The Raven and Crow of the Celts – Part II: Fairytales and Folklore

Karyn Dunbar
by Karyn Dunbar, gallery accessed by clicking on image

“The Raven is equally a bird of omen, Raven-knowledge, or wisdom being proverbial” – George Henderson. (Survival in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911)

Many Celtic Fairytales contain remnants of the old stories of Gods and Goddesses [part I]. In Donald Mackenzie’s 1917 Wonder Tales of Scottish Myth, for example, we’re told that the Banshee can appear as a black dog, a Raven, or a Hoodie Crow during the day. The older spelling of Banshee was Bean Sidhe. The word Sidhe is usually used in relation to the Tuatha De Danaan, Old Ireland’s pre Christian deities[i].

Thomas Croker claimed, in his 1825 book Fairy Legends of South Ireland, that the Leprechaun “properly written” was Preachan. Croker said that the name meant, “Raven.”

In the 1773 book Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by Sir. George Douglas, we find a story reminiscent of much older shapeshifting myths when a man’s wife turns herself into a Raven to avoid some ravenous dogs.  The same power of transformation is possessed by the Witches of Mull in George Henderson’s 1911 book, Survival in Belief Amongst Celts.  The most famous Witch of Mull was Doideag, a powerful sorceress who some believed sank the Spanish Armada[ii].

There are many fairytales in which a person is turned into a Raven, or Crow, as part of a curse. In Joseph Jacob’s 1894 More Celtic Fairytales, for example, a man is turned into a Raven when his wife strikes him. Usually, however, the Raven’s curse is somehow related to “the son of a king” such as the two stories which are found in J.F. Campbell’s 1890 Popular Tales of West Highlands.

In the story of the Battle of the Birds, found in Joseph Jacob’s earlier 1892 book Celtic Fairy Tales, a king’s son happens upon a fierce battle. All of the other creatures have already fled the battlefield or are dead, except for a black Raven and a snake locked in mortal combat. The king’s son aids the Raven and kills the snake. The Raven then leads the king’s son over nine bens, glens and mountain moors in one day, six on the following day, and three on the final day. On the third morning the Raven has disappeared and a “handsome lad” is standing in his place. This boy claims that an evil druid had put a curse on him, transforming him into a Raven. As thanks, for saving his life and lifting the curse, the Raven-boy gives the king’s son a gift of “a bundle,” which contains in it a Castle and an Apple orchard.

In Popular Tales of West Highlands is the story of The Hoodie Crow. In it, the youngest of three sisters agrees to marry a Crow.  Once married, she discovers that her husband is really a handsome man – of course. Due to her love, the curse becomes partially lifted and the third daughter is forced to decide if she wants her husband as a man or as a Crow during the day. The bride eventually decides that her husband will be a man during the day and a Crow at night.

The Raven and Crow of the Celts
The Hoodie Crow. H.G. Ford. 1919

“The Crow was a bird of darkness. He was always associated with the man skilled in Black Airt [sic]” – Walter Greger (Notes on Folklore of Northeast Scotland. 1881)

In folklore, the Raven and Crow of the Celts can be somewhat of a guardian angel, as well. Such is the case with the Crow found in Joseph Jacob’s Celtic Fairy Tales. In it, a talking bird appears to a man who’s having problems with a leaky sieve (we all know what that’s like). The Crow tells the man to use red clay from the bottom of the river to repair the sieve. The man does what the crow suggests and the sieve no longer leaks.

The Raven and Crow sometimes has human-like abilities, similar to the Raven found in First Nation myths of the Pacific Northwest.  In one Celtic story, for example, a Raven is chewing tobacco[iii], in another, hundreds of Ravens are engaged in a semi-formal dance[iv].

There’s also an interesting story found in the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde. A man steals some Raven’s eggs and boils them. He then places the eggs back in the nest. The Raven returns to the nest, discovers the cooked eggs, and then quickly leaves. The Raven eventually returns with a magic stone, which she rubs all over the boiled eggs. Through this action the eggs are restored to their previous state. The man, as he’d planned all along, then steals the magic stone from the Raven intending to use it for his own personal gain (a Leprechaun-like story).

Besides the many fairytales and folk stories, Raven proverbs are also scattered throughout the old texts:

  • A Raven hovering over a cow meant that there was “a blight” upon the animal (Joseph Jacobs. More Celtic Fairytales. 1894).
  • A departing soul sometimes took on the form of a Raven (George Henderson. Survival in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911).
  • If a Raven was present when somebody died, it was said to be the Devil retrieving his or her soul. If the bird present was a White Dove, however, it meant that the person had obtained salvation (Thomas Croker. Fairy Legends of South Ireland. 1825).
  • A Crow on a house indicated that someone would die (Walter Greger. Notes on Folklore of Northeast Scotland. 1881).
  • “The howling of a dog at night, and the resting of a Crow or Magpie on the house-step are signs of death (Andrew Lang. Prophecies of Brahan Seer. 1899).”
  • A Raven tapping three times on a windowpane foretold the death of an occupant (John Seymour. True Irish Ghosts. 1914).
  • “If Ravens were cawing about the house it is a sure sign of death, for the Raven is Satan’s own bird (Lady Wilde. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. 1887).”
  • “The Crow and Black Hen are ominous of evil (ibid).”
  • “It is unlucky to meet a Magpie… when going on a journey (ibid).
  • The Raven prepared “his nest” on St. Bride’s Day and would have a chick by Easter. “If the Raven has not he has his death (Alexander Carmichael. Carmina Gadelica – Vol I. 1900).”
  • The Devil could appear as a Raven and would land upon a person’s head in order to possess their bodies (St. John Seymour. Irish Witchcraft and Demonology. 1913).
  • “What is blacker than a Raven?” “There is Death (J.F. Campbell. Popular Tales of West Highlands: Vol III. 1890).”
  • “The Raven sometimes brings aid to man (J.F. Campbell. Popular Tales of West Highlands: Vol I. 1890).”
  • “The Raven, the Crow, and the Serpent, have appeared as transformed beings of superior power (J. F.  Campbell. Popular Tales of West Highlands. 1890).”
  • “Give a piece to a Raven and he will come again (A.W. Moore. Folklore of the Isle of Man. 1891).”
  • To protect young goats, or kids, Scottish Highlanders often gave libations and cakes to the Crow who they claimed often “molested” them (Charles Squire. Celtic Myth and Legend. 1905).
  • There is a Scottish chant, “There to thee Raven spare my kids!” that’s used to protect young goats (Alexander Carmichael. Carmina Gadelica – Vol I. 1900)
  • It is a curse to leave a dead Crow (or other creature) on a hearth (George Henderson. Survival in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911).
  • “The day will come when a Raven attired in plaid and a bonnet, will drink his fill of human blood on ‘Fionn-bheinn,’ three times a day, for three successive days…  the Blood of the Gael from the Stone of Fionn (Andrew Lang. Prophecies of Brahan Seer. 1899).”

Over time, the Raven and Crow of the Celts became an evil bird. It should be no surprise then, that the Raven or Crow may also be a witch in disguise, or the devil himself. In the 1913 book Irish Witchcraft and Mythology by St. John Seymour, a witch on “the gallows” suddenly disappears. In her place is noted a coal-black Raven. In volume 2 of Popular Tales of West Highland, a “gentleman” turns himself into a Raven. The story implies that this man the Devil himself.

The Raven and Crow of the Celts often represented the darker aspects of life. It’s no wonder then, that these shadow-birds continue to fascinate our imaginations to this day. These clever birds have always seemed distinguished, compared to their less intelligent bird-cousins. Some crows even make and use tools. Both the Crow and Raven have always been seen as symbols of darkness, death, and the ignorance of the unknown. Now considered one of the most intelligent creatures on the planet, the Corvus has never given up feasting upon the dead. Good reasons that the birds continue to fascinate and intimidate us to this day.

Raven
Film poster of Edger Allan Poe’s The Raven. 1908. The Raven continues to be a potent symbol of death & darkness throughout the ages & into the present era

[i] James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 2000

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Alexander Carmicheal. Carmina Gadelica – Vol IV. 1900

[iv] Lady Wilde. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. 1887

Ngetal (Reed Grass) II

“When a cow hesitates to cross, the person driving her throws a stalk or a twig into the ditch before the unwilling animal and sings the ‘Feith Mhoire,’ Vein of Mary, to encourage her to cross, and to assure her that a safe bridge is before her. The stalk may be of any corn or grass except the reed, and the twig of any wood except the wild fig, the aspen, and the thorn. All these are forbidden, or ‘crossed’ as the people say, because of their ungracious conduct to the Gracious One. The reed is ‘crossed’ because it carried the sponge dipped in vinegar; the fig-tree because of its inhospitality; the aspen because it held up its head haughtily, proud that the cross was made of its wood, when all the trees of the forest–all save the aspen alone–bowed their heads in reverence to the King of glory passing by on the way to Calvary; and the thorn-tree because of its prickly pride in having been made into a crown for the King of kings.” – Alexander Carmichael (Carmina Gadelica Vol. II. 1900)

The Roots:

The thirteenth letter of the tree-Ogham is Ngetal, or Reed. Reed is the most common association for this letter. Ngetal may also be found as Broom or Fern, however.

Within the previous Ngetal post, we discovered that Reed was a neopagan addition to the Ogham[i] and not the original association to the letter at all! Reed, as a choice for this letter, was first promoted within Robert Graves’ the White Goddess. Liz and Colin Murray later adopted Graves’ interpretation for Ngetal -as the Reed- within the Celtic Tree Oracle. Most neopagan users of the Ogham today can trace their information on the Ogham directly to these two sources. As a result, Reed is the most common interpretation for Ngetal.

The more academic users of the Ogham – as far as authenticity – usually interpret Ngetal as the Broom plant or the Fern. This is indisputably more accurate. For the purposes of this blog, however, I will cover the Reed in the sections below. As far as the Broom, we will cover it four weeks from now when we take a look at the Gorse. The reasons for this will be explained at that time. I have no plan to research the Fern; at least not at this time.

John Mathews, Caitlin Mathews, Eryn Rowan Laurie and Robert Elison are all examples of individuals who approach the Ogham from a historical or reconstructionist perspective. Liz and Colin Murray, John Michael Greer, Jacqueline Memory Paterson, Nigel Pennick and many other individuals on the other hand, come from the neopagan background as far as the Ogham. This second group tends to also believe in the Tree Calendar[ii].

John Mathews interprets the Ngetal word-Ogham, “physician’s strength,” as meaning “healing.” As we covered previously, the word-Oghams are phrases or sayings found within the Ogham Tract alongside each of the trees[iii]. John Mathews interprets many of these kennings within his book the Celtic Shaman.

Robert Elison says that Ngetal represents “working and tools” within his book Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids. Elison also says that the Broom has long associations to healing, as well as being used as a magical tool.

In Celtic Wisdom Sticks, Caitlin Mathews says that the word-Oghams for Ngetal are very “obscure” but that they all seem “to stem from an older Irish word to do with wounding.” Caitlin Mathews’ system of divination seems to use both wounding and healing as possible interpretations for Ngetal.

Ngetal represents healing and sometimes wounding. These interpretations are take-aways from the Ogham Tract and should not be seen as having any direct relationship to the Reed found within Celtic mythology or folklore. The Reed is never even mentioned within the text[iv]!

The Reed was a Robert Graves invention. If we intend on using the Reed plant to represent Ngetal, then we should at least be aware that it is not authentic. This is especially important because the Ogham is a symbol of a real living people and not some abstract idea taken from a book.

The Irish and other Celts suffered many generations of persecution and ethnocide. As a result, much of the past has been lost. There are many who now struggle to reclaim what has been lost or forgotten to bring things back into balance. These are the reconstructionists.

The neopagans choose, on the other hand, to use the original Ogham as inspiration for their own belief systems and not as a fixed system. The following look at the Reed, found within Celtic folklore, will cater more to this second group.

The Trunk:

The Reed of Celtic folklore possess various Otherworldly attributes. It is usually found to be either a weapon or a musical instrument. The Reed is almost always used by spirits or fairies and not by humans.

In fact, the Reed was often a symbol of evil in folklore. As the opening quote revealed, the Reed was considered to be one of the plants that had betrayed Jesus at the time of his execution. We can only assume, then, that the Reed would possess great power in the hands of the godless.

In the case of the Cluricaune found in Thomas Crofton Crocker’s 1825 Fairy Legends and Traditions of South Ireland, the Reed was an aid to flight. The Cluricaune – who was similar to the leprechaun – would ride the Reed stalk in the same way that the stereotypical witch would ride a broom.

In the 1899 book the Prophecies of Brahan Seer by Alexander Mackenzie, the Reed begins to take on a more sinister use:

 “Some years ago, if not even still, many in the Western Isles believed in the existence of the ‘Gruagach,’ a female spectre of the class of Brownies to which the Highland dairymaids made frequent libations of milk. The Gruagach is said to have been an innocent, supernatural visitor, who frisked and gambolled about the cattle-pens and folds. She was armed only with a pliable reed, with which she switched all who annoyed her by uttering obscene language, or would neglect to leave for her a share of the dairy produce. Even so late as 1770, the dairymaids who attended a herd of cattle in the Island of Trodda, at the north end of Skye, were in the habit of pouring daily a quantity of milk on a hollow stone for the Gruagach. Should they neglect to do so, they made sure of feeling the effects of her wand the next day.”

The following Scottish lowland fairy is found in the 1870 book Fairy Mythology of Various Countries by Thomas Keightley. This fairy sounds considerably more ruthless than the Gruagach:

“They carry quivers of ‘adder-slough,’ and bows made of the ribs of a man buried where three lairds’ lands meet; their arrows are made of bog-reed, tipped with white flints, and dipped in the dew of hemlock; they ride on steeds whose hoofs would not dash the dew from the cup of a harebell. With their arrows they shoot the cattle of those who offend them; the wound is imperceptible to common eyes, but there are gifted personages who can discern and cure it.”

The snake-slough quiver holds these poison arrows constructed from Reed grass. In this case, the Reed has come to represent more than just punishment but death itself; at least to the cow.

(Vipera Berus – Common European Adder. Photo by Marek Szczepanek[v])

Not only a weapon however, the Reed is sometimes found to be connected to music. The following story predates folklore, coming instead from the age of legend. It is found within the 1900 book Celtic Folklore:  Welsh and Manx. (Vol. I ) by John Rhys[vi]. The story has many similarities with the Irish tale the King with the Horse’s Ears found in other texts[vii].

“One of Arthur’s warriors, whose name was March (or Parch) Amheirchion \ was lord of Castetlmarch in ILeyn. This man had horse’s ears (resembling Midas), and lest anybody should know it, he used to kill every man he sought to shave his beard, for fear lest he should not be able to keep the secret; and on the spot where he was wont to bury the bodies there grew reeds, one of which somebody cut to make a pipe. The pipe would give no other sound than ‘March Amheirchion has horse’s ears.’ When the warrior heard this, he would probably have killed the innocent man on that account, if he had not himself failed to make the pipe produce any other sound. But after hearing where the reed had grown, he made no further effort to conceal either the murders or his ears.”

In this tale the Reed can only produce the music of truth. The irony is, of course, that the dead are telling the one secret that they had been killed for knowing in the first place. As they say: the dead tell no lies. In this story, the Reed is connected to music and to the dead.

In the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz we find another example of Reed’s connection to magical music[viii]:

“Bean chaol a chot uaine ‘s na gruaige buidhe, ‘ the slender woman of the green kirtle and of the yellow hair,’ is wise of head and deft of hand. She can convert the white water of the rill into rich red wine and the threads of the spiders into a tartan plaid. From the stalk of the fairy reed she can bring the music of the lull of the peace and of the repose, however active the brain and lithe the limb; and she can rouse to mirth and merriment, and to the dance, men and women, however dolorous their condition. From the bower could be heard the pipe and the song and the voice of laughter as the fairies ‘ sett ‘ and reeled in the mazes of the dance. Sometimes a man hearing the merry music and seeing the wonderful light within would be tempted to go in and join them, but woe to him if he omitted to leave a piece of iron at the door of the bower on entering, for the cunning fairies would close the door and the man would find no egress. There he would dance for years—but to him the years were as one day—while his wife and family mourned him as dead.”

In this case, ‘the slender woman fairy’ enjoys a wide range of possible uses for her Reed pipe. She can both “rouse” and put to sleep. With the Reed in hand, she is as powerful as the bards of old.

The Reed in folklore and mythology is a plant both respected and feared.

The Foliage:

The Reed does not seem to appear directly, as an herb, within any of the traditional folkloric spells. It can be used, however, in any binding or braiding spell. The Reed is also associated with music.

The following passage is from Lady Wilde’s 1887 text Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland:

“Before an accident happens to a boat, or a death by drowning, low music is often heard, as if under the water, along with harmonious lamentations, and then every one in the boat knows that some young man or beautiful young girl is wanted by the fairies, and is doomed to die. The best safeguard is to have music and singing in the boat, for the fairies are so enamoured of the mortal voices and music that they forget to weave the spell till the fatal moment has passed, and then all in the boat are safe from harm.”

In this instance, music is a means of repelling the negative magic of the fairy kingdom. It does not seem to matter, either, what type of music it is, or even if its good music at all. The key is, simply, to make music in order to survive.

Although there does not seem to be any Celtic spells regarding the Reed, there is one Danish spell, found in Fairy Mythologies of Various Countries, that does contain a Reed spell. In it, a nail is placed inside of a Reed which is then placed inside of a boat[ix]. This is to protect the boat from a river spirit who is called “the Neck.” The Neck can often be seen singing and playing the harp. Like the Celtic fairies, the Neck seems to have a repulsion of iron.

The Neck has a connection to both music and water, much like the Reed itself.

 

“Frail is the reed, of riches an emblem.”  – Red Book of Hergest (1382-1410)



[i] In its tree form.

[ii] The Tree-Calendar was a poetic argument put forward by Robert Graves within the White Goddess. Graves argued that the Ogham – in its tree form- could actually be a calendar with various trees representing each month; for example Birch for January, Rowan for February and Alder for March. Graves then put forward an argument as to why each tree represented that particular month based on observations of nature and various mythological references. Unfortunately, Graves may not have known that the Celtic New Year began at Samhain, modern Halloween, and did not begin the year at the same time as our modern calendar. The Ogham was created and used during a far earlier period. Liz and Colin Murray tried to rectify this error within the Celtic Tree Oracle by moving the trees to new months such as Birch for November. While it made more sense on one hand, as far as tradition and accuracy, all of Robert Graves’ arguments for why each tree represented each particular month were destroyed. Some neopagans do continue to promote the Tree-Calendar for various reasons.

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

[iv] ibid

[vi] John Rhys gives a reference for this story as being the 1860 Brython. This text in turn gives a 1693 source.

[vii] Patrick Kennedy’s 1891 book Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts is one such example. These stories differ in that the instrument is a harp made from a tree such as a Willow instead of a Reed. There are also other differences.

[viii] This sample was actually written by Alexander Carmichael and is attributed to him in the book. The exact quote also appears word for word in the Carmina Gadelica vol. II.

[ix] Thomas Keightley. 1870.

Gort (Ivy Vine) II

“Like all evergreens, the ivy is immortality and eternal life; it is also revelry; clinging dependence; attachment; constant affection; friendship.” – J.C. Cooper (An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. 1979)

The Roots:

The twelfth letter of the Ogham, in its tree form, is Gort the Ivy-plant. Though clearly not a tree, the Ivy has come to represent this letter of the Ogham alphabet. Ivy is listed as one of the “tree” choices within the Ogham Tract[i]. According to this text, Gort can just as likely be represented by grass, green pastures, corn, or corn fields.

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids reminds us that Gort does literally mean “field.” In fact, the letter has been interpreted as representing grazing fields. For this reason, there are many different interpretations as to the exact meaning of Gort as it pertains to the tree-Ogham. Ellison says that this letter represents to him “the search for yourself and inner wisdom.”

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman states that the word-Ogham phrase “sweetest of grasses” can be interpreted, or solved, as meaning “satisfaction.”

In Celtic Wisdom Sticks, Caitlin Mathews elaborates on the meanings that are associated with Ivy, as well as to those associated with the letter Gort. She begins by reminding us that grazing fields would have been incredibly important. In almost all of the Celtic literature, a person of wealth is measured by the size of his or her herd, or ability to produce milk or grains. The cattle that were seen to be a part of this wealth would have needed fields in which to graze. The association between Gort and wealth then becomes apparent.

There are some other important characteristics that Caitlin Mathews reminds us of in Celtic Wisdom Sticks. She tells us that the Ivy’s berries are poisonous, for example. She also says that Ivy is a symbol of the feminine, while Holly is contrarily the symbol of the masculine.

In Caitlin Mathews’ system of divination, the letter Gort does have a common association with wealth. In this way, she shares a similar view with the other Ogham writers already mentioned above.

Ivy can have various interpretations, though. Ivy, or Gort, can mean separate things to different students of the Ogham. This is due to the fact that we are actually dealing with two separate concepts; or so it would seem.

The Trunk:

For the time being, for clarity’s sake, we will view the letter Gort and the Ivy plant as two distinctive and separate things. In order to examine the Ivy plant more closely, we need to remove the established associations for Gort, as far as “field or corn” for example, from this equation. Once we understand the Ivy plant more clearly, then we can look at Gort with clearer eyes.

The reason that there is so much confusion is that some of the users of Ogham are interpreting the meaning of “field” or “pasture” when they are speaking of Ivy. Others, contrastingly, seem to be talking about the Ivy plant itself, ignoring the references to fields and pastures. As a result, interpretations usually become somewhat hybrid-like and are a combination of the two fields of view.

Instead of drawing a line down the middle and trying to explain why various interpretations do exist, and where they came from in certain cases, I will instead focus exclusively on what the Ivy plant represents within Celtic literature. If it seems to the fellow Ogham enthusiast that I am leaving out much of what this Ogham letter has come to represent, then this is the reason. I believe that by understanding Ivy (which is clearly what Ogham users now equate Gort to) in its cultural context, that we will then be able to view this letter with a little more clarity.

If this need for distinction isn’t confusing enough, the Ivy plant that does appear within Celtic literature seems to possess two different faces as well. On the one hand, it is often associated with poverty, decay, and ruin. The Ivy, somewhat contradictive, can also be found within folklore to be a powerful magical herb.

Ivy representing decay and poverty does make sense. The vine is quick to claim abandoned ruins and gardens, it is abundant and often invasive, has been known to kill trees that it grows upon, and seems emblematic in stories of hauntings.

The following is taken from Wirt Sikes’ 1881 classic British Goblins[ii] for example:

“There is a Glamorganshire goblin called the Green Lady of Caerphilly, the colour of whose dress is indicated by her title. She haunts the ruin of Caerphilly Castle at night, wearing a green robe, and has the power of turning herself into ivy and mingling with the ivy growing on the wall.”

I have already discussed, previously[iii], how Ivy is often found in ruins covering doorways to the fairy kingdom. In this previous post, I questioned whether or not the appearance of Ivy in certain places might indicate a type of magical power instead of just being descriptive filler within the story? Perhaps, I wondered, the Ivy plant was a bridge to the Otherworld, similar to the Hawthorne tree? Regardless of what the answer to this question might be, it is undeniable that Ivy is mentioned as being found in abandoned sites in several stories.

Ivy’s connection to poverty and ruin is not always in relation to actual ruins, however. Sometimes Ivy is directly related to the loss of money. In the 1914 text Irish Witchcraft and Demonology, John Seymour tells us of one man’s encounter with a fairy that left him in a state of poverty. This man, of humble means, sold his horse – at a tough bargain one might add – to a stranger upon the side of the road. Upon returning home, he discovered that this “gold” had turned into Ivy leaves! At that moment he then knew that it had been a fairy that had tricked him and not a man at all.

This is not a particularly unique tale either. In the1911 text Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, W.Y. Evans-Wentz relates a similar type of occurrence:

“The peasantry in the Lough Gur region commonly speak of the Good People, or of the Kind People, or of the Little People, their names for the fairies. The leprechaun indicates the place where hidden treasure is to be found. If the person to whom he reveals such a secret makes it known to a second person, the first person dies, or else no money is found : in some cases the money is changed into ivy leaves or into furze blossoms.”

It would seem then that Ivy can represent the actual loss of wealth. Why wouldn’t the money have simply disappeared, though? Why did it have to be replaced with Ivy (or Furz)?

In the case of the horse, it would seem that the fairy initially gave something to the man that did physically exist. He gave him Ivy, instead of the money, to deceive him. There was clearly an illusion upon the Ivy leaves. In this first example, the Ivy had been an unwitting, or witting, ally in a deception designed to separate the man from his horse.

In the second example, the money seems to have actually transformed into the leaves and lost its value only because a condition was not met. By the nature of the second story, the Ivy should have always remained as wealth as long as the secret was never shared. In this case, the handsome prince – the wealth- is turned into a frog; or Ivy.

In either case the message is clear. Gold or money has wealth. Ivy is practically worthless. After all, its leaves were, and still are, incredibly commonplace.

(Cadw. Caerphilly Castle[iv])

Ivy does not always represent poverty or ruin, though. As a plant of power, Ivy can not easily be dismissed within the folklore. The previously mentioned stories may be merely relaying how worthless the currency had become, and not have anything do with Ivy’s magical powers at all. That does not mean that in the right hands these leaves would not perhaps possess great power. Perhaps, like many of the other great Celtic stories, there are multiple meanings at play? The horse owner loses both his horse and his gold, for example, and yet unwittingly holds in his hand great power or a symbol that does not now seem very clear to us.

Regardless of these possible hidden meanings, Ivy does have associations to poverty and ruin. This is only half of the story of Ivy however. As already mentioned, Ivy can be a powerful force as well.

Ivy is also found in the stories to be one of the fairy herbs of “great value and power.” As one of these power herbs, Ivy is listed alongside vervain, eyebright, groundsel, foxglove, the bark of the elder tree and the young shoots of the hawthorn[v].

In the previous Gort post, I shared the story of the Fairy Dance found in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, by Lady Wilde which originally published in 1887. In this story, a girl is protected from harm by some Ivy that was received from a friendly fairy. Although it is unclear as to what would have happened to her without this protection, it does become obvious that the other fairies in the story wish her harm. The Ivy protects her and the girl escapes.

Ivy’s protective properties are spoken of in various other texts as well.  In the Carmina Gadelica vol. II, for example, we are informed that Ivy was sacred to the Celts and had various uses. It was “protective” of milk, dairy products, herds, flocks, and was used by lovers as “an emblem of fidelity.” Ivy was also used in conjunction with Rowan and bramble for protection against witches and evil spirits[vi].

In Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland published in 1825, Thomas Crofton Croker describes a separate ceremony that seems to further shed some light onto the mysterious powers of the Ivy plant:

“On the east coast of Scotland, the people resort to a peculiar method to avert the danger. During the month of March, when the moon is on her increase, they cut down branches of oak and ivy, which are formed into garlands, and preserved till the following autumn. If any one of the family should grow lean, or a child pine away, they must pass three times through this wreath.”

As a final example to illustrate the Ivy’s value as a magical plant, there is also a story found in J.F. Campbell’s 1890 text Popular Tales of the West Highlands vol. IV:

“A boy, some hundreds of miles away, told me that there was a man who built a house, and as often as it was built it was burned down; but they told him to put a bit of ivy into it[vii], and he did that, and the house was not burned that time.”

While one can easily note that the passage is relaying second hand information, it does illustrate once more the powers that were believed to be possessed by the Ivy plant. In this case Ivy protects the house from fire.

In Celtic folklore Ivy represented poverty and ruin, but was also an herb of great power.

The Foliage:

According to Robert Ellison, because of Ivy’s “tenacity to cling to walls,” it is a perfect component in binding and friendship spells.

Ivy was more than just a magical herb, however. It is sometimes mentioned as a means of divination as well. In Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall published in 1870, William Bottrell tells us that Ivy was used by girls to scry into the future. This was a means by which they could discover the identity of their future husbands.

In the 1891 book Folklore of the Isle of Man, A.W. Moore gives a more specific example of divination using Ivy leaves.

“On the eve of new year’s day,” which was originally October 31st, Ivy leaves were put into a bowl to predict the coming year. There would only be one Ivy leaf in the bowl for every member of the family. Each of these leaves would be marked with a symbol or the name and each represented a separate individual. The leaves were then left in the bowl overnight. In the morning, if a leaf was found to have become withered, it would mean that person was going to die that year.

The Ivy plant could also see into the future.

 

“He staggered on under the weight of the corpse until he reached Kiltown Abbey, a ruin festooned with ivy, where the brown owl hooted all night long, and the forgotten dead slept around the walls under dense, matted tangles of brambles and ben-weed.” – W.B. Yeats (Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry. 1888)


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

[ii] “Despite the title, this book is actually a study of Welsh fairy folklore.” Sacred-Texts.com

[v] Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. Lady Wilde. This does not appear in the 1887 edition.

[vi] Alexander Carmichael. 1900.

[vii] It is not clear in the text who “they” are. The passage most likely refers to the fairies, but could have also been referring to the neighbours.

Muin (Grape Vine) II

“It was a very big place and very grand, and a long table set out, but I didn’t want to stop there and I began crying to go home. And she touched me here in the breast with her stick, she was vexed to see me wanting to go away. They never brought me away since. Grand food they’d offer me and wine, but I never would touch it, and sometimes I’d have to give the breast to a child.” – Mrs. Sheridan as told to Lady Gregory (Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, 1920)

The Roots:

The eleventh letter of the tree-Ogham is Muin, the Grape vine.

As previously established, the Grape was likely a later addition to the Ogham. The Grape vine does not grow naturally in Ireland and is difficult to cultivate. Muin also does not mean Grape or Vine literally.  Most Ogham users now equate Muin to the Grape vine, however.

Robert Ellison states in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids that “the vine” was a general description for the letter. He does equate the letter to the Grape and to wine, however. Ellison believes that Muin represents “prophecy and inhibitions; or the lack of them.”

John Mathews interprets Muin’s word-Ogham within the Celtic Shaman. He equates the phrase “strongest of efforts” to simply being “effort.”

Caitlin Mathews’ divination system Ogham Wisdom Sticks leaves much more for us to interpret. Within her system, however, the common thread of meaning seems to be ‘a lessening of a load’ or burden. This interpretation is likely also taken from the word-Oghams[i].

The Grape does not appear very often within Celtic myth or legend. Wine, which was brought to the Isles by the Romans, on the other hand has a place. It does appear occasionally.

Muin is the first letter found within the tree-Ogham that is not a tree at all.

The Trunk:

Wine has a strong connection to the Otherworld and to the Tuatha De Danaan directly. Wine, in Celtic myth, is also related to things that fly, such as birds or insects. In the time of the Celts, wine would have also demonstrated wealth and status as it was imported.

In Cuchulain of Muirthemne, by Lady Gregory, we are told that Cuchulain was given a “gold cup full of wine.” The inside of the cup had a “bird of precious stones” at the bottom. The wine here is listed as a part of the gift, illustrating its worth.

Within the same text, we learn that Cuchulain’s mother, Dechtire, had the course of her life altered when she drank a cup of wine.

One day the god Lugh turned himself into a mayfly and landed in Dechtire’s cup of wine. Unaware, she drank the wine and fell into a very deep sleep.  This all turned out to be part of Lugh’s plan to steal her. Dechtire and her 50 handmaidens were then turned into a flock of birds and ordered to follow Lugh. When Dechtire is finally recovered, after a year’s period of time, she has a small boy with her. This turns out to be the great hero Cuchulain, son of Lugh.

There’s a likelihood it was the fly that impregnated Dechtire, due to the similarities between this tale and another Irish story. In Gods and Fighting Men, also by Lady Gregory, it is Etain who is turned into a fly by her husband’s other wife:

“And she turned her with Druid spells into a fly, and then she sent a blast of wind into the house, that swept her away through the window […] and for seven years Etain was blown to and fro through Ireland in great misery. And at last she came to the house of Etar, of Inver Cechmaine, where there was a feast going on, and she fell from a beam of the roof into the golden cup that was beside Etar’s wife. And Etar’s wife drank her down with the wine, and at the end of nine months she was born again as Etar’s daughter.”

There is a magical horn found within the same book. The horn is part of a dowry given by the Tuatha De Danaan to three brothers who wanted to join them. The horn was a gift from “a young man of the Tuatha De Danaan[ii].” The item has the power to turn salt water into wine.

Found within the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz are two more incidents in which water is turned into wine; suggesting more than a passing theme.

(Last Supper by Pascal Adolphe Dagnan-Bouveret’s)

As the Tuatha De Danaan eventually became the fairies of folklore many things changed. Some things, however,  remained the same. The fairies were said to value wine, for instance.

The Cluricaune found within Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland is one such example[iii]. He is a fairy-spirit similar to, or synonymous with, the leprechaun. The Claircaune is a spirit that likes to play tricks. He also likes to raid cellars and steals wine.

Similar stories concerning fairies stealing wine are found elsewhere. One such example can be found within Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland which is also by Lady Gregory. It is here that we also find an example regarding the offering of wine to the fairies:

“There was a room at Crags where things used to be thrown about, and everyone could hear the noises there. They had a right to clear it out and settle it the way they’d like it. You should do that in your own big house. Set a little room for them —with spring water in it always—and wine you might leave—no, not flowers—they wouldn’t want so much as that—but just what would show your good will.” – Mr. Saggerton as told to Lady Gregory.

Although wine is also used to describe things that are both sweet and beautiful it can have a darker side. There is an interesting story, for example, pertaining to Cuchulain in Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by T.W. Rolleston:

“Then he bade farewell to his mother Dectera, and she gave him a goblet of wine to drink, but ere he could drink it the wine turned to blood, and he flung it away, saying, ” My life’s end is near ; this time I shall not return alive from the battle.” And Dectera and Cathbad besought him to await the coming of Conall of the Victories, who was away on a journey, but he would not.”

Within the Celtic stories it would seem that water can become wine, and wine can become blood. Water has often been described over the ages as being the life giving blood carrying arteries of the Earth.

Perhaps there is a connection there as well.

The Foliage:

The most famous use of wine in ritual occurs within the rite of the Eucharist, or Communion. This ritual is performed within many branches of Christianity. It consists of kneeling before a priest and receiving small portions of wine and bread. The ritual honours the mortality of Jesus Christ; the ancestor who was also a god.

Within the rite of Communion, wine becomes representative of the blood of the Christ. Bread, or a cracker, will be used to represent his body. The ritual is usually observed as a form of worship or to receive a blessing from a priest. The rite of Communion uses these symbolic stand-ins instead of actual blood or flesh taken from his dead body. In this way the ritual can continue to be performed indefinitely; even without an actual body.

Blood-drinking and flesh eating were not uncommon practices amongst various pagan peoples[iv]. This drinking the blood of the dead was a practice that may seem strange to us, but that actually existed amongst the Celts. It was a way for them to honour the dead.

The following occurs in a song composed by ‘ Nic Coiseam ‘ to her fosterson, ‘Mac Iain ‘ic Sheumais,’ the famous warrior-poet of the Macdonalds, after the battle of Carnish in iCOl – The blood of thy fragrant body was soaked through thy linen. I myself was sucking it until my breath became hoarse. I stanched thy wounds, and they all too numerous, and I drank thy red blood, more sweet to me than wine.”  – Alexander Carmicheal (Carmina Gadelica vol.  II)

Wine can be used in ritual[v], or left as an offering.

 

“It is now easy to understand why a savage should desire to partake of the flesh of an animal or man whom he regards as divine. By eating the body of the god he shares in the god’s attributes and powers. And when the god is a corn-god, the corn is his proper body; when he is a vine-god, the juice of the grape is his blood; and so by eating the bread and drinking the wine the worshipper partakes of the real body and blood of his god. Thus the drinking of wine in the rites of a vine-god like Dionysus is not an act of revelry, it is a solemn sacrament.”– Sir James Fraser  (the Golden Bough)



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

[ii] Lugh?

[iii] Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825.

[iv] James Fraser. The Golden Bough.

[v] Also found within the Carmina Gadelica is a reference to wine that may be of interest in the context of ritual. The text states that water is feminine and wine is masculine; that moonlight is feminine and sunlight is masculine. What could this symbolise in a ‘water to wine’ context?

Tinne (Holly) II

“Since early times holly has been regarded as a plant of good omen, for its evergreen qualities make it appear invulnerable to the passage of time as the seasons change. It therefore symbolizes the tenacity of life even when surrounded by death, which it keeps at bay with strong protective powers.” Jacqueline Memory Paterson (Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook)

The Roots:

As discussed previously, Holly is a tree often associated with warriors, battle and death.

Holly is a leaf bearing evergreen tree, which has come to represent both the Wildman and the darkening of the year as the Holly King[i]. Perhaps both of these images are related to one another? The wild beast that exists within us is also repressed or destroyed at the height of that darkness within us – just like the Holly King  so that we are not consumed and swallowed by our own animalistic nature. Just like the Holly King is killed by the Oak King on the darkest night of the year, the Wildman, who hugs the shadows, is repressed – or temporarily killed – during our own darkest hour.

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman leaves is with a clue regarding the Holly as being “a third of…” something that remains unstated. Previous writers have explained this third portion that is mentioned to represent either chariot wheels (Holly axle,) or the third part of a weapon (maybe a spear shaft?).

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids says that Holly represents “justice and balance.” He also mentions the wheel and the weapon when he quotes previous Word-Oghams within his book.

Caitlin Mathews’ divination system found within Celtic Wisdom Sticks equates Holly with a type of cyclical wisdom. Her interpretations for Holly are all related to previous experiences holding answers for us in the present. As history repeats itself, the individual should know what actions are needed either logically or intuitively. In this way, Holly is always guiding us forward.

Holly represents half of the year from the summer solstice to the winter solstice. Holly, then, may also represent all that is dark or unkind such as our animalistic natures, battle and death. Any cycle can be seen as being symbolic of the cycle of life and death. By keeping this knowledge in perspective we simplify life and become wiser.

The Trunk:

Holly has an unusual role within Celtic mythology. It is a role which is not often discussed and may be overlooked. Holly often seems to be the mediator between the world of humans and that of the beasts.

Jacqueline Paterson quotes Pliny when she says that “if Holly wood was thrown in any direction it will compel the animal to obey.” While the reference to Pliny may not be as reliable as some of the Celtic sources, it deserves to be mentioned as support for the argument that Holly had special powers over beasts.

In the Mabinogion[ii] we bear witness to some unexplained magic. Taliesin helps Elphin (who saved him from the salmon weir) win a horse race with the use of Holly. We are not told exactly what the Holly does, but it seems to be instrumental in helping Elphin win the race.

“Then he (Taliesin) bade Elphin wager the king, that he had a horse both better and swifter than the king’s horses. And this Elphin did, and the day, and the time, and the place were fixed, and the place was that which at this day is called Morva Rhiannedd: and thither the king went with all his people, and four-and-twenty of the swiftest horses he possessed. And after a long process the course was marked, and the horses were placed for running.

“Then came Taliesin with four-and-twenty twigs of holly, which he had burnt black, and he caused the youth who was to ride his master’s horse to place them in his belt, and he gave him orders to let all the king’s horses get before him, and as he should overtake one horse after the other, to take one of the twigs and strike the horse with it over the crupper, and then let that twig fall; and after that to take another twig, and do in like manner to every one of the horses, as he should overtake them, enjoining the horseman strictly to watch when his own horse should stumble…”

The youth is also instructed to throw down his cap when his own horse (actually Elphin’s) stumbles. They dig where the cap has fallen and cauldron of gold is found. Taliesin then hands the treasure over to the “unlucky” Elphin as a reward for saving him.

In Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory we find more Holly references. We are given a poem attributed to Finn (like Taliesin he was possessed with all knowledge). The poem seems more like a riddle for the initiated than a simple reflection. Its true meanings may elude us. The mention of Holly is interesting though.

“There is a hot desire on you for the racing horses; twisted Holly makes a leash for the hound.”

While this reference could have many other possible explanations or interpretations, we should remember that good Celtic poetry was often rife with double meanings. The songs of these enlightened bards were meant to be studied and contemplated. This reference to Holly could easily be a statement of its perceived powers.

Within the same text we find that Diarmuid and Grania are on the run from Finn. For a short while they are accompanied by a servant named Muadhan who seems to be a beast man of some sort.

Muadhan enters the story suddenly and leaves suddenly. He carries Diarmuid and Grania on his back over rivers and when they are too tired to walk. He pulls a “whelp” from his pocket and throws it at one of Finn’s hounds killing the canine enemy. Every night he also catches salmon for all three of them. Muadhan lives very closely to the land and his methods are very interesting.

“And he went himself into the scrub that was near, and took a straight long rod of a quicken-tree, and he put a hair and a hook on the rod, and a holly berry on the hook, and he went up the stream, and he took a salmon with the first cast. Then he put on a second berry and killed another fish, and he put on a third berry and killed the third fish. Then he put the hook and the hair under his belt, and struck the rod into the earth, and he brought the three salmon where Diarmuid and Grania were, and put them on spits.”

Here we see that Muadhan seems to live more closely to the land and be somewhat of a beast himself. He also seems to be carnivorous. Interestingly, Muadhan always keeps the smallest portion for himself.

(Wild men support coat of arms in the side panels of a 1499 portrait by Albrecht Durer[iii])

The story of Cuchulain – whose name means “the hound” – also has some interesting Holly references. Joseph Dunn’s translation of the Tain Bo Cuailnge is the source of this quote:

“On the morrow Nathcrantail went forth from the camp and he came to attack Cuchulain. He did not deign to bring along arms but thrice nine spits of holly after being sharpened, burnt and hardened-in fire.”

Nathcrantail casts all of these “darts” but does not kill Cuchulain. He does, however, manage to interrupt his bird hunting and scatters his prey.

“It was then, when Nathcrantail threw the ninth dart that the flock of birds which Cuchulain pursued on the plain flew away from Cuchulain. Cuchulain chased them even as any bird * of the air.* He hopped on the points of the darts like a bird from each dart to the next, pursuing the birds that they might not escape him but that they might leave behind a portion of food for the night. For this is what sustained and served Cuchulain, fish and fowl and game on the Cualnge Cow-spoil.”

We see then that Cuchulain is more of a beast than a man due to his ability to leap through the air and his need to capture his own meals. Cuchulain also seems to be carnivorous.

When Cuchulain is asked why he did not kill Nathcrantail he says it is because his enemy was unarmed. Clearly the Holly “darts” are not viewed as weapons by Cuchulain in the conventional sense.

“Dost not know, thou and Fergus and the nobles of Ulster, that I slay no charioteers nor heralds nor unarmed people? And he bore no arms but a spit of wood.”

Also found in the book, it is a “spit of holly” that finally wounds Cuchulain. The wound is self inflicted during a bout of rage. There is a suggestion, then, that Holly may be a sort of Kryptonite to Cuchulain. Where his enemies could not succeed with swords and spears, he accidently accomplishes with a sharpened piece of burnt wood.

Paterson speaks at length of the Holly King and the Wildman within Tree Wisdom. She explains in which ways she sees them as being one and the same.

“Thus we see that the Wildman expressed the procreative essence of Nature, the Godhead. And from his primal beginnings and through translations of his manifold energy he came to personify specific aspects of the energies of Nature, from which forms like the holly and oak kings evolved, embodiments par excellence of the seasonal forces associated with the dark and light periods of the year.”

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Holly had a more specific use to the Celts of old. It seems to be the gate keeper and the guardian of the wild aspect of nature as well as the ruler over all of those that are wild.

In both Ireland and Wales, the wood of Holly is burnt before it is used[iv].

The Foliage:

The following information is from Cat Yronwode’s Herb Magic[v] website. The wording is very detached to protect them from possible lawsuits. It may also be possible that Holly is not a common herb used in Hoodoo. These uses for Holly seem to be mostly protective.

Holly can be burned with incense to protect the home and to bring good luck. Holly can also be placed above the door for protection and to invite into the home benevolent spirits.

As these are all qualities that we wish to attract to the home, Holly would best be used during the waxing phase of the moon.

“The Holly is best in the fight. He battles and defends himself, defeating enemies, those who wish to destroy him, with his spines. The leaves are soft in summer but in winter, when other greenery is scarce and when the evergreen Holly is likely to be attacked by browsing animals, the leaves harden, the spines appear and he is safe.”  – Liz and Colin Murray (The Celtic Tree Oracle)



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

[ii] Lady Charlotte Guest translation.

[iv] As related in the tales involving Finn and Taliesin.