Tree Magic – Alder the Water King

Today marks the beginning of the third month in the old Celtic Tree Calendar. There’s been a debate over the years as to whether this month belongs to the Alder or the Ash. I go with Irish tradition, placing Alder in the third slot, because it is at this time of year that the Alder’s buds and catkins show brightest, whereas other trees are still slumbering. Ash is much later to leaf and has its rightful place as the fifth tree in the calendar, its dark buds bursting open only in April-May.

The Alder and the Willow are the two trees most closely associated with water, both of them growing right on the banks of streams and rivers. If Willow is the Water Queen, Alder is its King. Its purple buds give it royal status and are brightest between Imbolc and the Spring Equinox.

The Alder is famous for its ability to produce coloured dyes. From its flowers come the greens most associated with elven and faerie garments, from its bark comes bright red and from the young shoots in March come a wonderful auburn-gold.

This is another reason for placing Alder in the third month of the calendar. Its ability to produce differently-coloured dyes links it to the craft of weavers and spinners and the Goddess of both spindle and loom in ancient Britain was Brigid. As we saw last month, Brigid’s tree is the Rowan Tree (rowan wood often being used to make spindles with) so it is right that the Rowan Tree Month is followed by the Alder Tree Month. To compliment this, Irish legend says that the first man was created from Alder, the first woman from Rowan. So, the two months rightly walk hand in hand.

The Alder is unique amongst trees in that it relies on water to disperse its seeds (as opposed to using the wind or birds). It is also the only broadleaved tree to have cones. These grow out on long stalks, which is also unique.

Brehon Law states that those who fell the Alder without permission will be punished by fire, in much the same way as those who build on faerie mounds will be. This tradition is still largely respected in Southern Ireland. Just recently a man decided to build his house on a “fairy fort” (a flat area said to be the home of the Sidhe, who live underground) only for his house to be damaged first by flood and then by fire! So, it pays to take heed of the old lore.

A peculiarity of Alder is that if you strip away its bark you will find an inner white wood which turns red when exposed to the air, which is why it was sometimes called The Bleeding Tree. This association with the colour red linked the Alder with the fires of inspiration, making it the tree of the god Bran, one of the giants of old who was “too big to fit into a house”.

Alder wood was renowned as the best for making whistles and pipes and the music created by them was said to aid divination and clairvoyance. Bran was as an oracular god, one who could see into the future. His totem was the Raven (see my post A Raven Solstice Message), symbol of the Magus or Magician whose primary role was to look into the seeds of time and tell which one will grow and which will not.

Ravens make a lot of sounds that are surprisingly like those made by pipes and whistles. The valley where I live is home to several hundred of these birds, which makes it a special place (it’s more normal to see them only in ones or twos). When they gather to roost in the evening, their calls are much more like the musical notes of (wooden) whistles than the regular “caw” of the crow.

In the Celtic poem The Battle of the Trees, Bran is displaced by the arrival of a goddess, showing the movement in Ireland away from the patriarchal Church back to an earlier Goddess-based worship. And a return to old ways it certainly was. You’ll find out more about this when you read the Tilly Greenway series, because there is an important truth wrapped up in this particular riddle!

Druids valued pipes made of Alder wood highly and used them during healing rituals. Its leaves can certainly be used to ease rheumatism and soothe inflammation of the skin, but I think the main reason it was seen as a healing tree was because it grows on the border between land and water. With its roots often trailing beneath the surface of streams, it acts as a bridge between the seen and the unseen, connecting us with our inner feelings, soothing the whirling thoughts that burn our heads by reconnecting us to the universal spirit.

In today’s busy world, Alder-magic reminds us that it’s when we delve beneath the surface and look to our hearts for guidance that we become stronger, more grounded and more able to deal with the challenges of everyday life. This much-ignored tree is one to seek out next time you visit a river. Sit beneath it a while, set your head against its trunk and listen to the water flowing past.  The inspiration of the Water King awaits you!

With best wishes,


PS – If you enjoyed this post, you might like my book Tilly Greenway and the Secrets of the Ancient Keys, which includes lots of Tree Lore. Find out more at any of these links. Thank you!

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Moonlight and Hares

If I were to choose an animal totem, it would be the wild, shy, magical creature that we know as the hare.

As a boy I used to see a lot of hares, especially in Spring, when they come out to “box”. There is something truly fey about them. Is it the fact that they seem to be able to disappear in the twinkling of an eye, or that they dance under the full moon? Is it their elusive shyness, or the vulnerability with which they nest in “forms” in the grass? Whatever the reason, hares hold a special place not just in my heart, but in cultures all over the world.

In the East, the hare is sacred to Buddha. One tale tells of a time when Buddha asked all the animals to bring him some food for a feast that would be held later that day. That night, with Buddha waiting beside a large bonfire, the animals bring various portions of different things for him to eat. The hare has brought nothing. Instead, he flings himself onto the fire, saying that although he cannot offer anything, he will give himself. With a smile, Buddha takes the hare out of the fire and breathes new life into him, thanking him for his devotion, but telling him that the beauty of life is in the living.

In Europe the hare was sacred to the Celtic/Roman goddess of the Dawn, Eostre. Today we still celebrate Eostre’s Festival at “Easter”, but the goddess’s sacred totem has been relegated to the cosy, domesticated “Easter Bunny.”

It seems the quiet, endearing hare is easily pushed aside by the rabbit. In England and Ireland, where I have spent much of my life, the hare was indigenous, with rabbits only being introduced by the Romans (who wanted a good supply of fresh meat for their troops). Now, rabbits are everywhere whereas hares are not nearly so common. One reason for this is that rabbits are far more aggressive and territorial. My children and I once saw this first-hand.

It was one of those chill, frosty Easter mornings, when Winter seems intent on giving us a last reminder of its presence. I was up early, crunching my way through the garden to hide eggs for our regular Easter Egg Hunt. Coming back inside I filled the kettle and looked out over the valley, filled with that peculiar excitement that comes from anticipating a Festival Day. As I gazed out over the rising mist, I was surprised to see two hares. They had appeared as if from no where.

I rushed upstairs to wake the children and for the next half hour or so we all watched the Easter hares, loping around with that distinctive, gawky gait of theirs and then stopping to nibble at the grass. What a wonderful Easter-morning treat that was!

Just then two rabbits popped out from the old hedge at the bottom of the garden. (You can always tell which is which, by the way. The trick is this: if you think you are looking at a hare but are not sure it will be a rabbit, because when you really are looking at a hare you’ll know it! They are much bigger and move in a totally different way; less lollopy, more like a small dog!)

We were all amazed to see one of the rabbits chase the hares away. At twice the size, you might expect the hares to stand their ground. Not a bit of it. The rabbit ran forwards; the two hares ran off a short distance. The rabbit ran forwards again; the two hares retreated. This happened several times until eventually Lord and Lady Hare decided that enough was enough and took their stately exit, harried all the way by the upstart rabbit!

I once saw a large chocolate-brown hare, dusky as evening, in the garden. He came just once and was never seen again. I think it’s this elusive, twilight quality of the hare that I love most of all. They are unpredictable, arriving unexpectedly and then gone in the blink of an eye, leaving you wondering if they were ever there at all. I always feel privileged, elevated somehow, after encountering one.

One abiding image of the hare is where three of the animals race around in a circle, each of them with one ear that is solely their own and another that is shared. This image is as old as the hills and can be found all over the world. There has been much debate about its significance. To me it is most deeply connected to the magic of the moon and the monthly cycle of women, to the Triple Goddess in all her aspects and the three Rays of Inspiration of the druids.

Like the Celtic triple spiral, the triple hare speaks of the unending cycle of Life, Death and Rebirth. I have a wall-plaque with three interconnecting hares looking down on me as I write.

For lovers of the hare, there is plenty of beautiful contemporary hare-based artwork to be found. One of my particular favourites is Karen Davis’s blog Moonlight and Hares (see I’ve used her pictures in this post.

Like the hare itself, there is something wonderfully fey in her work. If you know any others, please drop me a line!

More on Hare-Magic another time, but for now…best wishes!


PS – If you enjoyed this post, you might like to find out more about my books Tilly Greenway and the Secrets of the Ancient Keys (including lots of reviews from readers) at any of these links. Thank you!

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Yew Tree Messages for the New Year

Ancient Yew Tree

As we move from the old year to the new, here are some messages from the Yew, the Tree of Death, Rebirth and Everlasting Life.

Oldest of all our trees, you’ll find many ancient yews growing near churches, usually on the north side. No one is quite sure how long they can live, but we do know that some are several thousand years old. So they have much wisdom to impart.

Yews are unusual in that they can reproduce by allowing their branches to sweep to the ground. Where they touch it, a new tree will spring up, each one connected to the other. They can also grow up from “within themselves”, a new trunk emerging from within the husk of the old. So it is not surprising that they have long been revered as living emblems both of the interconnection of all things and of the endless cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. They can literally resurrect themselves.

Our ancestors often chose for their sacred sites places where Yews were growing. If there were none nearby, they planted Yews in places where they wished to worship (see my last post for more on sacred sites), most churchyard Yews being far, far older than the buildings that have sprung up beside them.

Why the north door? Look inside the north door of churches and you’ll often find an old pagan image of some kind carved into the stone above it: a green man, or a sheaf of corn. These were put up in order to pay tribute to the old ways. The north door was “the devil’s door”: not because evil things lurked outside, but because it represented an acknowledgement of the power of nature, the call of the wild, which The Church wished to demonize.

When the early missionaries were sent to “convert” Britain, the pope urged them to use the old places of worship as their own and to appropriate existing religious days as holy-days. Hence the midwinter Feast of the Unconquered Sun became Christmas, the Feast of the Unconquered Son and the spring Festival of Eostre, goddess of the dawn, became Easter, the date of Christ’s resurrection.

It was a smart move, helping The Church to take a hold in a way that it might not have done. But the old traditions have great sticking power and they still won’t let go! Even today we collect Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe at Christmas: the evergreens valued so highly by the druids and many before them!

The word Yew comes from the Anglo-Saxon “Giuli” which is the stem for our word “Yule”, the time when the wheel of the year turns from old to new. In the Celtic Calendar, the Yew Tree sat at this turning point on the wheel, where the old year became a new one. The Yule Log was originally a piece of Yew. Set on the hearth, it burned for 12 days over the midwinter season, spanning this time of change.

Yew wood is hard, bright orange and has a heady scent. Once treated, it is almost impossible to damage it, so it has long been regarded as a symbol of everlasting life. At the same time it is also known across Europe as The Death-Tree. Perhaps this is because its bark, foliage and fruit are all poisonous. Birds will eat the red flesh of the berries, but not the stones. Death and Everlasting Life walk hand in hand in the Yew Tree.

In Ancient Irish lore, the Yew Tree was one of the Five Magical Trees and was sacred to Banbha, the death-aspect of the once-supreme Triple Goddess. In Britain it was also associated with Hecate and so is dear to witches. Shakespeare calls the Yew “twice-fatal” and chose its juice as the poison which Hamlet’s uncle pours into the king’s ear in order to bump him off. So, it is a tree with quite a reputation!

Famous as the wood from which English bows were made (another association with death), Yew was also favoured by druids for making ogham-sticks and for their staves. My guess is that Gandalf’s staff would have been of Yew.

With their long association with both death and rebirth, Yew Trees give us a timely reminder at this time of year of our contact with the spirit world and with our ancestors. One Old Belief that I particularly like is that the roots of churchyard Yews intermingle with each other and reach into the mouths of those who are buried there, giving voice to the spirits. It is said that this accounts for the reddish colour of the bark as well as the berries.

I once lived near a small wood made up entirely of Yew Trees. I would crawl under the branches of the outer trees and then stand up and walk inside a world that was hushed and dim, but never frightening. Sometimes I would sit propped up against the trunk of the oldest tree, listening to the whisperings of root and branch and twig.

As the Tree of New Year’s Eve, the message of the Yew is for us to live life and enjoy it, to waste not an instant of our brief time here. Yet it holds a deeper message too. It tells us that death need hold no fear over us, but is itself a birth, a moment of transformation. Just as the Yew can spring up from its own dying remains, the old year passes away to be replaced by a new one that would not be the same without those that came before it and those that are to follow. And just as each Yew Tree is connected to the next, so all moments in time are linked.

Our lives are the same. We would not be who we are without our ancestors and we in turn will be ancestors to our descendants. Nothing truly ends and nothing is truly separate from anything else. Long after we are not here to sit in person beneath its boughs, the Yew Tree will be singing its song, whispering the tales of eternal spirits to those who wish to listen.

Wishing you a wonderful, enchanted and dream-filled 2012!


PS – If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy my book Tilly Greenway and the Secrets of the Ancient Keys, which includes a lot of old Tree Lore. Fin out more at any of these links. Thank you!

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Herne the Hunter

“The rider rode up beside them, reining in when he reached the hilltop.  For a second or two he looked out on the valley below.  Then he turned and looked at the children and as his gaze met theirs, a green light shone from the eye-slits in his helmet.”

(Extract from Watchers, by Essi Tolling)

There are many stories surrounding Herne the Hunter. Often he is portrayed as a shamanic figure (a real person dressed up as part of a ritual). In Watchers he is more than this. He is the Lord of the Wild Things, both Green Man and Spirit-of-the-Woods – and he is not to be crossed lightly.

He wears a holly-green cloak and rides a flame-eyed horse. At his side hangs a great, curved horn. Around him run a pack of spectral hounds, each one of which is milk-white with red-tipped ears. Sir Herne can move through the fields and woods without making a sound. Nor does he leave any footprints in the dew-wet paths.

As such he is a dangerous fellow to meet on a dark night, especially if you are not one for showing compassion to wild creatures…

Herne the Hunter, by Meraylah Allwood

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