Straif (Blackthorn)

“Better the bramble than the black-thorn, better the black-thorn than the devil. He who would go in the bramble for me, I would go in the thorn for him” – Proverb (Alexander
Carmichael: Carmina Gadelica Vol. II. 1900)

The Roots:

The fourteenth letter Straif is the few of the blackthorn, which is also known as the sloe tree.

Blackthorn is often associated with misfortune and tragedy, but it can also be seen as a tree of great power. Robert Graves said that the blackthorn was “unbeloved by men”, claiming that it was both unlucky and that it was associated with black magic[i].

Liz and Colin Murray further claimed that this letter was a harbinger of necessary change and that it was a warning of a coming season of discontent[ii]. John Michael Greer –in more recent times- has a very similar meaning listed in the Druid Magic Handbook saying that Straif is the letter of difficult change. Greer says that there is no choice but to move forward during such trying circumstances.

What may be seen as great change by some, can also be viewed as mighty power by others.

Nigel Pennick calls the blackthorn, “a major tree of magical power”. He claims that the influences of the blackthorn reaches into both worlds[iii].

Eryn Rowan Laurie says that Straif is the few of spiritual work, secrets, shapeshifting, divination and change[iv].

The blackthorn is a tree -or thorn bush- of the Sidhe. Straif is connected to the Leanan-Sidhe and by association to the goddess Aine and the Ban-Sidhe. It is considered sacred to the fairies and was believed to be very unlucky to cut or harm the tree at certain times of the year, most especially May 11th and November 11th.

Straif, the blackthorn, is the tree of ill omens, transformation and power.

The Trunk:

In the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1902) W.Y. Evan Wentz lists the Lunantishee as tribes of fairy that were responsible for guarding the blackthorn or sloe trees. Sidhe is pronounced shee, so despite the confusing variations in spelling -and the lack of
recurrence of the above spelling in the old books- Wentz was speaking of the Leanan Sidhe.

The Leanan Sidhe is called the, “Spirit of Life” by Lady Wilde in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland (1911). She then calls the Ban Sidhe (Banshee)
the, “Spirit of Death”. The Leanan Sidhe would give inspiration to the musician or poet and would sometimes give men valour or strength in battle. The Ban Sidhe on the other hand, would foretell doom. The Sidhe –sometimes the Tuatha De Danaan- have very blurred lines in the Irish Celtic legends with the gods of the ancestors.

Interestingly enough, it was believed that the blackthorn was sacred to the goddess because of the contrast of the trees colors during various seasons. The white flower of spring symbolizes the beautiful, peaceful and life-giving aspect of the goddess while the black fruit of autumn symbolize the death dealing destroyer-of-life personae of the same goddess. The tree balances white and dark, but also has a red sap that can be seen as the third colour sacred to goddesses of the land[v].

It is likely that the blackthorn was a revered and respected tree associated with the Sidhe before the coming of Christianity and later became feared to greater degrees. The new faith brought the idea that spirits that did not exist in the Hebrew texts, were just as likely to be aspects of the devil or wandering demons seeking out the souls of non believers[vi].

It should be no surprise then that the Leanan Sidhe is sometimes seen as a vampire-like figure that makes men fall in love with her to steal their souls. The solitary version of the Leanan-Sidhe is also often seen as being Aine the goddess who is sometimes referred to as the Fairy Queen[vii].

The following story is taken from Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory (1904) and is found in Part I: Book IV: Aine.  It sheds some light on the contrast of beauty and darkness that makes up this aspect of the Leanan Sidhe:

AND as to Aine, that some said was a daughter of Manannan, but some said was the Morrigu herself, there was a stone belonging to her that was called Cathair Aine. And if any one would sit on that stone he would be in danger of losing his wits, and any one that would sit on it three times would lose them for ever. And people whose wits were astray would make their way to it, and mad dogs would come from all parts of the country, and would flock around it, and then they would go into the sea to Aine’s place there. But those that did cures by herbs said she had power over the whole body; and she used to give gifts of poetry and of music, and she often gave her love to men, and they
called her the Leanan Sidhe, the Sweetheart of the Sidhe.

And it was no safe thing to offend Aine, for she was very revengeful. Oilioll Oluim, a king of Ireland, killed her brother one time, and it is what she did, she made a great yew-tree by enchantment beside the river Maigh in Luimnech, and she put a little man in it, playing sweet music on a harp. And Oilioli’s son was passing the river with his step-brother, and they saw the tree and heard the sweet music from it. And first they quarrelled as to which of them would have the little harper, and then they quarrelled about the tree, and they asked a judgment from Ollioll, and he gave it for his own son. And it was the bad feeling about that judgment that led to the battle of Magh Mucruimhe, and Oilioll and his seven sons were killed there, and so Aine got her revenge.

(Merlin and the Fairy Queen. John Duncan. sacred-texts.com)

The association of the powerful Leanan Sidhe, the Fairy Queen Aine, and likely the Ban Sidhe, to the blackthorn warns us that this is no tree to be trifled with. Its strong ties to the fairy kingdom are reminiscent of the powers of the hawthorn.

The blackthorn is, in fact, often considered to be a sister tree to the hawthorn. It can have very negative qualities, however, as it was a tree that was used – most especially the thorn- in black magic. It was believed that during the time of the witch hunts -the purging of the older pagan beliefs- that it was the devil himself that would prick the witch’s finger with a thorn as a sort of initiation. Thus the superstition of the blackthorn became further compounded over time through fear and persecution[viii].

Straif, the blackthorn, has protective qualities as well. Besides being used in hedging it was also thought to provide protection against ghosts, those restless spirits, that were found throughout Ireland[ix].

The tree of fairies and witches, the blackthorn not only exists in both worlds simultaneously, it exists –it can be argued- more in the Otherworld than it does on the land before us. The tree can protect us, but it can also harm us if we are not careful and respectful. Straif, the fourteenth few, is the tree of magical power and
transformation.

The Foliage:

The Blackthorn does not grow in Western North America but has naturalized in parts of Eastern North America[x].

Blackthorn, or prunus spinosa, is part of a family of 200 species. The blackthorn is related to the plum, apricot, almond, peach and cherry trees. Thus, the blackthorn’s closest relatives in the Pacific Northwest are the cherry trees. The similarity is apparent, if and when the sloe become a tree.

This is one of the problems that Eryn Rowan Laurie warned us about. When the tree of the “Ogham Tree Calendar” does not exist in a certain region what does one replace it with when the need for working with that plant directly surfaces?

In its tree form the similarity to cherry trees is apparent. The cherry trees do not seem to ever become the thorny shrubs that are more common for the blackthorn though. What tree would replace it in its absence then? This is no easy question to answer and each person must find their own understanding if they are to pursue this path.

For me the answer lies in the blackberry.

The blackberry is a thorny plant that grows in shrubs. Like the blackthorn it grows a white flower in spring. Like the blackthorn it also produces a dark purple-black fruit in fall. Interestingly enough, it also seems to have taboos and superstitions attached to it.

According to Robert Graves the blackberry was associated with the devil, and the fruit was either never picked –or like the blackthorn- was considered unfortunate to pick at certain times of the year. Also like the blackthorn the blackberry was considered very unlucky[xi].

The fit is not as perfect as it might initially appear, however. The blackberry rarely grows into anything resembling a tree. The native Trailing Blackberry grows along the ground while the introduced and widespread Himalayan Blackberry also mostly grows along the ground. I have seen individual branches in the forest growing straight into the air, at heights around ten feet or more, but the stems looks nothing like the trunks of trees[xii].

The blackberry is as good a substitute for the Ogham letter as I have found for my area however. What once was a mnemonic device to my ancestors became both meaningful and magical to them over time as it has for me. The important thing for me –as it should be for you as well- is to find something that honours your own path and feels right to you. As long as we remember not to sell our own discoveries as the gospel of our ancestor -and to treat the path with reverence and respect- then the Ogham path of knowledge and wisdom has much to teach us both of the past and of the possible future, as well as of the unseen realms.

Straif is not only a dark tree of power and magic, it is also mysterious and wise. In our journey through the forest it can take us places that we never imagined that we could go.

“The blackthorn’s scented white blossoms, and their contrast with its dark, spiny branches, symbolizes the general theme of light and darkness with which the plant has
been associated since ancient times. The dangerous, long spikes and the red “blood” that flows in the veins of the blackthorn tree enhance the dramatic effect even further. The blossoms, the fruits and the crimson sap display the three colours of the Great Goddess: white, black, and red. And as its name suggests, this tree has been associated with the dark aspects of life, such as night, death, and the underworld.”
 – Fred Hageneder (The Meaning of Trees)


[i] The White Goddess.

[ii] The Celtic Tree Oracle.

[iii] Magical Alphabets.

[iv] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[v] The Meaning of Trees. Fred Hageneder.

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

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

[viii] Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook.

[ix] Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology.

[x] Native Trees of Canada. Department of Forestry. 1966.

[xi] The White Goddess.

[xii] Plants of Coastal British Columbia. Pojar and MacKinnon

Quert (Apple)

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

The Roots:

The apple represents the allure of the Otherworld.

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

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

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

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

The Trunk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some do not return.

The Foliage:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[ii] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom

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

[iv] Celtic Symbols

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

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

[vii] The Meaning of Trees

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