Beware the Tree Spirit: Celtic Folklore about Trees
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
[This is an update of my 2019 post “Beware the Tree Spirit: Celtic & Irish Tree Folklore”]
Note: This post is meant to entertain. Nothing in it is intended as medical or lifestyle advice.
Don't cut down that tree! You might anger the faeries or tree spirits that guard it!
Nature holds an important place in Celtic culture. The ancient Celts were fishers and farmers so their lives depended on nature. Even today, many Scots, Irish, and Welsh make their livelihoods from those occupations. Also today, as in ancient times, nature can be destructive, even deadly. Lightning, floods, and snow storms are taken lightly only by fools. This is true for all humans of any culture, but the Celts didn’t simply rely on and contend with nature. They respected and valued it highly. Celtic spirituality teaches that there is a spark of the Divine in everything. Rocks, streams, trees all have a touch of the mystical in their core. Trees, however, are particularly important in Celtic culture.
How intrinsically important trees are to the Celts shows up in a few ways. First, there is a belief system that has become known as Celtic astrology. The term, I contend, is an inaccurate one since the system has little do with stars and planets, but drawing an analogy between this Celtic system and western astrology is reasonable. Both systems teach that the time period in which one is born affects one’s personality and behaviors. The difference between the two philosophies is that western astrology is based on stars, planets, and constellations. Celtic “astrology” is not. Western astrology has twelve sun signs. The Celtic system has thirteen tree signs. For example, according to western astrology, my sun sign is Cancer the Crab which is ruled by the moon. My Celtic tree sign is the Holly. This means I’m a leader. In Celtic culture the holly is a royal tree.
That brings me to the second piece of evidence that trees are an integral part of Celtic culture. The Druids had an extensive classification system for trees, dividing them into Commoners of the Woods, Nobles of the Woods, and other categories. Some were sacred. Two (holly and oak) were royal. Trees were treated according to their status. In Brehon law, an Irish legal code used until at least the seventeenth century, cutting down certain trees was punishable by fine or even death (depending on the tree’s status). The same was true in Scotland. For an extended example of law and ritual regarding trees, see my post on mistletoe. Hold on, you say, mistletoe is a plant, not a tree. It seems like a fair point except that the Druids classified anything with a woody stem as a tree. So mistletoe, vines, and ivy (which was considered distinct from vines) were, to the Celtic mind, trees.
Perhaps the strongest evidence of the central role trees played in Celtic culture can be found in Irish, Scottish, and Welsh folklore. Below is some of my favorite Celtic tree lore (and a few laws as well).
For Babies and Children
--To protect children from harm, bathe them in water infused with holly leaves.
--To keep the faeries from stealing a child, place ash berries in the crib [Note: this is a choking hazard!]
--Place the baby in a crib made of elder wood. This will prevent faeries from kidnapping the child.
--Or maybe not! Some versions of folklore say placing the baby in an elder wood crib increases the chance of the Good People replacing your child with a changeling.
--To protect your house from lightning, plant a rowan or willow tree near it. Lore also recommends ash trees but some Irish folklore says ashes actually attract lightning so this tree is risky!
--Celts believed mistletoe was placed on oak trees by a lightning bolt sent by a thunder god.
Because of this, folklore says hanging the plant in a home protected the structure from lightning. Mistletoe also was believed to protect from evil and faerie mischief.
--The Druids considered ivy, sinister but magically powerful. Celts believed that ivy growing on or near a home protected the family from evil and misfortune. The caveat is that, if the ivy fell down, grew sick, or died, the family would suffer calamity.
Protection from Faeries, Evil Spirits, Witches, and the Dead
--Holly trees were believed to offer protection from evil spirits.
--Rowan trees provided protection from witchcraft and enchantments. Burning rowan wood in the fireplace on May Day morning was said to provide protection from the evil plans of witches.
--Placing rowan flowers on windowsills and doorsteps kept evil spirits from entering the house. In addition, rowans were planted in graveyards to protect the dead from evil spirits and to keep the dead from rising from their graves.
--Willow branches, placed in a home, kept the family safe from witchcraft and evil.
--Bringing holly leaves into the house in winter provided faeries a shelter from the cold, resulting in their blessing the whole household with good fortune.
Never Cut These Trees!
--In Ireland, cutting an alder tree was against the law. Perhaps because the wood of the tree changes from white to red when it is cut, folklore taught that cutting one angered the tree spirits who guarded it. The lore said that the angry spirits would retaliate by burning all nearby houses. So cutting the tree had consequences for the community as well as the perpetrator, thus harvesting an alder was prohibited.
--In Scotland, cutting an aspen was not only illegal, but was considered equivalent to killing a human.
--According to Irish and Scottish oral tradition, chopping down a hazel tree was punishable by death.
--While disturbing a Hawthorn tree was and is not actually illegal, it is considered dangerous. Hawthorns are believed to guard the entrance to the faerie world, so disrespecting the tree in any way (let alone chopping it down) risks the wrath of the faeries.
Some Miscellaneous Fun Folklore
--Elder trees were believed to have a bad temper or mischief inside of them. Folklore taught that striking a child with an Elder stick, would cause the child to stop growing.
--Ivy growing on a grave indicates a restless spirit.
--Despite warnings against disturbing hawthorn trees, an Irish folk custom is to place strips of cloth or ribbons on hawthorn trees on the feast of Beltane. Each cloth or ribbon represents a wish. It's similar to throwing coins into a wishing well. --Often, the ribbons were of symbolic colors such as green or gold for money, blue for peace, red for love, yellow for happiness and so on.
--An Irish legend warns that if you sleep under an elder you may never wake up. This may come from the fact that the leaves have a mildly narcotic affect.
--Want to get rid of a wart? Carry a needle around for three days then stick it into an ash tree (poor tree!). The wart will be transferred to the ash in the form of a knot.
--An ash, oak, and willow growing near each other indicates a magical pace where faeries can be seen.
--The sound of the wind rustling willow leaves is faeries whispering inspiration to poets.
--Have a secret? Tell it to a willow. The tree will take the secret in and lock it away so it never gets out.
--Don't eat bramble berries after Samhain. Folklore warns that the Puca, a mischievous shape-shifting faerie, spits (or possibly pisses) on them!
--The elder, it is said, walks at night and peers through the windows of children's rooms. How creepy!
--The willow can walk at night too. It follows strangers and mutters after them.
I hope you enjoyed this sampling of Celtic folklore. If you did, please LIKE and SHARE. You can SUBSCRIBE to the blog for FREE by clicking the “Sign Up” button in the upper right of this page.
Joy and peace in the New Year! Slainte!
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