Tree Of Life Pendant
The Celtic Tree Of Life And The Tree Of Life Pendant
Trees were an integral part of Celtic and proto-Celtic cultures. They met basic requirements by producing food and firewood but were also deeply connected to the spirit realm. To many Celtic people, trees were ancient ancestors of mankind, portals to other realms, and places of healing and magic to the heroes of Celtic legends and fireside tales. This finely-crafted Celtic Tree of Life pendant is wrought in delicate knotwork, depicting the tree’s roots and the sky above as bound together by a series of stylized, knotted branches. This is thought to represent the interconnections between nature and human spirituality. It can also be interpreted as a representation of the dualities that existence presented to the ancient Celts – the material realm vs spirit realm, natural vs magical phenomena, and man vs nature.
The Sacred Celtic Forest
A variety of trees had magical/spiritual properties to the ancient Celtic people. This association, and indeed the tree of life, is not unique to Celtic culture. Sacred trees and the tree of life concept are found in most of the world’s religions. The proliferation of this myth amongst various groups of people who couldn’t have been in historical contact with each other, suggests an inherent, archetypal association between trees and creation. This Tree of Life pendant can be worn to celebrate this connection by those from a variety of faiths and backgrounds.
It’s believed the intellectual and spiritual leaders of the Celts, called druids, preferred not to keep written records, believing that by writing down their secrets and beliefs, they would devalue this knowledge and their monopoly over it. Thus we depend on secondhand, primarily Roman accounts of their ways, though some beliefs, traditions, languages, myths and stories have held out in the last vestiges of Celtic culture like Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. Individual trees were associated with various parts of life and the afterlife. Some of these ideas even carry on into contemporary culture (for example the planting of yew trees in Christian cemeteries).
Ash trees are a common feature in Irish mythology with a strong association to the pagan festival of Beltaine – now celebrated as May Day (perhaps an inspiration for the name of a festival in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time universe). Beltaine celebrated the start of summer when the cattle and other livestock were driven out into the open land to pasture. A variety of rituals involving bonfires and the sacred ash and flames they produced were used to protect the herd for the coming season. Ash was commonly used for these rituals and there are instances in Irish folklore where people refuse to cut down ash trees for fear that their own home will be consumed in flame as a result.
The old Irish word for ash, nin, forms the letter “N” in the ancient Ogham alphabet. Ash branches, sap, and seeds were thought to offer protection from fairies and witchcraft. A child might be dosed with the astringent sap of ash if they were thought to be in contact with some kind of negative magical energy.
Pliny the Elder, a historian also from the 1st century AD, recounts a Celtic festival occurring on the sixth day of the moon which involves druids climbing an oak tree to remove several branches of mistletoe while two bulls are sacrificed. Pliny suggests this was part of a fertility rite and that the oak is central to the spiritual life of the Celtic people. Some of the Celts in Roman-controlled Britain worshipped Daron, the goddess of an oak tree. This word and the word “druid” come from the ancient Celtic word “duir”, or “oak”. The use of this sound in place names has lasted long after Ireland’s conversion to Christianity with names like Derry, Kildare, Adare, Beldaragh, and Ballindara all owing their names to the ancient Irish word for “oak”.
Apples feature prominently in Celtic mythology and are often used as a symbol of fertility and occasionally as a means of obtaining immortality. Druid’s wands were believed to be made of either yew or applewood. The legend of King Arthur, perhaps England’s best-loved Celtic myth, and the Avalon it describes can in some instances be translated as Insula Pomorum, or “Island of the Apples”. Celtic mythology, like many others, has instances of both magical apples and apple trees as portals to other spiritual dimensions. Some have speculated this association may in part be due to the ease with which apples can be turned into mind-altering alcohol. Legendary Irish warrior-demigod, Cúchulainn, finds escape from peril by following the path of a rolling apple, trusting that nature will lead him to safety. The Tree of Life Pendant symbolizes the belief that the way is set before us all if we choose to see. In the Children of Tuireann from the Irish Mythological Cycle, the children are tasked with retrieving sacred Apples of the Hesperides. This, and Cúchulainn’s resemblance to Persian, Greek, and Germanic legends all hint at some common Indo-European origin to all these myths.
Called “trom” in contemporary Irish, the white flower and red berries of the elder tree have long been associated with fairies and the supernatural. Some individual trees were believed to be haunted and in some instances, people were forbidden from cutting them down. It was during the Christian period that fear of “elder witches” became common. As is too often the case throughout history, the new dominant religion needed to cast the old one as backward, wicked, base and uncivilised. Some early Christians believed the tree Judas used to hang himself was an elder, further contributing to the negative connotations around this species of tree common to most of Europe.
Hazelnuts are a source of divine inspiration to both men and salmon in Irish, Welsh and Sottish folklore. Legends say hazel trees could be found at the sources of all Ireland’s great rivers, falling into the water to form pockets of inspiration, or be eaten by salmon – and they perhaps later by humans. Some believed the number of spots on a salmon’s back indicated the number of hazelnuts it had eaten and thus how much knowledge you could gain by consuming it. Initiates of Na Fianna, legendary warriors based on landless, semi-autonomous, aristocratic young men in Early Medieval Ireland, had to defend themselves with nothing but a hazel branch and shield to prove their worth in combat. The use of hazel in wand-making was thought to be common on pre-Christian Britain and Ireland, both by heralds as a mark of office and by witches and wizards as a diving tool.
Fionn MacCuill, which translates as “Fionn, son of Hazel”, is another legendary figure from Irish folklore. Amongst his most famous tales is the Salmon of Knowledge in which he pricks a blister on the skin of a salmon he’s cooking for his master. Burned by hot skin, he places his thumb in his mouth and inadvertently receives the knowledge intended for his master, originating in the sacred hazel trees at the root of all rivers.
Freshly cut alder quickly turns from white to red, leading to a host of superstitions. Some believed alder trees represented nature itself, containing the souls of our ancestors. Cutting down these trees was considered very bad luck for this reason. Deirdre of Sorrows hid with her lover hid in an alder wood while fleeing the jealous King of Ireland Bran the Blessed, a legendary giant and King of Britain appearing in the Welsh Triads is commonly associated with the alder tree.
The yew tree’s association with death predates its use in contemporary Christian graveyards and church grounds. Many pre-Christian societies held this view, the Celts amongst them. Yew trees, Ibar in Old Irish and Iúr in modern, are believed to live up to 9500 years, though the unique way they grow makes dating them difficult. A mature yew tree casts deep, wide shade and the toxins in its needles mean very little will grow underneath. This made yew trees a natural meeting point for conducting rituals and ceremonies. Over time, the yew tree became holy – a tradition borrowed by the Christian missionaries who built their churches by large yew trees.
The Druids In Celtic Society
Of the half-dozen or so Greco-Roman sources who mention the druids, it’s believed only Caesar had any direct interactions with these holy men of classical antiquity – evening befriending one, according to his journal entries. The druids kept very few written records, despite the existence of Ogham, an ancient alphabet primarily used to mark people and place names on Ogham stones (many of which are still found standing throughout Ireland). Our modern take on the druids involves a lot of speculation based on the limited (and sometimes unreliable) historical accounts and sparse archaeological evidence. There is little doubt that the image depicted on this Tree of Life Pendant would have meant something to a druid from thousands of years ago.
Savages Or Simply Political Enemies?
After a 1st Century campaign to Britain under Caesar, horrific accounts began to circulate amongst Romans of the savagery of Celtic priests in the British isles. Emphasis was placed on human sacrifice with Caesar stating the druids practised human sacrifice and barbaric torture. Some have argued that this description may have been politically-motivated, intended to further Caesar’s public appearance. The romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries led to increased interest in pre-Christian, European culture, and occasionally veered into unsubstantiated mysticism. The romantic notions of this period imbued the ancient druids with all sorts of “noble savage” type qualities that had little to do with historical evidence. An upside to this boost in popularity was an increase in scholarly, historical investigation. This Tree of Life Pendant and the modern pagan movement owes much to this Victorian preoccupation with pre-Christianity.
1st Century Accounts
Pliny the Elder, a 1st Century historian, gives what was once considered to be an exaggerated, secondhand tales of Celtic druids eating the flesh of their enemies to gain their power. In the context of Rome’s various Gallic conflicts at the time of Pliny’s writing, many people throughout history have dismissed his more colourful entries as propaganda. And while there is evidence that the druids practised human sacrifice, it isn’t clear how common it was. Caesar wrote that the Celts believed the sacrifice of a mortal soul was required to gain the god’s favour in troubling times.
Roman fear of the Celts/Gauls (same ethnic group, different name) verged on mania if some reports are to be believed. Certainly, Celtic warriors fought with great individual courage, seemed unafraid of death, genuinely enjoyed fighting, and knew their painted faces struck fear into the hearts of their enemies. These were fearsome warriors, both male and female, and would certainly frighten any opponent. But to the Romans, they represented the very antithesis of the order found within the empire.
Chaos vs Order
In the centuries since the conflicts between Celts and Romans, our views on the two sides have been characterised and distilled by the written records of the victors. The Celtic people, whether rightly or wrongly, are painted as concerned with the liberty and sovereignty of their people above all else.
“I did not undertake the war for private ends, but in the cause of national liberty...” Vercingetorix to Caesar
But it’s worth pointing out that this history was written by Caesar himself, and in the case of other written accounts of Celtic people, by Roman historians who had no direct contact with the people they were writing of. We do, however, have enough reliable accounts of Celtic people’s impressive physiques and great individual bravery to assume that assessing the outcome of any given Roman-Celtic conflict would not be as simple as taking account of numbers. Celts were a formidable, if undisciplined force on the battlefield, using chariots to harry enemy lines before closing ranks and fighting with sword, spear, and shield. Their nakedness (they were shirtless, certainly), painted faces, and lack of fear in the face of death were something quite alien to the professional soldiers of the Roman Empire.
More Than Men?
Diodorus Siculus, 25 BC described the Celts as tall with very pale skin. To him, they resembled wood demons. Humankind has a long and complex relationship when it comes to one civilisation’s first contact with another, and it’s rarely pretty. That which is different can often be perceived as terrifying, especially if it shares some characteristics of supernatural or divine phenomena from a culture’s mythos. In the case of the Celts, their pale, white skin, fair hair, tall stature, and muscularity made them seem larger than life.
Materials: 316L Stainless Steel
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