Birch - Botanicals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


(Betula alba)

Other names: The Lady of the Woods

Birch trees are unusual: their bark is white unlike the more usual brown. Birches are the botanical equivalent of the sacred white doe or buffalo. They are symbolic of light, purity, healing, and magic.

Birch is the tree of birth and new beginnings. This isn’t merely mystical palaver but is based on some historical truth: birch trees are believed to have been the first to cover the land emerging from the Ice Age. Its use is certainly ancient; Ötsi, the Neolithic “Ice Man” who was found frozen in an Alpine glacier was carrying a birch bark bag when he perished. Birch is believed to epitomize female qualities. If oaks are essentially male, then birches are female. They are associated with powerful goddesses like Brigid and Sarasvati. Baba Yaga lives in the heart of a birch forest.

The name allegedly derives from Sanskrit bhurga, meaning “tree whose bark is used for writing upon.” Birch bark is used in that manner among various Native cultures of North America, most notably the Ojibwa, who put birch to many uses, but also in Russia, where birch bark “paper” is incorporated into spell-casting to leave messages for nature spirits.

Amanita muscaria mushrooms grow beneath birches so birches are closely identified with these hallucinogenic mushrooms. The mushrooms may be understood as gifts of the tree. Birch wine and beer are also made.

Various traditions illustrate the identification of birch trees with new beginnings:

Image The birch is the first tree in the Ogham alphabet (Beth).

Image Cradles are traditionally carved from birch wood to provide blessings and protection and a good start for a new baby.

As the tree of new life, the birch was frequently chosen to be the maypole. Birch is among the most traditional materials for crafting a witch’s broom.

Roman officials carried bundles of birch twigs as symbols of authority. A bundle of birch twigs with an axe in the center was known as a fascis and was originally intended as a symbol of generation and fertility. (Axes were symbols of rebirth and fertility deities, both male and female.) The fascis was appropriated by Mussolini and the word has since derived new meanings.

Once upon a time, bundles of birch twigs were used to slap cattle and women (gently!) to boost fertility and offer blessings and protection. Many horned deities carried similar bunches of birch twigs. English has no specific word for this bundle of birch twigs but in Hungarian the word virgàcs (pronounced veer-goch) names this item. Krampus, Santa Claus’ Central European “helper” is never without his virgàcs. The symbol also survives among the traditional accoutrements of the chimneysweep as well as among the birch twigs used to enhance the experience of the Finnish sauna.

See also DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga; HORNED ONE: Krampus; PLACES: Bathhouse.