< THE OGHAM STONE
2nd Excerpt from Robert Graves' "The White Goddess"
(for reviewing purposes only)


Chapter 10
THE TREE ALPHABET (1)

I first found the Beth-Luis-Nion tree-alphabet in Roderick O'Flaherty's Ogygia; he presents it, with the Boibel-Loth, as a genuine relic of Druidism orally transmitted down the centuries. It is said to have been latterly used for divination only and consists of five vowels and thirteen consonants. Each letter is named after the tree or shrub of which it is the initial:

BethBBirch
LuisLRowan
NionNAsh
FearnFAlder
SailleSWillow
UathHHawthorn
DuirDOak
TinneTHolly CollHazel etc...

The names of the letters in the modern Irish alphabet are also those of trees, and most of them correspond with O'Flaherty's list, though T has become gorse; O, broom; and A, elm.

I noticed almost at once that the consonants of this alphabet form a calendar of seasonal tree-magic [?] , and that all the trees figure prominently in European folklore.

pg.166

The first tree of the series is the self-propagating birch. Birch twigs are used throughout Europe in the beating of hounds and the flogging of delinquents--and formerly lunatics--with the object of expelling evil spirits. When Gwion writes in the Cad Goddeu that the birch 'armed himself but late' he means that birch twigs do not toughen until late in the year. (He makes the same remark about the willow and the rowan whose twigs were similarly put to ceremonial use.) Birch rods are also used in rustic ritual for driving out the spirit of the old year. The Roman lictors carried birch rods during the installation of the Consuls at this very same season; each Consul had twelve lictors, making a company of thirteen. The birch is the tree of inception. It is indeed the earliest forest tree, with the exception of the mysterious elder, to put out new leaves (April 1st in England, the beginning of the financial year), and in Scandinavia its leafing marks the beginning of the agricultural year, because farmers use it as a directory for sowing their Spring wheat. The first month begins immediately after the winter solstice, when the days after shortening to the extreme limit begin to lengthen again.

Since there are thirteen consonants in the alphabet, it is reasonable to [?] regard the tree month as the British common-law 'lunar' month of twenty- eight days defined by Blackstone. As has already been pointed out, there are thirteen such months in a solar year, with one day left over. Caesar and Pliny both record that the Druidic year was reckoned by lunar months, but neither defines a lunar month, and there is nothing to prove that it was a 'lunation' of roughly twenty-nine and a half days--of which there are twelve in a year with ten and three-quarter days left over. For the first-century B.C.'Coligny Calendar', which is one of lunations, is no longer regarded as Druidic; it is engraved in Roman letters on a brass tablet and is now thought to be part of the Romanizing of native religion attempted under the early Empire. Moreover, twenty-eight is a true lunar month not only in the astronomical sense of the moon's revolutions in relation to the sun, but in the mystic sense that the Moon, being a woman, has a woman's normal menstrual period ('menstruation' is connected with the word 'moon')[1] of twenty-eight days.[2]

pg.167

The Coligny system was probably brought into Britain by the Romans of the Claudian conquest and memories of its intercalated days are said by Professor T. Glynn Jones to survive in Welsh folklore. But that in both Irish and Welsh myths of the highest antiquity 'a year and a day' is a term constantly used suggests that the Beth-Luis-Nion Calendar is one of 364 days plus one. We can there- fore regard the Birch month as extending from December 24th to January 20th.

L FOR LUIS

The second tree is the quickbeam ('tree of life'), otherwise known as the quicken, rowan or mountain ash. Its round wattles, spread with newly-flayed bull's hides, were used by the Druids as a last extremity for compelling demons to answer difficult questions--hence the Irish proverbial expression 'to go on the wattles of knowledge', meaning to do one's utmost to get information. The quickbeam is also the tree most widely used in the British Isles as a prophylactic against lightning and witches' charms of all sorts: for example, bewitched horses can be controlled only with a rowan whip. In ancient Ireland, fires of rowan were kindled by the Druids of opposing armies and incantations spoken over them, summoning spirits to take part in the fight. The berries of the magical rowan in the Irish romance of Fraoth, guarded by a dragon, had the sustaining virtue of nine meals; they also healed the wounded and added a year to a man's life. In the romance of Diarmuid and Grainne, the rowan berry, with the apple and the red nut, is described as the food of the gods. 'Food of the gods' suggests that the taboo on eating anything red was an extension of the commoners' taboo on eating scarlet toadstools --for toadstools, according to a Greek proverb which Nero quoted, were 'the food of the gods'. In ancient Greece all red foods such as lobster, bacon, red mullet, crayfish and scarlet berries and fruit were tabooed except at feasts in honour of the dead. (Red was the colour of death in Greece and Britain during the Bronze Age--red ochre has been found in megalithic burials both in the Prescelly Mountains and on Salisbury Plain.)
The quickbeam is the tree of quickening. Its botanical name Fraxinus, or Pyrus, Aucuparia, conveys its divinatory uses. Another of its names is 'the witch'; and the witch-wand, formerly used for metal divining, was made of rowan. Since it was the tree of quickening it could also be used in a contrary sense. In Danaan Ireland a rowan-stake hammered through a corpse immobilized its ghost; and in the Cuchulain saga three hags spitted a dog, Cuchulain's sacred animal, on rowan twigs to procure his death.

The oracular use of the rowan explains the unexpected presence of great rowan thickets in Rugen and the other Baltic amber-islands, formerly used as oracular places, and the frequent occurrence of rowan,

pg.168

noted by John Lightfoot in his Flora Scotica, 1777, in the neighbourhood of ancient stone circles. The second month extends from January 21st to February 17th. The important Celtic feast of Candlemas fell in the middle of it (February 2nd). It was held to mark the quickening of the year, and was the first of the four 'cross-quarter days' on which British witches celebrated their Sabbaths, the others being May Eve, Lammas (August 2nd) and All Hallow E'en, when the year died. These days correspond with the four great Irish fire-feasts mentioned by Cormac the tenth- century Archbishop of Cashel. In Ireland and the Highlands February 2nd is, very properly, the day of St. Brigit, formerly the White Goddess, the quickening Triple Muse. The connexion of rowan with the Candlemas fire-feast is shown by Morann Mac Main's Ogham in the Book of Ballymote: he gives the poetic name for rowan as 'Delight of the Eye, namely Luisiu, flame.'

N FOR NION

The third tree is the ash. In Greece the ash was sacred to Poseidon, the second god of the Achaean trinity, and the Meliai, or ash-spirits, were much cultivated; according to Hesiod, the Meliae sprang from the blood of Uranus when Crones castrated him. In Ireland the Tree of Tortu, The Tree of Dathi, and the Branching Tree of Usnech, three of the Five Magic Trees whose fall in the year A.D. 665 symbolized the triumph of Christianity over paganism, were ash-trees. A descendant of the Sacred Tree of Creevna, also an ash, was still standing at Killura in the nineteenth century; its wood was a charm against drowning, and emigrants to America after the Potato Famine carried it away with them piecemeal.
In British folklore the ash is a tree of re-birth -- Gilbert White describes in his History of Selborne how naked children had formerly been passed through cleft pollard ashes before sunrise as a cure for rupture. The custom survived in remoter parts of England until I830 The Druidical wand with a spiral decoration, part of a recent Anglesey find dating from the early first century A.D., was of ash. The great ash Yygdrasill, sacred to Woden, or Wotan or Odin or Gwydion, has already been mentioned in the context of the Battle of the Trees; he used it as his steed. But he had taken the tree over from the Triple Goddess who, as the Three Norns of Scandinavian legend, dispensed justice under it. Poseidon retained his patronage of horses but also became a god of seafarers when the Achaeans took to the sea; as Woden did when his people took to the sea. In ancient Wales and Ireland all oars and coracle-slats were made of ash; and so were the rods used for urging on horses, except where the deadly yew was preferred. The cruelty of the ash mentioned by Gwion lies in the harmfulness of its shade to grass or corn; the alder on the contrary is beneficial to crops grown in its shade. So also in Odin's own Runic alphabet all the

pg.169

letters are formed from ash-twigs; as ash-roots strangle those of other forest trees. The ash is the tree of sea-power, or of the power resident in water; and the other name of Woden, 'Yggr', from which Ygdrasill is derived, is evidently connected with hygra, the Greek for 'sea' (literally, 'the wet element'). The third month is the month of floods and extends from February 18th to March 17th. In these first three months the nights are longer than the days, and the sun is regarded as still under the tutelage of Night. The Tyrrhenians on this account did not reckon them as part of the sacred year.

F FOR FEARN

The fourth tree is the alder, the tree of Bran. In the Battle of the Trees the alder fought in the front line, which is an allusion to the letter F being one of the first five consonants of the Beth-Luis-Nion and the Boibel- Loth; and in the Irish Ossianic Song of the Forest Trees [3] it is described as 'the very battle-witch of all woods, tree that is hottest in the fight'. Though a poor fuel-tree, like the willow, poplar and chestnut, it is prized by charcoal-burners as yielding the best charcoal; its connexion with fire is shown in the Romance of Branwen when 'Gwern' (alder), Bran's sister's son, is burned in a bonfire; and in country districts of Ireland the crime of felling a sacred alder

pg.170

is held to be visited with the burning down of one's house. The alder is also proof against the corruptive power of water: its slightly gummy leaves resist the winter rains longer than those of any other deciduous tree and its timber resists decay indefinitely when used for water-conduits or piles. The Rialto at Venice is founded on alder piles, and so are several mediaeval cathedrals. The Roman architect Vitruvius mentions that alders were used as causeway piles in the Ravenna marshes.

The connexion of Bran with the alder in this sense is clearly brought out in the Romance of Branwen where the swineherds (oracular priests) of King Matholwch of Ireland see a forest in the sea and cannot guess what it is. Branwen tells them that it is the fleet of Bran the Blessed come to avenge her. The ships are anchored off-shore and Bran wades through the shallows and brings his goods and people to land; afterwards he bridges the River Linen, though it has been protected with a magic charm, by lying down across the river and having hurdles laid over him. In other words, first a jetty, then a bridge was built on alder piles. It was said of Bran, 'No house could contain him.' The riddle 'What can no house ever contain?' has a simple answer: 'The piles upon which it is built.' For the earliest European houses were built on alder piles at the edge of lakes. In one sense the 'singing head' of Bran was the mummied, oracular head of a sacred king; in another it was the 'head' of the alder-tree--namely the topmost branch. Green alder-branches make good whistles and, according to my friend Ricardo Sicre y Cerda, the boys of Cerdaña in the Pyrenees have a traditional prayer in Catalan:

Berng, Berng, come out of our skin
And I will make you whistle sweetly.

which is repeated while the bark is tapped with a piece of willow to loosen it from the wood. Berng (or Verng in the allied Majorcan language) is Bran again. The summons to Berng is made on behalf of the Goddess of the Willow. The use of the willow for tapping, instead of another piece of alder, suggests that such whistles were used by witches to conjure up destructive winds--especially from the North. But musical pipes with several stops can be made in the same way as the whistles, and the singing head of Bran in this sense will have been an alder-pipe. At Harlech, where the head sang for seven years, there is a mill-stream running past the Castle rock, a likely place for a sacred alder-grove. It is possible that the legend of Apollo's flaying of Marsyas the piper is reminiscent of the removal of the alder-bark from the wood in pipe-making.

The alder was also used in ancient Ireland for making milk pails and other dairy vessels: hence its poetical name in the Book of Ballymote, comet lachta--'guarding of milk'. This connexion of Bran-Crones, the alder, with Rhea-Io, the white moon-cow is of importance.

pg.171

In Ireland, Io was called Glas Gabhnach, 'the green stripper', because though she yielded milk in rivers she never had a calf.


footnotes:
[1]
The magical connection of the Moon with menstruation is strong and widespread. The baleful moon-dew used by the witches of Thessaly was apparently a girl's first menstrual blood, taken during an eclipse of the Moon. Pliny devotes a whole chapter of his Natural History to the subject and gives a long list of the powers for good and bad that a menstruating woman possesses. Her touch can blast vines, ivy and rue, fade purple cloth, blacken linen in the wash-tub, tarnish copper, make bees desert their hives, and cause abortions in mares; but she can also rid a field of pests by walking around it naked before sunrise, calm a storm at sea by exposing her genitals, and cure boils, erysipelas, hydrophobia and barrenness. In the Talmud it is said that if a menstruating woman passes between two men, one of them will die. back to text

[2]
Even in healthy women there is greater variation in the length of time elapsing between periods than is generally supposed: it may be anything from twenty-one to thirty-five days.  back to text
[3]
To be found in Standish O'Grady's translation in E. M. Hull's Poem Book of the Gael. A charming, though emasculated version of the same poem is current on Dartmoor. It tells which trees to burn and which not to burn as follows: Oak-logs will warm you well, That are old and dry; Logs of pine will sweetly smell But the sparks will fly. Birch-logs will burn too fast, Chestnut scarce at all; Hawthorn-logs are good to last-- Cut them in the fall. Holly-logs will burn like wax, You may burn them green; Elm-logs like to smouldering flax, No flame to be seen. Beech-logs for winter time, Yew-logs as well; Green elder-logs it is a crime For any man to sell. Pear-logs and apple-logs, They will scent your room, Cherry-logs across the dogs Smell like flower of broom. Ash-logs, smooth and grey, Burn them green or old, Buy up all that come your way-- Worth their weight in gold.
 back to text




"INTRO TO OGHAM" START PAGE | OGHAM STONE MAIN PAGE
INTRO TO "THE WHITE GODDESS" | GRAVES CH.2 | CH.10


lyberty.com