Plants of Myth: Celtic Characters

Of druids and gods

Last week we began a new series exploring how plants and trees had influenced human mythology through the ages. In many cases the plants themselves became central characters to some of our most iconic stories and, in a case of life imitating art, the names these characters went by are how we refer to those plants today.

Druidry, often referred to as Druidism, was a form of spiritual and religious practice that developed in northern Europe in 3 BCE. Within Pagan societies, druids often functioned as lawmakers, priests, and physicians.

However, the primary focus of druidic practice revolved around prophecies found in the stars and a kind of mystic diplomacy whereby they would maintain relationships between civilization and the natural world.

Although Greece probably has the greatest number of famous mythological figures, this week we’re discussing Celtic folklore and, in particular, how its reverence for trees came to shape an entire people’s culture.

The Ogham alphabet

Although scholars haven’t formed a consensus, the Ogham alphabet is thought to have first originated in Ireland between the 1st and 4th centuries A.D. The basis and motivation behind the alphabet is also a source of controversy but the two most accepted theories both agree that it was likely devised as a means of hidden communication.

Its relevance to us lies in the fact that several letters of the Ogham alphabet were originally named after species of trees that grew prominently in Ireland.

Birch, Alder, Willow, Oak, Hazel, Pine, Ash, and Yew were those first eight trees and many of them held special meaning for druidic societies. Below we’ve matched each of these with their designated letter in the Ogham, as well as what each symbolized in Celtic culture.

F for Alder

The alder tree was thought by druids to symbolize the balance and unity between the masculine and feminine aspects of society and the soul.

N for Ash

The ash tree was seen as having healing properties and, alongside the Oak and Hawthorn trees, was given special reverence as being one of a trinity of sacred trees.

B for Birch

Celts believed the birch tree had the power to protect them from evil faeries and spirits as well as to purify the surrounding area.

C for Hazel

Hazel trees enjoyed fierce protection by Celtic cultures, chopping one down carried a death sentence since a Hazel tree was believed to be the first living thing ever put onto the earth.

Ai for Scots Pine

The scots pine is one of the oldest tree species in the world so it’s not surprising that it was primarily considered a symbol of vitality or even immortality in Celtic culture.

S Willow

The creation myths of Celtic folklore often placed great importance on the willow tree as a kind of living cradle. The story goes that two eggs were hatched in the boughs of a willow tree and from them sprang the universe.

Thanks for joining us on this journey into Celtic folklore, next week we’ll be doing a deep dive into Native American mythology and how this, now almost lost, culture cataloged huge swathes of the natural world and brought them to life.

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