Between the Worlds : Humanity and Forests through Celtic and Norse Perspectives
By Justin Linn O’Brien
“As the shore is not sea nor land,
like the time between the times
where the dawning is not day nor night
you are between the worlds.”
Eluveitie, ‘The Endless Knot’
Common knowledge states that Western Civilization, in all its philosophical and technological grandeur, has the greater part of its foundational roots buried deep within the cultural legacy of Greco-Roman culture. Through the martial and organizational prowess of the Roman Empire, Greek views on philosophy, science, government, and aesthetics was spread through the destruction and subjugation of peoples whose worldviews were quite different than the ‘civilized’ Romans. These ‘others’ – known by words with negative connotations such as ‘barbarian’ and ‘heathen’ – had ways of life that were less urban, more egalitarian, and much more tied with the lands on which they lived. Though fiercely resistant to ‘civilization’, two of these ‘barbaric’ cultural groups – the Celts and the Nordic peoples – have nearly only left us linguistic, genetic, and almost forgotten cultural marks of their existence. Their mythological legacies reveal close ties with the land, and the once vast forests that they inhabited before the coming of ‘civilization’.
The Celts were an amalgam of tribes and kingdoms united in similar culture and language but almost always divided by allegiance to separate families, chieftains, or clans. Starting in the middle of the European continent, south of Germany, the culture expanded to inhabit Belgium, Switzerland, western Spain, the entirety of France and the British Isles, and even areas as far away as central Turkey. (Markale 1976) However, the greatest amount of information we have about them is from France and the British Isles, due in part to the high level of archaeological evidence and that Scotland and Ireland managed to avoid the ravages of conquest (by ‘civilized’ peoples) for a longer period of time.
The British Isles primarily consist of two ecological regions – one that is called ‘Celtic Broadleaf forest’ and the other called ‘English lowland Beech forest’. (European 2002) Celtic Broadleaf forest is found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall – areas where Celtic culture persists today. It consists primarily of oak, mixed-oak, and oak-ash forests, with a limited amounts of birch forests. (Hogan) English lowland beech forests is found on the southern landmass of Britain – an area originally Celtic, but subjected to countless invasions over the millennia. It consist mainly of beech, fir, ash, and elm trees. Both have climates that are moist and high in rainfall. (World Wildlife)
France, or what was called Gaul when inhabited by its Celtic culture, is divided into two ecological regions known as the ‘Atlantic Mixed Forest’ and the ‘Western European Broadleaf Forest’ (European 2002) Atlantic mixed forest is an ecoregion on the north-west coast of France, made up of oak and pine forests, as well as heathlands. Along the coast there are sandy, salty soils that have vegetation that can thrive in these conditions. The Western European Broadleaf forests are located in the eastern half of France and extend further into the European continent. It is primarily made up of beech forests. ( World Wildlife Fund)
Just as any environment and lifestyle influences humanity’s perception of existence and its place in the universe, so did these ecological regions influence the development of spirituality and mythology of the Celts. Because of laws enacted after the Christian conversion of Europe, we know that the worship of trees, groves, stones, wells, and rivers as well as the active sacrifice of offerings to them was common. Natural forces were worshiped along with gods, and the landscape was peopled with numerous spirits, such as the sidhe in Ireland. (Macculloch 1911) Before the conversion of Celtic lands to Christianity, and well before the Roman conquests of France and England, there existed a religious system based entirely in the establishment and honoring of relationships with natural forces.
The forests that dominated the lands of these cultures were revered and respected. Whole forests were perceived as goddesses, such as Dea Abnoba for the Black Forest and Dea Arduinna for the Ardennes. The Fatæ Dervones ruled the forests of Celtic Northern Italy even into the Roman conquest of that region. Groves of trees were used as places of worship, where offerings were left for the gods and spirits; where warriors would hang the heads of defeated enemies. Human-sacrifice, though repulsive to people of today, was common – the victims, usually criminals, were hung or pierced on trees in these groves. (Maculloch 1911)
Nearly every dominant tree in these regions had a power, honor, and respect given to it. The oak was perceived as the greatest of trees, and as Pliny said of the Celts: “ They esteem nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and the tree on which it grows. But apart from this they choose oak-woods for their sacred groves, and perform no sacred rite without using oak branches.” He also describes an elaborate ritual that was enacted to take the mistletoe out of the tree without it touching the ground. Ash, alder, cypress, yew, rowan, and hazel were also venerated as sacred, and the wood of these trees was used for specific religious purposes such as ritual items or sacred fires, such as those before battle. (Maculloch 1911)
In Ireland, certain specific trees, called bile, were even the totems of different tribes and clans. These trees were considered representatives of the leaders and the people themselves, and it was seen as a great dishonor to have it cut down. Throughout the entirety of the Celtic world whole tribes received their names from specific trees, such as the Eburones being the ‘yew-tribe’, and the Vivisci and Bituriges being related to the mistletoe. Various names of trees were taken as surnames as well as first names as well. (Maculloch 1911)
In a symbolic manner, trees were also the inspiration for an entire alphabet in Ireland known as ‘Ogham’ or ‘Bethluisnin’ from its first two letters . The alphabet is made up of twenty-five symbols that are dash-lined in appearance which are designed for carving into stone or wood. Each of the letters has a corresponding name given to it, which is the name of a tree such as a birch, elm, ash, alder, yew, or so forth. (
An amazing example of the Celtic veneration of trees comes from the Welsh poem ‘Cad Goddeu’ or ‘Battle of the Shrubs’ by the semi-mythical poet/druid Taliesin. The poem describes a battle between two armies of Britons, with one group led by the author and the mythical Welsh hero Gwyddyon, and the other led by a mysterious woman. As the battle begins to look like a victory for the enemy, the hero Gwyddyon uses magic to turn his soldiers into trees and other plants. Within the poem, it lists off various species of trees, such as pines, elms, birches, hazels, oaks, honeysuckles, cherry-trees and a host of other species, describing their personalities and how they fared in the battle (Markale 1993)
Gods with attributes of the natural world were also venerated in the Celtic culture. The Gaulish bull-god Tarvos Trigarannos has three cranes that would be found in the forest environment shown perched on his back. The Irish goddess Dana or pan-Celtic form Danu was a goddess of the land, giving her name to the Danaans (the Irish pantheon of gods) and the river Danube. (Markale 1993) The antlered Gaulish god known as Cernunnos is perhaps one of the finest symbols of Celtic awareness of the inseparable connection between humanity and the non-human world. He is pictured as a anthropomorphic figure, usually seated squatted down on the ground, with antlers protruding from his head. He is often portrayed as being surrounded by native, forest dwelling animals such as wild boar and deer. (Maculloch 1911) This deity evokes a symbolism of humanity and nature being one and the same.
In his ’The Conquest of Gaul’, Julius Caesar tells of his movements, tactics, and subterfuge used in taming the Celtic Gauls, and he also describes their culture. According to him, three classes of people exist in Celtic society – the commoners, the warriors, and the Druids. He describes the druids as a hereditary priestly class who are above military service and taxes, and officiate over all religious matters in the society. Because it is a deeply religious society, he says, they regard nearly every official and public matter as religious, and so the druids officiate over them. They are well educated and use Greek letters, but they only pass their knowledge down orally, regarding it too secret and sacred to be committed to writing. Caesar 2005) This easily allowed the Druidic teachings to go extinct – firstly through the conquest of Celtic lands by Rome and the enacting of laws against the druidic organizations; secondly, through the destruction of their holy grove and ancient center at Inis Mona (Anglesey) by Rome in 61 AD; and thirdly, the conversion of Ireland to Christianity by Saint Patrick (thus, driving out the ‘snakes‘ or druids – from Ireland. (Markale 1993)The druids are also said by Caesar (as well as other historical writers) to teach that the human soul is immortal, and passes through different forms of life and existence for eternity.
This is illustrated quite well in the legendary 6th century Welsh druid-bard Taliesin’s ‘Book of Taliesin’ when the poet says:
“I have been a sow, I have been a he-goat,
I have been a sage plant, I have been a boar,
I have been a horn, I have been a wild sow,
I have been a shout in battle,
I have been a stream on the slope,
I have been a wave on the stretch of shore…”
This form of reincarnation philosophy, if taken in a physical, ecological sense, is very nearly true. Every single particle in a humans body is from somewhere else, and has been cycled through countless existences as different organisms, or even non-living things such as streams and shores. It could even be stretched to include the air molecules escaping from a warriors lungs as he shouts, and those molecules passing their way through the environment back into the authors own body. It is as if the existence of a living being is only a cup of water taken from the ocean, to be poured back in when that existence is done. Could this awareness of the interconnectedness of humanity and nature in this sense been realized by the druids?
The Celts were not the only ‘barbarians’ of Europe that had a deep connection with trees and the forests in which they lived. Scandinavia, in the ancient and medieval eras, was occupied by a cultural group called the Norse who derived much of their values from the often-times harsh environment they lived in. Colloquially known as the Vikings, these peoples were unified by common language, culture, and mythology, and much of this reflects the ever present forest ecosystems that surrounded them.
Northern Europe is dominated by six ecological regions. The ‘Scandinavian Montane Birch forest and grasslands’, the ‘Scandinavian Coastal coniferous forests’, the ‘Scandinavian and Russian Taiga’, and the ‘Sarmatic mixed forests’ are found in Norway and Sweden, while the ‘Baltic Mixed forests’ and ‘Atlantic mixed forest’ are found in Denmark. (European 2002) The taiga is within the boreal forest and tundra zone, having mainly limited species of coniferous trees. The ‘Scandinavian Montane Birch forest and grasslands’ has dwarf birch forests mixed among grasslands. The ‘Sarmatic mixed forests’ is a Norway Spruce and Scots pine dominated conifer/broadleaf forest, while the ‘Baltic Mixed forests’ are primarily beech and oak, with Scots pine, European hornbeam, and linden trees further inland. (Hogan)
This mix of forest types inspired quite a number of forest and tree related deities and concepts within the Norse worldview. Within Norse mythology, there are several groupings of spiritual entities known to exist – the gods, the giants, the dwarves, and the alfs. The gods are made up of two ‘tribes’ – the Aesir and the Vanir. The Aesir are lead by Odin, and include well known deities such as Thor, Heimdall, and Freya. They seem to represent the more civilized, agrarian-minded aspects of reality. The Vanir are the sea and wind gods, such as Van, Niord, and Skadi. They represent the more wilderness related aspects of nature, and it is said that the Aesir and Vanir warred with one another until they realized they were stronger united than divided. Both tribes represent the aspects of nature that are regenerative and beneficial to humanity. (Guerber 2006) This could represent the duality of agriculture versus wilderness, and that for humanity to exist comfortably the two need to be honored.
The giants are primarily divided into the frost and fire types – directly related to the idea that forces of fire and ice initially created existence. These are representative of the destructive forces of nature, and are constantly at war with the gods. The most well known giant, Loki, is a often-times friend of the gods although due to a dramatic turn of events becomes their most hated enemy. Out of jealousy, he tricked the god of darkness, Hodr, into slaying the gods brother Baldr (a god of light) with a shaft of mistletoe, condemning himself to the punishment of the gods. He will finally rise up in battle against the gods with the combined force of giants, ultimately culminating in the destruction of the world and the death of the Aesir – an event known as Ragnarok. It has been suggested that this could represent a focus on the cyclical nature of natural processes, and the progressive movement towards entropy. (Guerber 2006)
The more minor figures in the great play that is Nordic cosmology are the dwarfs and alfs – semi-divine entities that reside in natural settings. The dwarfs, representing the aspects of darkness and decay, lived in the dark places of the earth and deep in the realm of Svartalfaheim. They include creatures such as trolls, gnomes, and kobolds. The alfs are connected to the air and light, and these creatures are at home in the forests and the realm of Alfheim. (Guerber 2006)
Specifically, gods such as Ullr (the bow-wielding god of hunting and winter) and Freyr (the Vanir god of the alfs, who rode astride a wild boar), and the goddess Skadi (whose domain includes mountains, winter, snow, and skiing) are also indicative of the Norse cultures close relationship and awareness of the importance of forests. The gods were worshipped in temples with wooden poles representing gods, and there are even stories of trees growing within buildings – specifically the Branstock, an oak with a sword placed in it by Odin – in the Volsung saga. (Guerber 2006)
A tree, quite literally, was central to the worldview of the Norse. Within ‘Völuspá’ of the Poetic Edda, it is said:
‘An ash I know, hight Yggdrasil,
The mighty tree moist with white dews;
Thence come the floods that fall adown;
Evergreen o’ertops Urth’s well this tree.’
This evergreen ash tree, known by the name Yggdrasil, was the center of the Nordic cosmos. The ‘World Tree’, as it is called, was the ‘axis-mundi’ of the universe, and its branches held and connected the nine-worlds of existence, binding all living entities together. It was created by Odin, Vili, and Ve, three aspects of Odin Allfather, with its three great roots buried deep within the depths of dark Niflheim (the realm of the dead), in Midgard (the physical Earth we live in) near a place called Mimir’s well, and in Asgard (the realm of the Aesir, the gods of humanity) near the well of Urth. (Guerber 2006)
Odin Allfather, the one-eyed, blue cloaked, wandering chief of the Aesir, created the world tree soon after slaying the primordial giant Ymir and creating the world from the giants corpse. Over time through various processes, beings such as the gods, alfs, and dwarfs all came about, but humanity did not yet exist. Finding an ash and an elm washed up on the seashore, Odin, Vili and Ve took up the two trees and carved them into human figures – Ask ‘ash’ being the first man, and Embla ‘elm’ being the first woman. (Guerber 2006) The symbolism that these two trees could portend could be quite esoteric and subtle, and perhaps many meanings could be derived from it -possibly based on the characteristics of each tree, and the general characteristics of each sex.
Yggdrasil means ‘Steed of Ygg’ in Old Norse. Ygg, meaning ‘the Terrible’, is an epithet for the god Odin, and the world tree is known as his steed for a very deep and complex reason. Primarily, the term refers to Odin’s dramatic sacrifice of his life for the knowledge he gained of the runes – the alphabet system used by the Norse for mundane, as well as spiritual reasons. In line 138 of Hávamál in the Poetic Edda, Odin is supposed to have said:
“I wot that I hung on the wind-tossed tree
All of nights nine,
Wounded by spear, bespoken to Odin,
Bespoken myself to myself,
Upon that tree of which done telleth
From what roots it doth rise.’
In an attempt to understand the secrets of the universe, Odin hung himself from the world-tree and pierced his side with his spear Gungnir, surrendering himself to the experience of death. The poem goes on to say how after nine days and nine nights of dangling over the abyss of Niflheim, Odin finally died, and through sacrificing his godly life to himself, he perceived in an instant the runes – arcane and mystical symbols supposedly older than existence itself, with meanings both mundane and esoteric. (Hollander 1962)
In another interpretation of the myth, name, and meaning of the Odin hanging upon the world-tree myth is its link to the cultural practice of seidr. Seidr, coming from the Old Norse word meaning ’to boil’- is the Norse equivalent of shamanism. Shamanic activity, in which a person through altered states of consciousness supposedly travels through various other worlds of existence and communicates with spirits, has existed in many indigenous cultures for millennia. It is supposedly through the work of shamans that indigenous cultures gain knowledge of the uses of plants, discover the location of prey, and maintain a spiritual connection to the landbase. Because Odin is known as a wanderer of the nine worlds who used his own death to bring about an altered state of consciousness, and that he also accomplished this upon the world tree itself – he is the epitome of a shaman. (John 2004) Mythical connections to shamanic practice even further reveal the close links that Norse society had with forests and the natural world.
According to the myth, it was because of this act that Odin received the power to allow him to be creator of the universe and chief of the Aesir. It was with these runes he was able to control the other gods, imbue magical properties to certain items, and allow him to have the many mystical abilities he is ascribed to in myths. (Guerber 2006) This quite possibly could be likened to the invention of written word, and how it allowed greater control over man and the environment. But the meanings of these runes, and the fact Odin is the one that gave them to humanity, shows a strong link between humanity, trees, and the divine.
Runes, as an alphabet, are made up of straight lines and a noticeable lack of rounded marks. This is perhaps a reflection on the use of wood as a medium of writing, as wood is easier carved with straight lines (to go with the grain) than with rounded curves. The Elder Futhark, the most popular form of runes used by Scandinavian cultures, is made up of twenty-four symbols with various names and meanings ascribed to them through folklore and poetry. Similar to the Irish ogham, several of the runes bear the names of trees or other forest-related subjects. The most apparent of these runes are ’Eihwaz’ meaning ‘yew’ – an alternate tree depicted as Yggdrasil, ‘Algiz’ meaning ‘elk’, a common forest dwelling species in Scandinavia, ‘Berkana’ meaning ‘birch’, and a symbol of regeneration due to the trees trunk sprouting ability. (Krasskova 2010) The symbolism of the runes evokes a connection to the forest and the natural world, and this connection is even seen in their eschatology – their thoughts on the end of the world.
Ragnarok, the end of the world, starts when Loki escapes from his imprisonment in the recesses of the world. He gathers his children – Hel, the goddess of the underworld, Jormungundr, the serpent that lives in the ocean surrounding the world, and Fenrir, the giant wolf personifying humanity’s violence – and with the help of Surtr, the giants, and the dishonored dead makes war on the Aesir. The myth is very detailed, and each of the gods is killed by a specific enemy, and all of Loki‘s forces are defeated as well. The earth is burned, and the oceans rise to cover the land. Humanity is wiped out and everything is destroyed, but out of the salty waves a new world rises, green, vibrant, and so much better than before. (Guerber 2006) It is interesting to note the similarityof a flaming world being submerged by the ocean with climate change.
Deep from within Hoddmimi’s Holt, which is either described as a forest or the trunk of Yggdrasil, the two last, surviving humans emerge – Lif (life) and Lifthrasir (lover of life). Just as the first two humans of the first world were created from wood, the first two of the second world will emerge from it to populate the world. Baldr, having been slain and sent to the underworld by Loki before the great battle, is said to rise from the depths of Niflheim to reign as his father Odin did. (Hollander 1962) What began with wood and a tree ends with wood and a tree, and the cycle of human development is repeated.
The ancient Celtic and Nordic peoples had a much greater connection to forests and the natural world than modern cultures do. In terms of respect for the environment, they were some of the last patches on the fabric of human history that were frayed and torn with the coming of monocultures and monotheisms. Perhaps being connected with nature, and realizing mankinds relationship with it, is natural. Maybe it is only through a subtle domestication that we yield that connection, and perhaps we can learn to feel it again. Unfortunately, to feel it again may take the end of the world as we know it.
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