It’s officially Halloween, and The Haunting of Vancouver Island is one year old! And what better way to celebrate, than by sharing it with the rest of the world through a short, but deadly sweet, book trailer. There will be giveaways in the weeks to come as well. Continue reading “The Haunting of Vancouver Island: Book Trailer and Giveaways”
Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland was published in 1887. In it, Lady Wilde lets us look into the minds of the Irish peasantry of the time. She did this by interviewing the elders of a dying faith now referred to as the “fairy religion,” or sometimes simply as witchcraft. Sections of the book have not always been considered authoritative according to some sources, such as Sacred-Texts.com.
This should be taken in context, however. In the preface, Lady Wilde separates herself from the individuals whose stories she’s about to share. She explains the historical and cultural importance of the tales themselves. Wilde then reminds the reader that this might have been the last chance for anyone to record the stories from the dying generation before they would be lost forever. She also offers other reasons for being interested in the pagan subject as well, including a love for anything Irish. Finally, she concludes her apologetic preface by reminding the reader that she’s a woman.
The Fear Dorcha is a mysterious, malignant, fairy being, found in Celtic myth and legend. Despite modern associations with the word, the term “fairy” was once used to refer to spirits such as the Fear Dorcha. Unlike modern fairies, however, these spirits – or ghosts – were not usually inclined towards acts of kindness, generosity, or mercy. In fact, Ireland’s Fear Dorcha is a classic example of the type of dark fairy found throughout the lands of the Celts:
Far dorocha, fear dorocha [Ir. Fear dorcha, dark man]. A malevolent fairy, the chief agent of mortal abduction. Usually portrayed as the butler-like servant of the fairy queen, he carries out her commands without emotion or waste of energy. With equal aplomb he may serve the queen her tea or retrieve on his black charger a desired mortal. Silently obedient to his queen, he is able to make all surrender their wills to his command. Although many have journeyed with the far doracha [sic] to the fairyland, few have returned with him. – James Mackillop (the Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)
Replace the word “fairy” with ghost and the term “fairyland” with Land of the Dead and you’ll start to get the picture! The Fear Dorcha was a terrifying shadow spirit of nightmares and darkness. He was feared because he served the Queen of the Dead herself.
The Far Dorcha, or dark-man, is not to be confused with the Far Darrig (the red man), Far Gorta (the man of hunger) or Far Liath (the grey man).
According to Mackillop, the red man is basically a “gruesome” practical joker who likes to scare the living hell out of his prey. The man of hunger, on the other hand, pretends to be a beggar. He rewards those who have given him charity, but with what we can only imagine. Finally, the grey man takes the form of a fog or mist. He does this to cause ships to smash onto rocky shores, or for people to stumble and fall to an untimely death. His motives for these heinous acts are entirely unclear.
Fear Doirche, or dark-man, is also the name sometimes given to ‘the Black Druid of the Shee.’ In James Stephens 1920 book, Irish Fairy Tales we find one such example:
“I beg your protection, royal captain.”
“I give that to all,” he answered. “Against whom do you desire protection?”
“I am in terror of the Fear Doirche.”
“The Dark Man of the Shi?”
“He is my enemy,” she said.
“He is mine now,” said Fionn. “Tell me your story.”
The Fear Dorcha, or Black Druid, is also known as ‘the Black Sorcerer’ in some versions of the tale. It’s this Black Druid who finally steals Fionn’s wife. Much to Fionn’s dismay and never-ending searching, she was never seen or heard from again. We can only assume that she was forced to be Fear Dorcha’s bride – and would still be to this day – in the Land of the Dead.
Interestingly, there actually was a man whose name was Fear Dorcha MacFhirbhisigh (1600?). Very little seems to be known about him. The MacFhirbhisigh family celebrated pagan roots, however, and employed themselves as bards, judges and historians. It’s likely that the MacFhirbhisigh family recognized and honored existing druidic traditions. While Fear Dorcha may be a generic term, MacFhirbhisigh’s name may also be more than a coincidence and is worth noting. As is well known, many legendary stories have roots in actual historical places, people, or events.
The Fear Dorcha from Celtic folklore was a predator of the weak and an enemy of the strong. He existed only to serve the whims of the Queen of the Dead, or himself. Ultimately, this would make him a powerful figure in that otherworldly realm, and in ours, as well.
Not much else is known about the Fear Dorcha. Some modern sources give him attributes never mentioned in the old tales. It would be fair to agree, however, that Samhain would have been Fear Dorcha’s greatest day of strength. It would have been a day of great power for all of them, though. For it was on this night – Samhain – that the veil between the lands of the living and the lands of the dead were at their very thinnest.
In the land of the Celts – from lonely moors to haunted castles –the bat has long been associated with witches, ghosts, and other tragic beings of the night…
In the 1949 Encyclopedia of Superstitions by Edwin and Mona Radford we find one such example: In Scotland, it was said that when a bat rose quickly from the ground and then descended again, that “the witches hour had come.” This witches hour was, of course, “the hour in which [the witches] have power over every human being under the sun who are not specially shielded from their influence.”
The bat in Celtic folklore wasn’t always bad, though. In A. W. Moore’s 1891 book Folk-lore of the Isle of Man we’re told, “fine weather is certain when bats fly about at sunset.” Likewise, Fredrick Thomas Elworthy reported in his 1895 book the Evil Eye that, “in Shropshire it is unlucky to kill a bat.” George Henderon, in the 1911 book Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, also said “the bat was regarded with awe in the midlands.”
“A bat came flying round and round us, flapping its wings heavily.” – the Bard Iolo Morganwg (1747 – 1826)
Sometimes, the bat could be a fairy (ghost or other discarnate spirit) in disguise. In Thomas Crofton Croker’s 1825 book Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland we’re given one such example: The Phooka – who sometimes took the form of a bat – was basically a trickster-being who hijacked people’s bodies and took them out for a joy ride… a trick modern people might call possession. The story implies that it’s the soul being taken on the journey and not the physical body itself.
“The Phooka would take his victim on great adventures as far away as the moon, [he] compels the man of whom it has got possession, and who is incapable of making any resistance, to go through various adventures in a short time. It hurries with him over precipices, carries him up into the moon, and down to the bottom of the sea.”
Other mythical beings are also associated with the bat. In 1886, Charles Gould in Mythical Monsters identified the Celtic dragon’s wings as those of a bat as opposed to those of a bird. In the 1900 book Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, by John Rhys, we also learn of the Cyhiraeth. “This spectral female used to be oftener heard than seen,” said Rhys. She was usually believed to be a death-messenger, similar to the Banshee, but one who was more likely to be heard than seen. If the title or name of a person could not be heard and understood clearly, then it was assumed that the hearer of the Cyhiraeth’s message would die themselves. Sometimes, instead of words, she would flap her wings against a window at night as a warning that death was coming. The source Rhys quoted in the book said that these wings were leathery and bat-like.
The greatest surviving tale of the bat, however, is the story of the shape-shifting enchantress Tehi Tegi found in A. W. Moore’s 1891 Folk-lore of the Isle of Man:
“A famous enchantress, sojourning in this Island, had by her diabolical arts made herself appear so lovely in the eyes of men that she ensnared the hearts of as many as beheld her… When she had thus allured the male part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a progress through the provinces, and being attended by all her adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white palfrey, in a kind of triumph at the head of them.
She led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable, and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which, driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers, to the number of six hundred, in their tumultuous waves. After which, the sorceress was seen by some persons, who stood on the shore, to convert herself into a bat, and fly through the air till she was out of sight, as did her palfrey into a sea hog or porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the bottom of the stream.”
In this way, the enchantress Tehi Tegi was able to capture the hearts of men through her otherworldly beauty, before dissolving into the shadows in the form of a bat. This, of course, was only after she’d sacrificed the 600 worshippers she had come for in the first place.
In modern times, the bat has become emblematic of Halloween. Halloween, as we know, is the descendent of the Celtic holiday Samhain. In this way, the bat has now become an object of festive tradition instead of a creature loathed or feared.
The bat in Celtic folklore hasn’t lost all of its dark powers completely, however. In Ireland, it’s still said that, “bats commonly become entangled in women’s hair… if a bat escapes carrying a strand of hair, then the woman is destined for eternal damnation[i].” Some people also believe that a bat entering into the home is a sure sign that death will soon follow[ii].
If you’re a lowly man, you could be in trouble if this particular bat portends the arrival of the mighty Tehi Tegi. In this case, the Bat in Celtic folklore might signify a dark destruction for you, as well.
Top image commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Taphozous_nudiventris.jpg
(Black Rock, County Kerry, Ireland. Photograph by K. Glavin)
“In the midst of the Irish Sea, almost equidistant from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and concentrating in itself the psychical and magnetic influences from these three Celtic lands, and from Celto-Saxon England too, lies the beautiful kingdom of the great Tuatha De Danann god, Manannan Mac Lir, or, as his loyal Manx subjects prefer to call him, Mannanan-Beg-Mac-y-Leir. In no other land of the Celt does Nature show so many moods and contrasts, such perfect repose at one time and at another time the mightiness of its unloosed powers, when the baffled sea throws itself angrily against a high rock bound coast, as wild and almost as weatherworn as the western coasts of Ireland and the Hebrides.” – W.Y. Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911)
The twenty fifth, and final, letter of the Ogham is usually referred to as Mor, the sea.
There is much debate regarding this letter, however. The Ogham tract associates the final letter to the witch hazel[i] and lists the letter as Emancholl which apparently means “the twin” or “twin of Hazel.”[ii] This has usually been interpreted as the witch hazel or Beech; the Beech being the second choice because of the many similarities that are shared between the two trees.
Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets reminds us that the Witch Hazel was not indigenous to Europe and was likely not the original tree ascribed. He believes the letter should be attributed to the Scots Pine.
It was Robert Graves in the Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects that originally put forward the idea that this few represented the shirt of Manannan, which was found in the mythical crane-bag. Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle would later interpreted the meaning of this few as Mor, the Sea, as a result.
Most users of the Ogham – especially those who view the Ogham as a Tree Alphabet – do see this final letter as representing Mor, the Sea. Despite being a Tree Alphabet to most users of the Ogham, however, this is the one letter that deviates from the woodland theme. It is almost always listed as representing the Sea.
Reconstructionists, on the other hand, tend to list this letter as Emancholl. These individuals do not view the Ogham as being a tree alphabet yet interpret the meaning of the few as being the twin of Hazel. As I have already mentioned, this would be the witch hazel or the Beech.
The Witch Hazel does not appear very often in the old tales. This is likely, as Pennick had already stated, due to the plant’s late arrival into this land of the Celts.
In Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde, there is a story of a healer using three witch-hazel rods in a from of divination. He does this to reveal a sick person’s ailments. In Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie the plant is used as protection against the fairies, alongside Rowan, and in conjunction with a Blackthorn staff and a bible.
The Beech is just as uncommon in these stories if not more so. Robert Graves in the White Goddess links the Beech tree to language, learning, literature and books. This is easy to verify due to the double meaning of Beech and Book in many languages including Old English and Old Norse[iii]. The tree is absent from the folktales, however, because the Beech is not native to Ireland and was only found in South England. Beech is not likely to have been the original tree associated with this letter either.
This leaves us looking backwards, towards that elusive “twin of Hazel” once more, looking for any clues. Perhaps we need to re-examine Coll, the Hazel, once more.
The most famous story of the Hazel in Irish Mythology is as an Otherworldly tree, or trees rather. These live on the other side of the veil. These trees provide the nuts of wisdom eaten by the salmon who in turn is eaten by Finn Mac Cool. The trees exist beneath the Sea and are said to be purple.
It is perhaps this reasoning, alongside Graves’ interpretation of Manannan’s shirt, which prompted Liz and Colin Murray to list this few as being Mor.
In the Celtic Tree Oracle Liz and Colin Murray link this few to the physical ocean itself, with travel, and to maternal links. They also claim that the letter represents “hidden knowledge that is only available when the moon and sea are full.”
John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook says that this few represents “beginnings, endings, and the influence of outside forces, symbolized by the sea; the arrival of a new factor, the workings of destiny.”
Nigel Pennick adds that this letter “goes beyond the conventional 24-fold divisions of things customary in the Northern Tradition (as, for example, the 24 hours in the day, the 24 half-months of the year, the 24 characters of the Welsh bardic alphabet, and the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark). Because of this, it [the 25th letter] is considered to be outside the conventions of the other 24 characters.”
Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam:Weaving Word Wisdom says that this few is an “intensification of the other fiodh” She also believes, however, that the few can represent illness. She takes this second meaning from the word-Oghams found in the Ogham Tract[iv].
John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the word-Ogham “sign of a weary one” as representing “exhaustion.” Caitlin Mathews does not mention this letter in her book Celtic Wisdom Sticks.”
Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids says that this few represents magic and hidden knowledge.” Ellison uses the Witch Hazel to represent this letter and says that the plant can be used in binding spells.
Mor, the sea, represents that which is other. It can represent the Sea itself or the Otherworld. The Sea and Manannan are one and the same. The Sea does not represent the god. The Sea is the god.
“As for the other miscellaneous objects found in the Crane Bag: if one thinks poetically, not scientifically, their meaning leaps to the eye.” – Robert Graves (the Crane Bag and other Disputed Subjects)
As previously stated the forfeda, or the items found in the crane-bag by poets, are listed as ‘the King of Scotland’s Shears’(the X), ‘the king of Lochlainn’s helmet’ (with his face underneath, the four sided diamond), ‘the bones of Assail’s swine’ (the double lined X out to the side of the line), ‘Goibne’s smith-hook’ (the P or hook symbol), and Manannan’s own shirt’, which “is a map of the sea showing lines of longitude and latitude.”
The shirt of Manannan is the final item found in the crane-bag. The stories involving Manannan Mac Lir in Irish, Manx and Scottish mythology are many. He is usually associated with the Tuatha De Danaan, but is in fact from the older race of gods the Fomorians. Here are some excerpts from James MacKillop’s Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. I have placed them together as a single entry even though this is an extremely condensed version of the complete entry:
“Manannan Mac Lir: Principal sea-deity and also otherworldly ruler of Irish and Goidelic traditions. He is sometimes, but not usually, numbered as a lord of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Through many texts over several centuries, some aspects of Manannán’s person remain constant. Although a shape-shifter, he is usually portrayed as a handsome and noble warrior, evocative of the classical gods Poseidon and Neptune, with whom he is often compared. He possesses a magical currach (‘the wave-sweeper’), but most often he travels over the waves with a horse, Énbarr or Aonbárr, usually in a chariot but sometimes on horseback. Nor can the armour of any enemy withstand his enchanted sword Frecraid [the answerer]. Among his supernatural powers is the ability to cast spells, féth fiada, which he teaches to the druids, and the ability to envelop himself in a mist that makes him invisible to his enemies, a facility shared by the Olympians in the Iliad. He often wears a great cloak that catches the light and can assume many colours, like the sea itself; with one sweep of it, Manannán can change destinies. An even more important possession is the crane bag that holds all his possessions, including language. He also owns birds, hounds, and magical pigs that can be eaten on one day but will be alive the next so that they can be slaughtered and eaten again. Among his wives are Fand [tears], herself a deity of water, and Aife, transformed into a crane by luchra, and from whose skin the crane bag was made. Although Manannán is not the central figure in any single narrative, his appearances dominate the action of many stories. No story tells of Manannán’s death, but allusions are made to his decline when he refuses to accept the succession of Bodb Derg. He is thought to have again assisted the Tuatha Dé Danann after their defeat by the Milesians when they dwindled into the small creatures who live under the earth. Prayers directed to him were thought to bring fishermen a bountiful catch.”
What seems most interesting to me is the succession of the items, or order, found in the crane-bag and the importance of the owners themselves. If we look at the King of Scotland, the King of Lochlain, Goibne, Asail and Manannan we see a procession of increasing power. The King of Scotland is, perhaps, the most mundane of the five males, while Manannan is the most Otherworldly and powerful. The items could also possibly be listed from semi ordinary (shears) to extremely powerful (the shirt of Manannan himself).
If we look at the symbols listed for each letter and their meanings we are perhaps given yet another clue. We begin with the Salmon, then we step into the Gold, then we use the Elbow, this is followed by the the food, Honey, and completed with the twin of hazel.
If the Salmon is the Grove, the Gold is the Fire, the Elbow is the work done transforming substances at the Forge and the Honey is the food of the gods, then we can only assume that the Twin of Hazel represents the ability to be in the Otherworld (by wearing Manannan’s shirt), as a result of having stepped through the previous symbols or states of being. Speaking more plainly, this procession of metaphors could perhaps be seen as a symbolic series of steps which were utilized in order to enter into the Otherworld. This could’ve even been, as unlikely as it may seem, a type of poet grading system – like the modern and generally accepted Bard, Ovate and Druid.
One must go into the Grove seeking wisdom like the Salmon. This is the step of intention and the tool seems to be the shears. Secondly, one must create a sacred space and build a there a fire. From here divination may also be engaged, as one’s sight is altered upon wearing the helmet. Next, one must do transforming work like that of Goibne the smith. Goibne works with the fire and alters the metals into powerful items with the aid of the hook. This is the state of magic making. Then, there is the eating of the honey, or sweet food, of the gods (like the regenerating pigs that are ready to be eaten at full tide). Once the food has been fully prepared, it is eaten and the transformation into a new being – or more powerful version of oneself – begins. Finally, one path taker can open their eyes to find that they are wearing the shirt of Manannan Mac Lir. They are then beneath the ocean in the Underworld, before the purple Twins of Hazel which had offered the wisdom to the Salmon that began the journey in the first place. It is at this place where we have finally realized our full journey and have stepped into the world of the others.
While my symbolic journey through the Forfeda is likely nothing more than my own musings or imagination, it brings me some sort of satisfaction to find that a thread does exists within these extra letters. I can then look back across the last half-year and see a continuous pathway through the forest that started at the very beginning, where Birch’s were swaying and whispering at the edge of the forest, beside the throne room of Manannan.
Eating the nuts of wisdom, I then discover that the journey never ends, it only begins anew and fresh.
There before me is the Birch once more.
Samhain is a time to honour those who have passed before us, and those other ancestors long dead who we have never known on any conscious level. It’s a time to give thanks for all those things that we have, and a time to be thankful for all of those things that we are about to receive during the coming year. It is also a time to thank the spirits that have aided us over the past year and to make petitions against tricksters who may wish to bring chaos into our lives during the days ahead. In short, it is a time where the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, and a place where messages of any kind may be more easily heard from either side of this Celtic twilight.
Most of the sources that I referenced in this blog are writers that are no longer amongst the living. Colin Murray (no image attached) passed away in the eighties as did Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell. W.Y Evans Wentz who wrote the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries passed on in 1965, as did Sir James Frazer in 1941. Lady Gregory, author of Gods and Fighting Men, died in 1932. Alexander Carmichael (no image attached) who brought us the Carmina Gadelica passed away in 1912. Lady Wilde, mother of Oscar Wilde and author of Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, died in relative poverty in 1896. Lady Charlotte Guest who is famous for her translation of the Mabinogion passed away in 1895.
I would like to take this time to honour some of these men and women who have preserved our past and allowed me to research the Ogham and the forest lore of the Celts. All of the images below are taken from Wikipedia except for the drawing of Lady Wilde which was taken from sacredtexts.com.
(Sir James Frazer)
(Lady Charlotte Guest)
“There was always an element of fear and trepidation about this night – the eve before Samhain- and also one of expectancy. When the dead were abroad, certain kinds of divination could be practiced, which asked questions of the ancestors.” – Caitlin Mathews(The Celtic Spirit)
[ii] Eryn Rowan Laurie. Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.
“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)
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.
“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 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.