Ioho (Yew)

“The Irish Druids made their wands of divination from the yew-tree; and, like the ancient priests of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, are believed to have controlled spirits, fairies, daemons, elementals, and ghosts while making such divinations.”  – W.B. Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911)

The Roots:

The 20th letter of the Tree Ogham is Ioho, the Yew tree.

The Yew is the tree most often found in mythology to be the Tree of Life or the World Tree[i].

Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets calls the Yew the “Tree of Eternal Life.” He also claims that the tree is sacred to divinities of death and regeneration.

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam:Weaving Word Wisdom says that Ioho is the few of longevity, reincarnation, the ancestors, history and tradition. Laurie also says that the Yew is the tree of immortality.

Liz and Colin Murray, in the Celtic Tree Oracle, state that Ioho represents great age, rebirth, and reincarnation. Robert Graves within the White Goddess calls the Yew “the Death Tree.”

John Michael Greer says that the Yew represents “enduring realities and legacies”. He also says that the tree represents that which abides unchanged and the lessons of experience.

The Yew is found in many myths involving tragic lovers such as Deidre and Naisi or Iseult and Tristian. In the legend of the Wooing of Etain Yew is connected directly to the Ogham and to divination. Ioho is also related to tales of hollow trees, the Irish goddess of death Danba, Thomas the Rymer, Cuchulainn and the fairy maiden Fand, and the hidden resting place of Owan Lawgoch. The Yew is also related to the swan through the shapeshifting story of Ibormeith (Yewberry) found in the tale the Dream of Oenghus, and to Oenghus himself who tries to win her love. The age of the Yew is also used as a reference when it is compared to the age of the Cailleach in an old Irish proverb. There are many tribes, names and places named after the Yew throughout the Celtic world. In present day the Yew is still strongly associated to graveyards and, through association, to the Christian Church.

Ioho, the Yew, represents old age, the ancestors, divination, death and reincarnation or rebirth.

The Trunk:

Yew is one of the most important trees found in Celtic mythology.

The Yew tree is often associated with death, dying and the dead. There is an old Breton legend that says that the roots of the Yew tree grow into the open mouth of each corpse[ii]. Yew branches were also often buried with the dead[iii]. Jacqueline Memory Paterson, in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook, links the Irish goddess of death Banbha to the Yew tree[iv]. According to Paterson, the Yew was sacred to the goddess and became known as ‘the renown of Banbha’.

The Yew tree is also associated with the fairies and to the Otherworld. As a Yew tree becomes very old its insides melt away making it stronger. It is the “hollow tree” that appears in fairy tales and folklore.

Owan Lawgoch, who we spoke of within the Ivy blog, is a sleeping warrior-king like Arthur. Owan is supposed to awaken and return to rule someday. In Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland, 1825, Thomas Crofton Crocker shares a story regarding Owan Lawgoch’s resting place. Apparently there is a hill on that very spot with a lone Yew tree that stands upon it. When a person approaches the hill, the Yew tree vanishes and will only reappear as the person withdraws once more.

Thomas the Rymer was a Scottish prophet who received his gifts by being the lover of a Fairy Queen[v]. Thomas, like Owan Lawgoch, also waits to be reborn. Folklore marks the location of his second coming as a Scottish Yew grove[vi].

In the Irish myth the Tale of Oenghus the beautiful Ibormeith(Yewberry) transforms into a swan every second year during Samhain. Oenghus in order to win her love becomes a swan as well and they are able to fly off together back to his home[vii].

Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by Thomas Rolleston written in 1911 has some interesting mythical details regarding the Yew. The first account is of the great hero Cuchulainn, who we discussed briefly within last weeks blog. When Cuchulainn would meet with his fairy maiden, Fand, it was beneath a Yew tree.

Another story, which is also told by Jacqueline Memory Paterson and Robert Graves, is of the tragic lovers Naisie and Deidre. Naisie was betrayed and murdered in an act of broken hospitality. His wife, the beautiful Deidre, was then shared as a concubine-like prize between two of the killers. Deidre, in her shame, finally threw herself headfirst from a chariot and was instantly killed. In that way the men could no longer have her. The two lovers were then (miraculously) buried near one another within a common ground. Some stories say that they were in the same graveyard, while other stories claim that a church divided them. Either way, Yew trees sprang forth from each of their graves. Their tops then met above the ground where, “none could part them.”

There is a similar tragic love story involving the Yew.  The following version of the story is found in Jacqueline Memory Paterson’s Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook.

(Tristan and Isolde by Herbert James Draper, 1901)

“Cornish legend tells of Mark, a king of Cornwall who was wedded to Iseult, a lady of Ireland who did not actually love him. After their wedding, as they sailed from Ireland back to Cornwall, unbeknown to anyone Iseult’s mother prepared a draught of wine for the wedded pair, in the hopes that a spell would make her daughter fall madly in love with her husband. Unfortunately the wine was drunk by Iseult and Mark’s nephew Tristain, and the two fell passionately in love with one another. The love spell lasted some three years, during which the lovers took many chances to sleep together. Many times they were discovered and reported to the king, whose love for them both pulled him apart. Likewise his kingdom slowly fell apart because of the situation and the gossip it aroused.

“After many partings and tricks of fate the lovers died in each other’s arms. Mark gave them a ceremonial funeral, for he had truly loved them both… within a year yew trees had sprouted out of each grave. The king had the trees cut down but they grew again. Three times they grew and three times he cut them down. Eventually, moved by the love he had felt for both his wife and his nephew, Mark gave in and allowed the trees to grow unmolested. At their full height the yews reached their branches towards each other across the nave and intertwined so intensely they could nevermore be parted.[viii]

The most interesting story concerning the Yew tree is found in the tale the Wooing of Etain.

Eochy is tricked by a fairy prince, or king, named Midir after he lost a board game to him. Midir, who could choose any gift, requested a kiss from Eochy’s wife Etain. Eochy was forced by his honour to grant the request. Midir then left saying that he will return for the prize. Eochy decided against this and tried to protect his wife but she was spirited away.

Eochy did not find his wife, even after exhaustive searches throughout the countryside. He eventually consulted the druids as he was desperate to know her whereabouts. A druid cut three yew staves, or in some stories four[ix], and wrote some Ogham letters upon them. These were then cast upon the ground. Through divination the exact fairy mound where Etain was being hidden was determined. After nine years of digging and fighting, Etain was rescued back from the land of the fairies. It is said that this was the war that finally diminished the fairies into a weakened race.

The Celtic myths are ripe with symbolism. For the astute observer the stories hold deeper meanings. They speak to us of relationships with the gods, the seasons, to the earth and ultimately to each other. These stories teach us about living and about dying. Perhaps they teach us of being reborn as well.

In the age of legend there were beings of great power and might. These are found in all of the surviving legends of the Celts. From the 1700s through to modern day we find the newer diminished spirits and fairies. These beings had been reduced in size and were no longer taken seriously in many of the tales. They had lost both their great power and their unsurpassed beauty.

The two theories often put forth by folklorists as to the explanation for what fairies were both pertain to other types of entities. The first explanation is that of diminished gods and the second is that of the spirits of the dead. In either case, a diminishing of size and power is more than slightly symbolic.

All that diminishes and dies will return eventually, in one form or another.

This is the story of the Yew.

The Foliage:

This week I watched starlings gorge themselves on yew berries in a local park.

It is one of my favourite places. The Pacific Yew has its branches entangled with those of a Holly tree. On one side of the pair, nearest the Holly, is an old Oak tree with a spiralling trunk. On the other side, nearest the Yew, is a sickly looking Hawthorn that also has a spiralling trunk.

The starlings would leap from branch to branch, excitedly, while filling their bodies with the ripe fruit. The birds would then quickly disappear into the protective foliage of the Holly if they were startled.

The Yew relies on birds to carry its seed to the hopeful birthplaces of patiently growing saplings not yet realized. This is unusual for needle trees, which usually rely on other means for seed dispersal.  The red fruit and lack of sap of the Yew, however, make the Yew an evergreen that is not a true conifer.

Besides being one of the oldest of trees, the Yew is also incredibly poisonous except for the fruit. The seed within the berry and all other parts of the tree are poisonous. The starlings and other birds seem to be able to tolerate the seed. Maybe the seed doesn’t get a chance to break apart completely enough inside of them to pose any real threat?

Colin Murray passed away in August of 1986 just days before his 44th birthday. The Celtic Tree Oracle was published by his wife Liz after his departure in 1988. The means of his death are found in Asphodel Long’s memorial article.

“[Colin] held a strong belief in reincarnation. We know that his death was caused by his eating leaves from a yew tree. In his Tree Alphabet he gives the following definition for Yew: ‘The ability to be reborn, continuously and everlastingly, the reference point for what has been and what is to come.’”[x]

The Celtic Tree Oracle brought with it a means of divination that is the mother and the father of all Ogham divination systems that came afterwards. Like the work of Robert Graves, there are many statements found within the book that do not bear scrutiny very well. We must remember, however, that without either of these pioneers’ research there would be no Ogham divination systems today.

It is appropriate then, that as we discuss the lore of the Yew -from rebirth to tragedy- that we reflect upon the myths that are both modern and mundane. I can contemplate and reflect upon the eating habits of the Starlings to try to have a deeper understanding of the meanings of the tree, but I must go deeper yet.

The Yew is a very toxic plant that is fatal if ingested. The tree presents a fruit, however, that is non-toxic, nutritious, and even has healing properties. Within the core of that fruit is a seed of life. That seed is toxic if it is digested. If it is allowed to pass through the body unharmed it may grow into another Yew tree which would also in turn be toxic and fatal if ingested. Eventually that tree would grow fruit and the cycle would begin once more. The symbolic metaphor may be seen as death in life and life in death.

Colin Murray eloquently said, “Youth in age and age in youth.”

The Yew tree is the Celtic Yin-Yang. In death there is rebirth and in birth there is death.

Many pagan new age systems of divination do not deal with death anymore. It is washed down. Even the death card of the tarot no longer seems to mean death; it means rebirth or even change. I have seen card readers not even use the word death but state that the card means “rebirth.” This avoidance of the word “death” seems to me to be yet another example of how our culture and society views our separateness from nature and ultimately to the whole world around us. Without an appreciation of death there will never be an understanding of life.

The Aspen may be seen as the tree of death and finality within an Ogham divination system. The Yew, the final original letter of the Ogham, is the tree of rebirth.  The Yew does not simply mean change.

The Yew represents the rebirth that follows death. This is an important distinction.

“Three great ages; the age of the yew tree, the age of the eagle, and the age of the Cailleach Bearra.” – Irish Proverb (Visions of the Cailleach)



[i] A most common misconception is that the Norse world tree is an Ash but this was a translation error from the Eddas. Yggdrasil is described through translation as either “winter green needle ash” as being poetic or as “winter green needle sharp” as being more literal. I touch on this as well in my Nuin (Ash) post. The Nordic World Tree is generally believed to have been a Yew by those who are aware of this original error.

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

[iv] Part of the triple goddesses that includes Eriu and Fodla found in the Book of Invasions.  A mythical explanation for the three names of Ireland.

[v] Quert (Apple) blog.

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

[vii] Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm. The Druid Animal Oracle.

[viii] This story is usually seen to have its roots in Celtic myth. The names of the characters appear in the Mabinogion. Historians sometimes disagree, however, whether this is a Celtic myth or not. The tale is also considered a prototype of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot story.

[ix] Thomas Rollerston, for example, says that there are three staves while Caitlin Mathews in the Celtic Tradition says that there are four.

 

Eadha (Aspen)

The following curious story reminds one a little of Slavic tales of dead men who dwell in their tombs as in houses. Some of the Slav tomb-dwellers are harmless, others malignant. The malignant ones are dead persons who rise up bodily and go around at night devouring people. When one of these has eaten a victim he rushes back to his grave, for he is obliged to remain wherever he may be at cock-crow; if outside his grave, he falls stiff and helpless to lie there till the next night. There are two ways of giving a quietus to such a ghoul. One is to pin him to the earth by driving a stake of aspen wood through his heart; the other is to burn him to ashes.” – Jeremiah Curtin (Tales of Fairies and the Ghost World, 1895)

The Roots:

Eadha, or Aspen, is the 19th letter of the Ogham.

Robert Graves in the White Goddess lists the Aspen as the tree of rebirth.

Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle also give Aspen the powers of rebirth. They add that Aspen is the tree of resistance and shielding, speech and language, and that it has a very close relationship to the wind.

Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets calls Aspen a magic preventer, or means of overcoming death. He also sees the tree as a resistance against inhospitable conditions.

John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook gives Aspen the qualities of perseverance, courage, hard work, defence and inner strength.

Jacqueline Memory Paterson in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook echoes many of the above statements but also adds that the Aspen “speaks of what it hears from afar” and is the best hearing of all the trees.

Eryn Rowan Laurie -who does not use the Ogham as a tree alphabet- says that Eadha is the few of divination, dreams, and communicating with the Sidhe or high fairies. It should also be important to note that the plant that Laurie sees as being representative of Eadha, if you can call it a plant, is the colourful mushroom Aminita muscaria. When Laurie does speak of Aspen in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, however, she does not give the tree any properties or associations other than the folkloric connections the tree has in regards to the betrayal of Jesus at the time of the crucifixion.

Eadha, or Aspen, is a tree with many associations to death and to the spirit world. It is a protective tree but is also seen as dark or evil. It often appears as a betrayer of Christ. The tree has ties to the grave, spirits of the dead, and to the fairies. In this light, the various interpretations for Aspen suddenly make sense and do not seem so foreign from one another.

Aspen is a tree of overcoming and resistance; both to persecution and to death itself. It is also the tree most often associated with direct communication to the forest through its quivering leaves.

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.

The Trunk:

Aspen is a tree of great power.

At one time, the quivering leaves of the Aspen were believed to be mediators that aided in the communication between our world and the next. They helped the wind speak to the ancestors. They brought news of the deceased. They carried the inspiration of poetry.

The folklore later claiming that the Aspen betrayed Jesus is found throughout Europe. The following quote is taken from the Carmina Gadelica vol.2 by Alexander Carmichael in 1900.

“THE people of Uist say ‘gu bheil an crithionn crion air a chroiseadh tri turais’–that the hateful aspen is banned three times. The aspen is banned the first time because it haughtily held up its head while all the other trees of the forest bowed their heads lowly down as the King of all created things was being led to Calvary. And the aspen is banned the second time because it was chosen by the enemies of Christ for the cross upon which to crucify the Saviour of mankind. And the aspen is banned the third time because [here the reciter’s memory failed him]. Hence the ever-tremulous, ever-quivering, ever quaking motion of the guilty hateful aspen even in the stillest air.”

While the Holly and Oak are also often accused of being the tree used for the crucifixion, the Aspen is given extra special negative attention in folklore. Eryn Rowan Laurie claims that in Scotland people would throw stones at the trees as punishment even in recent times. The quivering leaves have been equated to both guilt and to fear in regards to the betrayal of Christ.

The associations of the Aspen to death may be due to the historical use of the Aspen wand. In Cormac’s Glossary there is an Aspen wand called a Fe that was used to measure the graves of the dead[i]. There was an Ogham inscription cut on it. The wands and their users are called “pagan” in the glossary. It was not advised that anyone, other than the grave measurers, handle the wands. The Aspen rods apparently held bad spirits.

According to Robert Graves, French witches used Aspen or White Poplar in flying spells. In Survival in Belief Amongst Celts published in 1911, George Henderson reports that mare’s milk taken from an Aspen spoon is a cure for whooping cough. In Scotland an Aspen leaf under the tongue made the bearer more eloquent. This magical shift was a gift from the fairy queen[ii].

In Poems of Ossian written in 1773, James Macpherson shares a most beautiful and tragic story. This work was claimed to have been based on “a manuscript” but is now largely believed to be a great work of fiction with mythological sources, or a complete forgery depending on who you are talking to. The tale is poetically beautiful and haunting[iii].

(The Dream of Ossian, by Jean Dominique Ingres,1815)

Gaul, a great warrior, returns from war to marry Oithona. The two had fallen in love before the duties of being a warrior had taken him away. They had eagerly agreed to marry if Gaul survived the expedition. Oithona’s father and brother were also called to the same campaign leaving her alone and vulnerable. In the warriors’ absence, Oithona was stolen and raped by Donrommath a chieftain who she had formerly rejected. He kept her hidden in a cave. Upon his return and the discovery of her absence, Gaul sets sail in search of Oithona.

“A rougher blast rushed through the oak. The dream of night departed. Gaul took his Aspen spear. He stood in the rage of his soul. Often did hid turn to the east. He accused the lagging light. At length the morning came forth. The hero lifted up the sail.”

Gaul finds Oithona in a cave on an island, alone and wounded. She tells Gaul her story and warns him of the many men of Donrommath. Gaul tells Oithona to hide in the cave until after the battle and rushes off to meet their enemies.

Donrommath smiles in “contempt” at Gaul and his few meagre men, expecting an easy victory.

“Gaul advanced in his arms; Dunrommath shrunk behind his people. But the spear of Gaul pierced the gloomy chief: his sword lopped off his head, as it bended in death. The son of Morni shook it thrice by the lock; the warriors of Dunrommath fled. The arrows of Morven pursued them: ten fell on the mossy rocks. The rest lift the sounding sail, and bound on the troubled deep.”

Gaul then returns to the cave of Oithona to find a mortally wounded youth with an arrow in his side. He tries to heal the youth but discovers that the wound is too serious and that he cannot. As Gaul admits to the unknown hero that he will be “taken in youth” the helmet falls upon the ground and reveals the beautiful Oithona. In her shame she had outfitted herself for battle and joined the outnumbered troops of Gaul. There is both pride and beauty in her as she perishes.

“She fell pale on the rock of Tromáthon. The mournful warrior raised her tomb. He came to Morven; we saw the darkness of his soul.”

The Aspen spear seems to speak of a greater, or more permanent, death than is usually given to ones enemies.

The great Irish hero Cuchulainn is always overcoming death and great enemies. He is a Celtic Achilles whose weakness is that he is forbidden to eat dog meat. After he unavoidably partakes in the flesh of a hound he is eventually killed. This is only after many adventures and battles.

One of his great victories was against three of his enemies who had each armed their charioteers with Aspen wands. Cuchulainn kills all six of them[iv].

If the Aspen wand is used for measuring the grave, then the symbolism found within the tale is both direct and disturbing. The three threes, including the wands, remind us that all of the old myths are riddles. It is clear that Cuchulainn has overcome death once more.

The Aspen, Eadha, is a tree of mysteries and connections to the land of the dead. It can be seen as a tree of great power and resistance to all things, as well as a messenger of the spirits.

Interestingly enough, within the Ogahm Tract, Aspen is spoken of as “friend.”

The Foliage:

Aspen are very closely related to White Poplar. In many places the names for the two trees are used interchangeably. The species are so closely related that they can intermarry and the result is the Grey Poplar. Cottonwood is also closely related. I have often found that accurately identifying each species from one another can be very difficult. This is especially true in regards to the North American species.

The Aspen is the only tree that dominates two letters from the list found in the Ogham Tract or Scholar’s Primer. Eadha is associated with Aspen but so is Ebad. Writers who use the tree aspect of the Ogham have worked around this in various ways. The Murrays use the second Aspen, Ebad, to instead represent “the Grove”, which they also call Koad. Several other writers have since used this association.

One writer, Robert lee “Skip” Ellison, gets around this in another way. I have not yet read Ellison’s Ogham: the Secret language of the Druids as I do not want the book to influence my current tour through the Ogham letters[v]. I am aware, however, that Ellison gets around the above problem by making Eadha represent Aspen, and Ebad represent the White Poplar.

If a person had a strong connection to the Aminita muscaria, and felt that the mushroom had a place within the tree calendar, they could use the Eryn Rowan Laurie association mentioned above. The Eadha letter would be represented by Aminita and Ebad would be the letter used for the Aspen. This is merely another alternative or suggestion[vi].

We will be listing Ebad as “the Grove”, and will leave the association of Aspen to Eadha.

“Evidence now supports the vision of the poet and the philosopher that plants are living, breathing, communicating creatures, endowed with personality and the attributes of the soul. It is only we, in our blindness, who have insisted on considering them automata.” – Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird (The Secret Life of Plants, 1973)


[i]Cormac mac Cuilennain was an Irish bishop and a king of Muster. He was killed in battle in 908ce. The glossary is believed to be attributed to him after his death but not actually written by him.

[iv] Cattle Raid of Cualnge. Ulster Cycle.

[v] I plan to use Ellison during my next cycle through the Ogham along with Caitlin Mathews who wrote Celtic Wisdom Sticks. I have not yet read either book.

[vi] If there is an interest in a similar post written about the Aminita then please let me know. There are various mentions of the mushroom in myth and folklore which can easily be researched and shared.

Ur (Heather)

“When we reflect upon the many unique characteristics of the Heather- its stern beauty of delicate purple bells nestling to a green mantled burly growth of brushwood; its distinctive vitality and strength of endurance; the wild rugged solitude of its native home in the Scottish Highlands, and the untamed spirit of independence which over broods this hermit flower of the mountain crags- it is not to be wondered at that the Heather should have been adopted as a symbol, or badge, by several of the leading clans of Scotland.” – Alexander Wallace (Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay)

The Roots:

Ur is the eighteenth letter of the Ogham. The tree or plant that Ur represents in the Tree Alphabet[i] is the Heather.

In Magical Alphabets Nigel Pennick claims that this letter represents luck and is an entry point to the inner worlds.

In the White Goddess, Robert Graves also says that Heather is lucky. He goes on to state that Heather has a strong connection with the bee. This is a observation that is made by many other writers including Stephanie and Philip Carr-Gomm[ii], Alexander Wallace[iii], as well as Liz and Colin Murray. The bee represents industriousness, family, community and social interactions. The Heather is not only frequented by bees, but can also grow in Heaths. This growth pattern represents its own gregarious nature.

In their book the Celtic Tree Oracle, the Murrays also say that Heather provides a link to the inner self. Strangely, they also claim that the Mistletoe can be a representative of Ur as well.

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom seems to have quite a different take on Ur and the Heather plant. She claims that the Ogham letter Ur is representative of death, fate and finality; by its connection to the soil[iv]. Laurie also claims that Heather independent from the letter- is linked to poverty[v].

John Michael Greer brings the various beliefs together in his explanation of Ur found in the Druid Magic Handbook. He says that Ur represents “Power, creation, death and rebirth, symbolized by the Heather bush; spiritual power and creativity, a door opens in the inner world.”

Besides being linked to the bee, Heather is connected with mountains and the country of Scotland. The plant has links to fairies such as the Cluiricaune. Heather is also connected to witches, apparitions and also makes an appearance in at least one Cailleach tale.

Ur, or Heather, is the plant of death and the dead, luck, family and community, and can also help us to connect with the inner worlds.

The Trunk:

“Heather is the four leaf clover of the Scottish Highlands.[vi]

Heather, or Ur, does not appear very often in recorded Celtic folklore.

The Cluiricaune, who we spoke of in Ngetal, knew the secrets of brewing a heather beer. We also looked at an apparition that touched and killed a cow in Ohn; the Ogham letter covered last week. This apparition rose from the Gorse and Heather plants to bring about the destruction of the hapless creature. Both of these stories were discussed previously and can also be found in Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Croker.

The greatest wealth of memory regarding the Heather plant is found in Alexander Wallace’s 1903 book Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay. There is no greater resource than this book for anyone interested in a study of the cultural significance of Heather to the Celtic people.

Throughout the book there are many poems and stories related to Heather. In folklore the white Heather represented unselfish love. It was considered very unlucky for anyone to bring Heather indoors. The plant could, however, be used as protection against witches. At Beltane, Rowan and Heather branches were carried around the sacred fire three times before being raised above dwellings to protect the house’s occupants against the evil eye. On the other hand, throwing Heather after a person was supposed to bring them good luck.

Heather is often seen as a Scottish national symbol. The plant is associated with ancestors and is found on many clan badges.

“Macgregor as the rock, Macdonald as the Heather.”[vii]

Fairies are said to live in Heather bells and Heather honey is supposed to be one of their favourite foods. Apparently Heather, like Ivy[viii], does not grow in the land of the fairies. This may explain the fairies great affinity for the flower.

There is a story from Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay regarding a Heather fairy that I will share in its entirety due to its unique nature. It was originally told by a Mrs Grant of Laggan. The tale regards one of the fairy hills that Highlanders would often hear “fairie music” from.

“A little girl had been innocently loved by a fairy that dwelt in a tomhan[ix] near her mother’s habitation. She had three brothers who were the favourites of her mother. She herself was treated harshly and taxed beyond her strength; her ’employment was to go every morning and cut a certain quantity of turf from dry, heathy ground for immediate fuel ; and this with some uncouth and primitive implement. As she passed the hillock which contained her lover, he regularly put out his hand with a very sharp knife of sudi[x] power that it quickly and readily cut through all impediments. She returned cheerfully and early with her load of turf, and as she passed by the hillock she struck on it twice and the fairy stretched out his hand and received the knife.

“The mother, however, told the brothers that her daughter must certainly have had some aid to perform the allotted task. They watched her, saw her remove the enchanted knife and forced it from her. They re-turned, struck the hillock as she was wont to do, and when the fairy put out his hand, they cut it off with his own knife. He drew in the bleeding arm in despair; and supposing this cruelty was the result of treadiery[xi] on the part of his beloved, never saw her more.”

This is not the only dark story regarding the Heather plant. Witches in Scotland at Samhain were supposed to ride over Heather on black tabby cats. Heather can also be connected to the Cailleach; the primordial Celtic hag goddess.

It is said that whenever a hunter sees the Cailleach singing and milking the hinds upon a hillside, it is a warning. The vision is telling the hunter that he should not go, “roaming the Heath that day.” To ignore the warning was to invite a swift and merciless death[xii].

Heather, or Ur, is a magical herb indeed. The stories in Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay do speak of death, apparitions, family and luck. Perhaps the “inner worlds” that the Ogham authors speak of are simply more references to the Spiritworld or the lands of the fey?

If this is true, then the above stories verify this Heather connection as well.

There are too many tales of the fairies to list, which speak of them as being “the dead”[xiii]. If this were to be the case, then all of the various associations given to the Heather plant would not be as different from one another as they would at first appear.

Heather is a key to the realms of the mysterious. Some may see these lands as being external and separated from oneself, while others may choose to dive into the deepest hidden worlds that are found within.

Perhaps they are one and the same.

The Foliage:

The Heather plant that represents Ur is Calluna Vulgaris.

Calluna Vulgaris is considered an invasive species in British Columbia as it is sometimes found to have naturalized. This non-native immigrant, however, is the Heather that is the same plant referred to in Celtic myth and legend. What we call Heather in British Columbia is not the same plant.

These are the native types of mountain Heather from the Cassiope  and also the Phyllodoce Genus . The Mountain Heathers are close relatives of Calluna Vulgaris belonging to the same family Ericaceae[xiv]. Some of the species, such as White Mountain Heather or Yellow Mountain Heather, are common throughout the Pacific Northwest and BC.

The Heather of myth is usually a purple flower.

“According to the classical writers, the Druids taught three important things: Honor the gods. Do no evil. Live courageously.” – Tom Cowan(Yearning for the Wind)



[i] The Ogham was not originally intended to be used as a Tree Alphabet. See previous posts.

[ii] The Druid Animal Oracle.

[iii] Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay.

[iv] The Ogham Tract.

[v] Laurie is the Ogham expert that I probably respect, and agree with, the most. I disagree with her on this point, however, which may seem strange as she is much more knowledgable than me on Celtic mythology and the Ogham. I do not understand the poverty connection to Heather, however.

[vii] Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay.

[viii] See Gort post.

[ix] Fairy dwelling.

[x] I am not sure what this means.

[xi] Breech of faith.

[xii] We should be thankful that Alexander Wallace preserved so much of the lore associated with the Heather in a single place. I have merely skimmed the surface of this highly recommended book.

[xiii] Katherine Briggs. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature.