A Druid’s Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine by Ellen Evert Hopman, Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2008
I came to read A Druid’s Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine after having read and reviewed three of Hopman’s other impressive books: A Druid’s Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year; The Sacred Herbs of Samhain and her soon to be released book The Sacred Herbs of Spring. In Sacred Tree Medicine Hopman has revealed her knowledge of the ancient Ogham Tree Alphabet, and the Ogham words used to describe these twenty trees along with her knowledge of Gaelic. She is an amazing linguist in her ability to call upon three ancient Ogham documents to describe these trees: The Word Ogham of Morainn mic Moin; The Word Ogham of Mic ind Oic, and the Briatharogam Con Culainn. These three sources converge on meaningful descriptions of the trees and the losa fedo or brush in the woods.
Hopman’s Ogham description of each tree or bush provides a description of some central and important Celtic belief or way of life, e.g. the Hazelnut describes the nature of the classes of people from peasant to king, the Heather the importance of the bee and honey to the Druids, and the Aspen the rituals surrounding death and burial. The Ivy describes the ways of farming, and the Blackthorn the use of dyes and dying agents. The descriptions of these twenty trees have opened me to a new and deeper understanding of the life of the ancient Celts of Ireland and the importance of these trees in their lives. In each tree chapter the description of the tree is followed by the tree’s herbal uses and its many diverse uses found among indigenous American people. This again shows the incredible depth of Hopman’s knowledge of these sacred herbal trees.
The third section of each chapter examines the spiritual aspects of the tree. This spiritual section is of special interest and importance to me in my practice of ecstatic trance for calling upon the tree or herb as a spirit guide. Through ecstatic trance I have met and communed with many animal spirit guides, but more recently plants have become my guides as they were for our hunting-gathering ancestors. The shamanic body postures as researched by Felicitas Goodman are used while in an ecstatic trance for healing, divination, metamorphosis or shape shifting, for journeying into each of the three worlds, the underworld, the middle world and the upper world, and for providing initiatory or death-rebirth experience. To commune with the plant world I like to begin with a divination posture to become acquainted with the plant, then with a healing posture, specifically the Chiltan Spirits Posture with my right hand over my heart, to fall in love with the plant. My third meeting with the plant uses a metamorphosis or shape-shifting posture to become one with the plant as in marriage, and fourth, an initiation or death-rebirth posture for letting my relationship with the plant change my life. Hopman’s description of the spiritual aspects of the trees has provided me with deeper and more beautiful connections in my relationship with each tree.
Our acre garden has been void of Oaks, so I am planting an Oak grove that is providing me with a special sacred space to commune with the Oak, though they are still small, and I will never see them in their maturity. The Oak, one of the twenty trees, is the “noble of the wood.” As the tallest of trees it lives in the three worlds with its deep roots in the world of the ancestors, the trunk in our middle world and branches in the sky world of the deities. It offers much to life with its healing properties, its uses for living by providing heat from its fire, wood for the structures in which we live, and for many other items necessary for living such as bows, boats and their oars. Its acorns provide flour for baking and food for animals.
The ancient laws defined the punishments for harming an Oak, e.g. the fine for stripping the bark for tanning a pair of woman’s sandals was one cow hide and an oxhide for a pair of men’s sandals. With such laws and fines, harvesting Oak for its many purposes must have been quite restricted and involve Oak grove rituals that validate its sacredness. These trees were sacred to a lengthy list of deities including Indra, Jupiter, Yahweh, Thor, Baldr, Artemis, and Brigid. One word for oak, dorw, became our word “door,” i.e. the tree that is inhabited by a spirit who opens the door to the otherworld.
Sacred Tree Medicine ends by offering divination exercises using the tree Oghams that tell us how to open ourselves to and learn from the trees that come to us in these exercises, a beautiful section of the book that I find most meaningful and exciting for my spiritual growth. The divinatory message from each tree offers us new and meaningful insights that affirm its sacredness and brings it alive within us. The Oak reminds us to stay centered and balanced with our roots grounded and our head in the spiritual sky. The Oak opens us to regain that balance which we might have forgotten or from which we have become distracted.
Of the twenty trees I will review one more, the Heather, since I have been a bee keeper. Opening a hive with thousands of bees flying around me and not stinging is a very spiritual experience. Heather is one of the losa fedo, or bush of the wood that grows on scrub land or in waste places, land that is a wonderful habitat for bees, bees that bring sweetness to our lives through their hard work. Archeological discoveries from two to five thousand years ago provide evidence of brewing. I have frequently brewed mead, a wine made with honey.
Heather was used for thatching, baskets, ropes and brooms. Medicinally it is an astringent and antiseptic. Its tea cleans the liver and blood of toxins, and it is used for coughs, colds, cystitis and other bladder and kidney conditions. Spiritually, bees were sacred to the Forest Druids. The Welsh saying is so true: “The day the bees stop humming the world will end.” They symbolize the work of the Druid as teacher, healer, philosopher, and naturalist, i.e. work guided by the sun for bringing nectar back to the tribe and the wisdom shared for the benefit of all. Heather brings good fortune.
The Divinatory lesson that Heather brings us reminds us that our Great Earth Mother brings us sweetness, the sweetness and joy of the spirits that we have likely forgotten and need to again embrace. Each of the twenty trees has a beautiful message that we need to embrace and keep alive within us.
In Part 2 of the book the nature of the druid magic and the tools used by the druids to bring alive this magic are described. This magic is used during the four Celtic fire festivals, Beltaine, Lughnasad, Samhain, and Imbolc. The rituals call upon the deities and spirits of these celebrations, whether for the beginning of new life at the end of winter, growth in the middle of summer, the completion of our work that ends with the fall harvest, or the middle of winter for the rest we need to prepare us for the work of the following spring. The rituals of these celebrations are described in a delightful way. Central to these celebrations and festivity are the twenty sacred trees and what each has to offer us, celebration that involves feasting with many foods and special recipes that I look forward to preparing.
Also central to these celebrations is the involvement of children who learn the importance of these turning points in the yearly cycle of life as taught to us by the Yew Tree if we would again practice the rituals of our Celtic past, rituals that would be as much fun and more meaningful than their current secularization with Halloween and Mayday. Listening to our ancestors and the spirits of the Earth is taught to us by the Aspen. Returning to these ways of our past is needed to again selflessly value our Great Earth Mother, selflessness taught to us by the Elder in order to save her from the destruction caused by our greed. Though to do this we need the strength to face this spiritual battle by embracing the Holly and again appreciate what our Earth has to offer us by listening to the teachings of the Ivy.
Each book I have read by Ellen Evert Hopman opens new doors, and even though I have read and loved many of the ancient myths, the Tain, the Mabinogion, Cuchulain of Muirthemne, among others, she brings these stories alive in an interconnected and meaningful way that I find most beautiful. They are not just myths but are about a way of life. Because of her writing I am eager to delve more deeply into the ways of the Celts and Druids.
Nicholas E. Brink, PhD is the author of :
- Ecstatic Soul Retrieval (publisher – Inner Traditions / Bear & Co.)
- Power of Ecstatic Trance
- Baldr’s Magic
- Beowulf’s Ecstatic Trance Magic
- Trance Journeys of the Hunter-Gatherers
- Grendel and His Mother (publisher – Routledge)
- Applying the Constructivist Approach to Cognitive Therapy: Resolving the Unconscious Past (Routledge)
Available from Postmark Books in Rosendale, NY or your preferred bookseller