Robert Graves, in his book “The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth” suggests that the Celts followed a calendar of thirteen trees. Graves noted that the letters of the Celtic alphabet (Ogham) formed seasonal progressions of trees according to the various moons. Graves reasoned that since trees reminded the Celts 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?
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 rivers 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 can begin.
Celts and Trees
One major problem with Grave’s “tree calendar” is that the same trees often grow at different times in different climates. Celts living in Gaul and those living in Ireland would have varying seasons for their trees. In addition, not all the tree species of the Ogham were present everywhere the Celts lived. Graves seems to assume that Celts lived in only one place. In contrast, Julius Caesar reported that the Celts lived in Gaul as well as on the islands.
My conclusion is that Graves had 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.
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.