The Wisdom of Trees in the Celtic Landscape
By C. Austin
"The Fairie folk
live in the oaks,
and the acorn will
bring you good luck"
Nature was the earliest companion of primitive mankind. She provided
the bounty by which our distant forbears could shelter and survive. In
return for her abundance, humankind revered Nature and the earliest
religions rose to worship her bones of stone and mountain, her raiment
of field and forest and the Moon Goddess who was reflected in her
sparkling streams and seas.
From this primordial morning grew the symbols that today populate the
collective memory of those who claim Celtic descent. The snake, the
Greenman, the five provinces of space and the World Tree are all images
that are illuminating for both the general and specific meaning they
bring to individual lives.
The concept of a divine World Tree or Tree of Life, the mythic bridge
between the worlds of god and human, is entwined with the veneration
of trees. As an embodiment of the universe, the roots of the World tree
inhabit the underground, the deep knowledge of earth. The trunk unites
the roots with the upper celestial canopy. The products given by each
tree were considered a physical manifestation of divine providence.
County Limerick, Ireland is the home of the enchanted Lough Gur.
Legend holds that every seven years the Lough disappears and a tree can
be seen growing from the bottom of the Lough. This Irish version of the
World Tree can be seen in its double which rests in a nearby pasture.
Cloch a Bhile, the “stone of the tree,” is about seven feet in height and a
steadfast reminder of the mythic tree that supports our world under the
The Celtic landscape combined the vegetative mystery of nature, the
daring exploits of heroes and gods and the folklore that grew from both.
Each tree had its own personality and resident spirit. The seasonal leaf
growth and loss of deciduous trees gave rise to beliefs about death and
resurrection while the evergreen species brought assurances of life in the
death time of winter.
The tribes of Ireland each had a sacred tree that grew in the immediate
whereabouts of the site of royal inaugurations. Today at these sites,
such as at the Hill of Tara and Magh Adhair, a small standing stone
keeps lonely vigil, a more permanent marker of the living monument
that has left the place.
Timber circles from the late Neolithic period have been identified which
consisted of concentric rings of freestanding timbers surrounded by a
bank and ditch.
Due to the impermanence of wood, at many sites, such as the Sanctuary
at Avebury, Woodhenge and at Loch Tay in Perthshire, England,
standing stones replaced or marked the location of earlier wood
Roman Celtic Jupiter columns, precursors to the standing Celtic cross,
had their beginnings in the sacred trees of great antiquity. The great
Celtic oak tree, sacred to both Jupiter and Cernunnos, was oftentimes
depicted on the columns in the decorative form of oak leaves, acorns or
a bark motif. The early Celtic masterpiece, the Gundestrup cauldron,
portrays a sacred tree being carried by a military procession. This
enigmatic gilded vessel was unearthed from a peat bog in 1880 and
depicts scenes of early Celtic religious significance including gods such
as the horned-god Cernunnos, mortals and animals.
From that setting came the earliest form of Irish writing, the ogham
alphabet. The ogham alphabet is a series of lines and notches that were
inscribed on stone and undoubtedly wood, although no wooden samples
Dating from between 4 and 8 AD, each symbol of the alphabet is
associated with a tree prominent to European folklore. Some believe the
ogham alphabet was used primarily for memorials, to mark borders and
possibly as a key to harp notation. However, others believe the ogham
alphabet is a remnant of Druidic wisdom, used for divination and
The Tuatha De Dannan champion Ogma, patron of rhetoric and poetry,
is credited with the creation of the ogham alphabet. The ogham alphabet
described thirteen consonant “tree months” and five seasonal vowels.
The trees mentioned therein are summarized as follows:
The Birch tree (Old Irish “Beith,” genus Betula) is a
deciduous tree with white or grey bark.
As the birch is one of the earliest to gain its spring leaves, it
is the tree of youth and the new year and its birch rods were used to
drive out the spirit of the old year. It is a birch rod that Robin Red
Breast used to slay the wren in a furze (gorse) bush on
St. Stephen’s Day.
In Wales, the birch is a tree of love and wreaths of birch are woven as
love tokens, its trunk used for the maypole. Like many trees with
protective properties, birch boughs over cradles and carriages protect
infants against the glamour of the Little People.
Phenologically, the leafing out of the birch marked the beginning of the
agricultural year in some Scandinavian countries.
Birch twigs were one of the three woods used in the witch’s besom.
Bound to the handle, the birch broom represents the Goddess in maiden
form. Birch represents the letter “B” in the ogham alphabet and the first
tree month extending from December 24 to January 24.
The Rowen or Mountain Ash (Old Irish “Luis,” genus Sorbus) is a
deciduous tree with shiny smooth grey-brown bark that roughens with
age. It has brilliant orange-red berries and leaves composed of 9 to 15
leaflets. It is a tree of divination and protection, probably owing to its
The Druids are said to have used rowen wattles to compel spirits to
respond. Robert Graves writes that this is the source of the Irish term “to
go to the wattles of knowledge,” that is, to “do one’s utmost to obtain
The Tuatha De Dannan are said to have brought the rowen tree to
Ireland from Tir Tairnagire, the “Land of Promise” and rowen wreaths
played a part in Beltaine festivities. In Irish mythology, three hags
spitted a dog upon a rowen stick to procure the death of the demi-god
Fionn Mac Cumhail. Also known as the “Quicken” tree the mountain
ash represents “L” in the ogham alphabet and the second month from
January 21 to February 17.
The Ash tree (Old Irish “Nin,” genus Fraxinus) is a large deciduous
shade tree with grey-brown bark furrowed in diamond patterns.
The ash belongs to the trilogy of sacred Irish trees, the other two being
the Oak and the Hawthorne tree. Ash is the tree of rebirth, of protection
and divination. Druid wands were often made of ash or hazel and
Yygdrasill, the World Tree, is thought to be an ash.
The staff of the good god and chief of the Tuatha De Dannon, the
Dagda, is believed to be made of ash wood. In County Limerick, the
Lios is the largest stone circle in Ireland. Constructed in about 2500 BC,
a limestone outline of the Dagda’s staff was found in the foundation of
the circle when it was excavated.
The “Branching Tree of Uisneach” planted by Fintan the Ancient was an
ash. Standing upon the mythological fifth province of Ireland, the
Uisneach Ash would have been the centre point of Ireland, performing
in wood what the Umbilicus Hiberniae; the centre stone of Ireland did as
it also lay upon the Hill of Uisneach.
The “Sacred Tree of Creevna” was an ash, and a surviving descendent of
that great tree was taken piece by piece to America with emigrants
escaping the Great Hunger. Ash protects against drowning and oars and
coracle slats were often made of ash.
The handle of a witch’s besom is made of ash as mother, to enable the
traveler to traffic between the worlds of the sidhe and the worlds of the
sky. Ash represents the letter “N” in the ogham alphabet and the third
tree month from February 18 to March 17.
The Alder Tree (Old Irish “Fern,” genus Alnus) is a somber deciduous
tree with dark bark, which is most comfortable along waterways and
streams. It is able to fix atmospheric nitrogen and survive when grown in
When cut, alder wood turns from white to red and felling of a sacred
alder was considered taboo. Dyes were made from its bark, twigs and
Considered a tree of death and resurrection, it may have been used,
along with the poplar, in the “fe” rod, which was kept in pre-Christian
graveyards for the measuring of graves and corpses. The fe rod was
handled only by an appointed official and it was thought to be carved
with an ogham inscription.
The alder represents the letter “F” in the ogham alphabet and the fourth
month from March 18 to April 14.
The Willow (old Irish “Saille,” genus Salix) is one of the first trees to
leaf out and one of the last to lose its leaves in the fall. A willow tree
can grow 50 to 70 feet in height in moist soils.
The willow tree is the tree of enchantment, sacred to the Moon and the
Goddess in her aspect of death leading to spiritual rebirth. To those who
practice the Elder Religion, “willow (wicker)” and “Wicca” are thought
to be derived from the same root meaning “to bend”, or “to be pliant.”
Long used for medicinal purposes, salicylic acid is derived from the
willow tree and baskets and other products woven from its flexible
The willow, as crone, is the third wood of the witch’s besom, being the
flexible bark, which binds the maiden birch rods to the mother ash
handle. The willow represents the letter “S” in the ogham alphabet and
the fifth tree month from April 15 to May 12
The Hawthorn or Whitethorn (Old Irish “Uath,” genus Crataegus) a
low-branching deciduous tree which blossoms into a snowy cloud of
tiny flowers in May.
The hawthorn or “thorn bush” is the tree of May and it figures
prominently in Beltaine celebrations. Strips of clothing and tokens are
tied upon the tree in propitiation to the Goddess. The hawthorn,
especially a solitary tree, is considered a fairy tree and it considered
highly unlucky to cut down or otherwise disturb the tree except for the
plucking of branches on May eve.
The famed Glastonbury thorn, planted in legend by Joseph of
Arimathea, blooms every Christmas and again in May.
It is believed the pre-Celts and the Celts considered May the month of
divorce and as such, an unfortunate month for marriage. This belief may
stem from the Beltaine festival that favours temporary greenwood
marriages between interested partners, regardless of existing marriage
The hawthorn represents the letter “H” in the ogham alphabet and the
sixth tree month from May 13 to June 9.
The Oak (Old Irish “Duir,” genus Quercus) is a wide-reaching
deciduous tree that can reach heights of 40 to 60 feet.
A long lived tree, the oak was favoured by the fairy folk, Celts and the
Druids for its wisdom, strength and the phallic attributes of its acorns. It
is thought that the word “Druid” derives, in part, from the root “dru”
meaning oak. Sacred to the consort of the Goddess, Cernunnos, and to
the Oak King at midsummer, it is said that the wizard Merlin was sealed
into the hollow trunk of an oak tree.
Although the oak tree is considered a masculine tree, there are feminine
characters who sway within its mighty branches.
Nemetona, literally “goddess of the sacred grove” was a British goddess
who was a sometime consort of the Roman war god Mars. Nemetona
lent her name to oak sanctuaries such as Drunemeton in Celtic Galatia
(now central Anatolia) which were known as “nemeton,” meaning
“sacred grove or sanctuary.” As an aside, Nemetona may be related to
“Nemain,” an early Irish war goddess. As well, an obscure, but ancient
British goddess by the name of “Daron” was worshipped as the “goddess
of the oak.”
The smithy of the prehistoric Irish goddess Brigit lay under Croghan Hill
in Ireland. Nearby her fire cult maintained an eternal flame at a
sanctuary known as “the Church of the Oak Grove,” in County Kildare.
When pre-Christian Brig evolved into “Saint Brigit” the sanctuary was
christianized as St. Brigit’s Cathedral at Kildare (Cill Dara) where the
saints followers maintained the flame of the goddess until 1530 AD.
The oak represents the letter “D” in the ogham alphabet and the seventh
tree month from June 10 to July 7.
Holly (Old Irish “Tinne,” genus Ilex) is a densly foliated tree that can
grow to 50 feet in height and 40 feet in width. Dark green leaves
accented with red berries decorate this slow growing tree.
Evergreen plants, such as the holly, hold favour in European folklore for
their unwavering green attire during winter months – a life in death
Holly is the cloak of the ancient Holly King, monarch of the waning
year, who duels eternally with the Oak King, lord of the waxing year.
The holly log is a traditional Yule log, its burning signifying the end of
the reign of the Holly King. Holly is also the tree of the mythic Green
Knight whose club was made from it.
The holly represents the letter “T” in the ogham alphabet and the eighth
month from July 8 to August 4.
The Hazel tree (Old Irish “Coll,” genus Corylus) is an enormous shrub
that can grow into a small tree which may reach 20 feet high and wide.
Excavations in the area of the legendary hall of King Arthur at South
Cadbury, Somerset, England uncovered arrowheads, pottery and several
hazelnuts dating from the Neolithic era. At the Lacra group of stone
circles in England, hazel and oak charcoal as well as a hazelnut, was
excavated from an urn containing cremated deposits. The presence of
these items with the burial may suggest a seasonal ritual. Hazelnuts
discovered at Windmill Hill at Avebury may also have had autumnal
seasonal significance as well. These findings give ancient testimony to
the intimate and abiding relationship between mortal souls and
The hazel is the tree of Celtic knowledge, sacred to fairies, poets and
seekers of wisdom. W. B. Yeats felt that the Irish World Tree was a
hazel. Hazel rods were formed into wands and divining rods and there
was a taboo upon burning hazel wood.
The esoteric knowledge of the hazel was concentrated in its sweet nuts.
The nine sacred hazels that grew at the mouth of the Boyne and Shannon
rivers in Ireland dropped their nuts into the water and were fed upon by
the salmon of knowledge which swam there. It is said that the number
of spots upon a salmon’s back reflects the number of hazelnuts it has
The belief that otherworldly knowledge was contained in a hazelnut is
the source of the term “that is it in a nutshell.” Associated with Druids,
the hazel was known as the “Bile Ratha,” the “venerated tree of the rath”
(“bile” is Old Irish for sacred tree, e.g. “Bile Magus” refers to the “plain
of the sacred tree).
“Wattles” are a hurdle; fence or wand made of interwoven rods from
tree branches or twigs. The twisted interwoven patterns made by hazel
wattles (as well as other trees) are considered by some to be the origin of
the highly decorative Celtic art form of interlocking and plaited knots
found in illuminated books and upon standing stones such as Celtic high
crosses. Used for fencing, fish weirs and screens, some traditional wattle
designs are maintained to this day.
The original Glastonbury church, which tradition tells us was founded
on the remains of a Druidic college, was constructed of wattles and
eventually built upon to become the Abby that exists today.
The hazel represents the letter “C” in the ogham alphabet and the ninth
tree month from August 5 to September 1.
The vine (Old Irish “Muin,” genus Vitis) is often replaced by the
blackberry in Celtic mythology. In Ireland, blackberries cannot be
gathered after October 31, and are abandoned to the pooka. The vine
and the ivy are both plants that grow spirally. From this growth pattern
comes the belief that the vine and the ivy are plants of reincarnation.
The vine is considered a “tree” of rebirth, joy and exhilaration.
The vine represents the letter “M” in the ogham alphabet and the tenth
month from September 2 to September 29.
The Ivy (Old Irish “Gort,” genus Hedera) is an evergreen, woody-
stemmed perennial which, once established, grow rapidly.
Like the vine, the ivy is considered a tree of reincarnation and eternal
life due to the spiraling pattern of its grown. The ivy and vine are often
mixed metaphorically. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility,
who some believe later evolved into the Christian Jesus Christ, was
represented by the trailing vines of ivy and grape.
The ivy represents the letter “G” in the ogham alphabet and the eleventh
tree month from September 30 to October 27.
The “Dwarf Elder” (Old Irish “Pethboc”) is apparently a reed plant, the
type of which was and is used to thatch houses. An Irish homestead was
not considered established until the roof was completed. The reed is the
symbol of sovereignty and power and it represents the letter “P” in the
ogham alphabet and the twelfth tree month from October 28 to
The Elder or Elderberry tree (Old Irish “tromm,” genus Sambucus) is a
large, scruffy bush that may grow into a small tree of 20 or even 30 feet
in height. It has bright green leaves and purple-black fruit, which can be
made into jellies and wine.
The elderberry is favoured by the Little People and solitary elders were
considered to be fairy trees. Because it is considered an otherworldly
dwelling place for spirits, an elder is especially potent when grown in a
The elder log is considered a token of the underworld hag, Hecate.
Burning of the log is thought to summon spirits. As the elder is the tree
of the thirteenth month it is considered to be an unlucky tree and is often
The elder represents the letter “R” in the ogham alphabet and represents
the period from November 25 to December 22.
The Silver Fir (Old Irish “Ailm,” genus Abis) at its best is
a magnificent, noble conifer reaching heights of 50 feet. However its
sensitivity to climate and temperature extremes sometimes limit its
longevity and performance.
The Fir is sacred to the Moon and is a tree of hope. A fir pole is
sometimes used as a Maypole at Beltaine and wands tipped with
pinecone carvings can be used in rituals relating to fertility and
The fir represents the vowel “A” in the ogham alphabet and it represents
the birth of the divine child (the day of the winter solstice).
Furze (Old Irish “Aiteann” also known as gorse) is a scrubby, thorned
bush that flowers a brilliant golden yellow.
Gorse grows commonly throughout the Irish, Scottish and British
countryside. At Beltaine and at Imbolg gorse was used ceremonially in
torches and wreathes. At Imbolg the older gorse bush was burned away
leaving the new growth for sheep and lambs to feed upon. The bush
could be used as winter fodder for cows and also as fuel for the hearth.
The duel of the Holly and Oak Kings is called into play once again as
the furze is fundamental in the death scene of that wretched little wren,
“the wren, the wren, the king of all birds, on St. Stephen’s Day was
caught in the furze.” Gorse, by virtue of its golden flowers is associated
with the sun, which returns at the winter solstice along with the Oak
Gorse is the vegetative aspect of Atherne, the poet/god of Ulster who
arrived in Eire prior to 2500 BC. The prickly poet Atherne was
responsible for causing the Leinstermen to build a ford across the river
Liffey thus founding the settlement called “Ath Cliath Cualann” (“ford
of wattles) and later, the town of “Linn Dubh” or “Black Pool.” Linn
Dubh was located at the mouth of a river that ran into the Liffey. The
pool at the mouth of the river was eventually drained to make way for
the gardens of Dublin castle and Linn Dubh eventually became known
Furze represents the vowel “O” in the ogham alphabet and it marks the
growing sun at the vernal equinox.
Heather, especially white heather in bloom, is considered a lucky plant.
This ground cover plant can be found throughout England, Scotland,
Wales and Ireland. Heather represents the vowel “U” in the ogham
alphabet and the time of the summer solstice.
The white poplar tree (genus Populus) has cream coloured bark and can
grow to 70 feet in height in a moist situation. The poplar tree is
considered the tree of old age and the autumnal equinox and may have
been used as wood for the “fe” rod, used for measuring of graves and
corpses. The white poplar represents the vowel “E” in the ogham
The Yew (Old Irish “Ibar,” genus Taxus) can become an enormous tree,
reaching 60 feet in height and sometimes living 100 years. The yew
carries dark green evergreen needles. It has attractive red-brown, deeply
furrowed, flaky bark and fleshy red seeds.
Symbolizing immortality, the yew was commonly planted in
churchyards. The yew is found throughout Celtic mythology and the
Druids thought as highly of the yew as they did of the oak, preferring the
yew for their wands. Considered a “guardian of mysteries,” an old
grove of yews almost certainly signals the presence of a sacred location.
The remains of an ancient Druidic yew grove are said to be located near
the location of the Chalice Well garden in Glastonbury, England.
The yew is also known as the “death tree” due to the highly poisonous
alkaloids contained in its foliage and seeds. Interestingly, today, the
cancer-fighting drug Taxol is made from the bark of the relatively scarce
Pacific yew tree.
The yew represents the vowel “I” in the ogham alphabet and it rules
year’s end, the eve of the winter solstice.
Like the ogham alphabet, another early Celtic work of great antiquity is
the “Myth of Cad Goddeu” or “The Battle of the Trees.” The poem,
apparently composed much earlier, is preserved in the 13 century welsh
manuscript entitled the “Book of Taliesin.” The poem describes a battle
between Arawn; King of Annwfn and a ploughman named Amaethon.
The hostilities are caused by a theft made by Amaethon. The action of
the poem centers on the use of a magical staff that transforms trees into
fighting men. The significance of the poem is thought to be the
recordation of the powers ascribed at the time to trees.
Trees are as valuable to modern society as they were in the days when
the Myth of Cad Goddeu was first set down. In most parts of the world
trees are no longer venerated as they once were – but they are due our
respect - trees provide us with the very oxygen that we breath, they are
indeed “trees of life.” Knock on wood, may these woody spirits favour
us for eons to come.
“Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.”
- The Two Trees, W. B. Yeats.