O birch-tree, smooth and blessed,
Melodious and proud
Delightful every tangled branch
At the top of your crown
‘Birch often carries associations of youth and purification, generating good luck, its presence emphasises the freshness and vibrancy of the reign of the Young Horn Child.’ (The Star Crossed Serpent, Evan John Jones & Shani Oates)
The beautiful birch, either alone, or in groups, provides a wonderful reminder early in the year of the joys to come. Standing brightly in the late winter and early spring sunshine, the birch stands proudly; proclaiming its place as immortal. So what do I mean by that? What do we know about the birch tree?
The Birch family comprises of about 60 species of small to medium deciduous, monoecious (male and female parts on separate flowers, but together on the same plant) trees and shrubs of the northern temperate regions. The leaves are smooth or pointed, and are chosen as a rather tasty food by a large number of butterflies and moths. The Birch will survive in most soils whether damp or dry, with one major requirement, plenty of light, or plenty of light for a tree that loves to be in our native woodland.
The common Silver Birch or Betula Pendula is a medium sized white stemmed tree that thrives in drier soils than the common white birch or Betula Alba. Old silver birches develop a rough black bark at the base whereas old white birches retain their white bark at the base. The white birch is also wartier in appearance and is less pendulous in shape.
The birch, it is said, was one of the first trees to emerge after the Ice Age, and is understandably the first tree to colonize new ground, dropping its leaves and twigs to enrich the soil. It is also one of the first trees to put forth its new leaves in the spring. The birch‘s trunk can grow very tall yet never attaining much in the way of girth, this trunk is also capable of bending low without breaking, a bit of a limbo dancer kind of a tree. The birch is relatively short lived, (in tree terms) seldom living for more than 80 years, a very short time considering the lifespan of most woodland trees, which perhaps would explain why there are no birch trees of considerable girth, unlike its neighbours the oak and beech. As a fast growing tree colonising vacant ground it offers protection to the slower growing trees such as the oak.
The Birch; named after the whiteness of the bark, shares its name with the Irish Goddess Brighid, both names according to Hageneder are of Indo-European descent and stem from bher[e]g, or shinning white. It is the shinning white bark of the birch that aids it to stand apart from the other trees during the January. The bark of most birches becomes marked with long horizontal splits called lenticels. This bark can often separate into papery thin plates and is said to be practically imperishable due to the resinous oil it contains.
In fact the bark of the birch is a study of its own, some of its attributes are discussed by Alexander Porteous The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, here he states:
‘The bark of the Birch tree is the most durable of all, and was largely used by the ancients for writing purposes before the invention of paper. A striking instance of the durability of this thin pellicle was found was in the mines of Dworetzloi, in Siberia, where a piece of Birch was disinterred completely fossilised. The thin outer of the bark was exactly in its natural state, and had a white satiny shimmer, precisely as may be seen on Birch trees growing at the present day.’
According to Porteous, In Russian folklore the birch is called ‘the lady of the forest’, an image of the White Goddess. Porteous states that ‘Forest Devils or Genii of the forest, were considered to be always present in clumps of trees, and particularly on the tops of birch trees.’ Interestingly he goes on to state how these Genii ‘accommodate their stature according to their environment’ Therefore in the forest they may be as high as the highest tree, yet in the plain, the tallest blade of grass. Porteous relates a means of invoking these Genii, as documented by Professor Mannhardt:
‘He says that very young Birches are cut down and placed in a circle with the points towards the centre. They then enter the circle to invoke the spirit which at once appears. Then they step on to the stump of one of the cut trees with their face turned towards the east, and bend their heads so that they look between their legs. While in this position they say: ‘Uncle Lieschi, ascend thou, not as a grey wolf, not as an ardent fire, but as resembling myself. Then the leaves tremble, and the Lieschi arises under human form, and agrees to give service for which he has been invoked, provided they promise him their soul‘ (De Gubernatis, Mythologie des Plantes, vol ii, p.46)
On a rather jollier note;
There is the Russian tale of a Birch tree which once showed its gratitude to a young maiden for tying a red thread round it by saving her from the tyranny of her witch-stepmother; and another mentions a Birch tree which grew in the Island of Buian, on the top of which the Mother of God was thought to be seated. Yet another tale speaks of a young shepherdess who spun in Birch wood. To her came a wild woman, who made her dance during three whole days till sunset. At the end of the dance the wool was spun, and the shepherdess was rewarded with a pocket full of Birch leaves, which changed into gold coins.
Among the Estonians the Birch tree is the living personification of their country. It is said that a peasant who once saw a stranger sleeping under a tree at the moment when a storm was about to burst awakened him. The stranger, in gratitude, said to him: ‘When far from thy country and experiencing homesickness, though shall see a crooked Birch, strike it and ask: ‘Is the crooked one at home?’ Long afterwards when the peasant who was now a soldier in Finland, felt very melancholy, he suddenly saw a crooked Birch and was reminded of his past experiences. He struck the tree, and asked: ‘Is the crooked one at home?’ The stranger instantly appeared, called of his familiar spirits, and ordered them to transport the soldier to his own home, with his knapsack full of silver. (Du Gubernatis vol, ii. Pp. 45-46)
Incidentally, Coleridge also speaks of the birch as ‘Lady of the Woods‘ which is said to be remarkable for its lightness grace and elegance, and after rain, its fragrant odor.
Returning to Russia and Scandinavian it appears that birch twigs are used to beat the body during a sauna to stimulate circulation and increase the vitality of the skin. The birch is also said to have a similar function in North American sweat lodges and cleansing ceremonies. Birch twigs and wreaths were also said to be an appropriate gift as a sign of first love which is a bit worrying as birch rods were used as a means of driving out bad spirits from unruly children, but then again it is said that flagellation with birch twigs encouraged fertility and virility. Still not sure what I would think if my love gave me birch twigs as sign of affection and things to come.
Graves states that birch twigs are ‘used throughout Europe in the beating of bounds and the flogging of delinquents—and formally lunatics – with the object of expelling evil spirits‘. Graves also informs us that according to the Cad Goddeu, the birch, ‘armed himself as late‘ as birch twigs, along with willow and rowan ‘do not harden till late in the year‘. It is this flexibility of the young birch twigs that makes it ideal for use in whips, birches and besoms. Graves goes on to say that:
‘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 the farmers use it as a directory for sowing their spring wheat. The first month begins directly after the winter solstice, when the days, after shortening to the extreme limit begin to lengthen again‘. (The White Goddess, p161)
Trundling back to Russia again, in Siberia, according to Portious, the Buryat, the largest indigenous group in Siberia, named the birch as the guardian of the door which opened the entrance in the sky for the shaman. In other groups the birch also played an important part in the rituals of their respective shaman, they include the Uakut and some of the inhabitants of the northern woodlands of America and Europe.
According to the Irish book of Ballymote it was upon Birch, that Ogma god of literature first wrote the Ogham alphabet. It is said that he not only wrote b-birch-as the first letter, but also engraved seven magically protective b‘s on one switch of birch to protect the wife of Lugh the sun God, from being carried into fairyland or the underworld. The power of the Birch is here regarded as being stronger than the power of the underworld. Ooh that’s interesting. So I am guessing that it may hold the key to the way out, as it appears that re-birth is one of the gifts of the White Goddess and as we have seen, the birch is her tree.
The Germanic Futhark rune Berkana, is understood to represent fertility, both mental and physical, personal growth and the prospering of a venture. Its shape, which could be said to have the shape of motherhood is said to be ‘echoed in our capital letter B’ and according to Hageneder is derived from the mother mounds of Neolithic Europe. ‘These hills were said to be mostly burial mounds and ceremonial places celebrating the mysteries of death and re-birth, twin hills a reflection of the breasts of the Earth Mother, birth life and death were the dominium of this goddess.‘ Bernard King states that ‘The birch tree was regarded as sacred and associated with spring fertility rites. Idun was believed to be the Goddess of Spring, and her youth, vigour and beauty were symbolic of the vegetative resurrection which the seasons brought. She was also the keeper of the apples that gave perpetual and spring- like youth to the gods.‘ As a tree of renewal and protection, the birch as associated with the White Goddess has been aligned with Brighid, as we have seen, and also Freya, Frigga, and Venus from the Roman tradition. So it could be said that as a tree of fertility Beorc represents the life giving breasts of the Mother Goddess. The birch is also said to be the tree of Arianrhod, who wields the silver wheel of the heavens and presides over birth and initiation. No link there with motherliness however, in my opinion.
It is a birch broom that brushes out the old year on the morning after the longest night of the winter solstice, December 21st in the Northern hemisphere. At this time the Anglo Saxons celebrated three mother nights or modraneht, which brought about the re-birth of the Sun, and the beginning of the solar year. However as well as linking the birch to the beginning of the year it can also be called to mind in May, the beginning of summer, as the Birch was favoured as a provider of Maypoles, which also makes sense, as we have seen the birch is a bendy tree, so it’s not going to break and bash an unfortunate reveller on the bonce.
The Anglo-Saxons used the birch to invoke Eostre, goddess of fertility and springtime, and in Teutonic mythology it is said that the last battle will be fought around a birch tree. Some say that the traditional Yule log is of birch, yet in parts of Britain it is said to be the ash, and as ash burns much better than the birch, this makes sense. The reason for suggesting birch as the Yule log is because when stripped of bark and burnt at Yule it is said to signify driving out the spirit of the old to make way for the new. In my opinion the amount of time a log burnt for, and the heat it provided would have been of paramount importance, and as according to a poem from Dartmoor, said be from Poem book of the Gael, ‘Birch-logs will burn to fast’ yet ‘Ash-logs, smooth and grey, Burn them green or old, Buy up all that come your way-worth their worth their weight in gold.’ I know what I would choose.
It is also said that Birch wood cradles were considered to be capable of giving magical protection to newborn babes.
The birch has developed a strange affinity with the Fly Agaric mushroom which grows at its foot for just two or three weeks in autumn. This mushroom is thought to be the ‘soma, the divine mushroom of Indo-Iranian, Vedic and Persian cultures’, and is frequently mentioned in the Rigveda whose Soma Mandala contains myths praising its energizing qualities. The Vedas, or leaves of tree of knowledge are said to have been written on birch bark, and as the Sanskrit word bhurga indicates a tree whose bark is used for writing on, so it all connects somehow, doesn’t it?
Well……what a tree the birch is, representing the White Goddess it has power over death, in fact it can make words live on when written upon the bark. The tree itself can happily find a place anywhere on the calendar during the first part of the year. As the birch shines through the darkness reflecting the new born sunshine, standing alone and in groups declaring that, even though short lived (in tree terms) its many stories cloak it with a mantle of immortality.