Kim Doherty
Unique handmade textiles
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What Do Celtic Symbols & Designs Mean? TREE OF LIFE

In this series of articles and observations regarding Celtic designs and symbols, I would now like to talk about a few specific designs.  The “Tree of Life” is one of my favourites, and although it can be represented in many ways, depending on the artist who created it, it will still have the basic design principles and meanings which define this symbol.

The Tree of Life is common to many cultures.  It is particularly important to the Celts.  At the height of the Celtic expansion ( which as I said in the first article in this series, was about 3rd to 5th centuries BC ), Northern Europe was covered with forests so thick, it was said that a squirrel could hop from branch to branch from one end to the other without ever touching the ground.  Italy was covered from coast to coast with dense woods of Oak, Elm & Chestnut;  the great Hercynian forest rendered Germany impenetrable in Caesar’s time.  Scotland was covered with the Caledonian Forest, mainly its unique Pines;  Ireland with Oak woods;  and the whole of Southern England with the ancient trees of Anderida.

So, it’s no wonder that the forest was the core of a tribe’s sustenance, culture and spirituality.  To early Celtic peoples, trees bore the bounty of food, medicines, wood for shelter and fire.  When a tribe cleared land for settlement, they always left a great tree in the middle, known in Ireland as “Crann Bethadh” ( pronounced Krawn Ba-huh ) or “Tree of Life”.  It represented the security and integrity of the people.  The greatest insult one tribe could make to another, was to cut down their mother tree.The tree is seen as a bridge between the underworld, middle world, and upper world;  all that is Dead, all that is Life, and all that is Spirit.  Trees were considered the ancestors of mankind.  They were considered magical, sacred, and a door to the otherworld.  It was considered a symbol of balance and harmony – as above, so below;  which is why the tree is always drawn showing the roots as well as the branches.

Druids worshipped and studied within sacred groves.  Celtic people attribute the Tree of Life to qualities like strength, wisdom, and longevity.  Various rituals were performed to mark the changes the Tree of Life undergoes, as with the Seasons.  Again we come back to the universal Celtic themes of birth, death and re-birth – the endless cycles of life.

The ancient Celts understood the importance of trees in ecology, and their relationship to water management.Hundreds of holy wells bordered by guardian trees still dot the countryside today – living temples where people have gone for centuries to drink or bathe in the water, and leave a votive torn from their clothing on over-hanging branches.  Even today, the number of ragged pieces of fabric hanging from the trees is testimony that pilgrims still follow the old tracks that lead to the magical waters, in the hope of healing, foretelling the future of granting a wish.

On a physical level, it serves to remind us to pay attention  to the interconnectedness of the living world.  Perhaps this is why is has again become a popular symbol for many in the broader community, as it serves as a symbol of re-connection with the the earth & life, which is something from which we as modern humans living largely in built environments, have become distanced.

Long after the Druids vanished, the lore of trees continues as a vital part of Celtic myth, tradition and folklore.

These are a couple of my “Tree of Life” designs.

Tree of Life detail       Tree of Life Black