Celtic tree lore
One of the most essential teachings of Celtic Spirituality is the power and intelligence of Trees. Trees were regarded as living magical beings who bestowed spiritual blessings.
This makes sense when you consider that a dense forest once covered most of central Europe and in the days of the Celts the forests were so dense that it was said a squirrel could hop from one tree to another and never touch the ground. The Celtic people thrived from 450 BC until the Roman conquests, after the 1st century they were restricted to Ireland and parts of Britain.
These great forests included the Hercynian forest that rendered Germany impenetrable in Caesar's time; Scotland was clothed with the magnificent Caledonian, Ireland with oak-woods and the whole of Southern England with the ancient trees of Anderida.
Forests to the Celts were everything - food, housing, culture and spirituality. In Ireland individual tree power was known as 'bile' and was regarded with great reverence. When a tribe cleared land for settlement they always left behind a great tree, the ‘Crann Bethadh’ (krawn ba-huh) or the Tree of Life which embodied the security and integrity of the people.
Chieftains were inaugurated at the sacred tree, with its roots stretching down to the lower world and its branches reaching to the upper world. It connected the Chief with the power both of the heavens and the worlds below. One of the greatest triumphs a tribe could achieve over its enemies was to cut down their sacred tree, the tribes foundation of strength and support. For trees not only provided earthly sustenance, they were regarded as living, magical beings who bestowed blessings from the Otherworld.
The founding story of Ireland says that a giant from the otherworld came bearing a branch that grew apples, nuts, acorns all at the same time! The giant was known as Treochair or Three Sprouts - he shook them all over the land and they grew into the five sacred trees who were the guardians of the land. These five sacred trees are spread around Ireland and they divided the land up among different clans and chiefs who were likely inaugurated under these trees. Meetings were held under these trees as the ancients believed that the tree spirits would watch what took place and record it all, relaying that information to the cosmic memory banks. A trees recordings were considered to be impartial, uninfluenced by changing human attitudes.
Tree Groves were also very sacred to the Celtic peoples. A small group of trees creates an energy pattern, you can sense this energy pattern by walking slowly between two or more large trees. These sacred groves were places of worship in ancient times and would have been situated near a spring or Ley line. The Druidic word for sanctuary is the same as the latin word ‘Nemus’ meaning grove or woodland glade. These groves would have been used for meetings, ceremonies, religious purposes and the passing of laws and judgements. The present tradition of free speech stems from the ancient druidic tradition of holding all meetings in ‘the face of the sun and the eye of the light’.
Trees were thought to have hidden roots that were doorways to the underworld - Oak is the old Irish for ‘Door’ - in old Irish Oak is Daur and in Welsh Derw.
Beltane was the traditional Celtic festival to invoke and enlist the aid of the tree spirits or Dryads. The maypole is a modern representation of what was once a living tree brought into the village with its Dryad and the Dryad was called upon to help the village have an abundant harvest. Later it became a maypole and a player usually dressed in green wearing a mask symbolised the Dryad, also called the Green Man and this figure can still be seen carved into old churches to this day.
The family tree has a history far more ancient than simple lineage. The ancients believed that a persons knowledge could be passed on at death and that the tree spirit would keep this knowledge, so people were buried under sacred trees in the belief that their wisdom and knowledge would be joined with the Dryad.
So important were trees to the people of Ireland that the Brehon laws (Medieval Irish Law), some of the earliest and most sophisticated laws in Europe, had many rules devoted to them. Even the felling of a chieftain tree was considered the same as killing a chieftain!
Trees were divided into four kinds, the nobles of the wood including oak, hazel and yew, the commoners including willow, aspen and hawthorn, the lower division including blackthorn and elder and the bushes including bracken, gorse and heather.
The book Bretha Comaithchesa, which means “neighbourhood judgements” from the eighth century or thereabouts, tells us of the different penalties applied for damaging the branches or bark of a tree from each rank and for cutting one down. It was usually the case that dire or punishments were levied as livestock, so if you cut down a noble tree, that would cost you two and half good cows, while for a commoner, it was one cow, and so it went.
The Celts for most of their history were an oral culture but they did develop a written language after the 1st century AD. This alphabet is called the Ogham which was created and derived from different trees. It features symbolism of many different sacred trees of the area including Birch, Alder, Willow, Ash, White thorn, Oak and Hazel.
Today, one can still find clootie cloths, hanging on trees near sacred springs and wells in the Celtic lands. It is believed that by washing your wound or area of ill health with a cloth dipped into the sacred water and leaving it to hang in a tree, as the cloth disintegrates, your affliction will heal and go away.
As you can see, like other indigenous cultures since time , the began, the Celtic peoples revered trees and honoured them in their daily lives. I invite you to notice the tree beings that live near you, I'm sure they would appreciate an offering or a hug!