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Posted Under Celtic Studies

The Wisdom of the Celtic Tree Ogham

Birch Trees in Forest

Having just completed my third book on the Celtic Tree Ogham, I am thrilled that it will be out in November for you. It is titled Celtic Tree Ogham: Rituals and Teachings of the Aicme Ailim Vowels and the Forfeda. In this book I explore the last five ogham of the Aicme Ailim that make up the vowels and the last five ogham of the full twenty-five Ogham alphabet. These lase five were added later to the alphabet to accommodate Greek and Latin and are known as the Crane Bag gifted from the Sea God Manannán to add extra wisdom to the teachings.

As always when I write about the tree's wisdom, I tune right into the tree spirits known as the dryads and feel close to the wisdom of nature. I hope this will happen for you if you read any of my tree books.

First let me introduce you to the 25 sigils of the Celtic Ogham Alphabet and their corresponding trees. (Please note that some systems use different trees and have a slightly different order.)

Many people like to associate the letters and their corresponding trees with dates. The first twenty letters of this alphabet are referred to as the Celtic tree calendar, in which the ogham and the trees correspond to dates that follow through The Wheel of the Year.

It is important to address the controversy about which system of dates to use if you are following the calendar. I always receive questions about the dates that I use. I use the Samhain Celtic tree calendar rather than the calendar that begins in late December, the latter with which many people are more familiar.

This calendar places the Birch month within the dates from December 24 to January 20 and uses thirteen trees plus one day entitled the Nameless Day. It is believed that it was Robert Graves, known for his book The White Goddess, who assumed that the first month of the Celtic tree calendar began in late December. Although it is quite possible that the ancients attributed the trees to some type of seasonal timekeeping, there is no proof that the calendar system was used in ancient times. And yet Graves' work has been adopted by modern Pagans and works well for them as a spiritual practice. If this is the calendar that you follow and it is working for you, I am glad that you have found a practice that brings you closer to nature. I don't think the origins of the teaching is as important as the value that this symbolic system offers us.

Yet another system I found in the work of Liz and Collin Murray places twelve trees to the twelve months, giving a three-day month to the 13th tree, the Elder, at the end of October. Some systems place each of the five aicmes to a season or assign the vowel trees to a season.

Yet, please note that whatever calendar you use is actually a modern adaptation and is loosely based on ancient traditions. There is no placement that is more correct or that can be verified in fact. There are different trees within different systems, and so there is a lot of leeway for you to study and choose which works best for you. Use the system that feels best to you. Or, you can follow more than one. And it is true that many systems do not associate the trees with a calendar at all; they simply follow the trees' teachings. And once again, although most of the letters follow the same 25-sigil pattern, not all use the same trees or even the same letters—especially with the last five called the feada. You will get very confused if you are set on the idea that only one system is the truth.

Why I Use the Samhain System
Others, like myself, begin the Birch month at the beginning of November. The date of Samhain (October 31) was the ending of the old Celtic New Year and was traditionally observed as a descent into darkness for meditation and self-reflection. I have chosen November 1 as the beginning of this calendar as a way of staying within the older tradition that honors the lunar calendar, the goddess, and the end and the beginning of the year within the Celtic system of summer and winter celebrations. It is made up of fifteen trees, with two of them sharing a thirteen-month calendar and an extra day known as The Day.

Samhain ends and begins the lunar calendar and was the primary winter ceremony in the British Isles, just as Beltane was the primary summer ceremony that falls opposite Samhain in the Wheel of the Year. Bealtaine ("b'yol-tinna," meaning "May,") was anglicized to Beltane (or Beltain). This springtime celebration falls in the Oak month of the Samhain system, which corresponds to the astrological sign Taurus and the month of May. Beltane and Taurus are opposite Scorpio and its month, November. In the Samhain-as-first month-of- the-year system, placing the beginning of the year here flows with the arrangement of the Birch, Rowan, Alder, Willow, and Ash sequence, which places Birch as the first tree of the calendar in November and the Oak in May. (The Birch, Rowan, Ash, Alder, Willow sequence of the January calendar places the Oak month in June.)

Further, Alder is inseparable from the mythological Bran (the Celtic equivalent to Saturn or Kronos), who presides over Capricorn, January, and the third month of the lunar Samhain system. (In the other system, Alder is assigned to late March and early April.)

There is also no debate the sequence of letter, trees, and months is accurate in this Samhain system, as identified by the placements of the letters on the joints of each finger.

This darkening time of the year belongs to the Crone, as she is the midwife for death and for birth. Sundown on October 31 neatly marks the end of the cycle of the thirteen moons and allows me to feel more connected to this ancient system of keeping time. I prefer the feeling of the year ending with the final harvest of and the darkening after the equinox. It seems appropriate to me that we begin in the dark, honor the mysteries, and develop a new year out of the germinating seeds of consciousness that we intellectually plant, nurture, and cultivate.

Easy Ways to Work with the Ogham

  1. Read about the ogham and tree on which you are focusing. There are many websites that teach about the Ogham. If you are going to follow a calendar, take a look at both systems and decide which one you will follow. You might choose to begin with Birch as that begins the first month of either calendar. If you are not going to follow a calendar, just follow the sequence beginning with Birch.

  2. There are many ways to become familiar with the Ogham. Try writing you name on a horizontal line using the ogham sigils.

  3. Carve the Ogham onto wooden staves. Select branches of a tree that you find on the ground and saw twenty-five pieces about two inches in length after you take the bark off. You can carve the ogham on each piece or draw it with waterproof ink or marker. I use a wood burning tool.

  4. Begin an Ogham notebook. Beginning with the Birch as your first title, draw its ogham and write its meaning. Go out and sit with a Birch tree. Gather its branches and its leaves. Draw the tree. Draw its leaves. Write a poem for Birch. Draw its ogham. Do this for each tree that you study.

  5. Build an Altar for the particular Ogham and tree with which you are working:
    • Choose your cloth and a surface you can place it on.
    • Set up candles in the four directions as well as a central candle upon your cloth.
    • Choose something from each of the elements: Earth (rock), Air (feather), Fire (candle), Water (vase of water), Above (an angel), Below (an ear of corn), and the Center (a drawing of a heart shape).
    • Gather bark, branches, tassels, and pictures of your tree and your drawings of its ogham.
    • Choose representations of the appropriate guides and totems that go with your tree.

  6. Learn to Call in the Directions: Begin by smudging to cleanse the air or waft a feather to purify the space. You can burn sage or cedar in an abalone shell or light incense. Use a drum to open the throat chakra for chanting and singing. Then call the directions by saying, I call the…
    • East/Air/Wisdom, Archangel Raphael, inspiration, communications/the winged ones, fairies
    • South/Fire/Passion, Archangel Michael, innocence, children, trees and plants, righteous anger, creativity/spirit/salamanders
    • West/Water/Feelings and emotions, Archangel Gabriel, tears, all the waters on the planet, mothers, mother goddesses, bear, the water spirits called the undines, dreamtime
    • North/Earth/Ancient ones, Archangel Uriel, ancestors, our bodies as temples for the spirit, indigenous people, rocks, gemstones, valleys, mountains, deserts, forests, gnomes and elves
    • Above/ higher dimensions of love and understanding, star nations, star parents, galaxies and beyond
    • Below/Gaia, mother earth, creepy crawlers, all of the bacteria and decay process, the dark all the way to the molten center with gratitude for our sustenance and the mystery of the cycles of growth and decay
    • Center/our hearts and the torus around our hearts that is our heart field and that has the power to alter our consciousness, the door to other dimensions and to our inner being where there is no time or place., where we contact our potentiality and the place of no limitation.

  7. Creating Sacred Space: Write a time into your schedule, this is making a date with Source. As you sit before your altar you can contemplate the teachings of the particular ogham and tree. When you decide which tree you are going to focus on, call the directions and light the candles at your altar. Start with the east. Call in the spirits of the tree. Call in the priestess of this tree as well as the guides and guardians of the tree. This is a time for prayers and drumming and chanting. Use the time to connect to the tree you are studying: Close your eyes and see the tree in your mind's eye and have a dialogue with your tree. When you are complete, give your gratitude and write your experience in your journal.

  8. Make Your Own Wand: Gather a good stick from the tree that you are studying to create your wand. Keep in mind the ogham that goes with this tree so you can carve or write it onto your wand. Cut your branch to the size you desire, say six inches or so. Peel off the bark of your branches and sand and polish them with oil or decorate them with colored string or paint or ribbons. Affix a crystal at the end with super glue.
    Decide how you will use your wand. You can stick to the particular teachings. For instance, Birch is for new beginnings. Or as a personal wand of power, it can be dedicated to healing, courage, creativity, or any other attribute that you value. For instance, if you dedicate it to creativity, you will want to invoke its powers when you begin a project and keep it close to you until you are complete.

  9. Dedicating your wand and empowering your Wand: Create sacred space by calling the directions and lighting the candles on your altar. Choose to put representations of the particular tree and ogham you are working with. Hold your wand close to your heart and say:
    By the power of the cycles of time, my wand is empowered.
    By the power of the moon and the sun, my wand is empowered.
    By the power of the Priestess, my wand is empowered.
    By the power of her totems, my wand is empowered.
    By the power of the Great Spirit, my wand is empowered.
    By the power of the trees, my wand is fully mine to be used for bringing guidance, protection, and balance into the world.
    I dedicate my want to _______.
    With great gratitude to the dryads of this ogham and this tree this empowerment is complete.
    And so it is!

  10. Do a ceremony or create your own. Ceremonies in general follow a certain form and I give information on how to create your own ceremony in Celtic Tree Rituals for the fifteen trees of the Celtic Tree Calendar and the eight holy holidays. Examples of ceremonies can be found in my new book, Celtic Tree Ogham, that cover the vowels and the forfeda.

  11. Take a guided meditation or create your own to connect with your ogham and tree. These can be found in all of my tree books. The first thing to do when creating a meditation is to decide on what you intend to do with the journey. Example: I will visit the Birch grove and the Priestess of Birch. I want to have an experience with the healing energy of the Birch. Knowing your attention, go ahead and write your meditation. Be sure to include an opening and ending that allows for deep breathing and slowly entering or returning from a space of journeying. Create an experience of healing or communication. Perhaps the Priestess, the guides, or the totems of the spirit of your tree has something special to give to you or has a special communication unique to you. Perhaps the tree itself shows up for you. Try not to censor yourself. Be free with this and enjoy the activity.

    Read your meditation out loud after you have created it. And then read it for a friend or loved on to journey and see how that it flows. Make adjustments as you learn more about the flow of what you have created. When you are happy with your meditation go ahead and take the journey. You can read it to yourself or record it and listen to it.

  12. Write your own story or poem that has to do with your particular ogham and tree's healing powers.

I hope this article has shed some light on the controversy and use of the Celtic tree calendar and explained why I use the Samhain system. I also hope that you will be able to use some of the suggestions in order to learn and interact with the Ogham Alphabet. I find that this teaching keeps me close to nature and helps me to walk the path of stewardship and respect for all that is.

About Sharlyn Hidalgo

Sharlyn Hidalgo has been a practicing astrologer and tarot reader for over thirty years. She teaches classes on the Ogham and the Celtic tree calendar, is the author of Celtic Tree Oracle, and offers tree readings. Sharlyn ...

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