An Introduction to the Forfeda (Extra Letters)

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

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

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

Ogham Vowels

The Roots:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trunk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction to the Forfeda
Finn’s Wheel

The Foliage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Introduction to the Forfeda


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

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

[iii] The Celtic Shaman.

[iv] Magical Alphabets.

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

[vi] A partial reason?

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

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

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

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

Coll (Hazel)

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

The Roots:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trunk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death may be found instead[vii].

The Foliage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perfect book for me always has foot notes.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saille (Willow)

“Thus, among tree species, we can recognize on sight as wind-pollinated the bulk of catkin-bearing trees, including the hazels, birches, and poplars, for in all of them there is an abundance of loose pollen, no nectar, and no conspicuous insect-attracting feature. Willows, with their large nectarines, constitute an exception and are insect-pollinated.” – Steve Cafferty (Firefly Encyclopedia of Trees)

The Roots:

Saille, the willow, is the tree of the otherworld.

The willow is the conductor of relationships. She is the bringer of love, of poetic inspiration, of the element of water, of music, the moon and of the great goddess herself. She is associated to many different creatures of the Earth and to the very idea of magic.

Willow is the builder of bridges, between this world and the next.

The Trunk:

It is said that the willow tree can return from the dead, and there may be a kernel of truth to this.

The tree responds well to cutting, pruning and grafting. In Plants of Coastal British Columbia we are told that BC Natives would use poles from Hooker’s Willow for fishing piers because they would “take root” in the floor of the waterbed. The same source states that the Variable Willow grows “in the footsteps of retreating glaciers”, thus beginning the population process of the forest beneath the shadow of the ice ages.

In mythology the willow tree can be connected to many different goddesses. Saille is also associated to many living creatures in Celtic mythology like the crane, the bull, the bumblebee, the hawk[i] and the frog.

It is no mystery that the willow is a water tree, as it grows in damp places along riverbanks and lake shores. When the willow grows close to the water her roots reach into the life-giving liquid itself. To the Celts this must have been significant.

The Celtic ancestors believed that there was a thin veil between this world and the next. It was known that in places where reality bent, the veil between the worlds was thinnest. A mountaintop was sacred because it was neither part of the earth nor of the sky, beaches were neither of the land nor of the sea, and a forest clearing was neither a part of the woods nor separated from it. When it came to time, dusk and dawn were sacred because they were neither of the day nor of the night. Samhain was an especially good time to peer between the worlds for it neither existed in one year nor in the next. It was thus believed that many spirits could wander freely at this time and that humans could just as easily become lost to the other side as well. Babies born on boats were sacred under the same philosophy as well. One can also quickly see why rowan or mistletoe growing not on the ground but on another tree may have been especially significant, or why they would be harvested halfway between the full and the new moon. The list of places, times and events where the veil was thinner than usual could be considered as inexhaustible as the imagination is long.

Creatures such as frogs were considered sacred as they were neither a creature of the land nor of the water. For this reason so were many water birds as they were neither of the air nor of the water. The crane, swan, goose and duck make repeated appearances throughout Celtic mythology.

So to the Celtic people the fact that the willow tree, Saille, lived partly in the water as well as partly on the land was of a significant importance -as it likely was to many other ancient cultures as well.

Fred Hageneder in the Meaning of Trees lists the willow as being attached to the Sumerian goddess of love, Belili and in Greece to Persephone, Circe, Artemis and Hera and to the nine muses (which gave the gift of poetry to Orpheus). Hageneder also reminds us that the Irish Bards’ harp had the body of willow wood which is also significant as the bard was no mere musician, but a mystic and an inspired messenger of the gods.

Nor should we forget that the White Goddess-which Graves attempts to establish is but one and the same goddess in many forms throughout history-is also connected to “the Willow Grove” in her original form.

Willow’s being attached to the element of water, and thus to the moon, gives us many reasons for these spiritual or metaphysical connections, for most biologists say that life on this planet would never have occurred without the tidal effects of the oceans,  which are caused by the moon.

In the Druid Animal Oracle, Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm point out that there are two separate surviving Celtic monuments that both show a bull and three cranes with a willow tree. These first century AD monuments show us the significance of the relationship between these three beings. The number three is extremely significant in Celtic mythology and reappears over and over again in the form of triads, in art, in legends and in the images of the triangle. The three cranes depicted on the monuments thus signify a divine group. The crane is often attached to the willow tree elsewhere as well.

Graves also points out that cranes were believed to have bred, and breed, in willow groves.

This braid of connection is significant, for it is the crane that is directly linked to the Ogham. It is the “crane bag” that carries the carved Ogham sticks and the sacred treasures of the sea god Manannan. Though the original Ogham was a gift to humanity from the god Ogma Sun Face[ii], “Greek mythographers credited Palmedes with [the additional invention of Ogham glyphs], saying that he received his inspiration from observing a flock of cranes, which make letters as they fly”. “Crane Knowledge” would then come to mean knowledge of the Ogham specifically (Carr-Gomm).

The horns of the bull are often said to represent the moon (numerous sources). The bull then is just as likely to represent us, as humans, as a singular warm blooded creature of the earth, reaching towards the heavens. It is said that if a person is changed into the shape of a crane then it is only the blood of a bull that can change them back (Heinz[iii]).

Willow can then be used as a bridge builder and a harmonizer between this world and the next. Saille can be asked to petition the goddess in matters of the heart or to make peace where discord exists between various people in a spirit of cooperation. For just as the bumblebee exchanges with her, the willow, the labour of pollination for nectar, so to can we find a place of common ground in the world of the willow no matter what our differences.

Like all of the symbolism attached to Saille though, perhaps her greatest gift is to show us that the world that we perceive as fixed and static is more fluid than we could ever have imagined, and that perhaps -as many of the mystics of the past have claimed – it is but an illusion[iv].

The Foliage:

There is an old tradition of sitting beneath the willow tree while listening to the wind that blows through her leaves create the musical speech of poetic inspiration.

“Perhaps trees are mediators between the worlds: their branches reach far into heaven and their roots reach deep into the earth.” Saibne Heinz (Celtic Symbols)


[i] In the Ogham there are also certain birds, as well as trees, attached to each letter. The bird attached to Saille is the hawk.

[ii] Ogma “Sun Face” is the son of Dagda “the Lord of Knowledge”. He is a poet warrior god who also carries the souls of the dead to the otherworld. Little is known of Ogma but he is one of the younger generation of gods, known as the Tuatha De Danann. After a great battle against the Fomorii (the previous and dark ones) Ogma claimed a magical sword that would recite all of the things that it had ever done. (the Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology, Select Editions. 2002)There can easily be seen parallels between Ogma and Odin, who brought the runic alphabet to the Norse, or to Prometheus, fire bringer, type figures. What seems to separate Ogma from these other advancers of civilization however is that he does not seem to have been punished for giving the Ogham to humans. I have found that John Mathews description of the events leading up to the sharing of the Ogham with man in the Song of Talieson as intuitive as he describes the sacrifice and pain that was experienced by Ogma in the process of learning the Ogham in the first place.

[iii] Sabine Heinz uses German Celtic Historian Silvia Botheroyd as a reference here. As far as I know her work is only available in German.

[iv] The willow is also used in scrying and other forms of divination, dowsing, and also has healing properties. It is commonly known that aspirin is a synthetic representation of salicyclic acid found in “white willow bark”, which in its natural form does not have blood thinning properties.