The Celtic Tree Ogham

Celtic Tree Ogham

During the first year of this blog, the posts focused primarily on the Ogham in its “tree” form. These posts had evolved into three distinct parts. The first was “the Roots” section which spoke to the divination users and students of the Ogham. The second portion was “the Trunk” section which shared the harvest of information available on that tree from Celtic Myth and Folklore. The third part was “the Foliage” section which shared spell uses for the tree or plant discussed that week.

What exactly is the Celtic Tree Ogham?

Nowadays, the Ogham is often seen as a “tree alphabet,” but there’s little evidence that the listings of these trees within the Ogham Tract was anything more than a mnemonic device being used at the time. The Ogham, however, is often used by many as a way to reconnect with the ancestor spirits of the past, or with nature itself.

My intention, in writing the blog, was to reflect more deeply on the associations for each of these letters in a way that deepened my own relationship with the Ogham and in a way which promoted a practice of self-discipline.

In this way I would research, reflect, and meditate upon each letter for a week before publishing what I had discovered or written. A previous knowledge of the Ogham was not necessary for the reader, though some would have chosen to skip ahead to the Myth and Folklore section.

Sharing these findings with those who were also interested was my way of giving back.

Within the Celtic Tree Ogham there are 25 main letters, or fews. My first post was at the beginning of May 2011, the “light half” of the year, and this first cycle was concluded by the end of October 2011 for the beginning of the “dark half” of the year (or more accurately the cold half). I began the second cycle at that time and finished it in May of 2012. Each cycle (part I & II) focuses on several respected authors who study the Ogham. As the authors are different between part I & II, sometimes the interpretations will differ. A Ogham student may wish to read both part I and part II for each tree.

When writing about the Ogham, I tried to reference Celtic mythology almost exclusively. The Ogham was a Celtic alphabet, it seemed strange to me that many wrote about the Ogham but referenced other cultures when they discussed the trees. Other mythologies are easier to find, research, and reference, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore what reflections are available to us through the traditional sources. The context of the Ogham is one that can only be found within the culture of the Celts. Their gods were different from other cultures’ gods, their foods were different, their language was different and their ways of achieving enlightenment were different. It is only through a Celtic context that we can ever hope to understand the possible meanings of the Ogham in a spiritual context.

I’m not a Ogham expert, but an enthusiast. I am not a Reconstructionist, necessarily, but believe that our ancestors knew many things that we have long since forgotten. They lived in a more symbiotic relationship with nature and discarnate beings, which we can in turn learn from through study.

 The Living Library Ogham Index (first cycle only – there’s no index for the second cycle)

Ogham: the Forfeda, Diphthongs, or Extra Letters

The Image of Irelande. John Derrick. 1581

These previous Forfeda posts have been reviewed, updated, edited and revised. I’ve included these links here, in one place, so that those who are seeking to know more about the Forfeda may find much of the information available in one place. Those who do not have a keen interest in the Ogham may wish to pass over this post on the Forfeda completely.

The weathered student of the Ogham, on the other hand, may find a great deal of information here. These posts represents several years of contemplation and study. Many authors who write about the Ogham do not describe the forfeda in any great detail. As far as I know, essays like these – which explore the Ogham from a mythical and folkloric perspective – have never been written on the forfeda in any great detail.

This is not to say that I’m an expert by any means. I’m merely sharing the findings of my personal research. My opinions are more open and flexible in regards to the Forfeda than they may have been in relation to the other Ogham letters. This is because the information itself is often conflicting and obscure. I would be very eager to accept any further feedback or new leads towards an even deeper level of contemplation and/or research in regards to these “extra letters.” If you are aware of another site – including your own – which explores the Forfeda in greater detail or from a different perspective, please feel free to leave a comment with the link attached. I would be very grateful.

Finn’s Window. Book of Ballymote. 1390

An Introduction to the Forfeda:

Koad (Salmon or Grove)

Oir (Gold or Spindle)

Uilleand (Elbow or Honeysuckle)

Iphin (Honey or Gooseberry)

Mor (Twin of Hazel or the Sea)

The Image of Irelande. John Derrick. 1581

I have gone through the Ogham cycle of the trees twice over the last year. Next week I will be branching off into a completely different area as we begin to explore the birds and animals of Celtic Lore.


Ioho (Yew) II

(Yew Tree Farm. 1936 postcard[i])

“A yew-tree, the finest of the wood, it is called king without opposition. May that splendid shaft drive on yon crown into their wounds of death.” – Charles Squire (Celtic Myth and Legend. 1905)

1) The Roots: Background information

2) The Trunk: Celtic Mythology and Significance

3) The Foliage: Spells using the Plant

The Roots:

The 20th letter of the Tree-Ogham is Ioho[ii], the Yew tree[iii].

Yew is the tree found most often in mythology as the Tree of Life or the World Tree[iv].

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom said that Ioho (Idad) is the few of longevity, reincarnation, the ancestors, history and tradition. Laurie also said that the Yew is the tree of immortality[v].

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids said that the Yew represented “death and rebirth.” He also called it “the Ancestor Tree.”

John Mathews interprets the word kennings taken from the Ogham Tract[vi] in his book the Celtic Shaman. There, the phrase “oldest of wood” was given the quality of “wisdom.”

In Celtic Wisdom Sticks Caitlin Mathews said that the Yew “is often found in churchyards, where its association with death and longevity are living symbols of mortality.” She also said that the tree shared the same status as the Oak in Ireland. In her divination system, Caitlin gives the interpretations for the Yew tree as broadening horizons, standing tall, deep memory and observation.

The Trunk:

The Yew is the hollow tree spoken of in folklore and fairytale. In fact, it is one of the most commonly mentioned trees within those Celtic stories.

The Yew tree is often associated with death, dying and the dead. There’s an old Breton legend that said that the roots of the Yew tree grew into the open mouth of each corpse[vii]. Yew branches were also said to have been buried with the dead[viii].

The Aspen may be seen as the tree of death and finality within an Ogham divination system. The Yew, on the other hand, can be seen as the tree of rebirth.  The Yew does not simply represent change, however. The Yew represents the rebirth that follows death. This is an important distinction.

Lady Wild spoke of the Yew tree as being “sacred” within the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland.  In the 1904 Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory we are told that the Yew was “the most beautiful wood.” In 1877, Lady Charlotte Guest stated in her Mabinogoon notes that the Yew tree was “sacred to archers.”

Alternately, powerful creatures of nature – like the Yew tree – were just as likely to be shunned as embraced. In British Goblins by Wirt Sikes, 1881, we find the following tale:

“Near Tintern Abbey there is a jutting crag overhung by gloomy branches of the Yew, called the Devil’s Pulpit. His eminence used in other and wickeder days to preach atrocious morals, or immorals, to the white-robed Cistercian monks of the abbey, from this rocky pulpit. One day the devil grew bold, and taking his tail under his arm in an easy and degagee manner, hobnobbed familiarly with the monks, and finally proposed, just for a lark, that he should preach them a nice red-hot sermon from the roof-loft of the abbey. To this the monks agreed, and the devil came to church in high glee. But fancy his profane perturbation (I had nearly written holy horror) when the treacherous Cistercians proceeded to shower him with holy water.”

Elsewhere in the same text we are told of couples dancing beneath the graveyard Yew in relatively recent times. These couples would dance beneath the branches on the side of the tree that people were not buried beneath.

Jacqueline Memory Paterson in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook said that, “Ghostly faces seen on the trunks of peeling graveside Yews, were thought to be signs of the rising spirits of the dead freed from earthly restraints.”

(Estry Yew in Normandy. Photo by Roi.Dagobert[ix])

The Yew is not just a tree of rebirth, though. It has a direct connection with the Ogham in John Rhys 1900 Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx.

“Take for instance the Irish story of a king of Erin called Eochaid Airem, who, with the aid of his magician or druid Dalan, defied the fairies, and dug into the heart of their underground station, until, in fact, he got possession of his queen, who had been carried thither by a fairy chief named Mider. Eochaid, assisted by his druid and the powerful Ogams which the latter wrote on rods of Yew, was too formidable for the fairies, and their wrath was not executed till the time of Eochaid’s unoffending grandson, Conaire Mor, who fell a victim to it, as related in the epic story of Bruden Daderga, so called from the palace where Conaire was slain.”

In some versions of this story there were only three Yew Ogham sticks, or few. In other texts there were four[x].

The Yew tree was also often symbolic of romance. In the Irish myth the Tale of Oenghus, the beautiful Ibormeith (Yewberry) transforms into a swan every second year during Samhain. Oenghus, in order to win over her love, becomes a swan as well. The two are then able to fly off together, back to his kingdom[xi].

In Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by Thomas Rolleston written in 1911 we are told that Cuchulainn would meet with the fairy maiden, Fand, beneath a Yew tree. The lovers meeting beneath a Yew tree in Celtic folklore was a recurring theme. Dead lovers would also often reconnect with one another after death. This was often accomplished by a touching together of branches between these two growing Yew trees.

There are many more examples of the Yew found in folklore. Some of these can be found in the previous Ioho (Yew) post[xii].  This previous post also contained tales of death, fairy abduction, and the story of the passing of “neopagan” father of Ogham, Colin Murray.

The Foliage:

The following spell is found within British Goblins and is used to bring someone back from “fairyland.” The missing person was taken in the early hours of the morning from beneath a magic Yew tree. It was there that he had been sleeping. This particular magic tree was found at the very center of the forest:

“The conjuror gave him this advice: ‘Go to the same place where you and the lad slept. Go there exactly a year after the boy was lost. Let it be on the same day of the year and at the same time of the day; but take care that you do not step inside the fairy ring. Stand on the border of the green circle you saw there, and the boy will come out with many of the goblins to dance. When you see him so near to you that you may take hold of him, snatch him out of the ring as quickly as you can.’ These instructions were obeyed.”

 But these sorts of things don’t always work out so well, at least not in this tale:

“Iago appeared, dancing in the ring with the Tylwyth Teg, and was promptly plucked forth. ‘Duw! Duw!’ cried Tom, ‘how wan and pale you look! And don’t you feel hungry too?’ ‘No,’ said the boy, ‘and if I did, have I not here in my wallet the remains of my dinner that I had before I fell asleep?’ But when he looked in his wallet, the food was not there. ‘Well, it must be time to go home,’ he said, with a sigh; for he did not know that a year had passed by. His look was like a skeleton, and as soon as he had tasted food, he mouldered away.”

Maybe his friend should have just left him dancing?

For a more practical use of the Yew, Robert Ellison said that the tree could be used in divination or in spells. The Yew, he said, represented the ancestors, re-birth, death, and could be used “for its powers to cast an arrow a great distance, with strength.”


“And at the same time the poets of Ireland were gathered at the Yew tree at the head of Baile’s strand in Ulster, and they were making up stories there of themselves.” – Lady Gregory (Book of Saints and Wonders. 1906)

[ii] Ioho was the Murray listing. Most Ogham users spell this letter Idad.

[iii] The Ogham is not a tree alphabet, but many use it as such. For more information on the Ogham see previous posts.

[iv] A most common misconception is that the Norse world-tree was an Ash but this was a translation error from the Eddas. Yggdrasil is described, through translation, as either “winter green needle-ash” poetically or as “winter green needle-sharp” as being more literal. I discuss this further in my Nuin (Ash) post. The Nordic World Tree is generally believed to have been a Yew by those who are aware of this original error.

[v] Laurie does not use the Ogham as a “tree alphabet” but shares some tree-meanings in her book for those that do.

[vii] Liz and Colin Murray. The Celtic Tree Oracle.

[x] John Rhys also proposed that these translations that used the Ogham to find the queen might be referring to actual messages sent in Ogham to other druids during the search for the missing bride – as opposed to the magical divination system usually assumed to have been used.

[xi] Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm. The Druid Animal Oracle.

Eadha (Aspen) II

“The people of Uist say … that the hateful aspen is banned three times. The aspen is banned the first time because it haughtily held up its head while all the other trees of the forest bowed their heads lowly down as the King of all created things was being led to Calvary. And the aspen is banned the second time because it was chosen by the enemies of Christ for the cross upon which to crucify the Saviour of mankind. And the aspen is banned the third time because [here the reciter’s memory failed him]. Hence the ever-tremulous, ever-quivering, ever-quaking motion of the guilty hateful aspen even in the stillest air.” – Alexander Carmicheal (Carmina Gadelica. 1900)

1) The Roots: Background information

2) The Trunk: Celtic Mythology and Significance

3) The Foliage: Spells using the Plant

The Roots:

Eadha, or Aspen, is the 19th letter of the Ogham in its tree form.

Aspen are very closely related to White Poplar. In many places the names for the two trees are used interchangeably. The species are so closely related, in fact, that they can intermarry resulting in the Grey Poplar species.

Aspen’s the only tree that dominates two letters from the list found in the Ogham Tract or Scholar’s Primer[i]. Eadha is associated with Aspen but so is Ebad. Writers who use the tree version of the Ogham have worked around this in various ways. The Murrays use the second Aspen, Ebad, to instead represent “the Grove”, which they also call Koad[ii]. Several other writers have since used this association.

The word-Ogham kennings are interpreted by John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman. Mathews interprets the phrase “distinguished wood” for Aspen as representing “insight.”

Caitlin Mathews has a slightly different approach to the Ogham. In her book Celtic Wisdom Sticks Caitlin says that some of the kennings relate to death while others may have more to do with the corpse-measuring rod we will discuss below. Her divination system uses a war-like theme for Aspen. The interpretations for the letter are retreat, attack, survive and persevere for love.

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids says that the Aspen is associated with “healing and communication.” He also claims that the tree can also be associated with old age “due to it’s shivering.”

The Trunk:

At one time, the quivering leaves of the Aspen were believed to be mediators between this world and the spirit one. Their shaking leaves helped the spirits of ancestors to speak  with the living. The shaking leaves also carried the inspiration of poetry.

The Holly and Oak are often accused of being the trees used for the crucifixion, but the Aspen also shares this role. Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom claims that in Scotland people would throw stones at the Aspen to punish it. This was a tradition that was even practiced into recent times due to the trees great burden of “evil.” As a result, the quivering leaves of the tree have been equated to guilt, or to fear, in anticipation of the justice it will receive for betraying Christ.

In the 1881 book Notes on Folklore of the Northeast of Scotland by Waltor Gregor we also find that, “The cross is said to have been made of the wood of the aspen – ‘Quaking Aish’ hence the constant motion of the leaves.”

The many dark association for Aspen may be due to one of its historical uses. In Cormac’s Glossary we are told of the Aspen wand called a Fe which was used to measure the graves of the dead[iii]. Accordingly, there was even an Ogham inscription cut upon these rods. The Fe wands and their users are both called “pagan” in the glossary. We are also told that it was not advised for anyone, other than the grave measurers, to handle these wands. These Aspen measuring-sticks were said to hold bad spirits.

Despite this particular macabre reference to the Aspen, the tree is spoken of as “friend” within the Ogham Tract.

In mythology, one of Cuchulain’s great victories was over three of his enemies who had also armed each of their charioteers with Aspen wands. He killed all six of them[iv].

If the Aspen wand was used for measuring the grave, then the symbolism found within the tale is both direct and haunting. The three threes, including the wands, remind us that all of the old myths are just as likely to be secret riddles as stories. The story becomes a metaphor, then, in which Cuchulainn has overcome death once more. The charioteers had only intended on measuring his corpse.

(Still Life With a Skull. Philip D. Champaigne. 17th Century)

As well as being affiliated with the dead, the Aspen is also connected to ghosts and to the “undead.”  The following example is taken from Tales of the Fairies and the Ghost World by Jeremiah Curtain in 1895:

“The malignant ones are dead persons who rise up bodily and go around at night devouring people. When one of these has eaten a victim he rushes back to his grave, for he is obliged to remain wherever he may be at cock-crow; if outside his grave, he falls stiff and helpless to lie there till the next night. There are two ways of giving a quietus to such a ghoul. One is to pin him to the earth by driving a stake of aspen wood through his heart; the other is to burn him to ashes.”

So the Aspen turns out not be so bad after all. Perhaps, it is only seeking redemption? Perhaps, it wishes to aid us in our fight against evil spirits and the undead? The Aspen may even wish to help us battle those deathless creatures wandering the dark forests and deserts of our planet?

Every land is haunted. All countries have ghosts. In fact, we are all united as one people beneath the shadows of these global cultural beliefs.

The Celts, as well as most other cultures, had a respect for nature whose royalty was the pantheon of trees. Within a few generations, however, those kings and queens were literally “stoned.”

A strange reversal of belief.

The Foliage:

According to Robert Graves in the White Goddess, French witches used Aspen or White Poplar in flying spells.

In Survival in Belief Amongst Celts published in 1911, George Henderson reports that mare’s milk taken from an Aspen spoon was a cure for whooping cough.

In Scotland, an Aspen leaf “placed under the tongue made the bearer more eloquent.” According to the source, Paul Kendall, this magical shift was a gift from the fairy queen[v].

In Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook by Jacqueline Memory Paterson, we are told that Aspen crowns have often been buried with the dead to “enable these spirits to be safely reborn”

And just in case someone you know were to ever catch palsy, Alice Vitale in her book Leaves in Myth, Magic, and Medicine shares with us an easy cure. Apparently, a piece of the sick person’s hair was pinned to an Aspen tree and this chant was spoken in place:

“Aspen tree, aspen tree, I prise shiver and shake instead of me.”

The person would then walk away from the tree, but they would not speak as they did so. If they did talk, then the spell would be broken. If they succeeded in walking away in silence, however, then the palsy would be gone forever.

Jacqueline Paterson claims in her book Tree Wisdom that French witches used five pointed Poplar leaves in spells. She says that the tree was believed “to bring good luck in the monetary sense.”


“In her head was one deep pool-like eye, swifter than a star in a winters sky; Upon her head gnarl brushwood, like the clawed old wood of the aspen root.” – J. F. Campbell (Popular Tales of the West Highlands. 1890)

* All images used in this post are from public domain.

[ii] The Celtic Tree Oracle. Liz and Colin Murray.

[iii] Cormac mac Cuilennain was an Irish bishop and a king of Muster. He was killed in battle in 908ce. The glossary is attributed to him after his death but was probably not actually written by him.

[iv] Cattle Raid of Cualnge. Ulster Cycle.

Ur (Heather) II

“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

The Roots:

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.

The Trunk:

“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.”

The Foliage:

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 an unsuccessful 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.

[iii] The Ogham Tract.

[v] The previous Heather post relays more Heather stories taken from this book.

[vi] See last week’s post on Gorse.

[vii] Katherine Briggs says that fairies were categorized as either “diminished gods or the dead.” The Fairies in Tradition and Literature.

Ohn (Gorse or Broom) II

“When the broom and the whin were rich in blossom it was looked upon as an indication of a good crop.” –  Waltor Gregor (Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland. 1881)

1)      The Roots: Background information

2)      The Trunk: Celtic Mythology and Significance

3)      The Foliage: Spells using the Plant

The Roots:

The seventeenth letter of the Ogham is Ohn. In its tree form this letter is usually listed as Gorse. According to Robert Graves, some Ogham lists use the Scotch Broom instead[i].

Gorse is also known as Sea Gorse, Furz, Furze, Furse or Whin. It is a close relative to the Broom plant belonging to the same tribe Genisteae. The main differing quality between the two plants is the Gorse’s sharp thorns. In Cad Goddeu –the Battle of the Trees- Broom even seems to be the parent of the Gorse when the story relays to us that, “The Brooms with their offspring [arrived?]: the Furz was not well behaved, until he was tamed…[ii].”

James Frazer in the Golden Bough says that the Furz and the Broom were often used interchangeable within folk ritual. This may be why some of the Ogham lists use the Broom plant instead of Gorse. It may also be why Robert Graves left Broom out of his Ogham list as the plant listed for Ngetal[iii] and why he replaced it with the Reed Grass instead. Perhaps he believed that the Broom and Gorse were too similar to have separate letters within the Ogham? Another more likely possibility, however, could be that Graves chose this placement more to support his tree calendar theory than for any other historical or mythological significance.

When one considers that the Gorse and the Broom both grew, and continue to grow, out in the open and needed to be tamed -by our ancestors- then the parallels between the two plants becomes apparent. Both plants were often burnt back by shepherds and farmers to preserve the land from being overwhelmed. Gorse on the one hand had spiky thorns while the Broom was softer but just as prolific.

In the Ogham Tract[iv] the trees and plants of the Ogham are listed according to their rank. Some trees are seen as chieftain trees, some are seen as peasant trees and some are seen as shrub trees. Interestingly enough, the Furz is listed as a chieftain tree but -as Whin- is listed again as a peasant tree[v]. It is also assumed that Broom is listed as a shrub tree by its absence. Under Brehon law[vi], however, both the Broom and the Furz are given the lowest rank of “bramble” trees. Gorse’s ranking as a chieftain tree illustrates the respect it was given in Ireland at the time the tract was written.

There is a common theme found in the tree and plant mythology of the Celtic ancestors. It would seem that all of the thorn plants – such as Hawthorn, Blackthorn, or Blackberry- were protected by the fairies and were thus deemed sacred, cursed, or both.

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom says that the Gorse represented foundations and journeying. Gorse was also related to ones path, choices, direction and intention. The energy of the Broom, according to Laurie, is a plant of healing and wounding.

In Robert Ellison’s Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids the letter represents a collecting together of things. The Gorse, he says, can be used in “seasonal love spells and in spells that draw things together.” Elision relates the Broom’s powers to hard work and tools.

In Celtic Wisdom Sticks Caitlin Mathews tells us that in old Irish law the presence of Gorse was proof of an uncultivated land. In her divination system the Gorse represents hard work and persistence.

The word-Ogham kenning for Ohn is shortened to “helper of horses” in John Mathew’s book the Celtic Shaman. The meaning given to this kenning in the book is “travel.”

The Trunk:

According to Eryn Rowan Laurie the Gorse was used in some parts of Ireland instead of the Hawthorn as the May bush. This could have only been possible if the Gorse was a greatly respected plant at the time.

In A.W. Moore’s 1891 book Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man Gorse is also said to have been burnt on May Eve. In Notes on the Folk-lore of the North-East of Scotland by Walter Gregor the Gorse, or Broom, was lit in the Beltane fire there as well.

James Frazer in the Golden Bough said that Gorse was torched to protect cattle from witches on the Isle of Mann. Gorse fields, he claimed, were customarily burnt on Midsummer’s Eve.

Reasons why they would burn the plant can be found throughout folklore.

One of the ingredients used to create the flower goddess Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogion was the Broom flower. The Cailleach or hag goddess, on the other hand, was elsewhere connected to the Gorse[vii]. There are many examples of the fairies living within the Gorse or Broom as well.

In the 1900 book Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx by John Rhys we find one example:

“In some places the Tylwyth Teg are described as a small folk of a thieving nature, living in summer among the fern bushes in the mountains, and in winter in the heather and gorse. These were wont to frequent the fairs and to steal money from the farmers’ pockets, where they placed in its stead their own fairy money, which looked like the coin of the realm, but when it was paid for anything bought it would vanish in the pockets of the seller.”

In the 1881 text Notes on the Folk-lore of the North-East of Scotland we find another example in which a man overhears the fairies plotting an abduction from inside of a Broom grove. The man is able to thwart the fairy raid and saves the smith’s wife. This is the tale that was told last week. The fairies fled and a Fir wood replica of the wife was accidently left behind[viii].

According to the 1917 text Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Mackenzie the fairies would come forth when the golden Gorse was in bloom. Perhaps, this was why the fairies lived in “the fern bushes” in summer?

(European Hare. Photo by Feldhase[ix])

The Gorse could also be home to witches. We find this example in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx:

“The break of this day(May Eve) is also the signal for setting the ling or the gorse on fire, which is done in order to burn out the witches wont to take the form of the hare; and guns, I am told, were freely used to shoot any game met with on that morning. With the proper charge some of the witches were now and then hit and wounded, whereupon they resumed the human form and remained cripples for the rest of their lives.”

Gorse was usually burnt to combat witches or fairies in a more direct way:

“The persons who had the power of turning themselves into hares were believed to be abroad and very active, together with the whole demon world, on the eve of May-day of the Old Style. And a middle-aged man from the parish of Andreas related to me how he came three or four times across a woman reputed to be a witch, carrying on her evil practices at the junction of cross-roads, or the meeting of three boundaries. This happened once very early on Old May morning, and afterwards he met her several times as he was returning home from visiting his sweetheart. He warned the witch that if he found her again he would kick her: that is what he tells me. Well, after a while he did surprise her again at work at four crossroads, somewhere near Lezayre. She had a circle, he said, as large as that made by horses in threshing, swept clean around her. He kicked her and took away her besom (broom), which he hid till the middle of the day. Then he made the farm boys fetch some dry gorse, and he put the witch’s besom on the top of it. Thereupon fire was set to the gorse, and, wonderful to relate, the besom, as it burned, crackled and made reports like guns going off. In fact, the noise could be heard at Andreas Church—that is to say, miles away.”

These stories, of course, were written long before the Witch’s Rights movement.

When Gorse, or Broom, appears in stories it usually represents the wild and untamed land being reclaimed by nature. The shrubs become a hiding place for fairies, witches and strange animals:

“It is believed still all over Wales that snakes may, under favourable circumstances, develop wings: in fact, an Anglesey man strongly wished, to my knowledge, to offer to the recent Welsh Land Commission, as evidence of the wild and neglected state of a certain farm, that the gorse had grown so high and the snakes so thriven in it that he had actually seen one of the latter flying right across a wide road which separated two such gorse forests as he described: surprised and hurt to find that this was not accepted, he inferred that the Commissioners knew next to nothing about their business.”

The Foliage:

The following spell is mentioned in A.W. Moore’s 1891 book Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man:

“This (May Eve) was also one of the occasions on which no one would give fire, and on which fires were and are lit on the hills to drive away the Fairies, Witches, &c., and also to purify the fields, cattle, and horses by the smoke passing over them. It is said that a handful of gorse was formerly lit in each field to purify it.”

A similar practice was observed on Midsummer’s Eve:

“On the eve of St. John the Baptist, the natives lighted fires to the windward side of every field, so that the smoke might pass over the corn; they folded their cattle and carried blazing furze or gorse round them several times.”

In Notes on the Folk-lore of the North-East of Scotland the yellow Gorse flowers were collected and used to dye the Peace Sunday eggs. These were “rolled” on the Saturday that followed Peace Sunday[x].


A hot sun beat down upon flowering gorse and flowerless heather; and on every side except the east, where there were green trees and distant hills, one saw a level horizon and brown boglands with a few green places and here and there the glitter of water. One could imagine that had it been twilight and not early afternoon, and had there been vapours drifting and frothing where there were now but shadows of clouds, it would have set stirring in one, as few places even in Ireland can, a thought that is peculiar to Celtic romance, as I think, a thought of a mystery coming not as with Gothic nations out of the pressure of darkness, but out of great spaces and windy light.” – Lady Gregory (Gods and Fighting Men. 1904)

[i] The White Goddess.

[ii] The Gorse is also said to be great in battle. D.W. Nash translation. Ibid.

[iii] Ngetal is the thirteenth letter of the Ogham.


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

[vi] Irish law. The White Goddess.

[viii] The fairies intended on making a switch.

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