The Banshee: Ghost of the Celts

The Banshee’s arguably the most famous ghost of them all, and probably the least understood.

“When the Banshee calls she sings the spirit home. In some houses still a soft low music is heard at death.” – George Henderson 1911 (Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts)

There’s an Irish tradition promoting the Banshee as only ever interacting with certain families. Although folklorists have also made this statement in the past, it’s entirely false. The Banshee’s known by many different names, was encountered in many varied forms, and was believed to have existed by a wide array of people[i].

In Ireland, the Banshee is also called Banshie, Bean Si, Bean Sidhe, and Ban Side amongst other names. A great deal of surviving Banshee lore comes from outside of Ireland, however. In Scotland, for example, the Banshee may be referred to as Ban Sith or Bean Shith. On the Isle of Mann she’s called Ben Shee, while the Welsh call her close sister Cyhyraeth[ii].

The she in Banshee, or sidhe, suggests and older source for the stories. The sidhe were the old gods who had fled the Irish invaders to live inside of the hollow hills. They were also known as the Tuatha De Danaan or “the fair folk.”

Banshee: A female wraith of Irish or Scottish Gaelic tradition thought to be able to foretell but not necessarily cause death in a household.”  – James MacKillop (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)

In the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde, we’re told that the Irish Banshee was more likely to be beautiful, while the Scottish Banshee was more likely to appear in the image of an older crone-like woman. Like most things in Celtic lore, however, this wasn’t always consistent.

The Banshee would usually warn of death by: wailing, appearing as an apparition, playing or singing music, tapping on a window in the form of a crow, be seen washing body parts or armor at a stream, knocking at the door, whispering a name, or by speaking through a person that she had already possessed – a host or medium[iii]. The noble families of Ireland generally viewed the spirit’s attendance as a great honour. Some sources do say that the Banshee served only five Irish families, but others say that several hundred families had these spirits attached to them[iv]. The five families usually stated to have had Banshee attendants are the O’Neils, the O’Brians, the O’Gradys, the O’Conners, and the Kavanaghs. Many stories, however, are of other families.

The Ó Briains’ Banshee was thought to have had the name of Eevul[v], or Aibhill as she is called in the book True Irish Ghost Stories. Likewise, a great bard of the O’Connelan family had the goddess Aine (sometimes called Queen of Fairy), attend him in the role of a wailing Banshee in order to foretell – and honour – his death[vi]. Cliodhna (Cleena) is a goddess-like Munster Banshee, who people claimed was originally the ghost of a “foreigner.”  Most Banshees remained nameless, however.

The description of the Banshee varies a great deal throughout the many accounts. If she was young she often had red hair, but she could have “pale hair” as well. She was often described as wearing white, but sometimes she could be seen wearing green or other colors such as black or grey. Red shoes were sometimes mentioned, but so was a silver comb,[vii] which she either ran through her hair or left on the ground to capture some curious passerby. Most described her eyes as being red from crying, or keening, or to be menacing and evil looking. The eyes were also often said to be blue. In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 Popular Tales of the West Highlands, the Banshee was said to have webbed feet like a water creature. Sometimes she was wrapped in a white sheet or grey blanket – a statement that reveals an older funerary tradition and a possible source for the modern white sheet-ghosts of Halloween.

In True Irish Ghost Stories we’re told that the Banshee could not by seen by “the person whose death it [was] prognosticating.” This statement is not consistent with all of the stories either:

“THEN Cuchulain went on his way, and Cathbad that had followed him went with him. And presently they came to a ford, and there they saw a young girl thin and white-skinned and having yellow hair, washing and ever washing, and wringing out clothing that was stained crimson red, and she crying and keening all the time. ‘Little Hound,’ said Cathbad, ‘Do you see what it is that young girl is doing? It is your red clothes she is washing, and crying as she washes, because she knows you are going to your death against Maeve’s great army.’” – Lady Gregory 1902 (Cuchulain of Muirthemne – retelling of 12th CE)

Banshee
Watcher of the Ford. Eleanor Hull. 1904

The Banshee – who’s often said to have her roots in stories of Morrigan the Irish war goddess[viii] – could also follow families abroad. One famous story regarding the O’Grady family takes place along the Canadian coastline where two men die[ix]. St. Seymour shares another tale in which a partial Irish descendent sees a Banshee on a boat in an Italian lake. In Charles Skinner’s 1896 Myths and Legends of Our Own Land we’re also told of a South Dakota Banshee living in the United States.

The Banshee could also be a trickster of sorts. She was said to mess with “the loom” in Alexander Carmichael’s 1900 Carmina Gadelica. There’s even a blessing in the section, which is chanted over the item. In W.Y. Evens-Wentz’ 1911 Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries we’re told of a Banshee who could be placated by giving her barley-meal cakes on two separate hills. This action reminds us of the tithes often left for other trickster fairies, and doesn’t seem to be a customary gift one would leave for a ghost. As Katherine Briggs once said[x], however, fairies fall into two categories, “diminished gods and the dead.” Unfortunately, our modern conception of fairies does little to remind us that either one of these forms would be considered as a spirit-being today. As Evans-Wentz further explains:

“It is quite certain that the banshee is almost always thought of as the spirit of a dead ancestor presiding over a family, though here it appears more like the tutelary deity of the hills. But sacrifice being thus made, according to the folk-belief, to a banshee, shows, like so many other examples where there is a confusion between divinities or fairies and the souls of the dead, that ancestral worship must be held to play a very important part in the complex Fairy-Faith as a whole.” – W.Y. Evans-Wentz 1911 (Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)

The Banshee being attached to a certain family could be extremely beneficial and would have not been seen as a negative. As already stated, any family would’ve been seen as extremely important if a Banshee (or several) attended them. In George Henderson’s 1911 Survival in Belief Amongst Celts, a Banshee, or Maighdeann Shidhe, even gave the “Blue Stone of Destiny” to the Scottish hero Coinneach Odhar. In return for favours, however, it would’ve been extremely important to honour these spirits whenever possible, either out of respect for the Banshee, or from a place of fear in order to placate them.

In modern times, the Banshee became associated more and more with evil. As a portent of death she shared many things in common with the approaching Carriage of Death, the death candles, Ankou[xi] or even with the Grim Reaper. In her more ancient visage, she could easily be compared to the Norse Valkyrie (as the Morrigan often is) or to any other Shieldmaiden whose task it was to collect the dead[xii]. To the commoner of modern times, such a role was reserved for the Angels of God and for the Holy Church alone.

Furthermore, the Banshee – like other mystic beings of Celtic lore – was also able to appear in various non-human forms. A fact which would later make her seem in league with the devil:   

 “The Banshee is dreaded by dogs. She is a fairy woman who washes white sheets in a ford by night when someone near at hand is about to die. It is said she has the power to appear during day-time in the form of a black dog, or a raven, or a hoodie-crow.” – Donald MacKenzie 1917 (Wonder Tales From Scottish Myth & Legend)

Whether the Banshee does, or ever did, exist is a matter of conjecture. One thing is certain, however, the most famous ghost of them all is the one in which few people actually know anything about. The Banshee was more than a shrieking omen of death. In fact, individual Banshees appeared and behaved quite differently from one another in different stories.  Her attachment to a particular family was a relationship that was embraced by the Celtic people with pride, and with honour. Her haunting of a particular place, on the other hand, was met with wary bribes. An unknown Banshee – like a stray dog – could have been seen as something quite different altogether. It would have been this Banshee that brought with it fear – which was usually seen as nothing short of a greeting from death itself.

The Banshee in Celtic folklore seems much more interesting, when we realize that many of our modern ghost stories share the exact same elements. A deceased female relative forewarning death, a disembodied voice, a spirit attached to a particular family, or a haunted landmark may not seem to have anything to do with a Banshee today, but none of these stories are really all that different from the old ones at all. Like it or not, in modern folklore the Banshee still remains. It’s only our terminology that has changed.

Old Yale Brewery Tall Tale Series
Vancouver, BC’s Old Yale Brewery: Tall Tale Series

[i]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[ii]  (ibid)

[iii]  St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan. True Irish Ghost Stories. 1914.

[iv]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[v]  Thos Westrop. Folklore. 1910.

[vi]  W.Y. Evans-Wentz. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. 1911.

[vii]  This may be an overlap with the mermaid, which history likewise seems to have forgotten was also a spirit.

[viii]  James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.

[ix] This would most likely be referring to the east coast but could also be the west coast, as well.

[x]  Katherine Briggs. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. 1967.

[xii]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shieldmaiden

The Banshee
The Banshee. Henry Maynell Rheam. 1897
Banshee
Bunworth Banshee. From Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825

Mor (Twin of Hazel or the Sea)

(Black Rock, County Kerry, Ireland. Photograph by K. Glavin)

“In the midst of the Irish Sea, almost equidistant from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and concentrating in itself the psychical and magnetic influences from these three Celtic  lands, and from Celto-Saxon England too, lies the beautiful kingdom of the great Tuatha De Danann god, Manannan Mac Lir, or, as his loyal Manx subjects prefer to call him, Mannanan-Beg-Mac-y-Leir. In no other land of the Celt does Nature show so many moods and contrasts, such perfect repose at one time and at another time the mightiness of its unloosed powers, when the baffled sea throws itself angrily against a high rock bound coast, as wild and almost as weatherworn as the western coasts of Ireland and the Hebrides.” – W.Y. Evans-Wentz (The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911)

The Roots:

The twenty fifth, and final, letter of the Ogham is usually referred to as Mor, the sea.

There is much debate regarding this letter, however. The Ogham tract associates the final letter to the witch hazel[i] and lists the letter as Emancholl which apparently means “the twin” or “twin of Hazel.”[ii] This has usually been interpreted as the witch hazel or Beech; the Beech being the second choice because of the many similarities that are shared between the two trees.

Nigel Pennick in Magical Alphabets reminds us that the Witch Hazel was not indigenous to Europe and was likely not the original tree ascribed. He believes the letter should be attributed to the Scots Pine.

It was Robert Graves in the Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects that originally put forward the idea that this few represented the shirt of Manannan, which was found in the mythical crane-bag. Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle would later interpreted the meaning of this few as Mor, the Sea, as a result.

Most users of the Ogham – especially those who view the Ogham as a Tree Alphabet – do see this final letter as representing Mor, the Sea. Despite being a Tree Alphabet to most users of the Ogham, however, this is the one letter that deviates from the woodland theme.  It is almost always listed as representing the Sea.

Reconstructionists, on the other hand, tend to list this letter as Emancholl. These individuals do not view the Ogham as being a tree alphabet yet interpret the meaning of the few as being the twin of Hazel. As I have already mentioned, this would be the witch hazel or the Beech.

The Witch Hazel does not appear very often in the old tales. This is likely, as Pennick had already stated, due to the plant’s late arrival into this land of the Celts.

In Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde, there is a story of a healer using three witch-hazel rods in a from of divination. He does this to reveal a sick person’s ailments. In Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie the plant is used as protection against the fairies, alongside Rowan, and in conjunction with a Blackthorn staff and a bible.

The Beech is just as uncommon in these stories if not more so. Robert Graves in the White Goddess links the Beech tree to language, learning, literature and books. This is easy to verify due to the double meaning of Beech and Book in many languages including Old English and Old Norse[iii]. The tree is absent from the folktales, however, because the Beech is not native to Ireland and was only found in South England. Beech is not likely to have been the original tree associated with this letter either.

This leaves us looking backwards, towards that elusive “twin of Hazel” once more, looking for any clues. Perhaps we need to re-examine Coll, the Hazel, once more.

The most famous story of the Hazel in Irish Mythology is as an Otherworldly tree, or trees rather. These live on the other side of the veil. These trees provide the nuts of wisdom eaten by the salmon who in turn is eaten by Finn Mac Cool. The trees exist beneath the Sea and are said to be purple.

It is perhaps this reasoning, alongside Graves’ interpretation of Manannan’s shirt, which prompted Liz and Colin Murray to list this few as being Mor.

In the Celtic Tree Oracle Liz and Colin Murray link this few to the physical ocean itself, with travel, and to maternal links. They also claim that the letter represents “hidden knowledge that is only available when the moon and sea are full.”

John Michael Greer in the Druid Magic Handbook says that this few represents “beginnings, endings, and the influence of outside forces, symbolized by the sea; the arrival of a new factor, the workings of destiny.”

Nigel Pennick adds that this letter “goes beyond the conventional 24-fold divisions of things customary in the Northern Tradition (as, for example, the 24 hours in the day, the 24 half-months of the year, the 24 characters of the Welsh bardic alphabet, and the 24 runes of the Elder Futhark). Because of this, it [the 25th letter] is considered to be outside the conventions of the other 24 characters.”

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam:Weaving Word Wisdom says that this few is an “intensification of the other fiodh” She also believes, however, that the few can represent illness. She takes this second meaning from the word-Oghams found in the Ogham Tract[iv].

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the word-Ogham “sign of a weary one” as representing “exhaustion.” Caitlin Mathews does not mention this letter in her book Celtic Wisdom Sticks.”

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids says that this few represents magic and hidden knowledge.” Ellison uses the Witch Hazel to represent this letter and says that the plant can be used in binding spells.

Mor, the sea, represents that which is other. It can represent the Sea itself or the Otherworld. The Sea and Manannan are one and the same. The Sea does not represent the god. The Sea is the god.

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.”

The shirt of Manannan is the final item found in the crane-bag. The stories involving Manannan Mac Lir in Irish, Manx and Scottish mythology are many. He is usually associated with the Tuatha De Danaan, but is in fact from the older race of gods the Fomorians. Here are some excerpts from James MacKillop’s Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. I have placed them together as a single entry even though this is an extremely condensed version of the complete entry:

“Manannan Mac Lir: Principal sea-deity and also otherworldly ruler of Irish and Goidelic traditions. He is sometimes, but not usually, numbered as a lord of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Through many texts over several centuries, some aspects of Manannán’s person remain constant. Although a shape-shifter, he is usually portrayed as a handsome and noble warrior, evocative of the classical gods Poseidon and Neptune, with whom he is often compared. He possesses a magical currach (‘the wave-sweeper’), but most often he travels over the waves with a horse, Énbarr or Aonbárr, usually in a chariot but sometimes on horseback. Nor can the armour of any enemy withstand his enchanted sword Frecraid [the answerer]. Among his supernatural powers is the ability to cast spells, féth fiada, which he teaches to the druids, and the ability to envelop himself in a mist that makes him invisible to his enemies, a facility shared by the Olympians in the Iliad. He often wears a great cloak that catches the light and can assume many colours, like the sea itself; with one sweep of it, Manannán can change destinies. An even more important possession is the crane bag that holds all his possessions, including language. He also owns birds, hounds, and magical pigs that can be eaten on one day but will be alive the next so that they can be slaughtered and eaten again. Among his wives are Fand [tears], herself a deity of water, and Aife, transformed into a crane by luchra, and from whose skin the crane bag was made. Although Manannán is not the central figure in any single narrative, his appearances dominate the action of many stories. No story tells of Manannán’s death, but allusions are made to his decline when he refuses to accept the succession of Bodb Derg. He is thought to have again assisted the Tuatha Dé Danann after their defeat by the Milesians when they dwindled into the small creatures who live under the earth. Prayers directed to him were thought to bring fishermen a bountiful catch.”

What seems most interesting to me is the succession of the items, or order, found in the crane-bag and the importance of the owners themselves. If we look at the King of Scotland, the King of Lochlain, Goibne, Asail and Manannan we see a procession of increasing power. The King of Scotland is, perhaps, the most mundane of the five males, while Manannan is the most Otherworldly and powerful. The items could also possibly be listed from semi ordinary (shears) to extremely powerful (the shirt of Manannan himself).

If we look at the symbols listed for each letter and their meanings we are perhaps given yet another clue. We begin with the Salmon, then we step into the Gold, then we use the Elbow, this is followed by the the food, Honey, and completed with the twin of hazel.

If the Salmon is the Grove, the Gold is the Fire, the Elbow is the work done transforming substances at the Forge and the Honey is the food of the gods, then we can only assume that the Twin of Hazel represents the ability to be in the Otherworld (by wearing Manannan’s shirt), as a result of having stepped through the previous symbols or states of being. Speaking more plainly, this procession of metaphors could perhaps be seen as a symbolic series of steps which were utilized in order to enter into the Otherworld. This could’ve even been, as unlikely as it may seem, a type of poet grading system – like the modern and generally accepted Bard, Ovate and Druid.

One must go into the Grove seeking wisdom like the Salmon. This is the step of intention and the tool seems to be the shears. Secondly, one must create a sacred space and build a there a fire. From here divination may also be engaged, as one’s sight is altered upon wearing the helmet. Next, one must do transforming work like that of Goibne the smith. Goibne works with the fire and alters the metals into powerful items with the aid of the hook. This is the state of magic making. Then, there is the eating of the honey, or sweet food, of the gods (like the regenerating pigs that are ready to be eaten at full tide). Once the food has been fully prepared, it is eaten and the transformation into a new being – or more powerful version of oneself – begins. Finally, one path taker can open their eyes to find that they are wearing the shirt of Manannan Mac Lir. They are then beneath the ocean in the Underworld, before the purple Twins of Hazel which had offered the wisdom to the Salmon that began the journey in the first place. It is at this place where we have finally realized our full journey and have stepped into the world of the others.

While my symbolic journey through the Forfeda is likely nothing more than my own musings or imagination, it brings me some sort of satisfaction to find that a thread does exists within these extra letters. I can then look back across the last half-year and see a continuous pathway through the forest that started at the very beginning, where Birch’s were swaying and whispering at the edge of the forest, beside the throne room of Manannan.

Eating the nuts of wisdom, I then discover that the journey never ends, it only begins anew and fresh.

There before me is the Birch once more.

The Foliage:

Samhain is a time to honour those who have passed before us, and those other ancestors long dead who we have never known on any conscious level. It’s a time to give thanks for all those things that we have, and a time to be thankful for all of those things that we are about to receive during the coming year. It is also a time to thank the spirits that have aided us over the past year and to make petitions against tricksters who may wish to bring chaos into our lives during the days ahead. In short, it is a time where the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest, and a place where messages of any kind may be more easily heard from either side of this Celtic twilight.

Most of the sources that I referenced in this blog are writers that are no longer amongst the living. Colin Murray (no image attached) passed away in the eighties as did Robert Graves and Joseph Campbell. W.Y Evans Wentz who wrote the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries passed on in 1965, as did Sir James Frazer in 1941. Lady Gregory, author of Gods and Fighting Men, died in 1932. Alexander Carmichael (no image attached) who brought us the Carmina Gadelica passed away in 1912. Lady Wilde, mother of Oscar Wilde and author of Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, died in relative poverty in 1896. Lady Charlotte Guest who is famous for her translation of the Mabinogion passed away in 1895.

I would like to take this time to honour some of these men and women who have preserved our past and allowed me to research the Ogham and the forest lore of the Celts. All of the images below are taken from Wikipedia except for the drawing of Lady Wilde which was taken from sacredtexts.com.

(Joseph Campbell)

(Robert Graves)

(W.Y. Evans-Wentz)

(Sir James Frazer)

(Lady Gregory)

(Lady Wilde)

(Lady Charlotte Guest)

“There was always an element of fear and trepidation about this night – the eve before Samhain- and also one of expectancy. When the dead were abroad, certain kinds of divination could be practiced, which asked questions of the ancestors.” – Caitlin Mathews(The Celtic Spirit)


[i] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

[ii] Eryn Rowan Laurie. Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[iv] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

Ohn (Gorse or Broom)

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds, St. Stephen’s Day was killed in the furze; Although he be little his honour is great, so, good people, give us a treat. – Peter Ellis (the Druids)[i]

 

The Roots:

The seventeenth letter of the Ogham is Ohn, which is usually listed as the Gorse. According to Robert Graves, some lists use Scotch Broom instead[ii].

Gorse is also known as Sea Gorse, Furz, Furze, Furse or Whin. It is a close relative to the Broom plant belonging to the same tribe Genisteae, with the main differing quality being its sharp thorns or spikes. In Cad Goddeu –the Battle of the Trees- Broom even seems to become the parent of the Gorse -within the poem- when the story says that, “The Brooms with their offspring [arrived?]: the Furz was not well behaved, until he was tamed…”  Interestingly, though unrelated, the “Gorse” is also said to be great in battle elsewhere in the same poem[iii].

James Frazer, in the Golden Bough, says that in folk rituals the Furz and the Broom were often interchangeable. This may be why some of the Ogham lists use Broom instead of Gorse. It may also be why Robert Graves left Broom out of his Ogham list as the plant for Ngetal[iv] and instead replaced it with the Reed Grass. Perhaps he thought that the Broom and Gorse were too similar to one another to each have a letter in the Ogham? Another possibility that I have mentioned before is that he may have chosen this placement more to support his tree calendar theory than for any other historical or mythological significance.

Liz and Colin Murray in the Celtic Tree Oracle said that Gorse represented the collecting together of various objects for ones journey. They compared the Gorse to the magpie, which is a highly intelligent bird believed to collect shiny objects for its nest.

John Michael Greer agrees saying that Ohn is the few of attracting, of combination, possibility, growth and potential[v].

Nigel Pennick also believes similarly that Ohn is the letter of continuous fertility, collecting and dispersal[vi].

Robert Graves reminds us that Furz is one of the very first flowers to be visited by bees collecting nectar and pollen in the spring. It is a plant, he claims, that is also good to use against witches[vii].

Eryn Rowan Laurie says that Gorse is the plant for foundations and the journey. Ohn is also related to ones path, choices, direction and intention. The energy of the Broom plant, on the other hand, is of healing and of wounding[viii].

The Broom is listed in the Ogham tract as associated to healing and physicians. The Gorse is associated to the wheel of the chariot, and by extension to travelling[ix].

Both the Broom and the Gorse have strong connections to witches and to the fairies. The Gorse in particular has a connection with the Cailleach, the great hag Goddess who is sometimes named the Queen of the Fairies.

Ohn is the few of journeys and of the preparation for the mission at hand. The Gorse speaks of darker tools and attitudes needed to succeed upon the path, while the Broom reminds us that we must be ready to heal and create if we are called upon to do so.

The Trunk:

According to James Frazer in the Golden Bough, “old straw, furz or broom was burned in Scotland for Beltane fires “a little after sunset.” Broom was also burned to repel witches.

The connection of Gorse, or Furz, and Broom to witches, fairies and protection seems to radiate throughout many myths. It is never entirely clear however if the plants are beneficial or harmful. Perhaps they are both.

The Golden Bough tells us that Gorse was burned as a sort of smudge to bless and protect the cattle from witches on the Isle of Mann.

In the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, 1911, we are told that Furz fires were sometimes built as a gift to the fairies to keep them warm. The book also says that any gifts of gold given to a person by the fairy may turn to Furz blossoms if that person told another of the source of their newfound wealth.That was if their telling didn’t outright kill them!  Eryn Rowan Laurie also speaks of the gold found beneath the Gorse.

The same text gives us a story from the Isle of Mann. There was apparently a “strange woman” who was seen to have materialized within the Gorse bush and walked over it, “where no person could walk”, and touched one of the cows that belonged to the witness. A few days later the heifer fell over dead. Witches and fairies seemed to have always been after the cows in those days, as well as the milk and butter that they produced, as this was the wealth of the Celtic ancestors. It seems to have been a common belief that witches and fairies coveted this wealth.

In the Fairy legends of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825, we are also told of an apparition that growled like “burning Gorse.”

The Broom plant seems to be a little lighter.

The most famous story involving Broom was previously covered when we discussed Duir, the Oak, and that is the story of Blodeuwedd, “flower face.” She was created by Gwydion and Math to be the wife of Lleu who had a curse placed on him, by his mother, to wed no mortal woman. This story is found in the Mabinogion. The plants used to create Blodeuwedd are listed as the flowers of Oak, meadowsweet and Broom. She was created from vegetation and was thus not mortal and a suitable wife for Lleu. In this highly symbolic and charged tale Blodeuwedd ends up betraying Lleu with Gronw Pebyr, a passing hunter. Gronw is eventually killed and Blodeuwedd is made into the owl, a bird which is hated by all, by Gwydion to punish her.

(E. Wallcousins. From Celtic Myth and Legend. Charles Squire, 1905)

While the Broom’s most famous story is one of creating a beautiful woman the Gorse’s most relevant tale seems to speak of old age, death and destruction.

A most interesting story is told of the Cailleach in the Carmina Gadelica that relates to the Gorse. The Cailleach, the great hag, is often seen as the goddess of winter. In the first week of April she would use her magic wand to keep the vegetation from growing by swinging it back and forth over the struggling signs of new growth. Eventually, she would be overpowered by the elements of spring. She would eventually admit defeat and fly off in a rage screaming:

“It escaped me below, it escaped me above,

It escaped me between my two hands,

It escaped me before, it escaped me behind,

It escaped me between my two eyes,

It escaped me down, it escaped me up,

It escaped me between my two ears,

It escaped me thither, it escaped me hither,

It escaped me between my two feet.

I throw my druidic evil wand

Into the base of a withered hard Whin bush,

Where shall not grow ‘fionn’ nor ‘fionnidh,’

But fragments of grassy froinnidh.”

This chant extracted from Visions of the Cailleach by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine gives the reason why other plants do not grow beneath the Gorse[x]. It is also a clue as to the harnessing of the powers of winter, to witches to come, through the use of a wand of Gorse.

Whether the Gorse or Broom is seen as either positive or negative, it is clear that these plants are flora of a once highly respected magical tradition.

The Broom seems to offer wealth, healing, and manifestation.

The Gorse or Furz seems to offer wealth, destruction, and protection from manifestation.

Both plants could have been seen as powerful allies, upon the road that one was to journey upon.

The Foliage:

When one considers that the Gorse and the Broom both grew, and continue to grow, out in the open and needed to be tamed -by our ancestors- then the parallels between the two plants becomes apparent. Both plants were often burnt back by shepherds and farmers to preserve the land from being overwhelmed. Gorse on the one hand had spiky thorns while the Broom was softer but just as prolific.

In the Ogham Tract[xi] the trees and plants of the Ogham are listed according to their rank. Some trees are seen as chieftain trees, some are seen as peasant trees and some are seen as shrub trees. Interestingly enough, the Furz is listed as a chieftain tree but -as Whin- is listed again as a peasant tree[xii]. It is also assumed that Broom is listed as a shrub tree in this particular order by its absence. Under Brehon law[xiii], however, both the Broom and the Furz are given the lowest rank of “bramble” trees.

The listing of Gorse as a chieftain plant during these earlier times probably had a great deal to do with the respect that was given to it. There seems to be a common theme in the tree and plant mythology of the Celtic ancestors and that was that the thorn plants –Hawthorn, Blackthorn, and Blackberry- were protected by the fairies and thus were sacred, feared, or both.

According to Eryn Rowan Laurie the Gorse was used in some parts of Ireland instead of the Hawthorn as the May bush. This could have only been possible if the Gorse was a greatly respected plant of the times, for it to have been used in this way.

Unrecognized and powerful, like the ivy plant, the Gorse and Broom are considered in many places to be invasive and aggressive plants that threaten the native growth of local flora. Today these weeds have sought out the attention of millions of dollars in a bid to remain acknowledged and recognized.

Perhaps, this is merely a coincidence.

“Our outer world is progressively diminished and corrupted by abuse of technology, greed and indifference to the welfare of other orders of life, and romantic adventurers often complain that there is nothing left to explore, no liberating challenge or experience. But liberation comes from within, both within ourselves and within the Underworld that is the original source and image for our planet.” –R.J. Stewart(Earth Light, 1992)



[i] Another version of this old Irish song is found in the Golden Bough by James Frazer.

[ii] The White Goddess.

[iii] D.W. Nash translation. Ibid.

[iv] Ngetal is the thirteenth letter of the Ogham.

[v] The Druid Magic Handbook.

[vi] Magical Alphabets.

[vii] The White Goddess.

[viii] Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[ix] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

[x] A similar tale found in the same book has the Cailleach throwing a black hammer instead of a wand, and having it land beneath the Holly tree instead of the Gorse. Again, this is the reason given for the scant vegetation found beneath the Holly.

[xi] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

[xii] Robert Graves believed that this was a mistake and should have been Holly instead.

[xiii] Irish law. The White Goddess.

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.