Reed gives strength to the physician and is an attribute of Brigid, patroness of all healers. —E.E. Hopman
It’s quite fortuitous that the letter “C” happens to fall near Imbolc, as it gives me a chance to talk about the cattail, Typha capensis, my regional equivalent of the reed so oft linked with Brigid in her many guidses. Of course, one of the favorite holiday activities is the crafting of Brigid’s crosses. Traditionally, these would have been made from reeds, already softened from living in the water (if you are in a reed-less region, raffia can be substituted in a pinch). But cattails have other uses, including their edible rhizomes, which archaeological evidence suggests may have been eaten thirty thousand years ago in Europe. However, be sure you know how clean their habitat is before you go chowing down on their roots: they will absorb any toxins in their environment and pass those directly on to you!
One of my fondest adolescent memories was riding on the train from my hometown in New Jersey into New York City. I loved staring out the windows and the broad marshes, full of cattails swaying in the breeze as we approached Manhattan. If you looked closely, you could find dozens of different birds, and sometimes the occasional muskrat (or R.O.U.S. if you gave your imagination a little leeway). Those reeds seemed eternal, unbroken and unflappable no matter what the weather. They made me think of the fable of the oak and the rushes, how the mighty and unyielding tree was laid low in a storm while the reeds bent and flowed around it. In a sense, that was how I survived much of those teenage years: bend enough not to break, but not so much that you forget who you are.
From an esoteric standpoint, both ogham and runes have letters which can be associated with reeds or sedge (if not cattails specifically), namely Ngetal (which is also glossed as broom in the Calder’s 1917 translation of the Book of Ballymote [Blamires 2005, 36]) and Eohl (elk-sedge). Regarding Ngetal, Hopman states there is no word that begins with “ng” in Irish, and that Ngetal may be a corruption of gétal (wounding) or cétal (charm); the word oghams themselves are related to the practice of medicine (2008, 90). Ngetal is called “physician’s strength,” “panacea,” “beginning of heroic deeds, healing,” and “robe of physicians” (Blamires 2005, 159). Graves assigned Ngetal to the 12th month of October in his Celtic Tree Calendar (Murray & Murray 1988, 10), which intuitively makes sense as autumn is a time of year when these plants are highly visible.
, the seventh rune of the second Aett, is reconstructed as *Algiz or elk for the Germanic tribes, and called eolh secg, or elk-sedge, by the Anglo-Saxons. Then only extant rune poem is from the Anglo-Saxons, and clearly describes water-growing plant:
Elk-sedge is found mostly in fens / waxes in water, wounds grimly / with blood burns whatever warrior / that goes to grasp it.
The protective/wounding quality of the plant is clearly noted, and in fact, the rune was often used in constructions like the Helm of Terror to protect and ward the bearer (Paxson 2005, 157). Eohl’s philosophy is “the best defense is a good offense,” and it this quality which modern druids and witches may call upon for protection.
To return to cattail-specific lore, as per usual for this series, I seem to disagree with Cunningham’s associations. He sees cattails as being guided by the powers of Mars, Fire, and lust (2003, 76)—inspired perhaps by the doctrine of signatures? My interpretations are based on where they grow (Water), the fact they are a food source (Feminine), and if I had to hazard a planetary association, it would be Venus—especially as one magical use Cunningham cites is as a female aphrodisiac (2003, 76)! These are the deep, nurturing aspects of passion, rather than the bellicose interpretations no doubt inspired by the plant’s sword-like leaves.
Cattails, like birch and mugwort, are pioneers, able to inhabit areas recently destroyed so that other species may follow. Even dead stalks can transfer oxygen down to the roots, and the seeds can survive for years until the right conditions are ready for them to sprout. Cattails are survivors, like so many so-called “weeds,” and protect and shelter all manner of wildlife and birds within their vast colonies. Many lessons may be won from watching them: how to bend, how to survive, how to expand, and how ultimately to thrive. Their song is not a loud one, but its sighs can inspire and heal with incomparable gentleness. Never mistake humility for passivity or gentleness for weakness. Cattails may not be flashy, but they drink from the Well and we can’t forget the depths of the wisdom that brings.