The birch tree has always been a symbol of new beginnings, hope, and rebirth in Celtic culture. Similarly, this elegant tree is often seen as the bridge between our world and others- be it the fairy realm or the afterlife.
The birch also holds significant meaning when speaking of balance; with roots in both fire and water elementals as well as masculine and feminine energies, this tree truly embodies harmony. And despite its seemingly dainty stature, don’t be fooled-the Birch is stronger than she looks!
The birch tree doesn’t look dangerous, but it used to have a bad reputation. Its name is often used to describe physical punishment because flexible twigs are known for causing sharp pain. Although “birching” was considered to be milder than the other form of punishment, people who served on British naval vessels in the 1800s still lived in fear of being beaten with birch rods.
Birch trees have a long and rich history of symbolism in many different cultures. In general, the birch tree is seen as a symbol of peace, love, balance, new beginnings, and purification. The tree is also seen as a symbol of sacrifice for a greater cause, protection, birth, life, death, and renewal.
Birch trees are sacred to the Goddess in many cultures, especially in the form of Freya. It is said that causing harm to this tree will provoke the anger of the Goddess. The essence of the birch will help to bring peace, calm the nerves, reduce anxiety, and help one remain calm.
Birch tree symbolism has been up for interpretation throughout the years and in this blog post, we’ll explore some of the different ways that people have interpreted the birch with its symbols and meanings.
Renewal, protection, peace, love, new beginnings, balance
The White Goddess, Brigid (Celtic); Freya and Frigga (Norse); Venus (Roman)
The British intelligence officer Captain H Bower discovered and retrieved an ancient birch bark manuscript from Turkestan in 1893. This document is one of the world’s oldest, dating back to 350 CE.
About Birch Trees
The birches are a family of about 60 species of deciduous, monoecious trees and shrubs that grow in the northern temperate regions.
They’re adaptable to most soils, needing only lots of light. In spring, the male catkins are pendulous and elongated; the female catkins are shorter and more erect.
The birches’ slender shape, bright bark, and yellow fall leaves make them some of the most graceful and attractive trees.
The common silver birch is distinguished by its rough, warty shoots and diamond-shaped leaves; it thrives in drier soils than the common white birch. The white birch has rounder leaves and smoother downy shoots.
With age, the silver birch’s bark turns black at the base whereas old white birches retain their original coloration.
In the boreal and temperate forests, birch trees have been integral to human life.
The indigenous peoples of North America, Russia, Siberia, northern Europe and Scandinavia used the durable bark to make items essential for everyday living, including boats and canoes, coverings for wigwams and yurts, roof tiles for houses, all sorts of containers, writing paper and even shoes.
The old Russian and Scandinavian tradition of using birch twigs to beat the body during a sauna is still practiced today as a way to stimulate circulation and increase the vitality of the skin.
Similarly, in Native North American sweat-lodge cleansing ceremonies, tribes such as the Ojibwa use birch boughs not only for flooring but also for beating their bodies.
Birch leaves are a healthy addition to any diet and can help cleanse the blood, stimulate the gall bladder, kidneys and liver, and relieve symptoms of gout and rheumatism. The sap from birch trees is also an excellent scalp tonic. Externally, birch tar oil has been used to treat eczema and psoriasis.
Silver birch has the same life-bringing effect in classical homoeopathy that the actual tree does in a dark, northern landscape. The silver birch tree essence allows people to experience the beauty and remain calm.
Culture, Myth and Symbol of the Birch Tree
The birch tree was named after the whiteness of its bark, which is similar to the Irish goddess Brigid. Both names derive from the Indo-European root word bher(e)g, which means “shining white”. Brigid was known for being benevolent and inspiring creativity in poets and artisans.
According to Norse and Germanic tradition, the birch tree is associated with Freya (the Lady of the Forest) and Frigga (the wife of Odin). In Russian folklore, the birch itself is referred to as the Lady of the Forest.
This life-sustaining tree embodies imagery of the White Goddess and protects according to the Germanic rune Berkana symbolism.
Moreover, the form of the rune is taken from the ‘mother mounds’ of the Neolithic period. These hills were largely burial mounds and sites where people venerated rebirth and held ceremonies.
The twin hills represented the breasts of Mother Earth. Birth, life, and death all fell under this goddess’s domain; as a result, different cultures have myriad female deities that represent various aspects of birth, youthfulness, maturity, or death.
The shapes that they took on and the cultures in which they were worshipped varied in the Bronze Age, but if you trace their origins back far enough, they can all be linked to the ancient Great Goddess of the Palaeolithic era.
This goddess is sometimes referred to as the Triple Goddess because she encompasses all three aspects. She is most commonly associated with three colors: white for the moon and mother’s milk; red for blood; and black for nightfall during a new moon.
There is another side to her as well. In early history, we see various renditions of the battle goddess. However, in her role as protector, she is a defender more than an attacker.
This part of her comes into play during the maturity phase. With time, though, and as patriarchal societies grew more prevalent while women’s social roles diminished, there was no longer any room for feminine aspects that were wild or dangerous or unpredictable or ecstatic.
However, elements of the old ways still lingered on in fertility rites and spring celebrations. During the Christian Middle Ages, people would pair off to go into the birch groves at May Day festivities.
In Scotland, for one day only – Beltane – adults were even allowed to break their marriage vows.
The Church’s anger towards this practice led the people to become resourceful–they would bring the trees into their villages if they weren’t allowed to go to them.
Consequently, the maypole was created. It became a symbol of joy and merriment, always chosen and decorated with care. Furthermore, many babies were born in early February as a result of these activities.
The birch tree is known to be one of the first trees to immigrate and pave the way for new land in the wild. We can see this same quality reflected in its cultural associations as well.
For example, ancient versions of wisdom teachings from India, called Vedas or “leaves” (referencing the Tree of Knowledge), were physically written on birch bark.
According to an old Irish legend, when the god Ogma gifted early Celts with writing, they discovered that ogam–the tree alphabet–could be used to warn the sun god Lugh of dangers.
For example, if his wife was about to be captured and taken away to the underworld, he would receive a warning message consisting of birch wood. In western European tradition specifically, cradles are often made from birch wood to provide babies protection against malignant entities.
The story of Lugh demonstrates the birch tree’s might is more potent than that of the underworld (death). Those familiar with Celtic mythology will not be shocked to learn this, as rebirth has always been one of The White Goddess’ blessings.
Siberian shamanism fully embraces the power of the birch tree. The tree is udesi-burchan, also known as the “deity of the door” to the spirit world.
Natives would go into the forest to find a special birch tree before bringing it back to their yurt (a tent covered in skins). They would then carve nine notches into it (nine being the number sacred to Earth Mother) and use it as their central pole.
When a shaman goes into a trance, their spirit will journey to the top of the World Tree, where they will meet with guiding spirits or ancestors. They may also ask astral entities of disease to leave their patients.
The idea of rebirth and renewal is also emphasized in the Western custom of “brushing out the old year” with a birch broom. This is performed on the morning after the longest night of winter, which marks the beginning of the new year.
This time symbolizes darkness and fertility when new life is just beginning to stir. However, Anglo-Saxons celebrated three “mother nights,” or modraneht, which brought forth the reborn sun and signaled the start of their solar year on December 24th.
Birch Tree Symbolism and Meanings
Birch Trees have long been associated with different symbolic meanings and associations, ranging from beauty and wisdom to authority and renewal.
The axe and birch rods have been a classical symbol of judicial authority in the United States that is still in use today. This emblem can be seen on the insignia of the National Guard and also in the frieze above the Supreme Court Building.
The presence of this symbol above the door into the Oval Office serves as a reminder to everyone who enters that justice will be enforced there.
Birch rods were also associated with Ancient Rome, though their legacy is rather mixed. In classical times, lictors would carry a ceremonial axe braced in a bundle of birch rods to demonstrate their judicial authority. The fasces – or bundle – has been adopted by political parties ever since.
For the French revolutionaries, this icon of the Roman Republic not only represented strength in unity and freedom from hereditary rule but also, as a bundle of twigs, something well within the grasp of ordinary people.
The birch rods meant people power – until seized by their rather more ambitious representatives.
The Divine Feminine
The birch tree is known to be sacred to goddesses such as Brighid, Frigga, Freya, Venus, and the Morrigan.
It’s seen as a symbol of the Great Goddess and femininity/lunar mysteries. Consequently, it’s often added to sabbat fires.
Renewal and New Growth
The rune Berkana is representative of a moment of revival and expansion, similar to the way birch trees grow in the spring. It’s named after birch for this reason. In addition, maypoles were traditionally made from birches- it’s speculated that this tradition started when Christianity banned fertility rites among birch groves during Springtime.
It is important to remember that new beginnings also always signify an end to what came before. In the same way that the daffodil—as one of the earliest spring flowers—is associated with both birth and death, as well as the passage between these two stages.
Birch is aligned not just with renewal, but also with mortality and the land of the dead. In fact, in Celtic burials, birch branches were used to cover the body during transport to its final resting place.
Birch is one of the first trees to grow back after a fire or other land disturbance, which allows other plants and animals to return and thrive as well.
Birch trees are beautiful in any setting, but they’re especially stunning when you see them in their natural habitat. Whether it’s a hillside or moor, birch trees bring a unique charm to the landscape.
These are trees that look best when they’re by themselves, as sleek as herons next to a winding stream. Or you can celebrate them in woodlands, where they gather together shyly while staying far enough apart to let the light shine through.
In the Himalayas, where everything is magnified and elongated, the birch tree looks like cracks in the vast mountainsides. When you get closer, they look like long ropes let down from heaven.
But beware – if you were to climb up into the clouds, you might never come back!