Ur (Heather) II

“On the summit of his ancient stronghold, South Barrule Mountain, the god Manannan yet dwells invisible to mortal eyes, and whenever on a warm day he throws off his magic mist-blanket with which he is wont to cover the whole island, the golden gorse or purple heather blossoms become musical with the hum of bees, and sway gently on breezes made balmy by the tropical warmth of an ocean stream flowing from the far distant Mexican shores of a New World.” – W. Y. Evans-Wentz (Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)

1) The Roots: Background information

2) The Trunk: Celtic Mythology and Significance

3) The Foliage: Spells using the Plant

The Roots:

Ur is the eighteenth letter of the Ogham. The tree that is usually associated with this letter is the Heather[i].

The Ogham Tract’s kenning[ii] “in cold dwelling” is given the meaning of “fear” in John Mathew’s book the Celtic Shaman.

Robert Ellison in Ogham: Secret Language of the Druids says that the Heather is associated with “healing and homelands.” He also says that the herb is connected with the Celtic fairies and thus has magical uses.

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom states that the Ogham letter Ur is representative of death, fate and finality through its connection to the soil[iii]. Laurie also claims that Heather –independent from the letter- is linked to poverty.

Catlin Mathews in her book Celtic Wisdom Sticks says that Ur’s word-Ogham kennings all refer to either the earth or “growth cycles.” Her divination system supports these reflections as the interpretations refer to hard work, growth, and following one’s life path.

The Trunk:

“Heather is the four leaf clover of the Scottish Highlands.[iv]” In fact, it is often even seen as a Scottish national symbol. As a result Heather is found on many of the Scottish clan badges.

The importance of Heather to the ancestors can easily be understood within the context of the old texts. The “herb” was often used as roof thatch, to cover open doorways, to make rope, and was even an important source of fuel and warmth. In the stories Heather was also often used as bedding or was bundled and used as a pillow.

In the 1911 book Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans Wentz we find Heather used in a very clever manner. This story is of Dermout who has stolen Finn Mac Cool’s Sister:

“He took with him a bag of sand and a bunch of heather; and when he was in the mountains he would put the bag of sand under his head at night, and then tell everybody he met that he had slept on the sand (the sea-shore); and when on the sand he would use the bunch of heather for a pillow, and say he had slept on the heather (the mountains). And so nobody ever caught him at all.”

There’s actually a link between Heather and the Celtic trickster the fox. There’s an old story found in Joseph Jacob’s 1894 More Celtic Fairy Tales. The same tale is found in various other texts as well. The fox would gather some Heather and put his head into the midst of it. He would then enter the stream stealthily, swimming towards the ducks. These unsuspecting birds would attempt to use this Heather as cover, only to find themselves inside the jaws of the wily fox. It would seem that the Fox had a clever use for everything, because he would also carry a piece of wool in his mouth, backing into the flowing water until only his nose and the wool were exposed. He did this in order to rid himself of fleas.

In the 1825 book Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Croker the Cluiricaune knew the “secrets of brewing a Heather beer.” This is not so unusual as Heather was often associated with fairies and magic.

In the 1903 book Heather in Lore, Lyric, and Lay by Alexander Wallace we are told that witches in Scotland would ride over the Heather on black tabby cats during Samhain. According to this text Heather was also associated with the Cailleach; the primordial Celtic hag goddess[v].

In More Celtic Fairy Tales we find another interesting Heather story. A young couple attempts to escape from powerful witch sisters. As they flee they take the form of Doves in order to confuse their pursuers. When the one sister realizes that the birds are actually the escaping couple she comes at them in a fury. To avoid her they turn themselves into Heather brooms and begin to sweep the town square without “the assistance of human hands.” After this inconspicuous act they turn once more back into Doves and resume their flight to safety.

Nothing to see here, we’re just two brooms doing some innocent sweeping… honest.

The Tylwyth Teg -a type of fairy- at certain times of the year lived in the Heather or Gorse[vi]. Heather is not just connected with fairies but is also associated with the dead. As Katherine Briggs says, however, Fairies and Ghosts may be the same thing[vii].

In the 1900 book Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx by John Rhys the spirits of family members are often seen dancing over “the tops of Heather.” The herb is even directly connected to a haunted graveyard. We are also told in the same text that if a person heard the fairy songs – and was possessed to dance – that they would often wake the next morning “in the Heather.” The Heather was also connected to fairy rings elsewhere in the book.

In mythology, Heather is associated with Rathcroghan, also called Cruachan[viii]. This is an ancient site found in the Ulster Cycle and is an important archaeological site today. In the 1904 Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory we are told that Finn Mac Cool “delighted” in the song of “the Grouse of the Heather of Cruachan” whose music put him to sleep. Elsewhere in the book we are told that Finn found peace in “the Stag of the Heather of quiet Cruachan.”

Finally, in Joseph Jacob’s 1895 Celtic Fairy Tales we are told of a long forgotten magical use for Heather. In this tale Conall blinds a one eyed giant -who may or may not have been a later version of Balor – with Heather:

“I got Heather and I made a rubber (?) of it, and I set him upright in the caldron. I began at the eye that was well, pretending to him that I would give its sight to the other one, tell I left them as bad as each other; and surely it was easier to spoil the one that was well than to give sight to the other.”

The Foliage:

In Alexander Wallace’s 1903 book Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay, 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.” The text also says that throwing Heather after a person was supposed to bring them good luck.

Robert Ellison relays in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids that “a small broom made from Heather can be used to sweep an area where magic is to be performed.” He also says that Heather can be burnt as incense while working with “spells involving the fair folk.”

In A.W. Moore’s 1891 Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man we are also told of a spell that was used to remove evil or the influence of witches from fishing boats:

“It was not only on land that burning some animal or thing to detect or exorcise witchcraft was resorted to, but at sea also, for when a boat was unsuccessful during the fishing season, the cause was ascribed by the sailors to witchcraft, and, in their opinion, it then became necessary to exorcise the boat by burning the Witches out of it. Townley, in his journal, relates one of these operations, which he witnessed in Douglas harbor: 
in 1789, as follows — ‘They set fire to bunches of heather in the center of the boat, and soon made wisps of heather, and lighted them, going one at the head, another at the stern, others along the sides, so that every part of the boat might be touched.’ Again he says, ‘There is another burning of witches out of an unsuccessful boat off Banks’s Howe—
to the top of the bay.’ Feltham, writing a few years later, also mentions this practice.”

In this example, Heather is used in a similar manner to the Native Americans’ who burnt instead Sage or Sweet Grass. This Heather smoke was used to purify the boat and to chase off evil spirits.

 

“Heather is an Herb Tree in Irish law. It is abundant on heathland throughout western Europe, growing profusely in acid soil.” – Caitlin Mathews (Celtic Wisdom Stick

All images in this post are from Wikipedia commons unless otherwise stated and are of the public domain.


[i] The Ogham was not originally a Tree Alphabet. See previous posts.

[iii] The Ogham Tract.

[v] The previous Heather post relays more Heather stories taken from this book.

[vi] See last week’s post on Gorse.

[vii] Katherine Briggs says that fairies were categorized as either “diminished gods or the dead.” The Fairies in Tradition and Literature.

Uillend (Elbow or Honeysuckle)

(photograph by Sannse)

“Turn hither, O Fergus my master!” he cried. Fergus did not answer, for he heard not. He spoke again, “Turn hither, Fergus my master!” he cried; “and if thou turn not, I will grind thee as a mill grinds fresh grain; I will wash thee as a cup is washed in a tub; I will bind thee as the woodbine binds the trees; I will pounce on thee as hawk pounces on fledglings!” – Cattle Raid of Cooley (1914 Joseph Dunn translation)

The Roots:

Uillend is the third Forfeda and the twenty third letter of the Ogham. It is usually ascribed to the Honeysuckle which is also known as the Woodbine.

Liz and Colin Murray said that the Honeysuckle represented hidden secrets[i]. “Whereas the ivy is concerned with the search for self, the Honeysuckle shows the way in which to achieve this – the special dance or step that leads into the labyrinth of inner knowledge.”  The Murrays come to this conclusion based on the bird Ogham and the association of the letter to the lapwing[ii]. Interestingly, though, the Murrays used the incorrect Ogham symbol for the Honeysuckle. The hook is generally used and not what Robert Graves calls “the bones of Assail’s swine” which is the superimposed X that reaches out to the side of the line. The “hook,” they claimed, was representative of the Beech tree. For this reason the order that they placed the Forfeda in is different from many of the other lists. The Murrays’ order matches the order in which the Forfeda appear within Finn’s Wheel[iii]. Knowing this one tidbit can help identify an Ogham users school of thought. The Murray’s order is the adaption that embraces the Robert Graves’ philosophy found in the White Goddess, but takes it one step further.

John Michael Greer, in the Druid Magic Handbook, clearly subscribes to this order. Many other druids do as well. This is a testament of respect to the late Colin Murray and to Liz Murray as well. As usual, John Michael Greer adds his own deeply reflective insight by adding that Uillend represents “the influences of the subtle and seemingly insignificant, hidden messages.”

Many pagan users of the Ogham then take this one step further and create their own list of Ogham meanings without any foundation in Celtic knowledge. This can sometimes be a slippery slope as other mythologies are brought in (the common Odin-Ash misunderstanding traced to the mistranslated Prose Eda) or other gods and goddesses added from Greece or Egypt or sometimes even North America. It is easy to forget -when working with such a system- that if it truly is a Magical Alphabet, then this is a sacred language taken from a cultural context which is already imbued with its own spirits and divine beings that already exist within that context! Druids understand this and research the Celtic roots from a modern perspective.

Robert Graves and the Murrays studied these myths[iv] in depth as well. It is sad, then, that we are often quicker to take from another people’s beliefs than we are to try to learn from them. Examples of this type of cultural foraging exists all over the world. I am truly conflicted on this one, however. I often see this ‘cultural stripping’ from such a harsh place as being the continuation of the ethnocide attempts against the Irish stemming from previous eras, regardless of how innocent it may seem by naive practitioners with good intentions. On a good day, however, I can see the mutual love of the trees and what they represent by almost anyone who is attracted to the Ogham[v] including those modern Neopagan users. What makes me worry, truly, is that these innocent promotions of the Ogham have been bastardized into something that is more commonly seen in books and on the internet than anything that represents what the Celts actually believed. I often wonder if it’s too late.

At the other far end of the spectrum we have Eryn Rowan Laurie. She is a highly respected Celtic reconstructionist who comes from a historical, cultural, and magical perspective. She lists this few as representing the Elbow. She claims the meanings of the few are flexibility, change and measurement.

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman says that the word-Ogham “woodbine the strong” represents “discovery.” Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks uses the letter to represent the direction of west.

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids says that this few represents “drawing things together and binding.” Ellison also says that Honeysuckle can be used in protection spells.

Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets also mentions the Honeysuckle to Beech transformation. He states that regardless of the tree association the few has certain magical characteristics. These are, “hardness and resistance, the solidity of knowledge and tried-and-tested actions. It refers to the solidity of ancient wisdom, the cultural or physical foundation which must be in place before any constructions are made, either in the physical or the figurative meaning.”

The Honeysuckle rarely shows up in the old texts. The quote at the top of the page taken from the Cattle Raid of Cooley is the only instance that I am currently aware of where it makes an appearance in a witchy-spell within the myths or folklore. This is besides the Battle of the Trees, of course. “In shelter live, the privet[vii] and the woodbine, and the ivy in the season.”

I personally believe –nerdy conspiracy theorist that I am- that many of the monks recording the old texts still had one foot in the old beliefs. This seems apparent when reading what they left for us. The older myths especially are the stories and beliefs that would have been lost without them. I believe there’s much speculative evidence suggesting that the monks hid information within these stories. From this perspective, these two instances of the “tree” being mentioned would suggest that the Honeysuckle can be used for binding and for “shelter” or protection.

The following quote, taken from a much later time, seems to validate this:

“An old man in Uist said that he used to swim to an islet in a lake in his neighbourhood for ivy, woodbine, and mountain ash. These, sometimes separately and sometimes combined, he twined into a three-plied ‘cuach,’ ring, which he placed over the lintel of his cow house and under the vessels in his milk-house, to safeguard his cows and his milk from witchcraft, evil eye, and murrain[viii].” – Alexander Carmichael (Carmina Gadelica Vol. II. 1900)

The Woodbine and Rowan appear together in James Frazer’s the Golden Bough and are used in much the same way in Notes on the Folklore of the North-East of Scotland. Likewise, Popular Tales of the West Highlands: Vol. IV by J.F. Campbell which was written in 1890 also says that the Honeysuckle can be used as a protection charm against evil.

In Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by George Douglas, written in 1901, we find another casual mention of Honeysuckle. The story of the Habitrot, mentioned previously, says that this particular fairy knoll was visited by a bride and existed in the shade beneath the Honeysuckle and the wild roses. One could also word this as being “sheltered,” or protected, by these plants. These are some interesting correlations found throughout the old stories.

Uillend, or Honeysuckle, is a few of protection and binding. It represents subtle understandings and the foundations needed in order to find the self, which is the greatest hidden secret of all. Ultimately, this few is said to be one of flexibility and sweetness. Despite its appearance in myth, Uillend does not seem to have any direct connections to the individuals of legend or folklore except for the Habitrot.

The Trunk:

“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.”

While Goibne, or Goibniu, may not be as mysterious a figure as the King of Lochlain his hook certainly is. When does a smith use a hook? Is this hook even used as a smith’s tool at all? Why does Manannan have it?

The following quotes illustrate Goibniu’s attributes and characteristics. They are taken from Celtic Myth and Legend by Charles Squire written in 1905:

“Let it be granted, for the sake of peace, that Goibniu was only a man; none the less, his name was known to be uncommonly effective in an incantation.”

“Goibniu, in addition to his original character as the divine smith and sorcerer, gained a third reputation among the Irish as a great builder and bridge-maker. As such he is known as the Gobhan Saer, that is, Goibniu the Architect, and marvellous tales, current all over Ireland attest his prowess.”

Goibniu then boasts of his weapon making abilities when he is asked how he can fight the Fomorians. These boasts later seem to have much merit. The Fomorians launch an assassination attempt on him.

“I,” said Goibniu the Smith, “will replace every broken lance and sword with a new one, even though the war last seven years. And I will make the lances so well that they shall never miss their mark, or fail to kill. Dulb, the smith of the Fomors, cannot do as much as that. The fate of the fighting will be decided by my lances.”

“The Fomors decided to send someone to discover the secret of these prodigies. The spy they chose was Ruadan, the son of Bress and of Brigit, daughter of the Dagda, and therefore half-giant and half-god. He disguised himself as a Tuatha Dé Danann warrior, and went to look for Goibniu. He found him at his forge, together with Luchtainé, the carpenter, and Credné, the bronze-worker. He saw how Goibniu forged lance-heads with three blows of his hammer, while Luchtainé cut shafts for them with three blows of his axe, and Credné fixed the two parts together so adroitly that his bronze nails needed no hammering in. He went back and told the Fomors, who sent him again, this time to try and kill Goibniu.

He reappeared at the forge, and asked for a javelin. Without suspicion, Goibniu gave him one, and, as soon as he got it into his hand, he thrust it through the smith’s body. But Goibniu plucked it out, and, hurling it back at his assailant, mortally wounded him. Ruadan went home to die, and his father Bress and his mother Brigit mourned for him, inventing for the purpose the Irish “keening”. Goibniu, on the other hand, took no harm.”

Goibniu is the possessor of a magic cauldron[ix]. It is this item that he uses to give immortality to the Tuatha de Danaan.

“Thus the people of the goddess Danu preserved their immortal youth, while the ale of Goibniu the Smith-God bestowed invulnerability upon them.”

This collection of quotes, while all being taken from the work by Charles Squire, sporadically reappear in other texts as well. The appearance of Goibniu in these myths does lend us some interesting insights. He’s a magical smith, yet he also possesses the means to give immortality through the drinking of his ale. He was considered so powerful, in fact, that his name alone is used as an incantation.

So what do we know about Goibniu’s hook? We do not know anything. We can only speculate.

One is immediately drawn to the fact that Goibne is a smith, and might then conclude that the tool, this hook, is used at his forge. No smithy tools are usually referred to as hooks, however. Before we get ahead of ourselves and consider this possibility further let us first take a look at other hook-like items that could have been being referred to in these texts.

In the old stories we find mentioned both bill hooks and reaping hooks. These are the hand held scythe and the sickle. While both evolved into various weapons, there’s no real reason to believe that Goibne was a farmer or would have used a peasant’s weapon when he could have forged a magical weapon of any type. This possibility seems pretty easy then easy to dismiss.

Cauldrons had large hooks that held them over a fire. Would a cauldron full of ale need to be heated? The answer would be no. However, what is translated as ale is just as likely to have been any liquid concoction that was served. Suddenly the story of magical ale does not seem so impossible any more. The boast of invulnerability from Goibniu and the immortal youth of the drink of Danu suddenly remind us of the ancient, and still thriving, beauty and health industries. Many of our modern “discoveries” in these industries turn out to be very natural remedies indeed. One has only to consider the many mud and water treatments available for beauty as well as the various means implored to lengthen life. Boasts were also often extreme in Irish mythology. Thus, invulnerability and immortality are just as likely to be exaggerations for the protection against disease, age, or represent some sort of beauty enhancement.

I am also quickly brought back to the main characteristic of the crane bag. The items disappeared when the tide was ebbing and reappeared at full tide. Could these items, then, be in the possession of the owner at all times yet exist in both realms simultaneously at full tide?  When one considers the magic drawn from the flux of the seasons, certain times of the day and from certain points in the moon cycles the tide being full could possibly offer to us another possible clue. Could this high tide be that time in which the magical items were imbued with power and were then existing with one foot in each of those worlds? This would mean that Manannan would be blessing these items, from the crane bag, during the full tide and not owning them as originally thought. Perhaps these can only be used then?

Regardless, if Finn Mac Cool was a carrier of these items then perhaps they themselves were only representative of certain types of power, or magic, and not the physical objects that we may have originally thought? This is one possible theory. I have no evidence that there is any truth to this consideration, though. I can merely ponder.

(Fire Forge. Photograph by Tobias R, Metoc)

I asked Jay O’ Scalleigh, podcaster of Witchery of One [x], fellow pagan, blogger and blacksmith, if there are any smith tools that might be seen as hooks. His answer shed some possible light on this mystery.

My gut tells me that it could be a tool used to remove ‘clinkers’ from the forge….but that may be just as right or wrong as every other guess out there. Also, clinkers occur in coal forges and someone like Goibniu would most likely have used charcoal…not sure if charcoal produces clinkers.”

I think Jay may be onto something here. According to Wikepedia, coal was first used in London by smiths around 1257-1259 while building the Westminster Abbey[xi]. This use of coal would have likely spread rapidly throughout the isles. The Book of Ballymote was written in 1390 or 1391. The references to the crane bag’s contents seems to appear at an even later date. In the Crane Bag and other disputed subjects Robert Graves uses an Ann Ross quote that references a 1904 MacNeill quote to describe the items. The other place that I have found the same crane bag items listed is in Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory, also from 1904. Goibniu could have had a hook to pull out clinkers from the coal by the time the legend was recorded. These stories do clearly evolve over time. It would also seem, at least from the one conversation that I have provided the link to below[xii], that charcoal can produce clinkers. It would then appear that Jay’s theory is a solid one either way.

The third possibility to consider is the fish hook. This is a consideration made more valid because the item is in Manannan’s possession. There are no stories of Goibniu fishing that I am aware of, however, that would give considering this particular item any real validation.

If the Forfeda are also map markers in the forest then what could this elusive hook be representing at all?

Whether the hook holds up the cauldron or, more likely, pulls the clinkers from the smith’s fire may not matter as much as it may have originally appeared. The cauldron and the forge are both magical devices inspired by fire. This few is often drawn as a spiral which is a Celtic symbol of magic.

The Ogham Tract -word oghams- also said that this few represents the Elbow. The elbow could represents physical work.

I would hazard a guess that this few is represented by Uillend the Honeysuckle, or the elbow, as being a place where the spirits are summoned and worked with. It is from this place in the forest, that witchery and magic weaves reality.

Due to the seemingly missing records, this speculation will likely never be more than an educated guess. I would enjoy to hear any other theories out there, however.

…A big thank you to Jay O’ Scalleigh for all of the blacksmith information and for sharing his own intuitive workings with Uillend: There was no way that I would have found this information without his help.:-)

The Foliage:

If you have read this far, you are likely to have an interest in using the Ogham for divination purposes or are a magical worker of some sort. Whether you are a shaman, druid, witch, hybrid, or something else all together, the Ogham may call to you.

In the earlier days of the blog I challenged any reader, who may have not already been doing so, to look for the deeper symbolism found within the Celtic stories.

I now challenge anyone who is not already doing so, to take a look at some of these old stories in a new way, looking for that knowledge that is hidden in plain view. The original historians, the monks, most definitely seem to have been leaving information they thought was going to be lost before the reader. As already stated, I believe much of the stories are riddles in code. This hidden knowledge is then available for those who choose to look.

Suddenly, such a confusing poem as the Battle of the Trees, for example, seems to make a lot more sense as the trees of the Ogham are suddenly not just seen as a means of divination.

The Ogham also becomes a magical system.

“Goibniu who was not impotent in smelting… of painful plague died Goibnenn the smith.” – Book of Invasions (R.S. Macalister’s 1941 translation)


[i] The Celtic Tree Oracle.

[iii] See previous post.

[iv] Both also make the Ygdrassil/Odin error.

[v] The Ogham Tract lists trees for each letter but is not necessarily a tree alphabet.

[vii] This is a shrub of the olive family that produces poisonous berries.

[viii] Disease of cattle.

[ix] Charles Squire does not use the name cauldron but it seems to be implied.

[x] http://witcheryofone.libsyn.com/index.phppost_category=podcasts
also his blog at http://witcheryofone.libsyn.com/