Ohn (Gorse or Broom)

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 Roots:

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.

The Trunk:

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.

The Foliage:

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.

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

[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.

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

[xii] Robert Graves believed that this was a mistake and should have been Holly instead.

[xiii] Irish law. The White Goddess.

Duir (Oak)

“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)

The Roots:

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.

The Trunk:

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.

(Blodeuedd, Christopher Williams 1930[iii])

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 Foliage:

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) 


[i] Cooper.

[ii] Hageneder.

[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.