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/

Oir (Gold or Spindle)

“Lochlann was the mythical undersea home of the later Fomorian invaders of Ireland, against whom the Tuatha de Danaan fought a bloody war. The god Tethra ruled it. It seems that legends of the war between these two nations were worked by later poets into ballad cycles celebrating the ninth-century wars between the Irish and the Danish and Norse pirates. Thus the Scandinavians came to be called ‘the Lochlannach’ and the Danish King of Dublin was also styled ‘King of Lochlin’.” – Robert Graves (the White Goddess)

The Roots:

The 22nd letter of the Ogham is Oir. This few is usually seen as representing the Spindle tree or the element of Gold.

Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle associate this letter to thunder. The letter was described as meaning “sweetness, delight and sudden intelligence.” The Murrays claimed that thunder, Tharan, brings forth from the heavens enlightenment or Awen.

John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook calls Oir, “a few of fate, sudden change, and the unexpected, symbolized by the spindle tree; the flash of the lightning bolt, change caused by outside factors.”

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom claims that Oir represents Gold but as a tree could also signify the Spindle. The associations for Oir that she lists in her work are those of worth, value and wealth.

Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets says that this few can represent the Gooseberry as well as the Spindle. The Spindle tree, he states, is associated with childbirth and can be used magically to “ease the passage of the baby from the womb to the world.”

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the word-Ogham “most venerable structure” as representing “truth.” Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks uses this few to represent East.

In Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids, Robert Ellison says that this few represents  “community and working within the home.” He also says that the Spindle tree can be used in spells that are “long lasting.”

Robert Graves in the Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects says that this few is represented in the mythology of the crane-bag as being the King of Lochlainn’s helmet[i].

The Spindle Tree is elusive in Celtic mythology. It derives its name from the spindle which was apparently originally fashioned from the wood of this tree. The spindle, as a tool, is an early proto type of the spinning wheel. Thus the tree can be indirectly related to any tales of spinning found in Celtic mythology.

There are tales of industrious fairies in the Celtic stories including the Scottish Habitrot, a beneficient Caileach type figure[ii]. Alfred Tennyson’s Victorian poem the Lady of Shalott, with medieval roots, is also about a weaver.

Oir, the Spindle tree or Gold itself, is a very mysterious few. It has come to represent a sudden positive change in one’s life. It has also come to mean wealth or inspired knowledge in modern times.

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[iii], 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 King of Lochlainn is a mysterious figure. The quote at the beginning of this blog post summarizes what is generally believed to be the origins and the evolution of the mysterious Lochlainn[iv].

“Lochlainn may have initially described the fabulous abode under lakes and waters of hostile, supernatural beings like the Famorians.”

In the Irish myths the King of Lochlainn had clearly come to represent the marauders of Nordic descent. There are stories, however, where Finn Mac Cool fosters sons of the King of Lochlainn. These foreigners are usually enemies though.

In Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory[v] one battalion of Fianna, led by Finn Mac Cool, are pitted up against ten battalions of “the King of the World.” The three sons of Lochlainn come one after another, alone, to wreck destruction upon the Fionna. They are eventually followed by the seemingly invincible King of Lochlainn himself.

The fist son, Forne, slays many men before Finn’s own son Oisin stands to face him alone. Initially the battle seems to be going poorly for Oisin. Eventually, though, he is embarrassed by the words of a fellow Fianna who tells him that the men are watching him being beaten. Oisin, who is then spurred into action, pierces Forne with his spear killing him.

The second son, Tocha, then brings the fight to the Fianna slaying many more of their men. Only Lugaidh’s son manages to stand against Tocha, eventually cutting his heart in two.

The third son, Mongach of the Sea, rushes the Fianna swearing vengeance. He carries with him a mighty flail with seven iron balls, with fifty chains, with fifty apples upon every chain, and with fifty iron thorns on every apple! Fidach, son of the King of Breton – out of shame at seeing the destruction of the Fianna – stands alone against him. The two battle hard, but eventually Fidach cut off Mongach of the Sea’s hands. He then cuts him in half. An apple from the flail, with its many thorns, pierces Fidach’s mouth and the two fall “lip to lip” in death.

Finally, the King of Lochlainn himself rushes the Fianna. The destruction that he inflicts is terrible to behold. His flaming shield causes many casualties. Druimderg, grandson of the head of the Fianna of Ulster comes forward with his spear ‘Croderg the Red Socketed.’ Druimberg can see no part of the King of Lochlainn that is not covered in armour except for the open mouth which is laughing beneath the helmet. Druimderg casts his spear into the open laughing mouth of the king and kills him.

Thus the King of Lochlainn is defeated along with his sons.

Other tales also pit heroes against the King of Lochlainn, but the mentioning of his helmet in this particular tale, including the vulnerability of its wearer, is worthy of note.

(Helmet from Cheiftain’s Grave. 10th Century. Norway. Photo: John Erling Blad)

As the helmet is one of the items found in Manannan’s crane bag it’s also worth noting that there is another story with possible connections. This tale is also found in Gods and Fighting Men. Here, Lugh himself is wearing the helmet of Manannan.

“And they were not long there before they saw an armed troop coming towards them from the east, over the plain; and there was a young man in front of the troop, in command over the rest, and the brightness of his face was like the setting sun, so that they were not able to look at him because of its brightness.

And when he came nearer they knew it was Lugh Lamh-Fada, of the Long Hand, that had come back to them, and along with him were the Riders of the Sidhe from the Land of Promise, and his own foster brothers, the sons of Manannan, Sgoith Gleigeil, the White Flower, and Goitne Gorm-Shuileach, the Blue-eyed Spear, and Sine Sindearg, of the Red Ring, and Donall Donn-Ruadh, of the Red brown Hair. And it is the way Lugh was, he had Manannan’s horse, the Aonbharr, of the One Mane, under him, that was as swift as the naked cold wind of spring, and the sea was the same as dry land to her, and the rider was never killed off her back. And he had Manannan’s breast-plate on him, that kept whoever was wearing it from wounds, and a helmet on his head with two beautiful precious stones set in the front of it and one at the back, and when he took it off, his forehead was like the sun on a dry summer day. And he had Manannan’s sword, the Freagarthach, the Answerer, at his side, and no one that was wounded by it would ever get away alive; and when that sword was bared in a battle, no man that saw it coming against him had any more strength than a woman in child-birth.”

Although there is no indication that the helmet once belonged to the King of Lochlainn, of later times, it may in fact have belonged to one of the Famorian kings that we have previously mentioned. The possibility, however remote, should be considered.

So if Manannan’s shirt is representative of ‘the sea’, and the King of Scotland’s shears is representative of ‘the grove’ then what can the helmet from the King of Lochlainn be representative of?

Whether Lochlainn represents the Famorians or another later foreign invader hardly seems to matter. The helmet represents the seeming invincibility of a dangerous enemy. It is an enemy, a mysterious force, which threatens to take everything away. The fact that Manannan owns the helmet means that it is an enemy that has likely been vanquished or perhaps even tamed[vi].

If we were presented with a riddle regarding Oir it might then look like this… What is gold and brings with it sudden sweetness and delight? What is brought by thunder? What brings with it sudden insight or illumination? What is dangerous and otherworldly to the forest? What is the bringer of Awen? What is a catalyst which brings with it change? What may be seen as a triangle pointing into the air with a separate triangle, invisible to the human eye, pointing mirror like into the underworld? What thing seems to be weaving unto itself?

This riddle seems to have an answer that would be near impossible to validate. That answer would be fire. If we consider the flames that radiated from the King of Lochlainn’s shield we seem to have come upon further evidence that supports this possibility. Fire is the one invader of the forest that needs to be tamed. The fire may also be representative of the sun itself. Lugh comes from the east like the rising sun. The descriptors all compare the brightness of his head, which is enshrouded in the helmet, to the sun itself. Perhaps Manannan is being depicted as a great worker of magic, one who has tamed the element of fire.

Of course, I am no scholar. I reflect upon the Ogham and the mythologies that surround them while finding my own meanings for the crane-bag in regards to these forfeda. I have never come across this association of Oir to fire anywhere else.

I do, however, find the possibilities more than a little intriguing.

The Foliage:

The Euonymous occidentalis, or the Western Wahoo, is the Spindle tree of western North America. It can be found from halfway up Vancouver Island down to California[vii]. It is part of the Bittersweet family.

The shrub is listed as “red” in British Columbia. This listing marks the plant as threatened or endangered. There are very few documented areas that the plant exists within and it is not known to thrive anywhere in British Columbia.

“Then Finn said: ‘Lift up your hands, Fianna of Ireland, and give thee shouts of blessing to whoever will hinder this foreigner.’ And the Fianna gave those three shouts; and the King of Lochlann gave a great laugh when he heath them. And Druimderg, grandson of the Head of the Fianna of Ulster, was near him, and he had with him a deadly spear, the Croderg, the Red-Socketed, that came down from one to another of the sons of Rudraighe. And he looked at the King of Lochlann, and he could see no part of him without armour but his mouth that was opened wide, and he laughing at the Fianna. Then Druimderg made a cast with the Croderg that hit him in the open mouth, and befell, and his shield fell along with its master, and its flame went out. And Druimderg struck the head from his body, and made great boasts of the things he had done.” – Lady Gregory (Gods and Fighting Men. 1904)


[i] See previous two posts.

[ii] http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/sfft/sfft32.htm, Carminan Gadelica Vol. 2. Alexander Carmichael [1900], The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. W.Y. Eavans-Wentz [1911], etc.

[iii] See blog post: An Introduction to the Forfeda.

[iv] See also: Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology by James MacKillop.

[v] Part II Book III. [1904]

[vi] Is it possible that Manannan holds the helmet hostage?

[vii]http://linnet.geog.ubc.ca/Atlas/Atlas.aspxsciname=Euonymus+occidentalisvar.occidentalis

Ioho (Yew)

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

The Roots:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trunk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Tristan and Isolde by Herbert James Draper, 1901)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the story of the Yew.

The Foliage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

[v] Quert (Apple) blog.

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

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

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

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