Heathens of Yorkshire
Birch – The White Lady of the Forest
-by Dan Coultas
This piece has been written for the Pagan Federation Spring Equinox 2020 online moot. It covers my own personal connection with birch, a botanic description of the tree, mythology and folklore, rune lore and magick. It finishes with a poem.
Personal Connection I have always felt a connection with birch. In my younger days I spent a lot of my time in the Rheindahlenerwald and Hardterwald in North-West Germany amongst the many species of trees, but it was always the birch, and in particular the silver birch, that stood out to me as being unique. I knew it was a tree to be revered and respected, even before I discovered Heathenry in my teenage years. This may have been partly because of it’s distinctive look, but I think even in those early days it went beyond that; there was a spiritual connection which I could not explain, but I knew was there.
As a scout I learnt the fire lighting properties of silver birch bark. This too struck a cord with me. Birch also burns efficiently even when green, unlike other woods which will produce a lot of smoke if not dried out before burning. Not only could birch provide shelter and fuel like other trees, it could also provide a unique survival tool. A way of lighting and fueling fire and therefore providing warmth without the need for tinder, lighter fuel or seasoned wood. We were of course careful to only take the bark and wood from fallen branches, not growing trees, although in a life or death situation, the option would be there.
I have not spent time thinking on trees for some time, other than Yggdrasil, the world tree. When I thought about writing about trees for the equinox moot initially I thought of Yggdrasil as the obvious topic for someone who generally writes on Heathenry. I planned to start writing the next day, but that night I dreamt of birch and the many aspects of the white lady of the wood. The next morning it was clear that the old connection had never left me.
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the Birch as ‘any of about 40 species of short-lived ornamental and timber trees and shrubs constituting the genus Betula (family Betulaceae), distributed throughout cool regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Ivory birch (family Euphorbiaceae) and West Indian birch (family Burseraceae) are not true birches. The name bog birch is applied to a species of buckthorn, as well as to B. glandulosa.
A birch has smooth, resinous, varicoloured or white bark, marked by horizontal pores (lenticels), which usually peels horizontally in thin sheets, especially on young trees. On older trunks the thick, deeply furrowed bark breaks into irregular plates. Short, slender branches rise to a narrow pyramidal crown on a young tree; they become horizontal, often pendulous, on an older tree. The egg-shaped or triangular, usually pointed leaves have toothed margins; they are alternately arranged on the branchlets. They are usually bright green, turning yellow in autumn. The drooping male catkins flower before the leaves emerge; smaller, upright female catkins on the same tree develop in conelike clusters, which disintegrate at maturity, releasing tiny, one-seeded, winged nutlets.’Birch is a tree many of us see every day. In its different varieties it is common across Britain, Europe and large parts of the world.
Folklore and Mythology
In folklore birch is often connected with the feminine, and especially with motherhood and the nurturing of new life. ‘To me, birch is an essentially feminine presence within a woodland. Pliant, expressive and graceful, she lends beauty without grandeur, whispering and bending with the wind, softening the hard edges of a landscape with gentle brushstrokes that blur the boundaries between earth and sky.’This is reflected in the role birch plays in the forest. It is a nurse tree, vital for reforestation, regulating soil acidity and providing shelter for less hardy species to establish themselves. It is easy to see why they would be connected with motherhood. It is this aspect of birch that make them sacred to Frigga and the Germanic Goddess Berchta, the ‘white lady of the forest’, which is another name for the birch, and Holda, her southern Germanic equivalent.
Berchta is also the patron of children who die in infancy, and as well as motherhood, birch is also connected with grieving. ‘The birch has always been associated with the spirits of the dead and with those that mourn, for, in sympathy with the sorrowing, ‘weeps the birch of silver bark with long dishevell’d hair.’This link to the afterlife adds further to the mystery and magic of the birch. It also links it with family, linking us to those of our mother line who have passed over. The connection with death also makes birch sacred to the Goddess Hel.
Birch has long been associated with the circle of life. It is a relatively shorted lived tree, but one which facilitates the life of others, and grows easily on new ground. It evokes the image of death and rebirth. As a result, there is a connection with Nerthus, the earth mother, and also a relationship with ‘dying Gods’ and the likes of John Barleycorn in English folklore.
Birch has always been significant to Heathens, so much so that when Odin took up the
runes, one of those runes was the birch.
Beorc in the Anglo-Saxon Futorc, Berkana in elder Futark, björk/bjarkan/bjarken (depending on the variant used) in younger Futark. The birch is ever present in the runes.
We get some insight into what birch meant to our ancestors from the rune poems. The Anglo-Saxon rune poem states:
Beorc byþ bleda leas, bereþ efne swa ðeah
tanas butan tudder, biþ on telgum wlitig, heah on helme hrysted fægere, geloden leafum, lyfte getenge.
Which translates as:
“Birch has no shoots, it carries its rods without fruits; radiant high twigs, high its crown with leafs fairly laden, reaches the sky.”
This passage invokes images of the magnificence of the birch, reaching proudly towards the sky, towering over smaller plants that it shelters from harm.
The Icelandic rune poem states:
Bjarkan er laufgat lim ok lítit tré ok ungsamligr viðr. abies buðlungr.
Which translates as:
“Birch, leafy twig and little tree and fresh young shrub.”
This passage mostly describes the physical attributes of the tree, but in ‘fresh young shrub’ there is a nod to the birch’s connection with motherhood and new life.
The Norwegian rune poem states:
Bjarkan er laufgrønstr líma; Loki bar flærða tíma.
Which translates as:
“Birch has the greenest leaves of any shrub; Loki was fortunate in his deceit.”
The first line is again a physical description, but the reference to the ‘greenest leaves’ reflects the fast-growing nature of the birch; green often denotes young and new. The reference to Loki’s deceit in the second line is, according to Bruce Dickins ‘doubtless to Loki's responsibility for Balder's death’, although traditionally it is mistletoe, not birch, that is said to have been used to kill Baldur.
According to Kvedulf Gundarsson ‘the rune berkano, “birch,” is the rune of the Great Mother, the goddess worshipped as Nerthus by the early Germanic people, who became Holda on the continent and was split into Hel and Freyja in the Norse countries…
As Freyja, Berkano is the source of life; as Hel, she is keeper of the dead; as the Aesic Frigg, she is the silent keeper of wisdom who “knows all orlog, I though she does not say so herself.” Looking with care, you can see that each of these goddesses bears within herself aspects of the others-they are all maternal, keepers of their share of the dead, and silent seeresses.’ It is the rune that encapsulates all aspects of the birch and we have explored above, both scientific and mythological.
It is not just Germanic scripts that honour the birch. In Ogham, Beith (birch) is the letter B, and the first letter of the alphabet. Birch is the ruler of the first lunar month (24th Dec – 20th Jan) in the Ogham moon calendar. ‘Birch is the first of the tree symbols, for the first moon cycle in the Ogham Tree Calendar. Known by the celts as Beith (pronounced ‘bay’) it is the symbol of new beginnings, regeneration, hope, new dawns and the promise of what is to come. The tree carries ancient wisdom and yet appears forever young. The Druids were believed to have used the sap to make a spiritual cup for the celebration of the Spring Equinox.’The presence of the birch across both early European spiritual practices and modern pagan practices further highlights its deep-rooted religious significance.
In magick, ‘Birch is associated with inception, fertility, and sometimes with purification.’Due to it’s diuretic properties birch tea has been used to cleanse the body, and birch sap can be used as a skin tonic. ‘Birch “paper” (or strips of the dried bark) is valuable for spellcraft.’Again, I would urge you to ensure the bark is not stripped from living trees. It is unlikely to benefit your spellcraft if unnecessary harm has been done to the tree.
Birch can also be used ‘for protection, especially psychic protection. Birch groves provide shelter for the psychoactive Fly Agaric mushrooms, so Birch is also a patron of sorts for hallucinogenic journeyers. Where Birch is the guardian, the wanderer is said to be safe from madness and Faery tricks.’Of course, I do not recommend using any illegal drugs in your craft; I have found pathworking to be quite effective without the use of hallucinogens, but you can invoke birch regardless.
Birch is a tree that is all around us, but that we often overlook. Our ancient ancestors knew its value, survival experts know its value, and by taking up the runes, the Alfather himself learnt its value. Featuring in a maternal role throughout mythology, rune lore and magick, this beautiful, majestic nurturing tree deserves our respect and our thanks.
We give thanks to the white lady of the forest, We give thanks to the greenest of shrubs. We give thanks to the journey’s protector, For your guidance, your shelter and love. Sacred to Freyja you bring in new life, Sacred to Frigga you nurture the young, Sacred to Berchta for young lives lost, Sacred to Hella when our short lives are done.
Fast growing but short lived, You stand out from the crowd, Standing over the forest floor, Protecting and proud.
Guiding the cycle, Of birth life and death, Mother of mothers, Sweetest of breath.
Hail the birch!
 https://www.britannica.com/plant/birch  https://folklorethursday.com/myths/birch-lady-wood/ Clarke Nuttall, 1913, Trees and How They Grow.  Dickins, Bruce (1915). Runic and Heroic Poems of the Old Teutonic Peoples. Cambridge University Press.  Gundarsson, Kvedulf 1990: Teutonic Magic: The Magical and Spiritual Practices of the Germanic Peoples, Llewellyn Press.  http://ecoenchantments.co.uk/myogham_birchpage.html  https://www.groveandgrotto.com/blogs/articles/magickal-properties-of-birch Ibid. Ibid.