“All ancient cultures, whether they prayed to one god or many, acknowledged trees as being able to elevate the human consciousness to higher forms of perception, and to receive messages from the higher planes (or the deeper Self), hence the worldwide abundance of traditions of tree oracles and sanctuaries… Some divine messengers, such as birds, might have wings but most have leaves. And the leaves of the Tree of Knowledge are the letters of the old sacred alphabets, which early humans plucked from the tree, and which gave them writing to enable them to preserve the word.” – Fred Hageneder (the Meaning of Trees)
Coll, the hazel, is universally seen as the tree of wisdom and is usually associated with the salmon.
Jacqueline Memory Paterson calls hazel “the Celtic Tree of Knowledge” as well as “the Tree of Immortality” and “the Poet’s Tree.”
As well as being linked to the salmon many writers relate the hazel to the crane. This includes Robert Graves, Eryn Rowan Laurie and Nigel Pennick. The crane of course is often seen as the bringer of knowledge, or wisdom, and has strong ties to the Ogham [i].
Robert Graves in the White Goddess also states that Coll is linked to arts and the sciences.
The Celts believed that the hazel had the power to give wisdom, inspiration or knowledge and the tree is associated with many deities. The Mabon was found beneath the hazel tree by Arthur’s men in some tellings of the story that is found in the Mabinogion [ii], and Aengus the Celtic love god carried a hazel wand. Gwydion had a special use for Coll in the Battle of the Trees [iii] and one of the earliest kings of Ireland was named Mac Coll, which means the ‘son of the hazel’. Hazel is also associated to Fionn mac Cumhail and the goddess Sinend.
Coll’s number is nine, and as Pennick points out this would have likely been the most auspicious of numbers to the Celts as it is comprised of three threes.
The hazel, or Coll, is also usually associated with beauty and the hazelnut is sometimes referred to as “the food of the gods” [iv].
Hazel has a darker side however, for when she is cut she will secrete a poisonous milk to repel her enemies [v]. In the old stories she can also be dangerous, for those that willingly seek out inspiration or “knowledge” are just as likely to find death instead.
Before the Holy Grail there was a sacred Cauldron of Inspiration. Before the Cauldron of Inspiration there was a holy well of knowledge that existed in the Otherworld [vi]. This was where the magical hazel with the purple leaves grew, both flowering and providing nuts at the same time.
The search for knowledge or wisdom is both the modern, and ancient, versions of the search for the Holy Grail.
The quest for magical items and powers is commonly found throughout the myths of the Celts. There are otherworldly women, horses and dogs that give the hero that is attached to them special powers or insights. There are weapons, cauldrons and even foods that are sought out in the great adventures of old. There are bones that always produce soup, fairies that serve their masters, and all too often there are missing friends or loved ones that have rendered the hero or a close friend incomplete in their absence.
The most interesting tales of all are those that pertain to the search for wisdom, which in Celtic lore is poetic inspiration, or what is sometimes referred to as “all knowledge”. Those that gain these insights are bold and powerful and become able to manifest marvels even greater than that of the mightiest druids of the times.
Unlike other hero quests this search is for something insubstantial that cannot be held in the palm of ones hand or savoured upon the tongue. It is the one item that most clearly does not exist in one realm or the other but in-between the worlds themselves. Perhaps for that reason it is the one treasure that is prized above all others.
There are two types of tales in this regard and the hazel is the key to understanding them both. The first of these stories are the tales of the seekers.
The goddess Sinend is said to have traveled to the Well of Knowledge, or Connla’s Well, beneath the sea in search of wisdom. At this well were the hazels of inspiration that in the same hour sprang forth flowers, nuts and leaves which fell into the water and fed the salmon. Sinend followed the stream until she reached “the Pool of the Modest Women” at which time the well moved further away from her. Sinend tried to pursue the well but was overcome by the water’s strength. She was then forced back to the land of Ireland. In the process Sinend was killed by the water that overcame her. Thus the river Shannon came to be. A similar story tells of the death of the goddess Boand, who was viewing and making light of a similar well and was killed in the process. The river Boyne was born from her actions.
The goddess Ceridwen sought wisdom from the Cauldron of Knowledge for her ugly son, but lost it forever to the boy who would later become Taliesin. Finneces, a druid of Ireland, waited seven years for the Salmon of Fec, who carried wisdom, to be his. He too was deprived of the wisdom that he sought.
The second set of stories pertains to those that have actually found the gift of wisdom such as Fionn mac Cumhail or Taliesin.
The druid Finnegas had waited for seven years for the salmon of wisdom, for it had been foretold that he would eat its flesh and thus gain poetic knowledge. Fionn mac Camhail went to the old druid to learn poetry from him and was present when the fish was found. Bringing Finnegas the cooked salmon Fionn confessed that after burning his fingers on the fish, he had put them into his mouth. It had been foretold that whoever tasted one portion of the fish had to eat it all, so Finnegas sat the boy down and made him eat the meal in its entirety. The old druid had realized that the prophecy had spoken not of him, but of the young Fionn who would gain wisdom from eating the salmon. This misunderstanding of the prophecy had to do with the similarity of their names.
Across the water a similar series of events would play out in what is now England. Gwion Bach was stirring the cauldron of the hag Ceridwen when three drops of the potion splashed onto his fingers. He put the fingers into his mouth and immediately gained many forms of power and knowledge. One of the things that Gwion realized right away was that Ceridwen was going to kill him for gaining the knowledge in place of her son. He fled and changed into a hare while Ceridwen pursued him fiercely in the form of a hound having already discovered the slight. He then leapt into the water and became a fish while Ceridwen came behind him in the form of a female otter. Gwion then leapt far into the sky and became a bird in flight but still Ceridwen came, this time in the form of a hawk. Finally he dived into a pile of grain and became a single kernel. Ceridwen, in the form of a hen, found him and gobbled him up. Nine months later Ceridwen gave birth to Taliesin. She put him into a leather bag and threw him out to sea. He was eventually found in a salmon weir by the unlucky Elphin who would never be considered unlucky again. Taliesin would serve him well as the greatest of bards and bring him wealth in many forms.
The story of Taliesin was very likely more similar to Fionn’s story in times of antiquity but the parallels are still obvious. The cauldron has replaced the sacred well but still contains wisdom which comes in the form of accidental droplets upon the hand. The salmon symbolism is strong in the Taliesin story as well.
There are some key elements of these stories to consider. First of all, no one who seeks wisdom seems to find it. Second of all, those who do find it do so accidentally.
I also find it interesting that those who go directly to the source find only death. Those who seek the same wisdom indirectly, be eating the salmon – which is cooked even- from the pool, instead of directly from the well seem to fair a little better. Even so, the initial transfer is that of just a few drops onto the hand of a young boy that gives the recipient the poetic knowledge. Fionn mac Cumhail would become Ireland’s version of Arthur leading the Fianna on many adventures. Taliesin, likewise, was often referred to as the greatest of bards and plays very prominently in Celtic legend.
We have discussed symbolism before, most especially when we explored the Oak. In the myths of the Celts the symbols are not placed randomly. Everything once had many meanings and connotations, even if the story had been reshaped and lost over time and in the retelling or putting down to paper. Thus, it should not surprise us when a meal of a single kernel of grain becomes a child, or if that child is later fished out of a salmon weir in May, -as many stories suggest- when the salmon do not run. The stories take place in the Otherworld and we can only hope to understand their deeper meanings by reflection and meditation.
I find the story of Sinend to hold half veiled parables as well. The Well of Wisdom evaded her and it seemed to have done so because of her inability to pass the Pool of Modest Women. Modesty, of course, is the character trait of the “reserved” or of those who are humble. The story suggests that the very act of searching for the Well of Wisdom itself prevents one from finding it.
In the stories of the Celts poetic wisdom is found by doing menial tasks and by the young of heart. It is also never gained directly. This “all knowledge”, or inspiration, is found only when it is not sought out. When these conditions are met, wisdom is gained. If the conditions are not met the quest will end in naught.
Death may be found instead [vii].
Searching for knowledge can be difficult in this day and age. While everything is as easy as a Google search and only a mouse click away the information is endless. There is so much material to sift through that the process can quickly become overwhelming.
The first Celtic spiritual book that I was drawn to was the Tree Oracle by Liz and Colin Murray back in 1988. The seed was planted. I hungered to learn more on a subject that seemed so unobtainable in my small Canadian prairie town.
Five years later in 1993 a friend gave me a copy of a book on “Druidry.” Suffice it to say now, that was the beginning of a difficult and painful detour along the pathway of my spiritual development. I found books by other “Celtic” authors and read many others that seemed to add to my knowledge base and give me understanding. Unfortunately, I would now consider the authors of these books misinformed at their best, and fraudulent at their worst.
By the time I discovered that certain books were published just to make money it was too late. A few years had been spent memorizing material from authors that seemed to me-in the pre Internet days-to be legitimate. It was only after I met a fellow on a similar, though more advanced, path that I started to realize that there were people who would make money off of the ignorant in the name of spirituality, religion or historical mythology. Thanks to my friend Jaysun’s [viii] mentoring at the time, I was able to find more legitimate authors and sources of information and the path of my life seemed to open up before me.
I spent a year studying the bardic grade of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids-through their distance learning- and I worked through some of Caitlin and John Mathews books, most notably Singing the Soul Back Home. Along the way I learned the basics of Zen, how to run energy, meditate, and became more aware of the power of intention.
No matter where my path took me I always carried the Ogham with me, however, either physically or in my heart.
It was a hard road as far as finding legitimate information but over the years I have learned to choose what I read carefully.
When I pick up an unknown author I first look to see if the book contains an index. Unless it is a well laid out coffee table book, the lack of an index is painful and I usually determine that it is not worth using as a basis for research [ix]. I also look to see who the author is and what they have written. Are they an academic? Are they an “expert of the week” covering a different religion every month like some sort of tourist with little depth or understanding? What else have they written? What do their most flattering peers say about them within the book or on the back cover? Who are those peers? What do their critics say?
I also look at the reference pages. Unless the author can translate old Irish they had better be listing the academics or the writers whose research they are using. Unfortunatly I automatically assume that if the author is referencing a “mainstream flashy” book they are likely quoting faulty knowledge- at least when it comes to anything Celtic [x]. A book, like a tree, needs healthy roots to grow.
Then I usually go onto Amazon and read what other readers have to say about the book, especially if it is by an author that is unknown to me. There are likely a lot of people who have read the book before me. What do they have to say? I have found in life that like-minded people will be drawn to the same sorts of materials and will often have a lot of insight that can also help me make up my mind.
I will take my time choosing what book I will buy because I want to know its strengths and weaknesses before I read it. I want to know that I am going to gain something from the text and that it will advance my knowledge in some way and not be the source of cloudiness or misinformation.
When I do read the book, I will then try to approach it with the innocence of a child, while still letting my inner sceptic look over my shoulder. Writers are just human after all, and some of the books that were written even fifteen years ago are using information that is no longer current.
Just imagine though, if you can, a time when an author would actually go to a museum and pour over old documents for hours every day, and only being allowed to do so after years of education. Imagine doing this for a lifetime before being able to write a book on the subject that anyone would take seriously. Not only did these original older authors give us a foundation to stand upon and to begin the conversations on things such as the Ogham, they made things available to us – with the Internet especially — thatwould have never been accessible to even the most well connected researcher 100 years ago.
I can use the Internet to download any text that’s considered public domain before 1926 for free. I can visit museum websites, run programs to translate for me (if I were that savvy), and find recommendations from websites and various scholars as to where I need to go to seek out information next. Never has the uninitiated in history had access to so much powerful information. How much of what I read can be trusted however?
I like Robert Graves for his knowledge of mythology, for example. His view on analeptic memory is interesting and worth much reflection. However, his assumptions were based on other assumptions that were still based on other assumptions, which were often lacking in fact at all. The house of cards that he builds in the White Goddess is so painful to watch that by the end of the book one is left wondering how people could have taken anything he said as gospel at all. This man had some Knowledge, however, and shared many of his understandings with the reader. Nowadays, I just have to sift through all of his theories and try to determine which ones are valid. By the time he compares “platonic love” to “homosexual idealism” a normal person would most likely be questioning all of his so called “proven” conclusions. I take what I must. I try not to dismiss Graves completely as he started many of the Ogham conversations, wrote a very lengthy book on a type writer (we often forget), and did, in fact, have a relationship with the Ogham in his own way. His index and footnotes are somewhat redeeming as well.
The perfect book for me always has foot notes.
Even the best intentioned writers or researchers have varying perspectives. No two people view anything in exactly the same manner. In this way even the translations of various texts can have completely different meanings.
Whether I read Caitlin or John Mathews, Philip Carr-Gomm, Peter Berresford Ellis, Tom Cowan, Eryn Rowan Laurie, or even the slightly more whimsical – but still informative – Jacqueline Memory Paterson, I can always learn something.
And as I stir that cauldron upon that river bank of old, perhaps I too will one day have that fire that will burn within my head.
By the nut of the hazel, the flesh of the salmon and the water of the well, let it be so.
“The druid quest is a quest for wisdom and knowledge. This search leads finally to the oldest animal, Bradan the salmon, swimming in the Well of Wisdom at the source of all life…This well or sacred pool has nine hazel trees growing around it, and it is their nuts which feed the salmon of the pool and render them wise.” – Phillip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm (the Druid Animal Oracle)
[i] The White Goddess, the Druid Animal Oracle, Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom, an Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, etc.
[ii] Hageneder’s version has the Mabon not in a prison cell but beneath a hazel tree. This is an easy speculation to make as the salmon carried the heroes to the place where the Mabon was found imprisoned.
[iii] Cad Goddeu or the Battle of the Trees is part of the Book of Taliesin. The hazel is the only tree that doesn’t seem to be fighting physically in the battle. She is sometimes an “arbiter” (judge) and sometimes it is translated that “Ample [was her] mental exertion”. A version is found in the White Goddess by Robert Graves. A different translation of the poem may be found here at the Celtic Literature Collective.
[iv] Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook. Jacqueline Memory Paterson.
[v] This refers to an Irish Story, the Ancient Dripping Hazel which is told briefly in the book Magical Alphabets by Nigel Pennick.
[vi] The Holy Grail: its Origins, Secrets, and Meanings Revealed. Malcolm Godwin.
[vii] In the lands of the Celts, however, death was often perceived as a rebirth or transformation. Perhaps Sinend gained her prize after all?
[viii] Since I had originally written this entry I felt inspired to reconnect with my old friend Jaysun. I was surprised – though I should not have been – and impressed with some of his current projects. His podcast, as one commenter put it, fills a niche in the podcast world by offering the personal experiences of one practitioner. His blog and podcast can be found at http://witcheryofone.libsyn.com/ and the podcast is also on iTunes.
[ix] The exception for me is Fire in the Head by Tom Cowan. I love this well researched book and hope that a future edition wil contain an index and more references.
[x] The Wiccan Warrior by Kerr Cuhulain is a good “mainstream flashy” book. I am sure that there are others but most are very ad-like – as far as pictures and lay out – yet very disappointing when it comes to accuracy. Sadly, at one time these books were much more respected and the publishers were much more likely to publish respected authors.
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