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.

 

Ailm (Fir or Pine)

Out of my experience, such as it is (and it is limited enough) one fixed conclusion dogmatically emerges, and that is this, that we with our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest. The maple and the pine may whisper to each other with their leaves, and Conanicut and Newport hear each other’s foghorns. But the trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands also hang together through the ocean’s bottom. Just so there is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences…” –William James (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)[i]

The Roots:

The sixteenth letter of the Ogham is Ailm. This is the Scotch Fir or Scots Pine.

There is a lot of confusion regarding which tree should be assigned to Ailm. The Ogham tract says that it is the “Fir” tree. The Fir tree is also listed within the tract as a possible choice for Gort, the Ivy, as well. Robert Graves named the tree representing Ailm as the Silver Fir based on the mention of the Fir tree within the text[ii]. This choice is generally accepted as being correct.

The first Silver Fir, however, is not believed to have been introduced into neighbouring Scotland until 1603[iii]. The Ogham Tract is from the Book of Ballymote believed to be written in about 1390[iv]. Before the 18th century the Scots Pine was known as Scotch or Scots Fir[v] so the mention of the “Fir” within the Ogham Tract is most likely a reference to the Pine[vi]. The Scots Pine is native to the British Isles and would have been better known in Ireland. Pine is also mentioned within the Ogham tract, but various names for the same tree are found for other letters as well. For example the Yew is also the Service Tree, Blackthorn is also Sloe, and Quicken is also the Rowan. It is likely that both Pine and Fir refer to the Scotch Fir or Scots Pine. The variety of names given for the same species may be a poetic recording or even from the translation by George Calder in 1917[vii].

Firs and Pines -as well as Spruces, Cedars and others- are part of the same family known as Pinaceae. These conifers share a prehistoric heritage as members of the first trees growing in many areas upon the land of our planet. The close relation -and primordial ancestry- make them more akin to one another than many other trees that have
greater differences. For this reason the Pinaceae trees are easily interchangeable, and the choice to honour one above another -within the Ogham list- may feel quite comfortable to many students of the Ogham.

Liz and Colin Murray speak of Ailm as being a few of “long sight and clear vision[viii].” Nigel Pennick –who suggests the few represents the Elm, however- agrees. He adds that Ailm is about, “Rising above adversity” as well[ix].

John Micheal Greer lists the attributes of Ailm as vision, understanding, seeing things in perspective, and expanded awareness[x].

Robert Graves calls Ailm or the Fir, “the Birth Tree of Northern Europe[xi].”

Eryn Rowan Laurie also says that Ailm represents, “origins, creation, epiphany, pregnancy and birth[xii].”

Ailm, the Scotch Fir or Pine, is the tree of new beginnings and clarity of perspective. These ancient trees also seem to represent the Cailleach, the Celtic hag goddess.

The Trunk:

Robert Graves, in the White Goddess, claimed that there was a Gallic Fir goddess named Druantia who was also known as “the Queen of the Druids.” She was also apparently “the mother” of the tree calendar.

I have never been able to find a reference -before Robert Graves that is- that even mentions such an important figure as “the Queen of the Druids”. New age pagans speak of her often enough though, and she even has a page on Wikipedia that references two Llewellyn authors from 2006. As far as I can tell, this goddess is completely fictitious.

Robert Graves’ Druantia is fictitious. Just like his tree calendar that she was supposed to have been the mother of.

Graves proposed that the Ogham was actually a tree calendar and much of the White Goddess is actually a poetic essay supportive of this idea. The calendar starts on December 24th with the Birch tree. Each of the thirteen months of the year continue then as Rowan, Ash, Alder, Willow, Hawthorn, Oak, Holly, Hazel, Vine, Ivy, Reed, and then Elder. His justification is an interpretation of an old Irish poem the Song of Amergin which he believed was a code left for those with poetic sight –him- to find answers within. He reaches into his own interpretations of myths and observations of nature to support these conclusions.

The idea is actually quite beautiful and many people like the idea of an Ogham calendar and have adapted it into their own lives.

Liz and Colin Murray took the idea and ran with it a little further several  decades later. They perceived things differently though. They believed that the year would have started at Samhain – Halloween- and so took the same calendar but just made it begin earlier at October 31st. Fair enough. This is truly the beginning of the Celtic year according to most scholars. The justification for many of Graves’ choices however fell short with the Murray’s shift though. It did not make sense, at least as Graves had described it, to have the Hazel/Salmon month in July when the salmon clearly run in fall – as one example.

Since then many have believed full heartedly in a tree calendar. The Ogham was not even really a tree alphabet –as we have discussed many times before- how could it then be a tree calendar?

I don’t see anything wrong with using an Ogham tree calendar, as long as one is aware that it’s not based on historical fact. As long as that individual is not passing on that same information as “the truth” to other seekers then what is the harm in any new shaping of old ideas? Perhaps there is a niche crowd that needs a Fir goddess Druantia just like there seems to be a pocket of people who want to believe in Cernunna the female counterpart of Cernunnos[xiii]?

The problem is that those who seek are often looking for real connection to the past, to the spirits of old, and ultimately to themselves and nature. I know that I felt misled when I began to realize that the teachers of the faiths that resonated most deeply within my soul were just as confused as I was, maybe even more so. They had no real relationship with the spirits they professed to. Why else would they assume that it was okay to make things up about beings that others believed were real and divine even? Was it because there were times that they were unable to find answers, so they decided to fill in the blanks themselves?

The conifers, for example, do not make as many appearances in myth as some of the other trees do.

According to Fred Hageneder in the Meaning of Trees, the Pine had special meaning to the Scottish. He claims that this tree was considered a good place to be buried beneath by clan chiefs and warriors. This is further supported on the Trees for Life: Restoring the Caledonian Forest website. In the ‘Pine mythology’ section Paul Kendall says that the Pine was used as a marker for the burial places of warriors, heroes and chieftains[xiv].

In more folkloric times Pine cones were often used in spells. They were carried to increase fertility, for attracting wealth, money and were also seen as powerful herbs for purification rites and protection spells[xv].

In mythology Merlin climbed the Pine of Barenton in a Breton story, “To have a profound revelation, and he never returned to the mortal world[xvi].” This is revealing as tree climbing appears in various shamanistic traditions around the world.

In the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries W.Y. Evans-Wentz shares a story about St. Martin and a sacred Pine found in Tours, central France[xvii] that is worth sharing. Apparently, when St. Martin threatened to fell the tree to prove to the locals that it wasn’t sacred, “The people agreed to let it be cut down on the condition that the saint should receive its great trunk on his head as it fell.” St. Martin decided not to have the tree cut down after all!

The conifers -being the trees of the ancient forest- do seem to reach out to us as the Cailleach, the hag or crone aspect of the goddess that speaks to us from the times immemorial. These trees, the Pine, Spruce or Fir, are strong and green even in the midst of winter and were in fact some of the very first trees to climb out of the oceans.

In Visions of the Cailleach Sorita d’Este and David Rankine describe the Cailleach as follows; “Some tales portray her as a benevolent and primal giantess from the dawn of time who shaped the land and controlled the forces of nature, others as the harsh spirit of winter.”

The references in the Celtic myths to the Pine or Fir are indeed sparse. This does not mean that the conifer trees were not sacred, however. As Hageneder reminds us, “The Pine is the tree that features most frequently in the badges of the Scottish clans”. From a culture where symbols are keys to the land of spirit and of the fey, that tells us something indeed.

Though mysterious and illusive, Ailm, the Scotch Fir or Pine, is the tree of primordial beginnings and deep understandings.

The Foliage:

The first trees were actually giant ferns. Then there were palm-like trees called cycad, which still exist in some places today.

Arriving at, “About the same time that the first warm-blooded mammals appeared, the conifers became for millions of years the dominant trees on the planet. Their seeds, contained in distinctive cones, enabled them to dominate the environment and overshadow the spore plants, and to spread into habitats where there had been no previous growth. Today’s descendents of those ancient conifer forests –pines, spruces, firs, larches, cedars, cypresses, and junipers – include some of our tallest trees and the oldest living plants.[xviii]

Today the Scots Pine is the most widely distributed coniferous tree in the world and a “keystone species for the Caledonia forest[xix].”

The Silver Fir, however, is highly sensitive to air pollution. They are extremely endangered. The last wild Silver Fir tree died in Bavaria Germany only a few years ago[xx].

A great tragedy.

“Go to the rock of Osinn,” said the hag, “where the withered pine spreads its bare branches to the sky. There, as the moon rises, walk three times withershins round the riven trunk, and cast the broth on the ground before her.” – George Douglas (Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales. 1901)


[i] William James is quoted in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz (1911).

[ii] The White Goddess.

[iii] http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/INFD-6UEJ3L

[iv] Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology.

[v] Firefly Encyclopedia of Trees.

[vi] Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, says that Fir and Pine seem interchangeable within the Ogham tract text, most especially the Irish word gius which seems to apply to them both. Her statement seems to support my theory even further.

[viii] Celtic Tree Oracle.

[ix] Magical Alphabets.

[x] The Druid Magic Handbook.

[xi] The White Goddess.

[xii] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[xiii] Helmut Birkahn is a German Celtic historian quoted by Sabine Heinz in Celtic Symbols.

[xv] Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook. Jacqueline Memory Paterson. Etc.

[xvi] Fred Hageneder.

[xvii] This would not be considered a Celtic story due to the time frame and geographical area.

[xviii] The Secret Life of the Forest. Richard M. Ketchum.

[xx] Fred Hageneder.

Ruis (Elder)

“It is far easier to be sensible in cities than in many country places I could tell you of. When one walks on those grey roads at evening by the scented elder-bushes of the white cottages, watching the faint mountains gathering the clouds upon their heads, one all too readily discovers, beyond the thin cobweb veil of the senses, those creatures, the goblins, hurrying from the white square stone door to the north, or from the Heart Lake in the south.”  – William Butler Yeats (the Celtic Twilight. 1893, 1902)

The Roots:

The fifteenth few of the Ogham is Ruis, the Elder tree.

The Elder is yet another tree with strong associations to the fairy realm. The Elder is also said to be the tree of witches.

John Michael Greer called this letter the few of, “resolutions, fulfillments, and endings.” With the completion of any path, he continues, comes the advancement of new beginnings[i]. Liz and Colin Murray likewise call the Elder the tree of regeneration. It is, they state, the essence of, “life in death and death in life[ii].”

Robert Graves calls the Elder tree, “The Tree of Doom.” He also calls it the witch’s tree[iii].

Nigel Pennick seems to agree with him, but elaborates much further. He claims that Ruis is sacred to the dark aspects of the Mother Goddess, which is the hag. Pennick also says that it is the Ogham letter of “timelessness[iv].”

Eryn Rowan Laurie -our favourite Celtic reconstructionist- calls the Elder a tree of cursing and ill fortune by some, but a “protective force” of others. She links Ruis –but not necessarily the Elder tree- to intensity, passion, guilt, frenzy, jealousy and shame[v]. These associations are strongly supported by the Ogham Tract, from the Book of Ballymote, as being valid. Ruis is stated there as a the letter of “shame,” “blushing,” “redness of face.” and “the glow of anger.”

Elder is a tree of the fairies and is often associated with the Cauldron of Rebirth found in legend.

While the various meanings of Ruis seem to contradict one another on the surface there is a common thread throughout.

The Elder is a tree of power and should be dealt with in a reverent fashion.

The Trunk:

The Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology claims that the Elder is, “A tree of the fairy world.” The dictionary reports that, “many individual [Elder] trees are thought to be haunted by fairies or demons[vi].”

Perhaps it is the Elder tree’s ability to regenerate that has garnered a place for it in the realms of witchery and fairy folklore? This is a trait that led Liz and Colin Murray[vii], as well as Jacqueline Memory Paterson[viii], to associate it with the Celtic Cauldron of Rebirth[ix].

In Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland Lady Wilde says that the Elder is sacred alongside the Yew and the Ash tree. The bark of the Elder tree, as we covered previously, was also one of the, “Seven fairy herbs of great power” along with Ivy and Hawthorn. Included in Lady Wilde’s book are various spells. An example is the use of Elder and Apple roots to expel evil spirits from the body in a type of medieval pagan exorcism. Perhaps, it is these old half-remembered spells that gave the Elder its witchy reputation instead?

It would seem that Lady Wilde isn’t the only one to associate Elder with witches. Robert Graves said that in Ireland witches would ride an Elder stick -instead of the more traditional Ash- as a steed[x]. Jacqueline Memory Paterson claimed in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook, that witches used Elder in divination. Eryn Rowan Laurie also claimed that to, “Anoint the eyes with [Elder] sap would allow the person to see in the Sidhe realm,” or the land of the fairies[xi].

Perhaps much of the folklore surrounding the tree is a result of the belief that some of the Sidhe actually reside within the Elder itself?  In The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries Evans-Wentz says that in the Isle of Mann the Elder tree was inhabited by fairies. He goes on to share a tale in which a woman who merely ran into an Elder tree, experienced “immediate and terrible swelling”.

Fred Hageneder likewise included the British Isles in his list of European countries that held the Elder tree as, “The traditional guardian tree of the household and farmyard.” Hageneder reveals that, “It was said that the good house spirit of the home resided in the Elder bush, and as recently as the 19th century it was a widespread custom to bring her an offering of water, milk or beer, together with cake or bread, at least once a week and even daily[xii].”

The Elder wand, or staff, was also believed to be imbued with power.

The tradition of the Elder has even gained a foothold within the popular culture of present day. In J.K. Rowling’s incredibly popular Harry Potter series, it is an Elder wand that is one of the three Deathly Hallows found in the book of the same name. What is perhaps even further revealing, the wand is also known as “Deathstick” or “The Wand of Destiny”. Rowling has often been acknowledged as having used the mythology of the Celts within her stories as a source of inspiration[xiii].

Like many other goddess trees, such as the Blackthorn or Hawthorn, the Elder carries a white flower in the spring and a dark fruit in the fall. Maybe this physical feature is the reason for the trees mythological status?

Maybe it is the trees association with passion and revelry that makes it a most ideal associate to the fairy kingdom? For where else do mortal men, women, and children meet with the fairy than in the places of celebration? It is a well known fact that the fairy of legend like to dance and to feast, so perhaps it is in this state that the two kingdoms become the closest? For it seems that when humans and the Sidhe are dancing side by side -parallel to one another in sisterly realms- that the bridge is crossed and the worlds become one.

Whatever the cause may be for the tree’s grand status within the realms of legend, it is important to note that the Elder is another tree that can both protect us and harm us. It is for this reason that Ruis should be dealt with reverently.  It is for this reason that Ruis -the tree of regeneration, protection, ill luck and passion- has always been both feared and respected.

The Foliage:

Elder has been called the Country Medicine Chest by many[xiv]. The list of healing properties attributed to the Elder tree is extensive. Jacqueline Memroy Paterson calls Elder the “Queen of Herbs”.

Folklore remedy lists are exhaustive in nature.

There are several pages dedicated to Elder in almost any herb book. In the Healing Plants Bible the leaves are listed as diaphoretic and diuretic, aiding in the treatment of wounds and bruises. With St. John’s wort and soapwort, the extract inhibits both the influenza and Herpes simplex viruses. Elder also has uses for ulcers, colds, fevers, bronchitis, coughs, skin complexion issues, sunburn, and can help protect against infections. It is also anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial and helps reduce the damage of bad cholesterol.  The same book also says that, “as an immuno-stimulant, the juice is beneficial to AIDS patiants”. It has recently been shown to have promise as an additive in weight reduction supplements. The oil is also believed to help alleviate the pain of arthritis.

According to Lesley Bremness in Herbs, Elder bark is given for epilepsy and the roots treat lymphatic and kidney ailments. “In Chinese medicine the leaves, stems, and roots are used to treat fractures and muscle spasms.”

A leaf tea can also be used as a more natural insecticide in gardening.

It would seem that Ruis, the Elder tree, truly is the Country Medicine Chest.

Caution:  It should be noted here that the Elderberry fruit growing naturally in the Western parts of North America is toxic. The toxins can be removed through cooking according to the British Columbian Nature Guide. Parts of various other types of Elder are also poisonous and the use of the plant should be with the guidance of an experienced mentor only or by using previously prepared remedies by an accredited herbalist.

 “How full of a mystic antiquity are the names of the lotus, the olive, and the ash! Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Scandinavia spring to our minds as the words are heard. The syllables seem haunted to this day by the dryads that the Greek mind saw in every tree. They carry us back to the age of the nymphs who made their home in pools and seas. There was a time when nature seemed to man but as the garment of some large sweet presence that lived and breathed within it. Alas, that age is gone. Irish elder and quicken still point to the neighbourhood of the Neolithic doorsill, but no longer are they held to guard the village with their mysterious benedictions.” –Sister Nivedita (Studies From an Eastern Home. 1913)



[i] The Druid Magic Handbook.

[ii] The Celtic Tree Oracle.

[iii] The White Goddess.

[iv] Magical Alphabets.

[v] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[vi] James MacKillop.

[vii] The Celtic Tree Oracle.

[viii] Tree Wisdom: The Definitive Guidebook.

[ix] In Celtic legend the Cauldron of Rebirth, or Pair Dadeni, is a magical item found in the second branch of the Mabinogion and is attached to the legend of Bran, “the Blessed”. The item can revive the dead back to life if they are placed within it. The cauldron is eventually destroyed during a great battle –the same battle that has Bran ask that his head be cut off- when Bran’s half brother pretends to be dead and is placed inside of it.

[x] The White Goddess.

[xi] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[xii] The Meaning of Trees.

[xiv]Fred Hegeneder, Helen Farmer-Knowles, etc.

Duir (Oak)

“By the time a tree is full grown, the underground root system is enormous; a mature oak tree, for example, has literally hundreds of miles of roots to tap the soil’s resources in an endless quest for water. Each drop is collected by the root hairs and passed along, from one cell to the next, up the trunk and to the leaves, and in such a way that none of the precious moisture and minerals collected by the roots leaks back into the soil.” – Richard Ketchum (The Secret Life of the Forest)

The Roots:

Duir, the oak, is the tree of strength and of honour. It is also the tree of male virility.

It is the seventh tree of the Ogham and has universally agreed upon meanings without exception. Even those that do not hold trees sacred seem to have a reverence for the oak. It is present on many coats of arms, is the national tree of many countries, a totem tree of states, cities and counties and is the tree of the province of Prince Edward Island here in Canada. The oak also symbolically adorns many military uniforms from ancient to modern times.

The oak is often said to have been the most sacred of trees to the Celts, and to the druids in particular. The tree is revered by the Teutonic, the Romans, The Greeks, and Hebrews and in as far away lands as to even have been respected by the Chinese[i]. The oaks referred to in the bible are interpreted as “holy trees” – not oaks literally- and the Christians often preached beneath them in the early middle ages[ii].

Oak is the tree of many gods and goddesses, especially those of lightening and thunder. Duir makes an appearance in many tales and can be connected to Taranis (Celtic Zeus), Brigid (later St. Briget), Myrdin (Merlin), Arthur’s round table, Herne the Hunter, Robin Hood, Gwydion, Blodeuwedd, Lleu, and to the fairies alongside the Ash and the Hawthorn. The Oak also shares a special symbolic relationship with the mistletoe.

Duir promises us the strength to speak the truth, to hold our ground and to live a life braided with courage and honour. Oak is the tree of kings, queens and prophets.

The Trunk:

Lleu of the Skilful Hand was cursed by his mother.

Lleu was a child of immaculate conception as he had fallen out of his mother, Aranrhod -alongside his brother – while her purity was being tested. This was being done by the King, Math, to determine if she was pure enough to become his virgin foot stool…

In the time before time there lived such a ruler of the land as Math son of Mathonwy.

Math could only live if his feet were in the lap of a virgin – that is Goewin- except in times of war. So it was, that his two nephews Gwydyon and Givaethwy would make circuits of the land on his behalf.

All was well for a while, until Givaethwy fell sick with love for Goewin. Gwydyon perceived his state and he schemed a way to separate the king from the virgin on behalf of his cousin. And so by stealing the sacred pigs of a Southern lord a war was started and Math was forced to leave his chamber.

When Math returned to his chambers he was told by Goewin that she was no longer a virgin as his nephews had taken her by force in his very chambers. Math then took the beautiful Goewin as his wife and punished his nephews severely.

For a year and a day they were turned into a stag and a hind so that they would breed with one another and have a son.

For a second year and a day the cousins were turned into a boar and a sow so that they would breed with one another and have another son.

For a third year and a day Gwydyon and Givaethwy were turned into a wolf and a she-wolf so that they could breed and conceive a final son.

After this time of punishment Math forgave them and brought them back, turning them once more to men.

Math then asked of Gwydyon who he should take to be his virgin foot stool and Gwydyon stated that this should be none other than his sister Aranrhod.

Math summoned Aranrhod and made her step over his wand to test her virtue and two boys fell from her. One was noticed by everyone and one was not noticed, as Gwydyon kicked him under the bed and hid him from sight. The one boy, Dylan, was baptised and raised by the king while the second, later to be named Lleu, was raised in secret by Gwydyon for a while.

When he was four -but looked to be eight- Aranrhod found out about him and cursed him to have no name until she gave him one, no weapon unless she gave it to him and no wife of the human race.

Aranrhod was tricked and named the boy Lleu of the Skilled Hand because of his skill in hitting a wren in the leg perched on a ship while he was disguised as a shoe maker. Later disguised as bards in Caer Aranrhod, Gwydyon conjured up an illusionary invading force of ships and Aranrhod -with two young women- armed them both. Thus Lleu had both a name and was armed through the magical deception of his uncle Gwydyon.

Aranrhod was furious and proclaimed that Lleu would never, ever, have a wife. Gwydyon and Lleu then went to Math and complained about Aranrhod, described how they had overcome the curse of the name and of the weapons, and asked for his help.

Math and Gwydyon then summoned up the form of the most beautiful woman from the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet and thus created an immortal wife for the lad. She would be named Blodeuedd.

(Blodeuedd, Christopher Williams 1930[iii])

The couple were happy for some time, until Lleu left to visit his uncle Math.

Blodeuedd offered shelter to a passing hunter, named Goronwy, and the two fell in love and began to plot Lleu’s murder.

This would not be an easy task, for even after Blodeuedd coaxed from Lleu his only weakness, the conditions they had to set out for his death would not be easy to arrange and yet they had to be perfect.

Lleu could only be killed by a spear made for one year on Sundays while people were in mass[iv], while standing with one foot on a goat’s back and the other on the edge of a bath tub (not indoors or out, on horse or on foot) beneath a thatch roof on a river bank.

Under the assumptions of trust and love Lleu was tricked into meeting all of the conditions and struck by the poisoned spear that was thrown by the hidden huntsmen Goronwy. He immediately turned himself into an eagle and flew away critically injured.

Math and Gwydyon were distressed and saddened. So Gwydyon set out to find Lleu and did so only by following a pig to the base of a large oak tree with a rotting eagle in it. By chanting three times he called the eagle down to him in stages where he could strike him with his wand and turn him back into a man.

Lleu was now skin and bones and it took him one year to be cured before he could set out to avenge himself.

Goronwy was found and killed by Lleu’s hand as he threw a spear through a stone and broke his back. Blodeuedd was found and was transformed forever into the owl by Gwydyon.

“You will never show your face to the light of day, rather you shall fear other birds; they will be hostile to you, and it will be their nature to maul and molest you wherever they find you. You will not lose your name but will always be called Blodeuedd (flower face).[v]

Thus Lleu was avenged…

The Foliage:

The stories of the Celts were told by the bards, who were mystics, and held keys to enlightenment. Let us consider that numbers have meanings and perhaps referenced individual Ogham letters and likely had other mystical properties as well. There were three women who armed Lleu and Gwydyon (2 + 1 other – Aranrhod) three animals that the cousins became for a year and a day (two wild and one other, two herbivore and one other), three main women in this tale (2 + 1 other – Blodeuedd made from three flowers), and three birds (2 + 1 other -Wren), and the cousins had three sons. As the wand would possibly be of Hawthorn (or possibly Hazel) and the spear would most likely be of Ash, then we could also consider that the three fairy trees made an appearance as well.

There are other numbers to consider as well. The boy was four but looked eight. There were two sons born of the virgin, two cousins, and two in the pair of Gwydyon and Lleu. Numbers were sacred and held special meanings to the Celts and we can be sure that they held a special meaning within their tales[vi].

Let us consider then the Oak itself. The ground before us is fertile by the time that the flower of the Oak appears as Blodeuedd. Eventually the Eagle rests on the old tree at the end of the relationship, dies a type of death and is reborn. So we bear witness to the complete life of the tree from flower to old tree. Let us also not forget the two illusions of Gwydyon of the ships which would have been made of Oak. First there was one ship and then there were so many ships that they churned up the sea.

There are also many things that are “in between” in this tale as well. The river bank, the tree top, woman not a woman (made of flowers), man not a man (virgin birth), virgin not a virgin, and plenty of shapeshifting. The queen or bride of a king is usually considered to be the goddess or to be the land itself. If this is the case then what would be the purpose of the different types of women in the story? What could we learn from the defiled virgin who becomes a queen, the mother who is denied the right (?) to be a stool, and the adulterous wife who is the essence of nature herself?

Let us also be reminded of the impossible things in this story beyond magic and shapeshifting. Bards do not usually bear arms and for a king who cannot survive without the lap of a virgin, even for a night, Math does quite well for three years and three days before even seeking one out. Even then he does not seem to ever get a replacement “stool”. There are other details of the story I did not retell, such as Math’s ability to hear any whisper yet Gwydyon alone plots aloud plainly but remains unheard.

Duir is said to be the root word for door. To open the door to deeper and higher understanding, at least as the Celts would have done, we need to be able to see in symbols. We have already been told to do so from those such as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and now perhaps by the tellers of the old tales as well.

In our dreams we know that symbols hold meanings. In our tales we learn that there are many more hidden messages yet. Perhaps someday we may step through that doorway that exists in the forest, and see the language that is used by the gods.

May Duir, the oak, let it be so.

“The oak is possibly the most widely revered of all trees. The earliest spirits of Greek mythology were oak-tree spirits called Dryads, and it was believed that oak was the first tree created by God from which sprang the entire human race.”  – Jacqueline Memory Paterson (Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook) 


[i] Cooper.

[ii] Hageneder.

[iii] This image is of a drawing, painting, print, or other two-dimensional work of art, and the copyright for it is most likely owned by either the artist who produced the image, the person who commissioned the work, or the heirs thereof. It is believed that the use of low-resolution images of works of art for critical commentary on: the work in question, the artistic genre or technique of the work of art or the school to which the artist belongs on this web site qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. Any other uses of this image might be copyright infringement. – Wikipedia Image.

[iv] This is the second Christian reference in the tale, as the boy Dylan was earlier baptised. This is a testament of the times that the tales were finally put into writing.

[v] The quote is from The Mabinogion. The above story is my own version taken from this same original source and also from The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology.

[vi] Three is the triad of birth, life, death or start, middle, end, etc. For an interesting summary of Celtic numbers see Celtic Symbols by Sabine Heinz.