The Celts had a great respect
for nature and believed that
trees held special attributes
and mystical qualities.
Photo by Louise Price
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One of the nine trees sacred to the Celts
The first tree to sprout leaves in the Spring, the birch (beith) was known as the Tree of Birth and symbolized new birth and fertility. As such, it was burned on the fires of Beltane to welcome the coming of spring and a time of new beginnings.
It's unique white bark was also believed to hold protective powers against evil spirits and the fairy folk. To that end, it would be burned on Samhain, when there was a thinning of the veil between this world and the next.
The Celts believed the trees may hold the souls of their ancestors. Because of this, they saw the tree, with its interconnecting root system, as representing family connections.
Of course, this meant that it was forbidden to cut one down, though oddly enough, it was a popular material for baby cradles because of its protective nature.
Phots by Kenneth Allen
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Most important of the nine trees sacred to the Celts
Able to grow on bare mountain tops, where the veil between this world and the next was the thinnist, the rowan (luis) was know for its protective qualities. It's lofty position also meant it couldn't be cut down, except for religious reasons.
The tree was associated with the goddess Brigid, and hung over doorways, much the same as St. Brigid's cross is today, where it was said to protect the household from misfortune and the living from the dead.
Rowan branches could also be found on graves where it was said to protect the deceased from evil spirits. The wood was used to make cart wheels and walking sticks, too, protecting the traveler on their travels.
A fairy tree, the wood was also used to make baby cradles to protect the child from fairies intent of stealing it away to replace it with a changling, the Celtic mother's worse fear.
It was believed the first woman was made from the rowan.
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Another of the nine trees sacred to the Celts
Due to the fact that it produces both male and female catkins or blossoms on the same branch, the Celts saw the alder (fern) as representing the balance between male and female, as well as nature itself.
Found along rivers or lakes, the Celts believed it was inhabited by a water fairy, but it was highly combustible as well. As a result, cutting it down was forbidden since doing so might anger the fairy who might burn down your house in revenge.
But that wasn't the only reason to forbid cutting it down. When cut, the wood turns from white to blood red due to its orange-red sap. This caused the Celts to believe it was also inhabited by the souls of their ancestors.
It was also considered highly sacred because its location near water together with its combustible nature meant it combined two elements, those of fire and water.
It was believed the first man was made from the alder.
Photo by W. Carter
(Own work - CC0)
Sacred tree integral in the Celtic creation tale
In the Celtic creation story, the universe was hatched from two eggs nested in the willow (sall) - one the sun, the other the earth. At Beltane, Celts painted eggs to commemorate the event. Christians adopted the tradition for Easter.
Its location along rivers and lakes held special spiritual significance for the Celt who saw it as a sign of new growth, healing, and optimism. They believed sitting beneath it would banish depression and drive away melancholy.
Though it represented sadness in some cultures, the Celts believed its ability to relocate and grow anew when uprooted was a symbol of adaptability and the power to overcome adversity.
Its groves were considered so magical that priests and artisans would sit among them to gain inspiration and eloquence, as well as to hone their divination skills.
The willow flower was used to banish feelings of jealousy.
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The third tree in the Fairy triad of sacred trees
Referred to as the Celtic Tree of life, the ash (nion) was held sacred because of it's lofty status. Its branched reache heights of over 130 feet, stretching up to the heavens, while its deep and sturdy roots ground it to the earth.
In fact, it usually grows alone because of the amount of room its roots require. These deep, strong roots, together with its flexible yet hard wood, are seen as a symbol of strength and are the preferred wood for making wands or staffs.
It is valued for its healing abilites as well as its strength and represents stability, both of mind and body. It was often used to banish mental strife as well as to stimulate psychic dreams.
Often planted near sacred springs, it has a distinct water connection like the alder, but it too is highly flammable. Its wood is burned at Beltane to protect crops and cattle.
Where ash, oak and thorn grow together, there fairies live.
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Second tree in the Fairy triad of sacred trees
Seen as one of the most powerful trees in the forest, the Hawthorne (uath) was both feared and respected. Due to its contradictory nature of beautiful flowers and deadly thorns, it was bad luck to cut a branch, except at Beltane.
Its beautiful flowers spoke of fertility and new life, symbolizing the end of the cold, dark winter and the coming of spring. Each Beltane, girls would carry its twigs before them in the hopes of attracting a husband.
But its blossoms also had a darker side. Their disagreeable odor was said to smell like death, and the trees sharp thorns could inflict mortal wounds that could fester and become infected.
Another reason to fear and respect the tree was the fairies that were said to inhabit it, who could curse or kidnap anyone they saw as a threat to their homes.
Said to stand at the gates of the otherworld.
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One of the five magical trees of Ireland, the most sacred of all
Considered to be the one of the largest and most powerful trees in the forest, the oak (daire) was revered for its height, which reached up to the heavens. It was associated with the gods and symbolized strength and endurance.
Its leaves were the last to fall in the autunm, if they fell at all, and the Celts saw this as a sign of tenacity and determination. Though it was struck by lightning more than any other tree in the forest, it continued to grow and thrive.
The Celts saw these lightning strikes as messages from the gods, while the trees longevity symbolized wisdom. Priests and bards would gather in oak groves for inspiration and divination purposes.
Eating the acorns was believed to increase wisdom, especially from those collected at night, And mistletoe discovered on the oak after a lightning strike was particularly potent.
The oak tree was known as King of the Forest.
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Considered the evergreen twin of the oak tree
Where oak signifies the light half of the year (summer) the holly tree (tinne) represented the dark half (winter). It was favored during the cold, dark months as a sign of luck, which explain why we associate holly with Christmas-time today.
Like the oak, holly is resistant to lightning strikes. For this reason, it was valued for its protective qualities. Chieftain would wear wreaths of holly on their heads for luck and babies would be bathed in holly water to protect them from harm.
Holly trees were also planted outside homes to protect them from fire, while the leaves were brought inside to provide shelter for the fairies with the hope the wee folk would return the gesture with kindness.
Signifying the victory of winter over summer, holly also represented the cycle of death and rebirth. In the dark months of winter, it was seen as a sign of hope for the coming spring.
Cutting more than branches was considered unlucky.
Nine magical hazel trees hang over the Well of Wisdom
The Tree of Immortal Wisdom is said to be a hazel tree (coll), which stands at the center of the Otherworld. In many cases, it can also be found at the boundaries between the two worlds, along with the apple and hawthorn trees.
In the otherworld, the magical trees drop their hazelnuts into the sacred well, which in turn flows into a stream. There, the Salmon of Knowledge eat the nuts. Anyone who eats either the salmon is said to grow in wisdom and prophetic ability.
Wisdom and poetic inspiration can also be gained by eating the nuts themselves or brewing them into a tea that induces visions . They were also used in love potions and as aphrodisiacs.
Sacred to the fey, the hazel could be used to call on them, but as the poetic fairy, Bile Ratha is said to live in the hazel and guard it, it was bad luck to harm the tree..
At one time, it was punishable by death to cut the tree down.
The fruit of the tree was said to keep the gods immortal
The only apple tree (ceirt) native to Ireland was the crab apple. It was important as a source of nourishment, used to make wine, cider, and mead.
The tree represented youth, beauty, and love, and was a popular ingredient in love spells and potions.
It was believed that the gods retained their youth by eating the fruit, while the juice could be used to attain inner strength and beauty.
The Celts were known to buty apples with their dead.
Bramble often planted with fairy tree to bind the hedge
This probably meant brambles since vines weren't introduced until the arrival of the Romans. Both bear bitter sweet fruit and the bramble was already the.
The vine (muir) was one of the many sacred woods burned on the Beltane fires, representing joy and happiness.
Valued for its ability to release inhibitions and loosen the tongue, it was consummed by seers to stimulate prophetic revelations and truths.
Later, the monks cultivated vines, though not brambles.
Powerful for its ability to grow where nothing else will.
Growing in a spiral, the ivy (gort) symbolized self-enlightenment, a trait valued by the Celts as it represented the souls journey.
It was carried by young girls as a sign of luck and fertility and intertwined with holly at weddings to symbolize fidelity.
More powerful than its enemy, the vine (bramble), it was believed to provide protection when grown on a house, but c brought misfortune if it died.
Symbolized inspiration and worn by bards as crowns.
Considered to be a tree because of its deep roots
The reed (ngeadal) was revered for its protective qualities. Used to make mats, its sweet smell cleansed the home, while its thatch was utilized as roofing material to cover and protect a dwelling.
A symbol of knowledge, it was used by Druid scholars as a writing implement, as well as by doctors for healing.
Though employed as a
talisman for protection, the reed also had a darker side. Its use in the making of arrows led to an association with death
as well as healing.
Associated with Brigid, goddess of poets, smithcraft, and healing, today it is used to make St. Brigid's cross, which can be hung over doors for protection against fire and evil.
Reed was sometimes referred to as broom.
Winter tree usually used for offensive magic
Guarded by spiky moon fairies, you could be cursed if you tried to cut the wood of the blackthorn (straif) or pick its berries. Best to wait for the full moon, when they left to pay homage to the moon goddess.
Representing the dark side of the year, it was associated with the goddess Cailleach, who emerged at Samhain.
A sinister tree, it grew in
dark thickets, where it's
prickly thorns could cause septic wounds and its bitter berries didn't ripen until
after the first frost.
And yet is was often connected with fate and outside influences, as well as hope in the midst of devastation and the overcoming of obstacles fir a better future.
The wood was often used to make shillelaghs
Sacred tree that represent Life in death and death in life
Able to regrow damaged branches, the elder tree (ruis) was valued for its regenerative qualities. Prized for its many culinary, medicinal, and mysticaly uses, it was utilized in both spells and curses.
It was respected by the Celts for its ability to protect from evel and from lightening when planted near a house.
Elderberry wine was imbibed to induce divination, while standing under the trees branches or bathing your eyes in its sap was said to grant the ability to see the fairy folk.
Flutes made of the wood could also summon fairies, and the Druids prized the tree for its culinary, medicinal, and mystical qualites, which they used for both spells and curses.
The fruit of the elder tree is poison unless it is ripe
Together with Yew tree, one of twins of Winter Solstice
The towering height of the Fir tree (ailm) symbolized clear vision and foresight of what was to come, while its pine cones were associated with prophesy and wisdom, opening in the heat of the sun, but closing before rain.
The trees tall, straight trunk was said to symbolize a pillar of honesty and strength. The Scots Pine was able to thrive under the harshest conditions, yet create a pleasant surrounding for other plants. This flexibility led to its use in shapeshifting magic.
As an evergreen, it symbolized hope for the coming spring, Its wood was burned on bonfires, encouraging the return of the sun, while its ashes fertilized the land in anticipation of the coming crops.
Pine glades would be decorated with shiny trinkets as a sign of divine light and eternal life. Also known as the Birth Tree, it's needles were burned at the birth of a child to protect both mother and baby.
Pine cones were believed to increase fertility.
Associated with Lugh, god of sun and summer
The gorse (onn) burns at a temperature similare to charcoal and was probably used to start the Beltane fires. A symbol of resilience because it always sought the sun and, if destroyed, would sprout anew, it was also used as a purifier.
A good plant to use when in need of a fresh start, it was used to sweep important areas clean, and it was believed that burning it could even calm
the wind. Wearing it or
hanging it around the house was said to provide protection against misfortune.
It was also believed to be a symbol of love and fertility. Brides would place gorse springs in their bouquets, and gorse torches were burned around livestock to protect against infertility.
Never give it as a gift though, for that would bring misfortune to both giver and receiver. However, its coconut aroma was appealing and could be eaten. Not too much though or it will upset your stomach.
The bright yellow plant has an almond flavor.
Known as the tree of the summer solstice.
Said to light the flame of fairy passions, it is believed that heather (ur) pushes aside the veil between this world and the other. If you want to attract fairies, you can burn a sprig of heather at Beltane, and they are sure to appear.
Heather was seen as a way to be closer to Tir na nOg or the Otherworld and was considered a building block of the Celts. Able to grow where other plants could not, it bloomed in late summer. Usually purple, a patch of white heather was considered a sign of luck.
For this reason, a bride would include a sprig of white heather in her bouquet, in hopes of bringing luck to her marraige. Heather was also valued for its romantic qualities and seen as a plant of attraction.
It was also touted for its ability to intoxicate, but that might have something to do with the fact that it was used in the making of ale and mead. It was also warn as a charm for spiritual healing though.
It grows in abundance, helping to form colorful heaths
To harm the tree would be to the soul of an ancestor
The Poplar (eadhadh) was a hardy tree, valued by shield makers for its ability to endure and conquer. While lightweight it was unmatched for the physical protection it afforded.
Even more important was the spiritual protection it offered. The Celts planted the tree outside the homes, both for protection and in memory of their ancestors.
Associated with language and communication, it was known as the Whispering Tree, for the slightest breeze would cause the leaves to rustle. It was believed these quivering leaves would help the wind bring messages to ancestors in the otherworld.
The tree also represented family connections. It grew in such a way that the roots from one tree would form another tree., so that even if burned, a new tree would sprout thus symbolizing birth and new life.
Crown of leaves left on graves to aid path to rebirth
Together with Fir Tree, one of Sacred Trees of Winter Solstice
The oldest tree in the forest, the Yew (iodhadh) could live up to 2000 years. Because of its ability to constantly renew itself, it was known as the guardian of the dead.
The tree's odd regenerative quality symbolized death
and resurrection, death and rebirth. Even as the outer
tree died off, a new tree was growing within.
Its branches burrowed into the earth, sprouting new trees that would twist around one another and surround the original tree. Nothing could grow beneath it, due to its poisonous trunk and thick canopy. In fact, apart from the berries, the whole tree is poisonous.
It was the hardest wood available though, so dense it actually sinks in water. This quality made it the first choice for the making of longbows. And its toxic sap was handy for coating their tips.
Wood laid on graves to remind death would lead to rebirth
To the Celts, trees were an integral part of everyday life. They provided food, shelter and warmth for the people and homes for the animals, birds and even for insects.
It was believed that trees held souls of their ancestors and were the doors to the otherworld. They represented the cycle of life and the interconnection of all creation.
With their branches reaching up to the realm of the gods, and their roots anchoring them to the earth, they stood beside sacred wells and housed the fairy folk. Trees symbolized wisdom and strength and were able to converse with the gods and confer blessings.
A tree stood at the center of each village, a symbol of its soul. Emenies would try to destroy the tree to demoralize a villag, but if a villager tried to destroy their own tree, it was an unforgivable sacrilege.
It was believed the absence of trees was the absence of life