Ailm (Fir or Pine)

Out of my experience, such as it is (and it is limited enough) one fixed conclusion dogmatically emerges, and that is this, that we with our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest. The maple and the pine may whisper to each other with their leaves, and Conanicut and Newport hear each other’s foghorns. But the trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands also hang together through the ocean’s bottom. Just so there is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences…” –William James (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)[i]

The Roots:

The sixteenth letter of the Ogham is Ailm. This is the Scotch Fir or Scots Pine.

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

The first Silver Fir, however, is not believed to have been introduced into neighbouring Scotland until 1603[iii]. The Ogham Tract is from the Book of Ballymote believed to be written in about 1390[iv]. Before the 18th century the Scots Pine was known as Scotch or Scots Fir[v] so the mention of the “Fir” within the Ogham Tract is most likely a reference to the Pine[vi]. The Scots Pine is native to the British Isles and would have been better known in Ireland. Pine is also mentioned within the Ogham tract, but various names for the same tree are found for other letters as well. For example the Yew is also the Service Tree, Blackthorn is also Sloe, and Quicken is also the Rowan. It is likely that both Pine and Fir refer to the Scotch Fir or Scots Pine. The variety of names given for the same species may be a poetic recording or even from the translation by George Calder in 1917[vii].

Firs and Pines -as well as Spruces, Cedars and others- are part of the same family known as Pinaceae. These conifers share a prehistoric heritage as members of the first trees growing in many areas upon the land of our planet. The close relation -and primordial ancestry- make them more akin to one another than many other trees that have
greater differences. For this reason the Pinaceae trees are easily interchangeable, and the choice to honour one above another -within the Ogham list- may feel quite comfortable to many students of the Ogham.

Liz and Colin Murray speak of Ailm as being a few of “long sight and clear vision[viii].” Nigel Pennick –who suggests the few represents the Elm, however- agrees. He adds that Ailm is about, “Rising above adversity” as well[ix].

John Micheal Greer lists the attributes of Ailm as vision, understanding, seeing things in perspective, and expanded awareness[x].

Robert Graves calls Ailm or the Fir, “the Birth Tree of Northern Europe[xi].”

Eryn Rowan Laurie also says that Ailm represents, “origins, creation, epiphany, pregnancy and birth[xii].”

Ailm, the Scotch Fir or Pine, is the tree of new beginnings and clarity of perspective. These ancient trees also seem to represent the Cailleach, the Celtic hag goddess.

The Trunk:

Robert Graves, in the White Goddess, claimed that there was a Gallic Fir goddess named Druantia who was also known as “the Queen of the Druids.” She was also apparently “the mother” of the tree calendar.

I have never been able to find a reference -before Robert Graves that is- that even mentions such an important figure as “the Queen of the Druids”. New age pagans speak of her often enough though, and she even has a page on Wikipedia that references two Llewellyn authors from 2006. As far as I can tell, this goddess is completely fictitious.

Robert Graves’ Druantia is fictitious. Just like his tree calendar that she was supposed to have been the mother of.

Graves proposed that the Ogham was actually a tree calendar and much of the White Goddess is actually a poetic essay supportive of this idea. The calendar starts on December 24th with the Birch tree. Each of the thirteen months of the year continue then as Rowan, Ash, Alder, Willow, Hawthorn, Oak, Holly, Hazel, Vine, Ivy, Reed, and then Elder. His justification is an interpretation of an old Irish poem the Song of Amergin which he believed was a code left for those with poetic sight –him- to find answers within. He reaches into his own interpretations of myths and observations of nature to support these conclusions.

The idea is actually quite beautiful and many people like the idea of an Ogham calendar and have adapted it into their own lives.

Liz and Colin Murray took the idea and ran with it a little further several  decades later. They perceived things differently though. They believed that the year would have started at Samhain – Halloween- and so took the same calendar but just made it begin earlier at October 31st. Fair enough. This is truly the beginning of the Celtic year according to most scholars. The justification for many of Graves’ choices however fell short with the Murray’s shift though. It did not make sense, at least as Graves had described it, to have the Hazel/Salmon month in July when the salmon clearly run in fall – as one example.

Since then many have believed full heartedly in a tree calendar. The Ogham was not even really a tree alphabet –as we have discussed many times before- how could it then be a tree calendar?

I don’t see anything wrong with using an Ogham tree calendar, as long as one is aware that it’s not based on historical fact. As long as that individual is not passing on that same information as “the truth” to other seekers then what is the harm in any new shaping of old ideas? Perhaps there is a niche crowd that needs a Fir goddess Druantia just like there seems to be a pocket of people who want to believe in Cernunna the female counterpart of Cernunnos[xiii]?

The problem is that those who seek are often looking for real connection to the past, to the spirits of old, and ultimately to themselves and nature. I know that I felt misled when I began to realize that the teachers of the faiths that resonated most deeply within my soul were just as confused as I was, maybe even more so. They had no real relationship with the spirits they professed to. Why else would they assume that it was okay to make things up about beings that others believed were real and divine even? Was it because there were times that they were unable to find answers, so they decided to fill in the blanks themselves?

The conifers, for example, do not make as many appearances in myth as some of the other trees do.

According to Fred Hageneder in the Meaning of Trees, the Pine had special meaning to the Scottish. He claims that this tree was considered a good place to be buried beneath by clan chiefs and warriors. This is further supported on the Trees for Life: Restoring the Caledonian Forest website. In the ‘Pine mythology’ section Paul Kendall says that the Pine was used as a marker for the burial places of warriors, heroes and chieftains[xiv].

In more folkloric times Pine cones were often used in spells. They were carried to increase fertility, for attracting wealth, money and were also seen as powerful herbs for purification rites and protection spells[xv].

In mythology Merlin climbed the Pine of Barenton in a Breton story, “To have a profound revelation, and he never returned to the mortal world[xvi].” This is revealing as tree climbing appears in various shamanistic traditions around the world.

In the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries W.Y. Evans-Wentz shares a story about St. Martin and a sacred Pine found in Tours, central France[xvii] that is worth sharing. Apparently, when St. Martin threatened to fell the tree to prove to the locals that it wasn’t sacred, “The people agreed to let it be cut down on the condition that the saint should receive its great trunk on his head as it fell.” St. Martin decided not to have the tree cut down after all!

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

In Visions of the Cailleach Sorita d’Este and David Rankine describe the Cailleach as follows; “Some tales portray her as a benevolent and primal giantess from the dawn of time who shaped the land and controlled the forces of nature, others as the harsh spirit of winter.”

The references in the Celtic myths to the Pine or Fir are indeed sparse. This does not mean that the conifer trees were not sacred, however. As Hageneder reminds us, “The Pine is the tree that features most frequently in the badges of the Scottish clans”. From a culture where symbols are keys to the land of spirit and of the fey, that tells us something indeed.

Though mysterious and illusive, Ailm, the Scotch Fir or Pine, is the tree of primordial beginnings and deep understandings.

The Foliage:

The first trees were actually giant ferns. Then there were palm-like trees called cycad, which still exist in some places today.

Arriving at, “About the same time that the first warm-blooded mammals appeared, the conifers became for millions of years the dominant trees on the planet. Their seeds, contained in distinctive cones, enabled them to dominate the environment and overshadow the spore plants, and to spread into habitats where there had been no previous growth. Today’s descendents of those ancient conifer forests –pines, spruces, firs, larches, cedars, cypresses, and junipers – include some of our tallest trees and the oldest living plants.[xviii]

Today the Scots Pine is the most widely distributed coniferous tree in the world and a “keystone species for the Caledonia forest[xix].”

The Silver Fir, however, is highly sensitive to air pollution. They are extremely endangered. The last wild Silver Fir tree died in Bavaria Germany only a few years ago[xx].

A great tragedy.

“Go to the rock of Osinn,” said the hag, “where the withered pine spreads its bare branches to the sky. There, as the moon rises, walk three times withershins round the riven trunk, and cast the broth on the ground before her.” – George Douglas (Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales. 1901)


[i] William James is quoted in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz (1911).

[ii] The White Goddess.

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

[iv] Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology.

[v] Firefly Encyclopedia of Trees.

[vi] Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, says that Fir and Pine seem interchangeable within the Ogham tract text, most especially the Irish word gius which seems to apply to them both. Her statement seems to support my theory even further.

[viii] Celtic Tree Oracle.

[ix] Magical Alphabets.

[x] The Druid Magic Handbook.

[xi] The White Goddess.

[xii] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[xiii] Helmut Birkahn is a German Celtic historian quoted by Sabine Heinz in Celtic Symbols.

[xv] Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook. Jacqueline Memory Paterson. Etc.

[xvi] Fred Hageneder.

[xvii] This would not be considered a Celtic story due to the time frame and geographical area.

[xviii] The Secret Life of the Forest. Richard M. Ketchum.

[xx] Fred Hageneder.

Ruis (Elder)

“It is far easier to be sensible in cities than in many country places I could tell you of. When one walks on those grey roads at evening by the scented elder-bushes of the white cottages, watching the faint mountains gathering the clouds upon their heads, one all too readily discovers, beyond the thin cobweb veil of the senses, those creatures, the goblins, hurrying from the white square stone door to the north, or from the Heart Lake in the south.”  – William Butler Yeats (the Celtic Twilight. 1893, 1902)

The Roots:

The fifteenth few of the Ogham is Ruis, the Elder tree.

The Elder is yet another tree with strong associations to the fairy realm. The Elder is also said to be the tree of witches.

John Michael Greer called this letter the few of, “resolutions, fulfillments, and endings.” With the completion of any path, he continues, comes the advancement of new beginnings[i]. Liz and Colin Murray likewise call the Elder the tree of regeneration. It is, they state, the essence of, “life in death and death in life[ii].”

Robert Graves calls the Elder tree, “The Tree of Doom.” He also calls it the witch’s tree[iii].

Nigel Pennick seems to agree with him, but elaborates much further. He claims that Ruis is sacred to the dark aspects of the Mother Goddess, which is the hag. Pennick also says that it is the Ogham letter of “timelessness[iv].”

Eryn Rowan Laurie -our favourite Celtic reconstructionist- calls the Elder a tree of cursing and ill fortune by some, but a “protective force” of others. She links Ruis –but not necessarily the Elder tree- to intensity, passion, guilt, frenzy, jealousy and shame[v]. These associations are strongly supported by the Ogham Tract, from the Book of Ballymote, as being valid. Ruis is stated there as a the letter of “shame,” “blushing,” “redness of face.” and “the glow of anger.”

Elder is a tree of the fairies and is often associated with the Cauldron of Rebirth found in legend.

While the various meanings of Ruis seem to contradict one another on the surface there is a common thread throughout.

The Elder is a tree of power and should be dealt with in a reverent fashion.

The Trunk:

The Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology claims that the Elder is, “A tree of the fairy world.” The dictionary reports that, “many individual [Elder] trees are thought to be haunted by fairies or demons[vi].”

Perhaps it is the Elder tree’s ability to regenerate that has garnered a place for it in the realms of witchery and fairy folklore? This is a trait that led Liz and Colin Murray[vii], as well as Jacqueline Memory Paterson[viii], to associate it with the Celtic Cauldron of Rebirth[ix].

In Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland Lady Wilde says that the Elder is sacred alongside the Yew and the Ash tree. The bark of the Elder tree, as we covered previously, was also one of the, “Seven fairy herbs of great power” along with Ivy and Hawthorn. Included in Lady Wilde’s book are various spells. An example is the use of Elder and Apple roots to expel evil spirits from the body in a type of medieval pagan exorcism. Perhaps, it is these old half-remembered spells that gave the Elder its witchy reputation instead?

It would seem that Lady Wilde isn’t the only one to associate Elder with witches. Robert Graves said that in Ireland witches would ride an Elder stick -instead of the more traditional Ash- as a steed[x]. Jacqueline Memory Paterson claimed in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook, that witches used Elder in divination. Eryn Rowan Laurie also claimed that to, “Anoint the eyes with [Elder] sap would allow the person to see in the Sidhe realm,” or the land of the fairies[xi].

Perhaps much of the folklore surrounding the tree is a result of the belief that some of the Sidhe actually reside within the Elder itself?  In The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries Evans-Wentz says that in the Isle of Mann the Elder tree was inhabited by fairies. He goes on to share a tale in which a woman who merely ran into an Elder tree, experienced “immediate and terrible swelling”.

Fred Hageneder likewise included the British Isles in his list of European countries that held the Elder tree as, “The traditional guardian tree of the household and farmyard.” Hageneder reveals that, “It was said that the good house spirit of the home resided in the Elder bush, and as recently as the 19th century it was a widespread custom to bring her an offering of water, milk or beer, together with cake or bread, at least once a week and even daily[xii].”

The Elder wand, or staff, was also believed to be imbued with power.

The tradition of the Elder has even gained a foothold within the popular culture of present day. In J.K. Rowling’s incredibly popular Harry Potter series, it is an Elder wand that is one of the three Deathly Hallows found in the book of the same name. What is perhaps even further revealing, the wand is also known as “Deathstick” or “The Wand of Destiny”. Rowling has often been acknowledged as having used the mythology of the Celts within her stories as a source of inspiration[xiii].

Like many other goddess trees, such as the Blackthorn or Hawthorn, the Elder carries a white flower in the spring and a dark fruit in the fall. Maybe this physical feature is the reason for the trees mythological status?

Maybe it is the trees association with passion and revelry that makes it a most ideal associate to the fairy kingdom? For where else do mortal men, women, and children meet with the fairy than in the places of celebration? It is a well known fact that the fairy of legend like to dance and to feast, so perhaps it is in this state that the two kingdoms become the closest? For it seems that when humans and the Sidhe are dancing side by side -parallel to one another in sisterly realms- that the bridge is crossed and the worlds become one.

Whatever the cause may be for the tree’s grand status within the realms of legend, it is important to note that the Elder is another tree that can both protect us and harm us. It is for this reason that Ruis should be dealt with reverently.  It is for this reason that Ruis -the tree of regeneration, protection, ill luck and passion- has always been both feared and respected.

The Foliage:

Elder has been called the Country Medicine Chest by many[xiv]. The list of healing properties attributed to the Elder tree is extensive. Jacqueline Memroy Paterson calls Elder the “Queen of Herbs”.

Folklore remedy lists are exhaustive in nature.

There are several pages dedicated to Elder in almost any herb book. In the Healing Plants Bible the leaves are listed as diaphoretic and diuretic, aiding in the treatment of wounds and bruises. With St. John’s wort and soapwort, the extract inhibits both the influenza and Herpes simplex viruses. Elder also has uses for ulcers, colds, fevers, bronchitis, coughs, skin complexion issues, sunburn, and can help protect against infections. It is also anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial and helps reduce the damage of bad cholesterol.  The same book also says that, “as an immuno-stimulant, the juice is beneficial to AIDS patiants”. It has recently been shown to have promise as an additive in weight reduction supplements. The oil is also believed to help alleviate the pain of arthritis.

According to Lesley Bremness in Herbs, Elder bark is given for epilepsy and the roots treat lymphatic and kidney ailments. “In Chinese medicine the leaves, stems, and roots are used to treat fractures and muscle spasms.”

A leaf tea can also be used as a more natural insecticide in gardening.

It would seem that Ruis, the Elder tree, truly is the Country Medicine Chest.

Caution:  It should be noted here that the Elderberry fruit growing naturally in the Western parts of North America is toxic. The toxins can be removed through cooking according to the British Columbian Nature Guide. Parts of various other types of Elder are also poisonous and the use of the plant should be with the guidance of an experienced mentor only or by using previously prepared remedies by an accredited herbalist.

 “How full of a mystic antiquity are the names of the lotus, the olive, and the ash! Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Scandinavia spring to our minds as the words are heard. The syllables seem haunted to this day by the dryads that the Greek mind saw in every tree. They carry us back to the age of the nymphs who made their home in pools and seas. There was a time when nature seemed to man but as the garment of some large sweet presence that lived and breathed within it. Alas, that age is gone. Irish elder and quicken still point to the neighbourhood of the Neolithic doorsill, but no longer are they held to guard the village with their mysterious benedictions.” –Sister Nivedita (Studies From an Eastern Home. 1913)



[i] The Druid Magic Handbook.

[ii] The Celtic Tree Oracle.

[iii] The White Goddess.

[iv] Magical Alphabets.

[v] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[vi] James MacKillop.

[vii] The Celtic Tree Oracle.

[viii] Tree Wisdom: The Definitive Guidebook.

[ix] In Celtic legend the Cauldron of Rebirth, or Pair Dadeni, is a magical item found in the second branch of the Mabinogion and is attached to the legend of Bran, “the Blessed”. The item can revive the dead back to life if they are placed within it. The cauldron is eventually destroyed during a great battle –the same battle that has Bran ask that his head be cut off- when Bran’s half brother pretends to be dead and is placed inside of it.

[x] The White Goddess.

[xi] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[xii] The Meaning of Trees.

[xiv]Fred Hegeneder, Helen Farmer-Knowles, etc.

Straif (Blackthorn)

“Better the bramble than the black-thorn, better the black-thorn than the devil. He who would go in the bramble for me, I would go in the thorn for him” – Proverb (Alexander
Carmichael: Carmina Gadelica Vol. II. 1900)

The Roots:

The fourteenth letter Straif is the few of the blackthorn, which is also known as the sloe tree.

Blackthorn is often associated with misfortune and tragedy, but it can also be seen as a tree of great power. Robert Graves said that the blackthorn was “unbeloved by men”, claiming that it was both unlucky and that it was associated with black magic[i].

Liz and Colin Murray further claimed that this letter was a harbinger of necessary change and that it was a warning of a coming season of discontent[ii]. John Michael Greer –in more recent times- has a very similar meaning listed in the Druid Magic Handbook saying that Straif is the letter of difficult change. Greer says that there is no choice but to move forward during such trying circumstances.

What may be seen as great change by some, can also be viewed as mighty power by others.

Nigel Pennick calls the blackthorn, “a major tree of magical power”. He claims that the influences of the blackthorn reaches into both worlds[iii].

Eryn Rowan Laurie says that Straif is the few of spiritual work, secrets, shapeshifting, divination and change[iv].

The blackthorn is a tree -or thorn bush- of the Sidhe. Straif is connected to the Leanan-Sidhe and by association to the goddess Aine and the Ban-Sidhe. It is considered sacred to the fairies and was believed to be very unlucky to cut or harm the tree at certain times of the year, most especially May 11th and November 11th.

Straif, the blackthorn, is the tree of ill omens, transformation and power.

The Trunk:

In the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1902) W.Y. Evan Wentz lists the Lunantishee as tribes of fairy that were responsible for guarding the blackthorn or sloe trees. Sidhe is pronounced shee, so despite the confusing variations in spelling -and the lack of
recurrence of the above spelling in the old books- Wentz was speaking of the Leanan Sidhe.

The Leanan Sidhe is called the, “Spirit of Life” by Lady Wilde in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland (1911). She then calls the Ban Sidhe (Banshee)
the, “Spirit of Death”. The Leanan Sidhe would give inspiration to the musician or poet and would sometimes give men valour or strength in battle. The Ban Sidhe on the other hand, would foretell doom. The Sidhe –sometimes the Tuatha De Danaan- have very blurred lines in the Irish Celtic legends with the gods of the ancestors.

Interestingly enough, it was believed that the blackthorn was sacred to the goddess because of the contrast of the trees colors during various seasons. The white flower of spring symbolizes the beautiful, peaceful and life-giving aspect of the goddess while the black fruit of autumn symbolize the death dealing destroyer-of-life personae of the same goddess. The tree balances white and dark, but also has a red sap that can be seen as the third colour sacred to goddesses of the land[v].

It is likely that the blackthorn was a revered and respected tree associated with the Sidhe before the coming of Christianity and later became feared to greater degrees. The new faith brought the idea that spirits that did not exist in the Hebrew texts, were just as likely to be aspects of the devil or wandering demons seeking out the souls of non believers[vi].

It should be no surprise then that the Leanan Sidhe is sometimes seen as a vampire-like figure that makes men fall in love with her to steal their souls. The solitary version of the Leanan-Sidhe is also often seen as being Aine the goddess who is sometimes referred to as the Fairy Queen[vii].

The following story is taken from Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory (1904) and is found in Part I: Book IV: Aine.  It sheds some light on the contrast of beauty and darkness that makes up this aspect of the Leanan Sidhe:

AND as to Aine, that some said was a daughter of Manannan, but some said was the Morrigu herself, there was a stone belonging to her that was called Cathair Aine. And if any one would sit on that stone he would be in danger of losing his wits, and any one that would sit on it three times would lose them for ever. And people whose wits were astray would make their way to it, and mad dogs would come from all parts of the country, and would flock around it, and then they would go into the sea to Aine’s place there. But those that did cures by herbs said she had power over the whole body; and she used to give gifts of poetry and of music, and she often gave her love to men, and they
called her the Leanan Sidhe, the Sweetheart of the Sidhe.

And it was no safe thing to offend Aine, for she was very revengeful. Oilioll Oluim, a king of Ireland, killed her brother one time, and it is what she did, she made a great yew-tree by enchantment beside the river Maigh in Luimnech, and she put a little man in it, playing sweet music on a harp. And Oilioli’s son was passing the river with his step-brother, and they saw the tree and heard the sweet music from it. And first they quarrelled as to which of them would have the little harper, and then they quarrelled about the tree, and they asked a judgment from Ollioll, and he gave it for his own son. And it was the bad feeling about that judgment that led to the battle of Magh Mucruimhe, and Oilioll and his seven sons were killed there, and so Aine got her revenge.

(Merlin and the Fairy Queen. John Duncan. sacred-texts.com)

The association of the powerful Leanan Sidhe, the Fairy Queen Aine, and likely the Ban Sidhe, to the blackthorn warns us that this is no tree to be trifled with. Its strong ties to the fairy kingdom are reminiscent of the powers of the hawthorn.

The blackthorn is, in fact, often considered to be a sister tree to the hawthorn. It can have very negative qualities, however, as it was a tree that was used – most especially the thorn- in black magic. It was believed that during the time of the witch hunts -the purging of the older pagan beliefs- that it was the devil himself that would prick the witch’s finger with a thorn as a sort of initiation. Thus the superstition of the blackthorn became further compounded over time through fear and persecution[viii].

Straif, the blackthorn, has protective qualities as well. Besides being used in hedging it was also thought to provide protection against ghosts, those restless spirits, that were found throughout Ireland[ix].

The tree of fairies and witches, the blackthorn not only exists in both worlds simultaneously, it exists –it can be argued- more in the Otherworld than it does on the land before us. The tree can protect us, but it can also harm us if we are not careful and respectful. Straif, the fourteenth few, is the tree of magical power and
transformation.

The Foliage:

The Blackthorn does not grow in Western North America but has naturalized in parts of Eastern North America[x].

Blackthorn, or prunus spinosa, is part of a family of 200 species. The blackthorn is related to the plum, apricot, almond, peach and cherry trees. Thus, the blackthorn’s closest relatives in the Pacific Northwest are the cherry trees. The similarity is apparent, if and when the sloe become a tree.

This is one of the problems that Eryn Rowan Laurie warned us about. When the tree of the “Ogham Tree Calendar” does not exist in a certain region what does one replace it with when the need for working with that plant directly surfaces?

In its tree form the similarity to cherry trees is apparent. The cherry trees do not seem to ever become the thorny shrubs that are more common for the blackthorn though. What tree would replace it in its absence then? This is no easy question to answer and each person must find their own understanding if they are to pursue this path.

For me the answer lies in the blackberry.

The blackberry is a thorny plant that grows in shrubs. Like the blackthorn it grows a white flower in spring. Like the blackthorn it also produces a dark purple-black fruit in fall. Interestingly enough, it also seems to have taboos and superstitions attached to it.

According to Robert Graves the blackberry was associated with the devil, and the fruit was either never picked –or like the blackthorn- was considered unfortunate to pick at certain times of the year. Also like the blackthorn the blackberry was considered very unlucky[xi].

The fit is not as perfect as it might initially appear, however. The blackberry rarely grows into anything resembling a tree. The native Trailing Blackberry grows along the ground while the introduced and widespread Himalayan Blackberry also mostly grows along the ground. I have seen individual branches in the forest growing straight into the air, at heights around ten feet or more, but the stems looks nothing like the trunks of trees[xii].

The blackberry is as good a substitute for the Ogham letter as I have found for my area however. What once was a mnemonic device to my ancestors became both meaningful and magical to them over time as it has for me. The important thing for me –as it should be for you as well- is to find something that honours your own path and feels right to you. As long as we remember not to sell our own discoveries as the gospel of our ancestor -and to treat the path with reverence and respect- then the Ogham path of knowledge and wisdom has much to teach us both of the past and of the possible future, as well as of the unseen realms.

Straif is not only a dark tree of power and magic, it is also mysterious and wise. In our journey through the forest it can take us places that we never imagined that we could go.

“The blackthorn’s scented white blossoms, and their contrast with its dark, spiny branches, symbolizes the general theme of light and darkness with which the plant has
been associated since ancient times. The dangerous, long spikes and the red “blood” that flows in the veins of the blackthorn tree enhance the dramatic effect even further. The blossoms, the fruits and the crimson sap display the three colours of the Great Goddess: white, black, and red. And as its name suggests, this tree has been associated with the dark aspects of life, such as night, death, and the underworld.”
 – Fred Hageneder (The Meaning of Trees)


[i] The White Goddess.

[ii] The Celtic Tree Oracle.

[iii] Magical Alphabets.

[iv] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[v] The Meaning of Trees. Fred Hageneder.

[vi] Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook, Jacqueline Memory Paterson.

[vii] Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. James MacKillop.

[viii] Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook.

[ix] Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology.

[x] Native Trees of Canada. Department of Forestry. 1966.

[xi] The White Goddess.

[xii] Plants of Coastal British Columbia. Pojar and MacKinnon