Celtic birch art with a Celtic Tree Calendar version available - plus a look at the folklore, history and meaning of the birch tree...
Celtic Tree Calendar: 24 December to 20 January
The word ‘birch’ is believed to stem from the word ‘bhurga’ – a Sanskrit word meaning ‘tree whose bark is used to write upon’.
We know that the king of Rome in the 7th-8th century BC, Numa Pompilius, is said to have had his own birch-bark books buried with him in his grave, so showing how even at this early date, the bark of the birch was highly prized for book making.
The Gaelic words for birch – ‘beith’, ‘bith’, or ‘beth’ – mean ‘inception’, ‘world’, ‘existence’, ‘enduring’, and ‘shining one’, showing us something of how this beautiful tree was viewed in the Celtic world.
In the northern hemisphere, it is believed that early cultures saw the birch as the ‘world tree’ – while it is also suggested that in India and the Near East, the birch was seen as the original ‘tree of life’.
In the Tartar culture, the birch tree stands at the centre of the world…
And the Siberian Buryat people name birch ‘the guardian of the door’ and believe that the birch can provide access to the nine great celestial realms.
The Siberian Yakut culture associate the birch with ‘Ai Toyou’ the ‘bringer of light’ who lives in a birch tree with its branches filled with nests of children.
The association of birch with light is a powerful one – the beautiful silver-white bark reflects light and appears particularly striking and ethereal by moonlight, especially on those dark winter nights when the trees stand bare of leaves.
Birch is associated with the Celtic god of light, Lugh. And legend tells that birch - ‘beith’ – was the first letter of the Celtic tree alphabet – the ogham - ever written. The letter ‘beith’ was carved seven times onto a piece of birch by the god Ogma so that he could warn the god Lugh that his wife had been taken by fairies. It also served as a protective talisman for Lugh as he sought for his wife.
The birch tree is often connected with the mysteries of the otherworld – fairies and spirits of the dead. The Scottish ballad ‘The Wife of Ushers Well’ suggests how the spirits of the dead wear birch twigs so that they are not blown away by the ‘world’s winds’ (ie: the existence and energy of the living world).
In the Celtic world, birch trees are also associated with the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis – you can imagine the ethereal beauty of the scene with these dancing lights reflected in the silver birch bark – and through this association, with the Celtic goddess Arianrhod who has her throne in the ‘corona borealis’, ‘the crown of the north wind’. Celtic women are thought to have traditionally used birch to ask for Arianrhod’s assistance in childbirth (a time of new beginnings).
Birch is also connected to Freya, the Norse goddess of love and fertility, and Frigga, considered the goddess of married love.
In fact, birch has associations with traditional folk love rituals – in Wales, a man would present the woman he loved with a garland of birch to show his feelings – and would know that she shared his feelings if she gave him one back.
In Wales, too, a newly married couple would step over a birch broom to enter their new home together, representing a wish for fertility.
In the Celtic Basque country, a gift of a birch twig could initiate a courtship, while birch oil was used for love spells.
Birch was also considered to bring luck and protection, especially in springtime.
Birch is one of the first trees to leaf in springtime, so again is associated with renewal, rebirth, and new starts. Birch is connected with Blodeuwedd, the Welsh goddess of springtime and flowers.
At the Celtic festival of Beltane (May Day or May 1st) birch was used as a living maypole as it was thought to protect against the evil eye.
At Beltane, too, birch was gathered as wood to fuel the Beltane fires and the villagers and their animals would pass through the fires to provide protection, cleansing from negative energies and hope for a fertile year ahead.
Young birch trees were also often decorated with ribbons on this day, and placed at stable doors for luck and to protect the horses from being ‘hag-ridden’ by witches – the birch trees would be left in place all year.
Garlands of birch (often with rowan, may blossom, and cowslip) would also similarly provide protection and luck over cottage doors, hearths, cradles, gardens, and even in hat bands.
Later in May, at Whitsuntide, from at least the 16th century, birch branches were brought into churches to decorate them for the festival.
Birch branches were used to ‘drive out’ the Old Year on 31st December – to clear negative energies for the year ahead. And in the Rogationtide ritual, birch branches were also used to beat the bounds of the parish and to enforce and protect the boundaries of the parish to clear negative influences.
Sometimes, naughty boys or lunatics were also beaten with birch to cleanse of negative energies or demons! We know the term ‘birching’ today, referring to a purifying beating or flagellation to remove toxic thoughts or energies.
As recently as the early 20th century, even, birch boot-scrapers were found outside cottage doors – a ritual boot-scraping as you entered would bring luck and keep all within safe from witches!
Witches are inexorably associated with the birch tree…
Birch twigs were said to make the best witches’ broomsticks (‘besoms’) – the magical light that the twigs contained were said to help the broomstick to fly well, and birch allowed the broomstick to be used to ritually sweep and cleanse an area of negative energies.
The birch is also associated the red and white spotted fly agaric mushrooms which grow at the foot of the birch tree. The fly agaric mushroom is hallucinogenic and is said to be used in the ‘flying ointment’ used by British and European witches to ‘fly’ in shamanic-style vision. (Fly agaric is also used in the Soma, a vision-inducing drink mentioned in the Rig Veda of the Hindu tradition.)
With these connections, the birch is therefore also associated with autumn and Samhain (Halloween) – the night of witches!
At the end of the year, too, the birch features as a popular Yule log, clearing the Old Year away to make way for the new.
Birch is also a useful tree – it’s been used across the years to make furniture, barrels and casks, toys, brooms, arrow shafts, clogs, bobbins, parchment and paper, baskets, roofing, and for plywood. The tannin in birch is also highly prized in leather-making – ‘tanning’.
Birch is also valuable as a healing tree – the ‘birch water’ (sometimes called ‘birch blood’) is bored from a hole the trunk and carefully collected. It’s traditionally been used to precent kidney and bladder stones, treat rheumatic diseases and as a tonic for skin.
Birch bark has been used as a folk remedy for eczema and fevers, while the leaves were traditionally used to help flush toxins from the system, including to help with urinary tract infections and inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, rheumatism, and gout.
The active ingredient in birch, betulinic acid, has been found to be antiseptic, astringent, anaesthetic (kills pain), and anti-inflammatory. Modern medical research even suggests that it may be able to destroy cancer cells and help to treat HIV, leukemia, and herpes.
The flower essence for birch is to promote renewal and a fresh energy. It has a purifying energy and brings hope, encourages clarity of thought and purpose, and a pioneering attitude to new adventures.
The meaning of birch is about:
Flowers & Floral
Learning To Draw & Art Skills
Myth Meaning Folklore
Nature And Wildlife Art
Offers And Freebies
Surface Pattern Design
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