Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is blooming there.
W. B. Yeats
You know you have arrived at the Center because the world is more alive here than you have ever imagined it could be: colors burn and flicker; sounds vibrate like plucked strings and each breath you draw makes you feel a little giddy and light-headed as if you are inhaling a purer element. Before you in the great square courtyard stands the Well, a full moon of silver water encircled by a low stone wall. Five channels cut into the flagged stones of the enclosure radiate out from the Well and carry the overflow beyond the courtyard to join other streams.
Over the well hang the branches of nine slender hazel trees, their branches swaying like hair in an invisible currents of air. Every now and then, purple-husked nuts are shaken loose into the water below. A flash of light - and a fish with glittering scales leaps up and catches one in its jaws. Now and then the discarded husks can be seen floating away down one of the streams.
You are not alone. A procession of pilgrims approach the Well in silence. Their sandalled feet make no noise. One by one, they stoop and drink the water in cupped hands. When each arises, they appear to glow with an inner radiance, as if refreshed by the Water of Life itself.......
In the days of the Celts, Northern Europe was covered with forests so thick it was said a squirrel could hop from branch to branch from one end to the other without touching the ground. Italy was covered from coast to coast with dense woods of oak, elm and chestnut; the great Hercynian forest rendered Germany impenetrable in Caesar's time; Scotland was clothed with the magnificent Caledonian, Ireland with oak-woods, the whole of Southern England with the ancient trees of Anderida.
In this environment, it is no wonder the forest was perceived as the matrix of a tribe's sustenance, culture and spirituality. A food-store of nuts, berries and game, a pharmacopeia of medicines, wood supply for shelter and the kindling of sacred fires – the forest was all of these to the early Celtic peoples.
When a tribe cleared the land for a settlement, they always left a great tree in the middle, known in Ireland as the "crann bethadh," or Tree of Life, that embodied the security and integrity of the people. Chieftains were inaugurated at the sacred tree, for, with its roots stretching down to the lower world, its branches reaching to the upper world, it connected him with the power both of the heavens and the worlds below. One of the greatest triumphs a tribe could achieve over its enemies was to cut down their mother tree, an outrage punishable by the highest penalties.
For trees not only provided earthly sustenance: they were regarded as living, magical beings who bestowed blessings from the Otherworld. Wood from the nine sacred trees kindled the need-fire that brought back the sun to earth on May Eve; tree names formed the letters of the Ogham alphabet which made potent spells when carved on staves of yew; rowan protected the byre; ash lent power to the spear’s flight.
An early tale of the founding of Ireland tells how a giant came from the Otherworld bearing a branch on which grew apples, nuts and acorns at the same time. His name was Treochair (Three Sprouts)and he shook the fruits onto the ground where they were taken up and planted in the four corners of Ireland, with one in the center, where they grew into the five sacred trees, great Guardians of the land.
Because trees have their roots in the unseen world of spirit, they are doorways into that world. That most magical of Celtic trees, the oak, derives its Gaelic name, (Old Irish daur, Welsh derw) from the Sanskrit word duir, that gives us "door." Many scholars believe that the Druids, who worshipped within sacred groves, derived their name from this word, combined with the Indo-European root wid,to know, becoming the "Wise Ones of the Oakwood."
Old ballads sing of those who have entered the Otherworld by the door of a sacred tree. Thomas the Rhymer, a bard who lived in 13th century Scotland, sat under the famous Eildon tree, and was taken away by the Queen of Elfland. The Eildon tree was a hawthorn, sacred to the faeries as most bards know, including modern poet Kathleen Raine who wrote:
A hundred years I slept beneath a thorn,
Until the tree was root and branches of my thought,
Until white petals blossomed in my crown.
In a number of early Irish tales of initiation into the mysteries of the Otherworld, the hero must carry a branch of a sacred tree. For, in keeping with other Indo-European traditions, at the heart of the Otherworld stands the World Tree, the axis mundi, from which the branch comes. In The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal, the chieftain Bran is walking a little way from his palace when he hears the sweetest, most unearthly music he had ever heard. He is lulled to sleep by the sound of it, and wakens to find in his hand a silver branch of an apple-tree covered with white blossoms. That night a beautiful woman appears in the palace, dressed in shining clothes. She holds the company entranced with songs of her island country, in the heart of which grows an ancient apple-tree whose blossoms forever fall like snow on the plain below while birds sing sweet melodies in its branches. She invites Bran to sail over the western seas and join her there, for the silver branch has unlocked for him "magic casements/opening onto perilous seas of faery lands forlorn."
In Cormac's Adventures in the Land of Promise, Cormac is a High King of Ireland, who holds court at Tara.. One day when he is looking out over his domain, he sees a strange warrior approaching, bearing a silver branch on which hang three golden apples. When the branch is shaken, music rings out of such sweetness that it soothes all hearts, and lulls the sick to sleep. The warrior tells Cormac that he comes from "a land wherein there is nought save truth and there is neither age nor decay nor gloom nor sadness nor envy nor jealousy nor hatred..."
The branch leads Cormac into the heart of the Otherworld, although in this story, the World Tree is not represented by an apple-tree, but by nine magical hazels that border a well. Cormac’s vision of this sacred center is perhaps the most powerful to be found in Celtic mythology because it embodies the central teachings of this wisdom tradition:
"Then he saw in the enclosure a shining fountain, with five streams flowing out of it, and the hosts in turn drinking its water. Nine hazels of Buan grew over the well. The purple hazels dropped their nuts into the fountain, and the five salmon which were in the fountain severed them and sent their husks floating down the streams. Now the sound of the falling of those streams was more melodious than any music that men sing."
At the heart of the Celtic Otherworld, the spiritual source of all life is discovered in the ecology of trees and water. No static image here, the deepest Mystery dances with life and motion, and many interchanges take place: water flows, nuts fall, the salmon leap. Where the waters emanate from hidden depths below the earth, the tree of life rises towards the power of the sky. The gushing well and its cluster of hazel trees show that this a place where the mysteries of earth converge with the heavens to form a dynamic interplay of the opposites. Where water suggests the potential for life on earth, the tree makes life manifest.
Throughout the ages seekers of truth—poets, philosophers, rulers and other pilgrims of the spiritual quest—have made the perilous journey to this sanctum. For the sacred nuts dropping from above to meet with the gushing waters below unite heaven and earth. The salmon in the well act as intermediaries—fishy priests!—by cracking the nuts. In the threefold shamanic universe, they make the knowledge of the upper and lower worlds available to our middle world, which is why seekers desired above all things to eat the Salmon or Hazelnuts of Wisdom.
A walk in any forest reveals the archetypal pattern of trees and water made palpable in the natural world, where they are partners linked in the dance of life. Streams and rivers are primary carriers of seeds while flood and rain soften the earth for their bed. Water moistens the seed-case, then unlocks the dormant powers of growth within so that they unfurl into sprouts. Swirling rivers carry minerals down from mountains to nourish their roots. One tree in full foliage may consume a ton of water a day.
Likewise, trees are guardians of water and soil. Their roots ensure that water from rain or snow is allowed to seep gradually into the earth. On deforested land, storms create terrible damage to the land as they remove topsoil, choke watersheds and cause floods. Paradoxically, this usually creates water shortages later in the drier season, because there is no reserve to keep springs, streams and rivers supplied. Wildlife, of course, suffers, too: The clear-cutting of forests in the Pacific North-West is destroying salmon-rearing habitats, and where the trees no longer form a shady canopy, water temperatures are rising and killing fish and insects in the rivers.
The sacred ecology of trees and water is enshrined all over the Celtic landscape, where hundreds of holy wells bordered by guardian trees still dot the countryside today – living temples where people have come for centuries to drink or bathe in the waters and leave a votive offering torn from their clothing on overhanging branches. Even today, the number of ragged pieces of material hanging from trees are testimony that pilgrims still follow the old tracks that lead to that mysterious beckoning water with its magical promise—of healing, of foretelling the future, of granting a wish. They still come because even the muddiest pool, choked with weeds or trampled by cattle, evokes the half-submerged memory of the Well of Wisdom, while the branches of the most spindly tree still seem to sway to winds that blow in another world.
This archetype is universal, found in the earliest of religious texts: the Rg Veda and the Upanisads of Ancient India. In Judeo-Christian traditions also, the same pairing is found in the description of the garden of Eden:
And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it
was parted, and became into four heads. (Gen. ii. 9-10)
Tree and water converge at the center of the world’s beginning, and also at its end, for the same image appears in St. John’s vision of the Heavenly City in Revelations:
And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal,
proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.
In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river,
was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded
her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the
It is clear, then, that the archetypal ecology of tree and water is rooted in the most ancient religious traditions of the world, and one whose branches reach into our dreams today, both waking and sleeping. On the physical level, it serves to remind us to pay attention to the interconnectedness of the living world, if life on earth is to thrive. Within the psyche, water and tree represent the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the Self: the wellspring of the soul that nourishes the creative force within each of us that "drives the green fuse through the flower," to bloom and set seed in our own lives, so that we too become a door leading into many realms.
And now it is your turn to drink from the Well. As you step towards it, you are no longer aware of those who have gone before you, or those who wait behind. It is as if you are alone with a deep Presence, immensely quiet, pregnant with life. For a moment you look up into the gently swaying branches of the trees. It is as if they are being stirred by a wind from another world, and a part of you longs to be borne aloft into those regions of light and air. But now your feel yourself being drawn towards the pool below, and you stoop down and peer into the water. For what might be a moment or an eternity, you behold an abyss, a swirling vortex that spirals into untold depths of darkness. As you gaze transfixed, you become disoriented in time and space, and the force of its energy almost pulls you into the deep. There is a roaring like the sea. The next moment all is quiet again, and the water is a serene pool glowing with a gentle blue-green light, reflecting the overhanging trees. A fish glides like a shadow just beneath the surface. You cup your hands and drink.......it is like drinking light itself, and a feeling of deep, quiet well-being spreads through you as the water washes away the wounds of the past and purifies your whole heart and mind. In forgotten dry ditches, seeds begin to grow, and luxuriant growth greens the bare earth. The roots of the Tree penetrate the soil of your soul. Strong stems and branches twine around crumbling old walls, and burst through the confines of the mind with green leaf and blossom.