Celtic Trees Arise! Cad Goddeu and Celtic Symbolism
Updated: May 29
All right. I admit it. This week I’m going to geek out. I came across a 6th century Welsh poem, Cad Goddeu and, as I began to read it, my mind sat up and my soul began to dance. Partly, this reaction came from my history as a writer, an academic, and simply as a person who loves doing literary analysis. My excitement also came from a joy of Celtic symbolism, especially about trees and herbs.
Now, I realize that not everyone who reads this blog shares my geekiness, so I promise this is not going to be a literary analysis essay. It will be a brief summary of the poem, a tiny bit of information about how scholars have interpreted the poem, then comes the good part: excerpts of the poem and some corresponding information about the Celtic symbolism that lives in the poem’s lines.
Quick Notes on Translation
Before I begin, here are two pieces of housekeeping. First, since I am not fluent in medieval Welsh, I have to depend on other people’s translations of this poem from English to Welsh. There is an artistic aspect to that and, since I don’t want to step on copyrights, I am not going to include a full translation of the poem on this site. However, I encourage you to check out translations of the full text by clicking here and/or here. The links will take you to different websites that have the text in English. The two translations are similar in the overall content but different in the poetic translation of each verse.
The second housekeeping piece is about the poem’s title. Many sources refer to the poem as “Cad Goddeu or The Battle of the Trees.” This, to me, is analogous to The Hobbit (or There and Back Again). In other words, the second part is a subtitle or a parenthetical. However, in my research, I came across a number of sources which stated that Cad Goddeu is Welsh for “The Battle of the Trees.” It is not. Again, I am not an expert in medieval Welsh, but a simple check of Google Translate reveals that Cad Goddeu translates in English to “Let it Pass.” I find that title intriguing in relation to the poem, but I promised not to geek out, so I’ll resist explaining and move on. For the record, “The Battle of the Trees,” translated into Welsh, is brwydr y coed. My conclusion, then, is that Cad Goddeu became better known as “The Battle of the Trees” since that, as you will see, is what the poem is about: trees coming to life and fighting a battle.
Text and Interpretive Theses
Before getting into the academic stuff, here’s a taste of this luscious piece of writing:
--The aspen-wood has been topped / It was topped in battle / The fern that was plundered…
--The gorse did not do well…The oak, quickly moving / Before him, tremble heaven and earth…
--The blue-bells combined / And caused a consternation.
That final line is my favorite. First of all, I find the fact that, among so many mighty trees, the little bluebells “caused a consternation” both charming and ironic. But I see more to the line. In Celtic folklore, bluebells are strongly associated with the faeries. The flowers are said to be a favorite of the Fair Folk, and folklore claims the bell-shaped petals call the faeries to processions. If the poem is read as highly symbolic, possibly even allegorical, then the bluebells can be interpreted as representing the faeries. Although I would never call them the “Wee Folk,” they’re often portrayed as being small in stature. But, as anyone who knows a bit about Celtic faeries can tell you, you don’t want to mess with them. They’re quite powerful and can cause more than a little “consternation.”
Here are the facts about Cad Goddeu. It is a 6th century poem that has been preserved in a later medieval text, the 14th century Book of Taliesin. (Taliesin is an early Middle Ages Brittonic bard, usually believed to have been Welsh. He often is cited by scholars as the inspiration for Merlin.) The poem, told in first-person, has as its central figure Gwydion, a character from Welsh mythology. He is a magician and another figure often associated with Merlin. Cad Goddeu relates the story of a great battle between Gwydion and Arawn, the Welsh god of the Underworld. Gwydion triumphs by bringing the trees of the forest to life to fight as his army.
Some scholars have associated the poem with Arthurian legend and believed it to be a fragment of the large collection of Arthurian literature. W. F. Skene, according to Wikipedia, believed the poem alluded to raids into northern England by the Irish. Renowned poet and critic, Robert Graves, argued that the poem had coded messages about the pagan Celtic religion. He posited that the trees represented the Celtic writing system, the Ogham.
The latter part of this theory makes sense to me as the letters of the Ogham do correspond to trees. For example, the letter equivalent to b is called beithe, (Irish for birch), and the equivalent of the letter d, dair, is associated with the oak tree. For more about the connection between the Ogham and trees, see my post “Celtic Tree Symbolism.” I question the first part of his thesis as the poem, like many pieces of medieval literature, weaves pagan elements with decidedly Christian references.
Cad Goddeu and Celtic Tree Symbolism
I promised not to go into full-fledged scholar mode and do extensive literary analysis of the poem, so I will just quote a few lines and mention the connections I see with the tree symbolism of Celtic folklore.
Let’s start with something obvious: “The hawthorn, surrounded by prickles / With pain at his hand.” Just on a literal level, the hawthorn tree can cause a lot of pain. Its sharp thorns (or prickles) are typically an inch in length but can grow (on some species) to as long as four inches.
In Celtic folklore, hawthorn is used in plant magic to banish evil. If enemies are seen as evil, then the hawthorn’s a great vanguard for your arm. Also, hawthorns are believed to be portals to the Otherworld. The Otherworld is not inhabited solely by faeries and other supernatural beings. The Otherworld is the place souls go when they die. So, the hawthorn, coming at you with “pain in his hand” (a sword reference perhaps?) may mean your life in this world is at an end. The fact that hawthorns are guarded by faeries who will pour wrath on the heads of those who disturb this tree makes him an even more intimidating symbol.
“The aspen-wood has been topped / It was topped in battle.” This line is deeper than it might appear. In ancient Celtic law and in continuing folklore, there are trees that are not to be cut down. If they are, severe consequences will follow. One such tree is the aspen. In Scottish law, cutting down an aspen was the equivalent of killing a human—with the corresponding death sentence. That said, I don’t believe this line is a portend of death or symbolic of a formidable warrior as in the hawthorn symbolism above. In context, the line seems to be either a cry of alarm or a lament. It is a reminder of the cost of going to battle: human lives are extinguished.
“The gorse did not do well.” This verse follows shortly after the line about the aspen. In between, the narrator says the fern has been “plundered” and the broom has been “hurt” in “the trenches.” So, again, the reality of war is detailed. Then comes this line about the gorse. This can be interpreted as just another aspect of the battle. Sometimes, soldiers don’t perform as well as they or their side might wish. But I contend there’s another way to interpret this verse.
In Celtic folklore, the gorse, an evergreen bush covered with bright yellow blossoms is a symbol of joy. In plant magic, it is said to give hope to those who are despairing, and it gives them the courage to continue on. If “the gorse did not do well,” perhaps the injuries and loss of life mentioned in the poem just prior to this line have led to despair and their courage is waning.
There is so much more that could be discussed, but I will finish with a look at some lines about one of my favorite trees, the holly. The druids classified it as a royal tree. Celtic folklore tells of the holly king who rules half of the year (the oak rules the other half). So, it’s not surprising then that, in Cad Goddeu, this tree is presented as a hero: “Holly, it was tinted with green / He was the hero.” This is from a translation of the poem on http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/t08.html.
On the website https://www.tree-signs.com/cad-goddeu the translation says this about the evergreen: "The holly, dark green / Made a resolute stand / He is armed with many spear points / Wounding the hand." This is the ancient image of a king, a majestic and heroic figure, leading his army in battle. It’s worth noting that in Celtic “astrology,” those born under the Holly tree sign are natural-born leaders who are noble of spirit. Their corresponding animal sign is the unicorn. The Celtic unicorn was not warm, fuzzy, and cute. As I said in my post, “A Holly in Summer,” these mystical animals are free, dynamic forces of nature. The holly / unicorn is a formidable figure.
I’ve barely touched on all the riches of the symbolism contained in Cad Goddeu. Again, I encourage you to read the full text of the poem yourself. The two translations I used for this post were from http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/t08.html and https://www.tree-signs.com/cad-goddeu Perhaps, along with that, check out my posts on Celtic tree symbolism (the link is at the bottom of this post), and continue to explore the role of trees and nature in Celtic folklore.
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Slan go foil!