Monday, January 07, 2008

The Celtic Tree Calendar: Real or Imagined

Robert Graves, in his book “The White Goddess : A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth” suggests that the Celtics followed a calendar of thirteen trees. Graves noted that the letters of the Celtic alphabet (Ogham) formed season progressions of trees according to the various moon. Graves reasoned that since trees reminded the Celtics of the Sacred Triple Spiral (birth, death, and rebirth), they would be the most logical choice for time keeping.

However, is Graves’ reasoning correct or simply a pet theory of his? To answer that question, one must determine if keeping time by trees is feasible, why would Celts need to keep time, and would trees be helpful to them.

Telling Time by Plants:

In Maine (Northern New England (USA)), certain plants do appear at particular times. In addition people do plan their activities around some of these plants. Late winter is heralded by skunk cabbage, which stinks up the forest. In early spring, “Sugaring time” commences when maple tree sap rises. People tap the trees and take the sap to nearby sugaring shacks to maple syrup for sale. Middle spring is time for burdock, a bitter green plant. People used to have roadside stands selling this plant as the first greens of the year. Berry picking season starts in late spring and lasts through fall. Strawberries ripen in May-June, raspberries in July, Blueberries in August, and Blackberries in September. October is the famous fall season in New England, when hillsides are afire with scarlet maple trees. Then the snow come and the river freeze over.

However, these seasonal markers are not always reliable. January thaws causes skunk cabbage to bloom early. May frosts kills berries. Frosts in Maine have happened as late as July. Most people use a combination of other natural signs for seasonal changes. For example, the rivers crack as the ice melts on them. The loud booming noises are heard by towns around. After the rivers are free of ice, the lumbering season begins.

Celtic Needs for Keeping Time:

Like many ancient peoples, Celts kept time for only one reason: their survival. Among ancient peoples, survival was credited to various gods. Therefore, a part of people’s religious duties was to keep time for the ceremonies for the different gods. For example, in Hawai’i, when the Pleiades rise at sunset (October-November), the rainy season begins. At this time, people made offerings to Lono, God of Agriculture for bountiful crops.

The Celts were pastoral people who kept great herds of cattle. Raising cows meant knowing when it was safe to take them to pasture, and when to bring them inside for the winter. Also, people, who rely on cattle, need to know when the calving season happens and when to cull the herds for winter. Modern ranchers have a cycle of calving in the spring, and culling in the fall. In the American West, where spring snows and fall blizzards happen, having cattle die in unprotected pastures is a major concern.

According to Roman sources, the Celts divided their year into a light and dark half. The light half began after the calving season was over, and when it was safe to drive the cattle to upper pastures. The dark half started when the cattle had to be taken inside (mid-fall).

The current Pagan calendar of cross quarters (between the solstices and equinoxes) seems to fit the Celtic lifestyle – it followed calving, pasturing, culling, and over-wintering seasons for Europe. This modern calendar which is devised from Irish myths has important holidays at midwinter (Imbolc), mid-spring (Beltane), midsummer (Lughnassadh), and mid-fall (Samhain). The light half begins at mid-spring and ends at mid-fall. However, this cross quarter calendar is based on the sun, since solstices and equinoxes needed to be tracked.

The most reliable and most common time keeping method among ancient peoples was to use combination of sun, moon, stars, weather, and natural phenomena. Since the Celts regarded themselves a part of nature, they would notice many things besides trees. The annual salmon migration would have a place in the Celtic time keeping scheme.

A solar-lunar calendar seems to answer the Celts needs for survival. The sun and stars are accurate in telling when the seasons will happen. The moons and various events occurring in the months would give a broader sense of the seasons. The Coligny calendar which Graves dismisses out of hand, syncs up both lunar and solar calendars. The Celts did rely on more things than trees according to Coligny calendar.

Celts and Trees

One major problem with the tree calendar is that these trees grow in different climates at different times. Celts living in Gaul and those living in Ireland would have varying seasons for their trees. In addition, not all the tree species were present everywhere the Celts were. Graves seems to assume that Celts lived in only one place. However, Julius Caesar noted that the Celts lived in Gaul as well as on the islands.

My conclusion is that Graves have pet ideas about the ancient Celts. Like many people with favorite ideas, he cherry picked the data to fit his conclusions. Although, his Celtic Tree Calendar is appealing and romantic, it does a disservice to the Celts. It obscures the truth about their lives and replaces it with drivel. Graves leaves people with a false impression of the early Celts and their lives.

Graves’ Calendar:

1. Beth (Birch) December 24 to January 20
2. Luis (Rowan) January 21 to February 17
3. Nion (Ash) February 18 to March 17
4. Fearn (Alder) March 18 to April 14
5. Saille (Willow) April 15 to May 12
6. Uath (Hawthorn) May 13 to June 9
7. Duir (Oak) June 10 to July 7
8. Tinne (Holly) July 8 to August 4
9. Coll (Hazel) August 5 to September 1
10. Muin (Vine) September 2 to September 29
11. Gort (Ivy) September 30 to October 27
12. Ngetal (Reed) October 28 to November 24
13. Ruis (Elder) November 25 to December 22

14. December 23 is not ruled by any tree for it is the traditional day of the proverbial "Year and a Day" in the earliest courts of law.

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