An example of Tree Lore: Beith - The Birch Tree
The Bardic school or grade is symbolised by the Birch Tree. It is the first tree in the Ogham Cipher, and as such represents the number one. This is fitting, for it is the birch that we plant first on virgin land if we want to create a wood or forest. It is known, for this reason, as the Pioneer Tree, and it can be seen also as the tree which helps birth the forest. So it is a tree of birth – an appropriate tree to symbolise the first level of Druid working, when we are born into this new way of seeing and knowing.
The Ogham can also be used for divination, and when we draw the card, or throw the disc or stave of the birch, we know that this signifies new beginnings for us, and -depending on its relative position in the spread – we know that we must either pioneer a new endeavour or that something is being born in our lives. Often, before we can give birth to the new, we need to cleanse ourselves of the old. Again, the birch tree is an appropriate symbol for this process of purification in preparation for new beginnings. In Scandinavia, switches of birch are used on the body to stimulate the process of purification in the sauna, and can be used in Druid sweathouse rituals too. In Britain the birch rod was used rather more ferociously to purify the criminal of their misdeeds, and earlier still in an attempt to expel evil spirits from ‘lunatics’. In some areas, it was customary to drive out the spirits of the old year with birch switches, and throughout Europe birch twigs were used for ‘beating the bounds’.
So to prepare for the new, we must free ourselves of the debris of the old, and birch can help us do this, and can point the way forward, for when we are lost in the forest, the shining whiteness of the birch trunk leads us onward – it offers guidance and orientation in the darkness of our journey. The very word ‘birch’ derives from a root meaning ‘bright’ or ‘shining’ in nearly all languages with Indo-European origins.
Robert Graves allocates this tree to a month stretching from December 24th to January 20th, using a calendar of thirteen months, since both Caesar and Pliny reported that the Druids divided their year into lunar months. He chooses as the first month that which follows the Winter Solstice – when the year is reborn, and the days begin to lengthen.
As with much of this work, one finds that other traditions hold many things in common. The shaman of the Siberian Gold Eskimos climbs a birch tree at the high point of an initiation ceremony, circling its trunk nine times. The Buryat and the Central Asian Altai shamans carve nine notches in the trunk of a young birch – representing the steps they must take to ascend to heaven. The birch shares with the Ash the distinction of being used as a representative of the Cosmic World-Tree – the Axis Mundi. This tree links the Underworld with Middle Earth and Heaven Above. The shaman climbing the Birch uses it as a sky-ladder to symbolise his ability to visit other worlds.
In Britain the Birch was often used for may-poles – our version of the Axis Mundi around which we turn and turn. And at the same season it was the twigs of birch that were used for kindling the Beltane fire. Birch was also used to make babies’ cradles, for if birch could drive evil from the old year, and from lunatics and criminals, it could ward off ill for the newborn too. And since birch is the tree of birthing the new, what other wood is more fitting for the newly born?
Adapted from Druid Mysteries by Philip Carr-Gomm