Tag Archives: Owls

Ogham – Tinne: Holly

400 yr old Holly at Greencombe, Porlock

T – Tinne: Holly

The Moon-month for Tinne runs from 8 Jul – 4 Aug

The holly tree at Greencombe, Porlock, Exmoor, is anciet and very magical. I’ve sat within his multi-stemmed grove and dreamed several times.

Holly is the tree of the Tánaiste – the twin and often the killer of the king.

What is a Tánaiste?

This is from wiki and may surprise you J …

The Tánaiste (Irish pronunciation: [ˈtɑːnəʃtʲə]; plural: Tánaistí [ˈtɑːnəʃtʲiː]), or, more formally, An Tánaiste[2], is the deputy prime minister of Ireland. The Taoiseach (prime minister) nominates a member of the government to the position of Tánaiste. The current Tánaiste is Mary Coughlan, TD. TánaisteIrish word for the heir of the chief ( was originally the taoiseach) or king (rí), under the Gaelic system of tanistry. Before independence, the British Viceroy was sometimes referred to in the Irish language as An Tánaiste-Ri, literally ‘the deputy king’.

The office was created in the 1937 Constitution of Ireland, replacing the previous office of Vice-President of the Executive Council that had existed under the Free State constitution. The Tánaiste acts in the place of the Taoiseach during his or her temporary absence, and, until a successor has been appointed, in the event of the Taoiseach’s death or permanent incapacitation.

Holly berries

However, the role of Tánaiste is far older than 1937.  Two of the most famous holders of the office are Gawain who was Arthur’s Tánaiste and Gronw who was Tánaiste to Llew Llaw Gyffes. In the latter case Gronw is called to kill Llew in order to open him from being a personality-oriented brat so that he can become king, it is part of Blodeuwedd’s training of him. Blodeuwedd is the Queen of the Night and Lady of Dreams who agreed to inhabit the body made for her from nine flowers by Math and Gwydion in order to find a wife for Llew.

This is a complex story that has been much dumbed-down by Victorian and later writers who have made Blodeuwedd to be a soulless, heartless trollop who cheats on her man. Such is not at all the case. Blodeuwedd is a powerful goddess and initiator, a king-maker, one who draws us from the illusion of form into the reality of essence. Her totem, the owl, is the wise bird of legend, one who can see in the dark and the barn owl – with the heart-shaped face assigned to Blodeuwedd – is able to fly silently and to pinpoint the smallest sound with her incredible hearing. Ponder on the symbology of all that for a goddess … and for what she can see and draw out of you.

Back to the Tánaiste … the wiki piece above says the Tánaiste was the deputy-king, and indeed that was so, but what does it mean and how is it relevant to us?

second-in-command, assistant, agent, representative, helper, supporter, envoy, emissary, ambassador, negotiator, mediator … these are some of the offerings for the word deputy from the Thesaurus. All are relevant and pondering on them will give you more of an idea of what it is to be Tánaiste. Both Gawain and Gronw are these to their respective kings.

I recently gave you the story of Ragnall’s Wedding where Gawain takes on the job of marrying Ragnall in her hag-form in order to get the answer to the questions “What do women most desire?”, and so save Arthur’s life. It’s a wonderful story and shows what all beings, creatures, people want … the ability to choose. Gawain is vital to this as are his qualities of perception and generosity, and his willingness to ask, to hand over decisions to another when appropriate.

Gronw usually suffers badly at the hands of story-tellers, becoming the cuckolder, the stealer of another man’s wife, the nasty piece of work. He’s none of these things. Without him, Llew would continue in his hunting and pleasuring and never take the slightest care of the Land … and for the Celts, the Land is the Goddess who is our whole care and duty. You can see Llew, until Gronw speared him, was a complete waste of space as far as being guardian to the goddess was concerned!

Robert Graves gives the line for Tinne, in the Song of Amergin as …

I am a Spear: that roars for blood

This is the spear that Gronw makes, with Blodeuwedd’s help, in order to drink the blood and pierce the ego of Llew, so drawing him into his totem, the eagle, and forcing him into aloneness in the wilderness of the eagle-mountain, Mother Snowdon, to find himself as king. Without Gronw spearing him he would have been useless.

Often, the Tánaiste is also the “twin”, and his twin’s executioner as Gronw is in the this story. There are many Celtic stories of  twins, usually a dark one and a light one … the ubiquitous two sides of one coin that permeates the whole of the Celtic tradition.

These two heads are the same … if you turn one upside-down you get the other. They were inscribed on coins from the Celtic period.

The relationship of Tánaiste to king is like this, they are two sides of one coin.


There is much lore about holly in the British tradition and it is a magnificent tree if allowed to grow to its full height, often 50ft.

Holly King by Christopher Bell

In Celtic grammarye the Holly King is the Green Knight of “Gawain and the Green Knight”. Gawain is Arthur’s Tánaiste who, as we’ve seen, takes the king’s place in dangerous adventures. You’ll remember the story of the Green Knight coming to Arthur’s hall at Yule, carrying a holly bush as his totem, and demanding to be beheaded? Gawain complies and so incurs the duty to find the Green Knight again and allow himself to be beheaded in his turn.

I’ll do the story later.

Holly is also sacred to Llew and one of the Celtic symbols for this tree is the Flaming Spear … after Gronw’s spear that transmuted him from boy into king.

Holly is the first moon of the dark half of the year – i.e. after the midsummer solstice when the days begin to get shorter again. This is significant of the mythos of the Oak King, slain by his twin, Tánaiste, the Holly King. The Holly King then rules until the midwinter solstice when he, in his turn, is slain by his Tánaiste, the Oak King. Oak and Holly are again two sides of the same coin, the end of one cycle being the beginning of the next.

The old yuletide carol – much older than Christmas – says, “of all the Trees that are in the Wood, the Holly bears the Crown” … a good thought to finish on.


Elen Sentier
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Celtic shaman – Elen Sentier Coughing up bones …

Owl Spirits

They came in my teens, rustling feathers and taking up residence at the back of my already troubled mind. Drowning in unfamiliar hormones, ravaged with existential angst and doing all the things teenage folk do, this was just one insanity amongst many. I loved them, feared them, had no idea what to do with them. During A Level art I tried making owl plates in an Owl Service style, and taking owl figures from them, and sometimes that helped. I could feel the scrape of their talons, sharp along the edges of my psyche.

For a long time, the sense of owls in my head was tied up with everything I felt uneasy about. A complex, fledgling sexual identity for which I had no language, a knowledge of difference and an inherent pagan-ness I hadn’t yet found a way to explore. Too strong, too wild, too crazy and carefully trying not to get myself formally identified as insane, I did not feel safe about being an owl person for a long time.

Owls are night creatures. They are silent death, falling from the sky onto unsuspecting rodents. They swallow whole to avoid getting blood on their feathers and later cough up what they cannot digest. They are swift, lethal, beautiful. I’ve lain in the night listening to them calling from the nearby woods, a haunting sound, full of mystery and melancholy. Traditionally seen as a bit sinister, and considered bad luck if you encounter one by day, owls are challenging entities to work with. I’m a vegetarian, and more pacifist than not, but I am frequently drawn to predatory creatures.

Becoming more consciously pagan in my late teens, and learning a few handy techniques took me forwards. An opening up of my own creativity, and time spent meditating allowed me to get a lot more comfortable with the craziness in my head. I was particularly inspired by Emma Restall Orr’s ‘Druid Priestess’ which described a process of communing with other creatures and travelling with them, visualising yourself into their form. It is a form of shape shifting that (probably) happens in the mind, and I began to play with it, learning to find my wings.

Flight for me has always represented freedom, and now out of the fears of childhood, darkness feels like peace and comfort. To fly in darkness would be a lovely thing. Wind in my feathers. In Portland this year, I dreamed I was turning into an owl, which felt tremendously hopeful. A finding of wings and power.

Working with spirit is not precisely the same as working with the living, actual creature, although connecting with the latter helps the former process. It’s more about certain kinds of energy, ways of being and perceiving the world. The spirit of owl is traditionally associated with wisdom, but owls themselves aren’t excessively bright – much of their skull capacity is taken up with those huge eyes, and much of the brain is occupied with processing information from said eyes. To what extent our notions of the spirit essence of a thing is ‘real’ and to what extent just the externalising of human concepts, I can’t really say.

It wasn’t until I stopped being afraid of my own power, sexuality and craziness that the owls stopped being a source of fear and became allies. This was an important lesson. Fear puts up barriers and creates problems. Acceptance and openness paves the way to relationship and understanding. They no longer sharpen their talons inside my mind, and I have learned to close my eyes and take wing. They offer liberation, escape, and hope of better things. I do not know where they will take me next, but have no doubt it will be interesting.

Blodeuwedd’s Song

Following along the owls theme… this poem was written back when I was about seventeen, and is one of the few things from my early writing days that I still like. Although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time ‘I am’ is a technique used by bards, modern and old, as a way of getting closer to a subject. ‘I am the stag of seven tines’. It’s a very simple way of invoking/evoking the spirit you want to work with.

As mentioned yesterday, I was from an early age enchanted by Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, in which ancient Welsh myth replays itself through three young folk. The idea that the myths might be real things, that take over lives and reinvent themselves, appealed to me. It still appeals to the author in me, although these days I have far less inclination to see myself as doomed anti-heroine material! However, the myths do give s archetypes to work with, and narratives that at times can help us make sense of our own lives. Working with the meanings, symbols and shapes of mythic tales can be helpful as part of the personal journey and quest for wisdom and understanding. So, this is a poem about Blodeuwedd, The Owl Service, the idea of being taken over by myth, and my belief that being turned into an owl is freedom, not punnishment.

Blodeuwedd’s Song

I was flowers, paint me owls, set me free.

Too long in soft sweet innocence I reach for wings and talons.

Face of flowers, born of flowers, broom oak and meadowsweet.

I am ageless, I am timeless. If you love me, set me free.

This my ancient, burning magic, dreams that shape insanity.

Too long in the daylight, I long to kill and fly through trees.

This is my disturbed protection, reality in terror rules.

Hide behind my imagination to be there when the veil falls.

A sorrow, tragic bitter myth I have with choice instead of life.

To hide behind the msyteries and fly in silence through the night.

Give me eyes to see forever, give me grace and time to be,

Believing, in the darkness. If you love me, set me free.

Bitter love first made me owls, owls still are part of me,

Dancing crazy through this lifetime, living mostly in my dreams.

I am owls, I am flowers, each with time my state of mind.

I am mad, but this ploy’s working.

While I’m crazy, I am free.

Life with Owls

I must have been about eight when Dad first read Alan Garner’s ‘The Owl Service’ to me. Enchanted by the story, and finding it well and truly under my skin, I gobbled up the Kevin Crossley Holland Mabinogian, and from that point, owls and Blodeuwedd were very much with me.

For those not familiar with the stories, Blodeuwedd is made out of flowers by two magicians, for a man who’s mother cursed him such that he would have no wife of mortal race. She falls in love with someone else, arranges her husband’s murder and is punished by being turned into an owl. (It’s a long, complex, magical story and worth reading properly.) I found her story resonant and it travelled with me through the challenges of my teenage years. The traditional interpretation of Blodeuwedd is of betrayer, corrupter, cheat. To me, she was a wronged creature, made to serve another but not made to love him, neglected, seeking love elsewhere and betrayed by her lover. For me, turning from flower maiden into owl always seemed like freedom and escape. Blodeuwedd might also be seen as representing humanity’s desire to shape, control and direct nature, and the ultimate futility of so doing. It’s a story that resonates on many levels.

There have been several defining moments in my relationship with Blodeuwedd and owls. The first came at Clun Green Man day, quite some years ago, when I opted to sit in on a concert from some bloke I’d never heard of, and he proceeded to sing about Blodeuwedd in a way that echoed my own thoughts about her. I was stunned, brought close to tears, and filled with the realisation that it wasn’t just me. ‘Some bloke’ turned out to be Damh the Bard – who has been a significant influence on my journey down the bardic and druidic paths. Here’s one of his songs, telling the story

Event number two, happened at Birmingham museum, when an ancient figure from a country that would now be part of Iraq was brought there. We were at war with Iraq, and Bobcat and Honouring the Ancient Dead arranged a gathering at the museum. (More here – http://www.honour.org.uk/node/256) The goddess depicted on the tablet, had owl wings. A different owl goddess from my own, but a figure I felt moved to encounter. It was the first time I looked into the darkness, before a plunging down into some devastatingly hard times. In that moment of encounter, I had a sense of the challenges to come, although not the specific form they would take. I sang. I have a song from my teens about Blodeuwedd, which was wholly inappropriate. I rewrote it as I sang it in honour of The Queen of The Night. I have no idea how, or what I sang, but it felt right. It was the first time that kind of wild improvising had happened to me in ritual, but by no means the last.

Event number three came as part of the OBOD druid course – www.druidry.org The visualisation that sparked it was a simple one, inviting us to reach out to an animal guide. Although there are many creatures that inspire me, owls retain a special place in my heart. So, there I was, meditating quietly, contemplating owls, when a profound sense of owlness came to me. Shortly followed by an even more profound sense of being swallowed whole by it. Now, meditation can just be a brain workout or a way of being calm, but sometimes it’s a much deeper, more affecting experience. This was one such occasion. I was inside the owl. I stayed inside the owl for several days, stumbling through my regular life in a state of bewilderment and disorientation, until eventually it coughed me up. An experience that taught me to take these things seriously, and that marked me in far deeper way.

I’ll post the song tomorrow.

Coughing Up Bones

Owls swallow things whole and later cough up the indigestible bits. There is a lot of owl in my psyche, and I’ve been swallowing things whole for a lot of years. I hadn’t worked out how to cough up the hard, spiky, unusable stuff. Until now. How to hold my sense of self and not continually swallow the expectations, demands and criticism of others. I want to learn from my mistakes, I want to be a better sort of person but that does not mean everyone who criticises me is right and should be heeded. That actually took a lot of figuring out. There are people for whom I will never be enough, do enough, give enough or accept enough crap from them to make them happy. No amount of swallowing the bones can turn those into good relationships. Time to follow the way of the owl, and cough up what I cannot digest.

I don’t know if I would have got here by myself. The support of people who not only love me for who I am, for all of it, but celebrate how I am, relish my nature, my emotions and so forth, changes everything. Seeing myself reflected in the eyes of people who love me, value me, makes me see things anew. Makes me question the need to swallow bones.

I’ve spent a lot of my time seeking affection and approval, willing to jump through any hoop, any kind of conditional requirements because I didn’t think I was worth much. I spent too many years being told that my unhappiness stemmed from my inability to appreciate what I’d got. Asking for more led to recriminations, how could I not see how much I was getting? How could I be so unreasonable as to want more? I should be giving more. I apologised, so many times, for being unhappy, soul hungry for things I did not know how to name. I did a lot of trying to live with less, want less, ask for less. It didn’t help, and I came to feel that any request for care or assistance was too big an ask. I’ve spent the last year learning different ways of being. With love, care and respect in my life, inspiration and kindness, I am not soul hungry any more.

Everybody has faults and failings. Everybody makes mistakes. To love someone is to accept their imperfection and to talk through gently where needs or ideas conflict. I love my child. I am trying to help him grow, and that means that I have to tell him when he isn’t on the right track. I do so as gently as I can, I support him in working out how to do better, and that doesn’t damage his self esteem. Instead, it helps him grow and there is a lot of trust between us. I’ve watched how my beloved Tom has supported me this last year, with patience, listening as I work things through. I needed to grow and change. He has nurtured me and helped me flourish, never clipped my wings or wounded my heart. I am a work in progress. As I learn, I try to find better ways of being and giving.

If you focus on criticism and picking up where a person is wrong, then that can come to define a relationship. The parent who only pays attention to a child to yell at them for mistakes is not helping them develop into a rounded and functional person. The same is true in any relationship. No one is perfect. Everyone needs to be encouraged, to have positive reinforcement for the things they do right. A barrage of criticism pushes people away from each other, and seldom fixes anything. Be kind where you can. Listen. Take an interest. Be as patient as you are able. Everyone has the scope to be learning and growing, we can support each other in that if we choose. If all someone does is pile on blame and criticism, there is no requirement to swallow that whole or to keep it inside and be cut up by the sharpness of it. Coughing up the bones is a liberating process, currently I am learning to see what is not me, and what I do not need to own. There is a new kind of peace in my heart. I accept that I’m not going to please everyone, that in fact I don’t have to please everyone. If who I am is not enough for someone else, I’m not morally obliged to take that personally and strive to be more for them. It is my desire to be an honourable person, to act well and with care and respect. There is only so much you can do when that isn’t reciprocated.

This morning, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the sheer loveliness of my child, and the soul-deep gorgeousness of my lover. Between them, they have changed how I see myself, and how I understand the world as a consequence. They love me as I am. I will strive to be better because I want to, but they love me as I am. Blessed with that, I do not need to swallow any more spiky meals from people who never wanted me as I am. I cough up the bones.