interchangeable within folk ritual. This may be why some of the Ogham lists use the Broom plant instead of Gorse. It may also be why Robert Graves left Broom out of his Ogham list as the plant listed for Ngetal[iii] and why he replaced it with the Reed Grass instead. Perhaps he believed that the Broom and Gorse were too similar to have separate letters within the Ogham? Another more likely possibility, however, could be that Graves chose this placement more to support his tree calendar theory than for any other historical or mythological significance.
When one considers that the Gorse and the Broom both grew, and continue to grow, out in the open and needed to be tamed -by our ancestors- then the parallels between the two plants becomes apparent. Both plants were often burnt back by shepherds and farmers to preserve the land from being overwhelmed. Gorse on the one hand had spiky thorns while the Broom was softer but just as prolific.
In the Ogham Tract[iv] the trees and plants of the Ogham are listed according to their rank. Some trees are seen as chieftain trees, some are seen as peasant trees and some are seen as shrub trees. Interestingly enough, the Furz is listed as a chieftain tree but -as Whin- is listed again as a peasant tree[v]. It is also assumed that Broom is listed as a shrub tree by its absence. Under Brehon law[vi], however, both the Broom and the Furz are given the lowest rank of “bramble” trees. Gorse’s ranking as a chieftain tree illustrates the respect it was given in Ireland at the time the tract was written.
There is a common theme found in the tree and plant mythology of the Celtic ancestors. It would seem that all of the thorn plants – such as Hawthorn, Blackthorn, or Blackberry- were protected by the fairies and were thus deemed sacred, cursed, or both.
Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom says that the Gorse represented foundations and journeying. Gorse was also related to ones path, choices, direction and intention. The energy of the Broom, according to Laurie, is a plant of healing and wounding.
In Robert Ellison’s Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids the letter represents a collecting together of things. The Gorse, he says, can be used in “seasonal love spells and in spells that draw things together.” Elision relates the Broom’s powers to hard work and tools.
In Celtic Wisdom Sticks Caitlin Mathews tells us that in old Irish law the presence of Gorse was proof of an uncultivated land. In her divination system the Gorse represents hard work and persistence.
The word-Ogham kenning for Ohn is shortened to “helper of horses” in John Mathew’s book the Celtic Shaman. The meaning given to this kenning in the book is “travel.”
According to Eryn Rowan Laurie the Gorse was used in some parts of Ireland instead of the Hawthorn as the May bush. This could have only been possible if the Gorse was a greatly respected plant at the time.
In A.W. Moore’s 1891 book Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man Gorse is also said to have been burnt on May Eve. In Notes on the Folk-lore of the North-East of Scotland by Walter Gregorthe Gorse, or Broom, was lit in the Beltane fire there as well.
James Frazer in the Golden Bough said that Gorse was torched to protect cattle from witches on the Isle of Mann. Gorse fields, he claimed, were customarily burnt on Midsummer’s Eve.
Reasons why they would burn the plant can be found throughout folklore.
One of the ingredients used to create the flower goddess Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogion was the Broom flower. The Cailleach or hag goddess, on the other hand, was elsewhere connected to the Gorse[vii]. There are many examples of the fairies living within the Gorse or Broom as well.
In the 1900 book Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx by John Rhys we find one example:
“In some places the Tylwyth Teg are described as a small folk of a thieving nature, living in summer among the fern bushes in the mountains, and in winter in the heather and gorse. These were wont to frequent the fairs and to steal money from the farmers’ pockets, where they placed in its stead their own fairy money, which looked like the coin of the realm, but when it was paid for anything bought it would vanish in the pockets of the seller.”
In the 1881 text Notes on the Folk-lore of the North-East of Scotland we find another example in which a man overhears the fairies plotting an abduction from inside of a Broom grove. The man is able to thwart the fairy raid and saves the smith’s wife. This is the tale that was told last week. The fairies fled and a Fir wood replica of the wife was accidently left behind[viii].
According to the 1917 text Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Mackenzie the fairies would come forth when the golden Gorse was in bloom. Perhaps, this was why the fairies lived in “the fern bushes” in summer?
The Gorse could also be home to witches. We find this example in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx:
“The break of this day(May Eve) is also the signal for setting the ling or the gorse on fire, which is done in order to burn out the witches wont to take the form of the hare; and guns, I am told, were freely used to shoot any game met with on that morning. With the proper charge some of the witches were now and then hit and wounded, whereupon they resumed the human form and remained cripples for the rest of their lives.”
Gorse was usually burnt to combat witches or fairies in a more direct way:
“The persons who had the power of turning themselves into hares were believed to be abroad and very active, together with the whole demon world, on the eve of May-day of the Old Style. And a middle-aged man from the parish of Andreas related to me how he came three or four times across a woman reputed to be a witch, carrying on her evil practices at the junction of cross-roads, or the meeting of three boundaries. This happened once very early on Old May morning, and afterwards he met her several times as he was returning home from visiting his sweetheart. He warned the witch that if he found her again he would kick her: that is what he tells me. Well, after a while he did surprise her again at work at four crossroads, somewhere near Lezayre. She had a circle, he said, as large as that made by horses in threshing, swept clean around her. He kicked her and took away her besom (broom), which he hid till the middle of the day. Then he made the farm boys fetch some dry gorse, and he put the witch’s besom on the top of it. Thereupon fire was set to the gorse, and, wonderful to relate, the besom, as it burned, crackled and made reports like guns going off. In fact, the noise could be heard at Andreas Church—that is to say, miles away.”
These stories, of course, were written long before the Witch’s Rights movement.
When Gorse, or Broom, appears in stories it usually represents the wild and untamed land being reclaimed by nature. The shrubs become a hiding place for fairies, witches and strange animals:
“It is believed still all over Wales that snakes may, under favourable circumstances, develop wings: in fact, an Anglesey man strongly wished, to my knowledge, to offer to the recent Welsh Land Commission, as evidence of the wild and neglected state of a certain farm, that the gorse had grown so high and the snakes so thriven in it that he had actually seen one of the latter flying right across a wide road which separated two such gorse forests as he described: surprised and hurt to find that this was not accepted, he inferred that the Commissioners knew next to nothing about their business.”
The following spell is mentioned in A.W. Moore’s 1891 book Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man:
“This (May Eve) was also one of the occasions on which no one would give fire, and on which fires were and are lit on the hills to drive away the Fairies, Witches, &c., and also to purify the fields, cattle, and horses by the smoke passing over them. It is said that a handful of gorse was formerly lit in each field to purify it.”
A similar practice was observed on Midsummer’s Eve:
“On the eve of St. John the Baptist, the natives lighted fires to the windward side of every field, so that the smoke might pass over the corn; they folded their cattle and carried blazing furze or gorse round them several times.”
In Notes on the Folk-lore of the North-East of Scotland the yellow Gorse flowers were collected and used to dye the Peace Sunday eggs. These were “rolled” on the Saturday that followed Peace Sunday[x].
“ A hot sun beat down upon flowering gorse and flowerless heather; and on every side except the east, where there were green trees and distant hills, one saw a level horizon and brown boglands with a few green places and here and there the glitter of water. One could imagine that had it been twilight and not early afternoon, and had there been vapours drifting and frothing where there were now but shadows of clouds, it would have set stirring in one, as few places even in Ireland can, a thought that is peculiar to Celtic romance, as I think, a thought of a mystery coming not as with Gothic nations out of the pressure of darkness, but out of great spaces and windy light.” – Lady Gregory (Gods and Fighting Men. 1904)
“The soul of the dead was believed to pass into the tree. Herbs and flowers were fabled to grow from the blood of the dead and so to re-embody his spirit.” – George Henderson (Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts.1911)
The fifteenth letter of the Ogham is Ruis, the Elder tree.
Most of the kennings, or word-Oghams, refer to the colour red[i]. For this reason, many Ogham users associate this letter to emotions or passion.
John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the phrase “strongest red” as being related to “anger.”
Caitlin Mathews likewise suggests that the kennings speak of “the blush of shame” and of “anger.” In Celtic Wisdom Sticks she says that the Elder is a tree of “endings and completions.” Caitlin Mathews reminds us that the tree is one of the better known fairy trees and as such can be very unlucky.
In Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids, Robert Ellison also lists the kennings. Instead of anger or passion, however, Ellison equates the “red” to the dye that is made from the berries. The association that Ellison has for this letter relates to the “entrance to the Otherworld and dealings with the fair folk.” Elder, he says, can also be used for protection against evil and witches.
Besides being a magical tree, the Elder has many medicinal uses. In folklore, we are told that it is the fairies that grant the trees these healing attributes.
In Christian folklore, the Elder tree is often associated with evil. Apparently, this is because it was the Elder tree from which Judas Iscariot hung himself[ii].
The tree was not always evil to the Christians, however. In George Henderson’s 1912 work Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts we are told of a parish priest who came back reincarnated as an Elder tree.
Most of the negative encounters with the Elder occur only after the tree has been cut without permission from the fairies. An example of this can be found in the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde.
“At Toome Island there is the ruin of an ancient church, where the dead walk on November Eve. It is a solemn and sacred place, and nothing is allowed to be taken from it; neither stone nor branch of the shadowing trees, for fear of angering the spirits. One day three men who were on the island cut down some branches of an elder-tree that grew there to repair a private still, and carried them off in their boat; but then just close to the shore a violent gust of wind upset the boat, and the men were drowned. The wood, however, floated back to the island, and a cross was made of it which was erected on the beach, to commemorate the fate of the doomed men.”
In W.Y. Evans-Wentz’ 1911 book the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries we discover that the fairies were believed to inhabit Elder trees on the Isle of Man. This was likely a belief shared throughout the Celtic territories and not just on the Isle of Man. Lady Wilde seems to confirm this by relaying that the tree is in fact sacred and one of “the seven great fairy herbs of power.” This common belief would seem like reason enough not to nonchalantly cut off the tree’s branches.
(Hans Baldung. Witches. 1508)
There are many stories, however, in which the Elder tree was used to an advantage without ever having been asked first. In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 encyclopaedia Popular Tales of the West Highlands we are given the examples of an Elder club and of an Elder shinny stick. The users of these items appear unscathed.
Lady Wilde also shares the story of a magical butter churning dash made from Elder:
“One day while churning, the handle of the dash broke, and nothing being near to mend it, one of the brothers cut off a branch from an elder-tree that grew close to the house, and tied it to the dash for a handle. Then the churning went on, but to their surprise, the butter gathered so thick that all the crocks in the house were soon full, and still there was more left. The same thing went on every churning day, so the brothers became rich, for they could fill the market with their butter, and still had more than enough for every buyer.
“At last, being honest and true men, they began to fear that there was witchcraft in it, and that they were wronging their neighbours by abstracting their butter, and bringing it to their own churn in some strange way. So they both went off together to a great fairy doctor, and told him the whole story, and asked his advice. ‘Foolish men’ he said to them, ‘why did you come to me? For now you have broken the spell, and you will never have your crocks filled with butter any more. Your good fortune has passed away, for know the truth now. You were not wronging your neighbours; all was fair and just that you did, but this is how it happened. Long ago, the fairies passing through your land had a dispute and fought a battle, and having no arms, they flung lumps of butter at each other, which got lodged in the branches of the elder-tree in great quantities, for it was just after May Eve, when butter is plenty. This is the butter you have had, for the elder-tree has a sacred power which preserved it until now, and it came down to you through the branch you cut for a handle to the dash. But the spell is broken now that you have uttered the mystery, and you will have no more butter from the elder-tree.’
“Then the brothers went away sorrowful, and never after did the butter come beyond the usual quantity. However, they had already made so much money that they were content. And they stocked their farm, and all things prospered with them, for they had dealt uprightly in the matter, and the blessing of the Lord was on them.”
The moral of the story here doesn’t seem to be not to harm the Elder tree, but instead comes across as a suggestion to count your blessings and keep your mouth shut.
The Elder tree’s leaves can also be used as a type of talismanic magic against evil “witches and sorcery.” In the Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man, for example, Elder can be used to “protect houses and gardens” as this quote illustrates:
“Its leaves, like those of the Cuirn, were picked on May-eve, and affixed to doors and windows to protect the house from witchcraft.”
There are several spells found within Celtic folklore in which the Elder tree is a chief component. The following two examples are taken from Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde:
“For epilepsy take nine pieces of young elder twig; run a thread of silk of three strands through the pieces, each piece being an inch long. Tie this round the patient’s neck next to the skin. Should the thread break and the amulet fall, it must be buried deep in the earth and another amulet made like the first, for if once it touches the ground the charm is lost.”
If a curse or “evil spell” is cast upon an individual, then the Elder tree can be used as part of the remedy. To do this, one is to take the roots of an Apple tree – that produces red apples – and the roots of an Elder tree. These should be boiled together. The person that intends to drink this should have fasted beforehand. When drank, the potion is said to “expel any evil living thing or evil spirit that may have taken up its abode in the body of a man.”
“I have been a circumference, I have been a head. A goat on an elder-tree. I have been a crane well filled, a sight to behold.” – W.F. Skene translation (Book of Taliesin. 1858)