Celtic Trees of the Equinoxes
Those of you who have been following this blog have probably noticed that I am a great lover of trees and would naturally be drawn to the poetry of Celtic Ogham, the Sacred Tree Oracle of Ireland.
Ogham was used as a writing system, similar to Runes and are perhaps as ancient, coming from times when priests divined the future by the flight of geese, the entrails of men and animals, and the way the twigs and branches of the trees crossed the sky. There are thirteen trees, one for each lunar month, and they correspond to a letter — or a sign for a sound that makes up a word. Each tree is appropriate for the time of year in which its month falls. For instance, at Samhain, the Celtic New Year, the month of November is marked by Birch. Birch rods were used for purification. As the people moved through the gate of the year,they were flogged with birch branches to drive out undesirable energies. Thus they were enables to go through the dangerous dark time of year in a state where the darkness would not be able to find them or stick to them.
Each tree was symbolized by a series of marks drawn on sticks. they could also be made with formations of the hands and fingers, and it has been said that the Druids used hand ogham as a form of sign language to keep their messages secret from the Romans.
Whitethorn, Blackthorn, Flower Maiden, Owl
As we move into Autumn, we move closer to Faery, and the veil is thinnest on the approach to Samhain.
Thorn trees line the paths into Faery. The entrances are graced by the Hawthorn, Maythorn, or Whitethorn, of Beltane. At the end of the road is the Blackthorn that marks the path into the Underworld.
Hawthorn, or Whitethorn, was once used to decorate May poles. At one time Hawthorns were believed to be Witches who had transformed themselves into trees. Witches have long danced and performed their rites beneath the thorn.
The Whitethorn is sacred to the Faery Queen, the Welsh Triple Goddess Olwen of the White Track, as well as the Flower Maiden, Blodeuwedd. These are all goddesses of transformation who stand at the gates of the year when darkness blossoms into light, and light bleeds into darkness.
Though the Maythorn is white, seeds of darkness are within it, for the bird with which it is associated is the Night Raven and its color is “Terrible”. It is also the sister of the trickster magpi, the cloven hoofed goat, the imitative cuckoo, and the dragonfly. This symbolism suggests that deep within the forces of youth, life, and beauty, hides the germ of betrayal and death. Birth is but the beginning of a journey that leads to the same grim destination, no matter what twists and turns the path takes to get us there.
The Whitethorn (or Maythorn or Hawthorn) blooms brightest during the season of Beltane. In April, May and June, it is full, bushy, strongly perfumed, and buzzing with a thousand bees drawn to the nectar that that heady fragrance shows off. Under the gauzy femininity of the Whitethorn in flower, are branches studded with long, sharp, penetrating thorns. The thorns are masculine: protective and phallic. Flowering in Spring, the Whitethorn is associated with fertility; it stimulates eroticism, and encourages the fulfillment of desire. Its pallor brings it under the rulership of the Moon, long the Queen of Romantic Love, and Mother of Souls. The Moon in this role can also be compared with the Queen of the Bees that harvest the honey of the Whitethorn.
Thorns are about penetration, breaking through the surface and letting blood. When we open to the Faery, sometimes we must let a little blood, get over our fears of pain and letting go. While the thorns of the Whitethorn symbolize sexual union, those of the Blackthorn symbolize death.
I also recall the paths between the graves in Highgate Cemetery being bordered with Whitethorn, the primary Faery tree. So again the mixing of light and darkness within the same symbol.
In 1997, I went into the depths of Cornwall looking for Modron’s Well, a sacred well of healing and wish granting. I had to walk about three miles before I came to a path that wound between frothy white bushes of Maythorn in full bloom. The sound of the bees was so loud and the scent of the may so strong, that I was in a light trance by the time I got to ruin of Modron’s Chapel and the Wishing Well, I was well into Faery. I know well the power of the Goddess in her white gown of flowers and thorns.
The Blackthorn tree is esoterically known as both the Mother of the Woods and the Dark Crone of the Woods. The sharp thorns were reputedly used by English witches to pierce poppets in their curses, called the “pins of slumber.”
As we enter the dark time of year, the Blackthorn, or Sloe Tree, begins to throw its shadow over the path. As we touch the lintel of the gates to Faery we will feel a blast of cold air, and we may hear the howling of wolves far off in the snow and darkness at the other side of Samhain. The blackbird and the toad attend the Blackthorn. In the same sense that darkness lurks at the heart of the light in Spring, so does light shine in the heart of the Blackthorn, for one only has to hear the gorgeous song of a blackbird in contrast to that of Night Raven, and to know that the Sacred color of Blackthorn is “Bright”. In folklore, the toad is said to have potent jewel in its forehead capable of dispensing lucid dreams.
The sloes, or British Plums that are the fruit of the Blackthorn are left to putrefy and transformed into Sloe Gin — a form of resurrection from dissolution, similar to that of John Barleycorn.
The night of the Blackthorn is that of the Old Moon, lit up by fires that mark the road into the Underworld of Faery where the Dark Goddess dwells with all her reckoning power. There we find Emain Macha fortress of the Goddess of Death, the Black Man of the forest with his book of souls, and his black dog that is said to be the devil. We find the Old Mother of the Woods — the classic Witch of Grimm’s fairy tales. As a thorned tree, Blackthorn is also protective. It can be used as a hedge, or its strong branches woven into fencing, to keep animals inside a pasture and the predators out.
Flower Face: Blodeuwedd
In between the betwixt and between, of the White and Black thorns is the Flower Maiden, Blodeuwedd. She has been very important to me in the last few years, appearing in the oddest places in my writing and my dreams. When I first went to England I found this poster in a small village in Somerset. It was past its time so I took it home and have it still.
The story of Blodeuwedd, from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi: Tale of Math Son of Mathonwy, in a nutshell, is this:
Lleu Llaw Gyffes was placed under three curses by his mother the Goddess, Arianrhod, and the last of these dictates was that he will never have a human wife.
Thwarting the Great Goddess’s rage, King Math, and Lleu’s uncle Gwydion, created a beautiful wife for Lleu out of nine flowers, among them broom, meadowsweet, and oak. She was called “Flower Face” or Blodeuwedd. Since she was not human, Lleu was able to marry her and escape his mother’s curse.
One day, when Lleu was away from home visiting Math, Blodeuwedd saw a nobleman, the Lord of Penllyn, Gronw Pebr, passing by. She invited him in, to stay for a while. ( it would be rude not do so). They fell in love, and this led to the desire to kill Lleu.
Lleu had strong protection. There was only one way he could be killed, and that was his special secret. But clever Blodeuwedd tricked him into telling her what the conditions were, and they were these: He could not be killed indoors or outdoors, on horseback or on foot; and only by a spear forged when people were attending mass could inflict a fatal wound. Yet even this killing could only take effect if he had one foot on a bathtub and one on a goat (the bathtub being placed on a river bank, but under a roof) and by someone using the sacred spear.
Gronw sepnt a year making the spear just as he was instructed by Blodeuwedd.
When the year was up, Blodeuwedd managed to persuade Lleu to show her the odd position, of standing with one foot on a goat and one in a bathtub, in which he might be killed. Suspecting nothing, he did so. Gronw, who had been waiting in ambush, threw the spear at him. However, rather than dying outright Lleu turned into an eagle and flew away, sorely wounded.
Gronw then took Blodeuedd as his wife, and with her, Lleu’s land.
Llues’ uncle Gwydion went in search of him, and following the guidance of a magical pig, found him in his eagle form, and still suffering from his wound, at the top of an oak tree by a lake. He called him down from the tree with three stanzas of poetry called englyn Gwydion, that transformed him back into a man. Gwydion took him home where Math nursed him back to health. When he was fully recovered, Lleu sought revenge on Gronw and his wife.
Blodeuwedd heard of this and fled, taking her maidens with her. They were so frightened, that they walked backwards to make sure nobody attacked them from behind. Unfortunately, they ended up falling into a lake. Only Blodeuwedd survived. Gwydion captured her, and instead of killing her, turned her into an owl saying:” You will not show your face to the light of day, rather you shall fear other birds; they will be hostile to you, and it will be their nature to maul and molest you wherever they find you. You will not lose your name but always be called Blodeuwedd.”
Gronw offered Lleu land or money as payment, but Lleu would only accept one resolution: that he throw a spear at Gronw in the same way that he had been attacked. Gronw accepted, but asked that a large stone be placed between him and Lleu as a sheild. Nevertheless, Lleu threw the spear right through the stone and killed Gronw. After this, he took back his lands, and later succeeded Math as king of Gwynedd.
Goddess of Dark and Light, the Thresholds of the Year.
Blodeuwedd has within her the same light and dark qualities as the Whitethorn and Blackthorn trees that mark the way into Faery. Made of the flowers, she is the essence of Springtime fertility, youth, and beauty. At the core of this beauty lurks the seed of betrayal and death, for she was created to foil the curse of the Great mother, Arianrhod. This betrayal turns on Lleu as he is struck dead with a blackthorn spear. (The myth says he becomes and eagle, but birds are so often symbols of the soul in art, and in tales, that people who become birds can be thought of as dead.) Her transformation into an owl throws her through the Blackthorn gate and out into the night.
In this she is similar to Lillith — the Demoness who usurped the power of man and was banished for it into the outer darkness.
One can follow Blodeuwedd as she grows. First she is the Whitethorn at the head of the Faery path at Beltane, then she dips into shadow as her blossoms fall and leaves and haws cover her in red and green. In Autumn, she flies through the gates of the Equinox to become the Owl of Samhain.
The owl as oracular bird, omen of death, calling unseen from the darkness, is found in many folk traditions.
The Eternal Unfolding of Darkness and Light
The thing I love about this Goddess, and all of the Celtic goddesses, is how they are all inclusive: the sweetness and light are not allowed to stand alone, making them insipid and flat. Rather, they bear the seeds of mystery, a dark glamor that gives them a disturbing, yet vital quality. One never knows exactly how to read these Goddesses. Something always remains aloof. Though there is seeming danger here, there is also the promise of knowledge of life beyond mortality, of living consciousness that transcends bodily existence as spirit living in dimensions of the Unseen, and yet bound to return again in the time of flowering.
Not of mother and father
Did my Creator create me
But of nine-formed virtues,
Of the fruit of fruits,
Of the fruit of the primordial God,
Of primroses and blossoms,
Of the flower, wood and tree.
The owl has a flower face…
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