The sacred trees of the Celtic world
The sacred forest
The forest constitutes an authentic natural shrine where the sacred trees blossom. The sacred trees of the five provinces of Ireland were the oak, the yew or the ash tree. The oak was at the summit of the sacred tree hierarchy in the Celtic world. It constituted the vegetable support of a symbolism that combines knowledge and force, the main respective attributes of the druid and king.
The preferences for the other types of sacred trees varied according to the different regions. Nevertheless, all countries kept the divinatory value of wood. An expression such as “Throwing wood” was common in all Celtic regions. The yew and hazel trees were frequently used for manufacturing sticks destined to drawing lots and magic. The hazel tree carried science and the consumption of its fruit, the hazelnut, provided knowledge and inspired wisdom from the Other World. The wooden sticks were notably used in Ireland to engrave divinatory or magic inscriptions, the Ogham, the invention of which was attributed to the god Ogme (for more details, see the triskele).
The club of another Irish god, Dagda, was also a symbol of the sacred tree, for it could kill with one end (in this world) and revive with the other (in the Other World).
The notion of sacred tree is remarkably illustrated by the motif of the jar discovered at Arcobriga (Castile, Spain).
First of all, the decoration represents two distinct trees linked by a single branch. The common branch symbolizes the union of opposites, both trees their division. That branch is topped by a triangle with a point inside. The two sides of the triangle rejoining at the vertex and the inner point are a clear allusion to the union within unity. The alliance of duality and unity characterizes the sacred trees in general and the Tree of Life notably.
Next, both trees frame a central tree, springing up vertically from the head of a human figure. This tree links the common branch shaped as a celestial vault and the earthly personage with a human appearance; it symbolizes the axis linking Heaven and Earth, the World Axis that extends the being's one.
The axis of the human figure symbolizes the unified states of the being, the union of the opposed aspects depicted by his laterality; the World Axis shows the unified states of the world, the union of the opposed aspects represented by the lateral branches of the tree. In other words, the motif underlines that the individual first has to realize the unification of his own being's states before being able to reach the unified states of the world. As the being's axis is associated with the king's function and the World Axis with the druid's one, the druid will always be able, if necessary, to fulfil the king's function, but the king will never be able to act as a druid.
The big column or the World Axis
The column was born from the tree. It replaced the post when stone replaced wood in architecture. The buried pedestal of the column corresponds to the roots of the tree, its shaft to the trunk and its capital to the preliminary foliage. As the sculptured posts of the Celtic era have disappeared a long time ago, it is necessary to look at Celto-Roman columns for the evidence for this.
The big column of Cussy (Côte-d'Or, France) rises more than 11 metres above the ground and constitutes one of the rare Gallo-Roman traces dating back to the 3rd century of our era. The pedestal has a quadrangular shape and is surmounted by a hexagonal socle of which seven faces represent the planets and the eighth consists in a dedicates; it bears a cylindrical column decorated with vegetable interweavings imitating bark and topped by a capital on which a statue must have rested originally.
As the tree, the column is an image of verticality, of the axis crossing the three worlds representative of the cosmic and individual worlds. Indeed, the being is in communication with Heaven through the spirit, Earth through the body and the intermediary world through the psyche (for more details, see the Temple). Now, the quadrangular pedestal of the column symbolizes Earth, its shaft and especially its circular top Heaven and the octagonal socle the transitional figure between square and circle, i.e. the intermediary world between Earth and Heaven.
The column symbolizes, at once, the Axis of the World and the axis of the being. The World Axis is represented by the Axis of the celestial poles situated at the vertical of the celestial equator; the axis of the being links nadir to zenith at the vertical the terrestrial horizon. The first points at the polar star, the eternal night, the celestial invisible world; the second at the sun at its zenith, the full day light, the terrestrial visible world. It follows that the World Axis characterizes the druid possessor of the spiritual knowledge and laws ruling the celestial world; the being's axis personifies the king in charge of the application of these laws in the terrestrial world.
The palmette or the Tree of Life
Celts borrowed the theme of the Tree of Life from the Greko-Etruscan iconography, generally represented under the form of a palmette, i.e. a simplified image of the palm tree. The palmette was often employed as a vegetable attribute of the masculine divinity associated with the Tree of Life. That is why, palm trees were little by little transformed into “divine” faces during the 4th century before our era and the beginning of the following one. One of the most beautiful and known examples of this is a face at the base of the handle of a bronze wine pitcher discovered at Waldalgesheim (Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany) and visible in Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn.
The head with two leaves of mistletoe characterizes one of the biggest Celtic masculine divinities, probably Lug (for more details, see the Celtic festivals). It is flanked by two vertical, symmetrical and inverted monsters. Endowed with a griffon's head and a serpent's body, they are the custodians of the fruit of the Tree of Life.
The reverence of Celts for the mistletoe seems to be testified by Pliny the Elder: “The druids… have nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree carrying it, as long as it is a sessile (oak)”. This evergreen shrub is a hemiparasite 1 of deciduous trees of tempered regions. Its seeds are laid by the birds on the branches of the trees, but they grow very rarely, notably on the sessile oak. Therefore, the reverence for the tree carrying it and the god associated with.
The two leaves of mistletoe topping the head of the god symbolize duality of opposites. Nevertheless, as they rejoin above the head, they suggest an ascending movement towards a unified state of being symbolized by a point of the symmetry axis of the figure, which is also the axis of the Tree of Life.
Duality is again reinforced by the two inverted monsters that rejoin in a descending movement towards a unified state of inferior order to the preceding one.
The representation on the palmette combines duality on either side of the axis and unity alongside the axis as in the Tree of Life.
Successive simplifications of the palmette resulted in the form that specialists call pelte because of its resemblance with the antique shield with the same name. It is represented on the bronze decoration of a sheath discovered at Wisbech (Cambridgeshire, England). The cross sectional view of this shield looks strangely like the stylized form of an inverted palm tree.
The sheath is destined to contain the double-edged sword, a symbol of duality. Now, in the story of “Peredur ab Efrog” of the Irish mythology, Peredur meets the Great Miller that handles an axe with one edge giving life and the other death. It is probably a matter of a great Celtic divinity that ensures the passage between the world of living and the Other World or conversely. These two aspects are unified within eternity, symbolized by the axis of the axe or sword.
- Christian-J Guyonvarc'h:
- “Irish mythological texts”. Ogam-Celticum, Rennes, 1980.
- Françoise Le Roux et Christian-J Guyonvarc'h:
- “The Celtic civilization”, Ouest-France Publisher, 1990;
- “The Celtic feasts”, Ouest-France Publisher, 1995.
1 back The mistletoe continues to produce chlorophyll whereas the parasitic plants, in the strict sense of the word, have lost this capacity. Besides, the plant would have never had the fame it even knows today without this capacity. The mistletoe had to be gathered at the beginning of cold season, around the 1st November or festival of Samain. The custom nowadays, which associates the mistletoe with the winter solstice and New Year festivities, could be a distant reminder of the yesteryear festival.