The alder tree is particularly widespread in Europe, especially in the northern parts of the continent such as the British Isles or Scandinavia, the home of the old Norse people.
Because the alder tree was so widespread in these areas it was heavily integrated into Celtic, pagan Irish and Norse religion and culture.
The alder tree has numerous distinct properties, with each one contributing to make the alder tree a powerful symbol of rebirth, sacrifice, fire and new life.
The alder tree symbolizes resurrection, immortality and fertility
Throughout all Celtic cultures, from Ireland to Gaul (modern France), the alder tree is viewed as symbol of life-giving forces because it has several unique properties:
Firstly, alder trees can grow very quickly and have the ability to quickly regenerate after being cut down or damaged.
Secondly, alder trees are very hardy and adaptable. So much so that botanists call them “pioneer species” since they are among the first types of vegetation to take over an inhospitable land. They also have a fertilizing effect, making the surrounding soil more fertile for other plant species.
Thirdly, when cut the alder oozes a deep red sap which is very similar in color to blood. This gives the appearance that the alder “bleeds blood” when cut. Since blood is perhaps the most powerful symbol of life, this property of alder trees to bleed red has also made them a symbol of life.
Finally, the alder tree is strongly associated with the Celtic demi-god Bran the Blessed. According to myth, Bran was close to death after being severely injured in battle. To avoid this fate, he asked his friends to cut of his head and carry it with them on their adventures.
To their surprise, Bran’s head kept on living and greatly amused Bran’s friends during their travels.
Later on, Bran’s head would be buried in England, with the grave facing towards France so as to protect the island from invasion.
A sacred tree for the Irish
The alder tree holds a sacred place in the old Irish pagan religion and folklore due to several reasons.
Firstly, it is considered one of the seven holy trees in Irish paganism (alder, apple, birch, ash, holly, oak, willow).
These trees were used by druids and priests in many rituals, such as diagnosing diseases and even foretelling the future through divination rituals.
Secondly, the alder symbolizes the emergence of the solar year in the Celtic druidic calendar and represents the fourth consonant F (Fearn) in the druidic tree alphabet.
Even today, the sacredness of the alder tree is still recognized in some areas of Ireland, where felling one is believed to result in the burning of one’s house. According to myth, the alder tree’s dryad, or tree spirit, is believed to be responsible for the burning.
In some remote areas, cutting down a sacred alder tree is even considered a crime against the community since it can bring about terrible accidents upon the village
Finally, the alder’s sanctity is reinforced because, when cut, its wood bleeds a crimson sap resembling human blood.
The alder tree marks an important calendar period
The alder tree holds significance in the Irish pagan calendar, as the fourth or alder month extends from March 19th to April 15th.
This period includes the encompassing the spring equinox, an important seasonal transition in many pagan traditions.
Alder tree characters, who are born under this sign, are seen as powerful individuals with courage, and prepared to make their own way in the world. However, they are restless and indecisive, especially those born during the New Moon phase.
Full Moon Alder tree characters, on the other hand, are more persuasive and confident but don’t have the energy of people born under the New Moon Alder phase.
Nevertheless, Full Moon Alder characters may find success by strategically positioning themselves to take advantage of crisis situations.
The counseling deity associated with this sign is the Celtic sea-god Lir or Neptune, who is influenced by the more forceful Mars during this period.
The alder was defeated by the ash
In the ancient Welsh myth Cad Goddeu (The Battle of the Trees) the alder tree fought in the front line, a testimony to the courage of the Alder-arche-type.
The Battle of the Trees ended in a victory for the Ash-king over the Alder-king, and though Bran becomes displaced, his defeat represents the evolving spiritual nature of the Celts; for the Ash-king wielded his power from the magical art of his Druids which prescribes to the mystical aspect of evolution.
The Celtic Battle of the Trees is a tale found in the ancient Welsh myth “Cad Goddeu.”
In this story, the alder tree fought in the front line against the ash tree. However, the battle ended with the victory of the Ash-king over the Alder king.
While this battle is certainly myth, it is important on a symbolic level because it was not the trees themselves that were in conflict with one another, but instead the values they represented.
Thus, the ash symbolizes strength, masculinity and balance while the Alder was that of fire, immortality and regeneration.
Since the ash tree was victorious, it can be assumed that virtues of the ash tree were important to the Celts than those of the alder tree.
Another reason for the victory of the Ash-king were the magical art and knowledge of his Druids, emphasizing the mystical aspect of evolution in Celtic spirituality.
The alder tree symbolizes sacrifice and transformation
The alder tree represents sacrifice in Celtic mythology, particularly through the story of Gwern, whose name means alder.
In the tale Gwern’s father abdicates and declares his son king, however his jealous uncle Evnissyen throws him into a fire, causing his death.
Later on, the death of Gwern directly brings about a deadly war between the Irish and Britons.
This legend is believed to be connected to a primitive sacrificial ritual in which a child, acting as a surrogate for a fertility hero, is killed after temporarily being named as king.
This theme can be compared to a Greek legend in which Heracles kills children by fire in a state of madness.
Gwern’s association with the alder tree combined with the fact that the alder tree was used in religious and ceremonial fires associated the alder with the idea of sacrifice.
The alder tree symbolizes the fire element
A useful property of the alder tree is that it does not rot when in contact with water, even during prolonged exposure.
On a symbolic level, it was thus believed the alder could resist the corruptive powers of water.
Moreover, alder wood burns very well, even when it is green or damp. This property contributes to its association with fire, as it can be used as fuel in various circumstances, including sacred fires and rituals.
Finally, the deep red color of alder sap reminds one of fire, which further strengthens the alder’s association with fire.
The first humans were made from alder and ash trees
The first human beings in Norse mythology, Ask and Embla, were said to be created out of an ash and alder tree.
According to the myth, the Norse gods, after creating the world, realized it was incomplete.
To address this, they took an ash tree to create a man, Ask, and an alder tree to create a woman, Embla.
Odin, along with the gods Vili and Ve, then endowed Aske and Embla with essential attributes to make them truly human.
Odin gave them life and soul, Vili granted them reason and motion, while Ve provided them with senses, expressive features, and speech.
The gods then designated Midgard, the middle realm, as the home of humans. Aske and Embla then went on to become the progenitors of the human race.
As a interesting note, Norse mythology chose to use trees to make the first humans, whereas Christianity preferred dust or clay from which to make Adam.
Perhaps the reason for this is that Scandinavia, which the Norse inhabited, was a land covered in trees, much as it is even today. By comparison, the Middle East, from which Christianity arose, is much more arid and desert-like.
Thus, both cultures chose to make humans from a particular substance, but each one chose an element that was more closely connected to their geography – wood for the Norse, earth for Christianity.
Alder trees were magical in Danish folklore
According to Danish legend, Elle-folk are supernatural beings whose origins can be traced back to old Norse beliefs in elves and woodland spirits.
These fairies are known to inhabit mounds or alder (elle) trees, which is where they derive their name.
The male Elle-folk are often described as having an aged appearance and can be found sunbathing. They have a penchant for luring human maidens into their company, presumably with the intent to bewitch or enchant them.
The female Elle-folk, on the other hand, are characterized as beautiful creatures who dance the “Elle-dance” under the moonlight. With their enchanting music and dance, they attract young men, often with fatal consequences for those who fall under their spell.
A Danish belief states that if someone stands under an alder-bush at midnight on Midsummer eve, they will witness the king of the elves passing by with his entire entourage.
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