The Origins of the Celtic Tree of Life

Celtic Cross Example Image

Updated On: May 18, 2024 by   Ciaran ConnollyCiaran Connolly

Irish culture embraces many symbols that signify its beliefs and notions. While there are many of them, this time, we’re discussing one of the most critical subjects in Celtic culture: the Celtic Tree of Life.

You may have encountered this significant symbol if you’re familiar with Celtic culture. Trees have always played a role in Irish mythology and are known for their significance.

Celtic Tree of Life

What is the Celtic Tree of Life?

In the past, trees were seen as more than what they were. According to the Celts, trees were not just trees but a source of life. Even when they cleared vast fields for settlement purposes, they’d leave one tree alone in the centre.

This single tree would become the Tree of Life that possesses superpowers. The greatest triumph one would have against their enemy was to chop their tree down. It was considered the most offensive act to do to your enemy.

Trees have always been significant in Celtic culture. They were regarded as part of nature that provided food and shelter for humans and animals, increasing their connotation to the Irish.

During ancient times, trees were the perfect spots for druids and priests to practice their beliefs. Most churches would usually have a tree nearby. Trees were also the perfect spot for tribes to gather around. Trees have always appeared in the tales of Celtic mythology.

The Significance of the Celtic Tree of Life

Trees have always been there for whoever needs them, both humans and animals. They were considered sacred, but that was not the only reason for their importance. Trees symbolise more than a few things to the Celts.

The primary significance of the Celtic Tree of Life was its connection with the Otherworld. Celtic cultures believed the tree’s roots connected our world with the Otherworld. Trees, in general, were seen as doorways to the spirit world. Thus, they were magical, as they protected the land from evil spirits and hindered their entrance into our world.

In addition, they believed that the branches growing upwards symbolised heaven while the roots going downwards symbolised hell. This was yet another connection between two contradictory things.

The Celtic Tree of Life symbolises other things. There was a theory that it represented everything on the planet being interconnected. For example, a forest is made up of numerous trees standing tall. Their branches may reach out to one another to create unity and power. Besides, they’ve always provided homes for different animals and plantations.

Trees are also a sign of strength, as breaking their trunk is quite hard. Trees also represent rebirth. That’s because the leaves fall out during autumn, hibernate during winter, and grow back through spring and summer.

Origins of the Celtic Tree of Life Symbol

The notion of the tree of life dates back to ancient times, long before it was essential to Celtic culture. It was a powerful symbol in many different cultures, including Egyptian and Norse cultures. The very first Celtic Tree of Life dates back to the Bronze Age.

Scholars believe that the Celtic Tree of Life was adopted by the Celts from the Norse. The Norse believed in Yggdrasil, an ash tree believed to be the source of all life. However, the Norse believed that the Tree of Life led to many worlds rather than just the Otherworld.

The Legend of Treochair

Definitely, Irish mythology embraced quite a fair share of tales around trees. Not to mention the trees played an important part in many tales, especially Oak Trees.

In Celtic legends, there is the legend of Treochair, which means “Three Sprouts.” It tells the tale of a giant man named Treochair.

He supposedly came from the Otherworld, holding a considerable tree branch. The tree held numerous plants that produced a handful of fruits. Treochair’s role was to shake the branch to drop some fruits for the people to endeavour.

Some fruits also carried seeds that fell into the soil at the centre of Ireland’s four corners. That’s how the five sacred trees of Ireland came to life.

Practices around Trees in Ireland

It is obvious that the Celts’ beliefs in trees did not stop being a notion. Instead, they had some superstitions and practices around trees.

In ancient times, trees were the spots where the tribes collected. They were also mentioned in many tales and legends in Irish mythology. However, there are some trees that the Irish folks used to refer to as the Fairy Trees.

They usually had wells nearby to serve the purposes of the practices. Moreover, those fairy trees were perceived as sacred grounds under which the “Wee Folk” resided. The Wee Folk were usually the elves, hobbits, and leprechauns in Ireland.

After going underground, they were also referred to as the Sidhe, pronounced Shee, alongside the Tuatha de Danann. Those who never believed in the Wee still protected the Fairy Trees.

Superstitions surrounding Fairy trees

The Holy Wells near the fairy trees were used as a cure for the sick. People used a piece of cloth dampened in water and then washed the injury or sick body part. It was also believed to be the place of blessings and curses; you wish for anything, and it comes true. Chopping down a tree was considered a bad omen.

Celtic Tree of Life

Modern Usages of the Symbol of the Celtic Tree of Life

Since it’s a significant symbol in Celtic culture, the Celtic Tree of Life has been incorporated into almost everything. One of the most popular elements that use the Celtic Tree of Life symbol is jewellery.

Giving someone a piece of jewellery with the symbol of the Tree of Life is epic. The symbol is found in almost every piece of jewellery, whether a ring, necklace, bracelet or any other form. The symbol has also grown more popular and has become a stunning tattoo design for many.

People in Ireland have used the method of creating knots with ropes. These knots seem to have no end or even a beginning. The design of those knots supposedly symbolised the eternity of nature by interweaving the knots inside one another.

The Tree of Life in Different Cultures

Apparently, the Celts were not the first to embrace the notion of significant trees. They adopted the theory from other cultures centuries ago, which leads us to the fact that many other cultures also adopted the Tree of Life theory.

Here are some of the cultures that regard trees just as sacred as the Celts do.

The Mayans

It turned out that most cultures believed in the Tree of Life notion, not just the Celts. The Mayans were among those who adopted this notion heartedly.

According to this culture, Heaven is somewhere behind a huge mystical mountain. However, it is tough to know or learn about this mountain. Because, in the end, Heaven was never that accessible.

But Heaven was connected to the Underworld and Earth through the World Tree. This World Tree is where the whole creation came out, a spot from which the world streamed. The illustration of the Mayan Tree of Life involves a cross in its middle.

They also believe that this point of the world flowed out in the four directions to create our Earth.

Ancient Egypt

The Egyptian culture is laden with mythological tales and beliefs that resemble those of the Celts. There are many figures in the ancient Egyptian Culture that have equivalents in that of Irish Culture.

Thus, the Tree of Life is no exception. Egyptians of ancient times believed that the Tree of Life was somewhere for life and death. They believed that the Tree of Life enclosed life and death, and each of them had a direction.

The west was the direction of the Underworld and death, while the east was the direction of life. According to Egyptian mythology, two deities emerged from that Tree of Life. They were known as Isis and Osiris, also referred to as the first couple.

The Chinese Culture

China is an interesting culture to ever get to know, let alone its philosophy of Taoism. According to a Taoist story found in Chinese Mythology, there was a magical peach tree. It kept producing peaches for thousands of years.

However, it was not just like any regular fruit; it was produced from the Tree of Life. Thus, it provided immortality for whoever ate from it. The illustration of the Chinese Tree of Life resembles those of other cultures. However, it also has a phoenix sitting atop and a dragon at the base. These could symbolise the most famous icons of China protecting the Tree of Life.

Celtic Tree of Life

The Tree of Life in Religions

The Tree of Life notion had its fair share on both cultural and religious levels. It was featured in both Christianity and Islam as scholars have proclaimed.

In Christianity, the Book of Genesis featured the tree of life, describing it as the tree of knowledge. The beliefs involved it being the tree of good and evil, and they believed it was planted in the Garden of Eden.

It also appears numerous times in the ensuing books of the Bible with the term “Tree of Life.” Despite that, some scholars believe this tree may differ from that mentioned in the cultural mythologies. Again, it bears a remarkable resemblance to them.

According to Islamic beliefs, the Quran mentions the Tree of Immortality. Trees, in general, play a vital role in Islamic culture. They are usually mentioned in both the Quran and Hadith.

The Quran mentions three supernatural trees. One is the Tree of Knowledge, found in the Garden of Eden, similar to the Bible. The other is the Lote Tree of the Extreme Boundary, known in Arabic as Sidrat al-Muntaha.

Zaquum is the name of the third tree, which is referred to as the Infernal Tree and is found in Hell. The three trees are usually combined into one symbol. Read more on Irish traditional and folk stories.

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