The Wisdom of Trees

Although the Celts were once spread over most of what is now Europe, and were comprised of many different tribes, nowadays, we tend to think all Celts were Irish.

To some extent, that perception is accurate, but only because after Rome overran Europe and conquered lands previously inhabited by various tribes, those Celts who remained were pushed off to the least desirable parts of the continent, which at the time were the hinterlands of what is now the United Kingdom.

Celts were polytheistic, and believed, as with Japanese Shinto, in animism. This meant they worshipped the forces of nature, imbuing rocks, trees, rivers, and mountains with magical powers.

Their high priests were druids (although there’s very little evidence, all of it from secondary source material—i.e., the Romans, who conquered them, and Greeks, and even, later on, the Irish monks—telling us what the druids did, since the Celts did not leave a written record of their beliefs).

To the extent that archaeologists have figured this out, Roman reports of the druids mention ceremonies being held in sacred groves. Celts also built temples of varying size and shape, though they also maintained shrines at sacred trees and votive pools.

Among the most popular sites for the veneration of animistic deities were trees; the oak, ash, and thorn were considered to be the most sacred. The importance of trees in Celtic religion is shown by the fact that the very name of the Eburonian tribe contains a reference to the yew tree, and that names like Mac Cuilinn (son of holly) and Mac Ibar (son of yew) appear in Irish myths. In Ireland, wisdom was symbolised by the salmon who feed on the hazelnuts from the trees that surround the well of wisdom.

As you can see, Ireland comes up a lot when it comes to myths about trees, and with good reason; when you see research that refers to “medieval Irish sources” telling us how pagans worshipped, those medieval Irishmen were monks, who almost single-handedly transferred the wisdom of the ages on to vellum during the so-called Dark Ages.

Anyway, to make a long story short, now we associate the Irish with the Celts (rightly or wrongly) and we associate the Celts with tree worship (a reductive view, but this is what happens in the telephone game of life). Ultimately, that reductive process has brought us to Celtic astrology, which is based on the worship and meaning behind trees and their symbology. I personally find it a beautiful use of imagery, deriving, as it does, from an appreciation of the natural world.

Similar to Yggdrasil, the world-tree of Norse mythology, Celts envisioned the entire Universe in the form of a tree, whose roots grew deep into the ground and whose branches reached high into the Heavens (does this image remind you of Rivendell? It should, since J. R. R. Tolkien was heavily influenced by Norse and Celtic mythology).

In time, the Celtic people eventually designated a tree to each Moon Phase in their calendar (the ancient Celtic tree calendar) in accordance with its magical properties.

Therefore, the Celtic Zodiac is based upon the cycles of the Moon, with the year divided into the 13 lunar months established by the Druid religion, plus one extra day called ‘the nameless day.’ Each month is named after a specific tree, and each month therefore contains imagery and symbolism based on the meaning granted to that particular tree.

The Alder, for example, represents the period of the year from March 18 to April 14th, and one meaning given to the Alder  is

“Armed with spear and sword, Bran, the mighty giant and ancient Celtic King of Britain, has slain the Green Dragon in order to establish his hold upon the seasons.

The power of the Sun has triumphed, having reached the Vernal Equinox. Day will now rule the night and the Sun have dominion over the Moon.”

Sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to be born under a conquering tree?

Another symbolic tree interpretation is for mine own, that of Holly (July 8 to August 4):

Among the Celtic tree astrology signs the Holly is one of regal status. Noble, and high-minded, those born during the Holly era easily take on positions of leadership and power.

If you are a Holly sign you take on challenges easily, and you overcome obstacles with rare skill and tact. When you encounter setbacks, you simply redouble your efforts and remain ever vigilant to obtain your end goals. Very seldom are you defeated. This is why many people look up to you and follow you as their leader.

You are competitive and ambitious even in the most casual settings. You can appear to be arrogant but in actuality you’re just very confident in your abilities. Truth be known, you are quite generous, kind and affectionate (once people get to know you).

Highly intelligent, you skate through academics where others may struggle. Because many things come to you so easily, you may have a tendency to rest on your laurels. In other words, if not kept active, you may slip into an unhealthy and lazy lifestyle. Holly signs may look to Ash and Alder signs for balance and partnership.

Okay, some of that is actually a little too accurate, for a reading whose wisdom stems, pun intended, from a tree. These readings were based on what is essentially a process of observing and anthropomorphising the trees in question.

For example, the bark of the birch tree is very tough; it survives long after the wood itself has rotted. This kind of observation lead ancient Druids (it is believed) to divine the future of a child’s existence based on the relevant tree corresponding to the period in which child was born. For a list of when you were born and what it might mean, look here and here and even here.

Astrology: Beth-Luis-Nion Celtic Tree Calendar

Beth (Birch) December 24 to January 20
Luis (Rowan) January 21 to February 17
Fearn (Alder) March 18 to April 14
Nion (Ash) February 18 to March 17
Saille (Willow) April 15 to May 12
Uath (Hawthorn) May 13 to June 9
Duir (Oak) June 10 to July 7
Tinne (Holly) July 8 to August 4
Coll (Hazel) August 5 to September 1
Muin (Vine) September 2 to September 29
Gort (Ivy) September 30 to October 27
Ngetal (Reed) October 28 to November 24
Ruis (Elder) November 25 to December 22
  December 23 is not ruled by any tree for it is the traditional day of the proverbial “Year and a Day” in the earliest courts of law (also known as the “nameless day”).

Jen Delyth, from her book “Celtic Folk Soul: Art, Myth & Symbol”