The names of the letters in the modern Irish alphabet are also those of trees, and most of them correspond with O'Flaherty's list, though T has become gorse; O, broom; and A, elm.
I noticed almost at once that the consonants of this alphabet form a
calendar of seasonal tree-magic [?]
, and that all the trees figure prominently
in European folklore.
The first tree of the series is the self-propagating birch. Birch twigs are used throughout Europe in the beating of hounds and the flogging of delinquents--and formerly lunatics--with the object of expelling evil spirits. When Gwion writes in the Cad Goddeu that the birch 'armed himself but late' he means that birch twigs do not toughen until late in the year. (He makes the same remark about the willow and the rowan whose twigs were similarly put to ceremonial use.) Birch rods are also used in rustic ritual for driving out the spirit of the old year. The Roman lictors carried birch rods during the installation of the Consuls at this very same season; each Consul had twelve lictors, making a company of thirteen. The birch is the tree of inception. It is indeed the earliest forest tree, with the exception of the mysterious elder, to put out new leaves (April 1st in England, the beginning of the financial year), and in Scandinavia its leafing marks the beginning of the agricultural year, because farmers use it as a directory for sowing their Spring wheat. The first month begins immediately after the winter solstice, when the days after shortening to the extreme limit begin to lengthen again.
Since there are thirteen consonants in the alphabet,
it is reasonable to
[?] regard the tree month as the British
common-law 'lunar' month of twenty-
eight days defined by Blackstone.
As has already been pointed out, there
are thirteen such months in a solar year, with one day left over. Caesar
and Pliny both record that the Druidic year was reckoned by lunar months,
but neither defines a lunar month, and there is nothing to prove that it
was a 'lunation' of roughly twenty-nine and a half days--of which there
are twelve in a year with ten and three-quarter days left over.
first-century B.C.'Coligny Calendar', which is one of lunations, is no
longer regarded as Druidic; it is engraved in Roman letters on a brass
tablet and is now thought to be part of the Romanizing of native religion
attempted under the early Empire. Moreover, twenty-eight is a true lunar
month not only in the astronomical sense of the moon's revolutions in
relation to the sun, but in the mystic sense that the Moon, being a woman,
has a woman's normal menstrual period ('menstruation' is connected with
the word 'moon')
of twenty-eight days.
The Coligny system was probably brought into Britain by the Romans of the Claudian conquest and memories of its intercalated days are said by Professor T. Glynn Jones to survive in Welsh folklore. But that in both Irish and Welsh myths of the highest antiquity 'a year and a day' is a term constantly used suggests that the Beth-Luis-Nion Calendar is one of 364 days plus one. We can there- fore regard the Birch month as extending from December 24th to January 20th.
The second tree is the quickbeam ('tree of life'), otherwise known as
the quicken, rowan or mountain ash. Its round wattles, spread with
newly-flayed bull's hides, were used by the Druids as a last extremity for
compelling demons to answer difficult questions--hence the Irish
proverbial expression 'to go on the wattles of knowledge', meaning to do
one's utmost to get information.
The quickbeam is also the tree most
widely used in the British Isles as a prophylactic against lightning and
witches' charms of all sorts: for example, bewitched horses can be
controlled only with a rowan whip. In ancient Ireland, fires of rowan were
kindled by the Druids of opposing armies and incantations spoken over
them, summoning spirits to take part in the fight. The berries of the
magical rowan in the Irish romance of Fraoth, guarded by a dragon, had
the sustaining virtue of nine meals; they also healed the wounded and
added a year to a man's life. In the romance of Diarmuid and Grainne, the
rowan berry, with the apple and the red nut, is described as the food of
the gods. 'Food of the gods' suggests that the taboo on eating anything
red was an extension of the commoners' taboo on eating scarlet toadstools
--for toadstools, according to a Greek proverb which Nero quoted, were
'the food of the gods'. In ancient Greece all red foods such as lobster,
bacon, red mullet, crayfish and scarlet berries and fruit were tabooed
except at feasts in honour of the dead. (Red was the colour of death in
Greece and Britain during the Bronze Age--red ochre has been found in
megalithic burials both in the Prescelly Mountains and on Salisbury
The oracular use of the rowan explains the unexpected presence of
great rowan thickets in Rugen and the other Baltic amber-islands,
formerly used as oracular places, and the frequent occurrence of rowan,
noted by John Lightfoot in his Flora Scotica, 1777, in the neighbourhood of ancient stone circles. The second month extends from January 21st to February 17th. The important Celtic feast of Candlemas fell in the middle of it (February 2nd). It was held to mark the quickening of the year, and was the first of the four 'cross-quarter days' on which British witches celebrated their Sabbaths, the others being May Eve, Lammas (August 2nd) and All Hallow E'en, when the year died. These days correspond with the four great Irish fire-feasts mentioned by Cormac the tenth- century Archbishop of Cashel. In Ireland and the Highlands February 2nd is, very properly, the day of St. Brigit, formerly the White Goddess, the quickening Triple Muse. The connexion of rowan with the Candlemas fire-feast is shown by Morann Mac Main's Ogham in the Book of Ballymote: he gives the poetic name for rowan as 'Delight of the Eye, namely Luisiu, flame.'
The third tree is the ash. In Greece the ash was sacred to Poseidon, the
second god of the Achaean trinity, and the Meliai, or ash-spirits, were
much cultivated; according to Hesiod, the Meliae sprang from the blood
of Uranus when Crones castrated him.
In Ireland the Tree of Tortu,
The Tree of Dathi, and the Branching Tree of Usnech, three of the
Five Magic Trees whose fall in the year A.D. 665 symbolized the triumph
of Christianity over paganism, were ash-trees.
A descendant of the Sacred
Tree of Creevna, also an ash, was still standing at Killura in the nineteenth
century; its wood was a charm against drowning, and emigrants to America
after the Potato Famine carried it away with them piecemeal.
letters are formed from ash-twigs; as ash-roots strangle those of other forest trees. The ash is the tree of sea-power, or of the power resident in water; and the other name of Woden, 'Yggr', from which Ygdrasill is derived, is evidently connected with hygra, the Greek for 'sea' (literally, 'the wet element'). The third month is the month of floods and extends from February 18th to March 17th. In these first three months the nights are longer than the days, and the sun is regarded as still under the tutelage of Night. The Tyrrhenians on this account did not reckon them as part of the sacred year.
The fourth tree is the alder, the tree of Bran. In the Battle of the Trees
the alder fought in the front line, which is an allusion to the letter F being
one of the first five consonants of the Beth-Luis-Nion and the Boibel-
Loth; and in the Irish Ossianic Song of the Forest Trees
 it is described as
'the very battle-witch of all woods, tree that is hottest in the fight'.
Though a poor fuel-tree, like the willow, poplar and chestnut, it is prized
by charcoal-burners as yielding the best charcoal; its connexion with fire
is shown in the Romance of Branwen when 'Gwern' (alder), Bran's sister's
son, is burned in a bonfire; and in country districts of Ireland the crime of
felling a sacred alder
is held to be visited with the burning down of one's house. The alder is also proof against the corruptive power of water: its slightly gummy leaves resist the winter rains longer than those of any other deciduous tree and its timber resists decay indefinitely when used for water-conduits or piles. The Rialto at Venice is founded on alder piles, and so are several mediaeval cathedrals. The Roman architect Vitruvius mentions that alders were used as causeway piles in the Ravenna marshes.
The connexion of Bran with the alder in this sense is clearly brought out
in the Romance of Branwen where the swineherds (oracular priests) of
King Matholwch of Ireland see a forest in the sea and cannot guess what
it is. Branwen tells them that it is the fleet of Bran the Blessed come to
avenge her. The ships are anchored off-shore and Bran wades through the
shallows and brings his goods and people to land; afterwards he bridges
the River Linen, though it has been protected with a magic charm, by
lying down across the river and having hurdles laid over him. In other
words, first a jetty, then a bridge was built on alder piles. It was said of
Bran, 'No house could contain him.' The riddle 'What can no house ever
contain?' has a simple answer: 'The piles upon which it is built.' For the
earliest European houses were built on alder piles at the edge of lakes. In
one sense the 'singing head' of Bran was the mummied, oracular head of a
sacred king; in another it was the 'head' of the alder-tree--namely the
topmost branch. Green alder-branches make good whistles and, according to
my friend Ricardo Sicre y Cerda, the boys of Cerdaña in the
Pyrenees have a traditional prayer in Catalan:
And I will make you whistle sweetly.
which is repeated while the bark is tapped with a piece of willow to loosen it from the wood. Berng (or Verng in the allied Majorcan language) is Bran again. The summons to Berng is made on behalf of the Goddess of the Willow. The use of the willow for tapping, instead of another piece of alder, suggests that such whistles were used by witches to conjure up destructive winds--especially from the North. But musical pipes with several stops can be made in the same way as the whistles, and the singing head of Bran in this sense will have been an alder-pipe. At Harlech, where the head sang for seven years, there is a mill-stream running past the Castle rock, a likely place for a sacred alder-grove. It is possible that the legend of Apollo's flaying of Marsyas the piper is reminiscent of the removal of the alder-bark from the wood in pipe-making.
The alder was also used in ancient Ireland for making milk pails and
other dairy vessels: hence its poetical name in the Book of Ballymote,
comet lachta--'guarding of milk'. This connexion of Bran-Crones, the
alder, with Rhea-Io, the white moon-cow is of importance.
In Ireland, Io was called Glas Gabhnach, 'the green stripper', because though she yielded milk in rivers she never had a calf.
The magical connection of the Moon with menstruation is strong and widespread. The baleful moon-dew used by the witches of Thessaly was apparently a girl's first menstrual blood, taken during an eclipse of the Moon. Pliny devotes a whole chapter of his Natural History to the subject and gives a long list of the powers for good and bad that a menstruating woman possesses. Her touch can blast vines, ivy and rue, fade purple cloth, blacken linen in the wash-tub, tarnish copper, make bees desert their hives, and cause abortions in mares; but she can also rid a field of pests by walking around it naked before sunrise, calm a storm at sea by exposing her genitals, and cure boils, erysipelas, hydrophobia and barrenness. In the Talmud it is said that if a menstruating woman passes between two men, one of them will die. back to text
Even in healthy women there is greater variation in the length of time elapsing between periods than is generally supposed: it may be anything from twenty-one to thirty-five days. back to text
To be found in Standish O'Grady's translation in E. M. Hull's Poem Book of the Gael. A charming, though emasculated version of the same poem is current on Dartmoor. It tells which trees to burn and which not to burn as follows: