Ngetal (Reed Grass) II

“When a cow hesitates to cross, the person driving her throws a stalk or a twig into the ditch before the unwilling animal and sings the ‘Feith Mhoire,’ Vein of Mary, to encourage her to cross, and to assure her that a safe bridge is before her. The stalk may be of any corn or grass except the reed, and the twig of any wood except the wild fig, the aspen, and the thorn. All these are forbidden, or ‘crossed’ as the people say, because of their ungracious conduct to the Gracious One. The reed is ‘crossed’ because it carried the sponge dipped in vinegar; the fig-tree because of its inhospitality; the aspen because it held up its head haughtily, proud that the cross was made of its wood, when all the trees of the forest–all save the aspen alone–bowed their heads in reverence to the King of glory passing by on the way to Calvary; and the thorn-tree because of its prickly pride in having been made into a crown for the King of kings.” – Alexander Carmichael (Carmina Gadelica Vol. II. 1900)

The Roots:

The thirteenth letter of the tree-Ogham is Ngetal, or Reed. Reed is the most common association for this letter. Ngetal may also be found as Broom or Fern, however.

Within the previous Ngetal post, we discovered that Reed was a neopagan addition to the Ogham[i] and not the original association to the letter at all! Reed, as a choice for this letter, was first promoted within Robert Graves’ the White Goddess. Liz and Colin Murray later adopted Graves’ interpretation for Ngetal -as the Reed- within the Celtic Tree Oracle. Most neopagan users of the Ogham today can trace their information on the Ogham directly to these two sources. As a result, Reed is the most common interpretation for Ngetal.

The more academic users of the Ogham – as far as authenticity – usually interpret Ngetal as the Broom plant or the Fern. This is indisputably more accurate. For the purposes of this blog, however, I will cover the Reed in the sections below. As far as the Broom, we will cover it four weeks from now when we take a look at the Gorse. The reasons for this will be explained at that time. I have no plan to research the Fern; at least not at this time.

John Mathews, Caitlin Mathews, Eryn Rowan Laurie and Robert Elison are all examples of individuals who approach the Ogham from a historical or reconstructionist perspective. Liz and Colin Murray, John Michael Greer, Jacqueline Memory Paterson, Nigel Pennick and many other individuals on the other hand, come from the neopagan background as far as the Ogham. This second group tends to also believe in the Tree Calendar[ii].

John Mathews interprets the Ngetal word-Ogham, “physician’s strength,” as meaning “healing.” As we covered previously, the word-Oghams are phrases or sayings found within the Ogham Tract alongside each of the trees[iii]. John Mathews interprets many of these kennings within his book the Celtic Shaman.

Robert Elison says that Ngetal represents “working and tools” within his book Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids. Elison also says that the Broom has long associations to healing, as well as being used as a magical tool.

In Celtic Wisdom Sticks, Caitlin Mathews says that the word-Oghams for Ngetal are very “obscure” but that they all seem “to stem from an older Irish word to do with wounding.” Caitlin Mathews’ system of divination seems to use both wounding and healing as possible interpretations for Ngetal.

Ngetal represents healing and sometimes wounding. These interpretations are take-aways from the Ogham Tract and should not be seen as having any direct relationship to the Reed found within Celtic mythology or folklore. The Reed is never even mentioned within the text[iv]!

The Reed was a Robert Graves invention. If we intend on using the Reed plant to represent Ngetal, then we should at least be aware that it is not authentic. This is especially important because the Ogham is a symbol of a real living people and not some abstract idea taken from a book.

The Irish and other Celts suffered many generations of persecution and ethnocide. As a result, much of the past has been lost. There are many who now struggle to reclaim what has been lost or forgotten to bring things back into balance. These are the reconstructionists.

The neopagans choose, on the other hand, to use the original Ogham as inspiration for their own belief systems and not as a fixed system. The following look at the Reed, found within Celtic folklore, will cater more to this second group.

The Trunk:

The Reed of Celtic folklore possess various Otherworldly attributes. It is usually found to be either a weapon or a musical instrument. The Reed is almost always used by spirits or fairies and not by humans.

In fact, the Reed was often a symbol of evil in folklore. As the opening quote revealed, the Reed was considered to be one of the plants that had betrayed Jesus at the time of his execution. We can only assume, then, that the Reed would possess great power in the hands of the godless.

In the case of the Cluricaune found in Thomas Crofton Crocker’s 1825 Fairy Legends and Traditions of South Ireland, the Reed was an aid to flight. The Cluricaune – who was similar to the leprechaun – would ride the Reed stalk in the same way that the stereotypical witch would ride a broom.

In the 1899 book the Prophecies of Brahan Seer by Alexander Mackenzie, the Reed begins to take on a more sinister use:

 “Some years ago, if not even still, many in the Western Isles believed in the existence of the ‘Gruagach,’ a female spectre of the class of Brownies to which the Highland dairymaids made frequent libations of milk. The Gruagach is said to have been an innocent, supernatural visitor, who frisked and gambolled about the cattle-pens and folds. She was armed only with a pliable reed, with which she switched all who annoyed her by uttering obscene language, or would neglect to leave for her a share of the dairy produce. Even so late as 1770, the dairymaids who attended a herd of cattle in the Island of Trodda, at the north end of Skye, were in the habit of pouring daily a quantity of milk on a hollow stone for the Gruagach. Should they neglect to do so, they made sure of feeling the effects of her wand the next day.”

The following Scottish lowland fairy is found in the 1870 book Fairy Mythology of Various Countries by Thomas Keightley. This fairy sounds considerably more ruthless than the Gruagach:

“They carry quivers of ‘adder-slough,’ and bows made of the ribs of a man buried where three lairds’ lands meet; their arrows are made of bog-reed, tipped with white flints, and dipped in the dew of hemlock; they ride on steeds whose hoofs would not dash the dew from the cup of a harebell. With their arrows they shoot the cattle of those who offend them; the wound is imperceptible to common eyes, but there are gifted personages who can discern and cure it.”

The snake-slough quiver holds these poison arrows constructed from Reed grass. In this case, the Reed has come to represent more than just punishment but death itself; at least to the cow.

(Vipera Berus – Common European Adder. Photo by Marek Szczepanek[v])

Not only a weapon however, the Reed is sometimes found to be connected to music. The following story predates folklore, coming instead from the age of legend. It is found within the 1900 book Celtic Folklore:  Welsh and Manx. (Vol. I ) by John Rhys[vi]. The story has many similarities with the Irish tale the King with the Horse’s Ears found in other texts[vii].

“One of Arthur’s warriors, whose name was March (or Parch) Amheirchion \ was lord of Castetlmarch in ILeyn. This man had horse’s ears (resembling Midas), and lest anybody should know it, he used to kill every man he sought to shave his beard, for fear lest he should not be able to keep the secret; and on the spot where he was wont to bury the bodies there grew reeds, one of which somebody cut to make a pipe. The pipe would give no other sound than ‘March Amheirchion has horse’s ears.’ When the warrior heard this, he would probably have killed the innocent man on that account, if he had not himself failed to make the pipe produce any other sound. But after hearing where the reed had grown, he made no further effort to conceal either the murders or his ears.”

In this tale the Reed can only produce the music of truth. The irony is, of course, that the dead are telling the one secret that they had been killed for knowing in the first place. As they say: the dead tell no lies. In this story, the Reed is connected to music and to the dead.

In the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz we find another example of Reed’s connection to magical music[viii]:

“Bean chaol a chot uaine ‘s na gruaige buidhe, ‘ the slender woman of the green kirtle and of the yellow hair,’ is wise of head and deft of hand. She can convert the white water of the rill into rich red wine and the threads of the spiders into a tartan plaid. From the stalk of the fairy reed she can bring the music of the lull of the peace and of the repose, however active the brain and lithe the limb; and she can rouse to mirth and merriment, and to the dance, men and women, however dolorous their condition. From the bower could be heard the pipe and the song and the voice of laughter as the fairies ‘ sett ‘ and reeled in the mazes of the dance. Sometimes a man hearing the merry music and seeing the wonderful light within would be tempted to go in and join them, but woe to him if he omitted to leave a piece of iron at the door of the bower on entering, for the cunning fairies would close the door and the man would find no egress. There he would dance for years—but to him the years were as one day—while his wife and family mourned him as dead.”

In this case, ‘the slender woman fairy’ enjoys a wide range of possible uses for her Reed pipe. She can both “rouse” and put to sleep. With the Reed in hand, she is as powerful as the bards of old.

The Reed in folklore and mythology is a plant both respected and feared.

The Foliage:

The Reed does not seem to appear directly, as an herb, within any of the traditional folkloric spells. It can be used, however, in any binding or braiding spell. The Reed is also associated with music.

The following passage is from Lady Wilde’s 1887 text Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland:

“Before an accident happens to a boat, or a death by drowning, low music is often heard, as if under the water, along with harmonious lamentations, and then every one in the boat knows that some young man or beautiful young girl is wanted by the fairies, and is doomed to die. The best safeguard is to have music and singing in the boat, for the fairies are so enamoured of the mortal voices and music that they forget to weave the spell till the fatal moment has passed, and then all in the boat are safe from harm.”

In this instance, music is a means of repelling the negative magic of the fairy kingdom. It does not seem to matter, either, what type of music it is, or even if its good music at all. The key is, simply, to make music in order to survive.

Although there does not seem to be any Celtic spells regarding the Reed, there is one Danish spell, found in Fairy Mythologies of Various Countries, that does contain a Reed spell. In it, a nail is placed inside of a Reed which is then placed inside of a boat[ix]. This is to protect the boat from a river spirit who is called “the Neck.” The Neck can often be seen singing and playing the harp. Like the Celtic fairies, the Neck seems to have a repulsion of iron.

The Neck has a connection to both music and water, much like the Reed itself.


“Frail is the reed, of riches an emblem.”  – Red Book of Hergest (1382-1410)

[i] In its tree form.

[ii] The Tree-Calendar was a poetic argument put forward by Robert Graves within the White Goddess. Graves argued that the Ogham – in its tree form- could actually be a calendar with various trees representing each month; for example Birch for January, Rowan for February and Alder for March. Graves then put forward an argument as to why each tree represented that particular month based on observations of nature and various mythological references. Unfortunately, Graves may not have known that the Celtic New Year began at Samhain, modern Halloween, and did not begin the year at the same time as our modern calendar. The Ogham was created and used during a far earlier period. Liz and Colin Murray tried to rectify this error within the Celtic Tree Oracle by moving the trees to new months such as Birch for November. While it made more sense on one hand, as far as tradition and accuracy, all of Robert Graves’ arguments for why each tree represented each particular month were destroyed. Some neopagans do continue to promote the Tree-Calendar for various reasons.


[iv] ibid

[vi] John Rhys gives a reference for this story as being the 1860 Brython. This text in turn gives a 1693 source.

[vii] Patrick Kennedy’s 1891 book Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts is one such example. These stories differ in that the instrument is a harp made from a tree such as a Willow instead of a Reed. There are also other differences.

[viii] This sample was actually written by Alexander Carmichael and is attributed to him in the book. The exact quote also appears word for word in the Carmina Gadelica vol. II.

[ix] Thomas Keightley. 1870.

Ngetal (Reed Grass)

“Ngetal is the month when the terrible roar of breakers and the snarling noise of pebbles on the Atlantic seaboard fill the heart with terror, and when the wind whistles dismally through the reed-beds of the rivers. In Ireland the roaring of the sea was held to be prophetic of a king’s death.” – Robert Graves (The White Goddess)

The Roots:

The reed is the most commonly associated plant to this thirteenth letter, Ngetal. The Ogham Tract[i] lists Ngetal as either the broom or the fern –and not as the reed- so this letter often causes confusion.

It seems to have been Robert Graves that left us with the association of Ngetal to Reed Grass. This may have been to more easily associate each of the Ogham letters to the corresponding line found in the Song of Amergin -as he made his poetic comparison- or to perhaps make a stronger argument that the Ogham was once used as a Celtic tree calendar[ii]. It may have even been possible that he did not want two such similar plants as the broom and the gorse –found later in the Ogham- to both be a part of the
same list of letters[iii]. This of course is simply my own speculation. We may never know why Graves chose to list the thirteenth letter of the Ogham as the Reed, but it seems to have been further promoted by most writers that followed him.

Eryn Rowan Laurie, along with other reconstructionists, list this letter as being associated with the broom plant, but as noted many times before she does not see the Ogham as a tree alphabet at all but similar to the runes instead.

Nowadays, most do see Ngetal as being the Reed. We must remember that the Ogham’s association with trees was likely initially mnemonic only. However, we do know that the Ogham was used for magic and likely for divination, but we cannot know for certain how the letters were utilized at all[iv]. The tree alphabet has become a tool used in such a fashion in modern days as it may have became over time a tool of power to the ancestors as well. For these reasons the reed seems to fit most comfortably within the list of the plants found in the Ogham today.

The reed is obviously not a tree at all. The Celts had many uses for the plant however. They often used it in the thatching in of the roof, which would have been the final step in completing any dwelling construction. The reed would also have likely been used for flooring material in winter. The reed rod was a type of measuring stick used by the ancestors as well[v].

James Frazer speaks of the king with the reed sceptre in the Golden Bough showing us that the reed is no ordinary plant. According to Graves the reed was used to make arrow shafts and this may be why it is named in the Battle of the Trees as the “swift pursuing” one[vi]. Liz and Colin Murray also associate the reed to the arrow and say that it is the letter of “direct action”, “overcoming obstacles on a journey”, and can be used as a spiritual weapon[vii].

Robert Graves further claims that the reed was a tree to Irish poets[viii]. The research of Nigel Pennick gives us compelling reasons to believe this. Pennick reminds us that the pen of Irish scribes was composed of reed and that, “The reed was also the material from which a sort of paper or papyrus, known to the Welsh as plagawd was made”[ix].  The reed was also used for braiding together baskets and could then be synonymous with Celtic knot artwork.

Ngetal in the Ogham Tract is also considered to be a few of healing. This listing –though more literally being those powers of the broom plant- is made by many Ogham teachers including John Michael Greer.

The reed is also associated with music. Historically it was used in wind instruments near the mouth piece to help create the music sound. This piece of the instrument is still called the reed today. A type of Asian giant reed is usually the preferred material for this construction nowadays, but some instruments still use the traditional reed grass[x]. It should also be noted that the reed sometimes appears as its own musical instrument in Celtic fairly tales.

Ngetal, the reed, is associated with higher learning, advancement, music, healing, action and art. It is this few that brings to us all of those gifts that makes us that most unique of animals.

The thirteenth letter, the reed, is the few of being divinely human.

The Trunk:

It is said that the Cluricaune, an Irish fairy being, rides the reed through the air[xi].

The Cluricaune looks like a little old man appearing in “antiquated dress.” He is usually found wearing a pea-green coat with large buttons and oversized shiny shoe buckles.

The Cluricaune is often “detested due to his evil disposition[xii].” People will often try to use him and become his master, but he can be cunning and will try to come out ahead. The Cluiricaune can sometimes be startled as he’s making shoes. He has an incredible ability to vanish, however. It was believed a person could make the Cluricaune tell them where hidden treasure was, or get from him a “magic coin.”

The Cluricaune apparantly likes to smoke and drink; making his beer out of heather. The Cluricaune smokes from a small kind of pipe which is sometimes still found by farmers as they plough their fields.

The Cluricaune is a trickster, but he is loyal to one particular family and will stay so as long as a single family member survives. Despite being a mischievous fellow, he usually has a degree of respect for “the master of the house.” The Cluricaune will protect the home and ward off unseen dangers. He can be extremely upset if he is forgotten. however.

Like other fairy beings, the Cluricaune likes gifts to be left out for him. His connection to wine cellars seems a little suggestive. It is not unheard of for a Cluricaune to let the wine run out of a cask if he deems the household occupants covetous. The Cluricaune was basically a spirit world mobster.

The Cluricaune is said to be as, “ugly as a shrivelled apple”, but he whistles at his work which he seems to enjoy immensely.

He rides through the air with “great velocity” on a reed shaft from place to place. It is said that those who ride with him may take days or even weeks to return home.

(Cluricaune. Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland)

The stories of the Cluricaune remind us to be mindful of the spirits and to leave gifts for them. Whether these tales are contrived or whether they have a basis in truth -however unlikely or Otherworldly this may seem- there is always something to take away from these old stories.

Why a reed? If the story’s make believe then what’s the purpose of the reed in the tale if we are aware of the importance of plants to the ancestors? Why not another tree or branch? If the story does have a metaphysical foundation then what powers does the Cluricaune find within the reed? Is flight literal -or more likely- something far more metaphoric?

There may be more to the reed than meets the eye.

The Foliage:

Reed grass may have an important role to play in the future of water treatment and organic sewage management[xiii].

The reed absorbs impurities from water and is used in small neighbourhood treatment ponds or marshes. “Treatment ponds are small versions of constructed wetlands which uses reed beds or other marshland plants to form an even smaller water treatment system”[xiv]. Micro organisms that live on the roots of the plant -or in the bed litter- treat the water that runs slowly through them.

The Stanley Park Storm Water Treatment Wetland in Vancouver is just such a project. The wetland was created to deal with the runoff of polluted rain water from the Stanley park causeway and from the Lion’s Gate Bridge. The water was originally allowed to flow freely into the streams, Lost Lagoon, Beaver Lake, and into the Pacific Ocean itself[xv]. Now it is treated in a holistic manner to lessen any impact that may be caused from the runoff.

The marshland, “Acts as a settling pond, natural treatment and filtration system for storm-water run off”. Large particles are first captured by a filtration system, then sunlight and micro organisms effectively tear apart contaminants. Slowly the water passes through deeper pools -and marsh staging areas- where reed grass and other native wetland plants break the contaminants down even further. The goal of the project is to, “Keep storm water contaminants in a controlled area so as to protect the surrounding area”[xvi].

The process of using reed beds for sewage treatment is actually quite similar. The water moves through the reed grass and the microorganisms that live in the roots and the litter break down the contaminants while utilizing the nutrients that are being offered in return.

The reed, as it turns out, is a very understated tree after all.

Not only is the reed a steed of the fairy kingdom, it is the bringer of music and healing, art and kingship, learning, advancement and action and it even possesses the ability to aid in the healing of the land.

Ngetal, the reed, the thirteenth few of the Ogham, is the teacher that always was and always will be. It grows just beyond the shore, and in doing so, exists partially in one world, and partially in the next.

“The basket greatly resembles in its functions a ‘portable cauldron’ and leads, like it, in the development of the Grail… The basket is one of the thirteen treasures of Britain and is often an object of gifts. The meaning of abundance is represented in ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’. In order to win Olwen, Culhwch had, among other things, to obtain the basket of Gwyddneu Garanhir. Everyone would find in it the food he wished, even if the whole world gathered around him.” – Sabine Heinz (Celtic Symbols)


[ii] For further discussion please refer to the White Goddess. Graves makes a complicated conclusion that the Song of Amergin and the Ogham were both devices referring to a Celtic tree calendar and to each other. Many accept the Celtic Tree calendar as fact however unlikely the reality of this notion is to scholars. I plan on talking about this more in the future.

[iii] The Broom and the Gorse are both non-trees already and would probably have similar or identical meanings in the Ogham as they are similar looking and are very closely related. We will return to these plants when we cover the seventeenth letter of the Ogham, Ohn.

[iv] If at all possible read Charles Graves’ (Robert’s grandfather) On the Ogam Beithluisnin which lists the appearance of the Ogham in many myths and legends. The copy I own is found in the Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom by Caitlin and John Mathews.

[v] Magical Alphabets by Nigel Pennick.

[vi] This is Robert Graves’ version, there are many different translations.

[vii] The Celtic Tree Oracle

[viii] The White Goddess

[ix] Magical Alphabets


[xi] Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Croker.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Eyewitness Handbooks: Herbs by Lesley Bremness.



[xvi] Ibid.

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