Friday, January 17, 2014

B is for Birch

Photo by Cassi Saari.  Creative Commons license.
I have always had a closeness with birch trees.  The stark white bark of many varieties is strikingly beautiful, especially in the midwest where colors rarely vary from green or brown.  I first began to take special note of them when reading JRR Tolkien's The Silmarillion, specifically his myth of the Two Trees, one gold and one silver.  From the silver tree descended the White Tree of Gondor, and my youthful mind conjectured all birch trees must have come from that noble line.  Later, as I began learning more Germanic and Celtic lore, I noticed the birch tree figured in cultures' lettering systems.

Proto-Germanic Rune Berkanan
The birch is repeatedly associated with birth and new beginnings in both Germanic and Celtic cultures, and this is intrinsically tied to the mundane nature of the tree.  They are known as a pioneer species: when a forest fire or other natural disaster happens, the birch tree is one of the first trees to colonize the bare land.  In grazing pastures or open areas, birch seedlings are those cleared most often.  We can see this reflected in the meaning of both the Proto-Germanic rune Berkanan, as well as the Ogham letter Beith.  The pure white bark of the birch, combined with its association with fire-cleared land, explain why it is believed by many to be a purifying tree.  Its rapid colonization of bare land tells us why this tree is associated with birth and new life.  As above, so below is an ancient concept: what a thing does in the mundane world is a good representation of its function on the spiritual or magical plane.

In Lebor Ogaim, also known as the Ogham Tract, is at least as old as 1390; and it tells an account of Ogma's invention of the Ogham alphabet.  Seven Beiths inscribed on a birch tree was the very first message ever recorded using the Ogham script.

The symbolism of purity and new beginnings as embodied in the birch tree has not stayed solely in the realm of Celtic or Germanic Pagans, but has become a symbol recognized by many under the Pagan umbrella.  It has also become strongly associated with mother-type Goddesses, but there is no evidence to suggest that Goddesses such as Brigid or Frige were ever explicitly linked with the birch tree.  The theory that Berkanan's shape is a pictogram for a pair of breasts is probably also nothing but conjecture, considering that its shape was likely adopted from a Latin letter which as far as we know had no relation either to the birch tree or the concept of motherhood.  Nonetheless, it has become so ingrained in Neo-Pagan culture that it is worth acknowledging that this symbolism is helpful to many people.

As with all nature spirits, my opinion is that the best way to get a feel for its energies or to bring its spirit into your life is to go out and get to know one!  Birch trees are often used as an ornamental tree here in the midwest, and so are easily found in public parks or arboretums; I advise finding a particular one that seems most open to interaction.  I find offerings of water are often appreciated by tree spirits, but you may want to bring only a poem or song depending on where the tree is located.  If nothing else, they are fascinating trees to study, and a Pagan can rarely go wrong spending some time beneath trees!

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