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Celtic Martial Arts
Tree Huggers - Crann Ogham
A Methodology for Crann Ogham Work
by Raven nic Rhóisín and Kathryn Price NicDhàna
Over the last six to thirteen years, your authors have made a field study of the crann ogham (also known as tree ogham) a major focus of our personal practices of Celtic spirituality. While there's a fair amount of information about ogham alphabets and inscriptions available in the academic press, most of the information about ogham that's made it into more mainstream presses or Pagan circles is not historically accurate. Often, it's not based on Celtic beliefs at all. This article is not meant to be an introduction to ogham in general, but is rather a practical working methodology for those who want to work with the tree ogham in a Celtic context. A brief background sketch of ogham will be provided, but the focus is much more hands-on. For those interested in further information on ogham alphabets, historical ogham inscriptions, and additional resources, please see the Recommendations and Bibliography at the end of the text.
As with many other nature spirituality practices, work with the crann ogham will vary somewhat depending on your bioregion and the trees native to your area. Given that, it seems appropriate to include some background information about the environments this methodology was developed in. Raven and Kathryn's mutual interest in trees, ogham, and historically accurate Celtic spirituality led them to separately develop similar practices. Raven was living in the greater Washington DC area at the time, and has since moved to Seattle. Kathryn has lived in New England for the majority of her ogham work. The desire to present a working and historically rooted practice of Celtic nature spirituality has been a motivating factor for both of us, and we are fortunate to have lived in environments where many of the original crann ogham trees are native.
What is ogham anyway?
The ogham alphabets are described in early Irish texts as cryptic codes as well as methods of writing, symbol sets used by the learned to communicate. Each of the twenty historical letters, in addition to its own sound, had a mesh of associations ranging from word-poems known as kennings to trees, birds, colors, fortresses, and many other meanings. There are also five additional letters, the forfeda, which were added to the system at a later date; not everyone works with these additional letters. It is possible that ogham was used mnemonically, enabling the bearers of an oral tradition to more easily memorize vast amounts of data and lore regarding their environment and culture. Many modern ogham workers have chosen one or just a few subsets of ogham to study, as the separate lists in and of themselves are not strongly correlated in meaning by letter. For example, R in the bird ogham may have a radically different meaning and symbolism than R in the color ogham. Trying to reconcile too many simultaneous symbol sets can become extremely confusing, and may result in muddying symbolic meaning rather than clarifying it. By choosing to focus on one of the ogham subsets and using the others to bolster the system when the meanings do coincide, an internally consistent system can be developed. With continued work, a practitioner's chosen symbol set generally grows in depth of meaning, becoming a valuable source of insight and illumination for them.
What is crann ogham and why would I choose to work with it?
Of the multiplicity of ogham systems mentioned in the Book of Ballymote, crann ogham (also known as tree ogham) is one of the most well known and accessible. There are fairly solid associations of a tree (or plant) native to Ireland for each letter, and there are several books available which highlight historical folklore and native physical uses for each of these trees. In the early nineties, Kathryn started working with crann ogham as a way of having an authentically Celtic divination system - one that was interwoven with Celtic myth and folklore, as well as being grounded in nature and harmonious with the spirits where she was living. Through this work she wound up developing a system that interweaves the lore of the Celtic goddesses with that of the trees. About seven years later, Raven's interest in the crann ogham was independently born out of a desire to become more grounded and in touch with nature. She thought extended work with trees would be a good way to accomplish this. Through the course of our studies, we have found both of these desires to be harmoniously furthered by crann ogham work.
Why wouldn't I want to work with crann ogham?
To get a real sense of each tree, you'll have to be outside finding trees in all seasons and in all kinds of weather. You'll likely get wet, muddy, cold, overheated, scratched up when crawling through the woods, and other such adventures common to an outdoor lifestyle. In most regions, not all of these trees are easy to find, and may not even be present at all. It's a nontrivial time commitment to learn about them, their habitats, and to get out there and start finding them. In addition, in learning about their fruits and products, you'll probably eat and drink things you won't like. With regards to the meditation practice, well, there's nothing like the vague embarrassment of being shunned by a tree, or simply coming up blank. If you'd prefer a less earthy and more indoors approach, crann ogham may not be for you.
So, what do you actually do?
In an interesting bit of synchronicity, the two of us arrived at an almost identical approach independently of one another. While there are slight variations in our approaches and some personal variations in our conclusions, this synchronicity seems to speak to the usefulness of the approach as well as its common-sense logical nature. We structured our study by going through the trees one at a time, one tree per month. This seemed reasonable to us, as a month is long enough to allow plenty of time for study, reading, and work, along with a full personal life and other interests, yet short enough that it doesn't allow for endless procrastination. We just started at the beginning of the ogham alphabet and worked our way through, letter by letter, tree by tree.
For each tree, we strove to learn about it from as many sources as possible, including academic literature, folklore and naturalist writings, as well as direct immersive personal experience. We adopted the following general approach:
Depending on the tree we were working with, some of these methods of approach became temporarily more important than others. We followed our intuition as to how we could best relate to each tree. For example, Raven got her strongest connection with Coll by chewing hazelnuts and reading poetry, her strongest connection to Ngetal by working on medical issues, and her strongest connection to Fearn by meditating with the tree itself. Kathryn connected best with Coll by drawing pictures of her visions of the goddess Boann (She who guards the well of wisdom which is surrounded by hazels), to Ngetal by trancing out amid the reeds in the swamplands, and to Fearn by praying and making offerings to the goddess Fand in a stand of alders on the shore of a lake, then paddling a canoe across the lake and following it up with dreamwork. By adopting a multifaceted approach, we felt that we were more likely to hit on a successful approach for each tree.
It doesn't always work. Some trees we connected with immediately and deeply, others were only befriended after a longer process of getting to know them, and some yielded far fewer insights than others. In part, this is a facet of personality - some people are going to be more drawn to one kind of tree than another, and some individual trees are friendlier than others. Some trees had more to say to Kathryn than to Raven, and vice versa. Raven has now worked with the trees through two full cycles of all 20 feánna, and has seen others work through one full cycle. Kathryn has worked through multiple cycles over the past thirteen years, and now works with trees and their symbolic matrices in a more in-depth way, as they come up, or as that area seems to need attention, sometimes spending years at a time on a tree or small grouping of trees. Though there have been overarching similar themes to many of our experiences, in some cases, individual experiences have varied strongly per tree. This may be in part due to different trees being individuals themselves, and having different spirits associated with them in different bioregions. It could also be due to us having different things we need to learn from that tree, or the fact that even the most skilled mystic can at time have their perceptions colored by their own mental and emotional states. But even with these individual variations, in general, a coherent picture has tended to emerge.
We began each cycle by doing some sort of ritual. A small meditative ritual near the tree we were working with, introducing ourselves, making offerings of friendship, and listening for any reply from the tree generally worked well. Another option, especially if we hadn't yet found the tree growing nearby, was to begin the month with the building of the altar, using pieces of the tree if available or a picture of the tree and the ogham letter/glyph, while making offerings to the spirits. Often Kathryn followed the altar building with sleeping with a leaf or other piece of the tree under her pillow, asking for dream communications, and writing down any dreams in the morning. Raven tried this, but found that she got better results with waking meditation than she did with dreaming. At the end of each cycle, we would close with a similar ritual, thanking the tree for working with us and expressing gratitude for any insights gained.
One of the first things Raven did for each cycle was to Google for and buy any products of that tree that couldn't be found locally. (These things take time to ship and arrive, and a month isn't as long as you'd think, especially if ordering from overseas.) [Kathryn started when Google wasn't yet invented, and boy is she bitter about this!] Often the tree products could be found at a local natural foods store - we've had good luck with birch syrup and beer for Beith, elderflower wine for Ruis, hazelnuts for Coll, and apples for Quert aren't hard to find. However, sometimes one has to range further afield - sloeberry jam for Straif had to be ordered from Scotland, and heather ale for Ur is hard to find. If you don't drink alcohol (neither of us do), you can try to find non-alcoholic products from your tree, just wet your lips symbolically, or use the alcoholic beverage for anointing, offering on an altar or into flames, cooking, marinating, or basting.
After discovering whether anything from the tree was safe to consume, we would read anything we could find about it and its habitat. Google will usually tell you whether the specific species or any related ones are native to your area, but local field guides to trees are very valuable as well. In addition, Niall MacCoitir's Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore and Jacqueline Memory Patterson's Tree Wisdom: The Definitive Guidebook to the Myth, Folklore, and Healing Power of Trees were sometimes helpful sources in more recent years. Once we had an idea of what the tree was associated with, we would often time other spiritual activities to coincide with that. Raven focused on visionary work during Luis, helped to build houses to shelter poorer community members during Duir, and read poetry during Coll. Kathryn dug in the herb garden for Luis, worked with the ancestors during Duir, and wrote cathartic poetry during Coll. We found that this deepened and enhanced our experiences with each tree. We also did secondary searches through folklore on related concepts, to see if anything popped up or caught our fancy.
After all that, Raven was ready to go out and find the trees in the wild. (Kathryn was living in the forest during most of this process, so didn't always proceed in the same order.) "In the wild" is a relative term, as where you actually find the trees is going to vary to a great degree, as will whatever meditation you can attempt with them. If the only yew tree for fifty miles in any direction marks a busy city intersection, there's only so much uninterrupted meditation that you're going to get. If the most magnificent oak in your state is in a neighbor's yard, complete with fence and angry dog, you may have to commune from across the street. Use common sense; don't go to jail for trespassing.
For trees that were native to our areas, we read about their favored habitats, and looked for parks, wildlife preserves, and national forests that seemed likely or mentioned on their websites that they had that particular tree species in residence. If they were common enough that one of us had a tree of that sort in the neighborhood that we already had some affection for, we would go visit that one. If we couldn't find any in the wilderness, in a park, in the neighborhood, or by hearsay, we would go to the local arboretum. In general, Raven had far less profound connections and experiences with arboretum trees than with wild ones, but it was still better by far than trees she wasn't able to find locally at all. Kathryn had better experiences with some arboretum trees, but perhaps this was due to only going to an old arboretum with wild-feeling groves, where she had done rituals for a number of years already. Still, she also prefers the wild trees.
Happenstances of climate
Sometimes, you just don't luck out. If there are no trees of the chosen sort near you, you have two options. You can learn everything you can about the tree anyway, working from anything you can get, or you can read the associations and physical characteristics closely and try to find a tree that does grow in your bioregion which has similar associations and functions. Raven tended rather strongly towards the former, but even so, still had some interference from ambient events in the region. During cherry blossom season, Raven found it harder to concentrate on the trees that she was supposed to be working with, as she has a fairly strong affinity with cherry. It took a lot of focused effort to ignore the cherry blossoms and do something else, and she didn't always succeed. The general principle of being distracted by climate may apply. Kathryn used a combined approach - using deadfall wood gathered from Irish trees in talismans and on the altar, as well as studying field guides to find the closest local species that do grow in her climate. Often the ogham altars for a non-local tree would be made up with pieces of both the Irish tree and it's closest local cognate, and work with them in this fashion would help clarify which local tree was the best substitute. She was also lucky to have friends who were willing to find non-local trees and bring them to her, sometimes in rather dramatic endeavors (like when a friend arrived on Bealltainn with a huge Rowan tree in her car, branches sprouting out all the windows!). We have both been lucky, as the climates in our bioregions are not that dissimilar to the Gaelic lands. The overwhelming majority of the crann ogham trees could be found growing in our respective regions, allowing us to keep substitutions and modifications to a minimum. We recognize that this will not be true for everyone's bioregion.
When possible, we visited the trees during different times of day, in different weather, and in different seasons. One of the limitations of the tree-a-month method is the limited variance you're going to get in any given month. However, this can be somewhat ameliorated by going through the cycle multiple times, or by stopping in to see how trees you've befriended are doing, even if you're not on their month any more. In this way, one can form a fuller picture of the tree and its life cycle.
Community and crann ogham
The first time that we worked through the cycle, we both did it alone; indeed, Kathryn worked alone for many years before she encountered anyone else taking this approach. Most of the associations that we got were fairly traditional and in line with the folklore we were reading. The second time that Raven worked through the cycle, she did it in conjunction with an ogham working group. That was an incredibly valuable experience, since it showed us all the similarities and differences in the perceptions that various people had with each tree. We were all following roughly similar methodologies, but pursued them individually, and met up once a month to discuss our experiences with the previous month's tree, to share sources and folklore about the next, and on some occasions to do the meditation rituals mentioned before. Despite the majority of the ogham work being personalized and individual, it was still immensely helpful to have a community of similar intent to discuss the results with.
About halfway through Raven's second cycle, she and Kathryn met online, and several new ogham-interested people joined the discussions as well. This added another dimension to the work, as we were now able to discuss our experiences and sources for each tree. If you don't have other ogham workers in your physical presence, even an online study group may be helpful.
What about the forfeda?
In the first months or years of our studies, neither of us even tried to work with the forfeda. The second time through, Raven tried but failed - she wasn't sure which trees mapped to what, as the sources are unclear, she wasn't getting any helpful guidance, and she had no strong intuition or UPG as to what mapped to what. The forfeda just didn't work for her, so she abandoned the effort. Kathryn has taken a different approach to the forfeda, mapping them to local trees that are important in her bioregion yet not included in the first twenty feánna, and using them to symbolize concepts that need to be addressed in a working system but aren't covered elsewhere.
Even after years of work with the ogham, we both still feel that we have a lot to learn. Raven is thinking of using this same methodology and using it non-sequentially to fill in the gaps in her study as Kathryn has, going back to the trees that made less strong impressions the first few times around. Additionally, Raven moved across the country in the midst of her second cycle, and is interested in whether there are differences in the feel and meanings of familiar trees. Some of the trees that were scarce on the East Coast are plentiful out west, and vice versa; she had to go to the Arboretum to find alder in Washington DC, but it's the third most plentiful tree in Seattle. There are native hazels in Seattle, but the closest one to DC that she ever saw was in St. Louis. She may take the chance to get to know the trees all over again in a new climate, and see how they differ from the trees she knew back in DC. Kathryn is still living in the same bioregion, though in a slightly different micro-climate. Still in the forest, she is working at completing a book on her years of work with the crann ogham, sharing her experiences with others on the path, and forming deeper relationships with the trees in this new forest.
In addition, we are interested in patterns of growth, which trees naturally cluster together in the wild - and what this says about overlaps in the matrices of symbols that have grown up around them. This will probably add some complexity into our studies by observing the patterns of growth and settlement, and seeing how that relates to the meanings and associations of the trees in folklore and in ogham. Even after years of study, there's still much to be done.
Recommended Reading and Bibliography:
Historical Ogham Texts
Tales and Folklore
Tree identification (East
Tree identification (Pacific
A Brief Introduction to
We originally had a link here for sending donations
to the Tara Solidarity Vigil Camp in Ireland. Our efforts to stop the motorway
in Ireland failed. The road is open, but many refuse to drive it because
terrible crashes are unusually frequent on the road. Though not all wil speak
of it publicly, it's well known in Ireland that if you put a roadway through
sacred sites, if you mess with the spirits of the area, you are cursed, and you
drive that road at your own peril.
If you have enjoyed this article, the authors would like to ask that you consider doing whatever you can to support preservation of your local sacred sites and protection of the sacred ways associated with that landbase. Slàinte Mhath.
Copyright ©May, 2006 Raven nic
Rhóisín and Kathryn Price NicDhàna,
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