Ogham: A – Ailm: Scots Pine


Ailm’s day is 25 Dec: Sun-Return – the day the sun begins to move again after the Midwinter standstill/solstice

  • Winter Solstice is 21st December, the 3-day standstill is 22/23/24 December
  • Sun-Return is the day the sun begins to move again after the 3-day standstill of the Winter Solstice; i.e. 25th December.

This is an important turnaround in the year. We go from the days getting darker and darker, there being less light every day up to the solstice, the 21st December, to the changeover. From the 25th December there is gradually more and more light each day up until the summer solstice when it turns around and after 25th June there is less and less light each day until Midwinter.

  • Midwinter is about the rebirth of the sun.
  • Midsummer is about the death of the sun.

Ailm is about birth. It’s watchwords  are “I am the womb of every holt”.

Womb is a word to take into your sit-with. What is the womb? What does it do? Think about how the spark of life enters the womb, fertilises the seed, how the seed grows within the darkness to finally birth out into the light. All of these things are what Ailm is about – in every sense, plant, planet, star, animal, human, building, country, nation, idea, book, painting, cooking, each journey you make in the everyday world, everything … yes, everything, goes through this cycle. Ailm holds this energy for the Earth and all her creatures, including us.

Scots Pine

In Britain, this principle is often held by the Scots Pine, an ancient tree that is about breaking up land so that it becomes earth and soil that will support growing things. When you understand the principles that Ailm holds and guards for us all you can ask to be shown the wood – in your land – that will be right for the spirit-house of Ailm where you live. This is about working with the land where you live, not trying to force the land into working in a way some human has written about and, as such, has become “gospel”. We all need to learn to change ourselves to fit with the world rather than trying to make the world fit with our wants.

Scots pine has a long and rich history in mythology. In The Golden Bough, James Frazer relates various stories involving pine trees from classical mythology, which may or may not have been Scots pines, such as how the ancient Egyptians buried an image of the god Osiris in the hollowed-out centre of a pine tree. He writes that “it is hard to imagine how the conception of a tree as tenanted by a personal being could be more plainly expressed.” As a symbol of royalty the pine was associated with the Greek goddess Pitthea, and also with the Dionysus/Bacchus mythology surrounding the vine and wine making, probably as a fertility symbol. Worshippers of Dionysus often carried a pine-cone-tipped wand as a fertility symbol and the image of the pine cone has also been found on ancient amulets as a symbol of fertility. For the Romans the pine was an object of worship during the spring equinox festival of Cybele and Attis. As an evergreen tree the pine would also have symbolised immortality.

The Scots pine groves or ‘shaman forests’ scattered over the dry grasslands of eastern Siberia were considered sacred by the Buriats, a Mongolian people living around the southern end of Lake Baikal. These groves were to be approached and entered in silence and reverence, respectful of the gods and spirits of the wood.

Closer to home, Druids used to light large bonfires of Scots pine at the winter solstice to celebrate the passing of the seasons and to draw back the sun. Glades of Scots pines were also decorated with lights and shiny objects, the tree covered in stars being a representation of the Divine Light. It is easy to see how these rituals have given rise to the latter day Yule log and Christmas tree customs.

In the old Gaelic alphabet, where each letter is denoted by a tree whose name starts with the letter, the Scots pine is not listed under its Gaelic name of Guibhas but rather under P for Peith, which is the alternative Gaelic for the tree. Guibhas (pronounced goo-ass) crops up in several place names in Scotland both in its native Gaelic, such as Allt na Ghuibhas in Wester Ross and Glac a Ghuibas by Ardgower, ‘Pine Stream’ and ‘Pine Hollow’ respectively, and as Anglicised derivations such as Dalguise and Kingussie; Goose Island, Lough Derg, may originally have been Isle of Pines, not geese.

Note  … I use the Guelder rose for Peith but am very content with it being Scots Pine.

Scottish folklore surrounding the Scots pine seems to be fairly sparse. This may be due to the sort of uses to which Scots pine was put, mainly as a building material. In the days of wooden boats and ships several of the products of the tree proved useful in shipbuilding. The high resin content of the sap of the pine means that the wood is slow to decay. The tall, straight, flexible trunks proved to be ideal for masts and spars (witness Beinn nan Sparra, Hill of Spars, in Glen Affric), and the wood was also used for the planking, and sealed with pitch made from the resin (which was also used to seal the beer casks!). In fact there used to be a ‘superstition’ about not felling the pine trees for shipbuilding during the waning of the moon, as the tidal influence of the moon was said to affect the resin content of the wood; and indeed botanists now recognise the complexities of sapflow in plants which are to some extent affected by the gravitational influences of the moon’s cycles.

Hugh Fife, in his book Warriors and Guardians – native highland trees, suggests that as much plant folklore stems from the uses and influences of the plant on people’s everyday lives, and that as the uses of Scots pine were mainly on a larger, industrial scale, less lore about the pine has evolved or persisted, ie no rituals for annual harvesting, coppicing, medicinal/herbal uses and the like. There are nevertheless some medicinal uses derived from the pine: the resin and needles of the pine have been used, particularly as an inhalant, to treat respiratory problems and as an expectorant, and also have antiseptic and disinfectant qualities. The Bach Flower Remedies recommend pine to treat despondency, despair and self-condemnation.

A persistent theme in the folklore of Scots pine is their use as markers in the landscape. In the Highlands there is a recurrent theme that they were used to mark burial places of warriors, heroes and chieftains.

In areas further south where the sight of Scots pine may have been more unusual and their use would have stood out more, they can be seen to mark ancient cairns, trackways and crossroads. In England they were commonly used to mark not only the drove roads themselves, but also the perimeters of meadows on which passing drovers and their herds could spend the night. There is also the possibly more fanciful suggestion that Scots pines were planted in England by Jacobite farmers or sympathisers.

This relates them strongly to Elen of the Ways, and to her sister the Apple Woman and Washer at the Ford (Morgan). Elen is the lady of the roads and tracks. Morgan is the Lady of the crossroads, the Greek goddess, Hecaté, is similar to Morgan.

What does Ailm mean? Here are some words for you to sit-with and ponder on to help open up your mind and intuition to what Ailm is about, what it does, what its job is.

Birth, nativity, beginning, origin, dawn, start, founding, opening, foundation, creation, initiation, begin

You can see that both the words this month are about similar things – beginnings of various sorts. And both trees are  initiators of change, they break up concrete and stone and rock, they help make the stone into soil that will support new growing things.

Take all these ideas, concepts, together and feel your way into them. Feel into the similarities … and the differences. Both differences and similarities are important. The words are not all the same. The concepts that each of the spirits hold are not the same, you cannot interchange one with the other … but they support each other, they work together. This is important! It is how the world works J.

Humans tend to work from a competitive basis, against each other, against anything they perceive to be in their way. Working with the rest of the world is not something most humans have even contemplated yet, let alone had a go at living! You have the opportunity to begin working this way for yourself … as you begin the course.

Sit-with the words. What pictures come into your mind from them? Take them into your journey as foci, guiding and directing you towards finding the spirit.

Elen Sentier

behind every gifted woman there’s usually a rather talented cat …


Wye’s Women Elen’s Books Rainbow Warriors

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