The Ancient Celtic Tree of Life
by Kat Behling
An image representing the Tree of Life in Celtic Knotwork
Trees have a special significance in popular Irish lore. Although there are actually seven noble trees in Celtic mythology: oak, apple, alder, birch, hazel, holly and willow - each with its own spiritual meaning - it is the oak that is considered to be the most wise and sacred.
Many a tale has been spun around the mighty oak. Some say if you fall asleep under the mystical tree, you may awaken to find yourself among the faerie people. Heroic and wise spirits were said to have sheltered among its bark and leaves, giving the oak the title, “The Lord of Truth”. Its leaves have long symbolized courage and an oak leaf worn at your breast and touching your heart was believed to protect the wearer from deception. Likewise, the acorn carries magical properties of its own. It was believed carrying an acorn in ones pocket was to protect oneself from storms and evil intent, while carrying three acorns as charms was to invoke youth, beauty and attainment upon its owner.
In pre-Christian Ireland, trees were believed to be a sacred threshold, bridging the gap between the upper and lower worlds. With its branches reaching toward the heavens and its roots lying firmly in the ground, it was considered to be a link between heaven, earth and the “other world”. A symbol of beauty, resurrection and immortality, trees are prominent in popular pre-Christian motifs such as crosses and illuminated manuscripts, its intricate
knotwork symbolizing the interconnectedness of these three worlds.
To the ancient Celts, not only did the tree represent the eternal cycle of seasons – birth, life, death and renewal – trees were a source of earthly sustenance: a bearer of food, a provider of shelter, fire and weapons and regarded as living, magical beings. Without trees, life would have been quite difficult. During times of war, one of the greatest triumphs over an enemy was to cut down their sacred tree, their foundation of strength and support.
Countless Irish superstitions revolve around the lore of trees and the belief that they were messengers to the gods. In many legends, trees guarded sacred wells, many of which can be found as you drive through the Irish countryside today. Known as “Rag Trees,” they are adorned with personal belongings – hankies, ribbons, bits of clothing and trinkets left behind by persons seeking solace to their pleas for love, healing and prosperity.
Spiritual Meanings of Common Trees
Many of these meanings are associated with Christian, Judaism and other religions today. Christ’s cross is believed to have been of oak, while “the tree of life” holds special prominence in the teaching of God’s creation in the Kabbalah. Some believe the Kabbalah “tree of life” corresponds to the “tree of life” mentioned in the Book of Genesis, its mystical meaning adapted by many pagans as well. The custom of holly and mistletoe has become identified with Christmas and the apple with the story of Adam and Eve.
Alder – courage and perseverance
Apple – beauty, innocence and youth
Beech – stability
Birch – birth, energy and spontaneity
Cedar – protection from harm
Elm – the dark side of the psyche
Fir – change and objectivity
Hazel – wisdom and creativity
Hawthorne – divine secrets
Holly – eternity and good fortune
Ivy – mystery
Mistletoe – birth and rebirth
Oak – the soul, sacrifice and understanding
Pine – continuation and hardiness
Sequoia – longevity
Willow – death and enchantment
Yew – rebirth and change
The Yew Tree
The yew is the longest lived of all trees. Speculation that some churchyard yews, especially on the north side of churches in Ireland, are that of Celtic antiquity due to the early religious practice of building foundations on old pagan sites.
The eve of January 31st marks the Festival of Imbolc – the coming of spring. Each day getting slightly longer than the one before as winter’s tight grip slowly lets go. Gentle rays of sun are cast down upon the earth, buds emerge and flowers will soon bloom. Imbolc is the season of rebirth: a time for living things to re-emerge from the introspection of winter to the fresh hope of spring. As Cailleach, the goddess of winter hardened the earth with her hammer at the beginning of winter, Brigid, the goddess of spring is believed to make it soft again.
The traditional color associated with January’s birthstone is a deep red and was a popular gem in Victorian jewelry. Throughout the ages, the meaning of its color has represented many aspects of life: social, religious, biblical and Christian symbolism reflected in the color red. The symbolic meaning of red is “fire” and is associated with power and importance. The garnet is associated with truth, friendship and insight.
“By her who this month was born
No gem save garnets shall be worn
They will ensure her constancy
True friendship and fidelity.”