The Wisdom of Trees in the Celtic Landscape

By C. Austin

"The Fairie folk
live in the oaks,
and the acorn will
bring you good luck"

Nature was the earliest companion of primitive mankind. She provided the bounty by which our distant forbears could shelter and survive. In return for her abundance, humankind revered Nature and the earliest religions rose to worship her bones of stone and mountain, her raiment of field and forest and the Moon Goddess who was reflected in her sparkling streams and seas.

From this primordial morning grew the symbols that today populate the collective memory of those who claim Celtic descent. The snake, the Greenman, the five provinces of space and the World Tree are all images that are illuminating for both the general and specific meaning they bring to individual lives.

The concept of a divine World Tree or Tree of Life, the mythic bridge between the worlds of god and human, is entwined with the veneration of trees. As an embodiment of the universe, the roots of the World tree inhabit the underground, the deep knowledge of earth. The trunk unites the roots with the upper celestial canopy. The products given by each tree were considered a physical manifestation of divine providence.

County Limerick, Ireland is the home of the enchanted Lough Gur. Legend holds that every seven years the Lough disappears and a tree can be seen growing from the bottom of the Lough. This Irish version of the World Tree can be seen in its double which rests in a nearby pasture. Cloch a Bhile, the “stone of the tree,” is about seven feet in height and a steadfast reminder of the mythic tree that supports our world under the Lough.

The Celtic landscape combined the vegetative mystery of nature, the daring exploits of heroes and gods and the folklore that grew from both. Each tree had its own personality and resident spirit. The seasonal leaf growth and loss of deciduous trees gave rise to beliefs about death and resurrection while the evergreen species brought assurances of life in the death time of winter.

The tribes of Ireland each had a sacred tree that grew in the immediate whereabouts of the site of royal inaugurations. Today at these sites, such as at the Hill of Tara and Magh Adhair, a small standing stone keeps lonely vigil, a more permanent marker of the living monument that has left the place.

Timber circles from the late Neolithic period have been identified which consisted of concentric rings of freestanding timbers surrounded by a bank and ditch.

Due to the impermanence of wood, at many sites, such as the Sanctuary at Avebury, Woodhenge and at Loch Tay in Perthshire, England, standing stones replaced or marked the location of earlier wood monuments.

Roman Celtic Jupiter columns, precursors to the standing Celtic cross, had their beginnings in the sacred trees of great antiquity. The great Celtic oak tree, sacred to both Jupiter and Cernunnos, was oftentimes depicted on the columns in the decorative form of oak leaves, acorns or a bark motif. The early Celtic masterpiece, the Gundestrup cauldron, portrays a sacred tree being carried by a military procession. This enigmatic gilded vessel was unearthed from a peat bog in 1880 and depicts scenes of early Celtic religious significance including gods such as the horned-god Cernunnos, mortals and animals.

From that setting came the earliest form of Irish writing, the ogham alphabet. The ogham alphabet is a series of lines and notches that were inscribed on stone and undoubtedly wood, although no wooden samples remain extant.

Dating from between 4 and 8 AD, each symbol of the alphabet is associated with a tree prominent to European folklore. Some believe the ogham alphabet was used primarily for memorials, to mark borders and possibly as a key to harp notation. However, others believe the ogham alphabet is a remnant of Druidic wisdom, used for divination and esoteric instruction.

The Tuatha De Dannan champion Ogma, patron of rhetoric and poetry, is credited with the creation of the ogham alphabet. The ogham alphabet described thirteen consonant “tree months” and five seasonal vowels. The trees mentioned therein are summarized as follows:

The Birch tree (Old Irish “Beith,” genus Betula) is a deciduous tree with white or grey bark.

As the birch is one of the earliest to gain its spring leaves, it is the tree of youth and the new year and its birch rods were used to drive out the spirit of the old year. It is a birch rod that Robin Red Breast used to slay the wren in a furze (gorse) bush on St. Stephen’s Day.

In Wales, the birch is a tree of love and wreaths of birch are woven as love tokens, its trunk used for the maypole. Like many trees with protective properties, birch boughs over cradles and carriages protect infants against the glamour of the Little People.

Phenologically, the leafing out of the birch marked the beginning of the agricultural year in some Scandinavian countries.

Birch twigs were one of the three woods used in the witch’s besom. Bound to the handle, the birch broom represents the Goddess in maiden form. Birch represents the letter “B” in the ogham alphabet and the first tree month extending from December 24 to January 24.

The Rowen or Mountain Ash (Old Irish “Luis,” genus Sorbus) is a deciduous tree with shiny smooth grey-brown bark that roughens with age. It has brilliant orange-red berries and leaves composed of 9 to 15 leaflets. It is a tree of divination and protection, probably owing to its red berries.

The Druids are said to have used rowen wattles to compel spirits to respond. Robert Graves writes that this is the source of the Irish term “to go to the wattles of knowledge,” that is, to “do one’s utmost to obtain information.”

The Tuatha De Dannan are said to have brought the rowen tree to Ireland from Tir Tairnagire, the “Land of Promise” and rowen wreaths played a part in Beltaine festivities. In Irish mythology, three hags spitted a dog upon a rowen stick to procure the death of the demi-god Fionn Mac Cumhail. Also known as the “Quicken” tree the mountain ash represents “L” in the ogham alphabet and the second month from January 21 to February 17.

The Ash tree (Old Irish “Nin,” genus Fraxinus) is a large deciduous shade tree with grey-brown bark furrowed in diamond patterns.

The ash belongs to the trilogy of sacred Irish trees, the other two being the Oak and the Hawthorne tree. Ash is the tree of rebirth, of protection and divination. Druid wands were often made of ash or hazel and Yygdrasill, the World Tree, is thought to be an ash.

The staff of the good god and chief of the Tuatha De Dannon, the Dagda, is believed to be made of ash wood. In County Limerick, the Lios is the largest stone circle in Ireland. Constructed in about 2500 BC, a limestone outline of the Dagda’s staff was found in the foundation of the circle when it was excavated.

The “Branching Tree of Uisneach” planted by Fintan the Ancient was an ash. Standing upon the mythological fifth province of Ireland, the Uisneach Ash would have been the centre point of Ireland, performing in wood what the Umbilicus Hiberniae; the centre stone of Ireland did as it also lay upon the Hill of Uisneach.

The “Sacred Tree of Creevna” was an ash, and a surviving descendent of that great tree was taken piece by piece to America with emigrants escaping the Great Hunger. Ash protects against drowning and oars and coracle slats were often made of ash.

The handle of a witch’s besom is made of ash as mother, to enable the traveler to traffic between the worlds of the sidhe and the worlds of the sky. Ash represents the letter “N” in the ogham alphabet and the third tree month from February 18 to March 17.

The Alder Tree (Old Irish “Fern,” genus Alnus) is a somber deciduous tree with dark bark, which is most comfortable along waterways and streams. It is able to fix atmospheric nitrogen and survive when grown in infertile soils.

When cut, alder wood turns from white to red and felling of a sacred alder was considered taboo. Dyes were made from its bark, twigs and flowers.

Considered a tree of death and resurrection, it may have been used, along with the poplar, in the “fe” rod, which was kept in pre-Christian graveyards for the measuring of graves and corpses. The fe rod was handled only by an appointed official and it was thought to be carved with an ogham inscription.

The alder represents the letter “F” in the ogham alphabet and the fourth month from March 18 to April 14.

The Willow (old Irish “Saille,” genus Salix) is one of the first trees to leaf out and one of the last to lose its leaves in the fall. A willow tree can grow 50 to 70 feet in height in moist soils.

The willow tree is the tree of enchantment, sacred to the Moon and the Goddess in her aspect of death leading to spiritual rebirth. To those who practice the Elder Religion, “willow (wicker)” and “Wicca” are thought to be derived from the same root meaning “to bend”, or “to be pliant.” Long used for medicinal purposes, salicylic acid is derived from the willow tree and baskets and other products woven from its flexible branches.

The willow, as crone, is the third wood of the witch’s besom, being the flexible bark, which binds the maiden birch rods to the mother ash handle. The willow represents the letter “S” in the ogham alphabet and the fifth tree month from April 15 to May 12

The Hawthorn or Whitethorn (Old Irish “Uath,” genus Crataegus) a low-branching deciduous tree which blossoms into a snowy cloud of tiny flowers in May.

The hawthorn or “thorn bush” is the tree of May and it figures prominently in Beltaine celebrations. Strips of clothing and tokens are tied upon the tree in propitiation to the Goddess. The hawthorn, especially a solitary tree, is considered a fairy tree and it considered highly unlucky to cut down or otherwise disturb the tree except for the plucking of branches on May eve.

The famed Glastonbury thorn, planted in legend by Joseph of Arimathea, blooms every Christmas and again in May.

It is believed the pre-Celts and the Celts considered May the month of divorce and as such, an unfortunate month for marriage. This belief may stem from the Beltaine festival that favours temporary greenwood marriages between interested partners, regardless of existing marriage vows.

The hawthorn represents the letter “H” in the ogham alphabet and the sixth tree month from May 13 to June 9.

The Oak (Old Irish “Duir,” genus Quercus) is a wide-reaching deciduous tree that can reach heights of 40 to 60 feet.

A long lived tree, the oak was favoured by the fairy folk, Celts and the Druids for its wisdom, strength and the phallic attributes of its acorns. It is thought that the word “Druid” derives, in part, from the root “dru” meaning oak. Sacred to the consort of the Goddess, Cernunnos, and to the Oak King at midsummer, it is said that the wizard Merlin was sealed into the hollow trunk of an oak tree.

Although the oak tree is considered a masculine tree, there are feminine characters who sway within its mighty branches.

Nemetona, literally “goddess of the sacred grove” was a British goddess who was a sometime consort of the Roman war god Mars. Nemetona lent her name to oak sanctuaries such as Drunemeton in Celtic Galatia (now central Anatolia) which were known as “nemeton,” meaning “sacred grove or sanctuary.” As an aside, Nemetona may be related to “Nemain,” an early Irish war goddess. As well, an obscure, but ancient British goddess by the name of “Daron” was worshipped as the “goddess of the oak.”

The smithy of the prehistoric Irish goddess Brigit lay under Croghan Hill in Ireland. Nearby her fire cult maintained an eternal flame at a sanctuary known as “the Church of the Oak Grove,” in County Kildare. When pre-Christian Brig evolved into “Saint Brigit” the sanctuary was christianized as St. Brigit’s Cathedral at Kildare (Cill Dara) where the saints followers maintained the flame of the goddess until 1530 AD.

The oak represents the letter “D” in the ogham alphabet and the seventh tree month from June 10 to July 7.

Holly (Old Irish “Tinne,” genus Ilex) is a densly foliated tree that can grow to 50 feet in height and 40 feet in width. Dark green leaves accented with red berries decorate this slow growing tree.

Evergreen plants, such as the holly, hold favour in European folklore for their unwavering green attire during winter months – a life in death aspect.

Holly is the cloak of the ancient Holly King, monarch of the waning year, who duels eternally with the Oak King, lord of the waxing year. The holly log is a traditional Yule log, its burning signifying the end of the reign of the Holly King. Holly is also the tree of the mythic Green Knight whose club was made from it.

The holly represents the letter “T” in the ogham alphabet and the eighth month from July 8 to August 4.

The Hazel tree (Old Irish “Coll,” genus Corylus) is an enormous shrub that can grow into a small tree which may reach 20 feet high and wide.

Excavations in the area of the legendary hall of King Arthur at South Cadbury, Somerset, England uncovered arrowheads, pottery and several hazelnuts dating from the Neolithic era. At the Lacra group of stone circles in England, hazel and oak charcoal as well as a hazelnut, was excavated from an urn containing cremated deposits. The presence of these items with the burial may suggest a seasonal ritual. Hazelnuts discovered at Windmill Hill at Avebury may also have had autumnal seasonal significance as well. These findings give ancient testimony to the intimate and abiding relationship between mortal souls and vegetative spirits.

The hazel is the tree of Celtic knowledge, sacred to fairies, poets and seekers of wisdom. W. B. Yeats felt that the Irish World Tree was a hazel. Hazel rods were formed into wands and divining rods and there was a taboo upon burning hazel wood.

The esoteric knowledge of the hazel was concentrated in its sweet nuts. The nine sacred hazels that grew at the mouth of the Boyne and Shannon rivers in Ireland dropped their nuts into the water and were fed upon by the salmon of knowledge which swam there. It is said that the number of spots upon a salmon’s back reflects the number of hazelnuts it has eaten.

The belief that otherworldly knowledge was contained in a hazelnut is the source of the term “that is it in a nutshell.” Associated with Druids, the hazel was known as the “Bile Ratha,” the “venerated tree of the rath” (“bile” is Old Irish for sacred tree, e.g. “Bile Magus” refers to the “plain of the sacred tree).

“Wattles” are a hurdle; fence or wand made of interwoven rods from tree branches or twigs. The twisted interwoven patterns made by hazel wattles (as well as other trees) are considered by some to be the origin of the highly decorative Celtic art form of interlocking and plaited knots found in illuminated books and upon standing stones such as Celtic high crosses. Used for fencing, fish weirs and screens, some traditional wattle designs are maintained to this day.

The original Glastonbury church, which tradition tells us was founded on the remains of a Druidic college, was constructed of wattles and eventually built upon to become the Abby that exists today.

The hazel represents the letter “C” in the ogham alphabet and the ninth tree month from August 5 to September 1.

The vine (Old Irish “Muin,” genus Vitis) is often replaced by the blackberry in Celtic mythology. In Ireland, blackberries cannot be gathered after October 31, and are abandoned to the pooka. The vine and the ivy are both plants that grow spirally. From this growth pattern comes the belief that the vine and the ivy are plants of reincarnation. The vine is considered a “tree” of rebirth, joy and exhilaration.

The vine represents the letter “M” in the ogham alphabet and the tenth month from September 2 to September 29.

The Ivy (Old Irish “Gort,” genus Hedera) is an evergreen, woody- stemmed perennial which, once established, grow rapidly.

Like the vine, the ivy is considered a tree of reincarnation and eternal life due to the spiraling pattern of its grown. The ivy and vine are often mixed metaphorically. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility, who some believe later evolved into the Christian Jesus Christ, was represented by the trailing vines of ivy and grape.

The ivy represents the letter “G” in the ogham alphabet and the eleventh tree month from September 30 to October 27.

The “Dwarf Elder” (Old Irish “Pethboc”) is apparently a reed plant, the type of which was and is used to thatch houses. An Irish homestead was not considered established until the roof was completed. The reed is the symbol of sovereignty and power and it represents the letter “P” in the ogham alphabet and the twelfth tree month from October 28 to November 24.

The Elder or Elderberry tree (Old Irish “tromm,” genus Sambucus) is a large, scruffy bush that may grow into a small tree of 20 or even 30 feet in height. It has bright green leaves and purple-black fruit, which can be made into jellies and wine.

The elderberry is favoured by the Little People and solitary elders were considered to be fairy trees. Because it is considered an otherworldly dwelling place for spirits, an elder is especially potent when grown in a churchyard.

The elder log is considered a token of the underworld hag, Hecate. Burning of the log is thought to summon spirits. As the elder is the tree of the thirteenth month it is considered to be an unlucky tree and is often avoided.

The elder represents the letter “R” in the ogham alphabet and represents the period from November 25 to December 22.

The Silver Fir (Old Irish “Ailm,” genus Abis) at its best is a magnificent, noble conifer reaching heights of 50 feet. However its sensitivity to climate and temperature extremes sometimes limit its longevity and performance.

The Fir is sacred to the Moon and is a tree of hope. A fir pole is sometimes used as a Maypole at Beltaine and wands tipped with pinecone carvings can be used in rituals relating to fertility and childbirth.

The fir represents the vowel “A” in the ogham alphabet and it represents the birth of the divine child (the day of the winter solstice).

Furze (Old Irish “Aiteann” also known as gorse) is a scrubby, thorned bush that flowers a brilliant golden yellow.

Gorse grows commonly throughout the Irish, Scottish and British countryside. At Beltaine and at Imbolg gorse was used ceremonially in torches and wreathes. At Imbolg the older gorse bush was burned away leaving the new growth for sheep and lambs to feed upon. The bush could be used as winter fodder for cows and also as fuel for the hearth.

The duel of the Holly and Oak Kings is called into play once again as the furze is fundamental in the death scene of that wretched little wren, “the wren, the wren, the king of all birds, on St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze.” Gorse, by virtue of its golden flowers is associated with the sun, which returns at the winter solstice along with the Oak King.

Gorse is the vegetative aspect of Atherne, the poet/god of Ulster who arrived in Eire prior to 2500 BC. The prickly poet Atherne was responsible for causing the Leinstermen to build a ford across the river Liffey thus founding the settlement called “Ath Cliath Cualann” (“ford of wattles) and later, the town of “Linn Dubh” or “Black Pool.” Linn Dubh was located at the mouth of a river that ran into the Liffey. The pool at the mouth of the river was eventually drained to make way for the gardens of Dublin castle and Linn Dubh eventually became known as “Dublin.”

Furze represents the vowel “O” in the ogham alphabet and it marks the growing sun at the vernal equinox.

Heather, especially white heather in bloom, is considered a lucky plant. This ground cover plant can be found throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Heather represents the vowel “U” in the ogham alphabet and the time of the summer solstice.

The white poplar tree (genus Populus) has cream coloured bark and can grow to 70 feet in height in a moist situation. The poplar tree is considered the tree of old age and the autumnal equinox and may have been used as wood for the “fe” rod, used for measuring of graves and corpses. The white poplar represents the vowel “E” in the ogham alphabet.

The Yew (Old Irish “Ibar,” genus Taxus) can become an enormous tree, reaching 60 feet in height and sometimes living 100 years. The yew carries dark green evergreen needles. It has attractive red-brown, deeply furrowed, flaky bark and fleshy red seeds.

Symbolizing immortality, the yew was commonly planted in churchyards. The yew is found throughout Celtic mythology and the Druids thought as highly of the yew as they did of the oak, preferring the yew for their wands. Considered a “guardian of mysteries,” an old grove of yews almost certainly signals the presence of a sacred location. The remains of an ancient Druidic yew grove are said to be located near the location of the Chalice Well garden in Glastonbury, England.

The yew is also known as the “death tree” due to the highly poisonous alkaloids contained in its foliage and seeds. Interestingly, today, the cancer-fighting drug Taxol is made from the bark of the relatively scarce Pacific yew tree.

The yew represents the vowel “I” in the ogham alphabet and it rules year’s end, the eve of the winter solstice.

Like the ogham alphabet, another early Celtic work of great antiquity is the “Myth of Cad Goddeu” or “The Battle of the Trees.” The poem, apparently composed much earlier, is preserved in the 13 century welsh manuscript entitled the “Book of Taliesin.” The poem describes a battle between Arawn; King of Annwfn and a ploughman named Amaethon. The hostilities are caused by a theft made by Amaethon. The action of the poem centers on the use of a magical staff that transforms trees into fighting men. The significance of the poem is thought to be the recordation of the powers ascribed at the time to trees.

Trees are as valuable to modern society as they were in the days when the Myth of Cad Goddeu was first set down. In most parts of the world trees are no longer venerated as they once were – but they are due our respect - trees provide us with the very oxygen that we breath, they are indeed “trees of life.” Knock on wood, may these woody spirits favour us for eons to come.

“Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.”

- The Two Trees, W. B. Yeats.