Nine Sacred Woods

Druid tradition held nine trees as particularly sacred. Wood from the nine was required to light the annual Beltaine fires to usher in the summer season. An old song preserves the names of eight of the nine:

Choose the willow of the streams, choose the hazel of the rocks Choose the alder of the marshes, choose the birch of the waterfalls Choose the ash of the shade, choose the yew of resilience Choose the elm of the brae, choose the oak of the sun

The ninth is not mentioned but is presumed to be the thorn, or hawthorn, tree. The smoke from the sacred fire, called the need fire, would be used to purify croplands and cattle, and embers from the fire would be used to relight the hearth fires of every home. Each tree described in this chapter was prized for a different reason. All were sacred to one or more gods, providing an invaluable resource both for practical and magical purposes.

The Oak

The druids were especially connected with the oak and the mistletoe that grew on its branches. The word druid is derived from the same root as the word for oak, daur, and it is often suggested that druid means “oak wise” or “oak dweller.” The ancient Celts viewed the oak as the axis mundi, the tree of life at the center of the world. From ancient times, the fruit of the oak provided sustenance for human and animal alike; the acorn was the food of the sacred deer and the boar.

The notion that the oak was a doorway to the land of fairies was a persistent one. An oft-repeated old Irish proverb reflects this belief: “Fairy-folks are in old oaks.”

The oak was viewed as a doorway to the Otherworld and was associated with death and rebirth. Both oak branches and mistletoe were commonly placed in graves, and the wood was used in mortuary houses and in the construction of tombs.

Trees were often assigned to one of the gods according to their uses and attributes, and in groves, likenesses of the gods were carved from the trees they embodied. Lugh, the sun god, who was also associated with the underworld and death, was especially connected to the oak, where he dwelled in his eagle form. The god is frequently depicted in art wearing a crown of mistletoe, in which case he can be viewed as a personification of the oak itself.

Sacred oaks were held in such esteem that many Irish saints were attached to sacred oaks or groves. In fact, the names of many ancient monastic communities belie their origins as sacred oak groves, including Derry (“oak,” a common place name in Ireland) and Durrow (“oak grove”). The church of St. Brigid was not coincidentally founded at Kildare (Cill-Dara), whose name literally means “church of the oak.” The druid-turned-saint St. Columcille founded his monasteries in oak groves. Columcille was so fond of the grove at Kells that he refused to fell any of its trees to build his church and was even said to have spoken an invocation to save it from a threatening wildfire.

A further tale linking Columcille with the sacred oak tells of a man who took bark from the tree under which the saint lived to tan leather for a pair of shoes and was stricken with leprosy for his folly.

The Ash

The ash tree was very highly regarded as sacred, often serving as the prototypical world tree. To the continental druids, it was second in importance only to the sacred oak, and to the Irish druids, it was the world tree. The name of the ash tree comes from the ancient Saxon root aesc, meaning “spear” — and indeed, saplings of ash were preferred by the Celts for the construction of spears. Druids' wands were also constructed of ash, which was prized for its powers over fire and water. Because it was regarded as a solar tree, it was a suitable wood for healing purposes.

The ash was regarded as the world tree by both the Norse and the Irish. The ash grows in open spaces and only thrives in full sunlight. It prefers to be near a source of water so is common near lakes and streams. The ash is sacred to the gods of lightning, and its mere presence was believed to invite lightning and fire. In medieval times, the ash was considered effective as a charm against black magic.

The Thorn (Hawthorn)

The thorn tree in particular is sacred to the fairies, especially when accompanied by the oak and ash. The thorn tree is a low-growing, prickly tree most commonly used as a protective fence to repel invaders or to keep livestock in check.

The thorn tree was closely associated in bardcraft with the art of satire; the never-ending barbs and pricks of the thorn were an apt analogy for the effects of a good satire. Hawthorn was also a favorite of the birds, giving it a reputation as an otherworldly tree. In later times, the thorn tree was thought to be inhabited by fairies and generally avoided.

The Yew

Yew trees are relatively short, broad evergreens, bearing dark green needles and bright red berries. Almost every part of the yew is highly poisonous. The yew is one of the longest living trees in existence, with some specimens living as long as 4,000 years.

The yew was also prized as a magical wood, the material of choice for rune-spells, and it was probably used for divination. The wands of the Irish druids were reportedly made of yew wood, and credited with transformative powers. The yew has traditionally provided wood for weapons, especially bows for archers.

The ancient connection between the yew and seership is echoed in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, wherein Romeo's servant Balthasar has a vision of death after slumbering under a yew:

As I did sleep under this yew-tree here, I dreamt my master and another fought, And that my master slew him.

The yew is another tree closely associated with death and rebirth, another guardian of the path between the Otherworld and the waking world. Yew boughs were placed in pagan graves and were planted atop ancient burial mounds. Even centuries after the coming of Christianity, the tree remained sacred, and even churchyard burials took place under the branches of ancient yew trees.

A tale from the Book of Invasions tells of the Queen Etain, who loves a Sidhe lord named Midir and runs away with him. Her enraged husband enlists the aid of the druid Codal, who finds her using four yew wands engraved with ogham letters. Curiously, Etain is linked mythologically with the Caer, the lover of Aenghus, whose name means, literally, “yew berry.”

Yews remained sacred even into Christian times, and in certain parts of tenth century Wales, one faced a very steep fine for harming or cutting one down.

The Hazel of Wisdom

To the Irish druids, hazel was regarded as a source of wisdom and was connected with sacred springs and wells. In the story of the divine hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn mac Cool), the salmon of wisdom becomes imbued with strong magic after eating the nuts of the nine sacred hazel trees that surround his well. Fionn, whose surname not so coincidentally means “son of hazel,” receives the power of prophecy when he accidentally consumes a morsel of the fish. Chewing hazelnuts was a folk charm to attain knowledge or inspiration.

According to legend, the hazel was once a poisonous tree because it was in the fork of a hazel that Lugh hung the head of the giant Balor after defeating him in battle. The tree remained poisonous until felled by the sea god Manannan fifty years later, and the felled tree was made into a shield for Fionn, who called his magical weapon “dripping ancient hazel.”

The hazel is especially connected to the sacred number nine. Many tales relating to the hazel figure the tree as appearing in groves of nine. The hazel grows for nine years before it flowers, and in the druid ogham alphabet, it is the ninth letter.

A hazel wand was the mark of authority of the messenger and the judge, an emblem of balance and wisdom. Later, the hazel became associated with witches and the dowser's art, and so came to be called “witch hazel.”

The Willow

The Latin botanical name for willow, Salix, is derived from the Celtic sallis, meaning “near water.” The willow, by virtue of its nearness to water, is associated with aquatic and healing gods.

The god most closely connected to the willow is Esus, whose iconic image is depicted in the act of cutting down a willow tree. The smoke of the willow was used in rites of seership.

The Birch

The birch provides bark for making boats and flexible coverings. The birch in particular is considered an effective charm against evil. Its wood, particularly when burned, was believed to drive out evil spirits, especially those that plagued the livestock.

The Elm

The bark of the elm was used to make cord and other flexible products, and was prized for its ability to withstand moisture and splitting. Like the yew, the elm was associated with death and passages, and it often grew atop burial mounds. In the earliest stories of Arthur, the king is felled by a spear of elm wood.

The Alder

Alder was a popular wood among the Celts, and its wood was used for making charcoal for blacksmiths. The alder also produced colored dyes, in particular a red hue associated with warriors, blood, and battle.

The alder was associated with the hero Bran, and it is sometimes personified as a mythological king, referred to in poetry as having the branches of an alder. One ancient Celtic tribe was even named for the tree — the Averni, or “alder people.” Because of its associations with fire, alder wood was used as a charm against flooding. The hollow twigs of alder were tied together to make charms for calling the wind.

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