Quert (Apple)

Apple. The Pome fruit and tree bearing this fruit is celebrated in numerous functions in Celtic mythology, legend and folklore; it is an emblem of fruitfulness and sometimes a means to immortality.”  – James MacKillop (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)

The Roots:

The apple represents the allure of the Otherworld.

Quert is the tenth letter of the Ogham. References to things beyond the number nine are found throughout Celtic myth. The Tuatha De Danann try to keep the Milesians beyond the ninth wave of the ocean for example, so that they would not be able to land on the shores of Ireland in the Book of Invasions. Brigit is attended by nine virgins, so she herself is the other that makes ten. Ten is the perfect number because all of the other numbers exist within it, yet it is the return to singularity (Cooper).

There are many Celtic tales, too many to mention here, that have connections to the apple. Yns Avallach, or Avalon, is the final resting place of Arthur and is usually called the Isle of Apples. Cuchulainn follows a rolling wheel and apple to find a great female warrior teacher[i]. One of the Irish names for the Otherworld was Eamhain Ablach, the realm of apples (Laurie). In Irish legend there is even a magical Silver Bough that carries nine apples which sing people to sleep (Paterson) – again that nine plus one. Thomas the Rhymer, who we have also spoken of before, was given an apple by the queen of the fairies that gave him the gift of prophecy. Many other legends associate Merlin, Olwen, Gwen, the romance of Diarmuid and Grainne, and the Tree of Mugna to the apple. Cu Roi is a hero that is only killed after his wife has betrayed him and revealed the secret hiding place of his soul, which is within an apple in the belly of a salmon.

Erynn Rowan Laurie[ii] associates the Ogham letter with madness and insanity. Although Laurie does not associate these letters with trees – but sees them more akin to the Norse runes[iii] -the symbolism of the apple does seem to support her position in some of the myths regardless.  Merlin is often associated to the apple grove which he could bring forth with him from place to place. Sabine Heinz[iv] reminds us that Merlin hid in the treetops when he became insane after a battle. Those that were considered too strange or “touched in the head” were often, even in relatively recent times, said to have been “taken by the fairies” so perhaps there is a connection to those such as Thomas the Rhymer as well to the concept of madness?

With the introduction of Christianity to the Isles, the apple also became synonymous with temptation and evil. The apple, or quert, is often also associated to romantic love and sex.

The Trunk:

The Otherworld can be described as a place that is elusive yet nearby. It seems to exist alongside us. It is a place where time and age do not matter, the otherworldly women and men are beautiful, animals can talk, the sun always shines, the birds always sing and beauty is amplified.

It is in this land that the gods seem to reside and sometimes the ancestors. The Otherworld is a place of heroic deeds, never ending banquets, whimsical love affairs, and items of great power that can be brought back to the land of the living.

Although the Otherworld is often associated with things made of glass, it is more often than not stumbled upon in the most mundane of manners.

A hero is walking through the wood and follows a white animal or becomes lost and finds him or herself in a completely foreign land. This may take place after there is a storm, fog, or mist.

The Otherworld is where the Sidhe, also known as the Tuatha De Danann, reside in Ireland. It is the land of the fairy, the fair folk, or of great lords that reside over the dead.

There is a story of Connla son of Conn Cetchathach of the Hundred Battles. In the story Connla is approached by a beautiful fairy woman who tempts him to come with her to the other side. She offers him an apple and promises him the relief from old age and even death. He leaves with her, but will not return even with the allure of his father’s kingdom and is never seen again.

(Childhood’s Favourites and Fairy Stories, Project Gutenberg)

Those superstitious of the fairies still warn us today to avoid eating the food of the fair folk… lest one never be able to return to the land of the living. There is a suggestion that this is because the food either tastes so good or intoxicates one to never want to return to the land of men again.

The Otherworld is found far away from the trappings of civilization. It is found on the sea by accident when sailors stumble upon unknown islands, or it is found deep within the wilderness.

The Otherworld is found when the hero is out hunting. It is found when the heroine is minding her own business. It is found when an item, usually food or drink, is found unattended and is unassumingly consumed.

It is likely that the Otherworld is a metaphor for the lands that are seen when one’s perception is shifted. This may happen through trance (perhaps shamanic like percussion), drug induced states (maybe aminita muscaria or possibly wine), dreaming, meditation or even enlightenment.

We must remember though that those that seek the Otherworld rarely find it, while those that do not – similar to Taliesin or Amairgin’s acquirement of wisdom– often find themselves on the other side altogether.

Some do not return.

The Foliage:

The apple, as we know it, has only been around since the classical age. The crab apple of the Americas was never cultivated but the small tart apple was used as a food source by the native people nonetheless[v].

According to Jared Diamond[vi], the apple tree was one of the later plants to be cultivated by ancient peoples. The art of cultivation in which the apple tree was domesticated was a complicated and difficult process that is known as grafting today. Grafting was discovered and developed in ancient China. The grafting, and growing of apple orchards, spread across the known world of the time, through Greece and Rome, and eventually into the lands of the Celts themselves.

This was thousands of years after the cultivation of such plants as the olive, grape or fig.

While it is interesting to note that the oak has never been domesticated as a food source, it is also interesting to recognize that the apple tree will quickly become wild once more. According to Hageneder[vii], the orchard apple is sweeter and bigger than the crab apple and the tree has lost its thorns. Trees that naturalize and leave the orchard, however, are often found to grow thorns once more.

The apple, Quert, has a long list of health benefits and even medicinal properties that continue to be studied in awe. The fruit absorbs contaminants from its environment however, so one should try to eat the organic fruit whenever it is possible.

“In the 19th century in Lower Saxony, Germany, the first bath water used by a newborn baby was poured over the roots of an apple tree to ensure that the child would have red cheeks, and, if it was a girl, large breasts too.” – Fred Hageneder  (The Meaning of Trees)


[i] This seems to be a type of divination.

[ii] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom

[iii] The Ogham is often seen as a tree alphabet but, as I have discussed in previous posts, this is not entirely accurate. I choose to use the Ogham as a tree alphabet on my own path. In my opinion Erynn Rowan Laurie’s book has the most accurate perception of the Ogham.

[iv] Celtic Symbols

[v] Tree Book: Learning to Recognize Trees of British Columbia

[vi] Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

[vii] The Meaning of Trees

[Image] http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19993

Saille (Willow)

“Thus, among tree species, we can recognize on sight as wind-pollinated the bulk of catkin-bearing trees, including the hazels, birches, and poplars, for in all of them there is an abundance of loose pollen, no nectar, and no conspicuous insect-attracting feature. Willows, with their large nectarines, constitute an exception and are insect-pollinated.” – Steve Cafferty (Firefly Encyclopedia of Trees)

The Roots:

Saille, the willow, is the tree of the otherworld.

The willow is the conductor of relationships. She is the bringer of love, of poetic inspiration, of the element of water, of music, the moon and of the great goddess herself. She is associated to many different creatures of the Earth and to the very idea of magic.

Willow is the builder of bridges, between this world and the next.

The Trunk:

It is said that the willow tree can return from the dead, and there may be a kernel of truth to this.

The tree responds well to cutting, pruning and grafting. In Plants of Coastal British Columbia we are told that BC Natives would use poles from Hooker’s Willow for fishing piers because they would “take root” in the floor of the waterbed. The same source states that the Variable Willow grows “in the footsteps of retreating glaciers”, thus beginning the population process of the forest beneath the shadow of the ice ages.

In mythology the willow tree can be connected to many different goddesses. Saille is also associated to many living creatures in Celtic mythology like the crane, the bull, the bumblebee, the hawk[i] and the frog.

It is no mystery that the willow is a water tree, as it grows in damp places along riverbanks and lake shores. When the willow grows close to the water her roots reach into the life-giving liquid itself. To the Celts this must have been significant.

The Celtic ancestors believed that there was a thin veil between this world and the next. It was known that in places where reality bent, the veil between the worlds was thinnest. A mountaintop was sacred because it was neither part of the earth nor of the sky, beaches were neither of the land nor of the sea, and a forest clearing was neither a part of the woods nor separated from it. When it came to time, dusk and dawn were sacred because they were neither of the day nor of the night. Samhain was an especially good time to peer between the worlds for it neither existed in one year nor in the next. It was thus believed that many spirits could wander freely at this time and that humans could just as easily become lost to the other side as well. Babies born on boats were sacred under the same philosophy as well. One can also quickly see why rowan or mistletoe growing not on the ground but on another tree may have been especially significant, or why they would be harvested halfway between the full and the new moon. The list of places, times and events where the veil was thinner than usual could be considered as inexhaustible as the imagination is long.

Creatures such as frogs were considered sacred as they were neither a creature of the land nor of the water. For this reason so were many water birds as they were neither of the air nor of the water. The crane, swan, goose and duck make repeated appearances throughout Celtic mythology.

So to the Celtic people the fact that the willow tree, Saille, lived partly in the water as well as partly on the land was of a significant importance -as it likely was to many other ancient cultures as well.

Fred Hageneder in the Meaning of Trees lists the willow as being attached to the Sumerian goddess of love, Belili and in Greece to Persephone, Circe, Artemis and Hera and to the nine muses (which gave the gift of poetry to Orpheus). Hageneder also reminds us that the Irish Bards’ harp had the body of willow wood which is also significant as the bard was no mere musician, but a mystic and an inspired messenger of the gods.

Nor should we forget that the White Goddess-which Graves attempts to establish is but one and the same goddess in many forms throughout history-is also connected to “the Willow Grove” in her original form.

Willow’s being attached to the element of water, and thus to the moon, gives us many reasons for these spiritual or metaphysical connections, for most biologists say that life on this planet would never have occurred without the tidal effects of the oceans,  which are caused by the moon.

In the Druid Animal Oracle, Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm point out that there are two separate surviving Celtic monuments that both show a bull and three cranes with a willow tree. These first century AD monuments show us the significance of the relationship between these three beings. The number three is extremely significant in Celtic mythology and reappears over and over again in the form of triads, in art, in legends and in the images of the triangle. The three cranes depicted on the monuments thus signify a divine group. The crane is often attached to the willow tree elsewhere as well.

Graves also points out that cranes were believed to have bred, and breed, in willow groves.

This braid of connection is significant, for it is the crane that is directly linked to the Ogham. It is the “crane bag” that carries the carved Ogham sticks and the sacred treasures of the sea god Manannan. Though the original Ogham was a gift to humanity from the god Ogma Sun Face[ii], “Greek mythographers credited Palmedes with [the additional invention of Ogham glyphs], saying that he received his inspiration from observing a flock of cranes, which make letters as they fly”. “Crane Knowledge” would then come to mean knowledge of the Ogham specifically (Carr-Gomm).

The horns of the bull are often said to represent the moon (numerous sources). The bull then is just as likely to represent us, as humans, as a singular warm blooded creature of the earth, reaching towards the heavens. It is said that if a person is changed into the shape of a crane then it is only the blood of a bull that can change them back (Heinz[iii]).

Willow can then be used as a bridge builder and a harmonizer between this world and the next. Saille can be asked to petition the goddess in matters of the heart or to make peace where discord exists between various people in a spirit of cooperation. For just as the bumblebee exchanges with her, the willow, the labour of pollination for nectar, so to can we find a place of common ground in the world of the willow no matter what our differences.

Like all of the symbolism attached to Saille though, perhaps her greatest gift is to show us that the world that we perceive as fixed and static is more fluid than we could ever have imagined, and that perhaps -as many of the mystics of the past have claimed – it is but an illusion[iv].

The Foliage:

There is an old tradition of sitting beneath the willow tree while listening to the wind that blows through her leaves create the musical speech of poetic inspiration.

“Perhaps trees are mediators between the worlds: their branches reach far into heaven and their roots reach deep into the earth.” Saibne Heinz (Celtic Symbols)


[i] In the Ogham there are also certain birds, as well as trees, attached to each letter. The bird attached to Saille is the hawk.

[ii] Ogma “Sun Face” is the son of Dagda “the Lord of Knowledge”. He is a poet warrior god who also carries the souls of the dead to the otherworld. Little is known of Ogma but he is one of the younger generation of gods, known as the Tuatha De Danann. After a great battle against the Fomorii (the previous and dark ones) Ogma claimed a magical sword that would recite all of the things that it had ever done. (the Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology, Select Editions. 2002)There can easily be seen parallels between Ogma and Odin, who brought the runic alphabet to the Norse, or to Prometheus, fire bringer, type figures. What seems to separate Ogma from these other advancers of civilization however is that he does not seem to have been punished for giving the Ogham to humans. I have found that John Mathews description of the events leading up to the sharing of the Ogham with man in the Song of Talieson as intuitive as he describes the sacrifice and pain that was experienced by Ogma in the process of learning the Ogham in the first place.

[iii] Sabine Heinz uses German Celtic Historian Silvia Botheroyd as a reference here. As far as I know her work is only available in German.

[iv] The willow is also used in scrying and other forms of divination, dowsing, and also has healing properties. It is commonly known that aspirin is a synthetic representation of salicyclic acid found in “white willow bark”, which in its natural form does not have blood thinning properties.

Luis (Rowan)

“While the more easily available material equates each ogam letter with a tree, most of the letter names aren’t, in fact, the names of trees at all. Conceptually, they are far more akin to the Norse runes. Lus may be associated with the rowan tree but the word itself derives from a root that refers to either a healing herb or to the brightness of a flame, and it is from these definitions that a depth of meaning can be developed and appreciated.” – Erynn Rowan Laurie (Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom)

The Roots:

Stepping into the forest can become disorienting. There is a moment, of adjustment, where one’s perception begins to shift. Direction can become confused. There is a humming silence, steady and persistent, that exists behind the bird’s song. Time now seems to move in a different manner altogether. Reality becomes blurred.

Although there are many differences in opinion as to the meaning of this second tree we may still find that many of the experts agree on certain aspects of luis[i]. It is commonly agreed upon and understood that this is the tree of protection against evil. This was what our ancestors petitioned for from the rowan tree in generations past.

The Rowan then becomes an ally on the journey that we will undertake into the forest, and into the darkness of the unknown.

The Trunk:

There are two important questions that we must now ask ourselves. The first is about protection itself and the second is about evil.

What is protection? To understand protection we must look within and at our own belief system. One way to view protection is to see it as a shield around ourselves, or as some sort of a guardian spirit that aids us and shelters us from harm. There may be problems with this paradigm however. How would this type of protection aid one who may be on a path of power towards growth or recognizing the divine within? When the shield is gone the traveler will once more be susceptible to harm and attack.

A second way to look at the concept of protection is to view it as a request to be given the strength to overcome whatever roadblocks are discovered on that path before us and to repel evil. In this way protection is summoned from outside of ourselves as a way of fostering a deeper relationship with the divine and with ourselves. With every step that we take we become more and more connected to everything around us. Protection does not become a shield around us but the energies become a part of a process within us. In this way we step into relationship with the rowan and are not merely asking for a favour but working in cooperation with it.

This second way of viewing protection allows me to experience and grow. It allows me to stay in a place of power and not to submit to the ideas of helplessness which may eventually lead to a belief in being a victim. It is asking for help but not asking to be carried.

What is evil then? What is it that we need to protect ourselves against?

This is one of the oldest questions known to us as humans. At one time in our history wolves were considered evil and at another time they were sacred. Many plants and animals share this historic past. One could say that many things found in nature were at one time considered evil and perhaps even more things that are found in the realms of civilization.

To some the night and darkness are evil. To others evil only exists externally. Many believe in the concept of sin. What one believes to be evil can be deeply personal and a very frightening thing to look upon.

To ask for protection however we must understand the answer to this question even if it is a private matter, for we need to know what it is that we need protection from. Ravenous beasts or manipulative salesmen? Stalking witches or adulterous women? The devil of Christianity or the woes of addiction? Perhaps it is merely the allures of apathy?

There is a common belief amongst many on a spiritual path that evil is fear, which is the opposite of love, and that only love is real. There is something pleasant and divinely innocent in this belief and it is one that I look upon with some degree of fondness.

There is a dark side to this belief however. Many in our Western society who embrace this belief choose to turn a blind eye towards injustice simply because it does not exist within their immediate sphere of perception.

It may be true that the murderer and the thief deserve love and forgiveness. It may also be true that I should find a way to love my enemy. Should I then turn a blind eye to the rape on the street corner that is taking place NOW? Should I stay inside of my safe abode, seated upon my couch, so that I do not have to bear witness to starvation and poverty extreme? At what point does my acceptance of fear, or evil, by not validating its existence become enabling? One must also ask oneself what is the purpose of meeting the divine if one is not ready to protect their fellow man or woman? Is it to be a caretaker of both Earth and beast, to be a leader, a protector, a parent of children, a brother, a sister or a neighbour? Are we incarnated so that we can ignore the patterns of life around us? Why were we even born then?

Focusing on love alone is a drug. We can also focus on the noon day sun and deny that same sphere sets at night. We can have ‘minders’ if we are gurus, deny the existence of sickness, stay in the comfort of our own homes, and live in a fairytale where sickness, hunger, pain and suffering do not exist. While eventually this may become one’s reality the truth is that one would be disconnected from the whole. We exist as one. What happens to one of us happens to all of us. What ails the Earth also ails us. Apathy does not erase this truth but only allows the injustice to continue unhindered and unrestrained.

The universe is microcosmic and macrocosmic. What exists inside of me also exists outside of me. When my body becomes sick my immune system will fight it. The toxins will pass out of my body and the healing process will take place. It does me no good whatsoever to ignore the lump under my skin.  By being in denial there is a very real possibility that the sickness will spread, eventually to a point where healing is no longer very easy at all.

We tell ourselves, in this society, that the adult entertainment industry is okay but the evidence is undeniable that this business supports organized crime and human trafficking. We may tell ourselves that recreational drug use is okay, but again the evidence is undeniable that there is a machine in place that validates murder and takes advantage of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. These are the easy ones to spot too. What about our mass consumerism in the West and how this affects the rest of the world. What about the wanton abuse and depletion of the Earth’s resources? Not easy things to look upon.

So should we turn a blind eye? Should we carry on with love in our hearts and a smile on our faces? Have we truly transcended evil if we focus exclusively on love while others toil to repair the house in which we live? We are then nothing more than a guest. We are not a participant in the community in which we live but a self absorbed tourist. Ultimately the focusing on love alone while denying the existence of evil, or fear, or darkness, is an exercise in selfishness.

So evil may exist then. To each one of us that evil may be completely different and wear a unique face. But what exists outside of us also exists within. This is the difficult thing to stare at. For all things on this journey may be, and sometimes are, a mirror.

The evils that we see outside of ourselves are reflections of the ignorance that exists within our own hearts and minds. These are the most difficult meditations of all.

The Foliage:

A piece of rowan wood may be carried as an amulet of protection as could some leaves or berries (which possess a five pointed star). According to Robert Graves, rowan can be burnt to summon the Sidhe (faerie) to help in battle. Rowan stakes sometimes were also pounded through the hearts of corpses to incapacitate their ghosts.

Rowan crosses were made to ward off evil, and the trees were grown outside of houses, churches and in graveyards.

In the second part of the Prose Edda, Skaldskaparmal, believe to be written around 1220 by Snori Sturluson, the rowan tree is even said to have saved the life of the god Thor. Although the story does not seem to exist in the time of myth before the recording of this tale (Viktor Rydberg) it has become a very popular story of the protective and aiding nature of the rowan tree.

During a great journey to the frost giant Geirrod’s keep Thor had to cross the Vimur River. At one point while crossing the tumultuous river it seemed apparent that he would drown and be swept away and that his quest would not be completed. It is said that it was the rowan tree that leaned over and helped him to the opposite bank of the river by pulling him from the dark and raging waters, thus saving his life by offering him its branches. It is for this reason that the rowan tree may sometimes be called Thor’s Helper, alongside other names such as the quicken tree or the mountain ash[ii].

There is a very old tradition in which the rowan tree was asked for assistance. As we move into the forest we should not be afraid to ask for help and companionship from luis, the rowan tree. To ask for help though, we first need to be aware of our own shortcomings. We need to know what evil it is that we are facing and in what ways we may be weak to its influences.

We should also remember that every time we take something from the forest we should give thanks and offer something in return. In this way our relationship to it strengthens and develops.

Our minds become clearer now for the rowan is not a tree of protection alone. She is also a companion. She is a friend and an aid that offers clarity of mind and awareness as well.

These are also things that are important to possess, when a journey such as ours, or of any size for that matter, is undertaken.

Past the seeker as he prayed came the crippled and the beggar and the beaten. And seeing them…he cried, “Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such things and yet do nothing about them?”…God said, “I did do something. I made you.”  -Sufi Teaching 

 


[i] Robert Graves in the White Goddess speaks mostly of rowan’s protective qualities. Liz and Colin Murray offer “control of the senses” besides protection as an aiding attribute of the tree. John Michael Greer says the rowan is also a tree of “discernment” and “inner clarity”. Nigel Pennick says that the rowan can protect one from psychic perception and be “used for developing the power of second sight and protection against enchantment”. According to respected Ogham author Erynn Rowan Laurie luis offers “sustenance”, “teachers and teaching”, and is very closely linked to inspiration.

[ii] The Western mountain ash and the Sitka mountain ash are both shrubs native to the West coast of North America. According to the book, Plants of Coastal British Columbia, “Where ranges overlap these two species will hybridize with each other and with the introduced rowan tree (S. Aucuparia), which is found mostly near settlements”.

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