“While the more easily available material equates each ogam letter with a tree, most of the letter names aren’t, in fact, the names of trees at all. Conceptually, they are far more akin to the Norse runes. Lus may be associated with the rowan tree but the word itself derives from a root that refers to either a healing herb or to the brightness of a flame, and it is from these definitions that a depth of meaning can be developed and appreciated.” – Erynn Rowan Laurie (Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom)
Stepping into the forest can become disorienting. There is a moment, of adjustment, where one’s perception begins to shift. Direction can become confused. There is a humming silence, steady and persistent, that exists behind the bird’s song. Time now seems to move in a different manner altogether. Reality becomes blurred.
Although there are many differences in opinion as to the meaning of this second tree we may still find that many of the experts agree on certain aspects of luis[i]. It is commonly agreed upon and understood that this is the tree of protection against evil. This was what our ancestors petitioned for from the rowan tree in generations past.
The Rowan then becomes an ally on the journey that we will undertake into the forest, and into the darkness of the unknown.
There are two important questions that we must now ask ourselves. The first is about protection itself and the second is about evil.
What is protection? To understand protection we must look within and at our own belief system. One way to view protection is to see it as a shield around ourselves, or as some sort of a guardian spirit that aids us and shelters us from harm. There may be problems with this paradigm however. How would this type of protection aid one who may be on a path of power towards growth or recognizing the divine within? When the shield is gone the traveler will once more be susceptible to harm and attack.
A second way to look at the concept of protection is to view it as a request to be given the strength to overcome whatever roadblocks are discovered on that path before us and to repel evil. In this way protection is summoned from outside of ourselves as a way of fostering a deeper relationship with the divine and with ourselves. With every step that we take we become more and more connected to everything around us. Protection does not become a shield around us but the energies become a part of a process within us. In this way we step into relationship with the rowan and are not merely asking for a favour but working in cooperation with it.
This second way of viewing protection allows me to experience and grow. It allows me to stay in a place of power and not to submit to the ideas of helplessness which may eventually lead to a belief in being a victim. It is asking for help but not asking to be carried.
What is evil then? What is it that we need to protect ourselves against?
This is one of the oldest questions known to us as humans. At one time in our history wolves were considered evil and at another time they were sacred. Many plants and animals share this historic past. One could say that many things found in nature were at one time considered evil and perhaps even more things that are found in the realms of civilization.
To some the night and darkness are evil. To others evil only exists externally. Many believe in the concept of sin. What one believes to be evil can be deeply personal and a very frightening thing to look upon.
To ask for protection however we must understand the answer to this question even if it is a private matter, for we need to know what it is that we need protection from. Ravenous beasts or manipulative salesmen? Stalking witches or adulterous women? The devil of Christianity or the woes of addiction? Perhaps it is merely the allures of apathy?
There is a common belief amongst many on a spiritual path that evil is fear, which is the opposite of love, and that only love is real. There is something pleasant and divinely innocent in this belief and it is one that I look upon with some degree of fondness.
There is a dark side to this belief however. Many in our Western society who embrace this belief choose to turn a blind eye towards injustice simply because it does not exist within their immediate sphere of perception.
It may be true that the murderer and the thief deserve love and forgiveness. It may also be true that I should find a way to love my enemy. Should I then turn a blind eye to the rape on the street corner that is taking place NOW? Should I stay inside of my safe abode, seated upon my couch, so that I do not have to bear witness to starvation and poverty extreme? At what point does my acceptance of fear, or evil, by not validating its existence become enabling? One must also ask oneself what is the purpose of meeting the divine if one is not ready to protect their fellow man or woman? Is it to be a caretaker of both Earth and beast, to be a leader, a protector, a parent of children, a brother, a sister or a neighbour? Are we incarnated so that we can ignore the patterns of life around us? Why were we even born then?
Focusing on love alone is a drug. We can also focus on the noon day sun and deny that same sphere sets at night. We can have ‘minders’ if we are gurus, deny the existence of sickness, stay in the comfort of our own homes, and live in a fairytale where sickness, hunger, pain and suffering do not exist. While eventually this may become one’s reality the truth is that one would be disconnected from the whole. We exist as one. What happens to one of us happens to all of us. What ails the Earth also ails us. Apathy does not erase this truth but only allows the injustice to continue unhindered and unrestrained.
The universe is microcosmic and macrocosmic. What exists inside of me also exists outside of me. When my body becomes sick my immune system will fight it. The toxins will pass out of my body and the healing process will take place. It does me no good whatsoever to ignore the lump under my skin. By being in denial there is a very real possibility that the sickness will spread, eventually to a point where healing is no longer very easy at all.
We tell ourselves, in this society, that the adult entertainment industry is okay but the evidence is undeniable that this business supports organized crime and human trafficking. We may tell ourselves that recreational drug use is okay, but again the evidence is undeniable that there is a machine in place that validates murder and takes advantage of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. These are the easy ones to spot too. What about our mass consumerism in the West and how this affects the rest of the world. What about the wanton abuse and depletion of the Earth’s resources? Not easy things to look upon.
So should we turn a blind eye? Should we carry on with love in our hearts and a smile on our faces? Have we truly transcended evil if we focus exclusively on love while others toil to repair the house in which we live? We are then nothing more than a guest. We are not a participant in the community in which we live but a self absorbed tourist. Ultimately the focusing on love alone while denying the existence of evil, or fear, or darkness, is an exercise in selfishness.
So evil may exist then. To each one of us that evil may be completely different and wear a unique face. But what exists outside of us also exists within. This is the difficult thing to stare at. For all things on this journey may be, and sometimes are, a mirror.
The evils that we see outside of ourselves are reflections of the ignorance that exists within our own hearts and minds. These are the most difficult meditations of all.
A piece of rowan wood may be carried as an amulet of protection as could some leaves or berries (which possess a five pointed star). According to Robert Graves, rowan can be burnt to summon the Sidhe (faerie) to help in battle. Rowan stakes sometimes were also pounded through the hearts of corpses to incapacitate their ghosts.
Rowan crosses were made to ward off evil, and the trees were grown outside of houses, churches and in graveyards.
In the second part of the Prose Edda, Skaldskaparmal, believe to be written around 1220 by Snori Sturluson, the rowan tree is even said to have saved the life of the god Thor. Although the story does not seem to exist in the time of myth before the recording of this tale (Viktor Rydberg) it has become a very popular story of the protective and aiding nature of the rowan tree.
During a great journey to the frost giant Geirrod’s keep Thor had to cross the Vimur River. At one point while crossing the tumultuous river it seemed apparent that he would drown and be swept away and that his quest would not be completed. It is said that it was the rowan tree that leaned over and helped him to the opposite bank of the river by pulling him from the dark and raging waters, thus saving his life by offering him its branches. It is for this reason that the rowan tree may sometimes be called Thor’s Helper, alongside other names such as the quicken tree or the mountain ash[ii].
There is a very old tradition in which the rowan tree was asked for assistance. As we move into the forest we should not be afraid to ask for help and companionship from luis, the rowan tree. To ask for help though, we first need to be aware of our own shortcomings. We need to know what evil it is that we are facing and in what ways we may be weak to its influences.
We should also remember that every time we take something from the forest we should give thanks and offer something in return. In this way our relationship to it strengthens and develops.
Our minds become clearer now for the rowan is not a tree of protection alone. She is also a companion. She is a friend and an aid that offers clarity of mind and awareness as well.
These are also things that are important to possess, when a journey such as ours, or of any size for that matter, is undertaken.
“Past the seeker as he prayed came the crippled and the beggar and the beaten. And seeing them…he cried, “Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such things and yet do nothing about them?”…God said, “I did do something. I made you.” -Sufi Teaching
[i] Robert Graves in the White Goddess speaks mostly of rowan’s protective qualities. Liz and Colin Murray offer “control of the senses” besides protection as an aiding attribute of the tree. John Michael Greer says the rowan is also a tree of “discernment” and “inner clarity”. Nigel Pennick says that the rowan can protect one from psychic perception and be “used for developing the power of second sight and protection against enchantment”. According to respected Ogham author Erynn Rowan Laurie luis offers “sustenance”, “teachers and teaching”, and is very closely linked to inspiration.
[ii] The Western mountain ash and the Sitka mountain ash are both shrubs native to the West coast of North America. According to the book, Plants of Coastal British Columbia, “Where ranges overlap these two species will hybridize with each other and with the introduced rowan tree (S. Aucuparia), which is found mostly near settlements”.