Most witches and pagans hold bonfires at some point. I guess we wouldn’t be pagan if we didn’t have ritual fire as fire is something that reaches far back in time. Eons ago our first ancestors gathered around a fire to keep warm, to cook meat and for protective and purification purposes. Eventually, as well as practical reasons for bonfires (or as we tend to call them Bael Fires), they took on ritual meaning too.
In Wiccan literature and in the Wiccan Rede there are mentioned nine kinds of wood that are used to make bonfires – and there is a reason! Generally these are the first nine trees of the so-called Celtic Tree Calender*
Birch – When a forested area burns, Birch is the first tree to grow back, and thus is associated with rebirth and regeneration. Workings using Birch add momentum to new endeavors. The Birch is also associated with magic done for creativity and fertility, as well as healing and protection. It is the first tree in the Celtic tree calendar, following the Winter Solstice, and is related to the Ogham symbol Beith. Use Birch branches to craft your own besom for magical workings, and in spells and rituals related to enchantments, renewal, purification, fresh starts and new beginnings.
Rowan – Known by the Celts as the Ogham symbol Luis (pronounced *loosh*), the Rowan is associated with astral travel, personal power, and success. A charm carved into a bit of a Rowan twig will protect the wearer from harm. The Norsemen were known to have used Rowan branches as rune staves of protection. In some countries, Rowan is planted in graveyards to prevent the dead from lingering around too long. Rowan is also associated with the Celtic hearth goddess Brighid.
Ash – In Norse lore, Odin hung from Yggdrasil, the World Tree, for nine days and nights so that he might be granted wisdom. Yggdrasil was an ash tree, and since the time of Odin’s ordeal, the ash has often been associated with divination and knowledge. In some Celtic legends, it is also seen as a tree sacred to the god Lugh, who is celebrated at Lughnassadh. Because of its close association not only with the Divine but with knowledge, Ash can be worked with for any number of spells, rituals, and other workings. Associated with ocean rituals, magical potency, prophetic dreams and spiritual journeys, the Ash can be used for making magical (and mundane) tools – these are said to be more productive than tools made from other wood. Use an Ash branch to make a magical staff, broom or wand. The Ash also appears in the Ogham as Nion.
Alder – The Alder is associated with making spiritual decisions, magic relating to prophecy and divination, and getting in touch with your own intuitive processes and abilities. Alder flowers and twigs are known as charms to be used in Faerie magic. Whistles were once made out of Alder shoots to call upon Air spirits, so it’s an ideal wood for making a pipe or flute if you’re musically inclined. The Alder represents the evolving spirit, and is represented by the Ogham symbol Fearn.
Willow – A Willow planted near your home will help ward away danger, particularly the type that stems from natural disaster such as flooding or storms. They offer protection, and are often found planted near cemeteries. In addition to its use as a healing herb, Willow was also harvested for wicker work. Baskets, small curricles, and even bee hives were constructed with this bendable, flexible wood. This wood is related to The Goddess, healing, growth of knowledge, nurturing and women’s mysteries, and is represented by the Celtic Ogham symbol Saille.
Hawthorn – The Hawthorn is associated with magic related to masculine power, business decisions, making professional connections. The Hawthorn is also associated with the realm of Faerie, and when the Hawthorn grows in tandem with an Ash and Oak, it is said to attract the Fae and herald a portal into the Otherworld. This prickly-thorned tree is associated with cleansing, protection and defense. Tie a thorn with a red ribbon and use it as a protective amulet in your home, or place a bundle of thorns under a baby’s crib to keep bad energy away. It is represented by the Celtic Ogham symbol Huath.
Oak – The mighty Oak is strong, powerful, and typically towering over all of its neighbours. The Oak King rules over the summer months, and this tree was very sacred to the Druids. The Celts called this tree Duir, which some scholars believe to mean “door”, the root word of “Druid”. The Oak is connected with spells for protection and strength, fertility, money and success, and good fortune. In many pre-Christian societies, the Oak was often associated with the leaders of the gods – The Dagda, Taranis, Zeus, Thor, Jupiter, and so forth. The strength and masculinity of the Oak was honoured through the worship of these gods.
Holly – The ancients used the wood of the Holly in the construction of weapons, but also in protective magic. Hang a sprig of Holly in your house to ensure good luck and safety to your family. Wear as a charm, or make Holly Water by soaking leaves overnight in spring water under a full moon. In the pre-Christian British Isles, the Holly was often associated with protection – planting a hedge around your home would keep malevolent spirits out, thanks in no small part to the sharp spikes on the leaves. In Celtic myth, the concept of the Holly King and the Oak King symbolizes the changing of the seasons, and the transition of the earth from the growing time to the dying season. Holly is represented by the Ogham symbol Tinne.
Hazel – Hazel is often associated in Celtic lore with sacred wells and magical springs containing the salmon of knowledge. This is a good wood to use for workings related to wisdom and knowledge, dowsing and divination, and dream journeys. Hazel was a handy tree to have around. It was used by many English pilgrims to make staffs for use upon the road – not only was it a sturdy walking stick, it also provided self-defense for weary travelers. Certainly, it could have been used as well for ritual. Hazel was used in weaving of baskets by medieval folk, and the leaves were fed to cattle because it was believed this would increase the cow’s supply of milk. It is represented by the Celtic Ogham symbol Coll.
The one tree Wiccans are admonished NOT to burn in a sacred fire (or any fire for that matter) is the Elder. As the Wiccan Rede says:
Nine woods in the Cauldron go, burn them quick a’ burn them slow. Elder be ye Lady’s tree; burn it not or cursed ye’ll be.
This is because Elder is the Goddess’s tree, strongly connected to Goddess spirituality and also because within the tree lives the Elder Mother or Hylde-moder. The elder is the Old Crone aspect of the triple Goddess, a wise old energy at the end of the year’s cycle. One should NEVER cut down any part of an Elder tree without the explicit consent of Elder Mother, lest you bring downfall upon yourself.
*Bear in mind that the Celtic Tree Calender is a poetic interpretation of Robert Graves (The White Goddess) and this calendar as such has no basis in true Celtic Myth. However, there is no doubt that trees were sacred to the Celtic and they used them for many purposes, both practically and ritually.
Carpenter’s Wood, Berkshire by K. Sell