The Tree of Fire
MARCH 18 – APRIL 14
Sun in Pisces, the Fish to Mar 20;
Sun in Aries the Ram, Mar 21- Apr 19
The Tree of Saturday, Day of Peace and Repose
Letter: F for Alder-tree in Irish Fearn
Bird: Gull (Fielinn)
Color: Crimson (Flann)
Numbers: (Greek) 6 / (Irish) 8
Alder, a member of the Birch Family which usually blooms in early Spring with male and female flowers on the same plant, has mostly smooth bark and is common to wet places over the northern hemisphere. Of all trees, Alder “best resists the corruptive power of water,” Graves writes, “its slightly gummy leaves resist the Winter rains longer than any other deciduous tree, and its timber resists decay indefinitely under water.” The first houses in Europe “were built on Alder piles at the edge of lakes” and many medieval churches as well as Venice’s Rialto are founded on Alder piles. Beneficial to crops grown in its shade, Alder not only forms the best charcoal but also can produce three “immemorially celebrated” dyes: red from its bark, green from its flowers, brown from its twigs–symbolizing the three elements–fire, water and earth.
In Homer’s Odyssey the first-named of three trees of resurrection is the Alder, whose buds are set in a spiral, an antediluvian symbol of resurrection. Another vivid reason for the long-standing sanctity of the Alder is that when felled, “its white wood seems to bleed crimson” like a human being.
The early British Alder-god Bran–which means both Alder and either “Crow” or “Raven”–can be identified with such other mythological Alder-gods as the Greek Fearineus or Phoroneus, known in early myth as the inventor of fire; (see Furze); or with the Scandinavian Ellerkonig (Alder-king); or with the Greek Cronos (“Crow”) and the Roman Saturnus, Alder-gods of Spring and of Saturday, to whom animal sacrifices were offered on Olympia’s Mount Cronos at the Spring Equinox. All paradisal Apple-orchard islands in mythology are surrounded for protection by Alder-trees.
In Hebrew myth and ritual, the place of the Alder (banned in Temple worship) is taken by the Pomegranate–the only fruit allowed into the Holy of Holies–from which a red dye can also be made. The original Chanukah candlestick has a tiny Pomegranate at the top representing the 7th day, Saturday, sacred to Jehovah, who was once a kind of Saturn or Bran; its ancient sanctity is explained Rabbinically as: “the only fruit which worms cannot corrupt.” In early matriarchal myth, Pomegranate seeds are swallowed by the White Goddess in order to conceive. In China and India, its place might have been taken by the Orange-tree, originally a native of Asia, with a red fruit in certain areas.
The Alder was substituted in other Mediterranean lands with the Wild Cornel, or Dogwood-tree, its Latin name derived from cornix, Saturn’s (or Bran’s) Crow again, which ate the Cornel’s red berries; it blooms with white flowers early in this tree-month. Like Alder and Pomegranate, Cornel can produce a red dye and it was especially sacred at Rome because the javelin Romulus threw to determine the place for the building of the city was made of Cornel-wood.
The holy day of Easter was originally a Spring Festival of the Sun named after the dawn-goddess Eastre or Eostre (East, whence the Sun rises), or after her Saxon name Ostara. It was celebrated with painted snakes’ eggs–snakes being an ancient symbol of fertility; later, the Orphics, to whom the cock was a bird of resurrection, substituted hens’ eggs painted red in honor of the Sun.
From The Song of Amergin: “I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,” is a reference to Spring dew and marks the year’s true start, when deer and wild cow foal, and when the child Hercules–conceived at Midsummer and having sailed over the floods in a wicker basket–now “lies glistening on the grass.” The Biblical stone is the bright red Fire-Garnet, representing the tribe of Judah, called “lion’s whelp”; many Sun-deities–male and female–have been associated with the Lion. At this season, the Gull (Faelinn) families flock together on plowed fields, and Crimson (Flann) is the color of the young Sun through the haze, of Alder-dye, and of the mythic glain, or magical egg, found in this month.
The Tree of the Spring Equinox
March 20 – Alder 3
Letter: O for Furze in Old Irish: Onn
Bird: Cormorant (Odorscrach)
Color: Dun (Odhar)
Numbers: (Greek) 5 / (Irish) 4
Animal: Elephant (the feet of the Unicorn)
Furze, also known as Gorse or Whin, is “a spiny, evergreen shrub,” notes the Oxford English Dictionary, “growing abundantly on wastelands throughout Europe.” Graves writes that, “its golden flowers and prickles typify the young sun at the Spring Equinox, the time when Furze-fires are lighted on the hills” in order to make “its young shoots edible for sheep” and to encourage grass- and plant-growth. In ancient Rome, these Spring fires were burned in honor of Jupiter, god of shepherds, but long before that, the celebrations were in honor of Phoroneus, the Spring-Dionysus, inventor of fire, and founder of the Pelasgian race, identified with the Alder-gods Bran and Cronos. The Spring feast for Phoroneus/Dionysus was the Anthesterion, or “Flower-uprising.” The yearly station of Furze is the Spring Equinox (Mar. 20), celebrated near the beginning of the Alder-month, and represents the second vowel, O for Onn, Irish for Furze. In ancient Gaul (now France), the Spring (or Vernal) Equinox marked the start of the first season of the year, and was celebrated through the festival of the goddess On-niona, worshipped in Ash-groves, her name a compound of the Irish words for Furze (Onn) and Ash (Nion).
In Welsh folklore, Furze is considered “good against witches,” and it has been sacred to numerous deities, its religious importance enhanced by the fact that Furze-flowers attract the first bees of the year; Ivy, another sacred plant, attracts the year’s last bees, and there have been several pagan bee-cults. The only woman leader of wisdom and power remaining in the Bible is Deborah (Judges IV and V), a name which means “bee” and, as Graves explains, “’Bee’ was the honorary title of all oracular priestesses in Greater Greece and Syria.” The Phrygian goddess Cybele is usually pictured as the Queen Bee. It is therefore because of their common relationship to the bee perhaps that Furze, or Gorse, and Ivy are paired in The Battle of the Trees:
…Great was the Gorse in battle,
And the Ivy at his prime…
In the antique Cretan and Greek tree-alphabets, the vowel O was expressed not by Furze but rather by Wild Olive, an evergreen tree native to Mediterranean countries, whose cultivated counterpart is much prized for its fruit and oil. According to Greek mythology, the Sun-god Hercules first brought the olive from Libya to Crete, and his club is made of olive-wood, appropriate to the Spring Equinox when the Sun symbolically arms itself. Wild Olive is considered therefore, as Graves writes, “a prime expulsive of lingering venom.” An earlier Greek myth records that it was Athene Paeonia, an ancient goddess of the Young Sun, who first brought the olive to Athens; from her comes the name of the peony, paeonia, a Mediterranean wildflower which only blooms briefly at the start of Spring. Paeonius is also a title of Apollo Helios, god of the Young Sun, a title derived from Athene’s. Olive was in sacral use at Spring festivals all over the ancient world, and still is today at the “Ramos” (boughs) festival in Spain. The olive-branch is also used currently throughout much of the world as a symbol of peace. There are two references in the Bible: it was an olive-leaf “in the bill of Noah’s dove,” Graves points out, “which symbolizes the drying up of the Winter floods by the Spring Sun;” and in the apocryphal Book of Judith, “the Queen wears a crown of [sweet] olive as an emblem of fruitfulness.”
In A.D. 1582, when Pope Gregorius reformed the Julian calendar, ten days in October had to be suppressed in order to bring the Spring Equinox back to its correct place. Astronomically, the Equinox is that precise moment when the sun crosses the equator, causing the days and nights to be of equal length. The season extends to the Summer Solstice (June 21; Oak 12), but in popular usage in the U.S. Spring comprises March, April and May, while in Great Britain it means February, March and April. With the Spring Equinox, “John Barleycorn” first appears above the soil, and the Sun now moves from the deceptively watery sign of the Fishes into the aggressive sign of the Ram. The original Zodiac, however, probably was fixed sometime in the fourth millennium B.C. before knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes and when, as Graves wrote, “the Sun rose in the Twins at the Spring Equinox–the Shepherd’s festival.” By the time Virgil wrote his famous line about “the White Bull” that began the year, the Sun was rising in the Bull at the Spring Equinox.
The Elephant supplies the feet of the Unicorn because during spring the earth puts forth its greatest strength. This is the one animal of the five that is never depicted in surviving pictures of the Unicorn. Usually it has either horses’ feet or the cleft feet of a goat thus leaving out the spring animal, either from ignorance or for deception.
From The Song of Amergin: “I am the blaze: on every hill,” is a further reference to Furze-fires burned in honor of the Sun as it reaches maturity. A Cormorant (Odorscrach) is greedy for fish, as people were in this season of Lent, with meat-eating banned by the Church, and other foods scarce; Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 21) and ends Easter Sunday (Apr. 7). Newly-plowed fields, a frequent sign at this time, are Dun-colored (Odhar). The metal is Gold, also in honor of the Sun, which was originally a female deity–such as Grainne in Ireland or Hemera in Greece. Later Greek mythology included three female deities to represent the Sun’s three daily phases–one for Dawn, one for Midday, one for Dusk–but in early mythology the Sun was considered to be under the tutelage of the Moon-goddess who was supreme because the Moon had the power to put out the Sun.