Coll (Hazel) II

“Another form of divination was called coelbrini or ‘omen sticks’ in which the Druids used sticks, in some cases wands of hazel inscribed with Ogham, which were cast upon the ground, their fall then being interpreted.” – Peter Berresford Ellis (The Druids)

The Roots:

The ninth letter of the Ogham, in its tree form, is the Hazel.

Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks says that the Hazel is associated with wisdom. This is generally a universal interpretation for the tree as discussed previously.

Caitlin Mathews also assigns Hazel some divinatory interpretations within the system found in her book. The Hazel, it would seem, is also related to peace.

Robert Ellison speaks of the Hazel’s many magical uses within Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids. The Hazel, he informs us, can be used for shapeshifting, protection, or to have wishes granted. Ellison also relates Hazel to wisdom. He adds intuition as well.

In the Celtic Shaman we are told by John Mathews that the word Ogham – kennings – say that Hazel is “the fairest of trees.” He equates this poetic phrase with beauty.

The Hazel, or Coll, is often associated with wisdom. This interpretation refers to the nuts of the magical Hazel tree, as well as to their direct, or indirect, ingestion resulting in wisdom.

In the previous post regarding Hazel we discussed this topic in detail. This time, we will focus instead on the wood of the Hazel tree itself instead of on the nuts.

While the nuts of the Hazel that are found in legend have properties of wisdom, the wood of the tree itself is associated with peace. Some might claim that this wood has shapeshifting properties as well.

The Trunk:

The white Hazel staff, or wand, is a symbol of peace.

Found within the Tain are references to the herald of a king bearing a staff of white Hazel[i]. This herald is seen as a non-combatant simply because he carries the Hazel.

In the Celtic Tradition by Caitlin Mathews we are also told that the Hazel signifies peace:

“Samhain was a feast of peace and friendship, during which no weapon was lifted. Midir advises Oengus to approach Elcmar on this day, since Elcmar will be carrying only a staff of white hazel, signifying peaceful intention.”

Within Joseph Dunn’s translation of the Tain we find that Cuchulain was forced to fight and kill three enemies at the same time. This was normal enough for him, but he was also forced to fight their three charioteers! Charioteers were usually seen as non-combatants, like heralds, in war. These charioteers not only attacked Cuchulain, however, – making it six on one – but their weapons of choice were staffs of Hazel.

The story found in the Tain seems to indicate that not only did Cuchulain continue to fight against impossible odds, but that his enemies refused to honour the Celtic customs of combat and etiquette practiced at the time.

Furthermore, this symbol of peace may have had a more significant meaning than we realize during the testing of the Fianna. These Fianna were the High King of Ireland’s elite soldiers and they were under the command of Finn. The selection process for the Fianna was arduous. One of the tests that prospective Fianna had to pass involved the wood of the Hazel both directly and, possibly, indirectly.

During one of the tests the Fianna prospect was buried in a pit up to his waste. He was then given a Hazel “stick” and a shield. 9 spears were then cast at the young recruit. None of them could hit him or mark him in any way.

If we see the Hazel as a symbol of peace then the message seems clear. Despite being a warrior, one should also be able to wield the weapons of peace.

There is another link to the Hazel found within the tale as well. This connection is much more indirect and its meaning can only be contemplated.

It was Balor, the one-eyed, whose head was cut off and hung from a Hazel tree by Lugh. The head dripped poison into the ground and the roots of the tree soaked the liquid up. After some time, the god Manannan saw the tree and had it taken down so that he could have a shield made from it.

Taking the tree down turned out to be costly. The poison was so great that many of Manannan’s men were killed (two sets on nine[ii]) while many more (nine as well) were struck blind[iii]. A shield for the god was crafted from the wood. Manannan’s magical shield would eventually become the inheritance of Finn.

If we consider that the Fianna undergoing these tests were emulating Finn himself, then the significance of the shield may also bear reflection. The shield used during the trials could have also been made from, or have represented, the Hazel as well.

What this would mean, though, may not be so clear. Instead of promoting peace or wisdom this item seemed to give only death.

As Robert Ellison noted the Hazel can also be associated with shape changing. This statement seems to initially be a comparison between the shape-shifting Taliesin and his Irish counterpart Finn. While Finn ate the salmon that had ingested the nuts, Taliesin only ingested a few drops of the content from a cauldron. The similarities between the two stories are apparent. The story of Taliesin never directly mentions the Hazel nut, though. Finn does not seem to have the same power to shape shift on command. The stories may have a slight apple to oranges feel to them when they are compared directly.

There is another story that may solidify the shape shifting argument, however. This is also a story involving Finn. It can be found in Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by T.W. Rolleston, Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory, and in other places as well. This is the story involving the Dark Druid.

While the story is actually somewhat lengthy, the facts regarding the Hazel may easily be summed up. The “Dark Druid” is obsessed with Finn’s wife Sadbh. To steal her the druid – who sometimes seems to have possessed her in the first place – strikes Sadbh with his wand. Not only does she turn into a deer, but she’s forced to follow him as the holder of the wand. Sadbh becomes lost to Finn forever.

While the Hazel nut may give its consumer the power to shift forms, the wielder of the Hazel wand seems to be able to shift the forms of others. While the information seems scarce regarding this matter, the prospect is not entirely unlikely. Hazel seems to be linked to shape shifting.

The Hazel is also given a very high place in Irish mythology. It seems to be one of the three great treasures of the Irish landscape in at least one tale.

When Amergin meets the three women of the Tuatha De Danaan he is given their names and the names of their husbands[iv]. One of the husbands is named ‘Son of the Plough,’ another of the husbands is named ‘Son of the Sun,’ and the final husband is named ‘Son of the Hazel[v].’

Thus the women were married to the sons of abundance. In the harsh and often tumultuous lives of the Celts the symbolism would have been apparent.

Ireland was a land of fertility and of peace.

The Foliage:

Jacqueline Memory Paterson shares an interesting spell that uses Hazel in Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook. Paterson states the following to be a seventeenth century spell used to see “faeries.”

One must first gather some wild thyme from the side of a hill where “fairies still live.” Mix a half litre (pint) of salad oil with rose and marigold water (these flowers should be picked from the east). Shake the mixture until it is white. Put the liquid into a glass container.

Now add the wild thyme, buds of hollyhocks, marigold flowers, and the buds of young hazels. Finally, add the grass of a fairy throne (tussock). Allow all of the ingredients to dissolve for three days in the sun.

The concoction can be stored and used when it is needed. Paterson says that this can either be used by, “anointing the body and/or ingesting.”

 

“The nuts would fall into the water, causing bubbles of mystic inspiration to form, or were eaten by salmon. The number of spots on a salmon’s back were thought to indicate the number of nuts it had consumed.” – James MacKillop (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)



[i] Joseph Dunn, Lady Gregory, etc.

[ii] Coll is also associated with the number nine. This would have been an important number to the triad obsessed Celts. The number nine is composed of three threes.

[iii] Lady Gregory. Gods and Fighting Men.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Not necessarily in this order.

* image at top of post is from superstock.com

Tinne (Holly) II

“Since early times holly has been regarded as a plant of good omen, for its evergreen qualities make it appear invulnerable to the passage of time as the seasons change. It therefore symbolizes the tenacity of life even when surrounded by death, which it keeps at bay with strong protective powers.” Jacqueline Memory Paterson (Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook)

The Roots:

As discussed previously, Holly is a tree often associated with warriors, battle and death.

Holly is a leaf bearing evergreen tree, which has come to represent both the Wildman and the darkening of the year as the Holly King[i]. Perhaps both of these images are related to one another? The wild beast that exists within us is also repressed or destroyed at the height of that darkness within us – just like the Holly King  so that we are not consumed and swallowed by our own animalistic nature. Just like the Holly King is killed by the Oak King on the darkest night of the year, the Wildman, who hugs the shadows, is repressed – or temporarily killed – during our own darkest hour.

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman leaves is with a clue regarding the Holly as being “a third of…” something that remains unstated. Previous writers have explained this third portion that is mentioned to represent either chariot wheels (Holly axle,) or the third part of a weapon (maybe a spear shaft?).

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids says that Holly represents “justice and balance.” He also mentions the wheel and the weapon when he quotes previous Word-Oghams within his book.

Caitlin Mathews’ divination system found within Celtic Wisdom Sticks equates Holly with a type of cyclical wisdom. Her interpretations for Holly are all related to previous experiences holding answers for us in the present. As history repeats itself, the individual should know what actions are needed either logically or intuitively. In this way, Holly is always guiding us forward.

Holly represents half of the year from the summer solstice to the winter solstice. Holly, then, may also represent all that is dark or unkind such as our animalistic natures, battle and death. Any cycle can be seen as being symbolic of the cycle of life and death. By keeping this knowledge in perspective we simplify life and become wiser.

The Trunk:

Holly has an unusual role within Celtic mythology. It is a role which is not often discussed and may be overlooked. Holly often seems to be the mediator between the world of humans and that of the beasts.

Jacqueline Paterson quotes Pliny when she says that “if Holly wood was thrown in any direction it will compel the animal to obey.” While the reference to Pliny may not be as reliable as some of the Celtic sources, it deserves to be mentioned as support for the argument that Holly had special powers over beasts.

In the Mabinogion[ii] we bear witness to some unexplained magic. Taliesin helps Elphin (who saved him from the salmon weir) win a horse race with the use of Holly. We are not told exactly what the Holly does, but it seems to be instrumental in helping Elphin win the race.

“Then he (Taliesin) bade Elphin wager the king, that he had a horse both better and swifter than the king’s horses. And this Elphin did, and the day, and the time, and the place were fixed, and the place was that which at this day is called Morva Rhiannedd: and thither the king went with all his people, and four-and-twenty of the swiftest horses he possessed. And after a long process the course was marked, and the horses were placed for running.

“Then came Taliesin with four-and-twenty twigs of holly, which he had burnt black, and he caused the youth who was to ride his master’s horse to place them in his belt, and he gave him orders to let all the king’s horses get before him, and as he should overtake one horse after the other, to take one of the twigs and strike the horse with it over the crupper, and then let that twig fall; and after that to take another twig, and do in like manner to every one of the horses, as he should overtake them, enjoining the horseman strictly to watch when his own horse should stumble…”

The youth is also instructed to throw down his cap when his own horse (actually Elphin’s) stumbles. They dig where the cap has fallen and cauldron of gold is found. Taliesin then hands the treasure over to the “unlucky” Elphin as a reward for saving him.

In Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory we find more Holly references. We are given a poem attributed to Finn (like Taliesin he was possessed with all knowledge). The poem seems more like a riddle for the initiated than a simple reflection. Its true meanings may elude us. The mention of Holly is interesting though.

“There is a hot desire on you for the racing horses; twisted Holly makes a leash for the hound.”

While this reference could have many other possible explanations or interpretations, we should remember that good Celtic poetry was often rife with double meanings. The songs of these enlightened bards were meant to be studied and contemplated. This reference to Holly could easily be a statement of its perceived powers.

Within the same text we find that Diarmuid and Grania are on the run from Finn. For a short while they are accompanied by a servant named Muadhan who seems to be a beast man of some sort.

Muadhan enters the story suddenly and leaves suddenly. He carries Diarmuid and Grania on his back over rivers and when they are too tired to walk. He pulls a “whelp” from his pocket and throws it at one of Finn’s hounds killing the canine enemy. Every night he also catches salmon for all three of them. Muadhan lives very closely to the land and his methods are very interesting.

“And he went himself into the scrub that was near, and took a straight long rod of a quicken-tree, and he put a hair and a hook on the rod, and a holly berry on the hook, and he went up the stream, and he took a salmon with the first cast. Then he put on a second berry and killed another fish, and he put on a third berry and killed the third fish. Then he put the hook and the hair under his belt, and struck the rod into the earth, and he brought the three salmon where Diarmuid and Grania were, and put them on spits.”

Here we see that Muadhan seems to live more closely to the land and be somewhat of a beast himself. He also seems to be carnivorous. Interestingly, Muadhan always keeps the smallest portion for himself.

(Wild men support coat of arms in the side panels of a 1499 portrait by Albrecht Durer[iii])

The story of Cuchulain – whose name means “the hound” – also has some interesting Holly references. Joseph Dunn’s translation of the Tain Bo Cuailnge is the source of this quote:

“On the morrow Nathcrantail went forth from the camp and he came to attack Cuchulain. He did not deign to bring along arms but thrice nine spits of holly after being sharpened, burnt and hardened-in fire.”

Nathcrantail casts all of these “darts” but does not kill Cuchulain. He does, however, manage to interrupt his bird hunting and scatters his prey.

“It was then, when Nathcrantail threw the ninth dart that the flock of birds which Cuchulain pursued on the plain flew away from Cuchulain. Cuchulain chased them even as any bird * of the air.* He hopped on the points of the darts like a bird from each dart to the next, pursuing the birds that they might not escape him but that they might leave behind a portion of food for the night. For this is what sustained and served Cuchulain, fish and fowl and game on the Cualnge Cow-spoil.”

We see then that Cuchulain is more of a beast than a man due to his ability to leap through the air and his need to capture his own meals. Cuchulain also seems to be carnivorous.

When Cuchulain is asked why he did not kill Nathcrantail he says it is because his enemy was unarmed. Clearly the Holly “darts” are not viewed as weapons by Cuchulain in the conventional sense.

“Dost not know, thou and Fergus and the nobles of Ulster, that I slay no charioteers nor heralds nor unarmed people? And he bore no arms but a spit of wood.”

Also found in the book, it is a “spit of holly” that finally wounds Cuchulain. The wound is self inflicted during a bout of rage. There is a suggestion, then, that Holly may be a sort of Kryptonite to Cuchulain. Where his enemies could not succeed with swords and spears, he accidently accomplishes with a sharpened piece of burnt wood.

Paterson speaks at length of the Holly King and the Wildman within Tree Wisdom. She explains in which ways she sees them as being one and the same.

“Thus we see that the Wildman expressed the procreative essence of Nature, the Godhead. And from his primal beginnings and through translations of his manifold energy he came to personify specific aspects of the energies of Nature, from which forms like the holly and oak kings evolved, embodiments par excellence of the seasonal forces associated with the dark and light periods of the year.”

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Holly had a more specific use to the Celts of old. It seems to be the gate keeper and the guardian of the wild aspect of nature as well as the ruler over all of those that are wild.

In both Ireland and Wales, the wood of Holly is burnt before it is used[iv].

The Foliage:

The following information is from Cat Yronwode’s Herb Magic[v] website. The wording is very detached to protect them from possible lawsuits. It may also be possible that Holly is not a common herb used in Hoodoo. These uses for Holly seem to be mostly protective.

Holly can be burned with incense to protect the home and to bring good luck. Holly can also be placed above the door for protection and to invite into the home benevolent spirits.

As these are all qualities that we wish to attract to the home, Holly would best be used during the waxing phase of the moon.

“The Holly is best in the fight. He battles and defends himself, defeating enemies, those who wish to destroy him, with his spines. The leaves are soft in summer but in winter, when other greenery is scarce and when the evergreen Holly is likely to be attacked by browsing animals, the leaves harden, the spines appear and he is safe.”  – Liz and Colin Murray (The Celtic Tree Oracle)



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

[ii] Lady Charlotte Guest translation.

[iv] As related in the tales involving Finn and Taliesin.

 

Huathe (Hawthorn) II

“Every hair on him was as sharp as a thorn of hawthorn, and a drop of blood on each hair. He would not recognise comrades or friends. He would strike alike before and behind. It is from this that the men of Connaught gave Cuchulainn the name Riastartha.” –Winifred Faraday (Cattle Raid of Cualnge, 1904)

 

1) The Roots: Background information

2) The Trunk: Celtic Mythology and Significance

3) The Foliage: Spells using the Plant

 

The Roots:

The sixth letter of the Ogham is Huathe, which is known as the Hawthorn within the Tree Ogham.

As previously stated, the Hawthorn makes up part of the fairy triad along with the Ash and the Oak tree.

In the Celtic Shaman, by John Mathews, the Word-Ogham of Morann Mac Main – “a pack of wolves” or terror- is interpreted as representing “challenge.”

Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks has a similar interpretation for Huathe’s meaning. Her divination system’s interpretations for the few navigates around those times when ‘facing fears’ is necessary. “Through terror, ancient heroes came again, unapprehending of the danger or the pain.”

In Ogham: Secret Language of the Druids Robert Ellison interprets Huathe as being related to counselling, protection, and cleansing. He reflects upon other writers’ interpretations as being connected with “horror” or “terror.” Unfortunately, he does not elaborate on his own unique interpretation.

Huathe, or Hawthorn, is a very magical and respected tree. Individuals gain great power through its blessings, or unveil a world of horror. Metaphorically, we can face our challenges, our fears, and unleash a greater part of ourselves than we had ever imagined existed.

The Trunk:

The Welsh giant Yspaddaden Penkawr (Giant Hawthorn) is associated with the Hawthorn through his name[i]. His daughter, Olwen, is said to leave white flowering trefoils behind her in her footprints. This story is found in the Mabinogion.

In the 1911 book Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by Thomas Rollesten we are given a connection between Merlin – Arthur’s Druid – and the Hawthorn. As various myths and legends often vary in their details, we are given different descriptions of Merlin’s home within the text. The abode of Merlin, we are told, can be described as either made of “glass, or a bush of whitethorn laden with bloom, or a sort of mist or smoke” or to have been composed of air.

This is not the first time that the Hawthorn has been associated with the Otherworld. It is a tree that is both respected and feared because of its power. This may be why there are comparisons between the tree and the wolf.

(Grey Wolf. Photo by Gunnar Reis Amphibol )

Fairy abduction is a common theme in Celtic myth and folklore. Oftentimes a person, like Anne Jefferies, returns with gifts of healing or mediumship. The Hawthorn having a direct connection to the fairy realm is often mentioned.

Thomas the Rhymer – who would later have seer-like gifts – would meet with the Fairy Queen “by the Hawthorn bush from which the cuckoo was calling[ii].” Likewise, Biddy Early, attributed at least one of her healing gifts to the sleeps she had beneath the Hawthorn tree. Her brother’s spirit had taught this to her.

Biddy Early was an Irish witch and folk healer. She is said to have lived until 1874. In 1920 Lady Augusta Gregory published the book Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. In it, there was a whole section dedicated to Biddy Early. The accounts were from various witnesses who knew her or from those that had observed certain incidents in which she had used her power.

There is a story about Biddy Early in which a boy in Feakle “got the touch in three places.” This fairy touch had him going out and walking in the night. Predictably, the boy became very sick.  In Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland the family asks for help and Biddy Early provides it. The ritual used is also explained as is its source.

 “And they asked Biddy Early and she said, ‘Watch the hens when they come in to roost at night, and catch a hold of the last one that comes.’  So the mother caught it, and then she thought she’d like to see what would Biddy Early do with it. So she brought it up to her house and laid it on the floor, and it began to rustle its wings, and it lay over and died. It was from her brother Biddy Early got the cure. He was sick a long time, and there was a whitethorn tree out in the field, and he’d go and lie under it for shade from the sun. And after he died, every day for a year she’d go to the whitethorn tree, and it is there she’d cry her fill. And then he brought her under and gave her the cure. It was after that she was in service beyond Kinvara. She did her first cure on a boy, after the doctors giving him up.”

The hen having died in exchange for the boy’s health is a type of sympathetic magic similar to that found in many aboriginal or shamanic traditions. The concept of a life for a life dates back to the earliest recordings of human existence. The sacrifice is usually more overt, but the basic principle found in Biddy Early’s healing in this case is at its core the same.

The examples above illustrate how Hawthorn may act as a portal to the Otherworld. Once this portal is opened knowledge and power may be gained. This belief was not isolated but widespread. Thomas the Rhymer was from Scotland, the story of Merlin in Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race is from Wales, and Biddy Early lived in Western Ireland.

Clearly the Hawthorn, or Huathe, is a tree of great power.

The Foliage:

The Celts were not the only ones that had uses for Hawthorn.

On the Lucky Mojo website we are given some Hoodoo uses for the Hawthorn. Hoodoo is an American form of folk magic which also has many shamanistic elements. It is separate from Voodoo, which is a religion.

Hoodoo has strong African, Christian, and European influences. It seems to have been created in the Americas when individuals of various cultures were introduced to one another and when their beliefs were sown together. Hoodoo is usually practiced by people of African descent, however, despite the various other cultural influences.

According to Hoodoo practitioner and author Catherine Yronwode, Hawthorn has many protective qualities[iii]. A tea made from Hawthorn berries can be sprinkled around the home “to shield the premises from evil.”   Drinking the brew offers personal protection. The berries kept in the house will also prevent “evil” people from entering the home.

“HAWTHORN BERRIES are also used in an old-time spell to Keep a Woman From
Coming Around to See Your Man. It is said that if a woman-friend of yours is trying to steal your husband, HAWTHORN BERRIES sprinkled across her path will block her from entering your house for that purpose, although she may still come around as your friend.”

The information on the website does not say what a husband should do under similar circumstances. I can only imagine that a man might find a different way to deal with this particular problem.

“…he happened one night to be on the top of a tall ivy-clad hawthorn tree which was in the glen. It was hard for him to endure that bed, for at every twist and turn he would give, a shower of thorns off the hawthorn would stick in him, so that they were piercing and rending his side and wounding his skin.” – Mad Sweeney (Robert Ellison, Ogham: Secret Language of the Druids)

Nuin (Ash) II

“My old nurse, Betty Grancan, used to say that you could call up the troll at the Tolcarne if while there you held in your hand three dried leaves, one of the ash, one of the oak, and one of the thorn, and pronounced an incantation or charm. Betty would never tell me the words of the charm, because she said I was too much of a sceptic. The words of such a Cornish charm had to pass from one believer to another, through a woman to a man, and from a man to a woman, and thus alternately.” – W.Y. Evans Wentz (the Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)

The Roots:

The fifth letter of the Ogham, as a tree alphabet, is Nuin the Ash tree.

Robert Ellison in Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids gives the meaning for this few as “ancient knowledge and weavers beam.” He also says that Nuin is representative of strength and courage as well as luck associated with battle. This, Ellison believes, is due to the fact that spears and arrow shafts are made from Ash wood.

Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks equates the Ash to a possible ending of peace for the same reasons. The Ash is closely associated with the spear. Her divination system reveals that the Ash is the promoter of exploration. Her meanings seem to state this through various directions such as “your way is clear”, “there is more to discover”, seeking the freedom of your “full potential” and investigating uneasy intuitions.

John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the letter’s word-Ogham “checking of peace” as meaning “opposition.” In this way, battle does not always have to be literal or upon a designated battle field. Peace, or the absence of, may be metaphoric descriptions of any of life’s many challenges.

Nuin is a difficult letter for many reasons. First and foremost it was not actually originally representative of the Ash tree at all[i]. Secondly, due to the rare mentioning of the Ash tree in Celtic folklore and legend, many Ogham users bring up the common misconception that Yggdrasil, the world tree of the Norse, was an Ash. This can be a point of frustration as the poetic “evergreen-needle-ash” translated in the Eddas eventually becomes the Ash of the Celts[ii]. It is rare for any Ogham writer to not spend time discussing Yggdrasil in relation to Nuin despite there being no connection to the Ogham alphabet at all. A closer look at the Norse world tree reveals that it is likely a Yew.

Unfortunately the Ash is usually promoted as the world tree, despite its seeming absence as such in the Celtic records. For this reason, however, many interpret the Ash as representing the microcosmic and macrocosmic[iii].

The Ash tree represents both the beginning and the end of peace. Especially in this day and age, this may be metaphoric and not a literal battle as one might expect.

The Trunk:

It is an old belief that wherever the Ash, the Oak and the Thorn grow together that the fairies will be present[iv]. These trees were also used together in certain types of magic as was revealed in the introductory quote above.

In Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race by T.W. Rolleston, there can be found some interesting lore regarding the Ash tree. The author says that the following was originally taken from the Irish Mythological Cycles. The little people, or fairy folk, give this bit of advice to King Fergus:

“The ash-tree of the black buds burn not—timber that speeds the wheel, that yields the rider his switch; the ashen spear is the scale-beam of battle.”

The Ash with the black buds seems to be a reference to the tree in early spring when it first begins to bloom and show signs of life. The above poem restricts the burning of Ash wood maybe at just this one time of year- and is reminding the king of the reasons for the Ash’s high value. Clearly the Ash wood was important for the Celtic people.

(Ash Flower. Photo by Donar Reiskoffer)

In the book Tree Wisdom by J.M. Paterson we are told that the Ash root has similar powers as the mandrake root. The root itself, apparently, can also take on a form resembling that of a human –like the mandrake- and can be enchanted with various types of sympathetic magic.

Regarding the Ash, it should also be noted that there were five magical trees that were said to once guard over Ireland. Of these trees three were Ash while one was an Oak and the other a Yew. Christians cut down these old growth trees in a symbolic gesture of their conquest over the native pagan beliefs; as the living world was not revered or respected at the time[v].

According to James MacKillop, Ash keys -or seeds- were used for divination. The Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology also claims that Ash was used, especially on the Isle of Man, to “ward off” fairies.

In the previous Alder post, Fearn, we talked about the Battle of the Trees. It was revealed that Alder was connected to Bran the Blessed. By guessing Bran’s name –as the hero was invincible until his identity was known- Gwydion was able to defeat the champion and triumph over his enemies. Similarly, the Ash is connected to Gwydion in much the same way as the Alder is connected to Bran[vi]. Paul Kendall in Mythology and Folklore of Ash shares some of the ways in which the Ash was used for healing[vii]. Apparently, it was common to split an Ash tree and have a sick child pass through it. The tree was then lashed back together and was expected to heal. As the tree repaired itself the child was supposed to recover from their illness. Ash sap was also given to newborn babies though it is unclear if this was for healing or protection purposes.

Spear and arrow shafts were made from Ash wood. The Beltane may pole could also be of Ash[viii]. The reference to Ash being related to both war and peace may be connected to either one of these uses. A wielder of a weapon is capable of destruction as well as restraint. Beltane, usually May 1st, marked the beginning of the light – or more accurately the warm- half of the year. This would have also, for people with conflicts to settle or lands to defend, ushered in the beginning of the fighting season. Perhaps there is something to that connection as well.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the Ash is closely associated with the concept of peace, or the coming of war.

The Foliage:

In Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids we are told that Ash can be used in “protection, healing, or creation spells or as a symbol of male energy.” Ellison also says that Ash can be used in magic for strength and courage.

Ellison also says that there is an old charm that uses Ash to cure warts[ix].

A pin is first taken and stuck into an Ash tree. The wart is then poked with the needle while the following phrase is chanted:

“Ashen tree, Ashen tree, pray buy these warts off of me!”

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend and a time to sew; a time to keep silence and a time to speak; a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.” – Solomon (Ecclesiastes. Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version)


[i] Caitlin Mathews, Robert Ellison, Eryn Rowan Laurie, etc.

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

[iv] J.M. Paterson. Tree Wisdom.

[v] Nigel Pennick. Celtic Sacred Landscapes.

[vi] Caitlin Mathews. Celtic Wisdom Sticks.

[viii] J. MacKillop. Oxford Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology.

[ix] Ellison himself references Ellen Hopman’s Tree Medicine, Tree Magic.

Saille (Willow) II

“In some areas of Ireland and Scotland, willow is considered a tree of bad luck, while in others it is regarded as good.” – Erynn Rowan Laurie (Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom)

The Roots:

Saille, the Willow tree, is slightly more elusive than some of the other trees found in Celtic lore.

Within the Ogham Tract[i] the Willow is referred to as the “flight of women” and as being a “dead colour.” In the Celtic Shaman John Mathews interprets the meanings of these poetic riddles as being “Death.”

Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom associates the Willow to the spirits of the ancestors.

Caitlin Mathews speaks of the Willow’s attributes in Celtic Wisdom Sticks. In her divination system, the consistent message found in connection to the Willow is for one to accept circumstances as they are, and to move forward.

In Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids, Robert Ellison says that the Willow is associated with changes, as well as moon and water magic. Ellison claims that the Willow is related to “mysteries and water related subjects” as well as to “feminine attributes.”

The Willow is associated with the moon and water. By extension, the tree is then associated with the changing tides, the ancestors, and the dead. The tree is a bridge to the Otherworld and is an aid in creating relationships with those things that are found on the other side.

The Trunk:

Jacqueline Memory Paterson describes some of Willow’s folklore in her book Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook. “Branches of willow were traditionally placed in coffins and young Willow saplings were planted on graves. This is an echo of Celtic tradition, whereby the spirit of the corpse in the earth rises into the sapling planted above, which grows and retains the essence of the departed one.” Paterson goes on to explain how some burial mounds were lined with Willow trees to “protect the spirits of the place.” She also says that the Willow was also a traditional symbol of mourning and is still associated with grieving by some.

The Celtic god Esus is associated with the Willow tree. Esus is portrayed as cutting down the Willow tree[ii] which has mythological references that may be lost to us in modern times. According to the Roman writer Lucan, Esus is a God of war comparable to the Roman god Mars[iii]. Very little is known about him. In one image he is felling a tree with birds in the branches and in another he is associated with the bull and three cranes[iv].

While the meaning of the tree being cut down by Esus may be lost to us, the illustration is worthy of contemplation. Could Esus be the lord of winter and the Willow then be the symbol of summer? Along a similar vein, could Esus be preparing the May tree for Beltane? Is the association of Esus with the bull and cranes, as well as the willow, be representative of some sort of mastery over certain types of power? Could the Willow tree, especially with birds in the branches, represent the world tree and be telling an apocalyptic story or a metaphorical mastery of the travelling between worlds? These are all questions that we may never know the answer to, but they are interesting ones to ponder nonetheless.

(Le Pilier des Nautes. Photo by Thermes de Cluny)

T.W. Rolleston shares an interesting tale regarding the Willow in his 1911 text Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race. The story is short enough to share here in its entirety.

“Of Labra the Mariner, after his accession, a curious tale is told. He was accustomed, it is said, to have his hair cropped but once a year, and the man to do this was chosen by lot, and was immediately afterwards put to death. The reason of this was that, like King Midas in the similar Greek myth, he had long ears like those of a horse, and he would not have this deformity known.

“Once it fell, however, that the person chosen to crop his hair was the only son of a poor widow, by whose tears and entreaties the king was prevailed upon to let him live, on condition that he swore by the Wind and Sun to tell no man what he might see. The oath was taken, and the young man returned to his mother. But by-and-by the secret so preyed on his mind that he fell into a sore sickness, and was near to death, when a wise Druid was called in to heal him. ‘It is the secret that is killing him,’ said the Druid, and he will never be well till he reveals it. Let him therefore go along the high-road till he come to a place where four roads meet. Let him there turn to the right, and the first tree he shall meet on the road, let him tell his secret to that, and he shall be rid of it, and recover.’ So the youth did; and the first tree was a willow. He laid his lips close to the bark, whispered his secret to it, and went home, light-hearted as of old.

“But it chanced that shortly after this the harper Craftiny broke his harp and needed a new one, and as luck would have it the first suitable tree he came to was the willow that had the king’s secret. He cut it down, made his harp from it, and performed that night as usual in the king’s hall; when, to the amazement of all, as soon as the harper touched the strings the assembled guests heard them chime the words, ‘Two horse’s ears hath Labra the Mariner.’ The king then, seeing that the secret was out, plucked off his hood and showed himself plainly ; nor was any man put to death again on account of this mystery.”

Bards were initiates of magic and knowledge within the Celtic culture, so this story also likely has more to it than meets the eye. Bards were not subject to the same laws as other citizens and would not have been subject to the same punishments as ordinary people[v]. Harps were also often made from Willow trees, the most famous being the Brian Boru harp[vi].

The harper, Craftiny, would not have been held accountable for revealing the secret that his “harp” had spoken. Also, as a bard, he would have been protected from execution even if he was found responsible. Craftiny was able then to break a curse of sorts, which had been placed upon the people by Labra. Like many Otherworldly tales this story contains elements of the impossible. A harp could not be made from a Willow tree that had been felled that same day. The working would take much longer than this and the wood itself would have needed to be aged.

Eryn Rowan Laurie[vii] reminds us that Saille may be sending us messages from the ancestors. “It might be through the voice of falling water or through song and music.” This message from Willow might indicate that the dead are speaking[viii] or the tree may simply be suggesting “a need to connect with or listen to the ancestors or to honour them in some way.”

The Foliage:

Some magical uses for Willow are found in Judika Illes’ Element Encyclopedia of 5000 spells. The following two are both associated with death.

The first is a “Threshold Transition Spell.” The practitioner is encouraged to plant a Willow tree to help ease the transition of death. It is said that the Willow should still be alive when you die for the spell to work properly. “For added enhancement, have leaves or small branches of this tree placed within your coffin.”

The second spell involving death found in Illes’ text is the “Rest in Peace Willow Spell.” In this section it is suggested that Willow branches should be placed beside a grave to drive away negative spirits and ghosts. “These Willow branches will also prevent the deceased’s ghost from rising, protect living visitors from ‘ghost sickness’ and attract benevolent protective spirits of the dead.” Illes recommends that the Willow branches be replaced with fresh ones as often as is needed.

“The god (Esus), bull, crane and tree are all major elements of Western pagan religion and magic, found extensively in classical and Celtic mythology. Even though it is not possible to define the bull-with-three-cranes in a full mythological context, they are clearly part of a Celtic tradition similar to that found in the Irish sagas. The ritual slaying, flaying and eating of a bull were a central part of a prophetic ceremony in ancient Ireland, in which Druids entered a sacred sleep to gain a vision of the future king; it seems likely that the tree-cutting and bull-with-three-cranes scenes are connected to the sacrificial kingship that underpinned Celtic culture from the earliest period.” –R.J. Stewart (Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses)


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

[ii] J.C. Cooper. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols.

[iii] M. Jordan. The Encyclopedia of Gods.

[iv] For more discussion regarding the Willow’s connection to the bull and three cranes see the previous Willow blog post: https://livinglibraryblog.com/?p=63

[v] Peter Berresford Ellis. The Druids.

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

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Laurie says that this can also be living ancestors such as grandparents.