By Paul Mountfort
In both Celtic and Norse traditions, the birch tree is a symbol of inception, birth and new beginnings. And birch appears in the Scananavian Runes as b (berkana), just as it appears in the Celtic oracle system known as Ogam as b (beth); the first ogamfew of that magical alphabet.
The identification of the birch with the birth of the new stems from several of the tree's features. In its natural habitats, birch grows most readily on the forest's edge, and so it is often the tree first encountered as one enters Northern European woodland. One of the earliest trees to leaf in spring, birch marks the seasonal return of the life-force in the greenworld. Moreover, this is a self-propagating tree that has both male and female catkins, illustrating the principle of life arising out of life.
As it ages birch is of takes on an aged, withered appearance, but it is a tree of prolific growth which provides a fruitful environment for fungi, including the hallucinogenic flygaric mushroom, and paves the way for a host of other woodland dwellers. Ecologically, it embodies self-sacrifice and the principle of the new arising from the old.
Mythology and folklore
The silver-birch, when in full vigour, with its silvery white trunk, also marks the birch as a type of entrance to the Otherworld, for in Celtic myth animals and objects connected to the Otherworld are often albino. Birch is, on one level, a feminine, Faery tree known in folklore as the 'Lady of the Woods,' and like the fair-haired, otherwordly women of Celtic myth, it carries the call to adventure for the questing hero. Where the birch points, there one must follow, for it holds the key to the unfolding of destiny.
Birch has also been linked to the great sorcerer of Welsh tradition, Gwyddyon, nephew of Math, although ash is his primary tree. He appears in the Welsh poem, the Cad Goddeu as 'Gwyddyon the birch', in the words of the brilliant Celtic scholar and poet, Jean Markale. The birch here is apparently the ruler of a troop of otherwordly trees who act as soldiers in the strange battle that the poem describes. The birch's role over the others trees is, as Markale puts it, that of 'transforming their withered aspect and bringing them back to life'. This accords perfectly with the theme of life emerging from the soil of the old we are tracing.
The birch has long had a key role in fertility rites. It could be seen as female, as a manifestation of the fertility of the Great Mother, on the one hand, and probably figured on the other as a 'phallic pole' or masculine symbol. This is reinforced by the fact that fly-agaric (anamita muscaria) mushrooms often grow among the roots of the silver birch and the 'sacred mushroom' was widely seen as representing the union of male and female sexual organs. Birch garlands were often given as tokens of love in folk custom, and birch wands were used in love magic. The affixing of 'a 'birch-twig' over your sweetheart's door on May Day was a traditional type of stave magic connected with seasonal rites preserved in folk custom into this century.
Indeed, the maypole itself was often constructed of birch, relating to the more primal idea of the axis mundi or central column of creation. The notion of a tree, wand or pole as a symbol of fertility is extremely ancient, and has obvious sexual and regenerative themes attached to it. Indeed, the maypole enshrines in its harmless seeming form the union of male and female, with the pole being the phallus and the hoop of garlanded flowers the embracing vulva. Dancing around the maypole, as many will be aware, is a wonderful affirmation of the great powers of procreation and a joyous celebration that is undergoing revival in contemporary pagan circles, though in Aotearoa we may wish to use some other wood than birch!
Such rites were originally designed to harmonise with the fertilising forces of nature, bringing both fruitfulness to the individual participating and, by sympathetic magic, transferring across to the fields. As Michael Howard puts it: 'In some pagan ceremonies the alter was the naked body of the priestess. In such rituals she would traditionally lie on an improvised bed of birch twigs and wild flowers.' In ritual magic the sexual-union of priest and priestess is celebrated as the 'Great Rite', a symbolic which marries together all opposites and releases an incredible flood of vital energy.
Other ritual practices associated with birch involved young men or women being 'struck' with birch twigs, relating to an older practice of ritual flagellation, with birch wands being used for the purposes of purification. Ritual purification represents the clearing or driving out of the old, thus opening a space for the new. The Celtic and Anglo-Saxon custom of purification with birch twigs had parallels in the classical world with the carnivalesque Roman Saturnalia festival. In this riotous celebration young men chased the people through the streets striking them with whips called februa in an act of ritual cleansing.
This use of birch whips in pagan rites for flagellation is also reflected in the later custom of birching. This was a form of corporal punishment employed until quite recently where the criminal is 'birched' in order to rid them of their tendencies to wrong-doing. The wand was also symbolically employed to drive out the old and prepare for the coming of the new. Perhaps it could be revived today to help us deal with our burgeoning miscreant population.
It has been noted that in the Celtic world the birch is linked to Feary woman of the Otherworld. A similar themes appears in Norse myth, where it is sacred to the Goddess Berchta. She it was you called upon for assistance in matters of fertility, pregnancy and labour. In Sigdrifomal (Lay of Sigdrifa) we learn an interesting application of a birth rune (perhaps the birch rune) for helping a woman through the final stages of childbirth:
Help runes shalt thou gather,
If skill thou would gain
To loosen mother from low lain child
Cut they be in hand's hollow
wrapped the joints around about
Call on the Good Folk's gainsome help.
But berkana signifies not just literal birth but the wider theme of the new sprouting from the soil or womb of the old. Bercha, the Birch goddess, is an embodiment of this generative energy and as such represents an aspect of the Earth goddess, a fertile aspect of the Great Goddess of antiquity. As a consequence, the berkana stave symbolises birth, new beginnings, and the nurturing of projects from the point of inception to the phase of their full flowering.
Finally, you can easily turn the birch ogam or runestave to magical ends by inscrbing it (literally or with a wand) upon an object connected with a new project or interprise. The rune or ogam assists in its birthing, though it is important to have properly cleared the way first and to have a magical seed of good stock!
¹ Markale, Celtic Civilisation, p.249
² Howard p.86
First published in New Pentacle magazine, Vol 3, Number 3, Spring 1999. ( Paul Mountfort, 1999)