Monday, September 3, 2012

The Celtic Tree of Life

The Celtic Tree of Life

    By Miriam Newman and Erin O'Quinn                                            

Erin O’Quinn: Some months back, when I was writing the final chapters of my historical WARRIOR, RIDE HARD, I wrote a passage that hit me today like “déja vu all over again.” I had the immigrants to Derry choose a huge old oak tree as the spot to build their church. Gristle, the head of the expedition who had guided the people to that spot, removed a portion of the rugged bark and inscribed a slash mark to note “day one” of the settlement. It was here that the people built a large clay-and-wattle roundhouse that served as the Church of Derry.
Imagine my surprise when I read the following passage this morning from the internet source THE SACRED CELTIC TREE OF LIFE:
When a tribe cleared the land for a settlement in Ireland, they always left a great tree in the middle, known as the crann bethadh (krawn ba-huh), or Tree of Life, as the spiritual focus and source of well-being. They held assemblies and inaugurated their chieftains beneath it so that they could absorb power from above and below. . . .
 Even though I had no knowledge of the tradition, I naturally selected that old oak to be the spiritual center of a settlement whose very name Daire comes from the Irish Gaelic word for  “oak.” My friend Miriam would tell me that the spirit that moved me to select that oak is the same spirit that drove people from time immemorial to place their spiritual center at or in a tree.

That same internet article on the tree of life goes on to say: From its roots drinking the waters of the Earth to its leaves reaching to the gods, such a tree was considered magical.  The largest such tree in the middle of any settlement was invariably left standing and venerated. So respected was its power that the greatest ignominy warriors could inflict on a defeated village was to cut down their sacred tree, removing the life force from an entire group of people.

Miriam Newman: The druids of the lands we call “celtic” held trees in just such a place of sanctity. But the concept is an ancient one, and it transcends both countries and religious beliefs. I think that those of you who have some knowledge of the Jewish kabbalah will see a resemblance between the two images below:

Art by Katelyn Mariah
Both are modern images.  The one above is a representation of how the druids connected numerals written in the ancient ogham style with different trees. The one on the right is a sketch by artist Katelyn Mariah from her blog “Medicine Woman Art,”  a rendition of the kabblalistic tree of life. Both emblems are heavy with mystic connotations, but the message is clear nonetheless. The spiritual center is a tree, whose symbolism we understand on an almost subconscious level.
Many people have remarked on the fact that the well-known “celtic knot’ is a kind of tree of life itself, with roots and branches interwoven into an inextricable knot that echoes the endless cycle of life.
The imaginative tapestry below is a marvelous reflection of this immortal cycle, as the celtic knot becomes the root of the tree itself:

Note the similarity between the celtic knot tapestry above and this beautiful rendition of how the tree canopy echoes its roots:

It’s not much of a stretch to see how artists have seen the human form integrated with that of the tree of life:

I think the whole elemental concept of trees–their roots sunk into the Earth, drinking its knowledge–was so sacred to the druids that we feel that power even in our times.  I believe the tree of life was simply that–the symbol of this life or any other. It was all the same to the druids. Nothing was ever lost, only changed, just as the water of the earth became the leaves that sheltered it. A very simple concept, really, yet so profound it represented an entire civilization.

The Druid Stone in Austria


  1. Very interesting post. The modern one, conecting numbers with types of trees is interesting, in that to me, it seems to symbolize the stages of life. Birch being white, pure and vunerable to disease. Oak symbolizing strength, maturity and then of course Elder. Each tree in between the three could represent human qualties during our lives. Then again, the symbol could have a totally different meaning. Now you have thinking.

  2. Actually, Autumn, the Druidic system of equating trees and the old ogham numerals is ancient. The picture shown in the post, however, is a modern rendering of that old system of equating trees, numbers, and human/spiritual attributes.

    That system is so esoteric that probably only a few scholars have been able to fully penetrate the mysticism. But you are right--the oak represented, among other attributes, strength and maturity. In fact, each tree had a number of qualities that the ancients tied to both spiritual and human traits .But the oak was the pinnacle of majesty, their king of trees. It is no wonder, because oaks not only abounded in the celtic world, they live several hundreds of years. Both they and their root systems can become massive.

    Thanks for your comments.
    ~Miriam and Erin

  3. Beautiful artwork and explanations of the Celtic Tree.
    I love trees. One thing on my bucket list is to sleep one night under the boughs of a large tree (not an easy thing when you're an old lady on diuretics). Before ritual or meditation I think of myself rooted to the earth as a tree with my arms as branches reaching upward.
    Ah, yes, I am weird...but lovable.
    And this is a lovely blog.

  4. How interesting. I'd heard of the tree of life, but the rest of it was all new.

  5. Beautiful artwork and a fascinating topic! I was especially interested in the comparison between the Celtic Tree of Life and its Hebrew counterpart. While researching for a series of blogs I wrote about Druids last year, I learned that diverse languages and cultures were influenced or descended from a prehistoric group called Indo-Europeans. Among those cultures were the Celts and Hebrew people. Go back far enough and we are all connected.

    If interested, you can find my Druid series at: OR

  6. Hi, ladies, just checking in after removing my puppy from my mattress, which she was chewing with great relish having first gone through the sheets...riiip! Sigh. But I am happy to see a discussion going on here. This topic really is fascinating, especially when you see how many religious groups have derivatives of the same thing.

  7. Thanks for sharing the beautiful images and the beautiful imagery for my head.

  8. Beautiful post. It really makes you look at that Celtic knot differently. I know I have Celtic roots and they seem to give me comfort and I love knowing I come from a people such as these.

    1. Dear Paisley, Sure an' your name itself means "Church of Patrick," as I'm sure you know! You're definitely a Gaelic lass.

      Being of Amerind ancestry, I know what you mean aout the "call of the blood," how one's heritage can evoke feelings and in fact deep longings and beliefs.

  9. I love Joyce Kilmer's poem:

    I think that I shall never see
    A poem lovely as a tree.
    A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
    Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
    A tree that looks at God all day,
    And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
    A tree that may in Summer wear
    A nest of robins in her hair;
    Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
    Who intimately lives with rain.
    Poems are made by fools like me,
    But only God can make a tree.

    I am Scot-Irish, and have fallen in love with both countries. I've spent more time in Scotland than in Ireland, but some day hope to even that out a bit.

  10. I'm always surprised by the universality of the love for trees. Something about them speaks to something deep in our hearts and obviously always has. Nothing wrong with being called by that ancient blood. It's a good thing.

  11. Lovely post, ladies. I have a sacred tree sub-theme in my latest release, Fiery Roses, though it isn't anywhere near as detailed as what you've presented here. Nicely done, and much appreciated!

  12. Well, Pat, that fact makes me look forward even more to reading FIERY ROSES. You have a habit of interweaving complex themes and several levels of different cultures, judging from A BAND OF ROSES, the book that preceded FR. I'm curious to see how you handle the subject.

    Thanks for coming by and leaving your remarks. I know that MIriam will agree that we're thrilled to have you here.

  13. Great post, ladies!

    Isn't it funny how we write something that seems so perfect for the story and then discover how truly accurate it is when we research later? That happens to me a lot. I think it's a sign that writing something we love gives us this inherent knowledge. It's a wonderful "aha" moment.

  14. Dear Michelle,

    It's good to know that I'm not alone in that almost subconscious grasping of a bit of knowledge, or of a site I've never visited. If I ever make it to Ireland, I'm certainly going to seek out a large, flattish rock overlooking the swift Foyle River and see how many of my visions are real.

    Thanks for the compliment, and best to you in your writing. Come back and visit Miriam's fine blog. Slán, Erin