There must be a dozen books on the subject of trees and the Celts so I’m not going to go into massive detail here. There is a good list of different trees and the Irish texts that mention them in my book A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors which may be useful for those seeking more detailed information. Debateable it may be, but I seriously doubt there was ever a Celtic tree calendar, nor do I believe every tree cited in the calendar created by Robert Graves in 1948 (The White Goddess; London; Faber and Faber) was necessarily held as a sacred plant. However, it is clear from numerous texts that the Celts certainly did have a huge reverence for trees, and saw them as especially symbolic of certain types of magic.
Hazel was associated with the magic of words, named as the ‘poet’s haunted music’ tree in the Metrical Dindshenchas. The sometimes spirals of the stems speak of the way words can wind around us and twist us up. These bendy branches may also have inspired some of the famous Celtic spiral artwork. The wood was also used to make fighting spears, especially for use in the initiation of warriors. Hazelnuts have been found in Iron Age burial mounds, and although we may never know why, historically we don’t bury our dead with things that have no significance.
Rowan, incredibly common where I live in the north of England, is both said to have been a warning of strong, possibly dark magic and a way to ward against it; possibly as a counter magic. The tree itself is gorgeous; small, dark oval leaves arranged beautifully opposite each other on slender twigs, framing jewelled clusters of berries in colours ranging from gold to blood red.
Image: Snowdrops framed by twisted hazel branches, by Linda Billinger via Wikimedia.
If you don’t know how to recognise an oak from a sycamore, I heartily recommend that you brush up on your arborist skills. There are lots of cheap books on identifying trees, many of which you will most likely be able to pick up from a local discount book shop. For those of you with smart phones, there is an app called Trees of Britain which used to be free and is pretty comprehensive. It allows you to choose a leaf type or seed type and use those to identify the tree. I’m sure there are equivalents in America and other parts of the world too. I love being able to identify a tree I haven’t seen before, and I love the different feel different areas of woodland give.
There is a piece of woodland near me which has grown up around an old quarry. A crossroads runs partway up a hill, bordered to the left by magnificent silver birch, and to the right by gnarled, old oaks. The energy that seems to flow in that place is incredible; the centre of a crossroads is a liminal point anyway, as you are on the edge of decision, of changing direction and of the next moment in your life. To magnify this liminal force with the strong, feminine energy of the birch and the ancient, male sap of the oak creates a very strange feeling indeed.
Find a place like this for yourself. It doesn’t need to be a crossroads; it doesn’t even need to be woodland! You can find a tree or plant that gives you a special feeling right in the middle of the city, or even in your own garden. I’m lucky; living in Yorkshire, I have access to miles and miles of countryside flat and rugged, plain and wooded. I know not everyone has this, but anyone can feel the energy that flows from the forest, even when the forest is far away.
If you really don’t have access to a green area, you can rely on the biggest forest of all; that in your imagination. No, don’t cringe! I don’t expect you to ‘build an imagination woodland’ and carry it with you always, but you can create a special place you can get away to when the grey and dust and rust of town becomes too much. If you have someone you trust and whose voice you enjoy, relax and let them describe a woodland scene to you, and allow yourself to wander the paths of their creation. If you are a completely solitary practitioner, try meditating and creating this scene for yourself. Try and remember what you see, hear, feel and even smell in these wyrd woods. Are there any birds you can recognise? What type of trees are these? Look at any stones that roll underfoot, and listen out for the sparkling sound of water nearby.
You will find these sessions rejuvenating, and I recommend making time for them in your busy life. We have much that we class as important in our lives, and often forget that our mental and spiritual health is as vital as our physical health. Keep a good relationship with the trees, and they will look after you, body and soul.
If you enjoyed this article, Mabh’s book Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft is available to pre-order here.