Although my divination method of choice remains “The Druid Animal Oracle,” I’ve been working to improve my understanding of ogham. Each day, after I perform my morning or afternoon devotional, I ask for an omen for the day and draw an ogham symbol from a muslin bag. I’m getting better at interpreting certain symbols and seeing how they could relate to my day, both as I head to known destinations and activities, and in reflection at the end of the day. Other symbols, however, continue to elude me. Part of this is due to the variety of interpretations in the books I have. Others seem very ominous, only for my day to be relatively stress-free. This left me confused and second-guessing the symbols. I wasn’t about to give up, though, as I know that questioning and critiquing are part of the learning process.
Blackthorn has been one ogham symbol that has continued to bloggle me. Skip Ellison’s book Ogham: The Secret Language of the Druids summarizes its meaning as “Trouble & negativity” (125). Ian Corrigan also touched on Ogham in his work A Druid’s Companion: Lore & Rituals for the Work of Druidry. He summarizes its meaning as “trouble and protection.” Finally, Celtic Tree Mysteries: Secrets of the Ogham by Steve Blamires simplifies blackthorn as such: “Be prepared for a transition; prepare for something about to end; sudden change; death” (253). It’s quite the variety, but the common denominator is always fairly negative. Of course, most authors expand on the tree by looking at its folklore and biology. Blackthorn, however, continued to confuse me in part because of the symbolism associated with other trees. For example, some authors equate hawthorn with “unpleasant period(s)” (Blamires 253), or yew with death (Corrigan and Ellison). According to Cúchulainn, heather could also relate to death through his comparing it to the “shroud of the lifeless one,” (Ellison 47). Ultimately, one has to consider all the information as well as our own perceptions, but I was feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps part of this is my own inexperience with actual, living blackthorns?
Then I started to think about blackthorn in terms of “strife.” Many authors link its Gaelic name for the ogham, “straif” or “straiph,” with the English word “strife.” I was repeatedly drawing blackthorn, and I was getting worried. At the same time, I’ve been pouring over books to work on an ADF course – Indo European Mythology 1. There’s a major comparative element to it, so I decided to pull out all my materials from my college mythology class. Oh, the wealth of material I have on Greek mythology! I was rereading Hesiod’s “Works and Days,” which outlines good morals as well as when and how Ancient Greeks should have performed certain tasks. It’s quite a fascinating peek back in time, honestly, one that people who follow a Celtic hearth culture could only dream of finding. Anyway, Hesiod discusses strife:
And I will speak to Perses the naked truth:
There was never one kind of Strife. Indeed on this earth
two kinds exist. The one is praised by her friends,
the other found blameworthy. These two are not of one mind.
The one – so harsh – fosters evil war and the fray of battle.
No man loves this oppressive Strife, but compulsion
and divine will grant her a share of honor.
The other one is black Night’s elder daughter;
and the son of Kronos, who dwells on ethereal heights,
planted her in the roots of the earth and among men.
She is much better, and she stirs even the shiftless on to work.
A man will long for work when he sees a man of wealth
who rushes with zeal to plow and plant
and husband his homestead. One neighbor envies another
who hastens to his riches. This Strife is good for mortals.
Then potters eye one another’s success and craftsmen, too;
the beggar’s envy is a beggar, the singer’s a singer.
Perses, treasure this thought deep down in your heart,
do not let malicious Strife curb your zeal for work
so you can see and hear the brawls of the market place. (lines 10 – 29, translated by Apostolos N. Athanassakis)
This passage was a reminder not to lose sight of the less ominous interpretations of straif. They are also part of the blackthorn. Just as Hesiod says there are two kinds of strife, a positive and negative, blackthorn has its sides. It depends on the perception and context. The thorny bush could indeed be protective in certain circumstances. I don’t see death in it, though. I feel that yew, with its association with graveyards, has a better connection to death than blackthorn, but the latter surely relates to trouble and difficulties in reaching our goals due to all those thorns.
Later that day, I further meditated on blackthorn while at yoga class. Before we started, our teacher set an intention for us. She asked us to think about transitions. As we went through our stretches, breathing, and movement, she would remind us to stop and think about the processes we go through to transition between one pose and another. Sometimes, those transitions were quite challenging. They sometimes made me feel a little clumsy or sore, yet they were part of an ongoing process.
It dawned on me that the blackthorn I was drawing could relate to a transition I’ve been going through in my career. It’s certainly been stressful, but not dreadful. All the blackthorn could be related to the strife of hard work as I transitioned, and the difficulties of that process.
This whole experience, while probably kind of roundabout, has felt like a breakthrough in my understanding of some of the ogham symbols. Let the journey continue!