Table of Contents
The Seer's Path
The Nature Spirits - Part 3 of 4
by C. Leigh McGinley & Mauro Bruno
[Ed. Note: The Henge of Keltria Correspondence Course is intended to assist members of the Henge to improve their understanding and practice of Keltrian Druidism. This is the third of four parts of Lesson VI of the Henge of Keltria Correspondence Course.]
Trees, like animals, have spirits with unique qualities. The ancient Celts recognized this, and though all trees were sacred by virtue of their spirit, some were considered especially so. The most sacred trees in Celtic tradition are oak, holly, rowan, hazel, ash, apple, alder, birch, willow, and yew. These trees play an important role in folk custom and belief, which is expressed again and again in the tradition. References to these, and other, trees may be found in Celtic poetry. One source is the Buile Suibhne Geilt (“The Madness of Sweeney”), in which the main character addresses trees, noting their qualities and personalities. Another source are the poems of the sixth century bard Taliesin, including Cad Goddeu and a later poem sometimes called “Bright Trees,” from The Red Book of Hergest. The loss of five individual trees of unique significance is lamented in the Dindsenchas.
Despite a huge lack of archaeological evidence to point to the practices and rituals of the Druids, one thing seems certain: they acted in proximity to trees. Sacred groves were the “temples” of the Druids, and these groves consisted of sacred trees.
A tree can serve as a receptacle for an external spirit, and may be inhabited by fairies or other spirits. They may also contain dispossessed spirits of the Land, those who have been expelled from their proper dwelling-places and so have taken up residence in the nurturing environment of the tree. Trees also have personal souls, like humans, which are manifested as special qualities, strengths, and medicinal virtues. Trees may also absorb spirits that might otherwise prove harmful to humans.
A venerated single tree known as a bilé was part of any sacred place where Celtic kings were inaugurated. Offerings were frequently hung upon bilé trees. The most common way to honor a special tree was to tie wool, string, ribbons, or rags to it. Usually, but not always, this was done in Celtic lands by those seeking a cure from a holy well near the tree. Other times trees were decorated with precious items
Often marriages were conducted under holy trees, and it seemed that every town or village had a special tree that stood at its center.
For the purposes of this lesson, it will suffice to provide a brief outline of the characteristics of the ten trees most frequently named and described in Celtic literature and folklore. The relationship between trees and the Ogham will be discussed elsewhere.
The Oak (Duir) is the tree most often associated with Druids, with similarities drawn between its Celtic name and the word “Druid.” It’s longevity and hardiness were no doubt noted, as was the fact that it also provided food, the acorn. It seemed to withstand lightning strikes. Its deep roots kept it standing and green where other trees with shallower roots languished. Another interesting quality was its ability to remain standing even while much of its interior wood had withered away — a dying oak of this type may have been the sort of hiding place that led to images of Druids becoming, or disappearing into, trees. One of the four great trees mentioned in the Dindsenchas was the Oak of Mugna, three hundred cubits tall and thirty across, called “a hallowed treasure.” Secluded until the time of Conn of the Hundred Battles, it at last succumbed to the axes (or words?) of poets. In Cad Goddeu both heaven and earth flee before the “darts of the oak,” and Sweeney calls it “high beyond trees.” Fionn refused to kill a king who was resting under an oak. It is a wood used often in staves and associated with protection and healing, while its fruit is associated with fortune and fertility.
Three of the five great lamented trees mentioned in the Dindsenchas were Ash trees (Nion). The Bough of Daithi sapped the strength of an army to cut it down, and the Ash in Tortiu and the Ash in Uisneach undoubtedly took their toll in warriors’ arms as well. The Teutonic world tree, Yggdrasil, was an ash. In Celtic folklore, ash is the proper wood for the Yule log, marking the season of the Sun’s return. According to Cad Goddeu it is “most exalted above the power of kings.” This strong wood, now famous as the baseball bat, was noted by Sweeney as being “baleful,” the warriors hand weapon. It was used to make spears and is the material of the Spear which belonging originally to Lugh of the Long Arm, one of the four treasures of the Celts. It is associated with protection and healing.
The fall of the Boll of Ross, described as “a handsome yew,” without a flaw, is lamented in the Dindsenchas. Sweeney notes that the yew (Idhahd) is always visible in the churchyard, and that observation continues in truth to this day, with yews traditionally taking a place in cemeteries. This species outlives the oak, possibly surviving as long as 4000 years. This suggests that many of the oldest churches and burial places were purposely built near already revered trees, perhaps because of an association with longevity. It is also an evergreen, and develops new trunks from old roots. One name for yew, Eo, is shared by the salmon, the oldest and wisest animal. All of the yew’s parts are poisonous, though its sap has recently appeared as a component in the anti-cancer drug, Taxol. The yew took the front line in battle in Cad Goddeu and the chestnut “suffered shame” at its power. Its wood was traditionally used in bows.
Another evergreen, holly (Tinne), has the added quality of having distinct sexes. During the Battle of the Trees in Cad Goddeu, it is said that “the holly livid grew / and manly acts it knew.” Those ripe, red berries are poisonous! Sweeney called it the “little sheltering one,” and “door against the wind.” Perhaps because of its sharp leaves, it is associated with protection. Its wood is very hard and good for carving. It was also supposedly used or the axles of Celtic chariots and for spears. One holly spear, thrown by Nadcranntail, pierced Cuchulain from his foot to his knee. It is also one of the few woods to be brought into the house in season, as both a decoration, and as a sign of our unity with nature.
Sweeney refers to the rowan (Luis) as the quicken, the “little berried one” whose bloom is “delightful.” Its appearance in literature is often uncertain, since it has historically been known by many names, most recently, the Mountain Ash. In Cad Goddeu it shows up late for the battle, along with the willow. Its red-orange berries are food for birds, and are edible, though bitter. It is the star of two poems in Duannaire Finn (The Songs of Fionn), called “The Rowan Tree of Clonfert” and “The Wry Rowan.” In the Dindsenchas it is described as a wood for magical weapons, and mats made of rowan branches figured in the Tarbh Fheis, a ritual of divination. Druids lit fires of rowan before battles, and the last meal of Cuchulainn was cooked over a rowan fire on a rowan spit. It is associated with authority and protection, and is used to make staves.
In the Cad Goddeu, the hazel is “esteemed for the number in its quiver.” Sweeney’s comments are limited to the fragrance of the hazelnuts. Archaeological evidence points to the hazel as being one of the earliest trees to be planted and cultivated. Its character in Celtic tradition is mixed, to say the least. Poisoned for fifty years after Lugh set the severed head of Balor, the King of the Fomorians, in a fork in its branches, the hazel required the intervention of Manannan Mac Lir to heal it. It is associated with Brighid in two disparate ways. Following her son’s death in the Battle of Moytura, Brighid gave humanity its first experience of keening, or wailing, at the death of a loved one. The Gaelic name for the hazel has evolved into Calltuinn, which means “a loss.” However, there are also stories of certain hazel trees bearing fruits that contained all knowledge. These would fall into a pool to be consumed by a salmon, which in turn became “the Salmon of Knowledge.” Brighid is the goddess of divine knowledge and inspiration, hence her second connection with the hazel. Perhaps the connection of loss and wisdom would make a worthy lifelong meditation for an aspiring Druid. Hazel is associated with knowledge and wisdom: rods of hazel were carried by heralds, and it is the preferred wood for dowsing rods.
Sweeney observes that the poor little apple (Queirt) tree is “much shaken.” Perhaps this was the reason it failed to appear at the Battle of Goddeu Brig in the Cad Goddeu! Still, something shaken may yet cause a stir: Cuchulainn threw an apple through the back of an opponent’s head during the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Poets sometimes carried apple branches, the Craobh Ciuil (Branch of Reason), as a sign of their station. A woman of the Otherworld carrying such a branch lured Bran into his voyages. Cuchulainn himself calls the apple a good sign of protection. King Conchobar had a silver branch with golden apples hanging over his head: when he shook it, the crowd would fall silent. It is associated with protection and shelter, as well as with poetic inspiration.
Alder (Fearn) grows well in wet places and its wood is water resistant. When fresh cut, the wood looks blood red, though it fades to yellow as it seasons. This quality, no doubt, was a strong influence which led to its being considered a sacred wood. At the Battle of Goddeu Brig, the alders were also first in line for battle. Sweeney, who spent much of his time of madness in trees, observed that the alder was not hostile to him, and did not prick and scratch him with its smooth bark. Alder was a preferred wood for shields, which confirms its association with protection, and explains its position in battle!
Sweeney praises the birch (Beithe) as “smooth and blessed” and “melodious” to the top of its crown. The birch was another tree that arrived late at the Battle of Goddeu Brig. Its leaves decay easily and so benefit the environment in which the tree stands. It also often grows first in a new wood, and is then choked out by taller trees like oak and beech, seeming to offer its life for the others. It then continues to benefit the environment, finally leaving a white, mushroom-covered hollow tube in which small animals can nest. Birch has had many traditional medicinal uses for humans, as well. Its appearance also heralds the fantastic adventures in The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Grainne. Its giving nature aligns it with motherhood, and it is associated with protection of children. Cradles are, therefore, often made of birch.
The willow (Sail) appears late on the battlefield in Cad Goddeu. Sweeney does not mention it. The Celts pollarded, or cropped, willows in order to encourage the growth of many branches. These were used in weaving baskets, pots, chairs, fence slats, and wattling for the walls of their homes. The tree has several medicinal uses, one of which is as the source of the chemical behind aspirin, another of which is as a styptic to staunch bleeding. These uses, combined with the symbolic “beheading” of the willow in the autumn and its prolific return in Spring, lead to its association with life and its cyclic eternality. It is also associated with protection and healing.
There is a wisdom in trees. There is a cycle of need and response between them and the rest of nature, particularly us. You may or may not be inclined to hug one, or to sit high up in one for months. You may wince or be indifferent to each pruning or felling that is called for by the circumstances of our coexistence. Still, you will find it useful to sit quietly among them and to listen, at the very least, to the slow, soft stories they tell of times and places you have missed or may never see.
Sacred Herbs: Mistletoe and Vervain
In the Lebor Gabala Erin, we are told of Diancecht the physician, his son Miach and his daughter Airmid. Miach was a better physician than his father, having healed Nuada’s arm completely with flesh, whereas Diancecht’s previous cure was to make Nuada an arm of silver. Diancecht, in a jealous rage over his son’s superior medical skill, killed Miach. Miach’s sister Airmid sat by his grave, where 365 herbs grew on Miach’s body that could cure all the illnesses of the world. She carefully gathered them and spread them on her apron according to their virtues. Diancecht came and overturned the apron, scattering the herbs that Airmid had carefully categorized. It is said that this is the reason why we no longer have the herbal knowledge to cure every disease. This story also demonstrates that herbs were sacred to the Celts, and probably to Druids in particular.
According to Pliny the Elder, Mistletoe (Viscum album) was especially sacred to the ancient Druids. It was gathered on the sixth night of the moon with a “golden” sickle and was caught in a white cloth so that it would not be profaned by touching the earth. Two white bulls were then sacrificed in return for this revered plant, which was considered to have great healing properties. Ovid wrote of Druids singing to the herb.
Vervain was also said to be especially sacred to the Druids. The common name Vervain includes Verbena officinalis (the European variety), which is sometimes used interchangeably with Verbena hastata (the American variety). It is called Enchanter’s Herb, Holy Herb and Wizard’s Plant. Some Druidic connections have come down to us through Celtic folk medicine, and Pliny describes it as being used by Druids for divination. It was ceremonially gathered by the Druids with the left hand when neither the sun nor the moon were in the sky, and a libation of honey was left in gratitude to the Spirit of the plant. Its name is supposedly derived from the Celtic words “fer” (“to drive away”) and “faen” (“stone”). It is said that vervain was worn as a crown during Druidic initiatory rites, but there is no way for us to know if this assertion is accurate.
In honor of these sacred herbs and in keeping with what we are told of their uses, Keltrian Druids have named a ritual after the Mistletoe, which we perform on the sixth night of the moon, and another after the Vervain, which we perform when neither sun nor moon are in the sky. The Mistletoe rite is a healing rite and is open to all. The Vervain rite is open to Initiates only.
On the Druidic Use of Herbs
Our knowledge of the Druidic use of herbs suffers from the same limitations of our knowledge of any aspect of Druidic ritual and practice. Given their oral tradition, anything we know about how, when, and why the Druids used particular herbs, comes to us from secondary sources colored by politics and misunderstanding (such as the Roman sources), those seen through the rosy glow of desire and fantasy (especially those cited in the writings of the Celtic “Renaissance” of the 17th to 19th centuries), and assumptions based on studies, both old and new, on folklore and medicine in Celtic lands. There is also a language barrier in play: while a list of herbs may be culled from early written sources in law and literature, most of the herbs so named do not correspond to traditional or modern names and, therefore, cannot be satisfactorily determined.
Considering the use of herbs, in general, and their Druidic use, in particular, it would be important to begin with the following brief list of presumptions and rules:
Physical: Consumption of herbs should be done carefully, after much reading and, preferably, guidance from a competent expert. Some can cause acute affliction, permanent damage, and even death. Common sense should be practiced at all times.
Emotional: Like any drug, herbs should never be used as an emotional/psychological crutch. To do so is to degrade one’s own human dignity, as well as the dignity of the plant providing assistance.
Spiritual: Use of any living material in ritual naturally calls for the utmost respect. How this is expressed may vary from individual to individual, or group to group. Nevertheless, it is possible to speak of the exercise of “common sense” in dealing with “extrasensory” matters.
Academic: To paraphrase a proverb whose variation is found the world over, “Just when you’re sure this is how the Druids did it, you’re probably wrong.”
We would recommend that those who would call themselves Druids today enhance their own Druidry by the study of herbs, regardless of their use by the Druids of old. Hopefully, the considerations above have cast a sufficient doubt on all of this to ensure our continued study of the Druidic usage of herbs, as well as to promote a mystical dynamism that goes so well with the subject.
To be continued next issue....
By Autumn Rose
|Spirit of seed, spirit of growth;
spirit of soil, spirit of sustenance;
spirit of sunlight, spirit of strength;
spirit of rain, spirit of purity;
Come, spirits all, and bless my garden
with power to grow,
with food to sustain,
with strength to flourish,
with freedom from disease.
So shall I thank and reward you
when the harvest comes.