“On the summit of his ancient stronghold, South Barrule Mountain, the god Manannan yet dwells invisible to mortal eyes, and whenever on a warm day he throws off his magic mist-blanket with which he is wont to cover the whole island, the golden gorse or purple heather blossoms become musical with the hum of bees, and sway gently on breezes made balmy by the tropical warmth of an ocean stream flowing from the far distant Mexican shores of a New World.”– W. Y. Evans-Wentz (Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)
1) The Roots: Background information
2) The Trunk: Celtic Mythology and Significance
3) The Foliage: Spells using the Plant
Ur is the eighteenth letter of the Ogham. The tree that is usually associated with this letter is the Heather[i].
The Ogham Tract’s kenning[ii] “in cold dwelling” is given the meaning of “fear” in John Mathew’s book the Celtic Shaman.
Robert Ellison in Ogham: Secret Language of the Druids says that the Heather is associated with “healing and homelands.” He also says that the herb is connected with the Celtic fairies and thus has magical uses.
Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom states that the Ogham letter Ur is representative of death, fate and finality through its connection to the soil[iii]. Laurie also claims that Heather –independent from the letter- is linked to poverty.
Catlin Mathews in her book Celtic Wisdom Sticks says that Ur’s word-Ogham kennings all refer to either the earth or “growth cycles.” Her divination system supports these reflections as the interpretations refer to hard work, growth, and following one’s life path.
“Heather is the four leaf clover of the Scottish Highlands.[iv]” In fact, it is often even seen as a Scottish national symbol. As a result Heather is found on many of the Scottish clan badges.
The importance of Heather to the ancestors can easily be understood within the context of the old texts. The “herb” was often used as roof thatch, to cover open doorways, to make rope, and was even an important source of fuel and warmth. In the stories Heather was also often used as bedding or was bundled and used as a pillow.
In the 1911 book Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans Wentz we find Heather used in a very clever manner. This story is of Dermout who has stolen Finn Mac Cool’s Sister:
“He took with him a bag of sand and a bunch of heather; and when he was in the mountains he would put the bag of sand under his head at night, and then tell everybody he met that he had slept on the sand (the sea-shore); and when on the sand he would use the bunch of heather for a pillow, and say he had slept on the heather (the mountains). And so nobody ever caught him at all.”
There’s actually a link between Heather and the Celtic trickster the fox. There’s an old story found in Joseph Jacob’s 1894 More Celtic Fairy Tales. The same tale is found in various other texts as well. The fox would gather some Heather and put his head into the midst of it. He would then enter the stream stealthily, swimming towards the ducks. These unsuspecting birds would attempt to use this Heather as cover, only to find themselves inside the jaws of the wily fox. It would seem that the Fox had a clever use for everything, because he would also carry a piece of wool in his mouth, backing into the flowing water until only his nose and the wool were exposed. He did this in order to rid himself of fleas.
In the 1825 book Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Croker the Cluiricaune knew the “secrets of brewing a Heather beer.” This is not so unusual as Heather was often associated with fairies and magic.
In the 1903 book Heather in Lore, Lyric, and Lay by Alexander Wallace we are told that witches in Scotland would ride over the Heather on black tabby cats during Samhain. According to this text Heather was also associated with the Cailleach; the primordial Celtic hag goddess[v].
In More Celtic Fairy Tales we find another interesting Heather story. A young couple attempts to escape from powerful witch sisters. As they flee they take the form of Doves in order to confuse their pursuers. When the one sister realizes that the birds are actually the escaping couple she comes at them in a fury. To avoid her they turn themselves into Heather brooms and begin to sweep the town square without “the assistance of human hands.” After this inconspicuous act they turn once more back into Doves and resume their flight to safety.
Nothing to see here, we’re just two brooms doing some innocent sweeping… honest.
The Tylwyth Teg -a type of fairy- at certain times of the year lived in the Heather or Gorse[vi]. Heather is not just connected with fairies but is also associated with the dead. As Katherine Briggs says, however, Fairies and Ghosts may be the same thing[vii].
In the 1900 book Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx by John Rhys the spirits of family members are often seen dancing over “the tops of Heather.” The herb is even directly connected to a haunted graveyard. We are also told in the same text that if a person heard the fairy songs – and was possessed to dance – that they would often wake the next morning “in the Heather.” The Heather was also connected to fairy rings elsewhere in the book.
In mythology, Heather is associated with Rathcroghan, also called Cruachan[viii]. This is an ancient site found in the Ulster Cycle and is an important archaeological site today. In the 1904 Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory we are told that Finn Mac Cool “delighted” in the song of “the Grouse of the Heather of Cruachan” whose music put him to sleep. Elsewhere in the book we are told that Finn found peace in “the Stag of the Heather of quiet Cruachan.”
Finally, in Joseph Jacob’s 1895 Celtic Fairy Tales we are told of a long forgotten magical use for Heather. In this tale Conall blinds a one eyed giant -who may or may not have been a later version of Balor – with Heather:
“I got Heather and I made a rubber (?) of it, and I set him upright in the caldron. I began at the eye that was well, pretending to him that I would give its sight to the other one, tell I left them as bad as each other; and surely it was easier to spoil the one that was well than to give sight to the other.”
In Alexander Wallace’s 1903 book Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay, Heather branches were carried around the sacred fire three times before being raised above dwellings to protect the house’s occupants “against the evil eye.” The text also says that throwing Heather after a person was supposed to bring them good luck.
Robert Ellison relays in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids that “a small broom made from Heather can be used to sweep an area where magic is to be performed.” He also says that Heather can be burnt as incense while working with “spells involving the fair folk.”
In A.W. Moore’s 1891 Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man we are also told of a spell that was used to remove evil or the influence of witches from fishing boats:
“It was not only on land that burning some animal or thing to detect or exorcise witchcraft was resorted to, but at sea also, for when a boat was unsuccessful during the fishing season, the cause was ascribed by the sailors to witchcraft, and, in their opinion, it then became necessary to exorcise the boat by burning the Witches out of it. Townley, in his journal, relates one of these operations, which he witnessed in Douglas harbor: in 1789, as follows —‘They set fire to bunches of heather in the center of the boat, and soon made wisps of heather, and lighted them, going one at the head, another at the stern, others along the sides, so that every part of the boat might be touched.’ Again he says, ‘There is another burning of witches out of anunsuccessful boat off Banks’s Howe— to the top of the bay.’ Feltham, writing a few years later, also mentions this practice.”
In this example, Heather is used in a similar manner to the Native Americans’ who burnt instead Sage or Sweet Grass. This Heather smoke was used to purify the boat and to chase off evil spirits.
“Heather is an Herb Tree in Irish law. It is abundant on heathland throughout western Europe, growing profusely in acid soil.” – Caitlin Mathews (Celtic Wisdom Stick
All images in this post are from Wikipedia commons unless otherwise stated and are of the public domain.
[i] The Ogham was not originally a Tree Alphabet. See previous posts.
“I was to go out fishing tonight,” said the younger as he came in, “but I promised you to come, and you’re a civil man, so I wouldn’t take five pounds to break my word to you. And now”-taking up his glass of whisky-“here’s to your good health, and may you live till they make you a coffin out of a gooseberry bush, or till you die in childbed.” -J.M. Synge (The Aran Islands, 1907)
The fourth forfeda, and the twenty-fourth letter of the tree-Ogham, is Iphin the Gooseberry[i].
As discussed during the previous post, Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle do not ascribe the Gooseberry to Iphin. The double crossed lines are instead used for the Honeysuckle, while the Beech tree is given “the hook.” I am unsure of the reasons for this decision. These changes do not make sense to me, but I am well aware that Liz and Colin Murray were very deliberate in their choices. This differing of the order may simply be of interest, however, as many other Ogham systems follow their lead. This includes John Michael Greer as we have already stated.
Robert Graves did not discuss the Gooseberry within the White Goddess and only spoke of the forfeda in the Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects. He called this forfeda “the Bones of Assal’s Swine”. The bones will be explored somewhat below as they do not effect the immediate discussion. Graves does put forward the possibility, though, that these bones were actually the discarded stems from the mushrooms that were eaten during ritual, the Aminita muscaria. In the Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects Graves says it is because “Assail was a lightening god and because mushrooms, called “little pigs” in Latin and Italian, were believed to be created by lightening and because hallucinogenic varieties of mushrooms were used in Greek and several Eastern religions for oracular purposes[ii].”
Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets does not add anything to the Gooseberry discussion either. He lists the 24th letter as the Guelder Rose or the Snowball tree. Pennick connects this plant to “the dance of life” and to the “mystic Crane Dance performed upon labyrinths throughout Europe, and to the crane-skin ‘medicine bag’ which ancient shamans used to hold their sacred power-objects.”
The Ogham tract does describe the tree as either the Pine or the Gooseberry[iii]. The Scots Pine, also called the Scots Fir at the time, has already been listed[iv]. For a separate meaning of this letter, instead of a duplication, we are then left to focus on the Gooseberry.
“Millsem feda, sweetest of wood, that is gooseberry with him, for a name for the tree called pin is millsem feda. Gooseberries are hence named. Hence it was put for the letter named pin, for hence pin, or ifin, io, was put for it.” – Word Ogham of Morann (the Ogham Tract[v])
“Amram blais, most wonderful of taste, pin or ifin, gooseberry. Hence for the letter that has taken its name from it, pin or iphin, io.” – Word Ogham of Mac Ind Oic (the Ogham Tract[vi])
Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom gives the Gooseberry, and the corresponding letter, the attributes of “Divine influences” and “sweetness of life”. Through this sweetness is found the association to Honey.
John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the word-Ogham “sweetest of wood” as representing “taste.” Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks uses this few to represent the direction of North. Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids says that Iphin represents, “the Kindreds, especially of nature.”
It would seem that the Gooseberry is one of the most elusive “trees” found within the Ogham.
This plant is not often found in myth or folklore either, nor does it seem to have any direct ties to legends, beings or heroes. It is, however, used as a sympathetic magical remedy in at least two places that I am aware of.
“For a sty on the eyelid point a gooseberry thorn at it nine times, saying, ‘Away, away, away!’ and the sty will vanish presently and disappear.” -Lady Wilde (Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland, 1887)
“In Suffock and other parts of these islands, a common remedy for warts is to secretly pierce a snail or ‘dodman with a gooseberry-bush thorn, rub the snail on the wart, and then bury it, so that, as it decays the wart may wither away.” – Edward Clodd (Tom Tit Tot: An Essay on Savage Philosophy in Folktale, 1898)
The Gooseberry is a close relative of the currant-berry and can be found, in its North American form, throughout the Pacific Northwest[vii].
Iphin, the Gooseberry, has sympathetic magical properties. It represents that which is tasteful and the divine influences which surrounds us in the sweetest of ways.
“As for the other miscellaneous objects found in the Crane Bag: if one thinks poetically, not scientifically, their meaning leaps to the eye.” –Robert Graves (the Crane Bag and other Disputed Subjects)
As previously stated the forfeda, or the items found in the crane-bag by poets, are listed as ‘the King of Scotland’s Shears’(the X), ‘the king of Lochlainn’s helmet’ (with his face underneath, the four sided diamond), ‘the bones of Assail’s swine’ (the double lined X out to the side of the line), ‘Goibne’s smith-hook’ (the P or hook symbol), and Manannan’s own shirt’, which “is a map of the sea showing lines of longitude and latitude.”
We now turn our attention towards ‘the bones of Assail’s swine.’ Fortunately, this is the one character listed who is easily recalled from the stories of the Celts.
“Asal, Asail (genitive), Easal [cf. Irish asal, ass] A member of the Tuatha Dé Danann who owned a magical spear, the Gáe or Gaí Assail, and seven magical pigs. His spear was the first brought into Ireland. It never failed to kill when he who threw it uttered the word ‘ibar’, or to return to the thrower when he said ‘athibar’ [cf. Irish ibar, yew tree, yew wood]. T. F. O’Rahilly observed that the Gáe Assail was a lightning spear, like the weapon of Thor, which also returned to the hand that hurled it. When Gáe Assail had been taken to Persia, Lug Lámfhota obliged the sons of Tuireann, Brian, Iuchair, and Iucharba, to retrieve it for him. Another task of those same children of Tuireann was to retrieve the seven magical pigs of Assal ‘of the Golden Pillars’, who could be killed and eaten and would be alive and ready to be slaughtered again the next morning. The bones of the pigs of Assal are in the crane bag of Manannán mac Lir. See OIDHEADH CHLAINNE TUIREANN [The Tragic Story of the Children of Tuireann].” – James MacKillop (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)
The recovery of these pigs by the children of Tuireann is one of the tasks that was given to them by Lugh for murdering his father. It is this series of quests which kills them in the end, even after they had accomplished all of them.
“’And do you know what are the seven pigs I asked of you? They are the pigs of Easal, King of the Golden Pillars; and though they are killed every night, they are found alive the next day, and there will be no disease or no sickness on any person that will eat a share of them.’” – Lady Gregory (Gods and Fighting Men, 1904)
These pigs would not only provide a never ending source of sustenance for their owners, but they were preventers of illness as well.
(Amanita muscaria. Photograph by Onderwijsgek)
It becomes important to remember that these items, including the bones, would disappear from the crane-bag when the tide was ebbing and reappear when the tide was full.
The mystery then becomes apparent. Why would the bones only be present in the bag and never the animal whose flesh was to be enjoyed? Would these pigs, then, be considered whole when they are missing from the bag? Does this mean that the pigs would have to be eaten before a certain time of the day such as the high tide? Could this tide actually represent a moon cycle, or a time of day, instead of the literal tide?
Perhaps, it is the bag of Manannan that returns the flesh to their bones before these pigs rise from the dead again? Maybe, instead, these tales are suggesting that the eating of the flesh is a part of the ritual that takes place at high tide, or as high tide approaches?
Obviously these are questions of interest, meditation, and contemplation only. To me, they are incredibly fascinating ones to consider, though.
The following portion of this blog was here from Oct 20, 2011. I decided to leave it…
As we approach the final Ogham letter, Mor or “the Twin of Hazel”, I have been struggling to meet the deadlines I have put upon myself as far as posting these. Although this is not a heavily trafficked blog, I use this area to increase my awareness of the Ogham and to share any possible insights with fellow seekers. It’s very important to me that I maintain a sense of discipline, especially as it pertains to my spiritual practice, regardless of if I had one reader or hundreds.
I plan to continue through the next cycle of the half year, starting again with Birch, by sharing those pieces of information that I had left out the first time through – as well as recent discoveries – and will then share some of the other great Ogham minds such as Caitlin and John Mathews or Robert Lee Ellison. At some point, it would be nice to get some quotes from Charles Graves on here as well.
I do feel compelled to share, however, that I have been meeting with greater difficulties in publishing these posts and I apologize if they are not as polished as they could have been.
I have been undergoing aggressive chemotherapy treatments for a form a testicular cancer that has spread post surgery. I’ve been dealing with this for some time (the surgery was a year earlier) but only over the last month have I been getting these treatments. The outlook is very positive and a full recovery is expected. In the meantime, however, it is not the most fun I have ever had.
I will do my best to continue to post these for as long as I can. My intention is that there will be no interruption. I am usually pretty good at that one, the intention part anyways. 🙂
As of April 11, 2012, I am doing much better. I still have bad hair – or way less of it – and tire pretty easy. The chemo cycles are finished but it will be two years before they deem that I am cancer free.
“What shocked them the most was his [France’s] suggestion that the awareness of plants might originate in a super-material world of cosmic beings to which, long before the birth of Christ, the Hindu sages referred as ‘devas’ and which, as fairies, elves, gnomes, sylphs and a host of other creatures, were a matter of direct vision and experience to clairvoyants among the Celts and other sensitives. The idea was considered by vegetal scientists to be as charmingly jejune as it was hopelessly romantic.” – Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird discussing Raul France (the Secret Life of Plants, 1973)
[i] The Ogham is not just a tree alphabet. See previous posts.
[ii] Quoting Early Irish Myth and History by Rahilly.
[iv] The Silver Fir is not the correct tree for Ailm. The Silver Fir did not exist in Ireland at the time of these writings and was introduced much later. The texts of the time, and sometimes sources later even to this day, referred to the “Scots Pine” as the “Scotch Fir.” The terms were used interchangeably Robert Graves ascribed the Silver Fir to Ailm, not likely being aware of this fact.
“Lochlann was the mythical undersea home of the later Fomorian invaders of Ireland, against whom the Tuatha de Danaan fought a bloody war. The god Tethra ruled it. It seems that legends of the war between these two nations were worked by later poets into ballad cycles celebrating the ninth-century wars between the Irish and the Danish and Norse pirates. Thus the Scandinavians came to be called ‘the Lochlannach’ and the Danish King of Dublin was also styled ‘King of Lochlin’.” – Robert Graves (the White Goddess)
The 22nd letter of the Ogham is Oir. This few is usually seen as representing the Spindle tree or the element of Gold.
Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle associate this letter to thunder. The letter was described as meaning “sweetness, delight and sudden intelligence.” The Murrays claimed that thunder, Tharan, brings forth from the heavens enlightenment or Awen.
John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook calls Oir, “a few of fate, sudden change, and the unexpected, symbolized by the spindle tree; the flash of the lightning bolt, change caused by outside factors.”
Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom claims that Oir represents Gold but as a tree could also signify the Spindle. The associations for Oir that she lists in her work are those of worth, value and wealth.
Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets says that this few can represent the Gooseberry as well as the Spindle. The Spindle tree, he states, is associated with childbirth and can be used magically to “ease the passage of the baby from the womb to the world.”
John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the word-Ogham “most venerable structure” as representing “truth.” Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks uses this few to represent East.
In Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids, Robert Ellison says that this few represents “community and working within the home.” He also says that the Spindle tree can be used in spells that are “long lasting.”
Robert Graves in the Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects says that this few is represented in the mythology of the crane-bag as being the King of Lochlainn’s helmet[i].
The Spindle Tree is elusive in Celtic mythology. It derives its name from the spindle which was apparently originally fashioned from the wood of this tree. The spindle, as a tool, is an early proto type of the spinning wheel. Thus the tree can be indirectly related to any tales of spinning found in Celtic mythology.
There are tales of industrious fairies in the Celtic stories including the Scottish Habitrot, a beneficient Caileach type figure[ii]. Alfred Tennyson’s Victorian poem theLady of Shalott, with medieval roots, is also about a weaver.
Oir, the Spindle tree or Gold itself, is a very mysterious few. It has come to represent a sudden positive change in one’s life. It has also come to mean wealth or inspired knowledge in modern times.
“As for the other miscellaneous objects found in the Crane Bag: if one thinks poetically, not scientifically, their meaning leaps to the eye.” –Robert Graves (the Crane Bag and other Disputed Subjects)
As previously stated the forfeda[iii], or the items found in the crane-bag by poets, are listed as ‘the King of Scotland’s Shears’(the X), ‘the king of Lochlainn’s helmet’ (with his face underneath, the four sided diamond), ‘the bones of Assail’s swine’ (the double lined X out to the side of the line), ‘Goibne’s smith-hook’ (the P or hook symbol), and Manannan’s own shirt’, which “is a map of the sea showing lines of longitude and latitude.”
The King of Lochlainn is a mysterious figure. The quote at the beginning of this blog post summarizes what is generally believed to be the origins and the evolution of the mysterious Lochlainn[iv].
“Lochlainn may have initially described the fabulous abode under lakes and waters of hostile, supernatural beings like the Famorians.”
In the Irish myths the King of Lochlainn had clearly come to represent the marauders of Nordic descent. There are stories, however, where Finn Mac Cool fosters sons of the King of Lochlainn. These foreigners are usually enemies though.
In Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory[v] one battalion of Fianna, led by Finn Mac Cool, are pitted up against ten battalions of “the King of the World.” The three sons of Lochlainn come one after another, alone, to wreck destruction upon the Fionna. They are eventually followed by the seemingly invincible King of Lochlainn himself.
The fist son, Forne, slays many men before Finn’s own son Oisin stands to face him alone. Initially the battle seems to be going poorly for Oisin. Eventually, though, he is embarrassed by the words of a fellow Fianna who tells him that the men are watching him being beaten. Oisin, who is then spurred into action, pierces Forne with his spear killing him.
The second son, Tocha, then brings the fight to the Fianna slaying many more of their men. Only Lugaidh’s son manages to stand against Tocha, eventually cutting his heart in two.
The third son, Mongach of the Sea, rushes the Fianna swearing vengeance. He carries with him a mighty flail with seven iron balls, with fifty chains, with fifty apples upon every chain, and with fifty iron thorns on every apple! Fidach, son of the King of Breton – out of shame at seeing the destruction of the Fianna – stands alone against him. The two battle hard, but eventually Fidach cut off Mongach of the Sea’s hands. He then cuts him in half. An apple from the flail, with its many thorns, pierces Fidach’s mouth and the two fall “lip to lip” in death.
Finally, the King of Lochlainn himself rushes the Fianna. The destruction that he inflicts is terrible to behold. His flaming shield causes many casualties. Druimderg, grandson of the head of the Fianna of Ulster comes forward with his spear ‘Croderg the Red Socketed.’ Druimberg can see no part of the King of Lochlainn that is not covered in armour except for the open mouth which is laughing beneath the helmet. Druimderg casts his spear into the open laughing mouth of the king and kills him.
Thus the King of Lochlainn is defeated along with his sons.
Other tales also pit heroes against the King of Lochlainn, but the mentioning of his helmet in this particular tale, including the vulnerability of its wearer, is worthy of note.
(Helmet from Cheiftain’s Grave. 10th Century. Norway. Photo: John Erling Blad)
As the helmet is one of the items found in Manannan’s crane bag it’s also worth noting that there is another story with possible connections. This tale is also found in Gods and Fighting Men. Here, Lugh himself is wearing the helmet of Manannan.
“And they were not long there before they saw an armed troop coming towards them from the east, over the plain; and there was a young man in front of the troop, in command over the rest, and the brightness of his face was like the setting sun, so that they were not able to look at him because of its brightness.
And when he came nearer they knew it was Lugh Lamh-Fada, of the Long Hand, that had come back to them, and along with him were the Riders of the Sidhe from the Land of Promise, and his own foster brothers, the sons of Manannan, Sgoith Gleigeil, the White Flower, and Goitne Gorm-Shuileach, the Blue-eyed Spear, and Sine Sindearg, of the Red Ring, and Donall Donn-Ruadh, of the Red brown Hair. And it is the way Lugh was, he had Manannan’s horse, the Aonbharr, of the One Mane, under him, that was as swift as the naked cold wind of spring, and the sea was the same as dry land to her, and the rider was never killed off her back. And he had Manannan’s breast-plate on him, that kept whoever was wearing it from wounds, and a helmet on his head with two beautiful precious stones set in the front of it and one at the back, and when he took it off, his forehead was like the sun on a dry summer day. And he had Manannan’s sword, the Freagarthach, the Answerer, at his side, and no one that was wounded by it would ever get away alive; and when that sword was bared in a battle, no man that saw it coming against him had any more strength than a woman in child-birth.”
Although there is no indication that the helmet once belonged to the King of Lochlainn, of later times, it may in fact have belonged to one of the Famorian kings that we have previously mentioned. The possibility, however remote, should be considered.
So if Manannan’s shirt is representative of ‘the sea’, and the King of Scotland’s shears is representative of ‘the grove’ then what can the helmet from the King of Lochlainn be representative of?
Whether Lochlainn represents the Famorians or another later foreign invader hardly seems to matter. The helmet represents the seeming invincibility of a dangerous enemy. It is an enemy, a mysterious force, which threatens to take everything away. The fact that Manannan owns the helmet means that it is an enemy that has likely been vanquished or perhaps even tamed[vi].
If we were presented with a riddle regarding Oir it might then look like this… What is gold and brings with it sudden sweetness and delight? What is brought by thunder? What brings with it sudden insight or illumination? What is dangerous and otherworldly to the forest? What is the bringer of Awen? What is a catalyst which brings with it change? What may be seen as a triangle pointing into the air with a separate triangle, invisible to the human eye, pointing mirror like into the underworld? What thing seems to be weaving unto itself?
This riddle seems to have an answer that would be near impossible to validate. That answer would be fire. If we consider the flames that radiated from the King of Lochlainn’s shield we seem to have come upon further evidence that supports this possibility. Fire is the one invader of the forest that needs to be tamed. The fire may also be representative of the sun itself. Lugh comes from the east like the rising sun. The descriptors all compare the brightness of his head, which is enshrouded in the helmet, to the sun itself. Perhaps Manannan is being depicted as a great worker of magic, one who has tamed the element of fire.
Of course, I am no scholar. I reflect upon the Ogham and the mythologies that surround them while finding my own meanings for the crane-bag in regards to these forfeda. I have never come across this association of Oir to fire anywhere else.
I do, however, find the possibilities more than a little intriguing.
The Euonymous occidentalis, or the Western Wahoo, is the Spindle tree of western North America. It can be found from halfway up Vancouver Island down to California[vii]. It is part of the Bittersweet family.
The shrub is listed as “red” in British Columbia. This listing marks the plant as threatened or endangered. There are very few documented areas that the plant exists within and it is not known to thrive anywhere in British Columbia.
“Then Finn said: ‘Lift up your hands, Fianna of Ireland, and give thee shouts of blessing to whoever will hinder this foreigner.’ And the Fianna gave those three shouts; and the King of Lochlann gave a great laugh when he heath them. And Druimderg, grandson of the Head of the Fianna of Ulster, was near him, and he had with him a deadly spear, the Croderg, the Red-Socketed, that came down from one to another of the sons of Rudraighe. And he looked at the King of Lochlann, and he could see no part of him without armour but his mouth that was opened wide, and he laughing at the Fianna. Then Druimderg made a cast with the Croderg that hit him in the open mouth, and befell, and his shield fell along with its master, and its flame went out. And Druimderg struck the head from his body, and made great boasts of the things he had done.” – Lady Gregory (Gods and Fighting Men. 1904)
[i] See previous two posts.
[ii] http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/sfft/sfft32.htm, Carminan Gadelica Vol. 2. Alexander Carmichael , The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. W.Y. Eavans-Wentz , etc.
[iii] See blog post: An Introduction to the Forfeda.
[iv] See also: Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology by James MacKillop.
[v] Part II Book III. 
[vi] Is it possible that Manannan holds the helmet hostage?
(Bluebells in Portglenone Forest in spring. David Iliff[i])
“Nemeton. A Gaulish word apparently meaning ‘sacred grove’ or ‘sanctuary’ appears whole or in part in several place names. Nemetona, Nemontana [goddess of the sacred grove; see NEMETON] Gaulish and British goddess whose name appears in many ancient inscriptions.” – James MacKillop (Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)
The twenty first letter of the Ogham, and the first letter of the forfeda, is Koad, the Grove.
Koad can also be Ebad, representing the Aspen or Woodbine instead. Reconstructionists usually do not refer to this letter as “the Grove.”
As discussed during the last entry, the Grove seems to have been an introduction by Colin and Liz Murray in an attempt to solve the riddle of the crane-bag presented by Robert Graves in the Crane Bag and other disputed subjects. This choice may have also served a duel purpose, however, as the Aspen tree had already been listed within the Ogham in its tree form.
Whatever their intention, Grove as a separate meaning, and letter, for magical users of the Ogham has seemed to hold fast since its initial introduction.
According to Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle, the Grove is linked to all “sacred places, traditionally near springs.” It is described as the “all knowledge” or the gathering together of that which one already knows.
Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets adds that the Grove represents the unity of all 8 festivals[ii]. He also says that “the Grove represents the colours of the forty shades of green.” The Grove is the point of total clarity.
Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom calls the Ogham letter Ebad and equates it not with a tree, but with the Salmon. She says that the meanings of the letter are, “carrier of wisdom, vehicle of inspiration and spiritual nourishment.” The association to salmon and to the Aspen is common amongst reconstructionists in regards to this few. The few is described in the Tract as being “the best swimming letter.” Aspen is buoyant and the Salmon is mentioned again later in the document[iii].
John Michael Greer, like the Murrays, also associates Koad to the Grove. He says of the letter that it is, “a few of central balance and infinite possibility, symbolized by a grove of many trees; the presence of many factors, the possibility of freedom.[iv]”
Robert Graves lists Koad as “the King of Scotland’s Shears” in the Crane Bag and other disputed subjects. He does not list any of these extra letters, the forfeda, as having any part whatsoever to do with the tree calendar theory that he had first presented in the White Goddess. It was during this philosophical shift between Graves and the Murrays that various interpretations of the Ogham outside of academic areas became mainstream.
In the Celtic Shaman by John Mathews, the work kenning “most buoyant of wood” is interpreted as representing “ability.” Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks does not use the forfeda in the same way, but uses this letter to represent the direction of South.
Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids, uses White Poplar for the letter Ebad. He says that this letter represents, “buoyancy and floating above problems.”
As the Grove, Koad can be linked to all of the other trees and to any of the stories found within the forests of Celtic myth. The Grove can also represent a meeting point of intention, a magical encounter, or even a holy place.
“As for the other miscellaneous objects found in the Crane Bag: if one thinks poetically, not scientifically, their meaning leaps to the eye.” Robert Graves (the Crane Bag and other Disputed Subjects)
As previously stated the forfeda[v], or the items found in the crane bag by poets, are listed as ‘the King of Scotland’s Shears’(the X), ‘the King of Lochlainn’s helmet’ (with his face underneath, the four sided diamond), ‘the bones of Assail’s swine’ (the double lined X out to the side of the line), ‘Goibne’s smith-hook’ (the P or hook symbol), and Manannan’s own shirt’, which “is a map of the sea showing lines of longitude and latitude.[vi]”
Thus the forfeda becomes a riddle of magical and mythological contemplation.
So who is the king of Scotland and why are his shears important? Why does Manannan possess these items in the first place? Has he vanquished the owners of these objects in battle, or does he hold the items for safekeeping? Could these artifacts be being saved for ritualistic purposes, having been set aside for their owners within the sanctity of the crane bag? Or can they, the items, be being held hostage themselves?
There may not be a good answer to any of these questions. One can only study and contemplate as to what these items may have meant to the Celts of old. The old texts leave us with riddles that may or may not really mean anything.
Interestingly enough, though, the most famous story of shears found in Celtic mythology may also have ties to Scotland as well.
Twrch Trwyth was a king who had been transferred into a mighty boar because of his previous sins. In Jeffery Gantz’s version of the Mabinogion , Arthur himself says that “he was once a king but because of his sins god turned him into a pig.”
In the tale How Culhwch won Olwen, found in the Mabinogion, the story is revealed in its entirety- at least the portions that have survived down into our present era.
Culwch is described as the son of the ruler of Kelyddon in the Gantz version, but in others he is seen as the son of Prince Kelyddon. Could Kelyddon, the place, be Caledonia or Scotland? It may be a stretch, but the frequent mention of other countries in the old tales shows a great deal of contact between the Celtic ancestors including even the transfer of these stories and legends.
Culwch is the ultimate owner of the shears by the end of the story, but it is Caw of Scotland who uses the tool. Could Caw have been a prince or a king? In other versions of the story he is Kaw of North Britain. It may even be suggested that he is one of Culwch’s own men by his lack of mention in comparison to all of the other heroes found in the story.
Regardless, Culwch falls in love with the maiden Olwen who is the daughter of the giant Ysbaddaden. Culwch seeks out the giant with the help of Arthur and his men. Culwch is revealed to be the first cousin of Arthur, who gives him a haircut at the beginning of the tale[vii]. Culwch recruits Arthur and his men and they set off to find Ysbaddaden. When the giant is found, Culwch asks for the price of his daughter. Ysbaddaden then gives to Olwen a long series of impossible tasks that he must accomplish in order to win her hand. These trials need to be completed in order to win the giant’s daughter and in order to “cut off his head.”
(Clan Carter-Campbell family crest badge. Craigenputtock[viii])
The greatest task of all of them, and the only one told in detail, is the hunting of Twrch Trwyth. The great boar holds between his ears the comb and shears[ix] (and a razor) needed to give Ysbaddaden his final hair cut before the giant is executed.
To accomplish this task an army of men, led by Arthur, must first find the Mabon[x] whose help they need to get the boar’s treasures. Only he, with the magical devices, can handle the hound needed to catch Twrch Trwyth. To find the Mabon, however, they must first locate the oldest animal in the world who should know of the Mabon’s whereabouts. The heroes interview several of the oldest of animals, eventually talking to the oldest of them all, the salmon. The Salmon of Llyn Llyw then carries some of Arthur’s men up a stream, on his shoulders, to a prisoner’s quarters where the Mabon is being held. A battle then helps them to release the Mabon from captivity.
Eventually the party is ready to go after the boar himself having procured the proper hunting dogs, magic leash, collar, chains and men with extraordinary abilities.
When the men first turn their attention on Twrch Trwyth he has already destroyed “a third” of Ireland. When they later return to engage him more directly, he has destroyed “a fifth” of Ireland. The local Irish then help the men of Arthur fight the great boar and his seven sons. Many are slain. The Boar and his offspring flee Ireland and go to Wales where they began to kill the people and attack the countryside. In a battle for each of the shaving treasures many men are lost. Eventually, however, Twrch Trwyth is dead along with all of his sons.
The time finally comes for Ysbaddaden’s haircut. As mentioned, though, in the story this is done by Caw of Scotland and not by Culwch at all.
“Caw of Scotland came to shave the giant’s beard, flesh and skin right to the bone and both ears completely. ‘Have you been shaved?’ Asked Culhwch. ‘I have,’ said Ysbaddaden. ‘Is your daughter mine now?’ ‘She is. And you need not thank me, rather Arthur, who won her for you; of my own will you would have never got her. Now it is time for you to kill me.’ Goreu son of Custenhin seized Ysbaddaden by the hair and dragged him along to the dunghill, where he cut off his head and set it on a stake on the wall. They seized the fortress and the land, and that night Culhwch slept with Olwen, and as long as he lived she was his only wife. Then Arthur’s men dispersed to their own lands.” –Jeffery Gantz translation.
In the Crane bag and other Disputed Subjects Robert Graves explains how the shirt of Manannan is really the latitude and longitude lines of a sea map. In this light Colin and Liz Murray took a closer look at the King of Scotland’s Shears.
First of all what does the letter look like? An X on a map if we’re still thinking along those lines. Perhaps we’re looking at another map key; that of a significant destination? An X certainly meant treasure by the time of the Ogham Tract or the recording of Celtic legends.
In a Celtic forest there can be only one place of treasure, and that would have been the place of the nemeton or Grove. The idea that the shears could actually create such a place, by the hands of Manannan or some other god, seems to give the idea further credence. The Grove is a holy place usually not created by the hand of man. It exists in the forest but in a sense it is separate. It unifies everything and yet seems somehow apart or above. It is where the Salmon of wisdom feasts on the nuts of the hazel.
There may be deeper mysteries here, however. This line of thinking seems to have been the path that was taken by Liz and Colin Murray as they sought the answers to the final riddles of the forfeda. If this is true, then why didn’t they also solve the riddle for the other three letters left? Manannan’s shirt was the Sea and the King of Scotland’s Shears was the Grove. What about Oir, Uilleand and Phagos?
Other questions still need to be answered as well. What can these symbols really mean? Who are these men and why does Manannan hold these items within the crane bag at all?
There is much to be pondered.
For some time I have been meaning to acknowledge the Trees For Life: Restoring the Caledonian Forest website and organization properly for the enormity of the work that they do. Their website describes this work below as follows:
“Trees for Life is the only organisation specifically dedicated to restoring the Caledonian Forest to a target area of 600 sq miles in the Scottish Highlands. We work in partnership with the Forestry Commission, RSPB and private landowners, and own and manage the 10,000 acre Dundreggan Estate.
“Each year we run over 45 Conservation Holidays. Hundreds of volunteers join us annually in planting over 100,000 trees in protected areas, and carry out other restoration work such as seed collection and propagation of young trees and rare woodland plants. We have planted over 923,000 trees since 1989.”
I have enjoyed and sourced Paul Kendall’s articles on mythology within livinglibraryblog several times[xi]. Kendall’s writing brings a certain magic to the reality of the project that the Trees for Life organization has undertaken. The website is a beautiful resource of knowledge and a testament to the times of our ancestors… and even before. The goal to reforest portions of the highlands, seemingly unachievable, has been taking place one step at a time.
The organization offers several ways to donate or help out. A person can plant a tree or even just become a member for a small fee. What is most interesting to me, however, is the option of planting a Grove.
A person can make a donation by planting a Grove in someone’s memory, or for an important landmark like a wedding or a birth. It’s an excellent way to honour someone or some event while still being able to give back something long-lasting and meaningful. It is a way in which to reconnect with the past and to offer healing to an old friend.
To check out the sight, or to consider making a donation, please visit:
“In view of the fact that don Juan was acquainting me with a live world, the processes of change in such a live world never cease. Conclusions, therefore, are only mnemonic devices, or operational structures, which serve the function of springboards into new horizons of cognition.” – Carlos Castaneda (the Teaching of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge)
“Some students find that using the forfeda enriches their experience with the ogam. Many of them would never dream of doing an ogam reading without them. Others find them problematic at best. These additional letters are not found in any of the stone inscriptions, and were added one at a time at a much later date than the original ogam letters were developed, they were certainly a part of the medieval ogam tradition and are a legitimate part of the system. The ‘Auraicept na n-Eces includes them in some of the ogam lists, but ignores them in others. It appears to me that even the medieval ogamists didn’t agree about their use.” – Eryn Rowan Laurie (Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom)
Eryn Rowan Laurie, in the above quote, beautifully sums up both the allure and the confusion surrounding the Forfeda and their individual meanings. There seems to be little agreement, in fact, on what any of these letters represents to anyone.
These ‘extra letters’ are also sometimes referred to as diphthongs but more readily as Forfeda. Regardless of their name, they do present us with some problematic considerations.
The confusion begins with the number of letters to be included. Most lists contain five but some contain up to thirteen. These longer lists are rarer. We will be focusing here on the five forfeda that are presented most commonly by various experts.
The meanings and associations for these letters also varies widely, as do their names and letter associations[i].
The first letter Ea can also be found as Ch. It is generally referred to as Aspen or the Grove[ii] (Murray) but can also be woodbine or elecampane.
The second letter Oi can also be found as Th. It is usually listed as the Spindle Tree. Other occurrences are Ivy, Heather, Gooseberry or thorn trees.
The third letter Ui can also be found as Pe. This letter can even be drawn quite differently from time to time depending on the source. It can look like a frontwards or backwards P, a hook, or an outward single swirl. This letter is usually associated with the Honeysuckle. The other occurrences are the Beech tree (Murray), or the Woodbine and Ivy (John Mathews[iii]).
The fourth letter Io can also be found as Ph. This letter is usually the Gooseberry or the Pine. It can also be found as the Honeysuckle (Murray), the thorn, the guelder rose (Pennick) or the snowball (Pennick[iv]).
The fifth letter Ae can also be found as Xi. It is generally listed as the Witch Hazel or Mor, the Sea (Murray). It can also occur as the Beech or Pine tree. In the Scholar’s Primer it’s called “the twin of Hazel” which is where the association of Witch Hazel or Beech comes from as people try to interpret what this phrase meant.
Confused yet? Aren’t you glad there’s an introduction to the Forfeda, as opposed to us just jumping in with both feet?
The Ogham Tract, or Scholar’s Primer, is the most common source used to determine the meaning of the Forfeda by reconstructionists[v]. As far as an Ogham divination or magical source the most common used list is the one that was proposed by Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle. This is the reason that I placed in brackets the expert’s names above who stood out independently from all the others. For the most part I follow the Murray’s listing despite their misplacement of Honeysuckle and Beech. ‘The Grove’ was their solution to the recurrence of Aspen[vi]. ‘The Sea’ replaced the confusing twin of hazel (maybe they were thinking of the Hazel beneath the sea that fed the Salmon?[vii]) or the Pine (this to me would be a repeat similar to the Aspen. Silver Fir was a mistaken identity and was actually the Scots Pine[viii]).
Before I confuse you any further, let me address the elephant in the blog post if you will. If you’ve been following the Ogham listing through this blog, or are aware of the Ogham at all, you’re probably wondering where the hell Robert Graves is on the matter of the Forfeda?
The White Goddess brought the Ogham out of the museums and universities, and handed it back to the bards and the mystics – where it also belonged. In the White Goddess, however, Graves barely even mentions the Forfeda and doesn’t contribute anything of significance to their meanings in a poetic sense whatsoever. A lesser known book titled the Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects, on the other hand,contained an essay by Graves on the Forfeda. The following passages quote portions of that essay.
“I can best make my point by quoting [Dr. Anne Ross’] three-page treatment of an important Celtic myth that of the Sea- God’s Crane Bag; and her general view of cranes in Celtic tradition. The Crane Bag, she informs us correctly, belonged in Irish legend to Manannan God of the Sea and had been made from the skin of Aoife (‘pleasing’), a woman magically transformed into a crane. In this context Dr. Ross quotes an early medieval Irish Text[ix] which she calls ‘full of interest from a mythological point of view’. It certainly startled me:
“‘This crane-bag held every precious thing that Manannan possessed. The shirt of Manannan himself and his knife, and the shoulder strap of Goibne, the fierce smith, together with his smith’s hook; and the king of Scotland’s shears; and the king of Lochlainn’s helmet; and the bones of Asil’s (Assail’s) swine. A strip of the great whale’s back was also in that shapely crane-bag. When the sea was full, all the treasures were visible in it; when the fierce sea ebbed, the crane bag was empty.’”
Robert Graves then spends some time trying to solidify his Greek alphabet-Ogham connection that he had already dealt forth in the White Goddess. He then lists the numerous reasons why the crane was sacred to both the Celts and the Greeks. This is followed by references from Macalister’s Secret languages of Ireland and Calder’s The Scholar’s Primer. Graves tries to assure us that the poets used the Ogham as a secret code.
“That the crane bag was filled when the sea was in flood,” Graves continues, “but emptied when it ebbed, means that these Ogham signs made complete sense for poetic Sons of Manannan, but none for the uninitiated outsiders. The Crane Bag, in fact, was not a tangible object, but, like Athene’s Goatskin Bag, the Aegis, which contained the Gorgon’s head, existed only as a metaphor, No more than two of the regular twenty letters which it contained are described in pictographic form by the poets quoted by Dr. Ross; namely M and G, the initials of Manannan and Goibne the Smith. These consist respectively, of one, and two nicks of the diagonal letter group crossing the stem-line. They are here disguised in ridding pictorial terms as ‘Manannan’s Knife’ (stuck in his belt) and ‘Goibne’s shoulder strap’ (which crossed his belt to his sword) and are offered merely as samples of the more ancient letters. As for the other miscellaneous objects found in the Crane Bag: if one thinks poetically, not scientifically, their meaning leaps to the eye.”
These items are listed as ‘the King of Scotland’s Shears’(the X), ‘the king of Lochlainn’s helmet’ (with his face underneath, the four sided diamond), ‘the bones of Assail’s swine’ (the double lined X out to the side of the line), ‘Goibne’s smith-hook’ (the P or hook symbol), and Manannan’s own shirt’, which “is a map of the sea showing lines of longitude and latitude.”
Graves then starts to ponder over the meanings of these treasures. He thinks that the first letter, CH, may have been the beginning of the name of a Scottish King (as a mnemonic device used in much the same way that each tree was chosen to represent a certain letter) and that perhaps the King of Lochlainn (Norway or Norse settlement of Dublin) could have had a Th letter name, like Thor.
Graves then surmises that the bones of Assail’s swine are possibly the crossed stalks of sacred mushrooms (Mushrooms are ‘little pigs’ in Latin and Italian) that had been discarded, “as bones from meat.” Graves has already explained Manannan’s shirt and he does not emphasize any further on Goibne’s fish hook.
“But I hear some conscientious reader complaining, ‘Hi, wait a bit! What about the strip of whale’s back in the Crane Bag?’ That was so easy that I left the explanation out. Ogham nicks make no certain sense without a stem line; and for a Sea-God the only possible stem line was the horizon-dark and slightly arched like the back of a whale.”
Robert Graves then puffs out his chest a bit, pats himself on the back enthusiastically, and then exits off stage to the left… thus concluding his essay.
Colin Murray, in the Celtic Tree Oracle, made it no secret that he was using both the Ogham Tract (Book of Ballymote) and the Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects as the two sources for his and Liz’s listings of the Forfeda found in their book.
“The knowledge of the Crane Bag as displayed in the interpretation by Robert Graves is a fine example of the poetic insight needed to relive the perception of the old poets and Bards and to understand their way of thinking.”
The book’s introduction then shares a Scottish folk poem from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica. In the poem, a monster is captured and forced to build a house before he will be released. This monster sings a song as he’s working, which basically says that he’s including every tree of the forest except for the wild fig and Aspen, and in a later version of the same song the Yew, the Blackthorn and the Ivy are the trees that are removed from the dwelling. According to Murray, by leaving out these trees the monster has essentially cursed the home owner from ever being reborn to a better life, as well as, “the determination and self knowledge that would be necessary for it to succeed.” Of course, again, the hidden aspects of the tale are only present for someone who has knowledge of the Ogham or the tree meanings in Celtic tree-lore. Liz and Colin Murray end part one of their introductions as follows:
“This brief introduction to the trees in the forest of Celtic knowledge should have provided an insight into the way the tree knowledge was described, revealing itself only to those with the appropriate understanding. This leads us on to actually using Ogham and its hidden meanings in the search for the inner man and woman.”
In the Ogham Tract it’s clear that the medieval experts didn’t agree on a meaning or listing for each tree found in the final set of letters. Robert Graves, on the other hand, did not suggest – even once – that the last five “extra” letters were trees at all.
Robert Graves, by defining more clearly the shirt of Manannan, left us with Mor, the sea, as the final letter of the Forfeda. At least that’s the most likely place from which Colin Murray took the meaning of “the Sea” from.
I believe that Colin Murray, using the King of Lochlainn’s shears as a clue, decided that the first letter of the Forfeda was the Grove. In a mythological or symbolic sense, if the undergrowth of the forest were to be cut down, as a sheep would be sheared, the action could in fact create a Grove.
I also believe – and this is only a theory that cannot be verified – that Colin Murray was working on discovering the metaphorical meanings of the last few letters of the Forfeda. These were listed in The Celtic Tree Oracle as the Spindle, the Honeysuckle, and the Beech tree. Is it possible that Colin passed away before he could discover them? Perhaps he already had, and these were left in his notes unrecognized for what they really were, hidden in plain sight before the Celtic tree Oracle was ever published?
Also to be considered, John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman explores the possibilities of deeper meaning to all of the letters in the “riddling glosses” found in the Word-Oghams. He also presents clues associated with Finn or Fionn’s wheel, the Celtic Mandela diagram.
The Forfeda offers us an opportunity for the student of Ogham. It seems clear, to me anyways, that these letters were added at a time when the Ogham had already become a magical alphabet, and when the Ogham was no longer just being used as a land marking device. The difficult nature of the Forfeda does give the Ogham student the opportunity to explore these “extra letters” and come to their own conclusions, however. These next five letters will be presented in a way that speaks to me. This is in no way the final say on anything. In fact, this section will be far more Neopagan than reconstructionist.
In the Celtic Tree Oracle the Forfeda are included as regular divination cards. These cards are, perhaps, similar to the major arcana of the tarot. Some systems use the Forfeda on a casting cloth upon the ground. The twenty letters are then thrown upon these “extra” five letters in an attempt at divination, as well.
Mythological and magically, these final letters seem to be missing their place within the myths and legends of the Celtic ancestors. This is why the Manannan Crane Bag legend fit so nicely into my own system of study and meditation. It’s clear from the differences of opinion found in the Book of Ballymote – especially within the Ogham tract – that the truth of these letters may never be fully known. There’s a fine line to walk here then.
It’s important to remember, that this attempt at reconstruction may be nothing more than fallacy. This is especially true when one considers the historical sources and the contradictions that we’re left to work with.
There’s one final thing to consider, as well. In the Celtic Tree Oracle Liz and Colin Murray speak of Dr. Berry Fell’s discovery of Ogham carvings in America and Brenda Sullivan’s similar theories about rock carvings found in Africa in the appendix. These ideas have been thrown aside by scholars for a wide variety of reasons including time frame impossibilities and there being greater differences than similarities in the lettering[x]. Many of Robert Graves’ theories have been disproven and have not stood the test of time either. Though he came from a place of poetic inspiration he also riddled his writing with factual inaccuracies that are too many to name[xi].
I’ve always enjoyed the work of Joseph Campbell. In reading the Hero of a Thousand Faces or watching his famous interviews on the Power of Myth – taped on the Skywalker ranch – I’m reminded just how similar we can sometimes evolve as people, mythological and completely independent from one another. Dragons and little people exist within cultural beliefs found almost everywhere. So do ghosts and the undead. There are Cinderella motifs and the hero’s journey found all over the world. The shaman, and the otherworld in which he travels, is found throughout every region of our planet, as well.
It’s my personal belief, that these mystical encounters either spiritually, evolutionary or psychologically, are part of our human experience. I do not believe that because a shaman from Africa goes to a similar place (Otherworld) as a shaman from Hawaii or El Salvador that this must be because there was physical over-land or sea travel which brought the exchanging of ideas thousands of years ago. These lines many of the researchers of the past make in the sand, for similar arguments, are shaky at best. Perhaps similarities of belief are more innate than science can realize in its present infancy?
I believe that without Robert Graves the Ogham would currently be nothing more than a footnote in a legend, or a tourist attraction at the corner of a churchyard or on the back of some farmer’s field. I do not believe as he did, however, that our ancestors needed to carry the religious practices of the Greeks or Hebrews all the way to Ireland to create a new, previously nonexistent, magical system of beliefs. They already had their own[xii].
Whatever it is that I believe or look into, though, I must always be open to the possibility that my opinion may change due to new discoveries or to things that I’d previously overlooked. I feel that as we start to explore the Forfeda that this statement is an especially important one to make.
The opinions that follow, on the Forfeda, are not as fixed in my mind as most of the other letters of the Ogham.
“There is a forth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to – and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. Myth can teach you that.” – Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth, 1985)
[i] Robert Graves was a poet not a historian. Many new Ogham users make the mistake of seeing him as an academic, and assume his work is historically accurate.
[ii] Occurring in the forest, but not a tree itself.
[iii] The Celtic Shaman.
[iv] Magical Alphabets.
[vi] A partial reason?
[vii] Another partial reason? Read on to learn about the shirt of Manannan.
[viii] See the Ailm blog entry. Scots Fir was the name used for Scots Pine at the time that the Ogham Tract was written. The Silver Fir had not been introduced into Ireland at the time this tract was written. Like other variations of names in the tract (furz/gorse or Sloe/Blackthorn) the Pine and the Fir tree which were listed are actually the same tree. The variation in name is likely poetic flair, but may also have been a translation error.
[xii] We shouldn’t overlook the fact that it was most often Christian monks who wrote down the first Irish legends. Forever grateful we should be, they could not have helped but to have seen the Celtic world through their own religious paradigms, though. This would have coloured the old stories in many ways.