The Bat in Celtic Folklore

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.

Bat in Celtic Folklore
Chiroptera. Ernst Haeckel. 1904

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.Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 7.30.02 PM


[i] http://www.rte.ie/radio/mooneygoeswild/factsheets/mammals/index2.html

[ii] http://www.batcon.org/index.php/media-and-info/bats-archives.html?task=viewArticle&magArticleID=573

Top image commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taphozous_nudiventris.jpg

The Raven and Crow of the Celts – Part II: Fairytales and Folklore

Karyn Dunbar
by Karyn Dunbar, gallery accessed by clicking on image

“The Raven is equally a bird of omen, Raven-knowledge, or wisdom being proverbial” – George Henderson. (Survival in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911)

Many Celtic Fairytales contain remnants of the old stories of Gods and Goddesses [part I]. In Donald Mackenzie’s 1917 Wonder Tales of Scottish Myth, for example, we’re told that the Banshee can appear as a black dog, a Raven, or a Hoodie Crow during the day. The older spelling of Banshee was Bean Sidhe. The word Sidhe is usually used in relation to the Tuatha De Danaan, Old Ireland’s pre Christian deities[i].

Thomas Croker claimed, in his 1825 book Fairy Legends of South Ireland, that the Leprechaun “properly written” was Preachan. Croker said that the name meant, “Raven.”

In the 1773 book Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by Sir. George Douglas, we find a story reminiscent of much older shapeshifting myths when a man’s wife turns herself into a Raven to avoid some ravenous dogs.  The same power of transformation is possessed by the Witches of Mull in George Henderson’s 1911 book, Survival in Belief Amongst Celts.  The most famous Witch of Mull was Doideag, a powerful sorceress who some believed sank the Spanish Armada[ii].

There are many fairytales in which a person is turned into a Raven, or Crow, as part of a curse. In Joseph Jacob’s 1894 More Celtic Fairytales, for example, a man is turned into a Raven when his wife strikes him. Usually, however, the Raven’s curse is somehow related to “the son of a king” such as the two stories which are found in J.F. Campbell’s 1890 Popular Tales of West Highlands.

In the story of the Battle of the Birds, found in Joseph Jacob’s earlier 1892 book Celtic Fairy Tales, a king’s son happens upon a fierce battle. All of the other creatures have already fled the battlefield or are dead, except for a black Raven and a snake locked in mortal combat. The king’s son aids the Raven and kills the snake. The Raven then leads the king’s son over nine bens, glens and mountain moors in one day, six on the following day, and three on the final day. On the third morning the Raven has disappeared and a “handsome lad” is standing in his place. This boy claims that an evil druid had put a curse on him, transforming him into a Raven. As thanks, for saving his life and lifting the curse, the Raven-boy gives the king’s son a gift of “a bundle,” which contains in it a Castle and an Apple orchard.

In Popular Tales of West Highlands is the story of The Hoodie Crow. In it, the youngest of three sisters agrees to marry a Crow.  Once married, she discovers that her husband is really a handsome man – of course. Due to her love, the curse becomes partially lifted and the third daughter is forced to decide if she wants her husband as a man or as a Crow during the day. The bride eventually decides that her husband will be a man during the day and a Crow at night.

The Raven and Crow of the Celts
The Hoodie Crow. H.G. Ford. 1919

“The Crow was a bird of darkness. He was always associated with the man skilled in Black Airt [sic]” – Walter Greger (Notes on Folklore of Northeast Scotland. 1881)

In folklore, the Raven and Crow of the Celts can be somewhat of a guardian angel, as well. Such is the case with the Crow found in Joseph Jacob’s Celtic Fairy Tales. In it, a talking bird appears to a man who’s having problems with a leaky sieve (we all know what that’s like). The Crow tells the man to use red clay from the bottom of the river to repair the sieve. The man does what the crow suggests and the sieve no longer leaks.

The Raven and Crow sometimes has human-like abilities, similar to the Raven found in First Nation myths of the Pacific Northwest.  In one Celtic story, for example, a Raven is chewing tobacco[iii], in another, hundreds of Ravens are engaged in a semi-formal dance[iv].

There’s also an interesting story found in the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde. A man steals some Raven’s eggs and boils them. He then places the eggs back in the nest. The Raven returns to the nest, discovers the cooked eggs, and then quickly leaves. The Raven eventually returns with a magic stone, which she rubs all over the boiled eggs. Through this action the eggs are restored to their previous state. The man, as he’d planned all along, then steals the magic stone from the Raven intending to use it for his own personal gain (a Leprechaun-like story).

Besides the many fairytales and folk stories, Raven proverbs are also scattered throughout the old texts:

  • A Raven hovering over a cow meant that there was “a blight” upon the animal (Joseph Jacobs. More Celtic Fairytales. 1894).
  • A departing soul sometimes took on the form of a Raven (George Henderson. Survival in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911).
  • If a Raven was present when somebody died, it was said to be the Devil retrieving his or her soul. If the bird present was a White Dove, however, it meant that the person had obtained salvation (Thomas Croker. Fairy Legends of South Ireland. 1825).
  • A Crow on a house indicated that someone would die (Walter Greger. Notes on Folklore of Northeast Scotland. 1881).
  • “The howling of a dog at night, and the resting of a Crow or Magpie on the house-step are signs of death (Andrew Lang. Prophecies of Brahan Seer. 1899).”
  • A Raven tapping three times on a windowpane foretold the death of an occupant (John Seymour. True Irish Ghosts. 1914).
  • “If Ravens were cawing about the house it is a sure sign of death, for the Raven is Satan’s own bird (Lady Wilde. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. 1887).”
  • “The Crow and Black Hen are ominous of evil (ibid).”
  • “It is unlucky to meet a Magpie… when going on a journey (ibid).
  • The Raven prepared “his nest” on St. Bride’s Day and would have a chick by Easter. “If the Raven has not he has his death (Alexander Carmichael. Carmina Gadelica – Vol I. 1900).”
  • The Devil could appear as a Raven and would land upon a person’s head in order to possess their bodies (St. John Seymour. Irish Witchcraft and Demonology. 1913).
  • “What is blacker than a Raven?” “There is Death (J.F. Campbell. Popular Tales of West Highlands: Vol III. 1890).”
  • “The Raven sometimes brings aid to man (J.F. Campbell. Popular Tales of West Highlands: Vol I. 1890).”
  • “The Raven, the Crow, and the Serpent, have appeared as transformed beings of superior power (J. F.  Campbell. Popular Tales of West Highlands. 1890).”
  • “Give a piece to a Raven and he will come again (A.W. Moore. Folklore of the Isle of Man. 1891).”
  • To protect young goats, or kids, Scottish Highlanders often gave libations and cakes to the Crow who they claimed often “molested” them (Charles Squire. Celtic Myth and Legend. 1905).
  • There is a Scottish chant, “There to thee Raven spare my kids!” that’s used to protect young goats (Alexander Carmichael. Carmina Gadelica – Vol I. 1900)
  • It is a curse to leave a dead Crow (or other creature) on a hearth (George Henderson. Survival in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911).
  • “The day will come when a Raven attired in plaid and a bonnet, will drink his fill of human blood on ‘Fionn-bheinn,’ three times a day, for three successive days…  the Blood of the Gael from the Stone of Fionn (Andrew Lang. Prophecies of Brahan Seer. 1899).”

Over time, the Raven and Crow of the Celts became an evil bird. It should be no surprise then, that the Raven or Crow may also be a witch in disguise, or the devil himself. In the 1913 book Irish Witchcraft and Mythology by St. John Seymour, a witch on “the gallows” suddenly disappears. In her place is noted a coal-black Raven. In volume 2 of Popular Tales of West Highland, a “gentleman” turns himself into a Raven. The story implies that this man the Devil himself.

The Raven and Crow of the Celts often represented the darker aspects of life. It’s no wonder then, that these shadow-birds continue to fascinate our imaginations to this day. These clever birds have always seemed distinguished, compared to their less intelligent bird-cousins. Some crows even make and use tools. Both the Crow and Raven have always been seen as symbols of darkness, death, and the ignorance of the unknown. Now considered one of the most intelligent creatures on the planet, the Corvus has never given up feasting upon the dead. Good reasons that the birds continue to fascinate and intimidate us to this day.

Raven
Film poster of Edger Allan Poe’s The Raven. 1908. The Raven continues to be a potent symbol of death & darkness throughout the ages & into the present era

[i] James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 2000

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Alexander Carmicheal. Carmina Gadelica – Vol IV. 1900

[iv] Lady Wilde. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. 1887

The Raven and Crow of the Celts – Part I: Myth and Legend

Raven
Raven by John Auduban. 1861.

“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!”

Raven and Crow of the Celts
Cuchulain with Raven. Joseph Leyendecker. 1911

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.

Raven and Crow of the Celts
The Woman With the Raven at the Abyss. Caspar David Friedrich. 1801

 

[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.

[ii] Ibid.

[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

*Friedrich image: http://centuriespast.tumblr.com/post/9566090200/caspar-david-friedrich-the-woman-with-the-raven

The Celtic Tree Ogham

Celtic Tree Ogham

During the first year of this blog, the posts focused primarily on the Ogham in its “tree” form. These posts had evolved into three distinct parts. The first was “the Roots” section which spoke to the divination users and students of the Ogham. The second portion was “the Trunk” section which shared the harvest of information available on that tree from Celtic Myth and Folklore. The third part was “the Foliage” section which shared spell uses for the tree or plant discussed that week.

What exactly is the Celtic Tree Ogham?

Nowadays, the Ogham is often seen as a “tree alphabet,” but there’s little evidence that the listings of these trees within the Ogham Tract was anything more than a mnemonic device being used at the time. The Ogham, however, is often used by many as a way to reconnect with the ancestor spirits of the past, or with nature itself.

My intention, in writing the blog, was to reflect more deeply on the associations for each of these letters in a way that deepened my own relationship with the Ogham and in a way which promoted a practice of self-discipline.

In this way I would research, reflect, and meditate upon each letter for a week before publishing what I had discovered or written. A previous knowledge of the Ogham was not necessary for the reader, though some would have chosen to skip ahead to the Myth and Folklore section.

Sharing these findings with those who were also interested was my way of giving back.

Within the Celtic Tree Ogham there are 25 main letters, or fews. My first post was at the beginning of May 2011, the “light half” of the year, and this first cycle was concluded by the end of October 2011 for the beginning of the “dark half” of the year (or more accurately the cold half). I began the second cycle at that time and finished it in May of 2012. Each cycle (part I & II) focuses on several respected authors who study the Ogham. As the authors are different between part I & II, sometimes the interpretations will differ. A Ogham student may wish to read both part I and part II for each tree.

When writing about the Ogham, I tried to reference Celtic mythology almost exclusively. The Ogham was a Celtic alphabet, it seemed strange to me that many wrote about the Ogham but referenced other cultures when they discussed the trees. Other mythologies are easier to find, research, and reference, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore what reflections are available to us through the traditional sources. The context of the Ogham is one that can only be found within the culture of the Celts. Their gods were different from other cultures’ gods, their foods were different, their language was different and their ways of achieving enlightenment were different. It is only through a Celtic context that we can ever hope to understand the possible meanings of the Ogham in a spiritual context.

I’m not a Ogham expert, but an enthusiast. I am not a Reconstructionist, necessarily, but believe that our ancestors knew many things that we have long since forgotten. They lived in a more symbiotic relationship with nature and discarnate beings, which we can in turn learn from through study.

 The Living Library Ogham Index (first cycle only – there’s no index for the second cycle)

Gort (Ivy Vine)

 

“Although it grows upon other plants or on the walls of buildings, the ivy must remain rooted in the ground in order to survive. But it is a tree of transformation, starting as a small, weak, herb-like plant, which finally, after centuries of growth, becomes an enormously thick, woody, serpentine tree in its own right.” – Nigel Pennick (Magical Alphabets)

The Roots:

Gort is the common association for the twelfth letter of the Ogham. Gort however does not literally mean ivy, but that of a tilled field. In the scholar’s primer Gort is also associated with green pastures, corn, and cornfields, as well as to ivy[i].

Most do associate Gort with the ivy plant, however. Liz and Colin Murray equate the ivy with the, “spiralling search for self”.  Stephanie and Philip Carr Gomm further add to this by saying that the ivy is comparable to the labyrinth in relation to ones personal search through the mysteries of life and death. They also explain that there is a strong association of the ivy plant to the snake, the egg, and to the god Cernnunnos[ii].

Robert Graves calls ivy, “The tree of resurrection”, and in doing so seems likely to agree with the Carr Gomms.

John Michael Greer calls Gort, “A few of tenacious purpose and indirect progress, symbolized by the ivy bush; a winding but necessary path and entanglements that cannot be avoided.”

Where as Eryn Rowan Laurie suggest that Gort is associated with prosperity and growth, Nigel Pennick  contrarily reminds us that the Irish word Gorta means hunger or famine which seems to suggest that the letter has a potential dark or shadow side that needs to be considered as well.

Ivy sometimes takes the place of Holly in the battle with the Oak, but in other traditions, like the one of the Jack-in-the-Green-Chimney-Sweeper spoken of in James Frazer’s the Golden Bough, the ivy and the holly may be adversarial as well.

The ivy is associated with the fairy kingdom in many of the Irish folk tales – though usually indirectly. Its comparison with the snake links it with the image of the antlered Cernunnos, who holds the serpent in one hand and the torque in the other. Gort is also associated with the swan in the bird Ogham which is found in the Ogham Tract [iii].

The Trunk:

The ivy is sometimes associated with certain Celtic gods by various authors. There is little, if any, evidence of any of these relations to the gods or goddesses in any of the myths.

There is a trend that can be found in the folk stories of Ireland -as they pertain to the ivy plant- however.

Ivy is often described as being around, or surrounding, the entryways of caves or secret passages -and sometimes even hiding these doorways to the fairy kingdom from the outside world.

A prime example of this is found in the book the Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Croften Croker published in 1825. Despite the misleading title – the stories take place more often outside of Ireland than in it – the account is of the finding of the Welsh hall of Owan (Owain) Lawgoch[iv].

There are other accounts of similar tales regarding Owain Lawgoch found elsewhere, but in this story the main character remains unnamed.  This “Welshman” finds a passageway that is obstructed with overgrown ivy. He moves the plant aside and enters the passageway out of curiosity and finds a tunnel that leads into a hall. As with all of the stories of Owain Lawgoch, this is the hall of sleeping warriors, and it is filled with either “one thousand” or a multitude – as in this story – of sleeping warriors in full battle dress. The intruder makes a noise accidently and wakes up the warriors from their slumber (in some stories he is taking gold) who then yell out, “Is it Day? Is it day?” as they rise to their feet. The quick witted Welshman then exclaims, “No, no, sleep again.” The warrior’s then go back to sleep and the man departs.

It may seem like a bit of a stretch to equate the fairy openings in the ground covered with ivy as having any significant meaning, simply from what could be mere descriptive filler. Though ivy is often mentioned around these caves or caverns this does not seem to be enough to be conclusive evidence that ivy is in fact tied to the Otherworld. The tale that does seem to lend itself to these observations, however, can be found in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland: Volume 1, by Lady Wilde published in 1902. These stories were collected mostly from oral sources. This one is called the Fairy Dance:

One evening in November, the prettiest girl in Ireland is walking to fetch water from a well. Near her destination she suddenly slips and falls. When she stands up again she finds that she is in an unfamiliar place. Nearby there is a fire with people around it so she decides to approach. When she moves into their company she notices that there is one particularly handsome golden haired man with a red sash. He looks at her with adoration, smiles, and asks her to dance. She says to him “There is no music” for she notices that there is no sound in which they can dance to. The man –smiling- then summons the music from an unknown realm and takes her hand in his to lead her in a dance. They dance throughout the evening in which time itself seems to be suspended. The man then asks her to have supper with all of them, the whole group, at which time she notices a stairway that leads beneath the ground.

The pretty girl then leaves with the handsome stranger and the rest of his company, descending into the earth. At the end of the stairs is a bright gold and silver hall with a lavish banquet laid out on a table. She then sits with all of the other people and prepares to eat. A man, one in which she had not previously noticed, whispers in her ear not to drink or eat. He warns her that if she does she will never be able to leave again. Taking this stranger’s advice she refuses to partake in the feast. A dark man from the group stands up and proclaims angrily that whoever comes into the hall must eat and drink. He then tries to force some wine down her throat by holding a cup to her lips.

A red haired man grabs the girl by the hand and leads her away quickly[v]. He places in her hand, “a branch of a plant called Athair Luss (the ground ivy)”. The red haired man tells her to take the branch and to hold it in her hand until she reaches home, that if she does so that no one will be able to harm her.

The whole time she flees, however, she can hear pursuers, even as she goes inside of her home and bars the door. The voices “clamour” loudly outside. They tell her that she will return to them just as soon as she dances again to the fairy music which “Did not leave her ears for a very long time”. She kept the magic branch safely, however, and the fairies never bothered her again[vi].

As a side note, it may be interesting to add that elsewhere in the same book the ivy plant is listed as one of the seven fairy herbs “of great value and power” along with vervain, eyebright, groundsel, foxglove, the bark of the elder tree and the young shoots of the hawthorn[vii].

It would seem that Ivy acts as some sort of a barrier, or gateway, between the worlds.

Although the appearance of Gort, or ivy, is not as overt as that of the more legend dominating trees such as the hazel or hawthorn, it does seem to speak to us from the other side, however.

If ivy is a force between the two worlds, or a doorway of sorts, then how can this symbol be interpreted when the plant itself is wound around another tree like a birch or a rowan, for example? It would seem that there is something for us to learn here, for it appears that the veil is thinner where Ivy grows. In dark garden and forest spaces where ivy seems to flourish the sense of the Otherworld is very strong.

These places, when found, are ones which I like to visit alone.

I will sit in that garden, that evergreen pasture of sweetness, and contemplate my own journey from this realm into the other and back again, through the mysteries of life and death, and as Stephanie and Philip Carr Gomm have said, into “the soul’s journey through the labyrinth.”

The search for self can often lead one into even more hidden realms and strange places.

The Foliage:

The search for self can be found at the core of many spiritual traditions.

The pagan paths are most often attractive to those who seek to know and understand themselves or their relationship to the natural world around them.

Doorways open, rationalizations are made, comparisons to previous learning’s reach out to grab the seeker by the hand, and eventually revelations – both great and small- come forth to reveal themselves to the awakened sleeper.

Who am I then, to criticize the way in which others see the world? Why is it that I am so frustrated by those who half-heartedly reach out to the Ogham as a tool of authority and teaching over the less knowledgeable? Should I not be simply happy that people, teachers if you will, share their personal revelations with others regarding the Ogham and how they see the world?

As I seek to learn who I am, I too have walked upon many paths. I have studied Christianity and been Christian, I have followed and continue to follow the ways of Bushido, and I have sang in the sweat lodge and even eaten the medicine in the church ceremonies in the desert of Arizona. I have sat crossed legged for many hours upon the ground -or upon wooden chairs- trying to learn to properly meditate and to run energy in the traditions many would call Eastern and some would call New Age. I have studied the bardic material of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and I have learned how to travel in the ways of the shaman. I have read the myths of many nations, the Quran, the Holy Bible, some of the Gitas, the Book of Changes, and many more. Perhaps I too can incorporate all of these paths and what I have learned together in my search for understanding and share them with the world? Should I then make my own Ogham associations to various traditions?

As I have shared before, I first found the Ogham around 1988. I have looked at this material for a very long time, and yet, I still do not see myself as an expert in any way. I have a problem at times identifying some of the trees – especially their wild North American counterparts, I do not speak old Irish, I have never been to Ireland, and I have yet to get a full academic degree which would give me some critical weight -which I would like to possess even for my own sense of self advancement.

Yet there are those that will sell the Ogham and the Celtic gods of old to anyone who will listen simply because they can. They do so because they think they can get away with it and they often do. They know almost nothing of the alphabet, even less about the culture, and clearly do not believe in what they profess to believe in.

In fact, it is apparent to me that they do not believe in those deities they profess to, or in the Ogham as a magical alphabet at all.

If I truly believed in a deity named Brigit I would not profess to another that this unknowable, mysterious, divine, mother was associated with unicorns or herbs from South East Asia when I am clearly the only person who believes this or has found some hidden text that states this. If I truly believed in the Ogham alphabet I would not add my own letters at my own convenience and claim that this was the way that they always were. I would not tell you that the sign of Virgo is such and such a tree and the rune of Tyr is directly related to another.

The Ogham exists within a cultural paradigm. That existence is in relation to the language and culture of the Celts, most especially to the Irish Celts. It is a mysterious and difficult alphabet to understand as there is very little record as to what it was truly used for and how it was used at all, despite various claims.

At one time the Celts were spread out over most of Europe and as far as Egypt. War and the advancement of other cultures leave today only six existing pockets of Celts[viii] and these are found in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. The greatest body of knowledge that was preserved regarding the Celts was that which was put to paper by the Irish monks.

The history of the Celts is long and bloody. It was not so long ago that the Irish were still being persecuted, and some would argue -with much validity- that they are still being persecuted today. This persecution took place after the Celtic tribes had already been wiped off of the face of the Earth, one after another, by Rome and various later conquerors. This was even after the religion of the Celts was Christianized and later bled out of the people during the witch trials and the religious killings –murders- throughout Europe during the so called religious movements.

The conquest of Ireland by the English had killed over one third of the population of the country. In May of 1654 the remaining Irish were moved to reservations and were only allowed on the West side of the River Shannon. Any Irish found to the East was killed as a rebel and 5 pounds was paid for their head. Irish villages were surrounded and people were gathered up and sent to colonies as labour because they were “cheaper than slaves if they died[ix]”.

Many Irish fled starvation – the price of being over taxed now remembered as a famine- to the Americas to start a new life. Here they were given no quarter either. Beyond overt racism, many of the original penitentiaries in North America, especially those in Canada, were built for the Irish problem[x].

In Ireland there was rarely any peace either. The people often rose up against oppression and struggled for independence. There is much history of civil war, famine, oppression and bloodshed on the Emerald Isle.

The Irish books were burnt first by St. Patrick -in at least one account- and regularly afterwards by various suppressors until relatively recent times. The culture itself was the sufferer of the deliberate persecution of one race that was seen as inferior by another that saw itself as superior. According to Peter Ellis, “Language is the highest form of cultural expression. The decline of the Celtic languages has been the result of a carefully established policy of brutal persecution and suppression…the result of centuries of a careful policy of ethnocide.[xi]

For many of us, studying things Celtic offers us insight into a relatively recent ancestor that was still in touch with -and lived in close relation to- the earth. The memories of these ancestors can be gleamed through the veil of time, for but a moment, as we look over the myths and legends that show us who they were and who they may have been.

The Ogham alphabet, particularly the tree alphabet, offers the seeker a chance to investigate a system that is at once both mysterious and insightful. The Ogham leads us into the realm of myth and stretches our imagination. It can be found to be logical and mathematical, and has led more than one person into a deeper relationship with nature and the many mysteries that she has to offer. The Ogham can teach us about the Celtic ancestors, about a culture that has almost been lost to history in so many ways, and it may even be used – as it is by many – as a type of resurgent divination.

If one is a spiritual seeker then the Ogham may even bring them into a deeper relationship with the deities, the divine, and ultimately even with themself.

In our search for truth and understanding, let us not forget to leave the trail through the forest in a way in which we found it.

Ancient, powerful, and wise.

Awen.

“I was raised in an Irish-American home in Detroit where assimilation was the uppermost priority. The price of assimilation and respectability was amnesia. Although my great-grandparents were victims of the Great Hunger of the 1840’s, even though I was named Thomas Emmet Hayden IV after the radical Irish nationalist exile Thomas Emmet, my inheritance was to be disinherited. My parents knew nothing of this past, or nothing worth passing on.” -Tom Hayden


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

[II] The Druid Animal Oracle.

[III] Ibid.

[IV] An ancient ruler of Britain. This story has a familiar looking theme.

[V]  It is implied that the red haired man is the same man that warned her earlier but this is not stated in the tale.

[VI] This story is reminiscent of the Anne Jefferies story previously shared in the Huath (Hawthorn) post.

[VII] This book is of great interest and contains lore along with folk charms and spells. The copy I have acquired is from the link below. It is free to download because it’s no longer in copyright  http://www.archive.org/details/ancientlegendsm01wildgoog

[VIII] Usually recognized

[IX] Peter Berresford Ellis

[X] “Recently arrived immigrants were perceived as a threat -as having suspect values and a poorer work ethic.” Canadian Corrections: 3rd Edition. Curt Griffiths

[XI] The Druids

Tinne (Holly)

“Salvation, claimed the Romantic philosophers and writers, lay not in a tame and planted landscape, but in the raw wilderness.” – John Vaillant (the Golden Spruce).

The Roots:

The holly – much like the oak- is associated with gods of lightening and thunder, male virility and war.

Robert Graves says that the oak and the holly are “twin brothers”. The two tree’s symbolic meanings seem to verify this.

Pennick equates Tinne with fatherhood, balance and strength. Liz and Colin Murray list holly’s attributes as those of the warrior and of balance. John Michael Greer calls holly the tree of courage and of challenges.

Over time the holly has come to be associated with Christ and Christmas. The red berries supposedly replicated the blood of the Christ and the holly leaf came to be seen as representing the crown of thorns worn at the crucifixion. Traditionally the Winter Solstice was the time that the holly king was killed, destined to rise again, by the oak king. The early church carefully selected pagan dates of celebration as a time to introduce Christian themes, and so the holly became a Christmas symbol to this day[i].

Erynn Rowan Laurie states that the energy of Tinne can be linked to wealth, craftsmanship, and the arts. She also informs us that the holly tree has associations with severed heads and is strongly connected to the Celtic warrior.

The Trunk:

As we celebrate the Summer Solstice we are reminded that even though the warm days are just beginning, the Earth is now starting to move further away from the Sun, heralding the return of winter.

Frazer describes in great detail the death of the “Oak King” in the Golden Bough. It is the Oak King that is killed, or sacrificed, at this time of the year by the Holly King, only to return again during the Winter Solstice -when the roles are reversed- to kill the Holly King once more in an endless cycle that mirrors the rhythms of the earth.

This cycle is often linked to the Goddess Creiddylad – mentioned briefly in the Mabinogion – as representing the Earth Goddess that the two suitors are fighting and dying for. The Oak King is the god of the sky and of light while the Holly King represents the time of darkness and of the underworld. Creiddylad spends half of the year with one king, and half of the year with the other. Human sacrifices were believed to be used to help promote these yearly cycles and to appease the spirits of the land[ii].

As stated above, Laurie associates holly to the severed head, taking the symbolism beyond that of just the warrior or the Holly King. The severed head, according to Celtic historian Anne Ross, was a religious symbol, “as representative of the Celts’ spirituality as the sign of the cross is for Christianity.”[iii]

The severed head is incredibly prevalent in Celtic symbolism and myth. Some even go so far as to refer to the Celts spirituality as “the cult of the severed head.” As Caitlin Mathews explains in the Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom[iv] however, the Celts did not worship severed heads per say, but venerated the head as “the seat of wisdom and of the soul”.

(Skull on a gravestone edge, Durisdeer, Scotland)

The symbol of the severed head, or the sacrifice of the Oak King to the Holly King, may seem a little brutal to us in this day and age, but do these core elements of the old legends still have a place? Certainly we do not want to see human or animal sacrifices return in any way shape or form but perhaps there is an alternative. Maybe the symbols of the brutal and bloody ways of our ancestors can offer us some wisdom that is still relevant today?

One does not have to look very far to find that the Celts did in fact hold many things that we would find dark or disturbing quite sacred. These myths bring us time and time again to war, hunting, trickery through magic, death, the severing of heads, dark supernatural beings, deception, and as we have seen before… even rape, adultery and murder.

While it is true that our ancestors also held many things that are beautiful and peaceful sacred, why is it that so many pagans in modern times cling to these imbalanced ideas alone and ignore the darker aspects found in the wealth of the lore?

The Ogham at its surface seems incredibly charming, but once the forest – the actual woods – is entered there are many things that can no longer be seen as fluffy, soft, and harmless. The sun is not always shining. It is not always summer or spring. The creatures of the forest, including ourselves, are not always well fed or content. When we are not freezing we are dripping with sweat, or at the very least we are covered in insects that like to bite us and steal our sustenance, making us weaker – a part of the cycle of life and death. Our ancestors did not harbour any illusions as to the brutality that could be found in nature.

The Celts did not worship from a city park or an English garden. They did not see fairies as cute little Barbie dolls that fit inside of their palms like some sort of child’s toy[v]. They saw nature for what it was, for what she still is, and were rewarded by stepping into relationship with the very land.

By downplaying that relationship – by ignoring an exploration of the rougher side of nature – we allow ourselves to shrink back from our own power and capabilities. We can safely summon the elements by facing different directions within the sterile confines of our homes but do we really know the elements? You can call fire… but can you make fire? I am not asking about the fire that is made with matches or a lighter but from the friction of moving two sticks together or with a bow? You can summon the element of water but can you take water from the land or capture it from the air in times of need – for that is life itself? Can you work with the earth and make things grow? Can you hear the wind speaking that whispers through the leaves in the trees or let the stars navigate you through the darkness to safety?

I have said it before. The forest can be a very dangerous place. If you have spent time alone in the woods, in a real forest, you have learned to have a healthy respect for it. People die each year going into those very lands that tens of thousand of people profess to be the bosom of the Great Goddess herself. People yearly -in North America alone- fall to their death, starve, dehydrate, freeze, get heat exposure, suffer sprains and breaks, get lost, catch diseases from insects (West Nile, Lime Disease etc), are hunted and sometimes killed by animals (especially bears or cougars), drown by slipping into rivers and sometimes just plain disappear.

By seeing Nature in all of her terrible beauty we can truly step from infatuation into relationship, for to not be able to view her completely is to not see her at all. Until then it is just make believe. An ignorant relationship disconnected from the divine in all of her glory, and ultimately with the divine within you.

If you choose to step into relationship -away from infatuation- with Nature herself then Tinne, the holly, can be your guide.

The Foliage:

The holly is the first tree of the Ogham that does not grow naturally in most areas of Western North America.

No matter where one lives, even if it be on Ireland herself, there will be places in which some of the trees of the Ogham do not grow.

Apparently there are holly farms in British Columbia[vi] but I have never set foot on, or even seen one myself. BC is, after all, a very large place. There are many holly trees growing along the streets in Vancouver -where I live- and I have even found a beautiful specimen in a park in the West End beside a yew tree and close to a magnificent oak[vii]. I have also found a naturalized tree – though stunted as it competes with mighty conifers for light- with a couple of saplings nearby at the trail head to Tower Beach near the University of British Columbia (within two weeks of posting this I had found two different sites of naturalized trees in the Vancouver area).

No matter how hard I look however, I will never find a forest of holly trees in my neighbourhood.

This should not discourage me.

Laurie cites this as one of the main reasons that the Ogham should be viewed as more akin to the Nordic Runes as opposed to a “tree alphabet”. She says that instead of modifying the list in some way to make it local or relevant she has, “Chosen to work primarily with the name-meanings and with the phrases or kennings associated with each ogam fid (letter), rather than the trees themselves.” Laurie encourages that we can carry concepts with us and that we are not necessarily tied down to, “one geographical area” that we may feel limited to while working with trees that are absent.

I like to work with the Ogham as a tree alphabet, however. For me it makes sense. I can go and sit beneath a holly tree, I can read about it, and I will likely even dream of it. If the gods are willing, perhaps one day, I will even get a chance to walk through a forest where the holly is still king.

Even in my home town where the winters would kill most attempts at growing holly, I could get a cutting from a floral shop during the Christmas season to work with. After all, the alder and the willow there in Northern Saskatchewan are -like the hawthorn here -more like shrubs than trees but I can connect with them still nonetheless. While a clipping is not even close to the same thing as a shrub, perhaps it too is somewhat of a start.

I believe that the trees of the Ogham are representatives of all trees and of all plants, much like the Celtic legends are representative of the life lessons found in all cultures[viii]. As most teachers of various practices will tell you, you can dig many holes upon the land or one deep well in which to draw water.

For me, the Ogham is that well, the tree alphabet works, and I like the difficult journey that sometimes leads me to new places and kingdoms in search of greater knowledge.

Trees are something I can touch and marvel over, and they never cease to amaze me.

Today for example – to celebrate the beginning of the half-year where the holly is king-I drank my first yerba mate. It was smooth and foreign but I enjoyed the tea’s earthy undertones that existed within the spicy chai version that I sipped upon. I was shocked to find out that yerba mate, which is made from a type of holly leaf of course, had been called by many indigenous South Americans as “the drink of the gods”. The list of known and suspected health benefits was staggering as it stood even a head taller than green tea[ix].

As I drank the tea that was a gift from the holly, I could not help but smile knowing that science had confirmed what those South American natives seemed to have known all along.

I then stepped into a place where Tinne, the holly, had become king once more.

“To know, to truly know the forest is to love it, and whoever loves it will fight for its welfare. Therefore we invite all to spend great amounts of time in the woods, doing nothing in particular but wandering about or just sitting still.” – Steve Comar, Mahican Nation (Canadian Geographic June 2010)[x]


[i] Paterson, Hageneder, Farmer-Knowles, and Cooper.

[ii] This connection is made by many such as Hageneder but does not seem to appear directly in legend.

[iii] Fire in the Head.

[iv] Chapter 4, section 3 – Consulting the Ancestors.

[v] For a fascinating conversation on this very subject please listen to Elemental Castings podcast episode 12 between T. Thorn Coyle and R.J. Stewart where they compare the minimizing of the fairy kingdom to the minimizing of the power that exists within ourselves.

[vi] http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/aboutind/products/plant/holly.htm

[vii] Alexandra Park.

[viii] Joseph Campbell.

[ix] 2010 Teaopia magazine/brochure

[x] Get in the Grove article text quotations from Ontario’s Old Growth Forests: A Guidebook Complete with History, Ecology, and Maps by Michael Henry and Peter Quinby (2009)

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