The Raven and Crow of the Celts – Part II: Fairytales and Folklore

Karyn Dunbar
by Karyn Dunbar, gallery accessed by clicking on image

“The Raven is equally a bird of omen, Raven-knowledge, or wisdom being proverbial” – George Henderson. (Survival in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911)

Many Celtic Fairytales contain remnants of the old stories of Gods and Goddesses [part I]. In Donald Mackenzie’s 1917 Wonder Tales of Scottish Myth, for example, we’re told that the Banshee can appear as a black dog, a Raven, or a Hoodie Crow during the day. The older spelling of Banshee was Bean Sidhe. The word Sidhe is usually used in relation to the Tuatha De Danaan, Old Ireland’s pre Christian deities[i].

Thomas Croker claimed, in his 1825 book Fairy Legends of South Ireland, that the Leprechaun “properly written” was Preachan. Croker said that the name meant, “Raven.”

In the 1773 book Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales by Sir. George Douglas, we find a story reminiscent of much older shapeshifting myths when a man’s wife turns herself into a Raven to avoid some ravenous dogs.  The same power of transformation is possessed by the Witches of Mull in George Henderson’s 1911 book, Survival in Belief Amongst Celts.  The most famous Witch of Mull was Doideag, a powerful sorceress who some believed sank the Spanish Armada[ii].

There are many fairytales in which a person is turned into a Raven, or Crow, as part of a curse. In Joseph Jacob’s 1894 More Celtic Fairytales, for example, a man is turned into a Raven when his wife strikes him. Usually, however, the Raven’s curse is somehow related to “the son of a king” such as the two stories which are found in J.F. Campbell’s 1890 Popular Tales of West Highlands.

In the story of the Battle of the Birds, found in Joseph Jacob’s earlier 1892 book Celtic Fairy Tales, a king’s son happens upon a fierce battle. All of the other creatures have already fled the battlefield or are dead, except for a black Raven and a snake locked in mortal combat. The king’s son aids the Raven and kills the snake. The Raven then leads the king’s son over nine bens, glens and mountain moors in one day, six on the following day, and three on the final day. On the third morning the Raven has disappeared and a “handsome lad” is standing in his place. This boy claims that an evil druid had put a curse on him, transforming him into a Raven. As thanks, for saving his life and lifting the curse, the Raven-boy gives the king’s son a gift of “a bundle,” which contains in it a Castle and an Apple orchard.

In Popular Tales of West Highlands is the story of The Hoodie Crow. In it, the youngest of three sisters agrees to marry a Crow.  Once married, she discovers that her husband is really a handsome man – of course. Due to her love, the curse becomes partially lifted and the third daughter is forced to decide if she wants her husband as a man or as a Crow during the day. The bride eventually decides that her husband will be a man during the day and a Crow at night.

The Raven and Crow of the Celts
The Hoodie Crow. H.G. Ford. 1919

“The Crow was a bird of darkness. He was always associated with the man skilled in Black Airt [sic]” – Walter Greger (Notes on Folklore of Northeast Scotland. 1881)

In folklore, the Raven and Crow of the Celts can be somewhat of a guardian angel, as well. Such is the case with the Crow found in Joseph Jacob’s Celtic Fairy Tales. In it, a talking bird appears to a man who’s having problems with a leaky sieve (we all know what that’s like). The Crow tells the man to use red clay from the bottom of the river to repair the sieve. The man does what the crow suggests and the sieve no longer leaks.

The Raven and Crow sometimes has human-like abilities, similar to the Raven found in First Nation myths of the Pacific Northwest.  In one Celtic story, for example, a Raven is chewing tobacco[iii], in another, hundreds of Ravens are engaged in a semi-formal dance[iv].

There’s also an interesting story found in the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde. A man steals some Raven’s eggs and boils them. He then places the eggs back in the nest. The Raven returns to the nest, discovers the cooked eggs, and then quickly leaves. The Raven eventually returns with a magic stone, which she rubs all over the boiled eggs. Through this action the eggs are restored to their previous state. The man, as he’d planned all along, then steals the magic stone from the Raven intending to use it for his own personal gain (a Leprechaun-like story).

Besides the many fairytales and folk stories, Raven proverbs are also scattered throughout the old texts:

  • A Raven hovering over a cow meant that there was “a blight” upon the animal (Joseph Jacobs. More Celtic Fairytales. 1894).
  • A departing soul sometimes took on the form of a Raven (George Henderson. Survival in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911).
  • If a Raven was present when somebody died, it was said to be the Devil retrieving his or her soul. If the bird present was a White Dove, however, it meant that the person had obtained salvation (Thomas Croker. Fairy Legends of South Ireland. 1825).
  • A Crow on a house indicated that someone would die (Walter Greger. Notes on Folklore of Northeast Scotland. 1881).
  • “The howling of a dog at night, and the resting of a Crow or Magpie on the house-step are signs of death (Andrew Lang. Prophecies of Brahan Seer. 1899).”
  • A Raven tapping three times on a windowpane foretold the death of an occupant (John Seymour. True Irish Ghosts. 1914).
  • “If Ravens were cawing about the house it is a sure sign of death, for the Raven is Satan’s own bird (Lady Wilde. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. 1887).”
  • “The Crow and Black Hen are ominous of evil (ibid).”
  • “It is unlucky to meet a Magpie… when going on a journey (ibid).
  • The Raven prepared “his nest” on St. Bride’s Day and would have a chick by Easter. “If the Raven has not he has his death (Alexander Carmichael. Carmina Gadelica – Vol I. 1900).”
  • The Devil could appear as a Raven and would land upon a person’s head in order to possess their bodies (St. John Seymour. Irish Witchcraft and Demonology. 1913).
  • “What is blacker than a Raven?” “There is Death (J.F. Campbell. Popular Tales of West Highlands: Vol III. 1890).”
  • “The Raven sometimes brings aid to man (J.F. Campbell. Popular Tales of West Highlands: Vol I. 1890).”
  • “The Raven, the Crow, and the Serpent, have appeared as transformed beings of superior power (J. F.  Campbell. Popular Tales of West Highlands. 1890).”
  • “Give a piece to a Raven and he will come again (A.W. Moore. Folklore of the Isle of Man. 1891).”
  • To protect young goats, or kids, Scottish Highlanders often gave libations and cakes to the Crow who they claimed often “molested” them (Charles Squire. Celtic Myth and Legend. 1905).
  • There is a Scottish chant, “There to thee Raven spare my kids!” that’s used to protect young goats (Alexander Carmichael. Carmina Gadelica – Vol I. 1900)
  • It is a curse to leave a dead Crow (or other creature) on a hearth (George Henderson. Survival in Belief Amongst Celts. 1911).
  • “The day will come when a Raven attired in plaid and a bonnet, will drink his fill of human blood on ‘Fionn-bheinn,’ three times a day, for three successive days…  the Blood of the Gael from the Stone of Fionn (Andrew Lang. Prophecies of Brahan Seer. 1899).”

Over time, the Raven and Crow of the Celts became an evil bird. It should be no surprise then, that the Raven or Crow may also be a witch in disguise, or the devil himself. In the 1913 book Irish Witchcraft and Mythology by St. John Seymour, a witch on “the gallows” suddenly disappears. In her place is noted a coal-black Raven. In volume 2 of Popular Tales of West Highland, a “gentleman” turns himself into a Raven. The story implies that this man the Devil himself.

The Raven and Crow of the Celts often represented the darker aspects of life. It’s no wonder then, that these shadow-birds continue to fascinate our imaginations to this day. These clever birds have always seemed distinguished, compared to their less intelligent bird-cousins. Some crows even make and use tools. Both the Crow and Raven have always been seen as symbols of darkness, death, and the ignorance of the unknown. Now considered one of the most intelligent creatures on the planet, the Corvus has never given up feasting upon the dead. Good reasons that the birds continue to fascinate and intimidate us to this day.

Raven
Film poster of Edger Allan Poe’s The Raven. 1908. The Raven continues to be a potent symbol of death & darkness throughout the ages & into the present era

[i] James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 2000

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Alexander Carmicheal. Carmina Gadelica – Vol IV. 1900

[iv] Lady Wilde. Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. 1887

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.

Straif (Blackthorn)

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

The Roots:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trunk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Foliage:

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

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

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

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

For me the answer lies in the blackberry.

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

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

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

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

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

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


[i] The White Goddess.

[ii] The Celtic Tree Oracle.

[iii] Magical Alphabets.

[iv] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[v] The Meaning of Trees. Fred Hageneder.

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

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

[viii] Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook.

[ix] Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology.

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

[xi] The White Goddess.

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

Quert (Apple)

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

The Roots:

The apple represents the allure of the Otherworld.

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

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

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

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

The Trunk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some do not return.

The Foliage:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[ii] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom

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

[iv] Celtic Symbols

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

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

[vii] The Meaning of Trees

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

Huathe (Hawthorn)

“The druids knew about many medicinal plants and were skilled fortune tellers… Furthermore, they preferred to teach their hand-selected pupils in the forest because they were convinced that the essentials of life could be learned from trees.” Franjo Terhart (Beyond Death)

The Roots:

Hawthorn is the first tree of the second aicme, group of five, in the Ogham.

Huathe, the hawthorn, is the tree of the otherworld. It is one of the three trees that make up the “fairy triad”, along with the ash and the oak. It is believed that the fairy realm can be directly accessed through this tree, especially when it is flowering and with greatest of ease at Beltane, which is the beginning of the light half of the year.

Huathe, hawthorn or whitethorn, is the tree of May, which is the month of chastity and restraint. So it is that the Otherworld can be accessed more easily by those who are pure of heart, which are those who can access a childlike nature of open mindedness and playfulness.

Many people associate Huathe with ill fortune and bad luck. It is a tree of great potential and has the power to unlock the mysteries of other kingdoms. It is more likely that the hawthorn has a nature that reeks of caution to the uninitiated than it is actually “bad luck”. It is still believed in many parts of the old country that chopping down a hawthorn will bring one ruin, as the protective spirits can be vindictive and vengeful. For this reason it is also a tree that is sometimes sought out by those who practice the darker arts.

Like the birch, the hawthorn’s meanings and associations are agreed upon to a large degree[i]. Its powers however seem to defy explanation and are left for the practitioner to experience for themselves, with a thinly veiled warning from those that have gone before.

The Trunk:

Ballyvadlea Ireland set the stage for a grim series of events in March of 1895. It had been reported to the local constabulary that Bridget Cleary, wife to Michael Cleary, was missing by a concerned friend. An inquiry became an investigation, which eventually revealed a burnt body in a shallow grave.

Nine people were initially charged for the murder while other people in the village were later revealed to have been aware of the events that had transpired, or to have been participants in the actual killing. This included Bridget’s husband, her father, her cousins, and her neighbours.

The motive for the crime-which is sometimes inaccurately described as the last witch burning of Ireland- was found to have been one in which the townsfolk believed that they were torturing a changeling (a shapeshifting fairy imposter) and were only trying to retrieve Bridget back from the fairies.

Michael Cleary is said to have stated that his wife was two inches too tall and much too fair or beautiful to have been her at all. The rest of the townsfolk seemed to agree in his assessment as they either participated in, or were accomplices to, the murder. Eventually Michael Cleary served 15 years for the killing.

The case at the time was highly political. The English used the murder as proof that the Irish could not govern themselves because of their whimsical and uncivilized beliefs. The murder became international news, is said to have influenced Gerald Gardner – the modern father of Wiccanism- and has since been the source of several books and movies[ii].

Fairy abduction has been reported in myth and legend since the earliest of times. A well documented case in 1646 was that of Anne Jefferies in St. Teath England. After her reported abduction – which she did not like to talk about- she apparently had the powers of clairvoyance, did not need to eat, and had the power to heal.

Thomas the Rhymer who lived from 1220-1298 in Scotland was also said to have disappeared for a time and to have returned with powers. This was later explained away as him having been with the fairies, most especially one which was his “fairy bride”. He became a noted bard and also had prophetic skills, even accurately predicting events such as the death of Alexander the 3rd.

Katherine Mary Briggs’ Encyclopedia of Fairies is a good place to start exploring the phenomena of fairy encounters. This well researched text references over one hundred books and historical documents and discusses the two cases above alongside many others. While there are many different theories as to the source of these encounters-from mental illness to communion with demons- Briggs suggests that fairies may be categorized as either “diminished gods or the dead”.

It is easy to dismiss these early encounters as fanciful and unlikely but the phenomenon continues to exist today only in an altered form. Alien abductions are believed to occur by many people. It is a common belief today that we are visited by beings from other planets for a variety of theorized reasons. Whatever one chooses to believe, whether it is a type of mental illness or a genuine phenomenon, perhaps the beings involved are one and the same.

The Anne Jefferies account of 1646 describes her being approached by small humanoids, a pricking sensation before everything went black, and a sensation of being taken through the air. When she awoke the humanoids were her size and a fight ensued between the being who wanted to keep her (with the red feather) and the others who decided she could not stay. When it was determined that she had to be returned there was a pricking sensation once more before darkness returned and she was brought back to the land of the living.

The fairies of Ireland are the Sidhe, or the Tuatha De Danann. The Tuatha De Danaan are often described as having arrived in “flying ships” to take Ireland by force from its previous owners the Fir Bolg. Ireland was then taken away from them by the ancestors of present Ireland, the Milesians, led by the great poet Amergin. The Tuatha De Danann went underground and became the Sidhe, or fairies.

Let us consider that many common UFO sightings describe lights that come out of mountaintops or sometimes even out of lakes. Whether or not we believe in the idea of aliens, fairies, or inter dimensional beings there are many mysteries from our past that seem to prohibit scepticism. Consider the following…

Construction by “stone tool” ancients of buildings we are still unable to reconstruct with today’s technologies. 1400 ton building blocks, precision cuts of blocks that even lasers cannot duplicate, structures that align perfectly with constellations, and various marvels across the globe. We are supposed to believe that these structures, such as the great pyramids, were constructed with stone tools before the invention of the wheel?[iii]

Even today there are crop circles found around the globe that self proclaimed hoaxers are unable to duplicate, scientists are unable to explain, and that continue to defy logic. Although the most common theory seems to be alien communication, some call these findings “fairy circles”[iv]. Perhaps, whatever they are, even if there is a simple psychological explanation, aliens and fairies are the same thing.

It is the hawthorn -and its association with the fairies- that makes us pause and consider these possibilities-and perhaps many more- during our symbolic journey.   

The hawthorn is also associated with the mythical goddess figure of Olwen who is found in the Mabinogion[v]. She is the daughter of Yspaddaden Penkawr, the chief giant hawthorn[vi]. It is said that her footprints produce white trefoil, or sometimes hawthorn flower petals, and that this is the origin of the Milky Way (Hageneder).    

Diminished gods, the dead, or something else altogether? 

The Foliage:

The wolf is often associated with the hawthorn. The Ogham Tract found in the Book of Ballymote says that a pack of wolves is like the thorns of the hawthorn. “A terror to anyone is a pack of wolves”.

Like the hawthorn and the fairy, the wolf is a creature that we cannot decide if we love or hate. In folklore and mythology it is either noble, or a menace. Like the alleged changeling of Bridget Cleary or the beautiful bride of Thomas the Rhymer the wolf is also seen as either a powerful enemy or a beneficial and otherworldly friend.

The hawthorn with her beautiful and mystical flower masks a thorn with wound inflicting capabilities. The fairy with its magical allure and gifts of power, also promises madness and even death.

The wolf offers us faithfulness, intuition, community, monogamy, strength, night vision, and the instinctual ability to hunt and to survive [vii]. It also can be viciously savage, steal livestock and has been known in times of hunger – although rare- to attack humans.

While it is easy to see anything as either good or bad the truth is that there is nothing in nature that is so black or white. The fears of our ancestors hunted the wolf to extinction in many places. The last wolf in Scotland was killed in 1743 and the wolf was killed out of fear to the point of being endangered-and sometimes extinct- in many parts of North America.

The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park and the recolonization of wolves in Glacier Park has been closely monitored and studied by scientists. It has been observed that elk and coyote populations dropped as elk herds were forced to stay on the move and the coyote suddenly had a natural enemy, vegetation stabilized on shorelines, aspen and willow trees thrived, many insect eating birds returned, overhanging branches of stabilized trees fed trout-which returned-, eagles and ravens also flourished and beavers returned. The entire watershed became healthier in just a couple of decades all from the reintroduction of a single-often villainized- species[viii].

We cannot afford to minimize or glorify any species on our journey through the forest. A clear perception is needed, braided with a healthy dose of respect.

The fairy folk are seen as beautiful as they are terrible but perhaps they are something in between.

The wolf is wild, intelligent and free, yet it is the bringer of nightmares and often associated with evil. It is believed by the Nordic ancestors that the Fenris wolf, the devourer of worlds, will bring about the destruction of all there is.

The truth is that the wolf too is more likely to exist somewhere between the two extremes of good and evil.

The hawthorn, or Huathe, is the bringer both of good luck and of bad. Hawthorn is the beauty with the thorns. She reminds us that perceptions can shift, and that awareness- with a healthy dose of caution- can make her an ally, as opposed to a tree that should be feared by the weak of heart.

 “Marie-Louise Sjoestedt makes an important point in this regard, namely, that in the wilderness ‘the conditions of the mythological period still prevail’. These conditions include the close familiarity that humans, animals, and spirits enjoyed with each other. The wildwood bears the mark of the earliest paradisal stages of creation, hence the earliest mark of the Creator.” Tom Cowan (Fire in the Head)

 


[i] The exception may be Erynn Rowan Laurie who links the concepts of loneliness, misfortune, nightmares, war, anxiety and many others to Huathe. Laurie reminds us that behind challenge is growth, or opportunity, however. She relates the Ogham letters as concepts or energies – akin to the Norse runes- and not necessarily representative of particular trees which accounts largely for her differing interpretation of the huathe from Graves, Pennick, Liz and Colin Murray, Greer, Hageneder, Cooper, and Farmer-Knowles.

[ii] Rossell Robbin’s Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. See also the archived New York Times article from October 2000 entitled the Fairy Defense by David McCullough http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/08/books/the-fairy-defense.html

[iii] For references to the above statements, and one theory shared by some, see the documentary series Ancient Aliens on the History Channel. The series contains many thought provoking statements from various scientists and scholars that cannot be easily dismissed. It seems to lack counter arguments for many of the points discussed however.

[v] A well known collection of 11 medieval Welsh prose stories

[vi] Yspaddaden is often believed to be a corruption of Ysbydd, hawthorn.

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

[viii] Most recently Mother Earth News June/July 2011