Celtic Tree Symbolism
Celtic Tree “Astrology” has become quite popular. Some of my most viewed posts are about Celtic Tree Signs. But there is much more to the relationship between Celts and trees than summarizing a person’s personality based on a natal time period. The Celts revered trees. Notice I didn’t say “worshipped.” They had an acute awareness of and appreciation for all nature, but the significance of trees in the ancient Celtic culture is demonstrated by their prevalence in the folklore, folk practices, and medicine. Perhaps the strongest indication of the integral part trees played in the culture is that each character in the Celtic writing system, the Ogham, is named for a tree. It is hardly surprising, then, that Celtic culture, which found signs in all aspects of nature, attributed meaning to each kind of tree.
Sometimes, the Celts are presented as a non-literate society. This is a misconception. They had a strong oral literature tradition and this, perhaps, is where the misconception arises. For centuries, the Celts strongly believed that important things, such as spiritual matters, genealogy, history, literature, and poetry should be committed to memory. But they did have a writing system, a 20-25 character alphabet known as the Ogham.
The Ogham was used until approximately the 10th century A.D. Originally, scholars say, it had twenty characters. Another five were added later. Some four to five hundred ogham inscriptions have survived, most of them on stone. Scholars believe that ogham also was carved into wood and even trees. The characters primarily are horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines, each representing a letter and named for a tree. The languages found written in Ogham are Old Irish, Old Welsh, Pictish, and Latin. Items inscribed with Ogham, for the most part, were signs indicating land ownership or labels with personal names etched into them. Below, I’ve listed five examples of Ogham. Each character has its name and the tree represented by the name. Also, I’ve listed the corresponding Roman alphabet letter.
Please note: due to the limitations of my keyboard, I am unable to reproduce Ogham characters accurately. Please see the picture for a better representation.
T = beith (Birch) equivalent to letter b
TT = luis (Rowan) equivalent to l
ll_= dair (Oak) letter d
lll = tinne (Holly) letter t
TTTT = sail (Willow) letter s
A Tree is Not Always a Tree
To understand Celtic tree symbolism you first must understand the Celtic definition of a tree. The Druids considered a tree to be anything with a woody stalk. So, in addition to oaks, birches, and so forth, Celtic trees include shrubs, such as gorse and rose bushes. But the definition goes even further to include reeds, vines, and certain plants, specifically mistletoe and heather. Because of this, the list of Celtic trees is massive. So below I’ve discussed the symbolism of just seven of them. If this whets your appetite, I invite you to check out my posts on Celtic tree spirits and Celtic tree signs. Also, the websites Ireland Calling and What’s Your Sign are great resources for further reading.
Celtic Tree Symbolism Examples
The seven trees I’ve selected for this list were chosen because of their importance and / or frequency in Celtic folklore, mythology, or folk medicine. There are numerous others of equal importance. Due to space considerations I’ve limited the list. One tree that should be on my list is the Hawthorn. It is a sacred tree and a faerie tree. The Celts believed it was a portal to the Otherworld. But I have written a great deal about it in other posts so I thought it best to give regular readers a break from my discussion of it. You can find out more about the tree, if you’d like by clicking on its name in the “Celtic Tree Signs” section at the bottom of this post.
Alder: This tree symbolizes giving and nurturing. The symbolism comes from the way that the tree enriches its ecosystem. Its roots transfer nutrients to the soil as well as provide a shelter for fish. The alder’s leaves, as they drop into the water and decompose, provide nutrition for the fish, as well.
Irish folklore says this tree is protected by water faeries who will be enraged and wreak vengeance on those who disturb it. Cutting an alder down was against ancient Irish law. Folk belief said that the faeries would retaliate by burning any nearby houses. This possibly comes from the fascinating change of the inner part of the alder’s wood from white to red when it is cut. Nevertheless, eventually alder wood, which is flexible and resists water rot, was used for bridges, ship masks, shields, flutes, pipes, among other things. Its bark and leaves were used to make a variety of dyes and folk medicine. The alder was used in divination too.
Ash: Ashes are associated with growth, perspective, and protection. The Ash tree shows up extensively in Irish and Scottish folklore (sometimes as the mountain ash, aka the rowan). A sacred tree, the Celts believed the ash connected the earth and the sky as well as the human realm and the Otherworld.
This tree can grow to gigantic heights, up to 200 feet tall. Its stability comes from its extensive root system which digs deep into the ground. It is a reminder, then, that you can reach great heights successfully if you stay grounded. If you lose your roots, you’ll topple over.
Ash trees are highly associated with protection, whether to protect your house from lightning or your babies from faeries. The ash is particularly believed to be a protector of children. In Scotland, its sap was used in medicine to protect children from witchcraft. In Ireland, its berries were used to prevent the faeries from stealing a child and leaving a changeling in its place.
Blackthorn: This tree has acquired a negative, even sinister, reputation. Perhaps this is because of its thorns which, if they pierce the skin, will cause toxicity. The reputation also may have developed because the tree has been called “the old crone of the wood.” This could be a reference to the belief that witch’s wands were made from blackthorn wood or an older association of the tree to the Cailleach, the Scottish goddess of winter. It’s not surprising, then, that the tree seems to symbolize bad things to come. Encountering a blackthorn is said to be a warning of coming strife or unavoidable challenges.
The tree is associated with Samhain and the coming of the dark half of the Celtic year. It should never be cut down and is guarded by moon faeries who are more wrathful than those that protect the alder.
But perhaps the tree and the challenges should be viewed in a more positive light. Blackthorns produce sloe berries, which are sweet and delicious, especially after the first frost. The berries also can be used to produce gin. And challenges, even if they cause strife, can provide opportunities for growth, and a feeling of accomplishment once they are overcome.
Elder: On the Celtic tree calendar, the Elder tree is the thirteenth and final tree sign. Logically, then, it symbolizes death and endings. As with the blackthorn, this tree can be seen in a positive or negative light. Christianity definitely viewed it negatively, saying Judas hanged himself from an elder and that the cross possibly was made from this tree. But pre-Christian Celts found a lot to like about the elder.
The druids believed the tree possessed banishing properties. This idea possibly came from the fact that its leaves and flowers made an excellent insect repellent. Celtic folklore took this further by suggesting the hanging of flowering elder branches above doors to ward off evil. Elders were planted near houses to protect them from lightning. Cradles of elder wood were used to protect babies. The Celts used it in medicine to heal various illnesses. A note of caution, though: some parts of the tree can be poisonous.
Hazel: The hazel tree is associated with creativity and wisdom. Celtic folklore tells of the nine hazel trees which grow in the Otherworld near a salmon-filled pond. The nuts from the tree fall into the pond and are eaten by the fish. A famous story from Irish mythology tells how the legendary hero, Finn MacCumhail, accidentally ate fat from a salmon that was being cooked. From that drop of fat, he gained all knowledge and wisdom. The tree is also associated with visions. Considered a sacred tree, the sentence for cutting down a hazel was death.
Oak: Of immense importance to the Celts, the oak is a royal tree. Folklore tells of the biannual battle between the Oak and Holly Kings for supremacy. The outcome of each battle determines whether light or darkness rules. This tree was particularly honored by the druids, who gathered to worship in oak groves. Mistletoe, one of the plants most revered and prized by the Celts, often was found growing on oak trees. The druids said the mistletoe had been placed there by Dagda, the god of thunder, and this marked the oak as a particularly sacred tree.
The oak is a symbol of many things, chiefly nobility, stability, and strength.
Yew: Like the blackthorn, the Yew tree 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. Could it possibly represent anything good and wholesome? The answer is a resounding yes! Capable of living for thousands of years, the yew symbolizes longevity (even immortality) and perseverance. It is also associated with mystery, illusion, and victory. The yew is able to regenerate itself so it has been used to represent resurrection or reincarnation as well.
Celtic Tree Signs
To learn about how the tree sign you were born under might be influencing your personality, just click on the name of the tree. *I haven't yet written a post on Birch. It will be comin in two weeks. Sorry! Until then, the link redirects to the What's My Sign website description.
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Slan go foil!
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