Category Archives: Trees
In the mature hardwoods of the Adirondacks, the American Beech reigns supreme. It is a majestic tree, stretching 80 feet or more and providing the dense summer canopy of the forest. The wood of this tree is also dense, and the trunk grows straight, with smooth gray bark. In the fall the golden leaves of the Beech offset the bright red of the many varieties of maple that grow here. While the forests at mid-elevation are described as Beech/Hemlock/Yellow Birch/Sugar Maple forests, it is the Beech that predominates the longer an area of forest is undisturbed.
Forest animals from Red Squirrels to Black Bears depend on the fruit of the Beech for survival. The tree produces two small triangular nuts encased in burry shells. The Beech fulfills a core sustenance role for wildlife played by the White Oak in warmer climates. Like the Oak, the Beech hangs on to its dry leaves throughout the winter, letting go only when spring arrives and its long spear-like buds emerge. The leaves are large, oval, and pointed, with toothed edges. This is a long-lived tree which bides its time in the shade for many years, shooting up quickly when a patch of sunlight emerges as another tree falls.
Though nature enthusiasts prize this beautiful tree, the lumber industry is equivocal about its merits. The wood makes beautiful furniture and durable blond flooring, but the trees themselves are susceptible to various diseases which are hard to recognize uncut. Beech is less desirable as cordwood because the wood takes a long time to season. Mostly the trees are left alone, which is just as well since they fill such an important ecological niche.
American Beech can be thought of as the North American equivalent of European oaks such as the English Oak. Both belong to the Fagaceae family, and according to Robert Graves much religious symbolism associated with the oak was transferred from the Beech, partly because the Beech is not found in Mediterranean climates. The European Beech is equivalent to the American in many ways: it is long lived, tall, shade tolerant, and produces the seeds that animals love. The American Beech is a bit fussier about its growing environment, though, and the European grows faster, so if you live in a North American city the beech tree in your neighborhood may not be a native one.
In German folklore the souls of children waiting to incarnate hung around beech trees, so women would wander around beeches to conceive. Beech wood could not be allowed near a woman in labor, however, or she would have a more difficult time with the birth.
Beech has a strong association with writing. Beech wood tablets were once used as a writing surface, particularly for runic script. The smooth bark of living beech trees continues to be used for carving.
Beech is considered conducive to divination, and it is a recommended wood for wands. I suppose it’s used for wands, rather than staffs, because it is so dense. I recently acquired a prime piece of American Beech, and I’m surprised every time I pick it up by how heavy it is. I am intending to use it as a staff, but I doubt I’ll be able to carry it too far into the woods.
Dana, “Sacred Tree Profile: American Beech (Fagus Gradiflora) – Magic, Medicine, And Qualities, The Druid’s Garden, July 6, 2015. https://druidgarden.wordpress.com/tag/beech-tree-mythology/
Chris Dunford, “Beech: The Most Beautiful Tree in the Wood,” Nature Explored Photography http://www.nature-explored.com/beech-info.htm
Stan Tekiela, Trees of New York (Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications, 2006).
Germane to my post last week on Frigga, here is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Divining with Animal Guides.
The origin of Germanic writing is complex. Late Bronze Age carvings and cave markings from Northern Italy to Sweden show some rune-like symbols, their meaning undeciphered. Readable runic script dates to the second century and was presumably derived from the Etruscan alphabet, with which it shares some symbols. The god Odin is credited with discovering the runes, eighteen of them to start, when he hung upside down from the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days and nine nights. It is essential to understand that runes are not and were not simply signs that could be manipulated to form language, although they certainly were used for that purpose. Runes have always been magical powers in and of themselves. They disclose hidden truths, they protect buildings, they form spells. They are the force behind what words they speak.
Since Odin found the runes while tied to the tree but did not invent them, we have to look deeper for their source. The deities who nourish Yggdrasil are the Norns Urd, Verthandi, and Skuld. They are the Norns we are usually talking about when we say “The Norns.” The Norns water Yggdrasil’s roots from a pool of water at the base of the tree. They are responsible for giving each person their destiny and can reveal the past, present, and future. They are usually the powers invoked when using runes for divination and they are the powers petitioned for changing life circumstances. In addition to tending the tree, the Norns tend a pair of swans who are said to be the parents of all swans in the world. The Norns themselves wear cloaks of swan feathers.
Another Germanic divinatory goddess is Frigga, who knows the future but seldom speaks of it. According to some sources it is she who bestows destiny on every child. Frigga’s distaff is in heaven and the stars revolve around it, which means she controls the calendar. Frigga wears a crown of heron feathers. Her sacred tree is the birch, probably the White Birch or Silver Birch. The white, supple bark of the birch has been used throughout northern Europe as a medium for writing and drawing. Natives in North America used the Paper Birch for similar purposes. Since bark is a degradable material it would be impossible to know how far back symbolic drawing on birch goes; extant pieces from Russia date to the twelfth century. Not much was recorded in Christian times about Frigga, despite her status as nominal head of the pantheon along with Odin, because clerics worked especially hard to erase all traces of her. Those who in later centuries recorded the Norse legends were men who would not have been privy to feminine traditions anyway. While Frigga is not explicitly documented as a writing goddess, information about her points in that direction.
Frejya’s representation throughout the lifecycle suggests an affinity with the sun, which defines the cycle of the year. Her association with both the winter and the summer solstices reaffirm this connection, as does the Yule fire and the summer bonfires. Frejya’s amber necklace represents her command over the sun and hence the passage of time. Those who see Frejya as blond may be focusing on her sun aspect, perhaps dazzled by the brightness of her nimbus. It is interesting in this regard that the Egyptian sun god Horus also takes the form of a falcon.Although Frejya is a goddess for all seasons and all ages, I want to explore Frejya’s death aspect more closely. I will do so in a later installment of this series.
So what does boar, fir and falcon say about Frejya?Let’s look first at the falcon. Freya’s falcon is probably the Gyrfalcon (JER-falcon), the largest falcon, who likes the northern climates. If she migrates at all, she is driven by scarcity of food, and she will sometimes winter at sea over ice. The Gyrfalcon is the preferred falcon for hunting. She mostly hunts birds, including other raptors, although she will also take small mammals. Other predatory birds leave her alone, as she is fierce. She has a varied hunting strategy and is considered very intelligent. The goddess Frejya has a cloak of falcon feathers reaching to the ground. With her characteristic generosity she loans this cloak to the other gods when they need it to move quickly. Falcons in general are associated with the sun or with death. Other important falcon deities include Circe, the witch who trapped Odysseus and changed his sailors into pigs, and Horus, the Egyptian sun god who avenged the death of his father Osiris and performed an important funerary rite for him.The boar is the wild predecessor of the domestic pig. While only the male domestic pig is called a boar, in the wild there are boar sows and boar piglets. Boars like most wild animals prefer to avoid people, but both males and sows will charge anything that threatens them. With their huge size and thick skulls they are formidable, even more so if they are adult males with curving tasks. Boars chase away other predators to eat carrion. They are mostly scavengers, digging up roots and grubs in addition to scavenging dead carcasses. Sows prefer to raise young together, and males remain with their mothers until they are full grown. Boars are prolific breeders, something that was never a problem until they became protected in certain areas. The boar has always been preferred quarry for hunters – originally because he provided a great deal of tasty meat, only later because the danger involved provided excitement for sportsmen. The boar was also prized for his dense fur. Frejya often rides on the back of a boar. Her brother Freyr can also take the shape of a boar. Sows in general are associated with motherhood, probably due to their large extended families and high fertility rate. These qualities, plus their generous size, may account for their association with abundance. The crepuscular scavenging and carrion eating habits of boars may account for their being linked with death and the underworld. In both Celtic and Germanic cultures boar was eaten at the winter solstice feasts. Goddesses associated with the boar or sow include the Greek goddess of agriculture and fertility Demeter, the Welsh goddess Cerridwyn in the form of a white sow, and the Continental Celtic goddess Arduinna. The Babylonian god Tammuz, the Egyptian God Osiris, and the Greek God Adonis die after being gored by a boar.The fir or conifer tree thrives in all but the driest and coldest environments. Conifer forests define “tree line” at extreme latitudes and altitudes, the point where plant growth becomes scrubby. Freya’s fir is the Norway Spruce, which despite its name is prevalent throughout the northern and mountainous regions of Eurasia. Like most spruce trees it is a cold loving tree and it is hardy to the Arctic Circle. It is a particularly beautiful tree that is planted as an ornamental in North America. It grows very tall, 100 feet or more, and typically lives a few hundred years. It produces a nice canopy and is used as a wind breaker. It is a fragrant tree that produces a sweet smelling resin. The cones of the Norway Spruce grow very long, up to 8 inches, and they are quite attractive. The fir’s link with Freya probably comes from the evergreen boughs that decorated halls of feasting during the Winter Solstice observances. These festivities lasted several days or weeks. In a sense, with the great fire, drinking, roast boar, festive attitude, and greenery, Pagans were re-creating Freya’s hall of Sessrymnir, while the dark, cold and frozen landscape outside created a simulation of death. The Norway Spruce used to be the quintessential Christmas tree, although the Scotch Pine works better in today’s commercial environment. Trees in the pine family are associated with winter, rebirth, immortality, strength and sometimes fertility, possibly due to the phallic shape of the cone. Pine has been a preferred wood for coffins due to its association with immortality as well as its availability and workability. Other deities associated with trees in the pine family include the Anatolian Cybele, with her dying and resurrecting lover Attis, the Roman-Persian sun god Mithras, the Greek resurrecting god Dionysus, and the Greek healing god Ascelpius. The pine tree is one of the seven important “chieftan trees” in Celtic druidry, associated with the hero Bran who brought the Irish tales of the isles of paradise in the west.So this is some background on the boar, fir and falcon. With some reflection you can see how the three fit together to give a deeper understanding of Frejya. I will examine the connection between the three more thoroughly in next week’s post.
In early December, the equivalent in Pagan households to “Where did we store the Christmas lights?” is “What did we do with the Yule log?” A piece of wood from last year’s Winter Solstice ritual fire is always saved to burn on the next year’s fire. This is a throwback to times when a perpetual fire was burned at the community shrine or temple, and it symbolizes the continuity of tradition.It is the fire and not the log that is the central theme of the Yule ceremony. The hearth fire is the manifestation of the ancestral spirits and the generating force of new human life. According to Clement A. Miles in Christmas Customs and Traditions: “Ancestral spirits, it seems, were once believed to be immanent in the fire that burned on the hearth, and had to be propitiated with libations, while elsewhere the souls of the dead were thought to return to their old homes at the New Year, and meat and drink had to be set out for them.” This sounds a lot like the holy day of Samhain that just passed on October 31st. Euro-Pagan religions which preceded Christianity are essentially systems of ancestor worship, so we would expect the ancestors to play a role in holy days throughout the year. Also keep in mind that Celtic and Germanic cultures absorbed much of the religion already practiced in the regions they settled, and thus there is duplication.In Neolithic European cultures, the hearth was the center of worship, so much so that many objects found in the vicinity of the hearth during excavations are assumed to have religious importance. Greek and Roman writings also identify the hearth as the focus of the family’s spiritual life, and indeed the Latin word for “hearth” is “focus.” Olivia Robertson, co-founder of The Fellowship of Isis, has written “The religion of the Goddess centres around the Hearth. Whether this be the inner sun flaming within the matrix of our earth, or the sun itself, this is the source of manifested life.”Although I frequently reference my symbol encylopedia, interestingly enough I had never until today looked up the entry for “hearth.” The description is short, so I will quote it in full:
An omphalos; the interior spiritual centre; the transference of the spirit by fire. The centre of the home; feminine domination; fire in its feminine-earth aspect, but the fire can also take on the masculine aspect with the earth as the feminine; warmth; provision of food. The Vedic round hearth is the earth, the realm of man, while the fire to the East is the realm of the gods. Among South American Indians the hearth-stone is named the ‘bear’, signifying subterranean powers and the point of communication with them. In Celtic countries the cult of the dead centred on the hearth.
I especially like the part about feminine domination.Oak is usually, but not always, the traditional wood for the Yule log. (In Provence the log would be from a fruit tree.) Oak is the tree of the Roman god Jupiter and the Lithuanian god Perkunas. Oak is the most sacred tree of the Druids, whose very name was derived from a word for oak. I believe the leafy-faced “Green Man” is actually an anthropomorphized oak tree. Miles (writing in 1912) says that “Among the Serbs and Croats on Christmas eve two or three young oaks are felled for every house, and, as twilight comes on, are brought in and laid on the fire.”The procession of bringing the Yule log from outdoors into the house used to be an important part of the ceremony. Sometimes the log was decorated with ribbons or vines before being taken inside. Once in the house, it was lit right away. Bread or grain along with wine or mead was thrown on the burning log. An orange might also be offered to the fire. In Croatia the metal part of the plow would be placed at the fire’s edge. In Tuscany the children were blindfolded and beat the log with tongs.Especially in places where wood was scarce, two tallow candles representing the goddess and god would be lit instead of a log. Bayberry candles at some point became popular, bayberry being a pleasant smelling and expensive wax.The remains of the candle or log were believed to have magical properties and were often saved. In Sweden the plow would be smeared with leftover tallow. The ashes could enhance fertility of the spring fields or protect from lightening. In Germany a piece of the charred wood was called a Christklotz “Christ Log,” and burned during stressful times to fend off bad weather or misfortune.In books describing Yule ceremonies, I do not find a mention of cleaning, smudging and purifying the hearth or campfire area beforehand, which I consider essential. Sometimes it is difficult, especially for urban dwellers, to get a suitable log of oak. Really any wood will do, and if you don’t have a fireplace a nice candle is a fine replacement. I usually do not decorate the new designated Yule log, although I think this year I will wrap it like a present. I like to burn juniper berries or use juniper oil. Balsam, citrus or wintergreen fragrance is also nice. These fragrances have a sweet yet purifying quality to them. A prayer to the ancestors and to the Goddess and her Divine Child should be made when the flame is lit. The offering can be bread, fruitcake, cookies, or any holiday delicacy. You don’t have to throw the offering into the flame (although there are some fruitcakes that could probably start a good fire). Sweet foods and relaxed, rather than ecstatic, merriment are an important part of this ritual. Don’t clean out the hearth for at least three days, and remember to save some ashes. If the fire burns so hot and so completely that you can’t salvage a piece of wood for next year, or you forget to save it, or the wood accidentally gets used on a different ritual fire, or you can’t find the old piece of log again when you need it (not that any of these things have ever happened to me), this is not something to get upset about. It is merely a sign that you are in some way breaking with your past tradition. There’s nothing really wrong with this, although at the darkest point of the year we usually take the greatest comfort from tradition. That is no doubt why this very pagan holiday became such an important part of Christianity. Sources Campanelli, Pauline. Wheel of the Year: Living the Magical Life. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia Of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.Fellowship of Isis Central Site and News, Facebook Group, November 29, 2012.Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance. 1917 Reprint. New York: Dover, 1976.Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.
A little update on my post about the Buckeye Tree, where I made the assertion that school spirit at The Ohio State University is legendary and the enthusiasm for the Bucks has to be seen to be believed. I now offer exhibits A-Z: Ohio State fans, in defense of their team which was banned by the NCAA from bowl game participation this year for financial rule-breaking of coaches and players, actually petitioned Barack Obama for a presidential pardon. “Please exercise your executive power to pardon the NCAA’s excessive sanctions placed on The Ohio State Buckeyes to enable a rightful, satisfying culmination to the college football season for the American people.” Needless to say, this went nowhere. Maybe with all the attention from the past presidential race, Ohio has gotten a bit delusional about the importance of its place in the world. Or maybe faith in the lucky mojo of the Buckeye just won’t quit.