Celtic Cycle of Life Trees: Birch, Elder, and Yew
It’s hard to believe that are only two weeks left of this year. I always feel a little sad at the end of a year. I don’t know why. Perhaps I just don’t like things to come to an end. Of course, there is no reason to be sad. A new year is about to begin! The Celts were highly aware of this cyclical aspect of life. Ancient Celts believed there was a never-ending cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Perhaps the death part is what I don’t like about endings. To get from this life to new life (rebirth), you have to journey through death. But the ancient Celts knew that death was just a part of the journey.
For this week’s post, I want to discuss three trees associated with the endings, death, and / or rebirth. They are the Elder, the Birch, and the Yew. The focus will be on the Celtic symbolism and folklore about these trees. If you’d like to find out more about Celtic tree symbolism as well as the Celtic Tree Sign system, click here for my post (which includes links to posts on each of the thirteen tree signs and their companion Celtic animal symbol).
In Celtic folklore, the Birch tree is a symbol of rebirth and new beginnings. It warns us to be ready for a transition. Transitions can be challenging. During them, things change. Life may feel unstable, making us feel insecure. But a transition is simply a process. It will end—in new life and new opportunities. The Birch tree reminds us to be adaptable and resilient. If we respond to changes, rather than resist them, we become stronger and better able to deal with whatever else comes our way. Change is not always fun, but it is an essential part of growth.
The animal associated with the Birch tree is the deer. In Celtic folklore, deer are messengers and guides to the Otherworld. So, the Birch stands as a reminder that we are not alone. We are being guided. We need only pay attention to the messages.
Birchwood is hard and sturdy. The Celts used it to make many everyday objects. But it also was associated with protection, so one of the most common uses of birchwood was in the making of cribs. Folklore recommended carrying a birch twig to protect yourself from faerie mischief.
To learn about the Birch as a Celtic Tree Sign, click here.
The elder tree has a complex reputation in Celtic lore. It is a symbol of endings and death. Folklore says if you sleep under an elder tree, you may never wake up. This idea may have come from the fact that the leaves have a slightly narcotic effect.
Irish folklore warns parents never to put a baby in a cradle made from elder wood. The tree was considered hostile to children and, according to the lore, putting an infant in an elder wood cradle would put the child in danger either of sickening and dying or being stolen away by the faeries. Also, the lore warns that a child or animal that is struck with an elder branch will stop growing and, possibly, die.
The Druids said the elder had a spirit of mischief or bad temper in it.
Despite all this, the elder is associated with protection. The aroma of elder leaves repels flies and, perhaps because of this, folklore claims the elder has banishing properties. Its flowers were attached to horse’s harnesses and hung above barn doors to protect the animals.
Elder branches were used to make flutes. The spongy tissue inside could be scooped out easily, leading the Irish to nickname the elder “the hollow tree.” The tree’s apparent hollowness led to the belief that it provided an entrance to the faerie world. In Scottish folk tradition, flutes made of elder were used to summon spirits. Scottish folklore further says that if you stand under an elder at Samhain, you’ll see faeries.
The ancient Celts considered the elder a sacred tree. Cutting it down was against the law.
Here’s a slightly creepy final bit of Celtic folklore. The elder, it is said, has the power to walk at twilight. It peers into the windows of children’s rooms to see if they’re alone. So, you might want to hold off planting that backyard elder tree until the children have grown and moved away.
Click here for a post to read about the Elder Tree Sign.
Having a reputation as the death tree, the yew, an evergreen, can look pretty gnarly. It has a spiral trunk and a contorted shape. It usually grows alone, and every part of this tree is, to varying degrees, poisonous. Even dust from the wood, if inhaled, can cause toxicity. Ancient Celts tipped their arrows in the tree’s poisonous sap.
The tree has a dense canopy that casts a dark shadow. Nothing grows in the shade of this tree. Pretty gloomy, right?
Yet yew is a symbol of strength, wisdom, and mystery. It is strongly associated with longevity. This may seem strange not only because of the poison and death mentioned above, but also because the tree is often found in cemeteries. Usually, though, the yews were there before the graveyard. This tree lives for thousands of years. One of the reasons it is associated with long life. Also, it can regenerate itself. New branches form within dying ones. A yew tree may look like it’s withering away, but often it’s recreating itself beneath the surface. This has led to the tree becoming a symbol of rebirth or resurrection.
Ancient Celts often made shields and weapons from yew wood, believing the tree’s longevity could be transferred to the warrior. Wands and rods for divination also were made from yew. It was believed that voices from the Otherworld could whisper to presiders and initiates during sacred rituals.
Because of its frequently present in graveyards, the yew, Irish folklore, became known as the Guardian of the Dead.
This paradox—a poisonous tree associated with the dead as a symbol of long life—brings us back to where I started. The ancient Celts firmly believed in the never-ending cycle of life, death, and rebirth. As we end this year, it’s a good time to reflect that endings are just new beginnings, and that death is the pathway to new life.
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Slan go foil!