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The Tree of Life

by Jennifer Emick

The Tree of Life is an important symbol in nearly every culture. With its branches reaching into the sky, and roots deep in the earth, it dwells in three worlds- a link between heaven, the earth, and the underworld, uniting above and below. It is both a feminine symbol, bearing sustenance, and a masculine, visibly phallic symbol- another union. In Jewish and Christian mythology, a tree sits at the center of both the Heavenly and Earthly Edens. The Norse cosmic World Ash, Ygdrassil, has its roots in the underworld while its branches support the abode of the Gods. The Egyptian’s Holy Sycamore stood on the threshold of life and death, connecting the worlds. To the Mayas, it is Yaxche, whose branches support the heavens.

Celtic Tree of Life: Crann Bethadh

The Tree was a central part of early Celtic spirituality. To the Celts, the tree was a source of basic sustenance- a bearer of food, a provider of shelter and fuel for cooking and warmth. Without trees, life would have been extraordinarily difficult.

Wood from sacred trees had magickal properties, which was reflected in the Celtic Ogham alphabet, wherein each letter represents a particular sacred tree (modern Ogham divination is based on the uses and importance of these sacred trees to the Celtic people). Some trees provided food, some wood for making hunting weapons; others were sacred to the fairy-folk or to the Gods. In Celtic creation stories, trees were the ancestors of mankind, elder beings of wisdom who provided the alphabet, the calendar, and entrance to the realms of the Gods.

Trees were also associated in the Shamanic beliefs of the Druids and other Celtic peoples with the supernatural world. Trees were a connection to the world of the spirits and the ancestors, living entities, and doorways into other worlds.

The most sacred tree of all was the Oak tree, which represented the axis mundi, the center of the world. The Celtic name for oak, daur, is the origin of the word door- the root of the oak was literally the doorway to the Otherworld, the realm of Fairy. The word Druid, the name of the Celtic Priestly class, is compounded from the words for oak and wise- a Druid was one who was “Oak Wise,” meaning learned in Tree magick and guardian or the doorway.

Long after the Druids of old have vanished into the mists of time, the lore of trees continues as a vital part of Celtic myth and folklore. Countless Irish legends revolve around trees. One could fall asleep next to a particular tree and awake in the fairy realm. In Celtic legends of the Gods, trees guard sacred wells and provide healing, shelter, and wisdom. Trees carried messages to the other realm, and conferred blessings- to this day, trees can be seen in the Irish countryside festooned with ribbons and pleas for favors, love, healing, and prosperity.

The interlaced figures known popularly as Celtic knots represent sacred trees and plants, and the sacred animals of the forest. The Green Man or foliate god is the animus of nature; the spirit of the forest and of the hunt, and is pictured as a spirit face in the form of gathered leaves and sprouting tendrils.

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