The lady of the woods
Here since the Ice Age, the silver birch, or white goddess, has long played symbolic and practical roles in many cultures, discovers Ian Morton
Endowed with an ancient and mythical history, the silver birch is symbolic, graceful and definitely female, believes Ian Morton
A national stock of approved birch switches was held at Wandsworth Prison
Trees take on a gender and the slim and elegant silver birch could only ever be female. To our forebears, she was the white goddess, the lady of the woods and the silver or the birchen maiden. The first tree to show leaf after winter, she represented purification and the promise of hope and new beginnings. she was tough, too, botanically a pioneer species, here since the Ice Age, the first tree to colonise an exposed landscape scoured by severe conditions, fire or human activity.
With some 60 species worldwide, birch will establish in rough acidic soil and in temperatures that large deciduous species do not tolerate. The seeds of our familiar silver birch (Betula pendula), of a winged type known as samara, carry on the wind and a mature specimen may produce one million of them in a season. Little wonder that, in early times, the tree took on a mystical role.
To the Celts, the tree they called Beith began the Ogham tree alphabet, was devoted to the goddess Brigid and was celebrated in the first lunar month of the Ogham calendar.
Druids greeted the spring equinox by drinking mead of birch sap and honey and eating bread made from the cambium tissue between the outer bark and the wood.
Bundles of birch switches were wielded to drive out the exhausted spirits of the old year, a ritual that survives in beating the bounds in Christian parishes.
The tree made good fire logs, so birchwood bonfires were lit to celebrate Beltane, the festival of rejuvenation. In the medieval period, the trunks were used for maypoles, logs dressed in red-and-white rags were propped against stable doors to protect the occupants and, on Midsummer’s Eve, boughs were hung over cottage doors to protect and bring good fortune. Twigs could be used for thatching and an oily birch tar was used for tanning.
In Norse mythology, the birch was sacred to Freyja, wife of Odin and goddess of love, lust, beauty, war and death. In Druidic Wales, devotion to the tree was echoed by Blodeuwedd, wife of Lleu, the mightiest Celtic god across the European region, among whose sundry warrior attributes was the power to drive out evil. That mythology, together with the inclusion of birch rods in Roman magistrates’
fasces, may lie behind the choice of the birch for corporal punishment in times past.
Judicial birching involved a bound bundle of four or five twigs, not necessarily of birch, but perhaps of willow or hazel—they are all the same family—and, apparently, especially painful. Whichever was used, the birch carried the stigma and flogging on naked skin was widely practised in Europe through the 18th century onwards.
A depressing formality prevailed in English prisons and reformatories with recipients placed on a ‘birching donkey’ or ‘birching pony’; Scotland employed a ‘birching table’ with holes through which the arms were inserted. Many line drawings of the time illustrate birchings, suggesting a public appetite for what might today be termed punishment porn.
Delinquents up to the age of 14 in England and Wales and up to 16 in Scotland faced court-ordered birching until its abolition in 1948 and it was retained until 1962 as a male adult punishment for violent breaches of prison discipline. A national stock of approved switches was held at Wandsworth Prison for issue to other jails on request. The Channel Islands administered birching until the mid 1960s and the Isle of Man until 1976.
At least the Victorians found a positive role for birch wood. Hard and straight of grain, it proved excellent material for the reels,
In the medieval folk canon, the birch was benevolent. To carry a twig warded off malign influences
bobbins and spindles on the great clattering machines that created Lancashire’s cotton industry—birch as a family name was first recorded in that county.
Most of the wood came from Scotland, where the silver birch and related downy birch thrive and several placenames reflect the species’ ancient presence.
In the medieval folk canon, the birch was wholly benevolent. To carry a twig warded off malign influences. To burn a piece of bark or a dried leaf at the start of a journey or of a new undertaking encouraged success. To inscribe a wish or a promise in birch charcoal on a piece of birch bark guaranteed fulfilment whether it was kept or burned. To sit awhile against the trunk of a birch was a way of quelling anger.
An Irish child placed in a birch cradle was protected from malicious spirits. Highland farmers understood that a pregnant cow driven with a birch rod would drop a healthy calf. Conversely, a barren cow would become fertile. Witchcraft was scarcely involved, although crones who believed they flew (a nibble of fly agaric, which often grows near birch, provoked hallucination) would be mounted on a birch besom.
Birch bark was one of the earliest means of recording individual human messages— the very name comes from the Sanskrit
bhurga, meaning tree bark for writing, or from bher, meaning shining white. The British Library collection includes an ancient scroll 84in long and written on both sides.
The oldest surviving birch-scroll writing is of Buddhist texts from the 1st century bc found in Afghanistan and antique bark texts have been found in China, Pakistan, the Great Lakes region of North America and in Russia.
The bark has even been employed in recent times. For want of paper, victims of Soviet oppression incarcerated in gulags used strips to write letters to their families and, in the Second World War, Soviet guerrilla fighters passed out papers and leaflets printed on bark.
To ancient Siberians, the birch represented a ladder from Earth to Heaven and the tree remains a symbol of Russian nature and beauty. The legendary Russian witch Baba Yaga, celebrated in the music of Mussorgsky, dwelt in a birch forest and used a birch broom to magic away her tracks in the snow.
Elsewhere, the Chinese valued the tree for its protective and rejuvenating powers and North American tribes used birch bark to make drinking vessels and canoes.
Inevitably, the tree has a medical and recreational history. Sap, extracted by drilling a simple hole that leached liquid, was drunk fresh or fermented. Birch beer became a traditional beverage across Northern and Eastern Europe, birch tea was widely drunk as a tonic, laxative and diuretic. A cordial of springtime sap mixed with honey, cloves and lemon peel was taken for gout, rheumatism and kidney and gall-bladder problems.
In some societies, birch water was valued as a shampoo and hair restorer. Oil and tar rendered from bark treated herpes, eczema, psoriasis, scurvy, cholera and eye and lung complaints; soaked bark eased muscle pain.
Birch sap has been found to contain heterosides, 17 amino acids, vitamins C and B, potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium and a cocktail of enzymes, proteins and antioxidants, with homeopathic preparations widely available. Betulin from the silver birch shows promise as a skin-cancer treatment. As with so many folk remedies, the herbal empiricism of our forebears proves sound.
Where myths live and spirits dwell: entering the birch grove at Holme Fen, Cambridgeshire, is like passing into legend
Venus Chastising Cupid (1628), by Jan van Bijlert, in an infamous tradition that stretches from Roman magistrates to British prisons
Celtic devotion to the birch: Blodeuwedd (about 1925–30) by Christopher Williams
Catch the drop: birch sap can be drunk neat from the tree or as beer, tea or cordial
Witch and birch-forest dweller Baba Yaga in Vasilisa the Beautiful by Ivan Yakovlevich