The Talking Forest Runes

A Stroll through the

Talking Forest

This blog primarily concerns my new runic array based on 42 trees and shrubs of the forests of North America. Most of these plants are also represented by the same or similar species in Europe and temperate Asia. Join me on our journey through the Talking Forest as we discover the beloved trees of our world and our imaginations.

Step Deeper into the Woods...


The Lady of the Woods

Kay Broome

Photo by Roger Bradshaw on Unsplash
Easter Wreath (Web photo)


We are coming up again to Lady Day which, in the Christian calendar is held on March 25th. This is the celebration of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, when an angel came from God to tell Mary she was pregnant with Jesus, the Messiah.  But to pagans, Lady Day was originally sacred to Eostre or Ostara, an eastern Teutonic goddess of spring. The first of two spring sabbats, Lady Day is held on the equinox which falls around the 21st of March, the day of the maiden’s return to the upper world.  Interestingly, March 25th was originally around spring equinox in the old Julian Calendar.

Although March is not as glorious as the spring months that follow, it has a charm all its own.  Among March's beiges, fawns and ochres,  the yellow and violet crocuses and tiny white snowbells with their bright green centres appear all the more significant in their humble charm. In this tentative landscape, the pale bark of the birch (Betula) renders the tree an ethereal, almost visionary quality.

 

Photo by Logan Weaver @LGNWVR Unsplash
Otherworldly Birch (Web Photo)

Tree of Radiance

Whether the stark white of European silver birch; the papery wisps of yellow and of white; or the smooth silver-grey of cherry birch, it is the trunk of the tree one first notices. Birch prefers full sunlight, making it a solar tree, while the luminosity of its bark pays homage to the full moon. A pioneer tree, birch is one of the very first to grow on barren land, readying the soil to make way for a new forest.

Birches tend to copse, that is, to divide into two or more trunks. For this reason, the tree embodied community and kinship to the Baltic and Germanic peoples. The leaves are somewhat triangular and slightly toothed, usually a light green with, in some species, silvery undersides.  The branches tend to droop, the long male catkins and leaves in spring suggesting the appearance of gentle spring rain.


Photo by Jonnelle Yankovich on Unsplash
Birch in early Spring (Web Photo)


A Very Helpful Tree

Birch sap is an elixir of youthful vigour. Save for sassafras and perhaps maple, no other tree gives off such an aura of aliveness at this time of year, possibly because at some level, while standing in the woods, we can smell the sap running. Indeed, much of birch’s efficacy lies in the oily sap contained in wood and bark. This oil helps to keep water out, thus the tree’s traditional use in making canoes and containers. This same sap renders the wood easily burnable, even when green or damp, and the papery bark makes superb kindling.

Photo by Tokyo Kohaku on Unsplash
Birch Woods (Web Photo)


Being very tough and able to withstand the cold of the Boreal winter, Birch belies its ephemerality. An examination of the remains of Otzi, the “Iceman” in the Austrian Alps near the end of the 20th century proclaimed birch to be instrumental in the survival of early northern peoples. When Otzi’s partly mummified body was found, close by were two birch bark containers. They were falling apart, but after 5,000 years, still in surprisingly good condition.  These were likely used to carry kindling, which probably included birch bark. Otzi would no doubt have known that the sap of birch makes a good vulnerary, a salve for sore muscles, and an excellent general tonic. His people would have learned about the Chaga and Polypore fungi that lived on older birches. These are very helpful in eliminating parasites, clearing up infections, and building immunity. Perhaps Otzi had even, on occasion, ingested the fly agaric, a white flecked red mushroom, frequently found growing beneath birch trees. We know for certain that these mushrooms, which cause hallucinogens and perhaps, visions, were eaten by the Siberian and Saami peoples, mainly for religious purposes. Fly agaric is commonly associated with the fairies and was most likely used in the witches’ flying ointment. Perhaps this, along with birch’s purifying quality, is why witches made their brooms from birch.

Otzi's Birch Containers from website South Tyrol Museum of Anthropology
Birch Bark Container found with Otzi the "Iceman" (website of South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)


In North America, First Nations people, especially those of the eastern woodlands, greatly depended  upon birch. They used the bark to make clothing, containers for food, wigwam tarps, paper for writing pictographs and of course, for their famous birchbark canoes. Among the Ojibwa, there is a tale of Nanabush, the trickster, who stole fire from the Thunderbird.  He asked Birch to protect him from Thunderbird’s lightning. Birch tree did so, but was repeatedly struck with lightning bolts from the great and angry bird. As a result, from that time forth, the birch tree has numerous black horizontal streaks on its trunk. These streaks are the lenticels, which are breathing pores on the trunks of trees. These lenticels allow gases and water to filter to and from the tree, working much like our own skin pores. Lenticels can be spotted easily on most smooth trunked trees, but are especially noticeable in birches.  This Ojibwa tale elucidates another characteristic of birch – the ability to survive being struck with lightning, again thanks to its life-saving oily sap.

 

Photo by Taylor Friehl on Unsplash
Birch Trees showing Lenticels (Web Photo)


In northern and western Europe, birch was known as the Lady of the Woods, a secretive spirit in feminine form, seen as beguiling and perhaps perilous. Certainly, the tree has an alluring, feminine quality.  The whiteness of the trunk along with the delicate green of the leaves in later spring could very easily give the lost wanderer a feeling of being watched by the Queen of the Otherworld.

Ostara by Johannes Gehrts, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Ostara (Johannes Gehrts, 1901)


The Birch was associated with many goddesses in western Europe and in the Slavic countries.  We have already mentioned Eostre/Ostara of the Teutonic peoples. Most of us pay unwitting homage to her when we paint hen’s eggs and talk about the Easter bunny. Eggs are symbols of the new life to come forth in spring and the rabbit includes the hare, whose rut begins in March and April.

Frigg Als Ostara by Carl Emil Doepler, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Frigg Als Ostara (Carl Emil Doepler 1882)


In the Ogham runic system Beith, is associated with Birch, as well as with the Lady of the Woods and the Fairy Queen. In Celtic mythology, the birch tree was affiliated with Arienrhod, an alluring maiden goddess who gave virgin birth to Llew Llaw Gyffes, a Welsh congruent of the Irish warrior/solar god Lugh. Among the Norse, Birch was sacred to Freya, the Vanir goddess of love, magic and fertility as well as to Frigga, mother goddess of the Aesir. The Norse Futhark also has a birch rune. Called Berkana, it is associated with female nurturance and motherhood.

Celtic & Norse Runes for Birch
Celtic Ogham Beith Rune                                Norse Futhark Berkana Rune

As its name suggests, Berkana is closely linked to the Teutonic goddess Berchta or Perchta. She was believed to have been worshipped in southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria. The northern Teutons worshipped her as Holle or Holda. An alternate name, Hertha, implicates her as a variant of Nerthus, the Norse goddess of fertility. Perchta was sometimes depicted in swan form and often as a woman with a swan’s foot dressed in white.  In her human form, Perchta could be young and beautiful or a hideous old woman. Her purview was as protector of women and children and animals, but sometimes she would snatch children away or even kill them. Interestingly, as well as being depicted as the white swan, Perchta is also affiliated with the white tree, the birch.

In Russia and other Slavic countries, birch is associated with Baba Yaga. This forest dwelling witch sweeps up after herself with a birch besom while flying in her mortar, which she steers with a pestle.  It is interesting to note that Baba Yaga rides in an implement usually meant for grinding herbs and medicines. She is often portrayed as cruel and evil, an eater of children. But she can also be kind and helpful to young people. We can perhaps view her as an initiatory goddess, putting young people through a tough test in order to teach them valuable lessons. Some examples are the prodigious harvesting, housekeeping and cooking tasks she inflicts upon the heroine in the tale of Vasilisa the Brave. This good/evil dichotomy is not dissimilar from how Perchta is often portrayed. Perhaps this is an illustration of the capriciousness of nature, or simply a conquering religion's vilification of a once powerful Pagan goddess. 

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin, 1900, Open Source, Wikimedia Commons
Baba Yaga (Ivan Bilibin, 1900)


The Talking Forest Birch deals with travel and movement forward. Like the canoe that is one of its kennings, this rune illustrates a tree outbound for discovery. The many boles of birch proclaim the tree’s gregariousness, a sharing of roots as siblings do.  Yet rather than staying within a community cluster as is common to other trees, birch is seen dotted throughout the woodland, as if seeking other vistas. Birch is the third rune of the Talking Forest set, representing the childhood stage when we become more independent and seek new adventures, thus its other kenning, maiden.  At this time the child starts school, makes new friends, and asks more questions. In keeping with the tree's youthful mien, early spring, around the equinox is allocated to Birch.

 Birch is the first of the Talking Forest “T” runes. These generally depict light, delicate looking trees, most of which are in the same family as birch. The main stem of the rune is shaped like a “T” with the tines curving down and inward. The second stem, joined at the bottom, is identical but leans to the left, the “distaff” side of this feminine rune, in imitation of the birch tree’s tendency to copse.  The Birch rune leans out as if wanting to move onward, in keeping with its purview of travel, novel experiences and forever seeking out the new. 

Talking Forest Birch Rune

Talking Forest Birch Rune© 2009, Kay Broome

You can learn more about Birch and other Talking Forest runes by purchasing my book, available internationally in print or ebook on Amazon.

Prior Plantings