Our gardens are full of marvelous trees which have been venerated during centuries. In their branches, the most beautiful myths and legends are hidden. But, now, we will try to know and see them with much more poetic eyes…, we will understand what a magic garden is…
Robert Graves, in the chapter X of his famous essay “The White Goddess- A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth”, studies what he calls “The alphabet of trees” in Celtic Druidic culture: letters were known by the name of a tree which started with its same initial. For example, “duir” -our oak- was also the letter “D” and “saille” –our willow- was the letter “S”… They had five vowels and thirteen consonants. These last ones formed a magic seasonal calendar based on trees and “Mother Nature” which was secretly used by Druids for centuries, even after Christian irruption.
That is not so amazing. Letters in modern Irish alphabet are also named by a tree and the whole European folklore is telling us, once and again, about similar traditions.
In ancient times, holly names were a secret (this is reasonable if we understand that they had to hidden their magic words and spells of their enemies to prevent their possible attacks), words had magic powers and letters and trees were holly and venerable. This belief continued with old Greek and Roman religions.
Therefore, we are going to speak about these holly trees which are filling of beauty our landscapes and gardens. We will follow the order of the Druidic alphabet (people interested in the subject can also read “Ogygia” by Roderick O’Flaherty).
First letter and tree: Birch
Our birch was called “Beth” and represented the letter “B”. It is the tree of the beginning (for Celtic Druidic alphabet and for North European farmers: the bud of its leaves was the signal to start to sow fields).
Birches were dedicated to the Moon since Moon was “The White Goddess” or “Mother Nature”, the first and most important of all divine beings in Neolithic cultures, and since they had a lunar calendar.
They protected pregnant women and it was used to relieve menstruation pains by Greeks, Romans and even during the Middle Age.
“B” dominated the spells and druidic celebrations from the 24th of December to the 20th of January.
Second letter and tree: Wild Ash Tree
It is the ash tree: our wild ash tree, called also “mountain ash tree” and… “THE TREE OF LIFE”. Why?
The magical berries of the Irish romance of Fraoth -guarded by a dragon- cured injured people and gave a year of life to everybody who ate them. Berries of wild ash tree, apples and red nuts were God’s food in the legend of Diarmuid and Grainne. In Old Greek culture, red food was forbidden except in the All Souls’ Day and centuries later, Neron, Roman emperor, still ruled according to similar ideas.
But “the tree of life” could be used in the opposite sense and, for example, in “The Saga of Cuchulain” only a branch of wild ash could kill his holly dog, the same as in Old Ireland a dreadful soul was only defeated by sticking a branch of ash in its corpse.
Our ash was called “Luis” and represented the letter “L”. If the first tree: Birch “B” dominated the spells and druidic celebrations from the 24th of December to the 20th of January; this second holly tree dominated from the 21st of January to the 17th of February . In the middle of this lunar month –the 2nd of February- was the important Celtic celebration of Candlemas: in the Middle Age, British witches’ coven day and later, the day of fire.
The relationship among Candlemas and fire is evident in “The book of Ballymote” by Morann MacMain. He describes the wild ash as “eyes pleasure”… Luisiu… candle.
For ever, life, death, fire and “Mother Nature” have gone and will go together.
Third letter and tree: Ash
It’s the ASH, called “Nion”- letter “N”.
In Old Greece, the ash tree was consecrated to Poseidon, god of seas and sailors. Therefore, the ash represented the power which lived in the waters but, curiously, in Ancient Wales and Ireland, all of the oars were made of ash wood and the other name of the Scandinavian Odin was “Yggr” in relation with the word “hygra” (“sea” in Greek).
According to Hesiod, the “Meliai” or ash spirits were really intelligent because they were born of Cronus’ blood and three of the five Magical Trees cut down in Ireland, in the year 655, to symbolize the victory of the Christianity over the Paganism, were ash trees. A descendent of them was still in Killura in the 19th century and its wood was a talisman against drowns: Irish emigrants, who had to go to America when the Potatoes Crisis, carried a little bit of ash wood with them… The Druidic Magic Wand of Anglesey (1st century) was made of ash wood too.
This third holly tree dominated from the 18th of February to the 17th of March. It is the season of floods and nights are longer than days. Some Old Mediterranean people who had changed the White Goddess (Mother Nature) for a masculine God (Zeus) rejected this season as they considered than the Sun was dominated by the Moon, symbol of the feminine divinity for ever.
Forth letter and tree: Alder
Our protagonist is the ALDER, called “Fearn”- letter “F”.
This tree was and continues being famous because people obtain three good dyes of it: red from its bark; green from its flowers and brown from its branches, what symbolize fire, water and earth.
Alder tree has always impressed people because when we cut down it, its wood, at the beginning white, starts to bleed as the human flesh. In ancient Wales, all of the heroes painted their faces in red to symbolize they were holy kings in relationship with the Alder tree (or the god Bran).
In the Northern of Europe, green is associated with fairies and elves, they used to wear green clothes since they hid in the forests running away of their pursuers. Who were them? Historically, other tribes… We must not forget fairies and elves were survived inhabitants of defeated tribes.
However, the alder is mainly the tree of the fire. It represents the power of the Fire which liberates the Earth from the Water. In the Câd Goddeu is the symbol of the resurrection. Its buds grow in spiral and during the Neolithic, spirals decorated all of the monuments (dolmens, cromlechs and the bigger palaces of the Mediterranean kingdoms).
This fourth holly tree dominated from the 18th of March (when Alders start to bloom) to the 14th of April (when the Spring Sun dries the Winter floods). In this period, days start to be longer than nights… Sun has defeated Moon… the masculine God is stronger than the White Goddess. We are in the month of virility.
Fifth letter and tree: Willow
The WILLOW, “SAILLE”, letter “S”.
In Greece, the willow was dedicated to Hecate, Circe, Hera and Persephone, all of them in relationship with the death. The witches were very fond of willows and in English language, the words “witch” and “wicked” come from “willow”…, also “wicker”.
According with Northern European legends, witches’ brooms were made of:
-a stick of ash tree (see our issue of March) to protect them of drowns (the only way to kill a witch),
-branches of birch (see our issue of January) to tie demons among them,
-and ropes of willow…, to honor the Death.
Druidic human sacrifices were realized during full moon, in baskets of wicker and with cutting stones shaped as willow leaves.
The willow (helice in Greek language, and salix in Latin) gave name to Helicon, home of the Nine Muses, orgiastic priestesses of the Goddess Moon.
After studying old coins from Crete, where Europe (Eur-opa means woman with wide face, therefore “full moon”) appears sitting on a willow and rejecting the love of an eagle, A. B. Cook suggests that not only is Europe the Moon but Eu-rope, or woman with flourishing wickers, is Helice, sister of Amalthea: we should not forget that to wear a tiny branch of willow on the hat protects men of the jealousy of the Moon.
This fifth holly tree dominated from the 15th of April to the 12th of May. The 1st of May, famous in old times by its orgies, is in the middle of this druidic month.