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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Love of Nature: The Tree Alphabet of the of the Gaels

The Gaelic alphabet gives us a fascinating clue as to how the Druids or the early missionaries such as St. Patrick taught the alphabet using trees, plants or bushes. There are 18 letters in the Gaelic alphabet and each pertains to a tree or plant. According to ancient Gaelic lore each plant had some magical qualities. I recall of course my father telling me that Highland women would keep moldy bread or moldy ground acorns for a medicinal paste for wounds. His own mother did this while working as a 'joat-flittin' hairst lassie' (migrant farm laborer) in Argyll in the late 19th century. She learned this from the Highland women there and it was common knowledge. It was a custom apprently in use for generations. This was long before Fleming discovered penicillin. Fleming, it will be noted never claimed to have invented penicillin; he claimed to have discovered it. During World War I , Fleming began searching for anti-bacterial substances and in 1921 he discovered lysozyme. In 1928 Fleming found that a penicullum mold had accidently contaminated a staphylococcus culture and stopped the bacteria's growth. In 1945 Fleming shared the Nobel Prize with Ernst Chain and Sir Howard Florey who were able to purify and manufacture peniclllin in large quantities. There were canny men and women before Fleming however and primitive anti-biotics may have been in use for thousands of years previously.

These comments do not intend to be final or even original but there is no question that the poets in the Celtic languages and Celtic peoples were powerfully drawn to the them of nature. They took intense delight in Nature's variety, color and ever changeableness. They recognized in nature a power to uplift, find release, escape or just remember. I believe this deep almost sacred love of place, river and mountain and love of nature in general may have been one of the great cultural influences of Celtic song, poetry and literature. We see it in Burns, Scott,Byron and many poets of the Romantic era in English literature. I am no expert in botany by any means but I derive great delight from my garden where many of the plants and trees I have planted and watered and labored with "mine own hand to grow."

I recall the poem by Mairi Mhor nan Oran ("Farewell to the Isle of Mists"; "Soraidh le Eilean a' Cheo') in which the bardess describes the whiteness of the clean snow and the daisy kissing mouth to mouth. Then again there are the beautiful charms and prayers of Carminda Gadelica some of which have been set to music very successfully by William Jackson, Mairi MacInnes and Maggie MacInnes.

For example:

Tagh seileach nan allt, tagh calltain nan creag
Tagh fearna nan lòn, tagh beithe nan eas
Tagh uinnseann na dubhair, tagh iubhar na leuma
Tagh leamhan na brùthiach, tagh duire na grèine.

Choose the willow of the streams, choose the hazel of the rocks
Choose the alder of the marshes, choose the birch of the waterfalls
Choose the ash of the shade, choose the yew of resilience
Choose the elm of the brae, choose the oak of the sun

Carmina Gadelica as collected by Alexander Carmichael

The WILLOW was seen as a melancholic tree representing sadness. Two common tree willows are the white willow (Salix alba L.) and the crack willow (Salix fragilis L.). The white willow is named for the whitish undersides of its leaves, and the crack willow for the propensity of its branches to "crack" off (probably another adaptation to flooding). Both species grow along with poplars and alders along lowland rivers. They In addition the was associated to love, healing, the gaining of eloquence, inspiration and, growth.

The HAZEL ( corylus avellana) was s considered one of the most important trees it is very closely related to the salmon, who eats its nuts of poetic wisdom. Its associations are: intuition; poetry; divination; meditation; wisdom; knowledge and fertility. It is the badge of the Clan Colquhoun. (Mac a’chombaich)

THE ALDER: is an unusual tree, it is water loving yet is also highly combustible, making it very sacred as it combines the elements water and fire. Because of its fierce flame it is sometimes known as the warrior tree, its symbolism being that of strength, tenacity and determination. Because of its resistance to water it can be used to hold water elementals and negative spirits. Dyes can be made from its bark, flowers and twigs, one of which was red which the druids used to dye their faces during rituals. The common alder (Alnus glutinosa (L.) Gaertner) is common along lowland rivers, where it grows with aspens, poplars, and willows. Like willows, alders sprout from stumps. This allows them to regenerate after heavy flooding. Alder wood is said to resist rotting when it is wet, and was the wood of choice for pilings in many regions. Alders are members of the Birch family (Betulaceae)

THE BIRCH is one of the first trees to grow on bare soil and has come to symbolize fertility, healing and rebirth The. silver birch (Betula pendula Roth) is the most common tree birch in much of Europe. It grows up to 30 m (100 feet) high, but is more often found in spreading clumps on sandy soils. It is one of the first trees to colonize an area after a mature forest is cut; this is probably a large part of its symbolic connection with new beginnings. The tree itself was used for almost everything from canoes to producing sugar and represents that which is needed for everyday living. It is known for its protective healing abilities and is used to drive out evil spirits and as protection from the faery folk.

THE ASH was very sacred to the druids NUMANTIA in Spain scene of a famous siege between Celtiberians and Scipio in 133BC. Yhe ancient Celtic citadel was said to have been built around a sacred ash grove (Nuim). The common ash (Fraxinus excelsior L.) is a major tree of lowland forests in much of Europe, along with oaks and beeches. It grows to 40 m (130 feet) in open sites, with a broad crown. Ash was and still is an important timber tree, and is a traditional material for the handle of a besom. Its main symbolism being that of stability as it links the inner and otherworlds. The ancient Celts of Spain fed their mature pigs a diet of acorns to enhance the taste a custom still held in Spain today for the finest hams.

THE YEW TREE (Taxus baccata L.) is a slow-growing conifer, living as long as 1000 years and reaching 20 m (65 feet). It is much less common in recent times because of overharvesting (its hard, springy wood was the source of English longbows). The evergreen needles are very broad, and the seeds are produced in red, berryis sometimes regarded as the most sacred tree to the druids with it symbolism of death and rebirth (due to the fact that the outer tree dies and a new tree grows within). It represents transformation & reincarnation. All parts of the yew are poisonous apart from the berry covering and it was used to poison weapons, it was also used to make bows so it was called the”Yew of resilience

ELM (ulmus campestris)“The fir is a tall slender tree that grows in mountainous regions, its cones respond to the environment by opening with the sun and closing with rain. Because of its height it indicates aspiring views, far sight and clear vision. In addition it symbolizes flexibility, astuteness and the ability to change. Its wood is considered good for magic that involves shapeshifting and other changing magics.

OAK: Oak has always been respected by nearly all world cultures. Admired for its strength and size it represents strength, endurance and power. Because it is often struck by lightening it has become associated with having the ability to attract inspiration, wisdom and illumination. The oak of myth and legend is the common oak (Quercus robur L.). It grows with ash and beech in the lowland forests, and can reach a height of 45 m (150 feet) and age of 800 years. Along with ashes, oaks were heavily logged throughout recent millennia, so that the remaining giant oaks in many parts of Europe are but a remnant of forests past. Like most other central and northern European trees, common oaks are deciduous, losing their leaves before Samhain (Fall) and growing new leaves in the spring so that the trees are fully clothed by Bealltaine (Spring) .Oak galls were known as Serpent Eggs and were used in magic and charms. It has also been associated with fertility. The oak is considered very sacred to the druids and their name has even been linked as a derivative of duir (oak). But this etymology is somewhat obscrure. But Pliny, Strabo and and others noted the reverence Druids had for oak trees. Peter Berresford Ellis says "one should emphasize the use of cognate and not 'deriving from'. The world Druid could be translated at 'Backwoodsman', "Wise ones of the Oak," "Oak-Priest", "Keeper of the Sacred Oak Grove", "healer" or "magician" The Oak is the ancient badge of the Camerons. Diodorus called them 'philosophers' and 'theologians
who are 'held in much honor'. Caesar says the cardinal doctrine of the Druids is that "souls are immortal and do not die." Strabo says the Druids assert' that men's souls and also the cosmos are indestructible." There are references of course to Druidesses as well as Druids. The Druids of Gaul were considered to have a triad of highly ethical moral codes. One which we know from classical sourcess is "Reverence the gods, tell the truth, and be manly'; The Irish Triad, complied perhaps one thousand years afterwards have a very similiar triad:

"Three things show a good man:
a special gift, valor and piety."

The word 'special gift' (don in the original Irish Gaelic)could be an endowment, present, divine gift from God (or the gods presumably), a faculty, an ability,, a skill, in song or poetry or a certain art (design? drawing? music? dance? healing?)

This word may be a cognate or derived from the Latin "Donum" (present, gift) and dona nuptalia (wedding gift).

Both Anne Ross and Peter Berresford Ellis have written excellent books on the Druids. Ellis' book is available in Spanish and French.

See “Ogam stones and Early Christian Latin inscriptions” and “Survivals of Paganism” in The Companion to Gaelic Scotland, ed. Derick S. Thompson, Blackwell, 1983
See also:


The Gaelic Tree Alphabet:

a B b C c D d E e F f G g H h I i
Coll (Hazel)
Fearn (Alder)
Gort (Ivy)

L l M m N n O o P p R r S s T t U u
Peithe(Guelder Rose)

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