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.

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

[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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Ailm (Fir or Pine) II

“And King Guaire followed him there and asked him to come back where he could sleep upon a bed and not be laying his head upon a hard fir tree in the night time. But Marbhan would not leave the place he had chosen, for he said he was well content with the little cabin he had in the wood, and that no one had knowledge of except God.” – Lady Gregory (A Book of Saints and Wonders. 1906)

The Roots:

The sixteenth letter of the Ogham is Ailm. In its tree form this is Scotch Fir or Scots Pine.

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

The first Silver Fir, however, is not believed to have been introduced into neighbouring Scotland until 1603[ii]. One of the places the Ogham Tract appears is within the Book of Ballymote which is believed to have been written around 1390[iii]. Before the 18th century the Scots Pine was also known as Scotch or Scots Fir[iv] so the mention of the “Fir” within the Ogham Tract is most likely a reference to the Pine[v]. The Scots Pine is native to the British Isles and would have been better known in Ireland. Pine is also mentioned within the Ogham tract, but various names for the same tree are found for other letters as well. For example the Yew is also the Service Tree, Blackthorn is also Sloe, and Quicken is also the Rowan.  In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 book Popular Tales of the West Highlands vol.1 we are also told that a Fir cone grows into a Pine tree. It is likely that both Pine and Fir refer to the Scotch Fir or Scots Pine interchangeably.

Firs and Pines -as well as Spruces, Cedars and others- are part of the same family known as Pinaceae. These conifers share a prehistoric heritage as members of the first trees growing in many areas upon the land of our planet. The close relation -and primordial ancestry- make them more akin to one another than many other types of trees.

The kenning for this letter speaks of the “loudest of groaning.” John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets this as meaning “misery.”

Robert Ellison in Ogham: Secret Language of the Druids says that this letter represents being “far seeing and knowing the future.” Ellison uses the Silver Fir to represent Ailm in the Robert Graves tradition. Ellison also calls the Fir the “oldest in the forest.”

Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks lists a number of important attributes for the Fir tree. Within her divination system Ailm represents nobility, judgement, investment and patience. The general theme seems to be wisdom and clarity.

The Trunk:

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

Contrary to what I had said in the previous Fir and Pine post, this tree does make several appearances in Celtic myth and folklore. It is usually associated with fairies or giants.

In the 1917 book Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Mackenzie we are told of two fairies that live in the Fir woods. Interestingly, both of these fairies are described as being “fairy exiles.” The Ghillie Dhu is described as the “dark servant.” The second fairy is simply called “the dummy” and lives beneath a cairn in a Fir wood. Despite being exiles, both of these fairies are friendly and helpful.

In the 1881 book Notes on Folklore of the North-East of Scotland by Walter Gregor we are told of a botched fairy raid. The fairies had intended on stealing a smith’s wife but were “sained” and disaster was avoided. The family found an image of the smith’s wife that was left behind by the fairies. This image had been made from Fir wood and was left behind when the fairies fled.

In Celtic folklore the lines between the fairies and the dead often becomes very blurred[vii]. In the 1914 book True Irish Ghost Stories by John Seymour and Harry Neligan we find an interesting, though only peripherally related, reference to Fir:

“A gentleman […] often received warnings from his dead father of things that were about to happen. Besides the farm on which he lived, he had another some miles away which adjoined a large demesne. Once in a great storm a fir-tree was blown down in the demesne, and fell into his field. The wood ranger came to him and told him he might as well cut up the tree, and take it away. Accordingly one day he set out for this purpose, taking with him two men and a cart. He got into the fields by a stile, while his men went on to a gate. As he approached a gap between two fields he saw, standing in it, his father as plainly as he ever saw him in life, and beckoning him back warningly. Unable to understand this, he still advanced, whereupon his father looked very angry, and his gestures became imperious. This induced him to turn away, so he sent his men home, and left the tree uncut. He subsequently discovered that a plot had been laid by the wood ranger, who coveted his farm, and who hoped to have him dispossessed by accusing him of stealing the tree.”

(Hollyburn Fir, BC. The tree is 43 metres in height and believed to be 1100 years old[viii])

In the 1892 book Celtic Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs we are given a much more poetic image of the Fir. It should be noted, however, that the type of tree stated here does change from one recount of this myth to another. It is not always Fir:

“The king ordered the body to be raised from out the grave and to be buried on the other side of the loch. It was done as the king bade, and the pit closed. Thereupon a fir shoot grew out of the grave of Deirdre and a fir shoot from the grave of Naois, and the two shoots united in a knot above the loch. The king ordered the shoots to be cut down, and this was done twice, until, at the third time, the wife whom the king had married caused him to stop, this work of evil and his vengeance on the remains of the dead.”

Fir is also often associated with giants. In the same text as above, Finn carves a staff out of Fir for his journey home to see his wife. His wife then tricks a rival giant into not wanting to fight Finn.

In the 1773 book Scottish Fairy and Folktales by Sir George Douglas a giant magician takes on the form of a Fir tree standing on a road.

Also found within Celtic Fairy Tales, a “king’s son” needs to climb a Fir tree described as “the greatest tree in the wood” in order to steal 5 magpie eggs for the meal of a certain giant. He needs to do this in order to win the giant’s daughter as his bride. Unfortunately, the tree is 500 feet tall and as smooth as glass. The giant’s daughter tells the king’s son to kill her and use her bones as a ladder so that he can climb the tree:

“Now you must kill me, strip the flesh from my bones, take all those bones apart, and use them as steps for climbing the tree. When you are climbing the tree, they will stick to the glass as if they had grown out of it; but when you are coming down, and have put your foot on each one, they will drop into your hand when you touch them. Be sure and stand on each bone, leave none untouched; if you do, it will stay behind. Put all my flesh into this clean cloth by the side of the spring at the roots of the tree. When you come to the earth, arrange my bones together, put the flesh over them, sprinkle it with water from the spring, and I shall be alive before you. But don’t forget a bone of me on the tree.”

Of course the king’s son forgets one of the daughter’s fingers in the tree. This results in her having only nine fingers. This later becomes an advantage, however, when he has to choose her out of three identical sisters!

The Foliage:

In the 1881 book Notes on Folklore of the North-East of Scotland by Walter Gregor we find a ritual where Fir is used to protect an infant from the fairies:

“On the birth of the child, the mother and offspring were ‘sained’, a ceremony which was done in the following manner: A fir-candle was lighted and carried three times round the bed, if it was in a position to allow of this being done, and, if this could not be done, it was whirled three times round their heads; a Bible and bread and cheese, or a Bible and a biscuit, were placed under the pillow, and the words were repeated, ” May the Almichty debar a’ ill fae this umman, an be aboot ir, an bliss ir an ir bairn.” When the biscuit or the bread and cheese had served their purpose, they were distributed among the unmarried friends and acquaintances, to be placed under their pillows to evoke dreams.”

This is immediately followed by:

“Among some of the fishing population a fir-candle or a basket containing bread and cheese was placed on the bed to keep the fairies at a distance.”

This “fir candle” is elsewhere described in the text as being made from thin strips of bog fir “one to two and a half or three feet long.” This candle was fixed in a type of candle stick called a peer man. This peer man could be of various forms but a common one is described in the text. The stone is round and a three foot piece of wood is placed in it. On top of the piece of wood is a piece of iron on which the Fir candle would be fixed “with the flame towards the door[ix].”

 

“Said Father Winter: ‘If Beira scolds you, give her these flowers[x], and if she asks where you found them, tell her that they came from the green rustling fir-woods. Tell her also that the cress is springing up on the banks of streams, and that the new grass has begun to shoot up in the fields.’ Having spoken thus, Father Winter bade the princess farewell and turned away.”  – Donald MacKenzie (Wonder Tales of Scottish Myth and Legend. 1917)


[i] The White Goddess.

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

[iii] Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. The Book of Leinster was written even earlier around 1160.

[iv] Firefly Encyclopedia of Trees.

[v] Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, says that Fir and Pine seem interchangeable within the Ogham tract text, most especially the Irish word gius which seems to apply to them both. Her statement seems to support my belief that this was and still is the same tree.

[vi] For more on the Cailleach please refer to the previous Fir and Pine post at https://livinglibraryblog.com/?p=208

[vii] Katherine Briggs. The Fairies in Folklore and Tradition.

[viii] http://www.canada.com/business/Discover+Hollyburn+Canada+ancient+natural+wonder/7013925/story.html

[ix] The meaning of this last phrase does not appear any clearer within the book. The text does say that the iron was “cleft,” however. Perhaps the author meant that the Fir candle was placed at a 90 degree angle and would have been burned horizontally?

[x] These are earlier identified as snowdrops within the text.

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Ruis (Elder) II

“The soul of the dead was believed to pass into the tree. Herbs and flowers were fabled to grow from the blood of the dead and so to re-embody his spirit.” – George Henderson (Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911)

The Roots:

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

Most of the kennings, or word-Oghams, refer to the colour red[i]. For this reason, many Ogham users associate this letter to emotions or passion.

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the phrase “strongest red” as being related to “anger.”

Caitlin Mathews likewise suggests that the kennings speak of “the blush of shame” and of “anger.” In Celtic Wisdom Sticks she says that the Elder is a tree of “endings and completions.” Caitlin Mathews reminds us that the tree is one of the better known fairy trees and as such can be very unlucky.

In Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids, Robert Ellison also lists the kennings. Instead of anger or passion, however, Ellison equates the “red” to the dye that is made from the berries. The association that Ellison has for this letter relates to the “entrance to the Otherworld and dealings with the fair folk.” Elder, he says, can also be used for protection against evil and witches.

Besides being a magical tree, the Elder has many medicinal uses. In folklore, we are told that it is the fairies that grant the trees these healing attributes.

The Trunk:

In Christian folklore, the Elder tree is often associated with evil. Apparently, this is because it was the Elder tree from which Judas Iscariot hung himself[ii].

The tree was not always evil to the Christians, however. In George Henderson’s 1912 work Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts we are told of a parish priest who came back reincarnated as an Elder tree.

Most of the negative encounters with the Elder occur only after the tree has been cut without permission from the fairies. An example of this can be found in the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde.

“At Toome Island there is the ruin of an ancient church, where the dead walk on November Eve. It is a solemn and sacred place, and nothing is allowed to be taken from it; neither stone nor branch of the shadowing trees, for fear of angering the spirits. One day three men who were on the island cut down some branches of an elder-tree that grew there to repair a private still, and carried them off in their boat; but then just close to the shore a violent gust of wind upset the boat, and the men were drowned. The wood, however, floated back to the island, and a cross was made of it which was erected on the beach, to commemorate the fate of the doomed men.”

In W.Y. Evans-Wentz’ 1911 book the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries we discover that the fairies were believed to inhabit Elder trees on the Isle of Man. This was likely a belief shared throughout the Celtic territories and not just on the Isle of Man. Lady Wilde seems to confirm this by relaying that the tree is in fact sacred and one of “the seven great fairy herbs of power.” This common belief would seem like reason enough not to nonchalantly cut off the tree’s branches.

(Hans Baldung. Witches. 1508)

There are many stories, however, in which the Elder tree was used to an advantage without ever having been asked first. In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 encyclopaedia Popular Tales of the West Highlands we are given the examples of an Elder club and of an Elder shinny stick. The users of these items appear unscathed.

Lady Wilde also shares the story of a magical butter churning dash made from Elder:

“One day while churning, the handle of the dash broke, and nothing being near to mend it, one of the brothers cut off a branch from an elder-tree that grew close to the house, and tied it to the dash for a handle. Then the churning went on, but to their surprise, the butter gathered so thick that all the crocks in the house were soon full, and still there was more left. The same thing went on every churning day, so the brothers became rich, for they could fill the market with their butter, and still had more than enough for every buyer.

“At last, being honest and true men, they began to fear that there was witchcraft in it, and that they were wronging their neighbours by abstracting their butter, and bringing it to their own churn in some strange way. So they both went off together to a great fairy doctor, and told him the whole story, and asked his advice. ‘Foolish men’ he said to them, ‘why did you come to me? For now you have broken the spell, and you will never have your crocks filled with butter any more. Your good fortune has passed away, for know the truth now. You were not wronging your neighbours; all was fair and just that you did, but this is how it happened. Long ago, the fairies passing through your land had a dispute and fought a battle, and having no arms, they flung lumps of butter at each other, which got lodged in the branches of the elder-tree in great quantities, for it was just after May Eve, when butter is plenty. This is the butter you have had, for the elder-tree has a sacred power which preserved it until now, and it came down to you through the branch you cut for a handle to the dash. But the spell is broken now that you have uttered the mystery, and you will have no more butter from the elder-tree.’

“Then the brothers went away sorrowful, and never after did the butter come beyond the usual quantity. However, they had already made so much money that they were content. And they stocked their farm, and all things prospered with them, for they had dealt uprightly in the matter, and the blessing of the Lord was on them.”

The moral of the story here doesn’t seem to be not to harm the Elder tree, but instead comes across as a suggestion to count your blessings and keep your mouth shut.

The Elder tree’s leaves can also be used as a type of talismanic magic against evil “witches and sorcery.” In the Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man, for example, Elder can be used to “protect houses and gardens” as this quote illustrates:

“Its leaves, like those of the Cuirn, were picked on May-eve, and affixed to doors and windows to protect the house from witchcraft.”

The Foliage:

There are several spells found within Celtic folklore in which the Elder tree is a chief component. The following two examples are taken from Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde:

“For epilepsy take nine pieces of young elder twig; run a thread of silk of three strands through the pieces, each piece being an inch long. Tie this round the patient’s neck next to the skin. Should the thread break and the amulet fall, it must be buried deep in the earth and another amulet made like the first, for if once it touches the ground the charm is lost.”

If a curse or “evil spell” is cast upon an individual, then the Elder tree can be used as part of the remedy. To do this, one is to take the roots of an Apple tree – that produces red apples – and the roots of an Elder tree. These should be boiled together. The person that intends to drink this should have fasted beforehand. When drank, the potion is said to “expel any evil living thing or evil spirit that may have taken up its abode in the body of a man.”

 

“I have been a circumference, I have been a head. A goat on an elder-tree. I have been a crane well filled, a sight to behold.” – W.F. Skene translation (Book of Taliesin. 1858)



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

[ii] A.W. Moore. Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man. 1891.

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Straif (Blackthorn) II

“If the Hawthorn and Blackthorn have many berries, the ensuing winter is expected to be severe.” – A.W. Moore (Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man. 1891)

The Roots:

The fourteenth letter of the Ogham, in its tree form, is Straif. This letter is generally associated with the Blackthorn, or sloe, tree.

The Blackthorn has a very dark and dangerous reputation within Celtic folklore. It is almost always associated with the dead, other types of spirits, or to the Underworld.

The kennings, or word-Oghams, found within the Ogham Tract[i] are interpreted by John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman. The phrase “strongest red,[ii]” for example, is supposed to further elaborate on the meaning of the letter Straif[iii]. John Mathews interprets this phrase as representing “anger.”

Robert Ellison says that the Blackthorn represents “trouble and negativity” within Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids. He also says that the Blackthorn can be used, “for protection, repelling and dissolution spells.”

Caitlin Mathews’ divination system found within Celtic Wisdom Sticks does not always allow for each letter to be summarized easily into a single phrase, keyword, or idea. This oracle allows for separate interpretations for each of the four navigational directions. For example there will be a separate meaning for Straif in the North position, in the West position, and so on. While many of the letters have a more unified theme between these four interpretations, Straif in this case represents a tangled variety of meanings within the book. The ideas found therein are related to: showing oneself, hiding oneself (cunning/camouflage), discernment, and unity.

While the Blackthorn may seem to have a wide range of possible meanings within the Ogham tract and elsewhere, these interpretations are much more similar to each other than we may originally realize. The tree is often interpreted as representing things that are associated with “negativity.” These negatives can be anger, strife, poverty, bad luck, pain, suffering, harmful fairies, or even ghosts. This is no coincidence. These interpretations for Blackthorn can often be traced directly back to the tree’s folkloric associations.

Straif, or the Blackthorn, is the tree of the dead.

The Trunk:

There’s no question about it, the Blackthorn is by far the witchiest tree found within the Ogham[iv].

The first example I will share comes from the time of myth. In it we have the “three times fifty” men of Da Derga armed with Blackthorn sticks. This can be found within Lady Gregory’s 1902 classic Cuchulain of Muirthemne. In it, the inn keeper Da Derga arrives with these 150 men brandishing Blackthorn clubs. It’s never entirely clear in the story either, whether or not the inn exists in this world or in the Otherworld. If we are to assume that the story takes place in the Otherworld, then these soldiers are the Sidhe. These Sidhe (pronounced she) are the earliest form of fairy recorded in Irish myth.

By the time of folklore much has changed. The Sidhe, for example, have transformed. They have lost their god-like status and became protectors of the natural world instead. The Lunanti-shee (Sidhe) are a type of spirit that guards the Blackthorn trees specifically. This Blackthorn specialist is found discussed within W.Y. Evans 1911 book Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. This protector of the Blackthorn is listed as one of the reasons why it is especially bad luck to cut down one of these trees.

The Lunantishee can not claim exclusive rights to the Blackthorn, however. There is an apparition, for example, who carries a Blackthorn club in Joseph Jacob’s 1892 Celtic Fairy Tales. An angel found within Lady Gregory’s 1906 Book of Saints and Wonders who appears as a bird in a Blackthorn tree. There is even a giant’s daughter who compels a prince to create a Blackthorn forest from a single twig. This tale is found within Joseph Jacob’s 1892 Celtic Fairy Tales.

(Illustration by John D. Batten. Celtic Fairy Tales. 1892)

The angel in the tree seems like an especially strange addition, though, especially considering that the Blackthorn is an enemy of Jesus. According to the 1900 text Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmicheal, the Blackthorn is one of the trees that betrayed Christ at the Crucification along with the Reed, the Aspen and the Fig tree[v]. Stories such as this one are often suspected to be tales that pre existed Christianity; only changing enough to continue existing.

The Blackthorn tree, after all, must have been feared by the early superstitious Christians. In the hands of a pagan, a single staff or wand could wield incredible power. In Tales of the Fairies and the Ghost World by Jeremiah Curtin, published in 1895, we find that the Blackthorn stick can be used to call on fairies and for protection from ghosts. In the 1917 book Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie, the Blackthorn in conjunction with the Rowan and Witch-hazel offers protection from the spirits of “the Under-world.” There are also sailors found within J.F. Campbell`s 1890 collection Popular Tales of the West Highlands who use a Blackthorn stick to help them travel “three castles underground.”

One of the most interesting Blackthorn tales, however, can be found within Lady Wilde`s 1887 text Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. It would seem as if the Blackthorn also has a certain unexplained power over the werewolf-like shape shifters of Ireland. In this story, we are introduced to a farmer named Conner who is missing two of his cows. He takes his Blackthorn staff and leaves his home in search of the animals. Eventually, Conner finds a strange house and is invited in. The hosts turn out to be strange, cold, and not very empathetic, however. When it finally becomes clear to Conner that these strangers will be of no help, he loses his temper and chastises them completely:

“Then the eldest of the young men stood up. ‘Wait,’ he said, ‘we are fierce and evil, but we never forget a kindness. Do you remember, one day down in the glen you found a poor little wolf in great agony and like to die, because a sharp thorn had pierced his side? And you gently extracted the thorn and gave him a drink, and went your way leaving him in peace and rest?’ ‘Aye, well do I remember it,’ said Connor, ‘and how the poor little beast licked my hand in gratitude.’ ‘Well,’ said the young man, ‘I am that wolf, and I shall help you if I can, but stay with us to-night and have no fear.’ So they sat down again to supper and feasted merrily, and then all fell fast asleep, and Connor knew nothing more till he awoke in the morning and found himself by a large hay-rick in his own field. ‘Now surely,’ thought he, ‘the adventure of last night was not all a dream, and I shall certainly find my cows when I go home; for that excellent, good young wolf promised his help, and I feel certain he would not deceive me.’ But when he arrived home and looked over the yard and the stable and the field, there was no sign nor sight of the cows. So he grew very sad and dispirited. But just then he espied in the field close by three of the most beautiful strange cows he had ever set eyes on. ‘These must have strayed in,’ he said, ‘from some neighbour’s ground;’ and he took his big stick to drive them out of the gate off the field. But when he reached the gate, there stood a young black wolf watching; and when the cows tried to pass out at the gate he bit at them, and drove them back. Then Connor knew that his friend the wolf had kept his word. So he let the cows go quietly back to the field; and there they remained, and grew to be the finest in the whole country, and their descendants are flourishing to this day, and Connor grew rich and prospered; for a kind deed is never lost, but brings good luck to the doer for evermore, as the old proverb says; ‘Blessings are won, By a good deed done.’ But never again did Connor find that desolate heath or that lone shieling, though he sought far and wide, to return his thanks, as was due to the friendly wolves nor did he ever again meet any of the family, though he mourned much whenever a slaughtered wolf was brought into the town for the sake of the reward, fearing his excellent friend might be the victim. At that time the wolves in Ireland had increased to such an extent, owing to the desolation of the country by constant wars, that a reward was offered and a high price paid for every wolf’s skin brought into the court of the justiciary; and this was in the time of Queen Elizabeth, when the English troops made ceaseless war against the Irish people, and there were more wolves in Ireland than men; and the dead lay unburied in hundreds on the highways, for there were no hands left to dig them graves.”

This is a very interesting and symbolic tale. Not only does Conner carry a Blackthorn staff, he extracted one of the tree`s thorns from the side of the wolf when it was just a pup! The message is clear. Conner may be a friend of these unusual wolf-men, but it is the Blackthorn, somehow, that has allowed this relationship to exist. This tale is believed to have been passed down in oral tradition from a much earlier date. The last wolf of Ireland was killed in 1786[vi].

Blackthorn is the one tree of the Ogham, which lends incredible power to the most humble of all people; the commoner. For that, it is both feared and loved.

The Foliage:

The following passage is taken from the 1881 book British Goblins by Wirt Sikes:

“Where a well of the requisite virtue is not conveniently near, the favourite form of charm for wart-curing is in connection with the wasting away of some selected object. Having first been pricked into the wart, the pin is then thrust into the selected object—in Gloucestershire it is a snail—and then the object is buried or impaled on a blackthorn in a hedge, and as it perishes the wart will disappear. The scapegoat principle of the sin-eater also appears in connection with charming away warts, as where a vagrom man counts your warts, marks their number in his hat, and goes away, taking the warts with him into the  next county—for a trifling consideration.”

The same spell appears in John Rhys 1900 text Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx. In this other book we are also informed of a type of divination that involves the Blackthorn. It involves the thorn of the tree or shrub.

According to the oral tradition of the time, the thorn was thrown into the well of a certain parish. This ritual was performed by young women who wanted to know if their love was real. If the thorn floated then it was good news; the love was in fact real. If the thorn sank, on the other hand, it meant that the love was not sincere.

 

 “Blackthorn. This thorny shrub was thought to provide protection against ghosts in Ireland and has long been popular in lightweight walking-sticks. It should not be cut on 11 May or 11 November.” – James Mackillop (Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998)



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

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] The document seems to be describing the magical properties of each letter in its tree form. Another explanation, however, could be that the descriptions found within the Ogham Tract are mere mnemonic devices. This is hard for me to personally believe given the symbolic nature of Celtic poetry and art.

[iv] I am referring to the Ogham in its tree form.

[v] An interesting side note: Straif does not actually mean Blackthorn but sulphur (Caitlin Mathews). With the introduction of the church, sulphur would come to have associations with hell and with the devil. J.C. Cooper. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. 1979.

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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.

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