Druid Tree Lore

Trees in particular were mysterious, and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life. For that reason, the woods were the place that I felt closest to its deepest meaning and to its awe-inspiring workings.
C.G.Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Druids love trees and often visit trees and woods to meditate there, hold ceremonies, or simply commune with Nature. Most Druids support tree-planting and reforestation programmes and the Order runs a Sacred Grove Planting project to help members and the public create woodland sanctuaries. The Order also supports three tree-planting charities: Trees for Life, Tree Aid, and The Woodland Trust.

Trees and the word 'Druid'

Some modern scholars agree with the classical Roman and Greek authors that the most likely derivation for 'Druid' is from the word for oak, combined with the Indo-European root wid - to know, giving their translation of the word Druid as 'One with knowledge of the oak' or 'Wise person of the oak'. Those who possessed knowledge of the oak possessed knowledge of all the trees. The Druid was one with 'knowledge of the trees' and was a 'Forest Sage'. Other scholars suggest that Druid is derived from the pre-Indo-European root deru – which means firm, solid, strong or steadfast, combined with the root weid – which means to see, creating a term that could translate as ‘Strong Seer’. To get a sense of how it might feel to be a Druid, try saying this: “I am strong - a steadfast seer, a knower of magic and enchantment. I am a sage of the forest. I know the secrets of the oak and the wildwood.” Say it several times over, with as little inhibition and as much conviction as you can muster. It’s important to say it out loud, because the voice has magical properties. If the exercise works for you, you will have experienced something of what it means to be a Druid – a man or a woman who even today can feel the pulse of life in the earth beneath them and the trees around them.

Ovates

Today, those who study as Ovates within Druidry learn to work with the powers of Nature – they learn the Ogham and come to know the trees as living Beings with their own medicines and gifts. They work with the sacred animals of tradition, and with different methods of divination, and many begin a study of herbalism or other methods of healing, and in particular they learn how to encourage the flow of Nwyfre through the body. Nwyfre is the Druid term for Life-force, known as Chi’ or Prana in the East.

Ogham – the Tree Alphabet of the Druids

Druids today use a particular method for communicating and remembering their wealth of tree-knowledge. This is known as the Ogham (which means ‘language’ and is pronounced o'um, or och’um). It consists of twenty-five simple strokes centred on or branching off a central line. It is similar in purpose, but separate in origin from the Nordic runes. The Ogham characters were inscribed on stones and probably on staves of wood.

Its origins are lost in the mists of time, and most of the existing inscriptions have only been dated to the fifth and sixth centuries, but whether originally Celtic or pre-Celtic, we may sense that it carries with it some of the very earliest of Druid wisdom. Amongst our sources of information about its use, we have from Ireland the twelfth century Book of Leinster, the fourteenth century Book of Ballymote, and O'Flaherty's Ogygia (published in 1793). And from Scotland, transcribed from the oral tradition in the seventeenth century, we have The Scholar's Primer. But it was the poet Robert Graves who, following in his grandfather’s footsteps as an Ogham expert, brought this arcane system into public awareness once again, with his publication of The White Goddess in 1948.

An example of Tree Lore: Beith - The Birch Tree

The Bardic school or grade is symbolised by the Birch Tree. It is the first tree in the Ogham Cipher, and as such represents the number one. This is fitting, for it is the birch that we plant first on virgin land if we want to create a wood or forest. It is known, for this reason, as the Pioneer Tree, and it can be seen also as the tree which helps birth the forest. So it is a tree of birth - an appropriate tree to symbolise the first level of Druid working, when we are born into this new way of seeing and knowing.

The Ogham can also be used for divination, and when we draw the card, or throw the disc or stave of the birch, we know that this signifies new beginnings for us, and -depending on its relative position in the spread - we know that we must either pioneer a new endeavour or that something is being born in our lives. Often, before we can give birth to the new, we need to cleanse ourselves of the old. Again, the birch tree is an appropriate symbol for this process of purification in preparation for new beginnings. In Scandinavia, switches of birch are used on the body to stimulate the process of purification in the sauna, and can be used in Druid sweathouse rituals too. In Britain the birch rod was used rather more ferociously to purify the criminal of their misdeeds, and earlier still in an attempt to expel evil spirits from 'lunatics'. In some areas, it was customary to drive out the spirits of the old year with birch switches, and throughout Europe birch twigs were used for 'beating the bounds'.

So to prepare for the new, we must free ourselves of the debris of the old, and birch can help us do this, and can point the way forward, for when we are lost in the forest, the shining whiteness of the birch trunk leads us onward - it offers guidance and orientation in the darkness of our journey. The very word 'birch' derives from a root meaning 'bright' or 'shining' in nearly all languages with Indo-European origins.

Robert Graves allocates this tree to a month stretching from December 24th to January 20th, using a calendar of thirteen months, since both Caesar and Pliny reported that the Druids divided their year into lunar months. He chooses as the first month that which follows the Winter Solstice - when the year is reborn, and the days begin to lengthen.

As with much of this work, one finds that other traditions hold many things in common. The shaman of the Siberian Gold Eskimos climbs a birch tree at the high point of an initiation ceremony, circling its trunk nine times. The Buryat and the Central Asian Altai shamans carve nine notches in the trunk of a young birch - representing the steps they must take to ascend to heaven. The birch shares with the Ash the distinction of being used as a representative of the Cosmic World-Tree - the Axis Mundi. This tree links the Underworld with Middle Earth and Heaven Above. The shaman climbing the Birch uses it as a sky-ladder to symbolise his ability to visit other worlds.

In Britain the Birch was often used for may-poles - our version of the Axis Mundi around which we turn and turn. And at the same season it was the twigs of birch that were used for kindling the Beltane fire. Birch was also used to make babies' cradles, for if birch could drive evil from the old year, and from lunatics and criminals, it could ward off ill for the newborn too. And since birch is the tree of birthing the new, what other wood is more fitting for the newly born?

Adapted from Druid Mysteries by Philip Carr-Gomm
 

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