“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 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.”
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 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)
[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.