The Banshee: Ghost of the Celts

The Banshee’s arguably the most famous ghost of them all, and probably the least understood.

“When the Banshee calls she sings the spirit home. In some houses still a soft low music is heard at death.” – George Henderson 1911 (Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts)

There’s an Irish tradition promoting the Banshee as only ever interacting with certain families. Although folklorists have also made this statement in the past, it’s entirely false. The Banshee’s known by many different names, was encountered in many varied forms, and was believed to have existed by a wide array of people[i].

In Ireland, the Banshee is also called Banshie, Bean Si, Bean Sidhe, and Ban Side amongst other names. A great deal of surviving Banshee lore comes from outside of Ireland, however. In Scotland, for example, the Banshee may be referred to as Ban Sith or Bean Shith. On the Isle of Mann she’s called Ben Shee, while the Welsh call her close sister Cyhyraeth[ii].

The she in Banshee, or sidhe, suggests and older source for the stories. The sidhe were the old gods who had fled the Irish invaders to live inside of the hollow hills. They were also known as the Tuatha De Danaan or “the fair folk.”

Banshee: A female wraith of Irish or Scottish Gaelic tradition thought to be able to foretell but not necessarily cause death in a household.”  – James MacKillop (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)

In the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde, we’re told that the Irish Banshee was more likely to be beautiful, while the Scottish Banshee was more likely to appear in the image of an older crone-like woman. Like most things in Celtic lore, however, this wasn’t always consistent.

The Banshee would usually warn of death by: wailing, appearing as an apparition, playing or singing music, tapping on a window in the form of a crow, be seen washing body parts or armor at a stream, knocking at the door, whispering a name, or by speaking through a person that she had already possessed – a host or medium[iii]. The noble families of Ireland generally viewed the spirit’s attendance as a great honour. Some sources do say that the Banshee served only five Irish families, but others say that several hundred families had these spirits attached to them[iv]. The five families usually stated to have had Banshee attendants are the O’Neils, the O’Brians, the O’Gradys, the O’Conners, and the Kavanaghs. Many stories, however, are of other families.

The Ó Briains’ Banshee was thought to have had the name of Eevul[v], or Aibhill as she is called in the book True Irish Ghost Stories. Likewise, a great bard of the O’Connelan family had the goddess Aine (sometimes called Queen of Fairy), attend him in the role of a wailing Banshee in order to foretell – and honour – his death[vi]. Cliodhna (Cleena) is a goddess-like Munster Banshee, who people claimed was originally the ghost of a “foreigner.”  Most Banshees remained nameless, however.

The description of the Banshee varies a great deal throughout the many accounts. If she was young she often had red hair, but she could have “pale hair” as well. She was often described as wearing white, but sometimes she could be seen wearing green or other colors such as black or grey. Red shoes were sometimes mentioned, but so was a silver comb,[vii] which she either ran through her hair or left on the ground to capture some curious passerby. Most described her eyes as being red from crying, or keening, or to be menacing and evil looking. The eyes were also often said to be blue. In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 Popular Tales of the West Highlands, the Banshee was said to have webbed feet like a water creature. Sometimes she was wrapped in a white sheet or grey blanket – a statement that reveals an older funerary tradition and a possible source for the modern white sheet-ghosts of Halloween.

In True Irish Ghost Stories we’re told that the Banshee could not by seen by “the person whose death it [was] prognosticating.” This statement is not consistent with all of the stories either:

“THEN Cuchulain went on his way, and Cathbad that had followed him went with him. And presently they came to a ford, and there they saw a young girl thin and white-skinned and having yellow hair, washing and ever washing, and wringing out clothing that was stained crimson red, and she crying and keening all the time. ‘Little Hound,’ said Cathbad, ‘Do you see what it is that young girl is doing? It is your red clothes she is washing, and crying as she washes, because she knows you are going to your death against Maeve’s great army.’” – Lady Gregory 1902 (Cuchulain of Muirthemne – retelling of 12th CE)

Banshee
Watcher of the Ford. Eleanor Hull. 1904

The Banshee – who’s often said to have her roots in stories of Morrigan the Irish war goddess[viii] – could also follow families abroad. One famous story regarding the O’Grady family takes place along the Canadian coastline where two men die[ix]. St. Seymour shares another tale in which a partial Irish descendent sees a Banshee on a boat in an Italian lake. In Charles Skinner’s 1896 Myths and Legends of Our Own Land we’re also told of a South Dakota Banshee living in the United States.

The Banshee could also be a trickster of sorts. She was said to mess with “the loom” in Alexander Carmichael’s 1900 Carmina Gadelica. There’s even a blessing in the section, which is chanted over the item. In W.Y. Evens-Wentz’ 1911 Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries we’re told of a Banshee who could be placated by giving her barley-meal cakes on two separate hills. This action reminds us of the tithes often left for other trickster fairies, and doesn’t seem to be a customary gift one would leave for a ghost. As Katherine Briggs once said[x], however, fairies fall into two categories, “diminished gods and the dead.” Unfortunately, our modern conception of fairies does little to remind us that either one of these forms would be considered as a spirit-being today. As Evans-Wentz further explains:

“It is quite certain that the banshee is almost always thought of as the spirit of a dead ancestor presiding over a family, though here it appears more like the tutelary deity of the hills. But sacrifice being thus made, according to the folk-belief, to a banshee, shows, like so many other examples where there is a confusion between divinities or fairies and the souls of the dead, that ancestral worship must be held to play a very important part in the complex Fairy-Faith as a whole.” – W.Y. Evans-Wentz 1911 (Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)

The Banshee being attached to a certain family could be extremely beneficial and would have not been seen as a negative. As already stated, any family would’ve been seen as extremely important if a Banshee (or several) attended them. In George Henderson’s 1911 Survival in Belief Amongst Celts, a Banshee, or Maighdeann Shidhe, even gave the “Blue Stone of Destiny” to the Scottish hero Coinneach Odhar. In return for favours, however, it would’ve been extremely important to honour these spirits whenever possible, either out of respect for the Banshee, or from a place of fear in order to placate them.

In modern times, the Banshee became associated more and more with evil. As a portent of death she shared many things in common with the approaching Carriage of Death, the death candles, Ankou[xi] or even with the Grim Reaper. In her more ancient visage, she could easily be compared to the Norse Valkyrie (as the Morrigan often is) or to any other Shieldmaiden whose task it was to collect the dead[xii]. To the commoner of modern times, such a role was reserved for the Angels of God and for the Holy Church alone.

Furthermore, the Banshee – like other mystic beings of Celtic lore – was also able to appear in various non-human forms. A fact which would later make her seem in league with the devil:   

 “The Banshee is dreaded by dogs. She is a fairy woman who washes white sheets in a ford by night when someone near at hand is about to die. It is said she has the power to appear during day-time in the form of a black dog, or a raven, or a hoodie-crow.” – Donald MacKenzie 1917 (Wonder Tales From Scottish Myth & Legend)

Whether the Banshee does, or ever did, exist is a matter of conjecture. One thing is certain, however, the most famous ghost of them all is the one in which few people actually know anything about. The Banshee was more than a shrieking omen of death. In fact, individual Banshees appeared and behaved quite differently from one another in different stories.  Her attachment to a particular family was a relationship that was embraced by the Celtic people with pride, and with honour. Her haunting of a particular place, on the other hand, was met with wary bribes. An unknown Banshee – like a stray dog – could have been seen as something quite different altogether. It would have been this Banshee that brought with it fear – which was usually seen as nothing short of a greeting from death itself.

The Banshee in Celtic folklore seems much more interesting, when we realize that many of our modern ghost stories share the exact same elements. A deceased female relative forewarning death, a disembodied voice, a spirit attached to a particular family, or a haunted landmark may not seem to have anything to do with a Banshee today, but none of these stories are really all that different from the old ones at all. Like it or not, in modern folklore the Banshee still remains. It’s only our terminology that has changed.

Old Yale Brewery Tall Tale Series
Vancouver, BC’s Old Yale Brewery: Tall Tale Series

[i]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[ii]  (ibid)

[iii]  St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan. True Irish Ghost Stories. 1914.

[iv]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[v]  Thos Westrop. Folklore. 1910.

[vi]  W.Y. Evans-Wentz. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. 1911.

[vii]  This may be an overlap with the mermaid, which history likewise seems to have forgotten was also a spirit.

[viii]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[ix] This would most likely be referring to the east coast but could also be the west coast, as well.

[x]  Katherine Briggs. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. 1967.

[xii]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shieldmaiden

The Banshee
The Banshee. Henry Maynell Rheam. 1897
Banshee
Bunworth Banshee. From Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825

Ailm (Fir or Pine) II

“And King Guaire followed him there and asked him to come back where he could sleep upon a bed and not be laying his head upon a hard fir tree in the night time. But Marbhan would not leave the place he had chosen, for he said he was well content with the little cabin he had in the wood, and that no one had knowledge of except God.” – Lady Gregory (A Book of Saints and Wonders. 1906)

The Roots:

The sixteenth letter of the Ogham is Ailm. In its tree form this is Scotch Fir or Scots Pine.

There is a lot of confusion as to which tree should be assigned to Ailm. The Ogham tract says that it is the “Fir” tree. The Fir tree is also listed within the tract as a possible choice for Gort, the Ivy, as well. Robert Graves named the tree representing Ailm as the Silver Fir based on this mentioning of the Fir tree within the text[i]. This choice is often accepted as being correct.

The first Silver Fir, however, is not believed to have been introduced into neighbouring Scotland until 1603[ii]. One of the places the Ogham Tract appears is within the Book of Ballymote which is believed to have been written around 1390[iii]. Before the 18th century the Scots Pine was also known as Scotch or Scots Fir[iv] so the mention of the “Fir” within the Ogham Tract is most likely a reference to the Pine[v]. The Scots Pine is native to the British Isles and would have been better known in Ireland. Pine is also mentioned within the Ogham tract, but various names for the same tree are found for other letters as well. For example the Yew is also the Service Tree, Blackthorn is also Sloe, and Quicken is also the Rowan.  In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 book Popular Tales of the West Highlands vol.1 we are also told that a Fir cone grows into a Pine tree. It is likely that both Pine and Fir refer to the Scotch Fir or Scots Pine interchangeably.

Firs and Pines -as well as Spruces, Cedars and others- are part of the same family known as Pinaceae. These conifers share a prehistoric heritage as members of the first trees growing in many areas upon the land of our planet. The close relation -and primordial ancestry- make them more akin to one another than many other types of trees.

The kenning for this letter speaks of the “loudest of groaning.” John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets this as meaning “misery.”

Robert Ellison in Ogham: Secret Language of the Druids says that this letter represents being “far seeing and knowing the future.” Ellison uses the Silver Fir to represent Ailm in the Robert Graves tradition. Ellison also calls the Fir the “oldest in the forest.”

Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks lists a number of important attributes for the Fir tree. Within her divination system Ailm represents nobility, judgement, investment and patience. The general theme seems to be wisdom and clarity.

The Trunk:

The conifers -being the trees of the ancient forest- do seem to reach out to us in the form of the Cailleach, the hag or crone aspect of the goddess that speaks to us from the times immemorial. These trees, the Pine, Spruce or Fir, are strong and green even in the midst of winter and were in fact some of the very first trees to climb out of the oceans[vi].

Contrary to what I had said in the previous Fir and Pine post, this tree does make several appearances in Celtic myth and folklore. It is usually associated with fairies or giants.

In the 1917 book Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Mackenzie we are told of two fairies that live in the Fir woods. Interestingly, both of these fairies are described as being “fairy exiles.” The Ghillie Dhu is described as the “dark servant.” The second fairy is simply called “the dummy” and lives beneath a cairn in a Fir wood. Despite being exiles, both of these fairies are friendly and helpful.

In the 1881 book Notes on Folklore of the North-East of Scotland by Walter Gregor we are told of a botched fairy raid. The fairies had intended on stealing a smith’s wife but were “sained” and disaster was avoided. The family found an image of the smith’s wife that was left behind by the fairies. This image had been made from Fir wood and was left behind when the fairies fled.

In Celtic folklore the lines between the fairies and the dead often becomes very blurred[vii]. In the 1914 book True Irish Ghost Stories by John Seymour and Harry Neligan we find an interesting, though only peripherally related, reference to Fir:

“A gentleman […] often received warnings from his dead father of things that were about to happen. Besides the farm on which he lived, he had another some miles away which adjoined a large demesne. Once in a great storm a fir-tree was blown down in the demesne, and fell into his field. The wood ranger came to him and told him he might as well cut up the tree, and take it away. Accordingly one day he set out for this purpose, taking with him two men and a cart. He got into the fields by a stile, while his men went on to a gate. As he approached a gap between two fields he saw, standing in it, his father as plainly as he ever saw him in life, and beckoning him back warningly. Unable to understand this, he still advanced, whereupon his father looked very angry, and his gestures became imperious. This induced him to turn away, so he sent his men home, and left the tree uncut. He subsequently discovered that a plot had been laid by the wood ranger, who coveted his farm, and who hoped to have him dispossessed by accusing him of stealing the tree.”

(Hollyburn Fir, BC. The tree is 43 metres in height and believed to be 1100 years old[viii])

In the 1892 book Celtic Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs we are given a much more poetic image of the Fir. It should be noted, however, that the type of tree stated here does change from one recount of this myth to another. It is not always Fir:

“The king ordered the body to be raised from out the grave and to be buried on the other side of the loch. It was done as the king bade, and the pit closed. Thereupon a fir shoot grew out of the grave of Deirdre and a fir shoot from the grave of Naois, and the two shoots united in a knot above the loch. The king ordered the shoots to be cut down, and this was done twice, until, at the third time, the wife whom the king had married caused him to stop, this work of evil and his vengeance on the remains of the dead.”

Fir is also often associated with giants. In the same text as above, Finn carves a staff out of Fir for his journey home to see his wife. His wife then tricks a rival giant into not wanting to fight Finn.

In the 1773 book Scottish Fairy and Folktales by Sir George Douglas a giant magician takes on the form of a Fir tree standing on a road.

Also found within Celtic Fairy Tales, a “king’s son” needs to climb a Fir tree described as “the greatest tree in the wood” in order to steal 5 magpie eggs for the meal of a certain giant. He needs to do this in order to win the giant’s daughter as his bride. Unfortunately, the tree is 500 feet tall and as smooth as glass. The giant’s daughter tells the king’s son to kill her and use her bones as a ladder so that he can climb the tree:

“Now you must kill me, strip the flesh from my bones, take all those bones apart, and use them as steps for climbing the tree. When you are climbing the tree, they will stick to the glass as if they had grown out of it; but when you are coming down, and have put your foot on each one, they will drop into your hand when you touch them. Be sure and stand on each bone, leave none untouched; if you do, it will stay behind. Put all my flesh into this clean cloth by the side of the spring at the roots of the tree. When you come to the earth, arrange my bones together, put the flesh over them, sprinkle it with water from the spring, and I shall be alive before you. But don’t forget a bone of me on the tree.”

Of course the king’s son forgets one of the daughter’s fingers in the tree. This results in her having only nine fingers. This later becomes an advantage, however, when he has to choose her out of three identical sisters!

The Foliage:

In the 1881 book Notes on Folklore of the North-East of Scotland by Walter Gregor we find a ritual where Fir is used to protect an infant from the fairies:

“On the birth of the child, the mother and offspring were ‘sained’, a ceremony which was done in the following manner: A fir-candle was lighted and carried three times round the bed, if it was in a position to allow of this being done, and, if this could not be done, it was whirled three times round their heads; a Bible and bread and cheese, or a Bible and a biscuit, were placed under the pillow, and the words were repeated, ” May the Almichty debar a’ ill fae this umman, an be aboot ir, an bliss ir an ir bairn.” When the biscuit or the bread and cheese had served their purpose, they were distributed among the unmarried friends and acquaintances, to be placed under their pillows to evoke dreams.”

This is immediately followed by:

“Among some of the fishing population a fir-candle or a basket containing bread and cheese was placed on the bed to keep the fairies at a distance.”

This “fir candle” is elsewhere described in the text as being made from thin strips of bog fir “one to two and a half or three feet long.” This candle was fixed in a type of candle stick called a peer man. This peer man could be of various forms but a common one is described in the text. The stone is round and a three foot piece of wood is placed in it. On top of the piece of wood is a piece of iron on which the Fir candle would be fixed “with the flame towards the door[ix].”

 

“Said Father Winter: ‘If Beira scolds you, give her these flowers[x], and if she asks where you found them, tell her that they came from the green rustling fir-woods. Tell her also that the cress is springing up on the banks of streams, and that the new grass has begun to shoot up in the fields.’ Having spoken thus, Father Winter bade the princess farewell and turned away.”  – Donald MacKenzie (Wonder Tales of Scottish Myth and Legend. 1917)


[i] The White Goddess.

[ii] http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/INFD-6UEJ3L

[iii] Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. The Book of Leinster was written even earlier around 1160.

[iv] Firefly Encyclopedia of Trees.

[v] Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, says that Fir and Pine seem interchangeable within the Ogham tract text, most especially the Irish word gius which seems to apply to them both. Her statement seems to support my belief that this was and still is the same tree.

[vi] For more on the Cailleach please refer to the previous Fir and Pine post at https://livinglibraryblog.com/?p=208

[vii] Katherine Briggs. The Fairies in Folklore and Tradition.

[viii] http://www.canada.com/business/Discover+Hollyburn+Canada+ancient+natural+wonder/7013925/story.html

[ix] The meaning of this last phrase does not appear any clearer within the book. The text does say that the iron was “cleft,” however. Perhaps the author meant that the Fir candle was placed at a 90 degree angle and would have been burned horizontally?

[x] These are earlier identified as snowdrops within the text.

Muin (Grape Vine) II

“It was a very big place and very grand, and a long table set out, but I didn’t want to stop there and I began crying to go home. And she touched me here in the breast with her stick, she was vexed to see me wanting to go away. They never brought me away since. Grand food they’d offer me and wine, but I never would touch it, and sometimes I’d have to give the breast to a child.” – Mrs. Sheridan as told to Lady Gregory (Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, 1920)

The Roots:

The eleventh letter of the tree-Ogham is Muin, the Grape vine.

As previously established, the Grape was likely a later addition to the Ogham. The Grape vine does not grow naturally in Ireland and is difficult to cultivate. Muin also does not mean Grape or Vine literally.  Most Ogham users now equate Muin to the Grape vine, however.

Robert Ellison states in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids that “the vine” was a general description for the letter. He does equate the letter to the Grape and to wine, however. Ellison believes that Muin represents “prophecy and inhibitions; or the lack of them.”

John Mathews interprets Muin’s word-Ogham within the Celtic Shaman. He equates the phrase “strongest of efforts” to simply being “effort.”

Caitlin Mathews’ divination system Ogham Wisdom Sticks leaves much more for us to interpret. Within her system, however, the common thread of meaning seems to be ‘a lessening of a load’ or burden. This interpretation is likely also taken from the word-Oghams[i].

The Grape does not appear very often within Celtic myth or legend. Wine, which was brought to the Isles by the Romans, on the other hand has a place. It does appear occasionally.

Muin is the first letter found within the tree-Ogham that is not a tree at all.

The Trunk:

Wine has a strong connection to the Otherworld and to the Tuatha De Danaan directly. Wine, in Celtic myth, is also related to things that fly, such as birds or insects. In the time of the Celts, wine would have also demonstrated wealth and status as it was imported.

In Cuchulain of Muirthemne, by Lady Gregory, we are told that Cuchulain was given a “gold cup full of wine.” The inside of the cup had a “bird of precious stones” at the bottom. The wine here is listed as a part of the gift, illustrating its worth.

Within the same text, we learn that Cuchulain’s mother, Dechtire, had the course of her life altered when she drank a cup of wine.

One day the god Lugh turned himself into a mayfly and landed in Dechtire’s cup of wine. Unaware, she drank the wine and fell into a very deep sleep.  This all turned out to be part of Lugh’s plan to steal her. Dechtire and her 50 handmaidens were then turned into a flock of birds and ordered to follow Lugh. When Dechtire is finally recovered, after a year’s period of time, she has a small boy with her. This turns out to be the great hero Cuchulain, son of Lugh.

There’s a likelihood it was the fly that impregnated Dechtire, due to the similarities between this tale and another Irish story. In Gods and Fighting Men, also by Lady Gregory, it is Etain who is turned into a fly by her husband’s other wife:

“And she turned her with Druid spells into a fly, and then she sent a blast of wind into the house, that swept her away through the window […] and for seven years Etain was blown to and fro through Ireland in great misery. And at last she came to the house of Etar, of Inver Cechmaine, where there was a feast going on, and she fell from a beam of the roof into the golden cup that was beside Etar’s wife. And Etar’s wife drank her down with the wine, and at the end of nine months she was born again as Etar’s daughter.”

There is a magical horn found within the same book. The horn is part of a dowry given by the Tuatha De Danaan to three brothers who wanted to join them. The horn was a gift from “a young man of the Tuatha De Danaan[ii].” The item has the power to turn salt water into wine.

Found within the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz are two more incidents in which water is turned into wine; suggesting more than a passing theme.

(Last Supper by Pascal Adolphe Dagnan-Bouveret’s)

As the Tuatha De Danaan eventually became the fairies of folklore many things changed. Some things, however,  remained the same. The fairies were said to value wine, for instance.

The Cluricaune found within Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland is one such example[iii]. He is a fairy-spirit similar to, or synonymous with, the leprechaun. The Claircaune is a spirit that likes to play tricks. He also likes to raid cellars and steals wine.

Similar stories concerning fairies stealing wine are found elsewhere. One such example can be found within Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland which is also by Lady Gregory. It is here that we also find an example regarding the offering of wine to the fairies:

“There was a room at Crags where things used to be thrown about, and everyone could hear the noises there. They had a right to clear it out and settle it the way they’d like it. You should do that in your own big house. Set a little room for them —with spring water in it always—and wine you might leave—no, not flowers—they wouldn’t want so much as that—but just what would show your good will.” – Mr. Saggerton as told to Lady Gregory.

Although wine is also used to describe things that are both sweet and beautiful it can have a darker side. There is an interesting story, for example, pertaining to Cuchulain in Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by T.W. Rolleston:

“Then he bade farewell to his mother Dectera, and she gave him a goblet of wine to drink, but ere he could drink it the wine turned to blood, and he flung it away, saying, ” My life’s end is near ; this time I shall not return alive from the battle.” And Dectera and Cathbad besought him to await the coming of Conall of the Victories, who was away on a journey, but he would not.”

Within the Celtic stories it would seem that water can become wine, and wine can become blood. Water has often been described over the ages as being the life giving blood carrying arteries of the Earth.

Perhaps there is a connection there as well.

The Foliage:

The most famous use of wine in ritual occurs within the rite of the Eucharist, or Communion. This ritual is performed within many branches of Christianity. It consists of kneeling before a priest and receiving small portions of wine and bread. The ritual honours the mortality of Jesus Christ; the ancestor who was also a god.

Within the rite of Communion, wine becomes representative of the blood of the Christ. Bread, or a cracker, will be used to represent his body. The ritual is usually observed as a form of worship or to receive a blessing from a priest. The rite of Communion uses these symbolic stand-ins instead of actual blood or flesh taken from his dead body. In this way the ritual can continue to be performed indefinitely; even without an actual body.

Blood-drinking and flesh eating were not uncommon practices amongst various pagan peoples[iv]. This drinking the blood of the dead was a practice that may seem strange to us, but that actually existed amongst the Celts. It was a way for them to honour the dead.

The following occurs in a song composed by ‘ Nic Coiseam ‘ to her fosterson, ‘Mac Iain ‘ic Sheumais,’ the famous warrior-poet of the Macdonalds, after the battle of Carnish in iCOl – The blood of thy fragrant body was soaked through thy linen. I myself was sucking it until my breath became hoarse. I stanched thy wounds, and they all too numerous, and I drank thy red blood, more sweet to me than wine.”  – Alexander Carmicheal (Carmina Gadelica vol.  II)

Wine can be used in ritual[v], or left as an offering.

 

“It is now easy to understand why a savage should desire to partake of the flesh of an animal or man whom he regards as divine. By eating the body of the god he shares in the god’s attributes and powers. And when the god is a corn-god, the corn is his proper body; when he is a vine-god, the juice of the grape is his blood; and so by eating the bread and drinking the wine the worshipper partakes of the real body and blood of his god. Thus the drinking of wine in the rites of a vine-god like Dionysus is not an act of revelry, it is a solemn sacrament.”– Sir James Fraser  (the Golden Bough)



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

[ii] Lugh?

[iii] Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825.

[iv] James Fraser. The Golden Bough.

[v] Also found within the Carmina Gadelica is a reference to wine that may be of interest in the context of ritual. The text states that water is feminine and wine is masculine; that moonlight is feminine and sunlight is masculine. What could this symbolise in a ‘water to wine’ context?

Quert (Apple) II

“Manannan, king of the Land of Promise, gives Cormac a magical, sleep-inducing silver branch with three golden apples and, before long, Cormac travels to the otherworld where he discovers a marvellous fountain containing salmon, hazelnuts, and the waters of knowledge.”  – Erynn Rowan Laurie and Timothy White (Speckled Snake, Brother of Birch; Amanita Muscaria Motifs in Celtic Legend)

The Roots:

The Apple tree, or Quert, is the tenth letter of the Ogham in its tree form.

According to Robert Ellison’s Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids, the Apple represents both the Otherworld and choice. In spells, Ellison elaborates, the Apple can be used for love, fertility, divination and faerie contact.

The Apple is often associated with “madness” as well[i]. Caitlin Mathews expresses this connection in a quatrain found within Celtic Wisdom Sticks. Some of the divination interpretations found within her system also seem to relate the Apple to harmony.

John Mathews studies some of the word-Oghams within his work the Celtic Shaman. The statement “shelter of the hind” is here given the meaning of “caring” as a solution to the word-Ogham riddle.

The Apple is one of the only symbols found within the Tree-Ogham that carries a universally acknowledged magic. All over the world humans have associated the Apple with properties and attributions that went beyond those of most other plants.

The Christian religion almost always portrays the fruit of knowledge, and sin, as an Apple. In other cultures the Apple is associated with love, beauty, the gods, and of the Otherworld itself[ii].

Celtic myth and legend also complies. The Apple is often associated with otherworldly love, travel to the Otherworld, music, birds, wealth, and of divinity itself[iii].

Quert, the Apple, is also representative of peace and harmony.

The Trunk:

The Apple is almost always a symbol of the Otherworld in Celtic mythology.

In fact the Apple seems to act as a doorway to the other side. Sometimes it is the fruit of the tree itself, at other times the key appears to be a single branch, often silver, from the Apple tree.

The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz contains many such examples:

“To enter the Otherworld before the appointed hour marked by death, a passport was often necessary, and this was usually a silver branch of the sacred apple-tree bearing blossoms, or fruit, which the queen of the Land of the Ever-Living and Ever-Young gives to those mortals whom she wishes for as companions; though sometimes, as we shall see, it was a single apple without its branch.”

“For us there are no episodes more important, than those in the ancient epics concerning these apple-tree talismans, because in them we find a certain key which unlocks the secret of that world from which such talismans are brought, and proves it to be the same sort of a place as the Otherworld of the Greeks and Romans.”

The Otherworld is a paradise-place of peace and happiness. It can be described as a place where the men are bold and the women beautiful; where the food is plenty and the villains scarce. The Otherworld is found described within Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory as such:

“To be without grief, without sorrow, without death, without any sickness, without weakness; that is the sign of Emhain; it is not common wonder that is.”

In most of the stories this paradise is ruled over by, or connected to, Manannan Mac Lir. Despite being a “god of the sea[iv],” Manannan can more easily be compared to father-type gods such as Odin or Zuess.

(Adam and Eve by Albrecht Durer. 1507)

The paradise of the Celts was more likely, in their minds, to be on the horizon of the sea than high up in the air[v]. There are many examples of this found within the lore. The following excerpt, for example, is taken from Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by T.W. Rolleston:

“When the white horse with its riders reached the sea it ran lightly over the waves, and soon the green woods and headlands of Erin faded out of sight. And now the sun shone fiercely down, and the riders passed into a golden haze in which Oisln lost all knowledge of where he was or if sea or dry land were beneath his horse’s hoofs… they saw a young maid ride by on a brown steed, bearing a golden apple in her hand.

These two examples, on the other hand, are taken from the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries:

“The branch sprang from Bran’s hand into the hand of the woman, nor was there strength in Bran’s hand to hold the branch. The next day, with the fairy spell upon him, Bran begins the voyage towards the setting sun. On the ocean he meets Manannan riding in his magic chariot over the sea-waves; and the king tells Bran that he is returning to Ireland after long ages.” 

“Finally, at a feast, the warrior-messenger sings Cormac to sleep; and when Cormac awakes he sees beside him his wife and children, who had preceded him thither to the Land of Promise. The warrior-messenger who took them all is none other than the great god Manannan Mac Lir of the Tuatha De Danann.”

The Apple tree was clearly cherished by the Celtic ancestors.  Whether it was the fruit that was eaten, or the branch that was shaken to make music, the Apple clearly had universally recognized powers within the Celtic tales. What exactly were those powers however?

One could say, perhaps, that we know that the wand belonging to Manannan Mac Lir was made from the Apple tree[vi]. We also know the Apple in these stories, with or without Manannan, had the ability to bring the traveller to Emhain or the land of the departed.

This land of the dead, in a symbolic sense, mirrors the death of the ego found in Zen Buddhism. It is this same ‘death of the self’ that many spiritual practitioners would call enlightenment.

Maybe then the word-Ogham by Morann Mac Main found in the Ogham Tract might begin to make a little more sense? This is what he said while describing the Apple tree[vii]:

“Shelter of a hind, i.e., a fold: to wit, lunatic, that is death sense, it is then his sense comes to him when he goes to his death.”

Perhaps this why the Apple was considered sacred in law and lore alongside certain other trees? Perhaps the Apple represented, or was an aid in achieving, enlightenment? This could only be possible if one could say that the Celtic form of enlightenment was to accept death, release sorrow, and experience peace. Then this connection seems more than feasible.

Certainly the Apple imagery would have found its way into ritual and folklore if this was the case.

There is no way to know with certainty. As always, we can only speculate. This is not an exercise in futility, however. Reflecting on anything often helps us understanding it better.

The Foliage:

The following is taken from Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde:

“It is said by time-wise women and fairy doctors that the roots of the elder tree, and the roots of an apple tree that bears red apples, if boiled together and drunk fasting, will expel any evil living thing or evil spirit that may have taken up its abode in the body of a man.”

There is also some interesting Apple magic found within Charles Godfrey Leland’s 1891 study Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling. According to the text, one way to determine love is to slice an Apple in half with a sharp knife. If no seeds are cut then the wielder of the knife shall have their “heart’s desire” fulfilled. In one version a girl then eats half of the Apple before midnight and half of it after midnight. She will then dream of her future husband.

 

“Although few contemporary herbalists consider the apple to be an herb, it has a venerable tradition as a healing agent. So much of what the ancient herbalists believed about the therapeutic powers of this delectable fruit has been scientifically supported that its time to let the apple resume its respected place on the herbal roster.”  – Michael Castleman (the New Healin



[i] This “madness” is often prophetic or Otherworldly in itself.

[ii] J.C. Cooper. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols.

[iii] Such as the relationship found between the Apple and Manannan the sea god.

[iv] Mac Lir means “son of the sea.”

[v] There are many Celtic stories, such as those of the Tuatha De Danaan, where the Otherworld may just as likely be underground, beneath the surface of the Earth. These sites, though not always, are often water entryways as well. These lands are usually not as peaceful.

[vi] What might it mean that the branch is usually described as silver or almost white?

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

* All images found within this post are from wikipedia commons.