The Owl in Celtic lore is a creature of shadows and the Otherworld. It’s rarely mentioned in myth, legend, or folklore, but when it is it’s usually spoken of in hushed whispers – accompanied by a warning.
In Lady Charlotte Guest’s 1877 translation of the 12th Century Mabinogion, the Owl’s origins are described in detail. Within the story of Math Son of Mathonwy, the god-like figure Gwydion decides that he must find a bride for his nephew Lleu. The curse upon Lleu, however, is that he cannot ever take on a human wife. To help Lleu out, Math and Gwydion create a woman for him out of flowers. They name her Blodeuedd which is said to mean “Flower Face.” Unfortunately, the new bride betrays Lleu and attempts to have him killed by her new love interest. The assassination attempt fails, however, and the lover is eventually killed. Gwydion then places a curse upon Blodeuedd:
“And they were all drowned except Blodeuwedd herself, and her Gwydion overtook. And he said unto her, ‘I will not slay thee, but I will do unto thee worse than that. For I will turn thee into a bird; and because of the shame thou hast done unto Llew Llaw Gyffes, thou shalt never show thy face in the light of day henceforth; and that through fear of all the other birds. For it shall be their nature to attack thee, and to chase thee from wheresoever they may find thee. And thou shalt not lose thy name, but shalt be always called Blodeuwedd.’ Now Blodeuwedd is an owl in the language of this present time, and for this reason is the owl hateful unto all birds. And even now the owl is called Blodeuwedd.”
In another tale[i], the poet Taliesin asks an Owl about her origins. “She swears by St. David” that she’s the daughter of the Lord of Mona, and that Gwydion son of Don transformed her into an Owl.
There’s a final Owl tale in the Mabinogion–in the story of How Culhwch Won Olwen. While searching for the missing Mabon[ii], some of Arthur’s men are forced to seek out the five oldest living animals and inquire as to his whereabouts. When they eventually do meet the Owl, they discover the bird does not know of the Mabon’s location either. The Owl knows of an animal even older than itself, however, and propels the seekers further along their journey.
In Celtic Symbols, by Saibne Heinz, we’re told of the Sheela na gig, which are “figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva[iii].” The Sheela na gig are most often 12th-century gargoyle-like sculptures found upon churches. Saibne Heinz claims that[iv], “Some people suspect a resemblance to Owls.”
The Owl is also sometimes believed to represent the Cailleach, the primordial Celtic hag goddess. Philip Carr Gomm, in the Druid Animal Oracle, makes the following statement:
“Because the Owl is sacred to the Goddess in her crone-aspect, one of its many Gaelic names is Cauilleach-oidhche (Crone of the Night). The barn Owl is Cauilleach-oidhche gheal, “white old woman of the night.” The Cailleach is the goddess of death, and the owl’s call was often sensed as an omen that someone would die.”
The Celtic Owl is almost always female. In one Welsh tale, for example (also found in Celtic Symbols), an Eagle searches for a wife. After finally determining that the 700-year-old[v] Owl came from a good family, he hastily marries her.
In Padraic Colum’s King of Ireland’s Son, published in 1916, the Owl is in servitude of evil. The King of Ireland’s Son is led to a cabin by an unusual white Owl. The bird communicates with him by flapping her wings three times. The King of Ireland’s Son soon discovers the Owl is in service of the Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands’ daughter, who just happens to be a shapeshifting swan.
In the notes section of the Mabinogion we’re told the Owl is sometimes seen as the bird of Gwyn ab Nudd, the King of the Faerie. In the 1917 Wonder Tales of Scottish Myth by Donald MacKenzie, we learn of another fairy, a “fairy exile,” called “The Little Old Man” or “The Little Old Man of the Barn.” This wizened looking spirit-being is described as wearing a single white Owl feather in his cap.
In the 1913 Book of Folk-Lore, by Saibne Baring-Gould, we stumble upon a Celtic ghost story, which speaks of the Owl:
“My great-great-grandmother after departing this life was rather a trouble in the place. She appeared principally to drive back depredators on the orchard or the corn-ricks. So seven parsons were summoned to lay her ghost. They met under an oak-tree that still thrives. But one of them was drunk and forgot the proper words, and all they could do was to ban her into the form of a white owl. The owl used to sway like a pendulum in front of Lew House every night till, in an evil hour, my brother shot her. Since then she had not been seen.”
In the 1914 True Irish Ghost Stories by St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan, we find another reference to an Owl spirit:
“A death-warning in the shape of a white Owl follows the Westropp family. The last appeared, it is said, before a death in 1909, but as Mr. T.J. Westropp remarks, it would be more convincing if it appeared at places where the white Owl does not nest and fly out every night.”
The belief that the Owl’s an evil omen is not necessarily tied to just one family, however. In the 1825 Fairy Legends and Traditions of South Ireland, by Thomas Croker, we’re told that seeing “the corpse-bird,” or screech Owl, always foretold of a death. The author compares these sightings to those of the “corpse-lights” which were also said to be seen around the time of death. In the 1881 British Goblins by Wirt Sikes, we’re also told that a Screech Owl’s cry near a sickbed foreshadowed a death:
“This corpse-bird may properly be associated with the superstition regarding the screech-owl, whose cry near a sick bed inevitably portends death.”
Sometimes, the Owl warns of misfortune short of death. In the 1900 Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmicheal, for example, it’s said that hearing the “screech” of the Owl meant that the whole year “would not go well.”
Up until the 1950s, Owls were nailed to barn doors as a ward against evil. Strangely enough, it was a common belief that to fight evil one had to sometimes use evil against itself. In this case, the Owl was believed to be a ward against storms, thunder, and lightning[vii].
So it can be summarized that the Owl of the Celts – being a bird associated with twilight – appears white in many of the old texts. It’s is almost always female, as well. The beautiful and Otherworldly Blodeuwedd, for example, was turned into an Owl as punishment for the attempted murder of her husband. Other stories speak of the great age of the Owl, or fear her as a messenger of death. Philip Carr Gomm points out that there’s a direct link between the Cailleach, the Celtic hag goddess, and the Owl, as well.
Could it be a coincidence then, that the only story of the Owl being young and beautiful is the oldest story of them all? Perhaps it is. Then again, perhaps it is not.
[i] As told in the notes section of the Mabinogion.
[ii] The Mabon is described as the divine Celtic youth. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom. Caitlin and John Mathews.
The Celtic Wolf is a complex and Otherworldly creature. Wolves, it would seem, have always had varied personalities as diverse as their human counterparts. Where one shapeshifting wolf could be seen as evil, for example, the next might very well turn towards a travelling priest and begin to preach the gospel.
Lady Guest’s 1877 classic, theMabinogion, was an English translation of some of the 11th century surviving Welsh tales. Not only do we find some of the earliest known stories of Arthur within the text, but we’re also able to observe a few of the first Celtic wolf stories ever recorded. Incidentally, they’re all about shapeshifters.
In the first story, the king’s nephews Gilvaethwy and Gwydion are being punished for having raped one of the king’s virgin handmaidens. Upon receiving their sentence, the two boys are struck by the king with his wooden rod, which in turn changes them into a proud stag and a beautiful hind. Over the next year the pair breed with one another and they knew one another (to use an under appreciated biblical term). Following this first year of exile, the king then strikes the two beasts with his rod once more. This time, however, they’re turned into a boar and a sow. The mating couple returns once more following another year of high-octane pleasure. Finally, the king converts them into a male and female wolf. The wolf pair then mates for another full year. Following this third year of transformation, the two men are finally forgiven and restored to their human forms. With the original rape now being restituted, Gwydion is free to transform into the god-like figure he would become later in the tale[i].
The two boys aren’t the only shapeshifters found in the Mabinogion either. The poet Taliesin brags:
“I have fled as a wolf cub. I have fled as a wolf in the wilderness.”
The Mabinogion has another wolf curse within its pages, as well. In this story, there’s a princess who’s been transformed into a wolf for “her sins.” While living as a wolf the princess has two wolf cubs. It is Arthur who restores them to human form.
In Winifred Faraday’s 1904 translation of the 12th century Tain we find an Irish story involving the wolf. In this tale, the goddess Morigan curses Cuchulain. She says to him:
“I will drive cattle on the ford to you, in the form of a grey she-wolf.”
Later, she makes good of this promise and does just that.
In Sir George Douglas’ 1773 book Scottish Fairy Tales, we begin to see some Aesop-like stories emerging in the lands of the Celts. Within the stories are several talking animals of the forest. Here, the fox is usually tricking the wolf in some way. The fox is generally seen as clever and conniving, while the wolf is portrayed as strong and thick-headed.
In the 1884 book Fairy Mythology of Various Countries by Thomas Keightly, we find a Breton tale that speaks of the werewolf:
“No one who became a wolf could resume his human form, unless he could recover the clothes which he put off previous to undergoing the transformation.”
In Lady Wilde’s 1887 classic Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland we find one of my favorite werewolf stories of all time. In it, a young farmer named Conner is out searching for some missing cows when he stumbles upon a cabin of sorts. It’s dark out, and Conner has lost his way. The host who greets him at the door invites him inside. The family then begins to return home one after the other:
Before Connor could answer another knock was heard, and in came a second wolf, who passed on to the inner room like the first, and soon after, another dark, handsome youth came out and sat down to supper with them, glaring at Connor with his keen eyes, but said no word.
“These are our sons,” said the old man, “tell them what you want, and what brought you here amongst us, for we live alone and don’t care to have spies and strangers coming to our place.”
Then Connor told his story, how he had lost his two fine cows, and had searched all day and found no trace of them; and he knew nothing of the place he was in, nor of the kindly gentleman who asked him to supper but if they just told him where to findhis cows lie would thank them, and make the best of his way home at once.
Then they all laughed and looked at each other, and the old hag looked more frightful than ever when she showed her long, sharp teeth.
On this, Connor grew angry, for he was hot tempered; and he grasped his blackthorn stick firmly in his hand and stood up, and bade them open the door for him; for he would go his way, since they would give no heed and only mocked him.
Then the eldest of the young men stood up. “Wait,” he said, “we are fierce and evil, but we never forget a kindness. Do you remember, one day down in the glen you found a poor little wolf in great agony and like to die, because a sharp thorn had pierced his side? And you gently extracted the thorn and gave him a drink, and went your way leaving him in peace and rest?”
“Aye, well do I remember it,” said Connor, “and how the poor little beast licked my hand in gratitude.”
“Well,” said the young man, “I am that wolf, and I shall help you if I can, but stay with us to-night and have no fear.”
So they sat down again to supper and feasted merrily, and then all fell fast asleep, and Connor knew nothing more till he awoke in the morning and found himself by a large hay-rick in his own field.
A wolf then brings Conner some new cows. Surprised, he realizes that it’s the same wolf which had said it would help him in the cabin. As a result, Conner sees himself as a friend to the wolves for the rest of his life.
Elsewhere in the book, a poet exorcises an evil king as the moon rises into the dark night’s sky. When the spirit is cast out of the king, it becomes a large dead wolf[ii].
There are two important passages regarding the wolf in J. F. Campbell’s 1890 encyclopedias Popular Tales of the West Highlands. In volume 1 it is stated that:
“Men learn courage from the lion and the wolf.”
In volume 4 of Popular Tales of the West Highlands we are told of a goblin that appears to some shipwrecked sailors as a pig, a wolf, an old woman, and a ball of fire.
Of course, it’s always nice to see some feral carnivorous creature dancing around upon its hind legs. We receive such a treat in Joseph Jacob’s 1892 work Celtic Fairy Tales. Within these tales we also learn of a prince Llewelyn, who as a baby killed a wolf assassin with his deadly baby fists (in some stories killed by his dog Gelert).
In his next book More Celtic Fairy Tales, published in 1894, Jacobs tells us of a woman who strikes her husband repetitively with a wooden stick. Every time he’s struck he transforms into a different animal. This list includes the wolf.
In the 1906 Book of Saints and Wonders by Lady Gregory we even find a saintly wolf. A priest is wandering through the forest. A wolf asks if she can be blessed and make a confession. After the priest complies, the Irish wolf issues forth the following revelation:
“It was through the sin of the people of this country Almighty God was displeasedwith them and sent that race to bring them into bondage, and so they must be until theGall themselves will be encumbered with sin. And at that time the people of Ireland will have power to put on them the same wretchedness for their sins.”
In the year 1911, J. F. Campbell and G. Henderson collaborated on a book called the Celtic Dragon Myth. In it, a wolf tells a herder that if he ever becomes “hard pressed” that he should think of him. The herder does so, later shapeshifting into a wolf. He does this three times in order to fight a ram, a giant, and a dragon. The wolf defeats all three.
In Thomas Rolleston’s Myth and Legends of the Celtic Race – from the same year – we’re told that a full-grown adult wolf was buried inside of a man’s back wound. There, the wolf was found “up to it’s shoulders” inside the flesh. It was a good thing that they found him too. The wounded man had merely felt a pain in his back and had decided to have someone check it out for him.
There is an especially interesting section on wolves in George Henderson’s Survival in Belief Amongst Celts, which was also published in 1911:
The Soul in Wolf-form: The existence of this belief in animal parentage is seen from the Leabhar Breathnach. Here we read: “The descendants of the wolf are in Ossory (Osriage). There are certain people in Ossory; they pass into the form of wolves whenever they please, and kill cattle according to the custom of wolves, and they quit their own bodies; when they go forth in the wolf-forms they charge their friends not to remove their bodies, for if they are moved they will not be able to come again into them (their bodies); and if they are wounded while abroad, the same wounds will be on their bodies in their houses; and the raw flesh devoured while abroad will be in their teeth.”
This belief was current in the days of Fynes Moryson, who mentions the report that in Upper Ossory and Ormond men are yearly turned into wolves. And long before then Gerald, the Welshman, had heard a story of two wolves who had been a man and woman of the Ossorians. They were transformed into wolves every seven years through a curse imposed by St. Naal or Natalis, abbot of Kilmanagh, Kilkenny, in the sixth century. They were banished to Meath, where they met a priest in a wood, shortly ere Earl John came to Ireland in the days of Henry II. They retained the use of language and were fabled with having foretold the invasion of the foreigner. The Latin legend declares the substance of what the wolf said to the priest: “A certain sept of the men of Ossory are we; every seventh year through the curse of St. Natalis the Abbot, we two, man and woman, are compelled to leave our shape and our bounds.” Then having been divested of human form, animal form is assumed. Having completed their seven years, should they survive so long, if two other Ossorians be substituted instead of these, the former return to their pristine form and fatherland.
In personal and tribal names the wolf meets us, e.g. Cinel Loairn, whence modern Lome in Argyll, after which is named the marquisate in the ducal family, from Gadhelic Loam, wolf. In Ireland it is told of Laignech Faelad that he was the man “that used to shift into wolf-shapes. He and his offspring after him used to go whenever they pleased, into the shapes of the wolves, and, after the custom of wolves, kill the herds. Wherefore he was called Laignech Fdelad, for he was the first of them to go into a wolf- shape.”
The Celtic god Dis Pater, from whom, according to Caesar’s account, the Gauls were descended, is represented as clad in wolf-skin, and holding a vessel, also a mallet with a long shaft, which, Monsieur Reinach thinks, recalls the image of the Etruscan Charon. “A low-relief at Sarrebourg, in Lorraine,” says this eminent authority, “proves that one of the epithets of this Gaulish god was Sucellus, signifying ‘one who strikes well.’ The wolf skin leads to the presumption that the god was originally a wolf, roving and ravaging during the night time. This god has been identified with the Latin Silvanus, the woodman or forester who gave chase to the wolves — of old a wolf himself. On this view, which M. Reinach favours, at least a section of the Gauls had a national legend identical with that of the Romans: like Romulus they were the children of the wolf, and M. Reinach suggests that perhaps it was on this account that the Arverni called themselves brethren of the Latins. If so, we have a close parallel to Gadhelic tradition.
Spenser says that “some of the Irish doe use to make the wolf their gossip;” and Camden adds that they term them” Chari Christi, praying for them, and wishing them well, and having contracted this intimacy, professed to have no fear from their four-footed allies.” Fynes Moryson expressly mentions the popular dislike to killing wolves. Aubrey adds that “in Ireland they value the fang-tooth of an wolfe, which they set in silver and gold as we doe ye Coralls.”
At Claddagh there is a local saint, Mac Dara, whose real name according to folk-belief was Sinach, ‘a fox,’ a probably non- Aryan name. The Irish onchii, ‘leopard,’ also ‘standard,’ whence G. onnchon, ‘standard,’ from French onceau, once, ‘a species of jaguar,’ seems preserved in Wester Ross with the change of n to r, as or chu, written odhar chu, in the sense of wolf: the howl of the creature thus named inspired the natives of old with a fear and awe which had their origin in days when the wolf prowled of evenings among the flocks.
Another interesting mention of the wolf is also found in the text:
“A Breton tale tells of a giant’s life as being in an egg, in a dove, in a horse, in a wolf, which lives in a coffer at the bottom of the sea.”
In the 1932 book Shetland Traditional Lore by Jessie Saxby we learn of the Wulver. The Wulver was basically a wolf headed man who lived by fishing the lakes of the Shetland Islands. The Wulver would sometimes leave fish on the window sills of poor people’s homes. The beast was both friendly and charitable, unless it was provoked.
Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica – published in 1900 – leaves us with a couple of interesting spells regarding the wolf. The first of these concerns several other creatures as well:
The people repaired to the fields, glens, and corries to eat their quarter cakes. When eating them, they threw a piece over each shoulder alternately, saying: “Here to thee, wolf, spare my sheep; there to thee, fox, spare my lambs; here to thee, eagle, spare my goats; there to thee, raven, spare my kids; here to thee, marten, spare my fowls; there to thee, harrier,spare my chickens.”
Finally, we come upon “the Spell of Mary” which was used as protection against a very long list of impeding dooms, evils, mishaps and sorceries. Protection against the wolf is listed alongside many of the other more traditional forms of evil. Within this long list of worldly and otherworldly perils, a person also needed the protection:
Against incantations, against withering glance, Against inimical power. Against the teeth of wolf. Against the testicles of wolf[iii].
Dare we even ask? I guess, with the number of people running around in the form of a wolf in those days, one could never be too careful. If we’ve learned anything from Gilvaethwy and Gwydion it is this: wolves have needs too.
Eurasian wolf by Gunnar Ries Amphibol. 2009
[i] Celtic stories are often metaphoric. There’s a widespread belief that the original transcribers were sometimes recording knowledge that could only be fully understood by “a poet.”
[ii] Interestingly, when the king was possessed by the evil spirit he gorged himself on apples.
“The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephen’s Day was killed in the furze; Although he be little his honour is great, so, good people, give us a treat.” – Peter Ellis (the Druids)[i]
The seventeenth letter of the Ogham is Ohn, which is usually listed as the Gorse. According to Robert Graves, some lists use Scotch Broom instead[ii].
Gorse is also known as Sea Gorse, Furz, Furze, Furse or Whin. It is a close relative to the Broom plant belonging to the same tribe Genisteae, with the main differing quality being its sharp thorns or spikes. In Cad Goddeu –the Battle of the Trees- Broom even seems to become the parent of the Gorse -within the poem- when the story says that, “The Brooms with their offspring [arrived?]: the Furz was not well behaved, until he was tamed…” Interestingly, though unrelated, the “Gorse” is also said to be great in battle elsewhere in the same poem[iii].
James Frazer, in the Golden Bough, says that in folk rituals the Furz and the Broom were often interchangeable. This may be why some of the Ogham lists use Broom instead of Gorse. It may also be why Robert Graves left Broom out of his Ogham list as the plant for Ngetal[iv] and instead replaced it with the Reed Grass. Perhaps he thought that the Broom and Gorse were too similar to one another to each have a letter in the Ogham? Another possibility that I have mentioned before is that he may have chosen this placement more to support his tree calendar theory than for any other historical or mythological significance.
Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle said that Gorse represented the collecting together of various objects for ones journey. They compared the Gorse to the magpie, which is a highly intelligent bird believed to collect shiny objects for its nest.
John Michael Greer agrees saying that Ohn is the few of attracting, of combination, possibility, growth and potential[v].
Nigel Pennick also believes similarly that Ohn is the letter of continuous fertility, collecting and dispersal[vi].
Robert Graves reminds us that Furz is one of the very first flowers to be visited by bees collecting nectar and pollen in the spring. It is a plant, he claims, that is also good to use against witches[vii].
Eryn Rowan Laurie says that Gorse is the plant for foundations and the journey. Ohn is also related to ones path, choices, direction and intention. The energy of the Broom plant, on the other hand, is of healing and of wounding[viii].
The Broom is listed in the Ogham tract as associated to healing and physicians. The Gorse is associated to the wheel of the chariot, and by extension to travelling[ix].
Both the Broom and the Gorse have strong connections to witches and to the fairies. The Gorse in particular has a connection with the Cailleach, the great hag Goddess who is sometimes named the Queen of the Fairies.
Ohn is the few of journeys and of the preparation for the mission at hand. The Gorse speaks of darker tools and attitudes needed to succeed upon the path, while the Broom reminds us that we must be ready to heal and create if we are called upon to do so.
According to James Frazer in the Golden Bough, “old straw, furz or broom was burned in Scotland for Beltane fires “a little after sunset.” Broom was also burned to repel witches.
The connection of Gorse, or Furz, and Broom to witches, fairies and protection seems to radiate throughout many myths. It is never entirely clear however if the plants are beneficial or harmful. Perhaps they are both.
The Golden Bough tells us that Gorse was burned as a sort of smudge to bless and protect the cattle from witches on the Isle of Mann.
In the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, 1911, we are told that Furz fires were sometimes built as a gift to the fairies to keep them warm. The book also says that any gifts of gold given to a person by the fairy may turn to Furz blossoms if that person told another of the source of their newfound wealth.That was if their telling didn’t outright kill them! Eryn Rowan Laurie also speaks of the gold found beneath the Gorse.
The same text gives us a story from the Isle of Mann. There was apparently a “strange woman” who was seen to have materialized within the Gorse bush and walked over it, “where no person could walk”, and touched one of the cows that belonged to the witness. A few days later the heifer fell over dead. Witches and fairies seemed to have always been after the cows in those days, as well as the milk and butter that they produced, as this was the wealth of the Celtic ancestors. It seems to have been a common belief that witches and fairies coveted this wealth.
In the Fairy legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825, we are also told of an apparition that growled like “burning Gorse.”
The Broom plant seems to be a little lighter.
The most famous story involving Broom was previously covered when we discussed Duir, the Oak, and that is the story of Blodeuwedd, “flower face.” She was created by Gwydion and Math to be the wife of Lleu who had a curse placed on him, by his mother, to wed no mortal woman. This story is found in the Mabinogion. The plants used to create Blodeuwedd are listed as the flowers of Oak, meadowsweet and Broom. She was created from vegetation and was thus not mortal and a suitable wife for Lleu. In this highly symbolic and charged tale Blodeuwedd ends up betraying Lleu with Gronw Pebyr, a passing hunter. Gronw is eventually killed and Blodeuwedd is made into the owl, a bird which is hated by all, by Gwydion to punish her.
(E. Wallcousins. From Celtic Myth and Legend. Charles Squire, 1905)
While the Broom’s most famous story is one of creating a beautiful woman the Gorse’s most relevant tale seems to speak of old age, death and destruction.
A most interesting story is told of the Cailleach in the Carmina Gadelica that relates to the Gorse. The Cailleach, the great hag, is often seen as the goddess of winter. In the first week of April she would use her magic wand to keep the vegetation from growing by swinging it back and forth over the struggling signs of new growth. Eventually, she would be overpowered by the elements of spring. She would eventually admit defeat and fly off in a rage screaming:
“It escaped me below, it escaped me above,
It escaped me between my two hands,
It escaped me before, it escaped me behind,
It escaped me between my two eyes,
It escaped me down, it escaped me up,
It escaped me between my two ears,
It escaped me thither, it escaped me hither,
It escaped me between my two feet.
I throw my druidic evil wand
Into the base of a withered hard Whin bush,
Where shall not grow ‘fionn’ nor ‘fionnidh,’
But fragments of grassy froinnidh.”
This chant extracted from Visions of the Cailleach by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine gives the reason why other plants do not grow beneath the Gorse[x]. It is also a clue as to the harnessing of the powers of winter, to witches to come, through the use of a wand of Gorse.
Whether the Gorse or Broom is seen as either positive or negative, it is clear that these plants are flora of a once highly respected magical tradition.
The Broom seems to offer wealth, healing, and manifestation.
The Gorse or Furz seems to offer wealth, destruction, and protection from manifestation.
Both plants could have been seen as powerful allies, upon the road that one was to journey upon.
When one considers that the Gorse and the Broom both grew, and continue to grow, out in the open and needed to be tamed -by our ancestors- then the parallels between the two plants becomes apparent. Both plants were often burnt back by shepherds and farmers to preserve the land from being overwhelmed. Gorse on the one hand had spiky thorns while the Broom was softer but just as prolific.
In the Ogham Tract[xi] the trees and plants of the Ogham are listed according to their rank. Some trees are seen as chieftain trees, some are seen as peasant trees and some are seen as shrub trees. Interestingly enough, the Furz is listed as a chieftain tree but -as Whin- is listed again as a peasant tree[xii]. It is also assumed that Broom is listed as a shrub tree in this particular order by its absence. Under Brehon law[xiii], however, both the Broom and the Furz are given the lowest rank of “bramble” trees.
The listing of Gorse as a chieftain plant during these earlier times probably had a great deal to do with the respect that was given to it. There seems to be a common theme in the tree and plant mythology of the Celtic ancestors and that was that the thorn plants –Hawthorn, Blackthorn, and Blackberry- were protected by the fairies and thus were sacred, feared, or both.
According to Eryn Rowan Laurie the Gorse was used in some parts of Ireland instead of the Hawthorn as the May bush. This could have only been possible if the Gorse was a greatly respected plant of the times, for it to have been used in this way.
Unrecognized and powerful, like the ivy plant, the Gorse and Broom are considered in many places to be invasive and aggressive plants that threaten the native growth of local flora. Today these weeds have sought out the attention of millions of dollars in a bid to remain acknowledged and recognized.
Perhaps, this is merely a coincidence.
“Our outer world is progressively diminished and corrupted by abuse of technology, greed and indifference to the welfare of other orders of life, and romantic adventurers often complain that there is nothing left to explore, no liberating challenge or experience. But liberation comes from within, both within ourselves and within the Underworld that is the original source and image for our planet.” –R.J. Stewart(Earth Light, 1992)
[i] Another version of this old Irish song is found in the Golden Bough by James Frazer.
[ii] The White Goddess.
[iii] D.W. Nash translation. Ibid.
[iv] Ngetal is the thirteenth letter of the Ogham.
[v] The Druid Magic Handbook.
[vi] Magical Alphabets.
[vii] The White Goddess.
[viii] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.
[x] A similar tale found in the same book has the Cailleach throwing a black hammer instead of a wand, and having it land beneath the Holly tree instead of the Gorse. Again, this is the reason given for the scant vegetation found beneath the Holly.
[xii] Robert Graves believed that this was a mistake and should have been Holly instead.
“All ancient cultures, whether they prayed to one god or many, acknowledged trees as being able to elevate the human consciousness to higher forms of perception, and to receive messages from the higher planes (or the deeper Self), hence the worldwide abundance of traditions of tree oracles and sanctuaries… Some divine messengers, such as birds, might have wings but most have leaves. And the leaves of the Tree of Knowledge are the letters of the old sacred alphabets, which early humans plucked from the tree, and which gave them writing to enable them to preserve the word.” – Fred Hageneder (the Meaning of Trees)
Coll, the hazel, is universally seen as the tree of wisdom and is usually associated with the salmon.
Jacqueline Memory Paterson calls hazel “the Celtic Tree of Knowledge” as well as “the Tree of Immortality” and “the Poet’s Tree.”
As well as being linked to the salmon many writers relate the hazel to the crane. This includes Robert Graves, Eryn Rowan Laurie and Nigel Pennick. The crane of course is often seen as the bringer of knowledge, or wisdom, and has strong ties to the Ogham[i].
Robert Graves in the White Goddess also states that Coll is linked to arts and the sciences.
The Celts believed that the hazel had the power to give wisdom, inspiration or knowledge and the tree is associated with many deities. The Mabon was found beneath the hazel tree by Arthur’s men in some tellings of the story that is found in the Mabinogion[ii], and Aengus the Celtic love god carried a hazel wand. Gwydion had a special use for Coll in the Battle of the Trees[iii]and one of the earliest kings of Ireland was named Mac Coll, which means the ‘son of the hazel’. Hazel is also associated to Fionn mac Cumhail and the goddess Sinend.
Coll’s number is nine, and as Pennick points out this would have likely been the most auspicious of numbers to the Celts as it is comprised of three threes.
The hazel, or Coll, is also usually associated with beauty and the hazelnut is sometimes referred to as “the food of the gods”.[iv]
Hazel has a darker side however, for when she is cut she will secrete a poisonous milk to repel her enemies[v]. In the old stories she can also be dangerous, for those that willingly seek out inspiration or “knowledge” are just as likely to find death instead.
Before the Holy Grail there was a sacred Cauldron of Inspiration. Before the Cauldron of Inspiration there was a holy well of knowledge that existed in the Otherworld.[vi] This was where the magical hazel with the purple leaves grew, both flowering and providing nuts at the same time.
The search for knowledge or wisdom is both the modern, and ancient, versions of the search for the Holy Grail.
The quest for magical items and powers is commonly found throughout the myths of the Celts. There are otherworldly women, horses and dogs that give the hero that is attached to them special powers or insights. There are weapons, cauldrons and even foods that are sought out in the great adventures of old. There are bones that always produce soup, fairies that serve their masters, and all too often there are missing friends or loved ones that have rendered the hero or a close friend incomplete in their absence.
The most interesting tales of all are those that pertain to the search for wisdom, which in Celtic lore is poetic inspiration, or what is sometimes referred to as “all knowledge”. Those that gain these insights are bold and powerful and become able to manifest marvels even greater than that of the mightiest druids of the times.
Unlike other hero quests this search is for something insubstantial that cannot be held in the palm of ones hand or savoured upon the tongue. It is the one item that most clearly does not exist in one realm or the other but in-between the worlds themselves. Perhaps for that reason it is the one treasure that is prized above all others.
There are two types of tales in this regard and the hazel is the key to understanding them both. The first of these stories are the tales of the seekers.
The goddess Sinend is said to have traveled to the Well of Knowledge, or Connla’s Well, beneath the sea in search of wisdom. At this well were the hazels of inspiration that in the same hour sprang forth flowers, nuts and leaves which fell into the water and fed the salmon. Sinend followed the stream until she reached “the Pool of the Modest Women” at which time the well moved further away from her. Sinend tried to pursue the well but was overcome by the water’s strength. She was then forced back to the land of Ireland. In the process Sinend was killed by the water that overcame her. Thus the river Shannon came to be. A similar story tells of the death of the goddess Boand, who was viewing and making light of a similar well and was killed in the process. The river Boyne was born from her actions.
The goddess Ceridwen sought wisdom from the Cauldron of Knowledge for her ugly son, but lost it forever to the boy who would later become Taliesin. Finneces, a druid of Ireland, waited seven years for the Salmon of Fec, who carried wisdom, to be his. He too was deprived of the wisdom that he sought.
The second set of stories pertains to those that have actually found the gift of wisdom such as Fionn mac Cumhail or Taliesin.
The druid Finnegas had waited for seven years for the salmon of wisdom, for it had been foretold that he would eat its flesh and thus gain poetic knowledge. Fionn mac Camhail went to the old druid to learn poetry from him and was present when the fish was found. Bringing Finnegas the cooked salmon Fionn confessed that after burning his fingers on the fish, he had put them into his mouth. It had been foretold that whoever tasted one portion of the fish had to eat it all, so Finnegas sat the boy down and made him eat the meal in its entirety. The old druid had realized that the prophecy had spoken not of him, but of the young Fionn who would gain wisdom from eating the salmon. This misunderstanding of the prophecy had to do with the similarity of their names.
Across the water a similar series of events would play out in what is now England. Gwion Bach was stirring the cauldron of the hag Ceridwen when three drops of the potion splashed onto his fingers. He put the fingers into his mouth and immediately gained many forms of power and knowledge. One of the things that Gwion realized right away was that Ceridwen was going to kill him for gaining the knowledge in place of her son. He fled and changed into a hare while Ceridwen pursued him fiercely in the form of a hound having already discovered the slight. He then leapt into the water and became a fish while Ceridwen came behind him in the form of a female otter. Gwion then leapt far into the sky and became a bird in flight but still Ceridwen came, this time in the form of a hawk. Finally he dived into a pile of grain and became a single kernel. Ceridwen, in the form of a hen, found him and gobbled him up. Nine months later Ceridwen gave birth to Taliesin. She put him into a leather bag and threw him out to sea. He was eventually found in a salmon weir by the unlucky Elphin who would never be considered unlucky again. Taliesin would serve him well as the greatest of bards and bring him wealth in many forms.
The story of Taliesin was very likely more similar to Fionn’s story in times of antiquity but the parallels are still obvious. The cauldron has replaced the sacred well but still contains wisdom which comes in the form of accidental droplets upon the hand. The salmon symbolism is strong in the Taliesin story as well.
There are some key elements of these stories to consider. First of all, no one who seeks wisdom seems to find it. Second of all, those who do find it do so accidentally.
I also find it interesting that those who go directly to the source find only death. Those who seek the same wisdom indirectly, be eating the salmon – which is cooked even- from the pool, instead of directly from the well seem to fair a little better. Even so, the initial transfer is that of just a few drops onto the hand of a young boy that gives the recipient the poetic knowledge. Fionn mac Cumhail would become Ireland’s version of Arthur leading the Fianna on many adventures. Taliesin, likewise, was often referred to as the greatest of bards and plays very prominently in Celtic legend.
We have discussed symbolism before, most especially when we explored the Oak. In the myths of the Celts the symbols are not placed randomly. Everything once had many meanings and connotations, even if the story had been reshaped and lost over time and in the retelling or putting down to paper. Thus, it should not surprise us when a meal of a single kernel of grain becomes a child, or if that child is later fished out of a salmon weir in May, -as many stories suggest- when the salmon do not run. The stories take place in the Otherworld and we can only hope to understand their deeper meanings by reflection and meditation.
I find the story of Sinend to hold half veiled parables as well. The Well of Wisdom evaded her and it seemed to have done so because of her inability to pass the Pool of Modest Women. Modesty, of course, is the character trait of the “reserved” or of those who are humble. The story suggests that the very act of searching for the Well of Wisdom itself prevents one from finding it.
In the stories of the Celts poetic wisdom is found by doing menial tasks and by the young of heart. It is also never gained directly. This “all knowledge”, or inspiration, is found only when it is not sought out. When these conditions are met, wisdom is gained. If the conditions are not met the quest will end in naught.
Searching for knowledge can be difficult in this day and age. While everything is as easy as a Google search and only a mouse click away the information is endless. There is so much material to sift through that the process can quickly become overwhelming.
The first Celtic spiritual book that I was drawn to was the Tree Oracle by Liz and Colin Murray back in 1988. The seed was planted. I hungered to learn more on a subject that seemed so unobtainable in my small Canadian prairie town.
Five years later in 1993 a friend gave me a copy of a book on “Druidry.” Suffice it to say now, that was the beginning of a difficult and painful detour along the pathway of my spiritual development. I found books by other “Celtic” authors and read many others that seemed to add to my knowledge base and give me understanding. Unfortunately, I would now consider the authors of these books misinformed at their best, and fraudulent at their worst.
By the time I discovered that certain books were published just to make money it was too late. A few years had been spent memorizing material from authors that seemed to me-in the pre Internet days-to be legitimate. It was only after I met a fellow on a similar, though more advanced, path that I started to realize that there were people who would make money off of the ignorant in the name of spirituality, religion or historical mythology. Thanks to my friend Jaysun’s [viii] mentoring at the time, I was able to find more legitimate authors and sources of information and the path of my life seemed to open up before me.
I spent a year studying the bardic grade of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids-through their distance learning- and I worked through some of Caitlin and John Mathews books, most notably Singing the Soul Back Home. Along the way I learned the basics of Zen, how to run energy, meditate, and became more aware of the power of intention.
No matter where my path took me I always carried the Ogham with me, however, either physically or in my heart.
It was a hard road as far as finding legitimate information but over the years I have learned to choose what I read carefully.
When I pick up an unknown author I first look to see if the book contains an index. Unless it is a well laid out coffee table book, the lack of an index is painful and I usually determine that it is not worth using as a basis for research[ix]. I also look to see who the author is and what they have written. Are they an academic? Are they an “expert of the week” covering a different religion every month like some sort of tourist with little depth or understanding? What else have they written? What do their most flattering peers say about them within the book or on the back cover? Who are those peers? What do their critics say?
I also look at the reference pages. Unless the author can translate old Irish they had better be listing the academics or the writers whose research they are using. Unfortunatly I automatically assume that if the author is referencing a “mainstream flashy” book they are likely quoting faulty knowledge- at least when it comes to anything Celtic[x]. A book, like a tree, needs healthy roots to grow.
Then I usually go onto Amazon and read what other readers have to say about the book, especially if it is by an author that is unknown to me. There are likely a lot of people who have read the book before me. What do they have to say? I have found in life that like-minded people will be drawn to the same sorts of materials and will often have a lot of insight that can also help me make up my mind.
I will take my time choosing what book I will buy because I want to know its strengths and weaknesses before I read it. I want to know that I am going to gain something from the text and that it will advance my knowledge in some way and not be the source of cloudiness or misinformation.
When I do read the book, I will then try to approach it with the innocence of a child, while still letting my inner sceptic look over my shoulder. Writers are just human after all, and some of the books that were written even fifteen years ago are using information that is no longer current.
Just imagine though, if you can, a time when an author would actually go to a museum and pour over old documents for hours every day, and only being allowed to do so after years of education. Imagine doing this for a lifetime before being able to write a book on the subject that anyone would take seriously. Not only did these original older authors give us a foundation to stand upon and to begin the conversations on things such as the Ogham, they made things available to us– with the Internet especially- thatwould have never been accessible to even the most well connected researcher 100 years ago.
I can use the Internet to download any text that’s considered public domain before 1926 for free. I can visit museum websites, run programs to translate for me (if I were that savvy), and find recommendations from websites and various scholars as to where I need to go to seek out information next. Never has the uninitiated in history had access to so much powerful information. How much of what I read can be trusted however?
I like Robert Graves for his knowledge of mythology, for example. His view on analeptic memory is interesting and worth much reflection. However, his assumptions were based on other assumptions that were still based on other assumptions, which were often lacking in fact at all. The house of cards that he builds in the White Goddess is so painful to watch that by the end of the book one is left wondering how people could have taken anything he said as gospel at all. This man had some Knowledge, however, and shared many of his understandings with the reader. Nowadays, I just have to sift through all of his theories and try to determine which ones are valid. By the time he compares “platonic love” to “homosexual idealism” a normal person would most likely be questioning all of his so called “proven” conclusions. I take what I must. I try not to dismiss Graves completely as he started many of the Ogham conversations, wrote a very lengthy book on a type writer (we often forget), and did, in fact, have a relationship with the Ogham in his own way. His index and footnotes are somewhat redeeming as well.
The perfect book for me always has foot notes.
Even the best intentioned writers or researchers have varying perspectives. No two people view anything in exactly the same manner. In this way even the translations of various texts can have completely different meanings.
Whether I read Caitlin or John Mathews, Philip Carr-Gomm, Peter Berresford Ellis, Tom Cowan, Eryn Rowan Laurie, or even the slightly more whimsical – but still informative – Jacqueline Memory Paterson, I can always learn something.
And as I stir that cauldron upon that river bank of old, perhaps I too will one day have that fire that will burn within my head.
By the nut of the hazel, the flesh of the salmon and the water of the well, let it be so.
“The druid quest is a quest for wisdom and knowledge. This search leads finally to the oldest animal, Bradan the salmon, swimming in the Well of Wisdom at the source of all life…This well or sacred pool has nine hazel trees growing around it, and it is their nuts which feed the salmon of the pool and render them wise.” – Phillip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm (the Druid Animal Oracle)
[i]The White Goddess, the Druid Animal Oracle, Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, an Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, etc.
[ii]Hageneder’s version has the Mabon not in a prison cell but beneath a hazel tree. This is an easy speculation to make as the salmon carried the heroes to the place where the Mabon was found imprisoned.
[iii]Cad Goddeu or the Battle of the Trees is part of the Book of Taliesin. The hazel is the only tree that doesn’t seem to be fighting physically in the battle. She is sometimes an “arbiter” (judge) and sometimes it is translated that “Ample [was her] mental exertion”. A version is found in the White Goddess by Robert Graves. A different translation of the poem may be found here at the Celtic Literature Collective: http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/t08.html
[iv]Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook. Jacqueline Memory Paterson.
[v] This refers to an Irish Story, the Ancient Dripping Hazel which is told briefly in the book Magical Alphabets by Nigel Pennick.
[vi]The Holy Grail: its Origins, Secrets, and Meanings Revealed. Malcolm Godwin.
[vii]In the lands of the Celts, however, death was often perceived as a rebirth or transformation. Perhaps Sinend gained her prize after all?
[viii] Since I had originally written this entry I felt inspired to reconnect with my old friend Jaysun. I was surprised – though I should not have been – and impressed with some of his current projects. His podcast, as one commenter put it, fills a niche in the podcast world by offering the personal experiences of one practitioner. His blog and podcast can be found at http://witcheryofone.libsyn.com/ and the podcast is also on iTunes.
[ix] The exception for me is Fire in the Head by Tom Cowan. I love this well researched book and hope that a future edition wil contain an index and more references.
[x]The Wiccan Warrior by Kerr Cuhulain is a good “mainstream flashy” book. I am sure that there are others but most are very ad-like – as far as pictures and lay out – yet very disappointing when it comes to accuracy. Sadly, at one time these books were much more respected and the publishers were much more likely to publish respected authors.
“By the time a tree is full grown, the underground root system is enormous; a mature oak tree, for example, has literally hundreds of miles of roots to tap the soil’s resources in an endless quest for water. Each drop is collected by the root hairs and passed along, from one cell to the next, up the trunk and to the leaves, and in such a way that none of the precious moisture and minerals collected by the roots leaks back into the soil.” – Richard Ketchum (The Secret Life of the Forest)
Duir, the oak, is the tree of strength and of honour. It is also the tree of male virility.
It is the seventh tree of the Ogham and has universally agreed upon meanings without exception. Even those that do not hold trees sacred seem to have a reverence for the oak. It is present on many coats of arms, is the national tree of many countries, a totem tree of states, cities and counties and is the tree of the province of Prince Edward Island here in Canada. The oak also symbolically adorns many military uniforms from ancient to modern times.
The oak is often said to have been the most sacred of trees to the Celts, and to the druids in particular. The tree is revered by the Teutonic, the Romans, The Greeks, and Hebrews and in as far away lands as to even have been respected by the Chinese[i]. The oaks referred to in the bible are interpreted as “holy trees” – not oaks literally- and the Christians often preached beneath them in the early middle ages[ii].
Oak is the tree of many gods and goddesses, especially those of lightening and thunder. Duir makes an appearance in many tales and can be connected to Taranis (Celtic Zeus), Brigid (later St. Briget), Myrdin (Merlin), Arthur’s round table, Herne the Hunter, Robin Hood, Gwydion, Blodeuwedd, Lleu, and to the fairies alongside the Ash and the Hawthorn. The Oak also shares a special symbolic relationship with the mistletoe.
Duir promises us the strength to speak the truth, to hold our ground and to live a life braided with courage and honour. Oak is the tree of kings, queens and prophets.
Lleu of the Skilful Hand was cursed by his mother.
Lleu was a child of immaculate conception as he had fallen out of his mother, Aranrhod -alongside his brother – while her purity was being tested. This was being done by the King, Math, to determine if she was pure enough to become his virgin foot stool…
In the time before time there lived such a ruler of the land as Math son of Mathonwy.
Math could only live if his feet were in the lap of a virgin – that is Goewin- except in times of war. So it was, that his two nephews Gwydyon and Givaethwy would make circuits of the land on his behalf.
All was well for a while, until Givaethwy fell sick with love for Goewin. Gwydyon perceived his state and he schemed a way to separate the king from the virgin on behalf of his cousin. And so by stealing the sacred pigs of a Southern lord a war was started and Math was forced to leave his chamber.
When Math returned to his chambers he was told by Goewin that she was no longer a virgin as his nephews had taken her by force in his very chambers. Math then took the beautiful Goewin as his wife and punished his nephews severely.
For a year and a day they were turned into a stag and a hind so that they would breed with one another and have a son.
For a second year and a day the cousins were turned into a boar and a sow so that they would breed with one another and have another son.
For a third year and a day Gwydyon and Givaethwy were turned into a wolf and a she-wolf so that they could breed and conceive a final son.
After this time of punishment Math forgave them and brought them back, turning them once more to men.
Math then asked of Gwydyon who he should take to be his virgin foot stool and Gwydyon stated that this should be none other than his sister Aranrhod.
Math summoned Aranrhod and made her step over his wand to test her virtue and two boys fell from her. One was noticed by everyone and one was not noticed, as Gwydyon kicked him under the bed and hid him from sight. The one boy, Dylan, was baptised and raised by the king while the second, later to be named Lleu, was raised in secret by Gwydyon for a while.
When he was four -but looked to be eight- Aranrhod found out about him and cursed him to have no name until she gave him one, no weapon unless she gave it to him and no wife of the human race.
Aranrhod was tricked and named the boy Lleu of the Skilled Hand because of his skill in hitting a wren in the leg perched on a ship while he was disguised as a shoe maker. Later disguised as bards in Caer Aranrhod, Gwydyon conjured up an illusionary invading force of ships and Aranrhod -with two young women- armed them both. Thus Lleu had both a name and was armed through the magical deception of his uncle Gwydyon.
Aranrhod was furious and proclaimed that Lleu would never, ever, have a wife. Gwydyon and Lleu then went to Math and complained about Aranrhod, described how they had overcome the curse of the name and of the weapons, and asked for his help.
Math and Gwydyon then summoned up the form of the most beautiful woman from the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet and thus created an immortal wife for the lad. She would be named Blodeuedd.
The couple were happy for some time, until Lleu left to visit his uncle Math.
Blodeuedd offered shelter to a passing hunter, named Goronwy, and the two fell in love and began to plot Lleu’s murder.
This would not be an easy task, for even after Blodeuedd coaxed from Lleu his only weakness, the conditions they had to set out for his death would not be easy to arrange and yet they had to be perfect.
Lleu could only be killed by a spear made for one year on Sundays while people were in mass[iv], while standing with one foot on a goat’s back and the other on the edge of a bath tub (not indoors or out, on horse or on foot) beneath a thatch roof on a river bank.
Under the assumptions of trust and love Lleu was tricked into meeting all of the conditions and struck by the poisoned spear that was thrown by the hidden huntsmen Goronwy. He immediately turned himself into an eagle and flew away critically injured.
Math and Gwydyon were distressed and saddened. So Gwydyon set out to find Lleu and did so only by following a pig to the base of a large oak tree with a rotting eagle in it. By chanting three times he called the eagle down to him in stages where he could strike him with his wand and turn him back into a man.
Lleu was now skin and bones and it took him one year to be cured before he could set out to avenge himself.
Goronwy was found and killed by Lleu’s hand as he threw a spear through a stone and broke his back. Blodeuedd was found and was transformed forever into the owl by Gwydyon.
“You will never show your face to the light of day, rather you shall fear other birds; they will be hostile to you, and it will be their nature to maul and molest you wherever they find you. You will not lose your name but will always be called Blodeuedd (flower face).[v]”
Thus Lleu was avenged…
The stories of the Celts were told by the bards, who were mystics, and held keys to enlightenment. Let us consider that numbers have meanings and perhaps referenced individual Ogham letters and likely had other mystical properties as well. There were three women who armed Lleu and Gwydyon (2 + 1 other – Aranrhod) three animals that the cousins became for a year and a day (two wild and one other, two herbivore and one other), three main women in this tale (2 + 1 other – Blodeuedd made from three flowers), and three birds (2 + 1 other -Wren), and the cousins had three sons. As the wand would possibly be of Hawthorn (or possibly Hazel) and the spear would most likely be of Ash, then we could also consider that the three fairy trees made an appearance as well.
There are other numbers to consider as well. The boy was four but looked eight. There were two sons born of the virgin, two cousins, and two in the pair of Gwydyon and Lleu. Numbers were sacred and held special meanings to the Celts and we can be sure that they held a special meaning within their tales[vi].
Let us consider then the Oak itself. The ground before us is fertile by the time that the flower of the Oak appears as Blodeuedd. Eventually the Eagle rests on the old tree at the end of the relationship, dies a type of death and is reborn. So we bear witness to the complete life of the tree from flower to old tree. Let us also not forget the two illusions of Gwydyon of the ships which would have been made of Oak. First there was one ship and then there were so many ships that they churned up the sea.
There are also many things that are “in between” in this tale as well. The river bank, the tree top, woman not a woman (made of flowers), man not a man (virgin birth), virgin not a virgin, and plenty of shapeshifting. The queen or bride of a king is usually considered to be the goddess or to be the land itself. If this is the case then what would be the purpose of the different types of women in the story? What could we learn from the defiled virgin who becomes a queen, the mother who is denied the right (?) to be a stool, and the adulterous wife who is the essence of nature herself?
Let us also be reminded of the impossible things in this story beyond magic and shapeshifting. Bards do not usually bear arms and for a king who cannot survive without the lap of a virgin, even for a night, Math does quite well for three years and three days before even seeking one out. Even then he does not seem to ever get a replacement “stool”. There are other details of the story I did not retell, such as Math’s ability to hear any whisper yet Gwydyon alone plots aloud plainly but remains unheard.
Duir is said to be the root word for door. To open the door to deeper and higher understanding, at least as the Celts would have done, we need to be able to see in symbols. We have already been told to do so from those such as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and now perhaps by the tellers of the old tales as well.
In our dreams we know that symbols hold meanings. In our tales we learn that there are many more hidden messages yet. Perhaps someday we may step through that doorway that exists in the forest, and see the language that is used by the gods.
May Duir, the oak, let it be so.
“The oak is possibly the most widely revered of all trees. The earliest spirits of Greek mythology were oak-tree spirits called Dryads, and it was believed that oak was the first tree created by God from which sprang the entire human race.” – Jacqueline Memory Paterson (Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook)
[iii]This image is of a drawing, painting, print, or other two-dimensional work of art, and the copyright for it is most likely owned by either the artist who produced the image, the person who commissioned the work, or the heirs thereof. It is believed that the use of low-resolution images of works of art for critical commentary on: the work in question, the artistic genre or technique of the work of art or the school to which the artist belongs on this web site qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. Any other uses of this image might be copyright infringement. – Wikipedia Image.
[iv] This is the second Christian reference in the tale, as the boy Dylan was earlier baptised. This is a testament of the times that the tales were finally put into writing.
[v] The quote is from The Mabinogion. The above story is my own version taken from this same original source and also from The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology.
[vi] Three is the triad of birth, life, death or start, middle, end, etc. For an interesting summary of Celtic numbers see Celtic Symbols by Sabine Heinz.