What is your favorite tree? Ask anyone this question and you'll be surprised by the answers; even the most urbane of us will have a tree we like the best, whether is a beautiful tree in a park or by the roadside, a special tree from childhood, or a favorite species. For me, it's always an oak tree, its branches waving in the wind, its leaves dancing green and gold in dappled sunlight. Close your eyes and imagine yourself deep in a vast forest...imagine the smell of leaf mold and green life; feel the still, strong, numinous presence some trees hold; oaks, yews, and redwoods, the mysterious darkness among the pines, the bright, luminous elven shimmer of silver birches lit by spring sunshine...
All around the world, but especially in the Celtic lore of Ireland and the British Isles, trees hold a special position as totems of spiritual identity, as well as markers of our cultural heritage and qualities. The Welsh yew is a tree of national pride and has been as sign of cultural resistance, as well as the mysteries of Druidry. The English oak, even today, stands for strength, nobility, patience, and guardianship, the ability to endure and hold true to our highest ideals. The oak was the symbol and most honored tree to the Iron age druids for the same reasons, and they took their name from it-"druid" comes from the Proto-Indo-European words "deru weid," which mean "oak knowledge" or "one with the wisdom of the oak." With a root span as deep and far spreading as the branches above, it remains a living symbol of "as above so below," as well as the shamanic journey, the ability to descend or ascend the World Tree to explore the spirit realms. Druids held their ceremonies in oak groves for this same reason. The hawthorn, or faery thorn, is the tree most associated with the festival of Beltane as well as the Sidhe or faery folk, and is sacred to many goddesses. The hazel, beloved of poets, stands for the bardic quest for divine knowledge and spiritual wisdom: Glefiosa, the bright knowledge of illumination and shamanic initiation (in the Celtic sense).
There are many ways to connect with trees on a magical or spiritual level, and in the Celtic Tradition this taps into a whole host of spiritual lore, condensed into the Irish ogham alphabet-a system likely to have been created to help preserve and memorize this ancient knowledge in the face of the cultural changes that came about with the Roman invasion of Britain, the suppression of the druids, and the later spread of Christianity. Taken as a mnemonic device, the ogham can be seen to pack in many levels and layers of meaning, with each tree standing as a signifier of deeper spiritual and magical concepts as well as being "power plants" and powerful spirit allies in their own right. Used as a divinatory tool, it guides the seeker with great depth and insight into the material, emotional, and spiritual realms. Taken as a whole, each tree provides a step on the great spiritual journey through life and incarnation itself into communion with the numinous realm of the infinite-and back again should we desire. Each ogham tree is used quite literally as a branch on the great World Tree, which can be climbed to access the gods.
In my book, Celtic Tree Magic, I explore the significance of each of the twenty-five trees of the ogham and the many ways with which they can be worked for magical, spiritual, and healing benefits, as well as their meanings for ogham divination. However, all trees, wherever they are found around the world, have an indwelling spirit, sometimes known as a deva or dryad, which will have their own resonances and personality; their own practical, magical, and spiritual uses and energies. Every tree is worth exploring and reaching out to for connection and communion.
Here are five simple ways to begin your own exploration of Celtic Tree Magic, that can be applied all over the world, with the trees near you.
- Tree Meditation
This practice is key to working with trees. Gaining a slow, steady state of consciousness, just sitting and "being" with a tree of any species has profound effects upon our well being. With regular practice, this can be developed further to fine-tune our senses in order to become more aware of the spirit presence of the tree and its energetic qualities. Try making yourself comfortable on the ground, with your back against a tree trunk, and breathing deeply and steadily for five minutes. With each in breath, let your body awareness rise up into the branches, straightening and stretching your back slightly, and focusing your attention on the branches and air above you. With each out breath, send your awareness down into the earth. Take your time, and if your mind wanders that's fine—just bring your attention gently back to this present moment once again. Use your imagination and be like the tree: still, strong, with deep roots and the ability to reach up high and far out into the world without losing your center.
- Spirit Allies
With patience and practice the Tree Mediation may assist you in becoming aware of the tree's spirit presence, its own particular feeling and even its personality. You may get feelings of tingling warmth when you enter the tree's energy field, and you may even have shifts in emotion or fleeting images cross your mind. These are all known to be ways in which tree spirits communicate with humans. In some cases, the tree spirits might appear as humanoid beings. The tree spirit may take on any form, and the images it presents will all be forms of communication, so allow yourself to approach this intuitively, thinking mythically about the spirit contact rather than trying to apply logic or any formal set of rules or symbolism. Make biodegradable offerings to the tree, such as gifts of spring water, and in time you may be able to develop a relationship with your chosen tree spirit, if they are willing, and will find that you can work together in a variety of ways, just as you would with other spirit allies (such as familiars and elementals, etc.)
When we think of magical wands, we tend to think of them as tools to direct the power of the witch/druid/magician, and often only give a passing thought to the wood used or its magical properties. When working with or choosing a wand, we may feel attracted to a specific kind of wood for a variety of reasons. However, we rarely think of them as objects that are in fact carrying the spirit of the tree from which they came. In many instances, a wand can hold the tree spirit, whilst the tree itself simultaneously remains living and home to the tree spirit as well. Thus, when we work with a wand, we can find ourselves working together as a team, and our magic can thus become far more effective. To do this we need to be suitably aware and have built a good relationship with the tree over time, as well as ideally having cut the wand ourselves, with the tree's permission. There is no substitute for making your own magical tools; however, we can always meditate and use journeying skills as well as invocation to call upon the indwelling tree spirit of a wand that we have bought or have been given, and can build the relationship from there if we apply due care and respect. A wand where the practitioner and the indwelling spirit are allied and aligned is a far more powerful object than the most arcane or beautiful looking of shop bought equivalents.
To cut your own wand you will need to use your intuition to guide you to an appropriate tree, and spend time in meditation and communion with it for some time, to get a real relationship with its spirit first. Then, in time, it may grant you permission to use its wood. To work with your wand, remember that it is a spirit ally, and use your intuition and inner vision to work with the spirit of the wood. Direct your will and energy along the wand following its direction of growth-what would have been from the trunk to the tip of the branch when it was growing.
- Spells, Charms, and Incenses
Many trees have magical properties that can be used for spell work, or to make charms. In the Celtic Tradition the rowan is highly magical and used to protect against malevolent spirits, whether in spells, as a talisman, or burnt either in a sacred, magical fire or as an incense. Elder is useful for attracting faeries, as is the hawthorn, and can be used in a variety of ways according to intuition or practicality. That said, beware! Hawthorn should never be brought into the house or chaos will ensue, and neither the hawthorn or the elder should ever be cut without the first gaining the tree's permission and making an offering. Aspen is good for calling the ancestors; try scattering the dried leaves around your circle or altar as an offering at Samhain. Acorns are good talismans for strength and to invoke the Green Man and the lords of the forest (such as Cernunnos); carry some in your wallet for luck and prosperity.
Many sacred trees in the Celtic tradition have wonderful herbal properties. Birch sap is traditionally gathered fresh from a plug in the tree in early spring and taken as a tonic by tribal peoples all over the northern hemisphere; it has excellent detoxifying and nutritional properties. These days it's possible to buy birch sap in health stores. Delicious elderflower tea or tisane is excellent for bringing down fevers, and elderberry can be taken as a tincture or a honey elixir for coughs and colds. Hawthorn tea is good for stress and mild heart palpitations caused by emotional upset, and is used in greater doses by qualified herbalists for some heart conditions. Willow bark contains Salicin, used in aspirin and is a great pain reliever. These are but a few. Give thanks to the spirit of the tree and ask for its blessing to add magic to the medicine. With responsible research and sensible application many of these can be used at home with ease, although for serious conditions medical advice and the support of a medical herbalist are always advised.
- Grow Your Own
The best way to work with trees magically is to get your hands dirty first: gather nuts, berries, and seeds and sow your own-even a small container on a windowsill can be enough to get a new tree. They'll probably need a period of cold to germinate, so be patient. Tend to these carefully, and with most trees it will take a year or two before they get so big they need to be planted in the ground. If you can, try making your own grove or sacred space encircled by trees you have grown or planted yourself, or have just one "tree ally" in a special place. These powerful spirit beings will respect the care you have put into them, and be valuable magical allies to call upon in need—as well as wonderful spirit friends that will grow with you as the years go by, and for generations to come.
May the blessings of the trees be with you! May your roots grow deep, and hold close to the earth, may your branches reach high into the wide blue sky, and may your dreams be as fruitful as nut, berry, and seed, cast upon the worlds winds to grow new life once again...