The Changeling

Changeling

Detail from The Legend of St. Stephen. The Devil steals a baby and leaves a changeling in its place. Martino di Bartolomeo. 15th century

 Changeling. The widespread belief that fairies or other malevolent spiritual forces might secretly substitute one infant for another is amply represented in Celtic oral tradition. Irish corpán sídhe, síodhbhradh, síofra; Scottish Gaelic tàcharan, ùmaidh; Manx lhiannoo shee; Welsh plentyn a newidiwyd am arall (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology).

The Fairy Changeling

(Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. Lady Wilde. 1887.)

ONE evening, a man was coming home late, and he passed a house where two women stood by a window, talking.

“I have left the dead child, in the cradle as you bid me,” said one woman, “and behold here is the other child, take it and let me go;” and she laid down an infant on a sheet by the window, who seemed in a secret sleep, and it was draped all in white.

“Wait,” said the other, “till you have had some food, and then take it to the fairy queen, as I promised, in place of the dead child that we have laid in the cradle by the nurse. ‘Wait also till the moon rises, and then you shall have the payment which I promised.”

They then both turned from the window. Now the man saw that there was some devil’s magic in it all. And when the women turned away he crept up close to the open window and put his hand in and seized the sleeping child and drew it out quietly without ever a sound. Then he made off as fast as he could to his own home, before the women could know anything about it, and handed the child to his mother’s care. Now the mother was angry at first, but when he told her the story, she believed him, and put the baby to sleep–a lovely, beautiful boy with a face like an angel.

Next morning there was a great commotion in the village, for the news spread that the first-born son of the great lord of the place, a lovely, healthy child, died suddenly in the night, without ever having had a sign of sickness. When they looked at him in the morning, there he laid dead in his cradle, and he was shrunk and wizened like a little old man, and no beauty was seen on him any more. So great lamentation was heard on all sides, and the whole country gathered to the wake. Amongst them came the young man who had carried off the child, and when he looked on the little wizened thing in the cradle he laughed. Now the parents were angry at his laughter, and wanted to turn him out.

But he said, “Wait put down a good fire,” and they did so.

Then he went over to the cradle and said to the hideous little creature, in a loud voice before all the people–

“If you don’t rise up this minute and leave the place, I will burn you on the fire; for I know might well who you are, and where you came from.”

At once the child sat up and began to grin at him; and made a rush to the door to get away; but the man caught hold of it and threw it on the fire. And the moment it felt the heat it turned into a black kitten, and flew up the chimney and was seen no more.

Then the man sent word to his mother to bring the other child, who was found to be the true heir, the lord’s own son. So there was great rejoicing, and the child grew up to be a great lord him-self, and when his time came, he ruled well over the estate; and his descendants are living to this day, for all things prospered with him after he was saved from the fairies.

In Nature

Parasitic cuckoo birds regularly practice brood parasitism, or non-reciprocal offspring-swapping. Rather than raising their young on their own, they will lay their egg in another’s nest, leaving the burden on the unsuspecting parents, which are of another species altogether. More often than not, the cuckoo chick hatches sooner than its “stepsiblings” and grows faster; eventually claiming most of the nourishment brought in and may actually “evict” the young of the host species by pushing them out of their own nest (Wikipedia).

Other

According to Katherine Briggs in Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967), the changeling is more often male than female. This stolen child usually has blonde hair and a fair complexion. Briggs says it’s believed the dark fairies steal human babies in order to use them for breeding; thus introducing “fair” blood into their fairy gene pool. Most accounts of changelings in the fairy tales can be traced to Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends. Several other sources are given in Brigg’s text, however. Either book can offer insight into how to retrieve a stolen child if need be, or how to protect one’s own child from being stolen in the first place.

I’ve written about the Bridget Cleary case previously in the Hawthorn Ogham post. To recap: In rural Ireland in 1895, Bridget Cleary’s husband, neighbours, and relatives, murdered her and burned her body. The motive? They were convinced Bridget was a fairy changeling. The active participants of the murder (9 initially charged) maintained their story throughout the entire court case.

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Ur (Heather)

“When we reflect upon the many unique characteristics of the Heather- its stern beauty of delicate purple bells nestling to a green mantled burly growth of brushwood; its distinctive vitality and strength of endurance; the wild rugged solitude of its native home in the Scottish Highlands, and the untamed spirit of independence which over broods this hermit flower of the mountain crags- it is not to be wondered at that the Heather should have been adopted as a symbol, or badge, by several of the leading clans of Scotland.” – Alexander Wallace (Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay)

The Roots:

Ur is the eighteenth letter of the Ogham. The tree or plant that Ur represents in the Tree Alphabet[i] is the Heather.

In Magical Alphabets Nigel Pennick claims that this letter represents luck and is an entry point to the inner worlds.

In the White Goddess, Robert Graves also says that Heather is lucky. He goes on to state that Heather has a strong connection with the bee. This is a observation that is made by many other writers including Stephanie and Philip Carr-Gomm[ii], Alexander Wallace[iii], as well as Liz and Colin Murray. The bee represents industriousness, family, community and social interactions. The Heather is not only frequented by bees, but can also grow in Heaths. This growth pattern represents its own gregarious nature.

In their book the Celtic Tree Oracle, the Murrays also say that Heather provides a link to the inner self. Strangely, they also claim that the Mistletoe can be a representative of Ur as well.

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom seems to have quite a different take on Ur and the Heather plant. She claims that the Ogham letter Ur is representative of death, fate and finality; by its connection to the soil[iv]. Laurie also claims that Heather independent from the letter- is linked to poverty[v].

John Michael Greer brings the various beliefs together in his explanation of Ur found in the Druid Magic Handbook. He says that Ur represents “Power, creation, death and rebirth, symbolized by the Heather bush; spiritual power and creativity, a door opens in the inner world.”

Besides being linked to the bee, Heather is connected with mountains and the country of Scotland. The plant has links to fairies such as the Cluiricaune. Heather is also connected to witches, apparitions and also makes an appearance in at least one Cailleach tale.

Ur, or Heather, is the plant of death and the dead, luck, family and community, and can also help us to connect with the inner worlds.

The Trunk:

“Heather is the four leaf clover of the Scottish Highlands.[vi]

Heather, or Ur, does not appear very often in recorded Celtic folklore.

The Cluiricaune, who we spoke of in Ngetal, knew the secrets of brewing a heather beer. We also looked at an apparition that touched and killed a cow in Ohn; the Ogham letter covered last week. This apparition rose from the Gorse and Heather plants to bring about the destruction of the hapless creature. Both of these stories were discussed previously and can also be found in Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Croker.

The greatest wealth of memory regarding the Heather plant is found in Alexander Wallace’s 1903 book Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay. There is no greater resource than this book for anyone interested in a study of the cultural significance of Heather to the Celtic people.

Throughout the book there are many poems and stories related to Heather. In folklore the white Heather represented unselfish love. It was considered very unlucky for anyone to bring Heather indoors. The plant could, however, be used as protection against witches. At Beltane, Rowan and Heather branches were carried around the sacred fire three times before being raised above dwellings to protect the house’s occupants against the evil eye. On the other hand, throwing Heather after a person was supposed to bring them good luck.

Heather is often seen as a Scottish national symbol. The plant is associated with ancestors and is found on many clan badges.

“Macgregor as the rock, Macdonald as the Heather.”[vii]

Fairies are said to live in Heather bells and Heather honey is supposed to be one of their favourite foods. Apparently Heather, like Ivy[viii], does not grow in the land of the fairies. This may explain the fairies great affinity for the flower.

There is a story from Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay regarding a Heather fairy that I will share in its entirety due to its unique nature. It was originally told by a Mrs Grant of Laggan. The tale regards one of the fairy hills that Highlanders would often hear “fairie music” from.

“A little girl had been innocently loved by a fairy that dwelt in a tomhan[ix] near her mother’s habitation. She had three brothers who were the favourites of her mother. She herself was treated harshly and taxed beyond her strength; her ’employment was to go every morning and cut a certain quantity of turf from dry, heathy ground for immediate fuel ; and this with some uncouth and primitive implement. As she passed the hillock which contained her lover, he regularly put out his hand with a very sharp knife of sudi[x] power that it quickly and readily cut through all impediments. She returned cheerfully and early with her load of turf, and as she passed by the hillock she struck on it twice and the fairy stretched out his hand and received the knife.

“The mother, however, told the brothers that her daughter must certainly have had some aid to perform the allotted task. They watched her, saw her remove the enchanted knife and forced it from her. They re-turned, struck the hillock as she was wont to do, and when the fairy put out his hand, they cut it off with his own knife. He drew in the bleeding arm in despair; and supposing this cruelty was the result of treadiery[xi] on the part of his beloved, never saw her more.”

This is not the only dark story regarding the Heather plant. Witches in Scotland at Samhain were supposed to ride over Heather on black tabby cats. Heather can also be connected to the Cailleach; the primordial Celtic hag goddess.

It is said that whenever a hunter sees the Cailleach singing and milking the hinds upon a hillside, it is a warning. The vision is telling the hunter that he should not go, “roaming the Heath that day.” To ignore the warning was to invite a swift and merciless death[xii].

Heather, or Ur, is a magical herb indeed. The stories in Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay do speak of death, apparitions, family and luck. Perhaps the “inner worlds” that the Ogham authors speak of are simply more references to the Spiritworld or the lands of the fey?

If this is true, then the above stories verify this Heather connection as well.

There are too many tales of the fairies to list, which speak of them as being “the dead”[xiii]. If this were to be the case, then all of the various associations given to the Heather plant would not be as different from one another as they would at first appear.

Heather is a key to the realms of the mysterious. Some may see these lands as being external and separated from oneself, while others may choose to dive into the deepest hidden worlds that are found within.

Perhaps they are one and the same.

The Foliage:

The Heather plant that represents Ur is Calluna Vulgaris.

Calluna Vulgaris is considered an invasive species in British Columbia as it is sometimes found to have naturalized. This non-native immigrant, however, is the Heather that is the same plant referred to in Celtic myth and legend. What we call Heather in British Columbia is not the same plant.

These are the native types of mountain Heather from the Cassiope  and also the Phyllodoce Genus . The Mountain Heathers are close relatives of Calluna Vulgaris belonging to the same family Ericaceae[xiv]. Some of the species, such as White Mountain Heather or Yellow Mountain Heather, are common throughout the Pacific Northwest and BC.

The Heather of myth is usually a purple flower.

“According to the classical writers, the Druids taught three important things: Honor the gods. Do no evil. Live courageously.” – Tom Cowan(Yearning for the Wind)



[i] The Ogham was not originally intended to be used as a Tree Alphabet. See previous posts.

[ii] The Druid Animal Oracle.

[iii] Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay.

[iv] The Ogham Tract.

[v] Laurie is the Ogham expert that I probably respect, and agree with, the most. I disagree with her on this point, however, which may seem strange as she is much more knowledgable than me on Celtic mythology and the Ogham. I do not understand the poverty connection to Heather, however.

[vii] Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay.

[viii] See Gort post.

[ix] Fairy dwelling.

[x] I am not sure what this means.

[xi] Breech of faith.

[xii] We should be thankful that Alexander Wallace preserved so much of the lore associated with the Heather in a single place. I have merely skimmed the surface of this highly recommended book.

[xiii] Katherine Briggs. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature.

 

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Gort (Ivy Vine)

 

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

The Roots:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trunk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Foliage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient, powerful, and wise.

Awen.

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


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

[II] The Druid Animal Oracle.

[III] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

[VIII] Usually recognized

[IX] Peter Berresford Ellis

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

[XI] The Druids

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Tinne (Holly)

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

The Roots:

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

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

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

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

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

The Trunk:

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

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

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

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

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

(Skull on a gravestone edge, Durisdeer, Scotland)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Foliage:

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

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

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

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

This should not discourage me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[iii] Fire in the Head.

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

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

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

[vii] Alexandra Park.

[viii] Joseph Campbell.

[ix] 2010 Teaopia magazine/brochure

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

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