Nuin (Ash) II

“My old nurse, Betty Grancan, used to say that you could call up the troll at the Tolcarne if while there you held in your hand three dried leaves, one of the ash, one of the oak, and one of the thorn, and pronounced an incantation or charm. Betty would never tell me the words of the charm, because she said I was too much of a sceptic. The words of such a Cornish charm had to pass from one believer to another, through a woman to a man, and from a man to a woman, and thus alternately.” – W.Y. Evans Wentz (the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)

The Roots:

The fifth letter of the Ogham, as a tree alphabet, is Nuin the Ash tree.

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids gives the meaning for this few as “ancient knowledge and weavers beam.” He also says that Nuin is representative of strength and courage as well as luck associated with battle. This, Ellison believes, is due to the fact that spears and arrow shafts are made from Ash wood.

Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks equates the Ash to a possible ending of peace for the same reasons. The Ash is closely associated with the spear. Her divination system reveals that the Ash is the promoter of exploration. Her meanings seem to state this through various directions such as “your way is clear”, “there is more to discover”, seeking the freedom of your “full potential” and investigating uneasy intuitions.

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the letter’s word-Ogham “checking of peace” as meaning “opposition.” In this way, battle does not always have to be literal or upon a designated battle field. Peace, or the absence of, may be metaphoric descriptions of any of life’s many challenges.

Nuin is a difficult letter for many reasons. First and foremost it was not actually originally representative of the Ash tree at all[i]. Secondly, due to the rare mentioning of the Ash tree in Celtic folklore and legend, many Ogham users bring up the common misconception that Yggdrasil, the world tree of the Norse, was an Ash. This can be a point of frustration as the poetic “evergreen-needle-ash” translated in the Eddas eventually becomes the Ash of the Celts[ii]. It is rare for any Ogham writer to not spend time discussing Yggdrasil in relation to Nuin despite there being no connection to the Ogham alphabet at all. A closer look at the Norse world tree reveals that it is likely a Yew.

Unfortunately the Ash is usually promoted as the world tree, despite its seeming absence as such in the Celtic records. For this reason, however, many interpret the Ash as representing the microcosmic and macrocosmic[iii].

The Ash tree represents both the beginning and the end of peace. Especially in this day and age, this may be metaphoric and not a literal battle as one might expect.

The Trunk:

It is an old belief that wherever the Ash, the Oak and the Thorn grow together that the fairies will be present[iv]. These trees were also used together in certain types of magic as was revealed in the introductory quote above.

In Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by T.W. Rolleston, there can be found some interesting lore regarding the Ash tree. The author says that the following was originally taken from the Irish Mythological Cycles. The little people, or fairy folk, give this bit of advice to King Fergus:

“The ash-tree of the black buds burn not—timber that speeds the wheel, that yields the rider his switch; the ashen spear is the scale-beam of battle.”

The Ash with the black buds seems to be a reference to the tree in early spring when it first begins to bloom and show signs of life. The above poem restricts the burning of Ash wood maybe at just this one time of year- and is reminding the king of the reasons for the Ash’s high value. Clearly the Ash wood was important for the Celtic people.

(Ash Flower. Photo by Donar Reiskoffer)

In the book Tree Wisdom by J.M. Paterson we are told that the Ash root has similar powers as the mandrake root. The root itself, apparently, can also take on a form resembling that of a human –like the mandrake- and can be enchanted with various types of sympathetic magic.

Regarding the Ash, it should also be noted that there were five magical trees that were said to once guard over Ireland. Of these trees three were Ash while one was an Oak and the other a Yew. Christians cut down these old growth trees in a symbolic gesture of their conquest over the native pagan beliefs; as the living world was not revered or respected at the time[v].

According to James MacKillop, Ash keys -or seeds- were used for divination. The Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology also claims that Ash was used, especially on the Isle of Man, to “ward off” fairies.

In the previous Alder post, Fearn, we talked about the Battle of the Trees. It was revealed that Alder was connected to Bran the Blessed. By guessing Bran’s name –as the hero was invincible until his identity was known- Gwydion was able to defeat the champion and triumph over his enemies. Similarly, the Ash is connected to Gwydion in much the same way as the Alder is connected to Bran[vi]. Paul Kendall in Mythology and Folklore of Ash shares some of the ways in which the Ash was used for healing[vii]. Apparently, it was common to split an Ash tree and have a sick child pass through it. The tree was then lashed back together and was expected to heal. As the tree repaired itself the child was supposed to recover from their illness. Ash sap was also given to newborn babies though it is unclear if this was for healing or protection purposes.

Spear and arrow shafts were made from Ash wood. The Beltane may pole could also be of Ash[viii]. The reference to Ash being related to both war and peace may be connected to either one of these uses. A wielder of a weapon is capable of destruction as well as restraint. Beltane, usually May 1st, marked the beginning of the light – or more accurately the warm- half of the year. This would have also, for people with conflicts to settle or lands to defend, ushered in the beginning of the fighting season. Perhaps there is something to that connection as well.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the Ash is closely associated with the concept of peace, or the coming of war.

The Foliage:

In Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids we are told that Ash can be used in “protection, healing, or creation spells or as a symbol of male energy.” Ellison also says that Ash can be used in magic for strength and courage.

Ellison also says that there is an old charm that uses Ash to cure warts[ix].

A pin is first taken and stuck into an Ash tree. The wart is then poked with the needle while the following phrase is chanted:

“Ashen tree, Ashen tree, pray buy these warts off of me!”

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend and a time to sew; a time to keep silence and a time to speak; a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.” – Solomon (Ecclesiastes. Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version)

[i] Caitlin Mathews, Robert Ellison, Eryn Rowan Laurie, etc.

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

[iv] J.M. Paterson. Tree Wisdom.

[v] Nigel Pennick. Celtic Sacred Landscapes.

[vi] Caitlin Mathews. Celtic Wisdom Sticks.

[viii] J. MacKillop. Oxford Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology.

[ix] Ellison himself references Ellen Hopman’s Tree Medicine, Tree Magic.

Saille (Willow) II

“In some areas of Ireland and Scotland, willow is considered a tree of bad luck, while in others it is regarded as good.” – Erynn Rowan Laurie (Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom)

The Roots:

Saille, the Willow tree, is slightly more elusive than some of the other trees found in Celtic lore.

Within the Ogham Tract[i] the Willow is referred to as the “flight of women” and as being a “dead colour.” In the Celtic Shaman John Mathews interprets the meanings of these poetic riddles as being “Death.”

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom associates the Willow to the spirits of the ancestors.

Caitlin Mathews speaks of the Willow’s attributes in Celtic Wisdom Sticks. In her divination system, the consistent message found in connection to the Willow is for one to accept circumstances as they are, and to move forward.

In Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids, Robert Ellison says that the Willow is associated with changes, as well as moon and water magic. Ellison claims that the Willow is related to “mysteries and water related subjects” as well as to “feminine attributes.”

The Willow is associated with the moon and water. By extension, the tree is then associated with the changing tides, the ancestors, and the dead. The tree is a bridge to the Otherworld and is an aid in creating relationships with those things that are found on the other side.

The Trunk:

Jacqueline Memory Paterson describes some of Willow’s folklore in her book Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook. “Branches of willow were traditionally placed in coffins and young Willow saplings were planted on graves. This is an echo of Celtic tradition, whereby the spirit of the corpse in the earth rises into the sapling planted above, which grows and retains the essence of the departed one.” Paterson goes on to explain how some burial mounds were lined with Willow trees to “protect the spirits of the place.” She also says that the Willow was also a traditional symbol of mourning and is still associated with grieving by some.

The Celtic god Esus is associated with the Willow tree. Esus is portrayed as cutting down the Willow tree[ii] which has mythological references that may be lost to us in modern times. According to the Roman writer Lucan, Esus is a God of war comparable to the Roman god Mars[iii]. Very little is known about him. In one image he is felling a tree with birds in the branches and in another he is associated with the bull and three cranes[iv].

While the meaning of the tree being cut down by Esus may be lost to us, the illustration is worthy of contemplation. Could Esus be the lord of winter and the Willow then be the symbol of summer? Along a similar vein, could Esus be preparing the May tree for Beltane? Is the association of Esus with the bull and cranes, as well as the willow, be representative of some sort of mastery over certain types of power? Could the Willow tree, especially with birds in the branches, represent the world tree and be telling an apocalyptic story or a metaphorical mastery of the travelling between worlds? These are all questions that we may never know the answer to, but they are interesting ones to ponder nonetheless.

(Le Pilier des Nautes. Photo by Thermes de Cluny)

T.W. Rolleston shares an interesting tale regarding the Willow in his 1911 text Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race. The story is short enough to share here in its entirety.

“Of Labra the Mariner, after his accession, a curious tale is told. He was accustomed, it is said, to have his hair cropped but once a year, and the man to do this was chosen by lot, and was immediately afterwards put to death. The reason of this was that, like King Midas in the similar Greek myth, he had long ears like those of a horse, and he would not have this deformity known.

“Once it fell, however, that the person chosen to crop his hair was the only son of a poor widow, by whose tears and entreaties the king was prevailed upon to let him live, on condition that he swore by the Wind and Sun to tell no man what he might see. The oath was taken, and the young man returned to his mother. But by-and-by the secret so preyed on his mind that he fell into a sore sickness, and was near to death, when a wise Druid was called in to heal him. ‘It is the secret that is killing him,’ said the Druid, and he will never be well till he reveals it. Let him therefore go along the high-road till he come to a place where four roads meet. Let him there turn to the right, and the first tree he shall meet on the road, let him tell his secret to that, and he shall be rid of it, and recover.’ So the youth did; and the first tree was a willow. He laid his lips close to the bark, whispered his secret to it, and went home, light-hearted as of old.

“But it chanced that shortly after this the harper Craftiny broke his harp and needed a new one, and as luck would have it the first suitable tree he came to was the willow that had the king’s secret. He cut it down, made his harp from it, and performed that night as usual in the king’s hall; when, to the amazement of all, as soon as the harper touched the strings the assembled guests heard them chime the words, ‘Two horse’s ears hath Labra the Mariner.’ The king then, seeing that the secret was out, plucked off his hood and showed himself plainly ; nor was any man put to death again on account of this mystery.”

Bards were initiates of magic and knowledge within the Celtic culture, so this story also likely has more to it than meets the eye. Bards were not subject to the same laws as other citizens and would not have been subject to the same punishments as ordinary people[v]. Harps were also often made from Willow trees, the most famous being the Brian Boru harp[vi].

The harper, Craftiny, would not have been held accountable for revealing the secret that his “harp” had spoken. Also, as a bard, he would have been protected from execution even if he was found responsible. Craftiny was able then to break a curse of sorts, which had been placed upon the people by Labra. Like many Otherworldly tales this story contains elements of the impossible. A harp could not be made from a Willow tree that had been felled that same day. The working would take much longer than this and the wood itself would have needed to be aged.

Eryn Rowan Laurie[vii] reminds us that Saille may be sending us messages from the ancestors. “It might be through the voice of falling water or through song and music.” This message from Willow might indicate that the dead are speaking[viii] or the tree may simply be suggesting “a need to connect with or listen to the ancestors or to honour them in some way.”

The Foliage:

Some magical uses for Willow are found in Judika Illes’ Element Encyclopedia of 5000 spells. The following two are both associated with death.

The first is a “Threshold Transition Spell.” The practitioner is encouraged to plant a Willow tree to help ease the transition of death. It is said that the Willow should still be alive when you die for the spell to work properly. “For added enhancement, have leaves or small branches of this tree placed within your coffin.”

The second spell involving death found in Illes’ text is the “Rest in Peace Willow Spell.” In this section it is suggested that Willow branches should be placed beside a grave to drive away negative spirits and ghosts. “These Willow branches will also prevent the deceased’s ghost from rising, protect living visitors from ‘ghost sickness’ and attract benevolent protective spirits of the dead.” Illes recommends that the Willow branches be replaced with fresh ones as often as is needed.

“The god (Esus), bull, crane and tree are all major elements of Western pagan religion and magic, found extensively in classical and Celtic mythology. Even though it is not possible to define the bull-with-three-cranes in a full mythological context, they are clearly part of a Celtic tradition similar to that found in the Irish sagas. The ritual slaying, flaying and eating of a bull were a central part of a prophetic ceremony in ancient Ireland, in which Druids entered a sacred sleep to gain a vision of the future king; it seems likely that the tree-cutting and bull-with-three-cranes scenes are connected to the sacrificial kingship that underpinned Celtic culture from the earliest period.” –R.J. Stewart (Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses)


[ii] J.C. Cooper. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols.

[iii] M. Jordan. The Encyclopedia of Gods.

[iv] For more discussion regarding the Willow’s connection to the bull and three cranes see the previous Willow blog post:

[v] Peter Berresford Ellis. The Druids.

[vi] Eryn Rowan Laurie. Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Laurie says that this can also be living ancestors such as grandparents.

Fearn (Alder) II

“Alder is one of the most sacred primal woods. Its wood is associated with the British divinity Bran the Blessed, who goes down into the Underworld and becomes the oracular
mouthpiece of the ancestors.”
 – Caitlin Mathews (Celtic Wisdom Sticks: an Ogam Oracle)

The Roots:

The third letter of the Ogham is Fearn the Alder tree.

The Ogham tract word-associations[i] state that the Alder is the “shield of warrior-bands” and “guardian of milk.” John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets these poetic reflections as being references to “defence.”

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids calls the Alder the “Battle Witch.” He states that the Alder is associated with guidance (through its connection with
Bran the Blessed), protection and oracular powers.

Caitlin Mathews calls the Alder the “protection of warriors” in her book Celtic Wisdom Sticks.  She also associates the tree heavily with the concept of action.

Fearn, the Alder, is strongly associated with Bran the Blessed. The tree is often used for protection and divination purposes. There are many suggestive references in Celtic mythology that the warrior class[ii] had an especially sacred bond to the water loving tree.

The Trunk:

“The alder trees, the head of the line, formed the van. The willows and quicken trees came late to the army.”  – The Battle of the Trees[iii]

In a later short text, also confusingly called the Battle of the Trees, we are given more information involving the above epic battle than is found in the original version. Amaethon has stolen from Arawn – a ruler of the Underworld – a white deer and dog(sometimes also a lapwing[iv]) which results in an epic otherworldly battle. Amaethon enlists the aid of his brother, the great god of the Welsh druids, Gwydion along with Lleu. This appears to be a wise decision as Gwydion summons an army of trees to fight the hideous creatures of the Underworld.

There is one warrior amongst the ranks of Arawn who cannot be defeated, however, unless his name is properly guessed by his opponents. Gwydion [v], noting that this mighty warrior bears “sprigs” of Alder upon his shield, is able to guess the strangers name correctly.

“Sure-hoofed is my steed impelled by the spur; the high sprigs of alder are on thy shield; Brân art thou called, of the glittering branches!

“Sure-hoofed is my steed in the day of battle: The high sprigs of alder are on thy hand: Brân . . . by the branch thou bearest has Amaethon the Good prevailed!”

Thus Amaethon and Gwydion are able to prevail over Arawn and Bran securing the use of deer and dogs for men. This battle has been compared to other versions of gods versus titans found in various world religions including the Tuatha De Danaan vs. the Famorians found in Irish myth and the Aesir vs. the Vanir found in Norse Myth[vi].

In one of the riddles of Taliesin it is asked “why is the Alder purple?” The answer to this question is then given as “because Bran wore purple[vii].” It should be noted that there may be a deeper riddle here, as Alder can hardly be described as being a purple tree. There are clues, however, to the possible deeper use of Alder in magic when one considers the tree itself. “Male catkins give a purple tinge to the crowns (of the Alder tree) in January and open dull yellow-brown from February to April[viii].”

The mythology of Bran is very well known. He is sometimes described as a giant. He was capable of wading across the waters between modern day England and Ireland when his sister was dishonoured by her husband, an Irish king. In the ensuing battle that followed, the outnumbered Welsh were able to hold their own through the use of the Cauldron of Rebirth. This magical item brought the dead back to life. The cunning instigator of the whole battle put himself, while still alive, into the cauldron destroying the artefact and himself in the process. Although the Welsh eventually win the battle, Bran is wounded by a poisoned spear (some say he is the first version of the Fisher King) and most of his men are killed[ix]. He subsequently orders these remaining men to cut off his head and to bring him home (or his head at least). Back in Wales, the head hosts a great feast in an underground banquet hall for seven years where he sings and divines the future. This ends when one of the men opens the door to the outside world. Bran’s head finally dies.

Bran’s head was then buried at the White Hill, which he had requested, where the later Tower of London was erected. It was said that Bran would protect the land forever from foreign invaders as long as his head remained undisturbed. It is said that Arthur once dug up the head, resulting in the invasion of what would later become England[x].

(Gundestrupkarret. Photo by Malene Thyssen)

Jacqueline Memory Paterson in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook says that the Alder and the Willow are the “king and queen” of the water. This is an interesting statement because the Alder is also said to have a relationship with the Rowan tree, which is the other tree found beside it in the Tree Ogham.

In Lady Wilde’s 1887 collection of Irish folklore titled Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland we are told that a branch of Alder over a crib will protect a baby boy from being abducted by fairies. A branch of Rowan will protect a baby girl from the same predicament. According to Wilde this was probably due to the “ancient superstition that the first man was created from an Alder tree and the first woman from the mountain ash (Rowan)[xi].” Elsewhere in the text the Alder is also described as “possessing strange mysterious properties and powers to avert evil.”

There is one more mention of Alder in Celtic mythology, though somewhat peripheral, that is worth sharing. Although Alder may play only a small role (or does it?) the tale is also mentions the Ogham in an interesting context.

Lady Gregory’s 1904 Gods and Fighting Men was hailed by W.B. Yeats as being “the best (book) that had come out of Ireland” during his lifetime. In her retelling of the third and first cycles of the mythical histories of Ireland we are left with one of the most mysterious passages – in my opinion- regarding the Ogham and the secrets of the lost knowledge to be found anywhere. The character of greatest interest is a “fool” named Lomna who is also an initiate of the secrets of the Ogham.

“FINN took a wife one time of the Luigne of Midhe. And at the same time there was in his household one Lomna, a fool. Finn now went into Tethra, hunting with the Fianna, but Lomna stopped at the house. And after a while he saw Coirpre, a man of the Luigne, go in secretly to where Finn’s wife was.

And when the woman knew he had seen that, she begged and prayed of Lomna to hide it from Finn. And Lomna agreed to that, but it preyed on him to have a hand in doing treachery on Finn. And after a while he took a four-square rod and wrote an Ogham on it, and these were the words he wrote:

‘An Alder snake in a paling of silver; deadly nightshade in a bunch of cresses; a husband of a lewd woman; a fool among the well-taught Fianna; heather on bare Ualann of Luigne.’

Finn saw the message, and there was anger on hint against the woman; and she knew well it was from Lomna he had heard the story, and she sent a message to Coirpre bidding him to come and kill the fool. So Coirpre came and struck his head off, and brought it away with him.

And when Finn came back in the evening he saw the body, and it without a head. ‘Let us know whose body is this,’ said the Fianna. And then Finn did the divination of rhymes, and it is what he said: ‘It is the body of Lomna; it is not by a wild boar he was killed; it is not by a fall he was killed; it is not in his bed he died, it is by his enemies he died; it is not a secret to the Luigne the way he died. And let out the hounds now on their track,’ he said.

So they let out the hounds, and put them on the track of Coirpre, and Finn followed them, and they came to a house, and Coirpre in it, and three times nine of his men, and he cooking fish on a spit; and Lomna’s head was on a spike beside the fire.

And the first of the fish that was cooked Coirpre divided between his men, but he put no bit into the mouth of the head. And then he made a second division in the same way. Now that was against the law of the Fianna, and the head spoke, and it said: ‘A speckled white-bellied salmon that grows from a small fish under the sea; you have shared a share that is not right; the Fianna will avenge it upon you, Coirpre.’ ‘Put the head outside,’ said Coirpre, ‘for that is an evil word for us.’ Then the head said from outside: ‘It is in many pieces you will be; it is great fires will be lighted by Finn in Luigne.’

And as it said that, Finn came in, and he made an end of Coirpre, and of his men.”

Here we find another talking oracular head, like that of Bran, which continues to exist after death. What strikes me as most interesting about this tale is that only druids and those of great power were able to make the Ogham markings and read the messages or warnings left on them. Yet Lomna is clearly labelled a fool. The mystic fool, however, is a theme that is universal. One only has to look as far as the Tarot to discover the truth of this statement.

At no point does Lomna “play” the fool in this story. Finn on the other hand not only seems to have a hard time choosing faithful wives, he also needs to use divination to determine how a corpse with its head severed off and missing was killed. Perhaps it is Finn who is playing the fool?

There is more to this story than initially meets the eye.

The Foliage:

The following magical suggestions regarding the use of Alder in ritual are found in Jacqueline Memroy Paterson’s Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook:

“The appearance of Alder’s purple buds in earliest spring show that the tree is powerful from Imbolc to the Spring Equinox. At this time, as the strength of the sun is visibly growing, meditation with Alder places our feet firmly upon the earth, where we can discern the coming season of light and make wise preparation…

“Because of its associations with water Alder is also powerful in the west of the year, particularly from the Autumn Equinox to Samhain. Then it can be used along with other divinatory herbs in incense and decorations. Specific divination with Alder at this time, especially when looking forward to the new Celtic year which begins after Samhain, pronounces its oracular ‘sacred head’ qualities, allowing us contact with the singing head of Bran to obtain divine specifics for the coming season of darkness. Thus the Alder provides far sight throughout the year.”

Alder can also be used as a stand-in for any protective herb found within any spell. For those following a warrior’s path, the potential magical expressions offered by this “Battle Witch” are intriguing, to say the least.

Our ancestor Celts were passionate people.

 “Though looking to the future and not folklore as such, it is worth mentioning that Alder is interacting with humanity in another way by helping us in today’s climate of environmental destruction and restoration. The nitrogen-fixing nodules on the alder’s roots improve soil fertility and so make this tree ideal for reclaiming degraded soils and industrial wastelands such as slag heaps.” Paul Kendall (Trees for Life: Mythology and Folklore of Alder)[xii]

[ii] For a discussion on the Celtic warrior and how he or she relates to contemporary society see the previous post on Alder:

[v] Ibid.

see the notes at the end of the document found here.

[vii] Ellison.

[viii] Collins pocket Guide: Trees of Britain and Northern Europe.

[ix] Taliesin is present and survives.

[x] Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology and the Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology.

[xi] This was likely a bastardization of the introduced religion of the settled Norse invaders to Ireland (Dublin) and the subsequent exchange and intermarrying of cultures that followed. In the Poetic Edda the first man and woman are Ask and Embla (Ash and Elm).

Luis (Rowan) II

“The Queen went to the Stone House and took Morag out. She asked her how she had fared and thereupon Morag put the Rowan Berry in the Queen’s hand. She hastened to her own chamber and ate it, and her youth and beauty came back to her, and the King who had grown solitary, loved the Queen again.” – Patraic Colum (The King of Ireland’s Son, 1916)

The Roots:

The Rowan tree is one of the most significant trees found in Celtic mythology.

In Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids Robert Ellison states that the Rowan is a tree of protection, magic, and control of the senses.

Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks: an Ogham Oracle claims that the Rowan is “popularly credited with being the most magical of trees.” As well as being a protective tree, the Rowan in her divination system is also associated with staying on course and not getting lost.

In the Ogham Tract[i] the word associations given to the Rowan are “delight of the eye… flame” and “friend of cattle.”[ii] John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the first word riddle as being a reference to Love.

The instances found of Rowan’s protective nature against fairies, witches, and the evil eye are extensive in Celtic folklore. Besides being a protector, Luis is also a tree of magic.

The Trunk:

J.C. Cooper in an Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols calls the Rowan the “Gallic Tree of Life.”

The use of the Rowan for protection was very widespread. The tree was said to offer protection against fire, lightening and witches and also to protect cows and milk products. Rowan was often planted in graveyards, like Yew, to prevent the dead from rising[iii].
In Irish legend the corpse might be staked with a Rowan branch bearing berries to prevent the ghost from wandering[iv]. Rowan was also used in shapeshifting spells[v]. When the tree grew close to the home it was considered very auspicious.

The Rowan tree is said to have been brought to Ireland by accident from Tir Tairngire, the Land of Promise, by the Tuatha De Danann[vi]. Etain is turned into a pool of water by being struck by a wand of Rowan and the Salmon of Wisdom is sometimes found to be eating Rowan berries instead of hazel nuts[vii].

The unfaithful wife of Finn Mac Cool, Graine, hides in a Rowan tree with her lover Diarmaid to avoid being captured. In the pursuit of the lovers the Fianna stopped beneath the same Rowan tree to rest. They started to play games to fill the time. Diarmaid was one of Finn’s men and it was said that when he was nearby, due to his magic, Finn would win every game. While playing beneath the tree, Finn loudly proclaimed that he wished that Diarmaid was present so that he could win every game. Hearing this, Diarmaid dropped one Rowan berry from the tree down to Finn who then won. This was done four times in a row for four separate games. After the fourth game Finn realized that Diarmaid was nearby and called the lovers down from the tree. A battle was then fought[viii].

In the King of Ireland’s Son, by Padraic Colum, a giant and his fearsome black bull guard the Rowan tree from mortals. In the tree itself are also found 24 vicious angry yellow cats. The giant who guards the tree has two servants, more like slaves, named Flann and Morag. Morag has placed herself in the service of the giant because she intends to steal a Rowan berry for her queen. Flann is an unwilling captive.

Morag is described as being very unattractive in the earlier portions of this tale. When she finally manages to steal a Rowan berry for her queen she also takes one for herself. Flann and Morag manage to escape and a series of adventures begin. This is not before Morag eats one of the Rowan berries and becomes beautiful. Flann and Morag then fall in love as a direct result of her eating the Rowan berry. They will eventually be together after many hardships.

It should be noted that the 24 cats, plus the Rowan tree itself, could easily represent the 25 letters of the Ogham.

Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm in the Druid Animal Oracle link the Blackbird to the Rowan. They also speak of the protective nature of Rowan in regards to the Cow. In many ways the traditions involving the Rowan have been carried forward to modern times.   One example would be that Luis, the Rowan or Mountain Ash, can still be found on the clan badges of Malcom and McLachlan[ix].

The tree itself is not supposed to be cut down or hurt with a blade of any sort. Although the Rowan is a great protector, there is a suggestion in the stories that to harm the tree would be to court disaster.

Rowan sometimes grows from another tree like mistletoe. These branches are considered especially magical[x].

The Foliage:

Ivo Dominguez, jr. includes some interesting lore on the Rowan tree in his text Of Spirits: the Book of Rowan[xi].

“Moreover, the Rowan’s true element is probably light of which fire is one manifestation. Rowan has the power to open and to close gates, to summon and to banish, to protect and to sustain. All parts of the tree are useful for the making of incense or magical tools.

“The berries were used by the druids and the Welsh witches in brewing wines and potions that increased the power of the second sight. The blossom end of the berry is marked with a natural pentacle. If the berries are charged in a ritual they achieve special vital energy potency so that if one berry is consumed it gives the prana of nine meals. Very useful for healing, strenuous work, and fasting. Even without the ritual, 1 berry quartered and brewed as a tea greatly increases second sight.”

It should be noted here that the raw fruit does contain parasorbic acid which if eaten in quantity may cause indigestion or kidney failure. This can be neutralized through cooking or freezing[xii].

“In the Highland version of the legend of Fraoch, given in the Dean of Lismore’s book, the rowan tree is a sort of tree of Life; it bears fruit every month and every quarter, and the virtue of its red berries when tasted was such as to stave off hunger for long:

Its berries’ juice and fruit when red For a year would life prolong.

From dread disease it gave relief If what is told be our belief.

Yet though it proved a means of life Peril lay closely nigh;

Coiled by its root a dragon lay Forbidding passage by.”

– George Henderson (Survival in Belief Amongst Celts, 1911)


[ii] This line is confusing as it also mentions the Elm tree.

[iii] Fred Hageneder. The Meaning of Trees.

[iv] Jacqueline Memory Paterson. Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook.

[v] Robert Ellison. Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids.

[vi] James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] J.F. Campbell. Popular Tales of the West Highlands, 1890.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] The newer updated version of this book titled Spirit Speak does not include this information on Rowan. Both books lend understanding to “the nature of discarnate beings” and I cannot recommend them enough for anyone interested in the spirit world.

The Living Library Ogham Index (first cycle):

Ogham Index
Caledonian Forest: Photograph by Richard Webb

The following’s an Ogham Index taken from the posts of the first cycle through the letters:

First aicme:

Beithe (Birch)

This is an introduction to the Ogham and to the Journey into the sacred wilderness. I share a warning, based on a personal lesson, pertaining to the wilderness. The Birch is associated with beginnings.

Luis (Rowan)

A quote from Eryn Rowan Laurie makes plain that the Ogham was never really the Tree Alphabet that most people see it as. This post then becomes a reflection upon the nature of evil, what protection actually means and what protection is actually offered by the Rowan tree. I share a story about the Rowan tree and Thor[i]. The Rowan tree, or Luis, offers us protection.

Fearn (Alder)

This is a discussion on the path of the warrior, and hunter, in both Celtic and modern society. The Alder tree is a nitrogen fixer which also makes it the alchemist tree of the Ogham. Fearn is the warrior.

Saille (Willow)

Willow is often seen as the representative of the goddess. The tree also has many associations to various animals. Interestingly, Willow is also said to be able to return from the dead. The tree represents the bridge to the next world.

Nuin (Ash)

This post is a reflection on microcosm and macrocosm and the interconnected nature of all beings. The common misconception of Ash being the Norse world tree Yggdrasil is also discussed. Nuin is symbolic of peace.

Second aicme:

Huathe (Hawthorn)

The Hawthorn is the tree of the fairies. It is one of the trees that make up the fairy triad. The tragic story of Bridget Cleary is shared as is Thomas the Rymer. I discuss the possibility that some of the fairy stories of old may have evolved into the UFO stories of modern times.  The wolf, like the fairy or the Hawthorn tree, may exist somewhere between the two extremes of good and evil. The Hawthorn represents the Otherworld.

Duir (Oak)

The Oak tree is often associated with the druids and to various Celtic gods and heroes. The story of Lleu, Gwydion and Blodeuedd is discussed in terms of hidden symbols and metaphors. The Oak is a tree associated with strength, honour and male virility.

Tinne (Holly)

The Holly is the brother of the Oak. We discuss both the Oak King and the Holly King in relation to the changing cycles of the year. We look at the Celts fascination with the severed head. Holly is associated to thunder and fatherhood as well as to the warrior and balance.

Coll (Hazel)

We take a look at the search for “all knowledge” or poetic wisdom in the old tales. We explore Taliesin, Fionn Mac Cumhail and the salmon who eats of the poetic nuts of wisdom. I share a personal lesson, and a warning, pertaining to Celtic books published by Llewellyn. The Hazel is the tree of wisdom or knowledge.

Quert (Apple)

Apple, the tenth letter, brings with it an association to the legends that speak of things, like the waves in the ocean, which are beyond the number nine. The apple is connected to many myths. Some interesting facts on the cultivation of the apple are also shared. The apple is associated with sweetness, romantic love and to the Otherworld itself.

Third Aicme:

Muin (Grape)

The grape was not a local plant but was likely associated with wine; a substance relatively unavailable to the commoner. Wine then became associated with clergy, the rich, wealth and the mystical. The story of the Holy Grail is discussed as well as the story prototypes, which were the cauldron legends. I talk a little more about the domestication of plants and my time in Afghanistan. The grape offers intoxication and insight.

Gort (Ivy)

Some folk tales of Ivy are shared. There are many mentions in these stories of the fairy. I once more question the modern bastardization of the Celtic beliefs and the Ogham by some of the more whimsical pagans today. I question whether or not I should see this misinformation as a continuation of the attempted ethnocide of the Irish that was begun by the English centuries ago, or see it merely as naivety. The Ivy can represent the search for self and it is a plant of the threshold.

Ngetal (Reed)

The Reed, as Ngetal, seems to have been a Robert Graves invention. I bring up again that the Ogham is not literally a “tree alphabet” at all. We talk a bit about the Cluiricaune, an Irish fairy being. I discuss the importance of Reed grass in organic sewage management.  Ngetal, the reed, is associated with higher learning, advancement, music, healing, action and art.

Straif (Blackthorn)

The Blackthorn is often associated with misfortune. We talk about the Leanan Sidhe, the Ban Sidhe (Banshee) and the fairy queen Aine. The tree is often connected to the black arts and to witches. A discussion on the Blackberry as a possible stand-in is engaged as it may have also had some of the same magical associations in myth. The Blackthorn is a tree of ill omens, transformation, and power.

Ruis (Elder)

The Elder is a tree of the fairies and witches. It is often associated with the darker aspects
of the goddess. The tree is also associated to the Cauldron of Rebirth. The Elder has grand status in legend, contemporary culture, and is considered to be one of the great herbs of healing by many. It is another tree that can protect or harm. The Elder is a tree of power that can both heal and wound.

Ogham Index

Fourth aicme:

Ailm (Fir or Pine)

The Scotch Fir, also known as the Scots Pine, is the tree for this few. Many try to ascribe the Silver Fir to this letter but this is incorrect. The Silver Fir did not exit in Ireland, or even anywhere nearby. I also question the New Age belief in Druantia a Celtic fir goddess first mentioned by Graves in the White Goddess. I then talk briefly about his proposed Tree Calendar, as well. I also wonder if the coniferous forest may be associated with the hag goddess Cailleach. Though mysterious and illusive, Ailm, the Scotch Fir or Pine, is the tree of primordial beginnings and deep understandings.

Ohn (Gorse or Broom)

Various lists differ as to whether the tree of this few is in fact the Gorse or the Broom. The plants are actually closely related. As I listed Ngetal as Reed, I decide to try to cover both of these trees in this post. Stories involving these plants lead us to Blodeuwedd, the Cailleach, fairies, witches and to protection. Ohn is the few of journeys and of the preparation for the mission at hand. The Gorse speaks of darker tools and attitudes needed to succeed upon the path, while the Broom reminds us that we must be ready to heal and create if we are called upon to do so.

Ur (Heather)

Heather is often considered to be one of the national plants of Scotland. It is from Scotland that most of the mentioning of this plant in folklore has survived. Heather is a magical herb that can be found in its various forms in many places. Ur, or Heather, is the plant of death and the dead, luck, family and community. It can also help us to connect with the inner worlds.

Eadha (Aspen)

We discuss how Aspen is the tree of overcoming and resistance; both to persecution and to death itself. Besides being closely related to the apparitions of the dead and to the Sidhe, Aspen is also associated to the Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn, the Fairy Queen of Scotland and to the character Gaul found in the Poems of Ossian. Later Christians saw this tree as evil. Aspen is the one tree most often associated with direct communication with the forest itself through listening to its quivering leaves.

Ioho (Yew)

The Yew is one of the most important trees found in Celtic legend. It is also the tree most often thought to be the world tree, Yggdrasil, by serious students of Norse mythology. I share some of the legends pertaining to the Yew. I discuss the softening of the term ‘death’ in new age pagan-speak to having adopted instead the meaning of ‘rebirth’. I relate this to our disassociation with physical death in the West and our ultimately to our separation with nature itself. Ioho, the Yew, represents old age, the ancestors, divination, death and reincarnation or rebirth.

The Forfeda (Fifth aicme):

An Introduction to the Forfeda (extra letters)

I explain what the Forfeda are and what my intentions will be for the following five posts. I share the crane-bag found in myth and its importance to the Ogham. I also express my personal belief that mystical encounters, either spiritually, evolutionary or psychologically, are part of the human experience. I admit that the meanings of the final five letters, the diphthongs, are shrouded in mystery.

Koad (Salmon or the Grove)

In this post I discuss where the association of the Grove for this letter came from. We also take a look at the King of Scotland’s Shears. I then share, in some depth, the story of Culwch and Olwen . I then mention one of my favorite sites and non profit organizations, Trees for Life, which actually offers an opportunity for anyone to plant a sacred Grove. The Grove can represent a meeting point of intention, a magical encounter, or even a holy place.

Oir (Gold or Spindle)

Oir, the Spindle tree or Gold itself, is a very mysterious few. It is not mentioned often in myth directly but is associated with the spindle used in the making of garments. We then explore the legends of the King of Lochlainn as well as his helmet found in the crane-bag. The Spindle tree has come to represent a sudden positive change in one’s life. It has also come to represent wealth or inspired knowledge in modern times.

Uillend (Elbow or Honeysuckle)

I cover the various interpretations of this letter and go on a short rant, again, about the supposed associations listed by many Ogham writers to various other cultural deities, the zodiac, etc. We take a look at the Hook of Goibne and what this tool could actually have been. I then challenge the reader to look for knowledge hidden in plain sight within the Celtic tales of old. Uillend, or Honeysuckle, is a few of protection, binding, flexibility and sweetness.

Iphin (Honey or Gooseberry)

We discuss the elusive nature of the Gooseberry and the various other interpretations for this few. We then take a look at the Bones of Assail’s 7 Pigs that are found in the mystical crane-bag of Mannanan Mac Lir. I also share why these posts may seem to be getting shorter. Iphin, the Gooseberry, has associations with sympathetic magic. It represents that which is tasteful and the divine influences that surround us in the sweetest of ways.

Mor (Twin of Hazel or the sea)

While the actual name of this few was Emancholl, later interpretations have often left us with the meaning of ‘the Sea’ or Mor. This 25th letter has come to represent Manannan the Sea god or even the Sea itself. We finally take a look at the very shirt of Manannan found in the crane-bag. I then try to interpret what the symbols in this bag might actually mean!Finally, we reflect upon the ancestors that recorded our myths and honour some of them as Samhain approaches. Mor, the sea, represents that which is other. It can represent the Sea itself or the Otherworld.

[i] Researching the Ogham I came to realize that the Celtic stories (in relation to the trees) are often not mentioned in various books relating to the Ogham. Shortly after this post I began to focus on Celtic myth and folklore almost exclusively.  Many writers speak of what the trees listed in the Ogham meant to other cultures despite the Ogham being a Celtic(irish) alphabet. I believe that with the use of the internet, and the ability to search through various books and documents in today’s day and age, that I can offer something a little bit different, and in some ways more authentic.

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