Beithe (Birch) II

“B has primacy over all other letters, we are told, because the very first use of ogam was as a warning inscribed upon a wand of Birch, sent to Lugh that his wife, was about to be carried off if he did not guard her with Birch.” – Caitlin Mathews (Celtic Wisdom Sticks)

The Roots:

We begin the cycle of the Tree Ogham once more, at the beginning, starting with the Birch tree. This cycle will promote different authors and ideas, share myths, folklores and legends not previously discussed, and have a slightly different focus during this dark, or more accurately cold, half of the year than the first run-through did.

The first cycle ran from Beltane to Samhain and covered the 25 generally accepted Ogham letters or few that we will cover once more[i]. This second cycle will also cover these same letters once more, but will do so from roughly Samhain to Beltane. It is important to note that the Ogham is not just a tree alphabet and this has been previously discussed[ii]. For the purposes of this blog, however, at least as far as this cycle goes, we will continue to view the Ogham as a type of tree alphabet.

The Birch is associated with beginnings.

Robert Lee Ellison, archdruid and author of Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids, tells us that the Birch is associated with new beginnings. Beithe, the Birch is usually given this association by Ogham users regardless of their varied backgrounds and Ellison is no exception. Ellison shares that in Brittany Birch leaves were placed in cradles, or that the cradles themselves were made from Birch wood, to offer protection to the youngest and most vulnerable members of the family or clan.

Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks also promotes the idea of beginnings for Beithe. She associates the Birch with the ideas of innocence and truth in her divination system as well.

In the Ogham Tract[iii] there are various word Oghams given that describe the Birch. These include “faded trunk and fair hair” and “silvery of skin.” John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman makes the observation that these word-oghams all pertain to physical characteristics and thus associates the Birch with the concept of Age.

Beithe is one of the few Ogham letters that actually does represent a tree. Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom reminds us that many of Ogham letters do not actually represent trees at all, but have meanings more akin to the Norse Runes. Laurie gives the meaning of Beithe as purification.

Birch represents beginnings, innocence and purification. Beithe offers strong protection in any of these areas. The association to age may be a paradox that there is wisdom, or antiquity, found within innocence itself.

The Trunk:

“This moreover is the first thing that was written by Ogham, (the birch) b was written, and to convey a warning to Lug son of Ethliu it was written respecting his wife lest she should be carried away from him into faeryland, to wit, seven b’s in one switch of birch: Thy wife will be seven times carried away from thee into faeryland or into another country, unless birch guard her. On that account, moreover, b, birch, takes precedence, for it is in birch that Ogham was first written.” –Ogham Tract

Fred Hageneder in the Meaning of Trees shares a connection between the Birch tree and the goddess Brigid. “Named after the whiteness of its bark, the Birch shares its name with the ancient Irish goddess Brigid, both names deriving from the Indo-European word bher(e)g, “shining white”. Brigid was a benevolent deity, a muse to poets and the patron of crafts, particularly spinning and weaving.”

This is an interesting observation because both Lugh and Brigid share many characteristics. Lugh (Lug) in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired (Cath Maige Tuired) lists himself as being skilled in every craft known to the Tuatha De Danaans in a bid for acceptance into their fold. He is almost turned away by the Tuatha De Danaan, however, because they are not missing any of the skills that he has listed. Before he is turned away, though, he asks if anyone else is proficient in all of the various crafts that he has listed. They finally see his value and accept him into their fold. Eventually, it is he that leads them to victory against the Fomorians and his grandfather Balor by piercing his single magical eye.

Brigid (Bridget) on the other hand is associated with fire, smithing, fertility, cattle, crops and poetry[iv]. When one considers the day to day life of the ancient Irish, this list is also fairly intensive and incorporates the bulk of the Celtic ancestor’s wealth. It should also be noted that Bridget the goddess and St. Brigid’s stories likely merged sometime after the fifth century. Many people today, especially neopagans, would consider the two female aspects one and the same.

In Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (Vol.I) we find some interesting lore regarding Bhride (Bridget), divination, and the Birch. I share the quote from the 1900 text in full, not only because it’s interesting, but because it provides a snapshot into a time when our ancestors viewed the world quite differently than today.

“The older women are also busy on the Eve of Bride, and great preparations are made to celebrate her Day, which is the first day of spring. They make an oblong basket in the shape of a cradle, which they call ‘leaba Bride,’ the bed of Bride. It is embellished with much care. Then they take a choice sheaf of corn, generally oats, and fashion it into the form of a woman. They deck this ikon with gay ribbons from the loom, sparkling shells from the sea, and bright stones from the hill. All the sunny sheltered valleys around are searched for primroses, daisies, and other flowers that open their eyes in the morning of the year. This lay figure is called Bride, ‘dealbh Bride,’ the ikon of Bride. When it is dressed and decorated with all the tenderness and loving care the women can lavish upon it, one woman goes to the door of the house, and standing on the step with her hands on the jambs, calls softly into the darkness, ‘Tha leaba Bride deiseal,’ Bride’s bed is ready. To this a ready woman behind replies, ‘Thigeadh Bride steach, is e beatha Bride,’ Let Bride come in, Bride is welcome. The woman at the door again addresses Bride, ‘A Bhride! Bhride thig a stench, tha do leaba deanta. Gleidh an teach dh’an Triana,’ Bride Bride, come thou in, thy bed is made. Preserve the house for the Trinity. The women then place the ikon of Bride with great ceremony in the bed they have so carefully prepared for it. They place a small straight white wand (the bark being peeled off) beside the figure. This wand is variously called ‘slatag Bride,’ the little rod of Bride, ‘slachdan Bride,’ the little wand of Bride, and ‘barrag Bride,’ the birch of Bride. The wand is generally of birch, broom, bramble, white willow, or other sacred wood, ‘crossed’ or banned wood being carefully avoided. A similar rod was given to the kings of Ireland at their coronation, and to the Lords of the Isles at their instatement. It was straight to typify justice, and white to signify peace and purity–bloodshed was not to be needlessly caused. The women then level the ashes on the hearth, smoothing and dusting them over carefully. Occasionally the ashes, surrounded by a roll of cloth, are placed on a board to safeguard them against disturbance from draughts or other contingencies. In the early morning the family closely scan the ashes. If they find the marks of the wand of Bride they rejoice, but if they find ‘long Bride,’ the footprint of Bride, their joy is very great, for this is a sign that Bride was present with them during the night, and is favourable to them, and that there is increase in family, in flock, and in field during the coming year. Should there be no marks on the ashes, and no traces of Bride’s presence, the family are dejected. It is to them a sign that she is offended, and will not hear their call. To propitiate her and gain her ear the family offer oblations and burn incense. The oblation generally is a cockerel, some say a pullet, buried alive near the junction of three streams, and the incense is burnt on the hearth when the family retire for the night.”

(St. Brigid of Ireland)

Imbolc or Candlemas is the holiday usually associated with Bridget. I would suggest that the above holiday sounds more like Beltane to me, though, when one considers the gathering of flowers and such. Beltane is also the holiday most often associated with the Birch, as representing beginnings, as well, so would be more relevent to us here in the current context than Imbolc.

The Birch is one of the first trees to leaf in spring. For this reason the Maypole is believed to have often been made from a Birch and the Beltane fire was started with Birch wood[v]. At Samhain and Beltane Birch was burned to drive out “evil spirits” or the spirits of the old year. This practice had continued into more modern times with the practice of “Birching prisoners or the insane in an effort to expel these more modern versions of the evil spirits[vi].

In Popular Tales of the West Highlands by J.F. Campbell, 1890, we find another mention –though barely in passing- of Birch. At Beltane the Rowan berries were placed over cow doors as protection while, “Birch branches, primroses, and other flowers, were placed upon the dresser, tar was put upon the cattle, snails were put upon a table under a dish, and were expected to write the first letter of a lover’s name, holes were dug in the ground and fortunes foretold from the kind of animals which were found in them.”

Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm in the Druid Animal Oracle connect the stag to the Birch and this comparison is worth sharing here.

“According to Druid tradition, the birch is the tree of beginnings, and the stag is creature from the beginning of Time. The Gateway represents the place of transition from this world to the Otherworld, and the stag is often seen as an Otherworldly messenger.”

The Birch tree is also often associated with the Amanita mascara or Fly Agaric mushroom. Many have noted the presence of one species with the other suggesting a symbiotic relationship where Pine is often present as well. An interesting read regarding the possibility of a shamanic mushroom cult existing in the Celtic world is Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Ploughing the Clouds: the Search for Irish Soma. Wilson suggests that the destruction of one eyed gods in myth, such as that of Balor by Lugh, could be a metaphor for a type of lost mushroom ritual. This would provide another interesting connection between the Birch and the story of Lugh.

The Birch found in Celtic mythology, legend, and folklore is always benevolent.

The Foliage:

“The birch, notwithstanding his high mind, Was late before he was arrayed. Not because of his cowardice, But on account of his greatness.” – Cad Goddeu[vii] (Battle of the Trees)

There are simple rituals involving the Birch which can be performed at any time of the year.

Traditionally, Birch was used to drive out the spirits of the old year and to bring in the new. This would have been done at Samhain which was the end of the actual year, or more likely, at Beltane to bring in the beginning of the light half of the year.

According to Fred Hageneder[viii], “the birch tree’s association with renewal is manifested in the Western custom of ‘brushing out the old year’ with a birch broom on the morning of the longest night of the year.” This would have been the Winter Solstice which may also be called Alban Arthuan or Yule.

Birch can be used in any purification spell and does not have to be confined to any certain holiday. Likewise, a birch broom can be substituted by anything made of Birch. A smudge of sage (or maybe the more traditional juniper) can be waved through the air with a piece of Birch bark instead of a feather. If it is safe to do so Birch may be burned in a fire, or alternately cold Birch ashes may be scattered around the premise of your home.

Use the recent passing of Samhain as an opportunity to purify your home or work space. Place an autumn leaf of Birch somewhere special to honour the tree at this time.

“In Wales the Birch tree is much associated with love; a lovers bower usually stands beneath a birch tree or in a birch bush. The maypole is usually made of birch; wreaths of birch may be presented as love tokens. Bedwyr may mean ‘birch hero’.” – James MacKillop (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)


[ii] Ibid.

[iii] http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/ogham.html

[iv] James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionaryof Celtic Mythology.

[vi] Caitlin Mathews. Celtic Wisdom Sticks.

[viii] The Meaning of Trees.

Beithe (Birch)

“The forest is an introverted wilderness, and it offers risk and refuge in equal measure. Robin Hood found sanctuary there, but so did Red Riding Hood’s wolf. While the armies of empires dominate the open plain, rebels and patriots gain advantage in the shelter of the trees-right beside outlaws, outcasts, and mystics. The woods provide food and building materials, and yet they also disorient and impede progress. Until relatively recently, North American staple food species like deer, elk, bison and caribou inhabited the forest from coast to coast, but so did wolves, bears, and mountain lions, creatures that continue to fascinate, terrify-and kill us-to this day.” – John Vaillant (the Golden Spruce)

The Roots:

When it comes to the Ogham, the birch is one of the only trees to have a universally agreed upon meaning. It is the sentinel of new beginnings and heralds the start of any new journey.

Where is it that we are journeying to? What beginning is it that we seek?

The Trunk:

The Ogham can be viewed as a mnemonic device. It can help us to remember various trees and their meanings. The Ogham will teach us about our foliage wielding brothers and sisters and it may part the clouds for us-for but a moment-offering us a partial view into the otherworld.

The Ogham guides us, but it will also get us lost as we search within that forest for the true meanings and understandings that are being offered to us.

First of all, we can never hope to understand the Ogham completely because it is a relationship constantly in motion. We have insights from writers like Macalister, Graves or Liz and Colin Murray but much of the origins and meanings of the Ogham are lost to us forever through traditional scientific means. We can journey into our collective unconscious and perhaps recall fragments of understanding but we will never know exactly what the Ogham was used for or the absolute meanings associated with each of the tree alphabet letters. Nor should we.

Often as pagans we dream of a past that never existed, of a utopian society in which man lived in absolute harmony with nature.

Even though the Celtic ancestors -as we like to remember them- were not directly responsible for the deforestation of Europe and the Middle East, they were far from innocent. As countries like Italy or Lebanan became treeless wastelands-or the homes for crops- the Druids kept sacred the forest and held it as holy. What we like to forget however, is that these same ancestors also practiced human sacrifice according to most historians. This was no utopia but a society more foreign than we could ever imagine. Even a cursory read through James Frazer’s ‘the Golden Bough’ would leave a normal person shaking their head in disgust. Pagan cultures all over the world practiced human sacrifice, held slaves, forced women into “sacred” prostitution, practiced infanticide, animal sacrifice, genocide and other various atrocities in the name of god or goddesses everywhere. The utopia that we dream of is a place on the other side of the veil. It does not exist here, nor has it ever.

The Ogham still guides us however towards a new understanding. It can still be as relevant within our ethical framework as it must have been (and this has been debated) to the founders that used it in the first place.

The Foliage:

This does not mean that the Ogham is something that can be compartmentalized, categorized neatly on a shelf, or tucked aside only to be retrieved for the occasional new age tea party for fortune telling purposes. The Ogham represents something many people have never experienced and it is a guide back towards finding the self, and the connection, that we thought we had lost forever.

Again I will state that the Ogham is a mnemonic device.

Why is this so important to understand as we take those first few steps of our journey?

The forest, the wilderness, is neither the tree farm that was logged 100 years ago nor the park that exists down the road. To step into a real forest, a wilderness, one quickly realizes that things here are very different. You can get lost if you are not careful. You can be killed or eaten by wild animals if you do not tread with confidence. Insects can devour you. Weather can destroy you. Food and water can avoid you. The disconnection from your cell phone or network of friends can blanket you with feelings of instant isolation. There are not 20 or 25 species of trees and plants here in this forest but sometimes hundreds or thousands.

It is easy to see something as organized as the Ogham as sterile, neat and tidy, but the reality is far different. A real forest is ancient. There are millions of invertebrates beneath your feet and you may never see the sun. You may build a fire at night, but what you attract may be far more dangerous than what you hope to repel. You will be forced to surrender to the forest and become one of its children. You can only request to become the student of those ancient trees, which stand hundreds of years old around you, and hope that they will accept you. A park tree is as domesticated as a housecat or a broken-in horse. It is still beautiful but it is not the same. These ancient beings have a wisdom that we may be compelled to try to understand. They have seen things that modern man regards as myth.

If you study the Ogham you will have to make a journey someday to one of these ancient places[i]. You will have to go alone into the wilderness like any of the mystics of the past. There is no other way. These forests are our Vatican. They will call to you when you are ready. Perhaps the words here are the first whisperings on the wind.

Perhaps this is the beginning.

“There is a very interesting relationship between wilderness and sacredness. All of the great monastic traditions-whether that’s Christian, Buddhist or Taoist-all find their roots in an experience of their founders going into the desert, into the wilderness, onto the mountains, and finding there something that civilization can not give them, a realization about themselves, about nature, about the divine.” – Martin Palmer (BBC’s Planet Earth)


[i] This is not something to be taken lightly. Have someone know where you are going. If you are stepping off of a well marked path you will need at a minimum: a compass, tools for making a fire, food and water. You should have a buddy who knows when to expect you back and who will call for help if you do not return. You will need weather appropriate gear and should have spent time researching the area and survival in that particular environment.

This warning comes from personal experience. After years of spending time in wild places from British Columbia to Arizona I had developed an overconfidence that had eventually became very cocky. One day I was in the forest with no compass or jacket, fishing in a remote spot and decided to head out after sunset following a mountain trail. A fog came in and darkness descended completely. I could not see the stars and could barely see the ground. I realized quickly that I had walked off of the path and became disoriented in a mountainous area. The weather became very near freezing and I sat down to wait for dawn. I believe I would have been fine, if not cold and hungry when the morning came, but someone was expecting me and called for help. A search and rescue team eventually found me in the early hours of the morning. I had been a half hour’s vigorous hike from where I had parked my car (even in the stillness of the night I could not hear the calls from where my vehicle was).

I mark this as one of the most embarrassing and humiliating moments of my life. It was a great teacher for me in many ways however. I am always prepared now. I always bring a knife and a compass and have a handful of food, water, a flashlight (I try to never use-when I do its red light), and the right clothes.

My over confidence wasted many people’s time and taught me once again that I am just a tadpole in a very big pond.