The Cat in Celtic Lore: Demon, Witch, or Lover?

The Cat in Celtic lore is a beast both loved and abhorred. Those in pursuit of Otherworldly powers coveted him, but not in a way that lacked cruelty.  For those who despised powers said to exist outside of the church, the cat was an indication the devil’s hand was near. This belief would become so prevalent that simply owning a cat would become a dangerous affair when the witch trials began to spread across Europe.

A study of the Celtic cat reveals an ethical dilemma, which will shortly become apparent. A list of sources will be given at the end of this post, but I will not attach them to any one individual statement. By doing this, I hope to provide some accurate broad information while simultaneously avoiding disclosing specific information as far as the ritual use of cats.

It is my belief that spells are symbolic gestures, a prayer embraced by metaphor. Like a New Ager’s ‘vision board’ or the church’s rite of communion. I make these statements not to cause discourse or debate, but to openly criticize anyone who believes that there could ever be a reason to harm an animal for ritualistic purposes. There are those who would obviously disagree with me, but the way I see it, any living being’s life is not worth one’s own personal gain, unless it’s as a source of food. Those who practice these types of rituals are rarely very old, and never very wise. The beings they do seem to attract – metaphorically or not – do not seem interested in the individual’s wellbeing either…

There is a great deal of Celtic lore, which still exists in regards to the cat. Individual body parts were used in a number of spells in several different ways. Additionally, there were love spells that required certain organs ritualistically prepared. There was also a type of divination that involved the slow killing and roasting of a cat in a very specific way.  The cat that was used in these spells was usually black. The particular cat most often referred to is also male.

There were spells that used living cats as well. Conducting one spell could transfer a disease from a sick animal to a hapless cat. Several other rituals allowed evil spirits to kill a cat so that the humans would be left alone. On the first Monday of winter, for example, the cat could be thrown outside of the home before the family had exited in order to placate any lingering hungry spirits.

“God save all here except the Cat.” – Irish saying.

There were many opportunities to divine the future by observing a Cat’s actions. If it jumped over a corpse, for instance, the next person who saw it would go blind. If it washed itself rain was coming. If the cat died in the house a human would also die shortly thereafter. If the cat jumped over food being prepared it was said that the person eating it would themselves conceive cats. A cat crossing the path of a bride, or anyone on New Year’s Day was considered unlucky for it warned of negative future events. If the cat crossed the path of a sailor, on the other hand, it was considered to be good luck. If a cat meowed for flesh it was believed that another animal was about to die.

The cat’s life was not highly valued, but the animal itself was treated with a great deal of caution. It was said that a witch’s cat was “endowed with reason.” These felines were also said to be vengeful, so great care was taken so as not to offend them. A cat could also be a spirit, an evil fairy, a shapeshifting witch, a demon, or the devil himself in disguise. For these reasons, the cat was often believed to be a spy for evil beings lurking outside the home. There was also a fairy cat that was known as the King of the Cats. Truthfully, he was much less a king than a vengeful protector spirit of the feline population in general.

Cat of Celtic Lore
The Love Potion. Evelyn de Morgan. 1903

There’s also an abundance of lore, which speaks of talking cats.  These are often Aesop-like tales or stories of shapeshifting witches. The cats are usually given human characteristics to the extreme. They are bards, warriors, and even sentries. One common Celtic story, for example, is of a Cat who allowed some travelers to feast upon his table. When one of the men tried to take advantage of his hospitality by stealing a necklace, however, the cat became a flaming arrow and incinerated the would-be thief.

In myth, the Celtic cat is a much more ambiguous entity. The Tuatha De Danaan god Nuada had one of his eyes replaced with one of his pet cat’s eyes. Cuchulain and his companions fought three cats in one tale, and in another the Fianna would fight against Cat-headed and dog-headed warriors who were part of an invading land force. Across the water, one of Arthur’s men named Gogyfwlch was said to have had cat eyes. Arthur himself later battled a cat that almost killed him. Elsewhere, there’s the story of an enchanted princess who spent one year as a Cat, one year as a swan, and one year as an otter. This shapeshifting theme, as we’ve seen before, was quite common in the Celtic world.

In the more modern stories, Cats were often associated with ghosts and demons. In one tale, a troublesome cat was drowned with a garter around its neck. The cat would later be seen in a boat with the same garter around its throat. In one early poltergeist account, an apparition of a Cat with a man’s head was seen when a bed was inexplicably set on fire. Though often left out of published accounts of poltergeists, these types of apparitions – that defy logic – are not unheard of. The Bell Witch poltergeist, for example, was said to have first appeared as having had the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit by at least one source. So maybe the apparition was a poltergeist? Then again, maybe the spirit was simply a leftover cousin of the cat-headed people who had fought the Fianna?

The 13th century Irish witch Alice Kytler was accused of having relations with a succubus that sometimes took the form of a black cat. Elsewhere, a source claimed that “the devils” could take the form of a weasel, cat, greyhound, moth, or bird. One Irish witness of witchcraft claimed to have seen a cat-like creature that was three times the size it should have been. The story implies that the apparition was a demon.

Cat of Celtic Lore
16th Century Woodcut

In Welsh and French myth, there was also the Palug Cat who was so powerful a being that it was called “one of the three plagues of the Isle of Mona.” It was this cat which Arthur, or sometimes Cai, was said to have defeated in battle. Arthur would later die from wounds sustained in a separate fight, but as many know there are tales that speak of his return to the land. Perhaps, this should offer us some measure of solace, for as one text claims of the cat:

“The wether [goat] they had been fighting with was the World, and the cat was the power that would destroy the world itself, namely, Death.”

No study of the Celtic Cat would be complete, without the mention of phantom cats being reported throughout the United Kingdom today. Despite a lack of evidence of a large black cat ever having been released in England’s rural countryside, there have literally been thousands of sightings in recent years. This cat is usually described as a black panther. It’s the belief of many that these cat sightings can be explained, and there’s a lot of evidence to support this. Until such a time the cat is captured, however, the story remains a modern folkloric account – which just happens to take place on the lands of the ancient Celts.

Although sources seem to disagree with one another in regards to the cat’s nature, there is one level of consistency found throughout. All agree that the Cat harbored, or hid, great power. The Cat in Celtic lore truly was a beast both loved and abhorred, and it would suffer through the ages because of it.

Cat of Celtic Lore
Witches Sabbath. Arthur Rackham. 1924

Sources:

Campbell, J. F. Popular Tales of West Highlands. 1890.

Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica. 1900.

Crocker, Thomas Croften. Fairy Legends and Traditions. 1825.

Curtin, Jeremiah. Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World. 1895.

D’Este, Sorita & Rankine, David. Visions of the Cailleach. 2009.

Douglas, Sir George. Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales. 1773.

Ellison, Emily and Perry, Chuck. Liars and Legends: The Weirdest, Strangest, and Most Interesting Stories from the South. 2005.

Gregor, Walter. Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North East of Scotland. 1881.

Gregory, Lady Augusta. A Book of Saints and Womders. 1906.

Gregory, Lady Augusta. Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. 1920.

Guest, Lady Charlotte. Mabinogion. 1877.

Henderson, George. Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911.

Jacobs, Joseph. Celtic Fairy Tales. 1892.

Jacobs, Joseph. More Celtic Fairy Tales. 1894.

Kuno, Meyer. The Voyage of Bran. 1895.

MacKillop, James. The Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

Mathews, Rupert. Poltergeists and Other Hauntings. 2009.

Moore, A. W. The Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man. 1891.

Rolleston, Thomas. Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race. 1911.

Seymour, St. John. Irish Witchcraft and Demonology. 1913.

Seymour, St. John & Neligan, Harry. True Irish Ghost Stories. 1914.

Wilde, Francesca. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. 1887.

Cat Eating Prey. Mark Marek. 2005

*the top image is by Clement Percheron. It’s available for use through Unsplash.

The Celtic Werewolf

The Celtic Werewolf
Werewolf. 18th century engraving

The Celtic Wolf is a complex and Otherworldly creature. Wolves, it would seem, have always had varied personalities as diverse as their human counterparts. Where one shapeshifting wolf could be seen as evil, for example, the next might very well turn towards a travelling priest and begin to preach the gospel.

Lady Guest’s 1877 classic, the Mabinogion, was an English translation of some of the 11th century surviving Welsh tales. Not only do we find some of the earliest known stories of Arthur within the text, but we’re also able to observe a few of the first Celtic wolf stories ever recorded. Incidentally, they’re all about shapeshifters.

In the first story, the king’s nephews Gilvaethwy and Gwydion are being punished for having raped one of the king’s virgin handmaidens. Upon receiving their sentence, the two boys are struck by the king with his wooden rod, which in turn changes them into a proud stag and a beautiful hind. Over the next year the pair breed with one another and they knew one another (to use an under appreciated  biblical term). Following this first year of exile, the king then strikes the two beasts with his rod once more. This time, however, they’re turned into a boar and a sow. The mating couple returns once more following another year of high-octane pleasure. Finally, the king converts them into a male and female wolf. The wolf pair then mates for another full year. Following this third year of transformation, the two men are finally forgiven and restored to their human forms. With the original rape now being restituted, Gwydion is free to transform into the god-like figure he would become later in the tale[i].

The two boys aren’t the only shapeshifters found in the Mabinogion either. The poet Taliesin brags:

“I have fled as a wolf cub. I have fled as a wolf in the wilderness.”

The Mabinogion has another wolf curse within its pages, as well. In this story, there’s a princess who’s been transformed into a wolf for “her sins.” While living as a wolf the princess has two wolf cubs. It is Arthur who restores them to human form.

In Winifred Faraday’s 1904 translation of the 12th century Tain we find an Irish story involving the wolf. In this tale, the goddess Morigan curses Cuchulain. She says to him:

“I will drive cattle on the ford to you, in the form of a grey she-wolf.”

Later, she makes good of this promise and does just that.

In Sir George Douglas’ 1773 book Scottish Fairy Tales, we begin to see some Aesop-like stories emerging in the lands of the Celts. Within the stories are several talking animals of the forest. Here, the fox is usually tricking the wolf in some way. The fox is generally seen as clever and conniving, while the wolf is portrayed as strong and thick-headed.

In the 1884 book Fairy Mythology of Various Countries by Thomas Keightly, we find a Breton tale that speaks of the werewolf:

“No one who became a wolf could resume his human form, unless he could recover the clothes which he put off previous to undergoing the transformation.”

Celtic Werewolf
Aberdeen Bestiary. 12th century

In Lady Wilde’s 1887 classic Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland we find one of my favorite werewolf stories of all time. In it, a young farmer named Conner is out searching for some missing cows when he stumbles upon a cabin of sorts. It’s dark out, and Conner has lost his way. The host who greets him at the door invites him inside. The family then begins to return home one after the other:

Before Connor could answer another knock was heard, and in came a second wolf, who passed on to the inner room like the first, and soon after, another dark, handsome youth came out and sat down to supper with them, glaring at Connor with his keen eyes, but said no word.

These are our sons,” said the old man, “tell them what you want, and what brought you here amongst us, for we live alone and don’t care to have spies and strangers coming to our place.”

Then Connor told his story, how he had lost his two fine cows, and had searched all day and found no trace of them; and he knew nothing of the place he was in, nor of the kindly gentleman who asked him to supper but if they just told him where to find his cows lie would thank them, and make the best of his way home at once.

Then they all laughed and looked at each other, and the old hag looked more frightful than ever when she showed her long, sharp teeth.

On this, Connor grew angry, for he was hot tempered; and he grasped his blackthorn stick firmly in his hand and stood up, and bade them open the door for him; for he would go his way, since they would give no heed and only mocked him.

Then the eldest of the young men stood up. “Wait,” he said, “we are fierce and evil, but we never forget a kindness. Do you remember, one day down in the glen you found a poor little wolf in great agony and like to die, because a sharp thorn had pierced his side? And you gently extracted the thorn and gave him a drink, and went your way leaving him in peace and rest?”

Aye, well do I remember it,” said Connor, “and how the poor little beast licked my hand in gratitude.”

Well,” said the young man, “I am that wolf, and I shall help you if I can, but stay with us to-night and have no fear.”

So they sat down again to supper and feasted merrily, and then all fell fast asleep, and Connor knew nothing more till he awoke in the morning and found himself by a large hay-rick in his own field.

A wolf then brings Conner some new cows. Surprised, he realizes that it’s the same wolf which had said it would help him in the cabin. As a result, Conner sees himself as a friend to the wolves for the rest of his life.

Elsewhere in the book, a poet exorcises an evil king as the moon rises into the dark night’s sky. When the spirit is cast out of the king, it becomes a large dead wolf[ii].

There are two important passages regarding the wolf in J. F. Campbell’s 1890 encyclopedias Popular Tales of the West Highlands.  In volume 1 it is stated that:

“Men learn courage from the lion and the wolf.”

In volume 4 of Popular Tales of the West Highlands we are told of a goblin that appears to some shipwrecked sailors as a pig, a wolf, an old woman, and a ball of fire.

Of course, it’s always nice to see some feral carnivorous creature dancing around upon its hind legs. We receive such a treat in Joseph Jacob’s 1892 work Celtic Fairy Tales. Within these tales we also learn of a prince Llewelyn, who as a baby killed a wolf assassin with his deadly baby fists (in some stories killed by his dog Gelert).

In his next book More Celtic Fairy Tales, published in 1894, Jacobs tells us of a woman who strikes her husband repetitively with a wooden stick. Every time he’s struck he transforms into a different animal. This list includes the wolf.

In the 1906 Book of Saints and Wonders by Lady Gregory we even find a saintly wolf. A priest is wandering through the forest. A wolf asks if she can be blessed and make a confession. After the priest complies, the Irish wolf issues forth the following revelation:

“It was through the sin of the people of this country Almighty God was displeased with them and sent that race to bring them into bondage, and so they must be until the Gall themselves will be encumbered with sin. And at that time the people of Ireland will have power to put on them the same wretchedness for their sins.”

In the year 1911, J. F. Campbell and G. Henderson collaborated on a book called the Celtic Dragon Myth. In it, a wolf tells a herder that if he ever becomes “hard pressed” that he should think of him. The herder does so, later shapeshifting into a wolf. He does this three times in order to fight a ram, a giant, and a dragon. The wolf defeats all three.

In Thomas Rolleston’s Myth and Legends of the Celtic Race – from the same year – we’re told that a full-grown adult wolf was buried inside of a man’s back wound. There, the wolf was found “up to it’s shoulders” inside the flesh. It was a good thing that they found him too. The wounded man had merely felt a pain in his back and had decided to have someone check it out for him.

There is an especially interesting section on wolves in George Henderson’s Survival in Belief Amongst Celts, which was also published in 1911:

The Soul in Wolf-form: The existence of this belief in animal parentage is seen from the Leabhar Breathnach. Here we read: “The descendants of the wolf are in Ossory (Osriage). There are certain people in Ossory; they pass into the form of wolves whenever they please, and kill cattle according to the custom of wolves, and they quit their own bodies; when they go forth in the wolf-forms they charge their friends not to remove their bodies, for if they are moved they will not be able to come again into them (their bodies); and if they are wounded while abroad, the same wounds will be on their bodies in their houses; and the raw flesh devoured while abroad will be in their teeth.”

This belief was current in the days of Fynes Moryson, who mentions the report that in Upper Ossory and Ormond men are yearly turned into wolves. And long before then Gerald, the Welshman, had heard a story of two wolves who had been a man and woman of the Ossorians. They were transformed into wolves every seven years through a curse imposed by St. Naal or Natalis, abbot of Kilmanagh, Kilkenny, in the sixth century. They were banished to Meath, where they met a priest in a wood, shortly ere Earl John came to Ireland in the days of Henry II. They retained the use of language and were fabled with having foretold the invasion of the foreigner. The Latin legend declares the substance of what the wolf said to the priest: “A certain sept of the men of Ossory are we; every seventh year through the curse of St. Natalis the Abbot, we two, man and woman, are compelled to leave our shape and our bounds.” Then having been divested of human form, animal form is assumed. Having completed their seven years, should they survive so long, if two other Ossorians be substituted instead of these, the former return to their pristine form and fatherland.

Old Ireland
Map of Ireland, circa 900

In personal and tribal names the wolf meets us, e.g. Cinel Loairn, whence modern Lome in Argyll, after which is named the marquisate in the ducal family, from Gadhelic Loam, wolf. In Ireland it is told of Laignech Faelad that he was the man “that used to shift into wolf-shapes. He and his offspring after him used to go whenever they pleased, into the shapes of the wolves, and, after the custom of wolves, kill the herds. Wherefore he was called Laignech Fdelad, for he was the first of them to go into a wolf- shape.”

The Celtic god Dis Pater, from whom, according to Caesar’s account, the Gauls were descended, is represented as clad in wolf-skin, and holding a vessel, also a mallet with a long shaft, which, Monsieur Reinach thinks, recalls the image of the Etruscan Charon. “A low-relief at Sarrebourg, in Lorraine,” says this eminent authority, “proves that one of the epithets of this Gaulish god was Sucellus, signifying ‘one who strikes well.’ The wolf skin leads to the presumption that the god was originally a wolf, roving and ravaging during the night time. This god has been identified with the Latin Silvanus, the woodman or forester who gave chase to the wolves — of old a wolf himself. On this view, which M. Reinach favours, at least a section of the Gauls had a national legend identical with that of the Romans: like Romulus they were the children of the wolf, and M. Reinach suggests that perhaps it was on this account that the Arverni called themselves brethren of the Latins. If so, we have a close parallel to Gadhelic tradition.

Spenser says that “some of the Irish doe use to make the wolf their gossip;” and Camden adds that they term them” Chari Christi, praying for them, and wishing them well, and having contracted this intimacy, professed to have no fear from their four-footed allies.” Fynes Moryson expressly mentions the popular dislike to killing wolves. Aubrey adds that “in Ireland they value the fang-tooth of an wolfe, which they set in silver and gold as we doe ye Coralls.”

At Claddagh there is a local saint, Mac Dara, whose real name according to folk-belief was Sinach, ‘a fox,’ a probably non- Aryan name. The Irish onchii, ‘leopard,’ also ‘standard,’ whence G. onnchon, ‘standard,’  from French onceau, once, ‘a species of jaguar,’ seems preserved in Wester Ross with the change of n to r, as or chu, written odhar chu, in the sense of wolf: the howl of the creature thus named inspired the natives of old with a fear and awe which had their origin in days when the wolf prowled of evenings among the flocks.

Another interesting mention of the wolf is also found in the text:

“A Breton tale tells of a giant’s life as being in an egg, in a dove, in a horse, in a wolf, which lives in a coffer at the bottom of the sea.”

In the 1932 book Shetland Traditional Lore by Jessie Saxby we learn of the Wulver. The Wulver was basically a wolf headed man who lived by fishing the lakes of the Shetland Islands. The Wulver would sometimes leave fish on the window sills of poor people’s homes. The beast was both friendly and charitable, unless it was provoked.

Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica – published in 1900 – leaves us with a couple of interesting spells regarding the wolf. The first of these concerns several other creatures as well:

The people repaired to the fields, glens, and corries to eat their quarter cakes. When eating them, they threw a piece over each shoulder alternately, saying: “Here to thee, wolf, spare my sheep; there to thee, fox, spare my lambs; here to thee, eagle, spare my goats; there to thee, raven, spare my kids; here to thee, marten, spare my fowls; there to thee, harrier, spare my chickens.”

Finally, we come upon “the Spell of Mary” which was used as protection against a very long list of impeding dooms, evils, mishaps and sorceries. Protection against the wolf is listed alongside many of the other more traditional forms of evil. Within this long list of worldly and otherworldly perils, a person also needed the protection:

Against incantations, against withering glance, Against inimical power. 
Against the teeth of wolf.
 Against the testicles of wolf[iii].

Dare we even ask? I guess, with the number of people running around in the form of a wolf in those days, one could never be too careful. If we’ve learned anything from Gilvaethwy and Gwydion it is this: wolves have needs too.

Celtic Werewolf

Eurasian wolf by Gunnar Ries Amphibol. 2009

[i] Celtic stories are often metaphoric. There’s a widespread belief that the original transcribers were sometimes recording knowledge that could only be fully understood by “a poet.”

[ii] Interestingly, when the king was possessed by the evil spirit he gorged himself on apples.

[iii] This is only a partial list.

Ioho (Yew)

“The Irish Druids made their wands of divination from the yew-tree; and, like the ancient priests of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, are believed to have controlled spirits, fairies, daemons, elementals, and ghosts while making such divinations.”  – W.B. Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911)

The Roots:

The 20th letter of the Tree Ogham is Ioho, the Yew tree.

The Yew is the tree most often found in mythology to be the Tree of Life or the World Tree[i].

Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets calls the Yew the “Tree of Eternal Life.” He also claims that the tree is sacred to divinities of death and regeneration.

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam:Weaving Word Wisdom says that Ioho is the few of longevity, reincarnation, the ancestors, history and tradition. Laurie also says that the Yew is the tree of immortality.

Liz and Colin Murray, in the Celtic Tree Oracle, state that Ioho represents great age, rebirth, and reincarnation. Robert Graves within the White Goddess calls the Yew “the Death Tree.”

John Michael Greer says that the Yew represents “enduring realities and legacies”. He also says that the tree represents that which abides unchanged and the lessons of experience.

The Yew is found in many myths involving tragic lovers such as Deidre and Naisi or Iseult and Tristian. In the legend of the Wooing of Etain Yew is connected directly to the Ogham and to divination. Ioho is also related to tales of hollow trees, the Irish goddess of death Danba, Thomas the Rymer, Cuchulainn and the fairy maiden Fand, and the hidden resting place of Owan Lawgoch. The Yew is also related to the swan through the shapeshifting story of Ibormeith (Yewberry) found in the tale the Dream of Oenghus, and to Oenghus himself who tries to win her love. The age of the Yew is also used as a reference when it is compared to the age of the Cailleach in an old Irish proverb. There are many tribes, names and places named after the Yew throughout the Celtic world. In present day the Yew is still strongly associated to graveyards and, through association, to the Christian Church.

Ioho, the Yew, represents old age, the ancestors, divination, death and reincarnation or rebirth.

The Trunk:

Yew is one of the most important trees found in Celtic mythology.

The Yew tree is often associated with death, dying and the dead. There is an old Breton legend that says that the roots of the Yew tree grow into the open mouth of each corpse[ii]. Yew branches were also often buried with the dead[iii]. Jacqueline Memory Paterson, in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook, links the Irish goddess of death Banbha to the Yew tree[iv]. According to Paterson, the Yew was sacred to the goddess and became known as ‘the renown of Banbha’.

The Yew tree is also associated with the fairies and to the Otherworld. As a Yew tree becomes very old its insides melt away making it stronger. It is the “hollow tree” that appears in fairy tales and folklore.

Owan Lawgoch, who we spoke of within the Ivy blog, is a sleeping warrior-king like Arthur. Owan is supposed to awaken and return to rule someday. In Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland, 1825, Thomas Crofton Crocker shares a story regarding Owan Lawgoch’s resting place. Apparently there is a hill on that very spot with a lone Yew tree that stands upon it. When a person approaches the hill, the Yew tree vanishes and will only reappear as the person withdraws once more.

Thomas the Rymer was a Scottish prophet who received his gifts by being the lover of a Fairy Queen[v]. Thomas, like Owan Lawgoch, also waits to be reborn. Folklore marks the location of his second coming as a Scottish Yew grove[vi].

In the Irish myth the Tale of Oenghus the beautiful Ibormeith(Yewberry) transforms into a swan every second year during Samhain. Oenghus in order to win her love becomes a swan as well and they are able to fly off together back to his home[vii].

Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by Thomas Rolleston written in 1911 has some interesting mythical details regarding the Yew. The first account is of the great hero Cuchulainn, who we discussed briefly within last weeks blog. When Cuchulainn would meet with his fairy maiden, Fand, it was beneath a Yew tree.

Another story, which is also told by Jacqueline Memory Paterson and Robert Graves, is of the tragic lovers Naisie and Deidre. Naisie was betrayed and murdered in an act of broken hospitality. His wife, the beautiful Deidre, was then shared as a concubine-like prize between two of the killers. Deidre, in her shame, finally threw herself headfirst from a chariot and was instantly killed. In that way the men could no longer have her. The two lovers were then (miraculously) buried near one another within a common ground. Some stories say that they were in the same graveyard, while other stories claim that a church divided them. Either way, Yew trees sprang forth from each of their graves. Their tops then met above the ground where, “none could part them.”

There is a similar tragic love story involving the Yew.  The following version of the story is found in Jacqueline Memory Paterson’s Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook.

(Tristan and Isolde by Herbert James Draper, 1901)

“Cornish legend tells of Mark, a king of Cornwall who was wedded to Iseult, a lady of Ireland who did not actually love him. After their wedding, as they sailed from Ireland back to Cornwall, unbeknown to anyone Iseult’s mother prepared a draught of wine for the wedded pair, in the hopes that a spell would make her daughter fall madly in love with her husband. Unfortunately the wine was drunk by Iseult and Mark’s nephew Tristain, and the two fell passionately in love with one another. The love spell lasted some three years, during which the lovers took many chances to sleep together. Many times they were discovered and reported to the king, whose love for them both pulled him apart. Likewise his kingdom slowly fell apart because of the situation and the gossip it aroused.

“After many partings and tricks of fate the lovers died in each other’s arms. Mark gave them a ceremonial funeral, for he had truly loved them both… within a year yew trees had sprouted out of each grave. The king had the trees cut down but they grew again. Three times they grew and three times he cut them down. Eventually, moved by the love he had felt for both his wife and his nephew, Mark gave in and allowed the trees to grow unmolested. At their full height the yews reached their branches towards each other across the nave and intertwined so intensely they could nevermore be parted.[viii]

The most interesting story concerning the Yew tree is found in the tale the Wooing of Etain.

Eochy is tricked by a fairy prince, or king, named Midir after he lost a board game to him. Midir, who could choose any gift, requested a kiss from Eochy’s wife Etain. Eochy was forced by his honour to grant the request. Midir then left saying that he will return for the prize. Eochy decided against this and tried to protect his wife but she was spirited away.

Eochy did not find his wife, even after exhaustive searches throughout the countryside. He eventually consulted the druids as he was desperate to know her whereabouts. A druid cut three yew staves, or in some stories four[ix], and wrote some Ogham letters upon them. These were then cast upon the ground. Through divination the exact fairy mound where Etain was being hidden was determined. After nine years of digging and fighting, Etain was rescued back from the land of the fairies. It is said that this was the war that finally diminished the fairies into a weakened race.

The Celtic myths are ripe with symbolism. For the astute observer the stories hold deeper meanings. They speak to us of relationships with the gods, the seasons, to the earth and ultimately to each other. These stories teach us about living and about dying. Perhaps they teach us of being reborn as well.

In the age of legend there were beings of great power and might. These are found in all of the surviving legends of the Celts. From the 1700s through to modern day we find the newer diminished spirits and fairies. These beings had been reduced in size and were no longer taken seriously in many of the tales. They had lost both their great power and their unsurpassed beauty.

The two theories often put forth by folklorists as to the explanation for what fairies were both pertain to other types of entities. The first explanation is that of diminished gods and the second is that of the spirits of the dead. In either case, a diminishing of size and power is more than slightly symbolic.

All that diminishes and dies will return eventually, in one form or another.

This is the story of the Yew.

The Foliage:

This week I watched starlings gorge themselves on yew berries in a local park.

It is one of my favourite places. The Pacific Yew has its branches entangled with those of a Holly tree. On one side of the pair, nearest the Holly, is an old Oak tree with a spiralling trunk. On the other side, nearest the Yew, is a sickly looking Hawthorn that also has a spiralling trunk.

The starlings would leap from branch to branch, excitedly, while filling their bodies with the ripe fruit. The birds would then quickly disappear into the protective foliage of the Holly if they were startled.

The Yew relies on birds to carry its seed to the hopeful birthplaces of patiently growing saplings not yet realized. This is unusual for needle trees, which usually rely on other means for seed dispersal.  The red fruit and lack of sap of the Yew, however, make the Yew an evergreen that is not a true conifer.

Besides being one of the oldest of trees, the Yew is also incredibly poisonous except for the fruit. The seed within the berry and all other parts of the tree are poisonous. The starlings and other birds seem to be able to tolerate the seed. Maybe the seed doesn’t get a chance to break apart completely enough inside of them to pose any real threat?

Colin Murray passed away in August of 1986 just days before his 44th birthday. The Celtic Tree Oracle was published by his wife Liz after his departure in 1988. The means of his death are found in Asphodel Long’s memorial article.

“[Colin] held a strong belief in reincarnation. We know that his death was caused by his eating leaves from a yew tree. In his Tree Alphabet he gives the following definition for Yew: ‘The ability to be reborn, continuously and everlastingly, the reference point for what has been and what is to come.’”[x]

The Celtic Tree Oracle brought with it a means of divination that is the mother and the father of all Ogham divination systems that came afterwards. Like the work of Robert Graves, there are many statements found within the book that do not bear scrutiny very well. We must remember, however, that without either of these pioneers’ research there would be no Ogham divination systems today.

It is appropriate then, that as we discuss the lore of the Yew -from rebirth to tragedy- that we reflect upon the myths that are both modern and mundane. I can contemplate and reflect upon the eating habits of the Starlings to try to have a deeper understanding of the meanings of the tree, but I must go deeper yet.

The Yew is a very toxic plant that is fatal if ingested. The tree presents a fruit, however, that is non-toxic, nutritious, and even has healing properties. Within the core of that fruit is a seed of life. That seed is toxic if it is digested. If it is allowed to pass through the body unharmed it may grow into another Yew tree which would also in turn be toxic and fatal if ingested. Eventually that tree would grow fruit and the cycle would begin once more. The symbolic metaphor may be seen as death in life and life in death.

Colin Murray eloquently said, “Youth in age and age in youth.”

The Yew tree is the Celtic Yin-Yang. In death there is rebirth and in birth there is death.

Many pagan new age systems of divination do not deal with death anymore. It is washed down. Even the death card of the tarot no longer seems to mean death; it means rebirth or even change. I have seen card readers not even use the word death but state that the card means “rebirth.” This avoidance of the word “death” seems to me to be yet another example of how our culture and society views our separateness from nature and ultimately to the whole world around us. Without an appreciation of death there will never be an understanding of life.

The Aspen may be seen as the tree of death and finality within an Ogham divination system. The Yew, the final original letter of the Ogham, is the tree of rebirth.  The Yew does not simply mean change.

The Yew represents the rebirth that follows death. This is an important distinction.

“Three great ages; the age of the yew tree, the age of the eagle, and the age of the Cailleach Bearra.” – Irish Proverb (Visions of the Cailleach)



[i] A most common misconception is that the Norse world tree is an Ash but this was a translation error from the Eddas. Yggdrasil is described through translation as either “winter green needle ash” as being poetic or as “winter green needle sharp” as being more literal. I touch on this as well in my Nuin (Ash) post. The Nordic World Tree is generally believed to have been a Yew by those who are aware of this original error.

[ii] Liz and Colin Murray. The Celtic Tree Oracle.

[iv] Part of the triple goddesses that includes Eriu and Fodla found in the Book of Invasions.  A mythical explanation for the three names of Ireland.

[v] Quert (Apple) blog.

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

[vii] Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm. The Druid Animal Oracle.

[viii] This story is usually seen to have its roots in Celtic myth. The names of the characters appear in the Mabinogion. Historians sometimes disagree, however, whether this is a Celtic myth or not. The tale is also considered a prototype of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot story.

[ix] Thomas Rollerston, for example, says that there are three staves while Caitlin Mathews in the Celtic Tradition says that there are four.

 

Eadha (Aspen)

The following curious story reminds one a little of Slavic tales of dead men who dwell in their tombs as in houses. Some of the Slav tomb-dwellers are harmless, others malignant. The malignant ones are dead persons who rise up bodily and go around at night devouring people. When one of these has eaten a victim he rushes back to his grave, for he is obliged to remain wherever he may be at cock-crow; if outside his grave, he falls stiff and helpless to lie there till the next night. There are two ways of giving a quietus to such a ghoul. One is to pin him to the earth by driving a stake of aspen wood through his heart; the other is to burn him to ashes.” – Jeremiah Curtin (Tales of Fairies and the Ghost World, 1895)

The Roots:

Eadha, or Aspen, is the 19th letter of the Ogham.

Robert Graves in the White Goddess lists the Aspen as the tree of rebirth.

Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle also give Aspen the powers of rebirth. They add that Aspen is the tree of resistance and shielding, speech and language, and that it has a very close relationship to the wind.

Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets calls Aspen a magic preventer, or means of overcoming death. He also sees the tree as a resistance against inhospitable conditions.

John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook gives Aspen the qualities of perseverance, courage, hard work, defence and inner strength.

Jacqueline Memory Paterson in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook echoes many of the above statements but also adds that the Aspen “speaks of what it hears from afar” and is the best hearing of all the trees.

Eryn Rowan Laurie -who does not use the Ogham as a tree alphabet- says that Eadha is the few of divination, dreams, and communicating with the Sidhe or high fairies. It should also be important to note that the plant that Laurie sees as being representative of Eadha, if you can call it a plant, is the colourful mushroom Aminita muscaria. When Laurie does speak of Aspen in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, however, she does not give the tree any properties or associations other than the folkloric connections the tree has in regards to the betrayal of Jesus at the time of the crucifixion.

Eadha, or Aspen, is a tree with many associations to death and to the spirit world. It is a protective tree but is also seen as dark or evil. It often appears as a betrayer of Christ. The tree has ties to the grave, spirits of the dead, and to the fairies. In this light, the various interpretations for Aspen suddenly make sense and do not seem so foreign from one another.

Aspen is a tree of overcoming and resistance; both to persecution and to death itself. It is also the tree most often associated with direct communication to the forest through its quivering leaves.

Besides being closely related to the apparitions of the dead and to the Sidhe, Aspen is also associated to the Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn, the Fairy Queen of Scotland, and to the character Gaul found in the Poems of Ossian.

The Trunk:

Aspen is a tree of great power.

At one time, the quivering leaves of the Aspen were believed to be mediators that aided in the communication between our world and the next. They helped the wind speak to the ancestors. They brought news of the deceased. They carried the inspiration of poetry.

The folklore later claiming that the Aspen betrayed Jesus is found throughout Europe. The following quote is taken from the Carmina Gadelica vol.2 by Alexander Carmichael in 1900.

“THE people of Uist say ‘gu bheil an crithionn crion air a chroiseadh tri turais’–that the hateful aspen is banned three times. The aspen is banned the first time because it haughtily held up its head while all the other trees of the forest bowed their heads lowly down as the King of all created things was being led to Calvary. And the aspen is banned the second time because it was chosen by the enemies of Christ for the cross upon which to crucify the Saviour of mankind. And the aspen is banned the third time because [here the reciter’s memory failed him]. Hence the ever-tremulous, ever-quivering, ever quaking motion of the guilty hateful aspen even in the stillest air.”

While the Holly and Oak are also often accused of being the tree used for the crucifixion, the Aspen is given extra special negative attention in folklore. Eryn Rowan Laurie claims that in Scotland people would throw stones at the trees as punishment even in recent times. The quivering leaves have been equated to both guilt and to fear in regards to the betrayal of Christ.

The associations of the Aspen to death may be due to the historical use of the Aspen wand. In Cormac’s Glossary there is an Aspen wand called a Fe that was used to measure the graves of the dead[i]. There was an Ogham inscription cut on it. The wands and their users are called “pagan” in the glossary. It was not advised that anyone, other than the grave measurers, handle the wands. The Aspen rods apparently held bad spirits.

According to Robert Graves, French witches used Aspen or White Poplar in flying spells. In Survival in Belief Amongst Celts published in 1911, George Henderson reports that mare’s milk taken from an Aspen spoon is a cure for whooping cough. In Scotland an Aspen leaf under the tongue made the bearer more eloquent. This magical shift was a gift from the fairy queen[ii].

In Poems of Ossian written in 1773, James Macpherson shares a most beautiful and tragic story. This work was claimed to have been based on “a manuscript” but is now largely believed to be a great work of fiction with mythological sources, or a complete forgery depending on who you are talking to. The tale is poetically beautiful and haunting[iii].

(The Dream of Ossian, by Jean Dominique Ingres,1815)

Gaul, a great warrior, returns from war to marry Oithona. The two had fallen in love before the duties of being a warrior had taken him away. They had eagerly agreed to marry if Gaul survived the expedition. Oithona’s father and brother were also called to the same campaign leaving her alone and vulnerable. In the warriors’ absence, Oithona was stolen and raped by Donrommath a chieftain who she had formerly rejected. He kept her hidden in a cave. Upon his return and the discovery of her absence, Gaul sets sail in search of Oithona.

“A rougher blast rushed through the oak. The dream of night departed. Gaul took his Aspen spear. He stood in the rage of his soul. Often did hid turn to the east. He accused the lagging light. At length the morning came forth. The hero lifted up the sail.”

Gaul finds Oithona in a cave on an island, alone and wounded. She tells Gaul her story and warns him of the many men of Donrommath. Gaul tells Oithona to hide in the cave until after the battle and rushes off to meet their enemies.

Donrommath smiles in “contempt” at Gaul and his few meagre men, expecting an easy victory.

“Gaul advanced in his arms; Dunrommath shrunk behind his people. But the spear of Gaul pierced the gloomy chief: his sword lopped off his head, as it bended in death. The son of Morni shook it thrice by the lock; the warriors of Dunrommath fled. The arrows of Morven pursued them: ten fell on the mossy rocks. The rest lift the sounding sail, and bound on the troubled deep.”

Gaul then returns to the cave of Oithona to find a mortally wounded youth with an arrow in his side. He tries to heal the youth but discovers that the wound is too serious and that he cannot. As Gaul admits to the unknown hero that he will be “taken in youth” the helmet falls upon the ground and reveals the beautiful Oithona. In her shame she had outfitted herself for battle and joined the outnumbered troops of Gaul. There is both pride and beauty in her as she perishes.

“She fell pale on the rock of Tromáthon. The mournful warrior raised her tomb. He came to Morven; we saw the darkness of his soul.”

The Aspen spear seems to speak of a greater, or more permanent, death than is usually given to ones enemies.

The great Irish hero Cuchulainn is always overcoming death and great enemies. He is a Celtic Achilles whose weakness is that he is forbidden to eat dog meat. After he unavoidably partakes in the flesh of a hound he is eventually killed. This is only after many adventures and battles.

One of his great victories was against three of his enemies who had each armed their charioteers with Aspen wands. Cuchulainn kills all six of them[iv].

If the Aspen wand is used for measuring the grave, then the symbolism found within the tale is both direct and disturbing. The three threes, including the wands, remind us that all of the old myths are riddles. It is clear that Cuchulainn has overcome death once more.

The Aspen, Eadha, is a tree of mysteries and connections to the land of the dead. It can be seen as a tree of great power and resistance to all things, as well as a messenger of the spirits.

Interestingly enough, within the Ogahm Tract, Aspen is spoken of as “friend.”

The Foliage:

Aspen are very closely related to White Poplar. In many places the names for the two trees are used interchangeably. The species are so closely related that they can intermarry and the result is the Grey Poplar. Cottonwood is also closely related. I have often found that accurately identifying each species from one another can be very difficult. This is especially true in regards to the North American species.

The Aspen is the only tree that dominates two letters from the list found in the Ogham Tract or Scholar’s Primer. Eadha is associated with Aspen but so is Ebad. Writers who use the tree aspect of the Ogham have worked around this in various ways. The Murrays use the second Aspen, Ebad, to instead represent “the Grove”, which they also call Koad. Several other writers have since used this association.

One writer, Robert lee “Skip” Ellison, gets around this in another way. I have not yet read Ellison’s Ogham: the Secret language of the Druids as I do not want the book to influence my current tour through the Ogham letters[v]. I am aware, however, that Ellison gets around the above problem by making Eadha represent Aspen, and Ebad represent the White Poplar.

If a person had a strong connection to the Aminita muscaria, and felt that the mushroom had a place within the tree calendar, they could use the Eryn Rowan Laurie association mentioned above. The Eadha letter would be represented by Aminita and Ebad would be the letter used for the Aspen. This is merely another alternative or suggestion[vi].

We will be listing Ebad as “the Grove”, and will leave the association of Aspen to Eadha.

“Evidence now supports the vision of the poet and the philosopher that plants are living, breathing, communicating creatures, endowed with personality and the attributes of the soul. It is only we, in our blindness, who have insisted on considering them automata.” – Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird (The Secret Life of Plants, 1973)


[i]Cormac mac Cuilennain was an Irish bishop and a king of Muster. He was killed in battle in 908ce. The glossary is believed to be attributed to him after his death but not actually written by him.

[iv] Cattle Raid of Cualnge. Ulster Cycle.

[v] I plan to use Ellison during my next cycle through the Ogham along with Caitlin Mathews who wrote Celtic Wisdom Sticks. I have not yet read either book.

[vi] If there is an interest in a similar post written about the Aminita then please let me know. There are various mentions of the mushroom in myth and folklore which can easily be researched and shared.

Quert (Apple)

Apple. The Pome fruit and tree bearing this fruit is celebrated in numerous functions in Celtic mythology, legend and folklore; it is an emblem of fruitfulness and sometimes a means to immortality.”  – James MacKillop (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)

The Roots:

The apple represents the allure of the Otherworld.

Quert is the tenth letter of the Ogham. References to things beyond the number nine are found throughout Celtic myth. The Tuatha De Danann try to keep the Milesians beyond the ninth wave of the ocean for example, so that they would not be able to land on the shores of Ireland in the Book of Invasions. Brigit is attended by nine virgins, so she herself is the other that makes ten. Ten is the perfect number because all of the other numbers exist within it, yet it is the return to singularity (Cooper).

There are many Celtic tales, too many to mention here, that have connections to the apple. Yns Avallach, or Avalon, is the final resting place of Arthur and is usually called the Isle of Apples. Cuchulainn follows a rolling wheel and apple to find a great female warrior teacher[i]. One of the Irish names for the Otherworld was Eamhain Ablach, the realm of apples (Laurie). In Irish legend there is even a magical Silver Bough that carries nine apples which sing people to sleep (Paterson) – again that nine plus one. Thomas the Rhymer, who we have also spoken of before, was given an apple by the queen of the fairies that gave him the gift of prophecy. Many other legends associate Merlin, Olwen, Gwen, the romance of Diarmuid and Grainne, and the Tree of Mugna to the apple. Cu Roi is a hero that is only killed after his wife has betrayed him and revealed the secret hiding place of his soul, which is within an apple in the belly of a salmon.

Erynn Rowan Laurie[ii] associates the Ogham letter with madness and insanity. Although Laurie does not associate these letters with trees – but sees them more akin to the Norse runes[iii] -the symbolism of the apple does seem to support her position in some of the myths regardless.  Merlin is often associated to the apple grove which he could bring forth with him from place to place. Sabine Heinz[iv] reminds us that Merlin hid in the treetops when he became insane after a battle. Those that were considered too strange or “touched in the head” were often, even in relatively recent times, said to have been “taken by the fairies” so perhaps there is a connection to those such as Thomas the Rhymer as well to the concept of madness?

With the introduction of Christianity to the Isles, the apple also became synonymous with temptation and evil. The apple, or quert, is often also associated to romantic love and sex.

The Trunk:

The Otherworld can be described as a place that is elusive yet nearby. It seems to exist alongside us. It is a place where time and age do not matter, the otherworldly women and men are beautiful, animals can talk, the sun always shines, the birds always sing and beauty is amplified.

It is in this land that the gods seem to reside and sometimes the ancestors. The Otherworld is a place of heroic deeds, never ending banquets, whimsical love affairs, and items of great power that can be brought back to the land of the living.

Although the Otherworld is often associated with things made of glass, it is more often than not stumbled upon in the most mundane of manners.

A hero is walking through the wood and follows a white animal or becomes lost and finds him or herself in a completely foreign land. This may take place after there is a storm, fog, or mist.

The Otherworld is where the Sidhe, also known as the Tuatha De Danann, reside in Ireland. It is the land of the fairy, the fair folk, or of great lords that reside over the dead.

There is a story of Connla son of Conn Cetchathach of the Hundred Battles. In the story Connla is approached by a beautiful fairy woman who tempts him to come with her to the other side. She offers him an apple and promises him the relief from old age and even death. He leaves with her, but will not return even with the allure of his father’s kingdom and is never seen again.

(Childhood’s Favourites and Fairy Stories, Project Gutenberg)

Those superstitious of the fairies still warn us today to avoid eating the food of the fair folk… lest one never be able to return to the land of the living. There is a suggestion that this is because the food either tastes so good or intoxicates one to never want to return to the land of men again.

The Otherworld is found far away from the trappings of civilization. It is found on the sea by accident when sailors stumble upon unknown islands, or it is found deep within the wilderness.

The Otherworld is found when the hero is out hunting. It is found when the heroine is minding her own business. It is found when an item, usually food or drink, is found unattended and is unassumingly consumed.

It is likely that the Otherworld is a metaphor for the lands that are seen when one’s perception is shifted. This may happen through trance (perhaps shamanic like percussion), drug induced states (maybe aminita muscaria or possibly wine), dreaming, meditation or even enlightenment.

We must remember though that those that seek the Otherworld rarely find it, while those that do not – similar to Taliesin or Amairgin’s acquirement of wisdom– often find themselves on the other side altogether.

Some do not return.

The Foliage:

The apple, as we know it, has only been around since the classical age. The crab apple of the Americas was never cultivated but the small tart apple was used as a food source by the native people nonetheless[v].

According to Jared Diamond[vi], the apple tree was one of the later plants to be cultivated by ancient peoples. The art of cultivation in which the apple tree was domesticated was a complicated and difficult process that is known as grafting today. Grafting was discovered and developed in ancient China. The grafting, and growing of apple orchards, spread across the known world of the time, through Greece and Rome, and eventually into the lands of the Celts themselves.

This was thousands of years after the cultivation of such plants as the olive, grape or fig.

While it is interesting to note that the oak has never been domesticated as a food source, it is also interesting to recognize that the apple tree will quickly become wild once more. According to Hageneder[vii], the orchard apple is sweeter and bigger than the crab apple and the tree has lost its thorns. Trees that naturalize and leave the orchard, however, are often found to grow thorns once more.

The apple, Quert, has a long list of health benefits and even medicinal properties that continue to be studied in awe. The fruit absorbs contaminants from its environment however, so one should try to eat the organic fruit whenever it is possible.

“In the 19th century in Lower Saxony, Germany, the first bath water used by a newborn baby was poured over the roots of an apple tree to ensure that the child would have red cheeks, and, if it was a girl, large breasts too.” – Fred Hageneder  (The Meaning of Trees)


[i] This seems to be a type of divination.

[ii] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom

[iii] The Ogham is often seen as a tree alphabet but, as I have discussed in previous posts, this is not entirely accurate. I choose to use the Ogham as a tree alphabet on my own path. In my opinion Erynn Rowan Laurie’s book has the most accurate perception of the Ogham.

[iv] Celtic Symbols

[v] Tree Book: Learning to Recognize Trees of British Columbia

[vi] Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

[vii] The Meaning of Trees

[Image] http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19993