The Banshee: Ghost of the Celts

The Banshee’s arguably the most famous ghost of them all, and probably the least understood.

“When the Banshee calls she sings the spirit home. In some houses still a soft low music is heard at death.” – George Henderson 1911 (Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts)

There’s an Irish tradition promoting the Banshee as only ever interacting with certain families. Although folklorists have also made this statement in the past, it’s entirely false. The Banshee’s known by many different names, was encountered in many varied forms, and was believed to have existed by a wide array of people[i].

In Ireland, the Banshee is also called Banshie, Bean Si, Bean Sidhe, and Ban Side amongst other names. A great deal of surviving Banshee lore comes from outside of Ireland, however. In Scotland, for example, the Banshee may be referred to as Ban Sith or Bean Shith. On the Isle of Mann she’s called Ben Shee, while the Welsh call her close sister Cyhyraeth[ii].

The she in Banshee, or sidhe, suggests and older source for the stories. The sidhe were the old gods who had fled the Irish invaders to live inside of the hollow hills. They were also known as the Tuatha De Danaan or “the fair folk.”

Banshee: A female wraith of Irish or Scottish Gaelic tradition thought to be able to foretell but not necessarily cause death in a household.”  – James MacKillop (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)

In the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde, we’re told that the Irish Banshee was more likely to be beautiful, while the Scottish Banshee was more likely to appear in the image of an older crone-like woman. Like most things in Celtic lore, however, this wasn’t always consistent.

The Banshee would usually warn of death by: wailing, appearing as an apparition, playing or singing music, tapping on a window in the form of a crow, be seen washing body parts or armor at a stream, knocking at the door, whispering a name, or by speaking through a person that she had already possessed – a host or medium[iii]. The noble families of Ireland generally viewed the spirit’s attendance as a great honour. Some sources do say that the Banshee served only five Irish families, but others say that several hundred families had these spirits attached to them[iv]. The five families usually stated to have had Banshee attendants are the O’Neils, the O’Brians, the O’Gradys, the O’Conners, and the Kavanaghs. Many stories, however, are of other families.

The Ó Briains’ Banshee was thought to have had the name of Eevul[v], or Aibhill as she is called in the book True Irish Ghost Stories. Likewise, a great bard of the O’Connelan family had the goddess Aine (sometimes called Queen of Fairy), attend him in the role of a wailing Banshee in order to foretell – and honour – his death[vi]. Cliodhna (Cleena) is a goddess-like Munster Banshee, who people claimed was originally the ghost of a “foreigner.”  Most Banshees remained nameless, however.

The description of the Banshee varies a great deal throughout the many accounts. If she was young she often had red hair, but she could have “pale hair” as well. She was often described as wearing white, but sometimes she could be seen wearing green or other colors such as black or grey. Red shoes were sometimes mentioned, but so was a silver comb,[vii] which she either ran through her hair or left on the ground to capture some curious passerby. Most described her eyes as being red from crying, or keening, or to be menacing and evil looking. The eyes were also often said to be blue. In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 Popular Tales of the West Highlands, the Banshee was said to have webbed feet like a water creature. Sometimes she was wrapped in a white sheet or grey blanket – a statement that reveals an older funerary tradition and a possible source for the modern white sheet-ghosts of Halloween.

In True Irish Ghost Stories we’re told that the Banshee could not by seen by “the person whose death it [was] prognosticating.” This statement is not consistent with all of the stories either:

“THEN Cuchulain went on his way, and Cathbad that had followed him went with him. And presently they came to a ford, and there they saw a young girl thin and white-skinned and having yellow hair, washing and ever washing, and wringing out clothing that was stained crimson red, and she crying and keening all the time. ‘Little Hound,’ said Cathbad, ‘Do you see what it is that young girl is doing? It is your red clothes she is washing, and crying as she washes, because she knows you are going to your death against Maeve’s great army.’” – Lady Gregory 1902 (Cuchulain of Muirthemne – retelling of 12th CE)

Banshee
Watcher of the Ford. Eleanor Hull. 1904

The Banshee – who’s often said to have her roots in stories of Morrigan the Irish war goddess[viii] – could also follow families abroad. One famous story regarding the O’Grady family takes place along the Canadian coastline where two men die[ix]. St. Seymour shares another tale in which a partial Irish descendent sees a Banshee on a boat in an Italian lake. In Charles Skinner’s 1896 Myths and Legends of Our Own Land we’re also told of a South Dakota Banshee living in the United States.

The Banshee could also be a trickster of sorts. She was said to mess with “the loom” in Alexander Carmichael’s 1900 Carmina Gadelica. There’s even a blessing in the section, which is chanted over the item. In W.Y. Evens-Wentz’ 1911 Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries we’re told of a Banshee who could be placated by giving her barley-meal cakes on two separate hills. This action reminds us of the tithes often left for other trickster fairies, and doesn’t seem to be a customary gift one would leave for a ghost. As Katherine Briggs once said[x], however, fairies fall into two categories, “diminished gods and the dead.” Unfortunately, our modern conception of fairies does little to remind us that either one of these forms would be considered as a spirit-being today. As Evans-Wentz further explains:

“It is quite certain that the banshee is almost always thought of as the spirit of a dead ancestor presiding over a family, though here it appears more like the tutelary deity of the hills. But sacrifice being thus made, according to the folk-belief, to a banshee, shows, like so many other examples where there is a confusion between divinities or fairies and the souls of the dead, that ancestral worship must be held to play a very important part in the complex Fairy-Faith as a whole.” – W.Y. Evans-Wentz 1911 (Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)

The Banshee being attached to a certain family could be extremely beneficial and would have not been seen as a negative. As already stated, any family would’ve been seen as extremely important if a Banshee (or several) attended them. In George Henderson’s 1911 Survival in Belief Amongst Celts, a Banshee, or Maighdeann Shidhe, even gave the “Blue Stone of Destiny” to the Scottish hero Coinneach Odhar. In return for favours, however, it would’ve been extremely important to honour these spirits whenever possible, either out of respect for the Banshee, or from a place of fear in order to placate them.

In modern times, the Banshee became associated more and more with evil. As a portent of death she shared many things in common with the approaching Carriage of Death, the death candles, Ankou[xi] or even with the Grim Reaper. In her more ancient visage, she could easily be compared to the Norse Valkyrie (as the Morrigan often is) or to any other Shieldmaiden whose task it was to collect the dead[xii]. To the commoner of modern times, such a role was reserved for the Angels of God and for the Holy Church alone.

Furthermore, the Banshee – like other mystic beings of Celtic lore – was also able to appear in various non-human forms. A fact which would later make her seem in league with the devil:   

 “The Banshee is dreaded by dogs. She is a fairy woman who washes white sheets in a ford by night when someone near at hand is about to die. It is said she has the power to appear during day-time in the form of a black dog, or a raven, or a hoodie-crow.” – Donald MacKenzie 1917 (Wonder Tales From Scottish Myth & Legend)

Whether the Banshee does, or ever did, exist is a matter of conjecture. One thing is certain, however, the most famous ghost of them all is the one in which few people actually know anything about. The Banshee was more than a shrieking omen of death. In fact, individual Banshees appeared and behaved quite differently from one another in different stories.  Her attachment to a particular family was a relationship that was embraced by the Celtic people with pride, and with honour. Her haunting of a particular place, on the other hand, was met with wary bribes. An unknown Banshee – like a stray dog – could have been seen as something quite different altogether. It would have been this Banshee that brought with it fear – which was usually seen as nothing short of a greeting from death itself.

The Banshee in Celtic folklore seems much more interesting, when we realize that many of our modern ghost stories share the exact same elements. A deceased female relative forewarning death, a disembodied voice, a spirit attached to a particular family, or a haunted landmark may not seem to have anything to do with a Banshee today, but none of these stories are really all that different from the old ones at all. Like it or not, in modern folklore the Banshee still remains. It’s only our terminology that has changed.

Old Yale Brewery Tall Tale Series
Vancouver, BC’s Old Yale Brewery: Tall Tale Series

[i]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[ii]  (ibid)

[iii]  St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan. True Irish Ghost Stories. 1914.

[iv]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[v]  Thos Westrop. Folklore. 1910.

[vi]  W.Y. Evans-Wentz. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. 1911.

[vii]  This may be an overlap with the mermaid, which history likewise seems to have forgotten was also a spirit.

[viii]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[ix] This would most likely be referring to the east coast but could also be the west coast, as well.

[x]  Katherine Briggs. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. 1967.

[xii]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shieldmaiden

The Banshee
The Banshee. Henry Maynell Rheam. 1897
Banshee
Bunworth Banshee. From Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825

Owl of the Celts: Ancient Bride of the Dead

Owl of the Celts
Barn Owl. John Audubon. 1833

The Owl in Celtic lore is a creature of shadows and the Otherworld. It’s rarely mentioned in myth, legend, or folklore, but when it is it’s usually spoken of in hushed whispers – accompanied by a warning.

In Lady Charlotte Guest’s 1877 translation of the 12th Century Mabinogion, the Owl’s origins are described in detail. Within the story of Math Son of Mathonwy, the god-like figure Gwydion decides that he must find a bride for his nephew Lleu. The curse upon Lleu, however, is that he cannot ever take on a human wife. To help Lleu out, Math and Gwydion create a woman for him out of flowers. They name her Blodeuedd which is said to mean “Flower Face.” Unfortunately, the new bride betrays Lleu and attempts to have him killed by her new love interest. The assassination attempt fails, however, and the lover is eventually killed. Gwydion then places a curse upon Blodeuedd:

“And they were all drowned except Blodeuwedd herself, and her Gwydion overtook. And he said unto her, ‘I will not slay thee, but I will do unto thee worse than that. For I will turn thee into a bird; and because of the shame thou hast done unto Llew Llaw Gyffes, thou shalt never show thy face in the light of day henceforth; and that through fear of all the other birds. For it shall be their nature to attack thee, and to chase thee from wheresoever they may find thee. And thou shalt not lose thy name, but shalt be always called Blodeuwedd.’ Now Blodeuwedd is an owl in the language of this present time, and for this reason is the owl hateful unto all birds. And even now the owl is called Blodeuwedd.”

Owl of the Celts
E. Wallcousins. Illustration from Charles Squire’s Celtic Myth and Legend. 1905

In another tale[i], the poet Taliesin asks an Owl about her origins. “She swears by St. David” that she’s the daughter of the Lord of Mona, and that Gwydion son of Don transformed her into an Owl.

There’s a final Owl tale in the Mabinogion–in the story of How Culhwch Won Olwen. While searching for the missing Mabon[ii], some of Arthur’s men are forced to seek out the five oldest living animals and inquire as to his whereabouts. When they eventually do meet the Owl, they discover the bird does not know of the Mabon’s location either. The Owl knows of an animal even older than itself, however, and propels the seekers further along their journey.

In Celtic Symbols, by Saibne Heinz, we’re told of the Sheela na gig, which are “figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva[iii].” The Sheela na gig are most often 12th-century gargoyle-like sculptures found upon churches. Saibne Heinz claims that[iv], “Some people suspect a resemblance to Owls.”

Owl of the Celts
12th century Sheela na gig. Photo by Pryderi

The Owl is also sometimes believed to represent the Cailleach, the primordial Celtic hag goddess. Philip Carr Gomm, in the Druid Animal Oracle, makes the following statement:

“Because the Owl is sacred to the Goddess in her crone-aspect, one of its many Gaelic names is Cauilleach-oidhche (Crone of the Night). The barn Owl is Cauilleach-oidhche gheal, “white old woman of the night.” The Cailleach is the goddess of death, and the owl’s call was often sensed as an omen that someone would die.”

The Celtic Owl is almost always female. In one Welsh tale, for example (also found in Celtic Symbols), an Eagle searches for a wife.  After finally determining that the 700-year-old[v] Owl came from a good family, he hastily marries her.

In Padraic Colum’s King of Ireland’s Son, published in 1916, the Owl is in servitude of evil. The King of Ireland’s Son is led to a cabin by an unusual white Owl. The bird communicates with him by flapping her wings three times. The King of Ireland’s Son soon discovers the Owl is in service of the Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands’ daughter, who just happens to be a shapeshifting swan.

In the notes section of the Mabinogion we’re told the Owl is sometimes seen as the bird of Gwyn ab Nudd, the King of the Faerie. In the 1917 Wonder Tales of Scottish Myth by Donald MacKenzie, we learn of another fairy, a “fairy exile,” called “The Little Old Man” or “The Little Old Man of the Barn.” This wizened looking spirit-being is described as wearing a single white Owl feather in his cap.

In the 1913 Book of Folk-Lore, by Saibne Baring-Gould, we stumble upon a Celtic ghost story, which speaks of the Owl:

“My great-great-grandmother after departing this life was rather a trouble in the place. She appeared principally to drive back depredators on the orchard or the corn-ricks. So seven parsons were summoned to lay her ghost. They met under an oak-tree that still thrives. But one of them was drunk and forgot the proper words, and all they could do was to ban her into the form of a white owl. The owl used to sway like a pendulum in front of Lew House every night till, in an evil hour, my brother shot her. Since then she had not been seen.”

In the 1914 True Irish Ghost Stories by St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan, we find another reference to an Owl spirit:

“A death-warning in the shape of a white Owl follows the Westropp family. The last appeared, it is said, before a death in 1909, but as Mr. T.J. Westropp remarks, it would be more convincing if it appeared at places where the white Owl does not nest and fly out every night.”

The belief that the Owl’s an evil omen is not necessarily tied to just one family, however. In the 1825 Fairy Legends and Traditions of South Ireland, by Thomas Croker, we’re told that seeing “the corpse-bird,” or screech Owl, always foretold of a death. The author compares these sightings to those of the “corpse-lights” which were also said to be seen around the time of death. In the 1881 British Goblins by Wirt Sikes, we’re also told that a Screech Owl’s cry near a sickbed foreshadowed a death:

“This corpse-bird may properly be associated with the superstition regarding the screech-owl, whose cry near a sick bed inevitably portends death.”

Sometimes, the Owl warns of misfortune short of death. In the 1900 Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmicheal, for example, it’s said that hearing the “screech” of the Owl meant that the whole year “would not go well.”

Up until the 1950s, Owls were nailed to barn doors as a ward against evil. Strangely enough, it was a common belief that to fight evil one had to sometimes use evil against itself. In this case, the Owl was believed to be a ward against storms, thunder, and lightning[vii].

So it can be summarized that the Owl of the Celts – being a bird associated with twilight – appears white in many of the old texts. It’s is almost always female, as well. The beautiful and Otherworldly Blodeuwedd, for example, was turned into an Owl as punishment for the attempted murder of her husband. Other stories speak of the great age of the Owl, or fear her as a messenger of death. Philip Carr Gomm points out that there’s a direct link between the Cailleach, the Celtic hag goddess, and the Owl, as well.

Could it be a coincidence then, that the only story of the Owl being young and beautiful is the oldest story of them all? Perhaps it is. Then again, perhaps it is not.

The Owl is often associated with Halloween. This modern holiday is commonly believed to be a direct descendent of Samhain, a Celtic fire festival (image: allfreelogo.com)

[i] As told in the notes section of the Mabinogion.

[ii] The Mabon is described as the divine Celtic youth. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom. Caitlin and John Mathews.

[iv] Heinz does not reference this claim.

[v] The story actually says she was already old at 700.

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.

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.

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.

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.