Ivy is evergreen. It grows spirally, as the spiral of life grows, and represents the ever-flowing life-force that courses through the Earth. It is often the tree of chthonic (underworld) gods like Dionysios. For the Celts this is Bran.
Bran is one of the father-figure gods and a giant. It is told that when he lay down over a river, an army could march across him. He is also king of the underworld, and watches over the treasures of Don. These treasures are the animals, plants, insects, birds and the fabric of life itself of the Earth, for Don is one of the names of The Mother. So Bran is a king in the Celtic sense in that he was guardian to and of the goddess. He is also the God of Bards.
One of his names is Bron or Brons, the Fisher King of the Parsifal story. Arthurian scholar, Loomis, says …
“It can hardly be accidental that so many significant features of bron should lead us back to Welsh tradition. If we accept the hypothesis of an exclusively Christian origin for this character, we must also be prepared to admit that he is irrelevant and unnecessary. As Nitze has observed, Joseph and Petrus would have sufficed for the purposes of the story. If on the other hand Bron = Bran, then the inconsistencies in the stories can be explained as purely Christian developments.”
It seems that again Christianity homogenized one of the Celtic gods. Most conquering peoples do this to some extent, some are reasonably gentle about it as the Romans were in integrating their gods with ours. Others are brutal as were the Christians.
Bran is associated with the Apple Isle, Avalon, and one of the places his head is said to be buried is there. There are many candidates for Avalon in the real world and, as I’ve said before, chasing down which is the “right” one is a fool’s game. I have personal reasons for favouring the island of Lundy off the North Devon coast as it’s where I was born and grew up. It is said there are towers, usually invisible, on the island and that in one of these Bran’s head his buried. The towers are also associated with Arianrhod, and with Elen of the Ways, my personal patron.
The old name for Lundy was ‘Ynys Wair’ – Gwair’s Island. Gwair is a Celtic – Sun God. The 19th century Celtic scholar, Professor Rhys, was among the first to connect the imprisonment of Gwair on Lundy, with the Greek myth of the binding of Chronus on a western isle. What is this myth of the god imprisoned on a western isle?
In the Book of Taliesin the poem the Prieddeu Annwyn – The Spoils of Annwn – contains the outline of the now lost legendary tale. The poet tells of Arthur and his men sailing to the Fairy Fortress ,Caer Sidi, aboard Arthur‘s ship Prydwen to free the captive Gwair. It is accepted by leading scholars in the field that the Fairy Fortress, Caer Sidi, refers to the island of Lundy.
So … the sun is captured and imprisoned in the west, the place of sunset. The Celts had less fear of the dark than of the sun who was said to burn the land and called the “son of Scorch”. Pwyll fights him for Arawn as part of their agreement.
The taking and keeping of the sun is part of Bran’s ritual each midwinter. He is the Ivy god who fights with the Holly god – as sung in the Christmas carols – and who is overcome. It is an alchemical battle between death and resurrection.
The battle is also told of in the tales and songs of the Robin and the Wren. Tradition was that the wren is killed on the 26th December – the first day after Sun-Return, the day the sun begins moving again after the midwinter solstice or standstill, when there begins to be more light than dark each day for the next six months up until midsummer. In ancient times Sun-Return was a very special feast, not because our ancestors were stupid and thought the sun would never come back but because they were wise and knew to work with and celebrate the goddess in the seasons.
Graves likens this time to the autumn feast of Dionysios, called the mysterion. As well as wine the celebrants would have taken the faery toadstool, amanita muscaria, the red toadstool with the white spots in all the faery paintings. It’s quite possible this was done in Celtic lands too. The journey given by the toadstool is deep, passionate and violent, it strips to the core, tearing us apart. And note we call it a “toad stool”, place of the toad, the alchemical creature whose poison can be made into a medicine, rather than a mushroom. The feast is called the mysterion … feast of the mysteries, the lore, the grammarye, the reality of Life.
As part of this ritual ivy-ale, a highly intoxicating drink, would be drunk. It was still brewed at Trinity College, Oxford, up to the 1960s and maybe still is. The ivy bush was an old sign of a wine, as opposed to beer, tavern in England. There are still many pubs called “The Ivy Bush”.
In British folklore, Ivy is a bringer of good fortune, particularly to women. Allowing it to creep up the walls of your home protects all who live there from baneful magic and curses. It also appears in love-divination, it was said that a girl carrying Ivy in her pockets would soon see the young man who was meant to be her husband. Medicinally, an Ivy tonic can be brewed to keep away diseases such as whooping cough and respiratory ailments — it was even believed to keep away the plague.
The Fisher King
Bran, like Dionysios, is a chthonic god, a lord of the underworld, the place of shadows, dreams and a light that does not burn or scorch. And Bran is associated with Ivy as well as with the Alder which are the branches he carries in his crown to the Battle of the Trees. Where then we had Bran as the god-essence behind the alder tree no we have Bran as the essence of the Fisher King, the wounded king of the Wasteland,
This, from Wiki, gives a good idea of it all …
The Fisher King appears first in Chrétien de Troyes‘ Perceval, but the character’s roots lie in Celtic mythology in the figure of Bran the Blessed in the Mabinogion. Bran had a cauldron that could resurrect the dead that he gave to the king of Ireland as a wedding gift when the king married Bran’s sister, Branwen. Later, when Branwen is insulted, Bran wages war on the Irish and is wounded in the foot or leg, the cauldron is destroyed. He asks his followers to sever his head and take it back to Britain, and his head continues talking and keeps them company on their trip. This story has analogues in two other important Welsh texts: the Mabinogion tale Culhwch and Olwen, in which King Arthur‘s men must travel to Ireland to retrieve a magical cauldron, and the obscure poem The Spoils of Annwn, which speaks of a similar mystical cauldron sought by Arthur in the otherworldly land of Annwn.
The purpose of the fishing has got very lost over the hundreds of years. Going back into the Celtic original we can link it to the Salmon of Wisdom. To catch this Elder Beast and ask it for advice was a known way to help with ill-fortune and the Fisher King would do this. Indeed, it would be one of kingly duties both to ensure the nine hazel trees surrounding the Well of Segais flourish and so provide nuts to feed the Salmon. Also to go to the Well and call the Salmon, ask it to come and answer questions. In Celtic terms the gaining of wisdom is often about “eating”. To digest and absorb, right into ones bones so to speak, is considered good learning. Just to process it through the head, the brain, was and is still considered worthless and ineffectual. So the Fisher King would catch and cook and eat the Salmon. And, every time, the Salmon would renew itself, come again into form so that it can provide the wisdom-food for the next supplicant.
As you work with ivy don’t go eating it, it’s very poisonous! But do sit with it, try to absorb its wisdom within you. Don’t try to make sense of it just flow, with it, allow it to wrap around you, embrace you, as ivy does the tree. And don’t be afraid, although ivy is a parasitic plant it never kills its host – that would be stupid and wasteful as it would lose its means of support. Ivy gives as well as receives and will teach you how to do this too.
As a resurrection plant, ivy will take you through each little death that happens in your life and help you enable yourself to rise again. You will be a larger and more inclusive being for the experience.