Fearn (Alder) II

“Alder is one of the most sacred primal woods. Its wood is associated with the British divinity Bran the Blessed, who goes down into the Underworld and becomes the oracular
mouthpiece of the ancestors.”
 – Caitlin Mathews (Celtic Wisdom Sticks: an Ogam Oracle)

The Roots:

The third letter of the Ogham is Fearn the Alder tree.

The Ogham tract word-associations[i] state that the Alder is the “shield of warrior-bands” and “guardian of milk.” John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets these poetic reflections as being references to “defence.”

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids calls the Alder the “Battle Witch.” He states that the Alder is associated with guidance (through its connection with
Bran the Blessed), protection and oracular powers.

Caitlin Mathews calls the Alder the “protection of warriors” in her book Celtic Wisdom Sticks.  She also associates the tree heavily with the concept of action.

Fearn, the Alder, is strongly associated with Bran the Blessed. The tree is often used for protection and divination purposes. There are many suggestive references in Celtic mythology that the warrior class[ii] had an especially sacred bond to the water loving tree.

The Trunk:

“The alder trees, the head of the line, formed the van. The willows and quicken trees came late to the army.”  – The Battle of the Trees[iii]

In a later short text, also confusingly called the Battle of the Trees, we are given more information involving the above epic battle than is found in the original version. Amaethon has stolen from Arawn – a ruler of the Underworld – a white deer and dog(sometimes also a lapwing[iv]) which results in an epic otherworldly battle. Amaethon enlists the aid of his brother, the great god of the Welsh druids, Gwydion along with Lleu. This appears to be a wise decision as Gwydion summons an army of trees to fight the hideous creatures of the Underworld.

There is one warrior amongst the ranks of Arawn who cannot be defeated, however, unless his name is properly guessed by his opponents. Gwydion [v], noting that this mighty warrior bears “sprigs” of Alder upon his shield, is able to guess the strangers name correctly.

“Sure-hoofed is my steed impelled by the spur; the high sprigs of alder are on thy shield; Brân art thou called, of the glittering branches!

“Sure-hoofed is my steed in the day of battle: The high sprigs of alder are on thy hand: Brân . . . by the branch thou bearest has Amaethon the Good prevailed!”

Thus Amaethon and Gwydion are able to prevail over Arawn and Bran securing the use of deer and dogs for men. This battle has been compared to other versions of gods versus titans found in various world religions including the Tuatha De Danaan vs. the Famorians found in Irish myth and the Aesir vs. the Vanir found in Norse Myth[vi].

In one of the riddles of Taliesin it is asked “why is the Alder purple?” The answer to this question is then given as “because Bran wore purple[vii].” It should be noted that there may be a deeper riddle here, as Alder can hardly be described as being a purple tree. There are clues, however, to the possible deeper use of Alder in magic when one considers the tree itself. “Male catkins give a purple tinge to the crowns (of the Alder tree) in January and open dull yellow-brown from February to April[viii].”

The mythology of Bran is very well known. He is sometimes described as a giant. He was capable of wading across the waters between modern day England and Ireland when his sister was dishonoured by her husband, an Irish king. In the ensuing battle that followed, the outnumbered Welsh were able to hold their own through the use of the Cauldron of Rebirth. This magical item brought the dead back to life. The cunning instigator of the whole battle put himself, while still alive, into the cauldron destroying the artefact and himself in the process. Although the Welsh eventually win the battle, Bran is wounded by a poisoned spear (some say he is the first version of the Fisher King) and most of his men are killed[ix]. He subsequently orders these remaining men to cut off his head and to bring him home (or his head at least). Back in Wales, the head hosts a great feast in an underground banquet hall for seven years where he sings and divines the future. This ends when one of the men opens the door to the outside world. Bran’s head finally dies.

Bran’s head was then buried at the White Hill, which he had requested, where the later Tower of London was erected. It was said that Bran would protect the land forever from foreign invaders as long as his head remained undisturbed. It is said that Arthur once dug up the head, resulting in the invasion of what would later become England[x].

(Gundestrupkarret. Photo by Malene Thyssen)

Jacqueline Memory Paterson in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook says that the Alder and the Willow are the “king and queen” of the water. This is an interesting statement because the Alder is also said to have a relationship with the Rowan tree, which is the other tree found beside it in the Tree Ogham.

In Lady Wilde’s 1887 collection of Irish folklore titled Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland we are told that a branch of Alder over a crib will protect a baby boy from being abducted by fairies. A branch of Rowan will protect a baby girl from the same predicament. According to Wilde this was probably due to the “ancient superstition that the first man was created from an Alder tree and the first woman from the mountain ash (Rowan)[xi].” Elsewhere in the text the Alder is also described as “possessing strange mysterious properties and powers to avert evil.”

There is one more mention of Alder in Celtic mythology, though somewhat peripheral, that is worth sharing. Although Alder may play only a small role (or does it?) the tale is also mentions the Ogham in an interesting context.

Lady Gregory’s 1904 Gods and Fighting Men was hailed by W.B. Yeats as being “the best (book) that had come out of Ireland” during his lifetime. In her retelling of the third and first cycles of the mythical histories of Ireland we are left with one of the most mysterious passages – in my opinion- regarding the Ogham and the secrets of the lost knowledge to be found anywhere. The character of greatest interest is a “fool” named Lomna who is also an initiate of the secrets of the Ogham.

“FINN took a wife one time of the Luigne of Midhe. And at the same time there was in his household one Lomna, a fool. Finn now went into Tethra, hunting with the Fianna, but Lomna stopped at the house. And after a while he saw Coirpre, a man of the Luigne, go in secretly to where Finn’s wife was.

And when the woman knew he had seen that, she begged and prayed of Lomna to hide it from Finn. And Lomna agreed to that, but it preyed on him to have a hand in doing treachery on Finn. And after a while he took a four-square rod and wrote an Ogham on it, and these were the words he wrote:

‘An Alder snake in a paling of silver; deadly nightshade in a bunch of cresses; a husband of a lewd woman; a fool among the well-taught Fianna; heather on bare Ualann of Luigne.’

Finn saw the message, and there was anger on hint against the woman; and she knew well it was from Lomna he had heard the story, and she sent a message to Coirpre bidding him to come and kill the fool. So Coirpre came and struck his head off, and brought it away with him.

And when Finn came back in the evening he saw the body, and it without a head. ‘Let us know whose body is this,’ said the Fianna. And then Finn did the divination of rhymes, and it is what he said: ‘It is the body of Lomna; it is not by a wild boar he was killed; it is not by a fall he was killed; it is not in his bed he died, it is by his enemies he died; it is not a secret to the Luigne the way he died. And let out the hounds now on their track,’ he said.

So they let out the hounds, and put them on the track of Coirpre, and Finn followed them, and they came to a house, and Coirpre in it, and three times nine of his men, and he cooking fish on a spit; and Lomna’s head was on a spike beside the fire.

And the first of the fish that was cooked Coirpre divided between his men, but he put no bit into the mouth of the head. And then he made a second division in the same way. Now that was against the law of the Fianna, and the head spoke, and it said: ‘A speckled white-bellied salmon that grows from a small fish under the sea; you have shared a share that is not right; the Fianna will avenge it upon you, Coirpre.’ ‘Put the head outside,’ said Coirpre, ‘for that is an evil word for us.’ Then the head said from outside: ‘It is in many pieces you will be; it is great fires will be lighted by Finn in Luigne.’

And as it said that, Finn came in, and he made an end of Coirpre, and of his men.”

Here we find another talking oracular head, like that of Bran, which continues to exist after death. What strikes me as most interesting about this tale is that only druids and those of great power were able to make the Ogham markings and read the messages or warnings left on them. Yet Lomna is clearly labelled a fool. The mystic fool, however, is a theme that is universal. One only has to look as far as the Tarot to discover the truth of this statement.

At no point does Lomna “play” the fool in this story. Finn on the other hand not only seems to have a hard time choosing faithful wives, he also needs to use divination to determine how a corpse with its head severed off and missing was killed. Perhaps it is Finn who is playing the fool?

There is more to this story than initially meets the eye.

The Foliage:

The following magical suggestions regarding the use of Alder in ritual are found in Jacqueline Memroy Paterson’s Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook:

“The appearance of Alder’s purple buds in earliest spring show that the tree is powerful from Imbolc to the Spring Equinox. At this time, as the strength of the sun is visibly growing, meditation with Alder places our feet firmly upon the earth, where we can discern the coming season of light and make wise preparation…

“Because of its associations with water Alder is also powerful in the west of the year, particularly from the Autumn Equinox to Samhain. Then it can be used along with other divinatory herbs in incense and decorations. Specific divination with Alder at this time, especially when looking forward to the new Celtic year which begins after Samhain, pronounces its oracular ‘sacred head’ qualities, allowing us contact with the singing head of Bran to obtain divine specifics for the coming season of darkness. Thus the Alder provides far sight throughout the year.”

Alder can also be used as a stand-in for any protective herb found within any spell. For those following a warrior’s path, the potential magical expressions offered by this “Battle Witch” are intriguing, to say the least.

Our ancestor Celts were passionate people.

 “Though looking to the future and not folklore as such, it is worth mentioning that Alder is interacting with humanity in another way by helping us in today’s climate of environmental destruction and restoration. The nitrogen-fixing nodules on the alder’s roots improve soil fertility and so make this tree ideal for reclaiming degraded soils and industrial wastelands such as slag heaps.” Paul Kendall (Trees for Life: Mythology and Folklore of Alder)[xii]

[ii] For a discussion on the Celtic warrior and how he or she relates to contemporary society see the previous post on Alder: http://livinglibraryblog.com/?p=42

[v] Ibid.

[vi] http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/t08.html
see the notes at the end of the document found here.

[vii] Ellison.

[viii] Collins pocket Guide: Trees of Britain and Northern Europe.

[ix] Taliesin is present and survives.

[x] Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology and the Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology.

[xi] This was likely a bastardization of the introduced religion of the settled Norse invaders to Ireland (Dublin) and the subsequent exchange and intermarrying of cultures that followed. In the Poetic Edda the first man and woman are Ask and Embla (Ash and Elm).

Fearn (Alder)

“The path of knowledge is a forced one. In order to learn we must be spurred. On the path of knowledge we are always fighting something, avoiding something, prepared for something; and that something is always inexplicable, greater, and more powerful than us.” – Carlos Castanada (A Separate Reality)

The Roots:

The third letter before us is fearn, the alder tree[i].

Fearn is the tree of the selfless servant. The alder has strong links to both the warrior and the hunter of the tribe. In the Book of Ballymote, alder’s wood was said to be used for the creation of life protecting shields. According to Pennick, the wood from the alder tree was also valued for sword making, produced the best charcoal for metal smelting and “in later times was prized for gunpowder production”.

Fearn is a water tree and resists rot. It was a foundation wood for the original dwellings and was used for piers and had many other important constructive purposes. The alder also produced dyes from its bark, flowers and twigs. These were red, brown, and green accordingly.

Portions of the alder tree are edible. Fearn also has healing properties, for us, and for the forest itself.

Besides being the warrior, Fearn is also the great magician, the alchemist, and the shamanic healer. Alder represents many aspects of action and movement.

The Trunk:

All of us have walked a warrior’s path at one time or another throughout our lives even if it has been for but a moment. We accept challenge or are put into positions where we have no other choice but to stretch and grow. All of us have had moments in our lives, where we have had to overcome our fears and have had to push ourselves beyond our imagined boundaries, accomplishing the previously unimaginable.

War, hunting and magic were three of the great themes of the Celtic ancestors. The stories of Arthur, Bran, Taliesin, and of the gods and goddesses themselves reflect these values richly as do tales of historic heroes such as the great Queen Boudicca, who for a time was a threat to Rome itself.

Life was simpler then… and harder too. A clan, tribe, or village would grow, raise, and kill its own food. The people gave thanks to the spirits for they knew what it was like to be without when the game was scarce. Hunting was often a necessary sustenance that supplemented their food stores. These were tough times where lives were sometimes lost in pursuit of game, and parties that went out in search of food would sometimes never be seen again.

Lands also needed to be defended and territory disputes were often settled with violence. Food needed to be protected from marauding raiders and there were dark beings who were said to come from time to time in search for blood. In small communities everyone would know how to fight, because if the cause for battle came each person was expected to do his or her part.

Times are much more complicated now. Many imagine that the need for the warrior and the hunter have both vanished sometime between the industrial revolution and yesterday. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We are specialists now. Grocers and accountants are rarely called to arms. Soldiers go to war instead and police protect our cities. These warriors walk a more traditional path than many others do in today’s society. There are other types of warriors though, than just the classical archetypes.

Gandhi was a warrior as was Martin Luther King. So are environmental activists, prison guards and conservation officers. So it is that even the warrior in this day and age has become specialized and has many different types of wars to fight.

In his book Wiccan Warrior Kerr Cuhulain makes many astute observations about the modern path of the warrior. The author, a wiccan police officer and martial artist, quotes classical texts of war that state that the warrior only acts in response to aggression and is a man of peace (Musashi) or that he who victors without fighting is the greatest warrior of all (Sun Tzu).

In her Ogham section on alder, Erynn Rowan Laurie also includes as warriors workers at women’s shelters and fire fighters as those on the path. She expresses the importance of the modern warrior in our society and speaks to the warrior in all of us.

On her podcast Elemental Castings (# 37-a discussion panel on women and the changing face of paganism) T. Thorn Coyle expresses the “problems and pitfalls” of committing exclusively to nonviolence or in training and preparing exclusively for violence on the path of the warrior. She suggests that both paths offer lessons and learning’s that should be “brought to the table and shared”. Margaret Adler, author of Drawing Down the Moon, brings forth a very clear observation that I believe goes to the core of our sometimes squeamish relationship with the warrior. She questions, “When does the warrior with non violence disintegrate into non action and when does the warrior with violence go into abusive power over another?”  She then goes on to suggest that there is a part of both of these extremes that can co-exist together and, “be part of the same battle for survival”.

I myself have walked the path of the warrior in a sometimes hostile world. I have tried to find a balance in my life by honouring the warrior spirit that exists within me. I served in the Canadian infantry in Afghanistan but I was also very open about my disapproval of Canada going to war in Iraq (even participating in a peace march). I have arrested hundreds of people in my civilian job and have had multiple weapons and sometimes syringes pulled on me and have had to react with violence and hurt people – which has often left me feeling sick to my stomach even if I did not hesitate to react in the moment.  I have had the ability, and the capacity, to be able to protect more vulnerable people than me in other situations too though. Every situation that life brings me is different and offers me something new to reflect upon and to learn from. I want a world of peace but I do not see how that world in the foreseeable future can exist without people who are walking upon the warrior’s path protecting the more vulnerable[ii]. As long as there are those that prey on the weak I will find employment in one field or another if I should choose to do so. I will just have to remember to ask myself every day if I have stepped into a place of “abusive power over another” for I must be careful not to become consumed with intentions that deviate from the ultimate goal of love and peace for my brother and sister.

As we evolve-and become more and more specialized- violence in our society seems to generally decrease over time within our cities and societies. This trend comes alongside education and modern means of accountability showing us that there is another way.

A fading warrior of a different type is the hunter. She or he is a provider. Instead of manning the walls against the hail of enemy spears, they are protecting the collective from the woes of hunger and starvation.

This role too has become specialized as has that of the farmer, the herder, and the gatherer.  We step out now onto a narrow pathway of stone that leads us directly to a market. We buy hamburgers and not a portion of a cow, potatoes and not the life giving roots of a plant, and a loaf of bread but not the heads of the grain plants mixed with life giving water, yeast, and which has been thrust before the element of fire in preparation.

While it is true that the role of the hunter may have become more diminished during this era as well, perhaps there has never been a greater time for giving thanks for our plentiful hunt than there is today. The hunter in the days of our ancestors always gave thanks to the spirit of his prey, as did the farmer to the plants that he gathered during the harvest. This is so very important today.

It is said that two million people will die of starvation this year on our planet. That we should live with so much should not diminish our need for giving thanks. These people in a state of vulnerability are the poorest, most uneducated people, living in some of the least fertile places on our planet.

If we really want to be honest with ourselves, our fortunes and misfortunes too are braided in the past and with the spirit of the warrior. For many of us have so much today only because our ancestors had stronger, more ruthless, and better equipped armies.

Perhaps in time we will remember once more how to be thankful for what we have as a society, and set out once more upon the warrior’s path as we attempt to make right so many wrongs of today and yesterday.

The Foliage:

One who is capable of delivering wounds should also be able to heal. The alder provides many healing tools to us as humans and not just instruments of war.

According to the British Columbia Nature Guide, “The ancient Romans treated tumours with alder leaves, which modern scientists have since learned contain the tumour suppressing compounds betulin and lupeol.”

According to separate source, Plants of Coastal British Columbia, BC natives used a solution made from the bark of alder to fight tuberclerosis. The guide claims that this tonic has been credited with saving many lives. The author’s also go on to state that the alder “was also used as a wash for skin infections, wounds, and is known to have strong antibiotic properties”.

Alders are short lived but they appear quickly in areas of destruction after devastating forest fires and heavy logging. They appear as if by magic, in a group, and together they heal the very land.

Science is still trying to understand the mechanisms leading to nodulation in plants. There are certain plants, like the alder, that have a symbiotic relationship to an organism that lives in small bubble like formations, called nodules, within their roots. The organism, frankia alni, takes nitrogen from the air and converts it into a form that is useful for plants in the soil. In turn the alder provides these species with carbon harvested through its own photosynthesis. All plants need nitrogen, so the alder’s relationship is a benefit to the whole forest and not just to itself by being a part of this chemical transformation. In this way the soil becomes more nutritious for the whole forest than it was before.

Most “nitrogen fixers” are members of the legume family (symbiosis with Rhizobia bacterium) but Actinorhizal plants like the alder and a few other species also have this ability, although it is extremely rare.

And so it could be quite accurately said that fearn heals the very earth itself.

Alder is the great warrior, the mover, the motivator, the provider and the healer. Fearn provides for the collective in many ways. The tree then could also be seen as a role model for the perfect neighbour.

There is much to learn from this tree.

“The Otherworld communicated its messages still, yet these were cast into the immediate language and symbolism of everyday life. There was no shortage of communication between the worlds, just a shortage of experienced decoders.” Caitlin and John Mathews (the Western Way)

[i] Most scholars and practitioners list the Ogham order of the first group of five, the aicme, as B, L, F, S, and N. This is the way it appears in the Book of Ballymote and as it was apparently given by the seventeenth century Irish bard  Roderick O’Flaherty in his book Ogygia. My first introduction to the Ogham was in this order and it is what I subscribe to today.

Ogham scholar R.A. Macalister once put forth the theory that the original Ogham order was in fact B,L,N, F, and S. This was to support his theory that the Ogham could be linked to a Greek alphabet. Robert Graves subscribes to this theory as does John Michael Greer. This would mean that the third letter would be ash instead of alder, the fourth would be alder instead of willow, and the third would be willow instead of ash. Many have disputed this claim. I do not think that this theory is right or wrong. It is simply important to be aware that the same characters can sometimes be listed in a different order.

[ii] During the previous week I touched upon my occasional disapproval of new agers who believe that they are making the world a better place by ignoring particular problems. I believe in many ways that they are as much contributors to the problems on our planet, enablers, as those who prey on the weak and vulnerable in the first place. While the alder seems to support this personal outlook in many ways next week’s tree, the willow, may seem to agree more closely to the philosophy of the new ager.

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