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Druidry: The Shamrock and Other Sacred Plants

The Shamrock

The Shamrock is even more typical of Ireland than the Oak is of Britain, and was the greater object of reverence and regard.

But Moore might have added the claims of Religion. Is it not a sacred emblem of the Trinity? Does not the legend remind us of St Patrick convincing his doubting hearers of the truth of the Three in One doctrine, by holding up a piece of Shamrock? It is true that the Philosophical Magazine, June 1830, throws some doubt on the story, since the three-leaved white clover, now accepted as the symbol, was hardly expanded so early in the year as St. Patrick's Day; and Irishmen to this day do not agree which is the real Shamrock.

The trefoil that was sour was certainly eaten by primitive Irish, while the white clover, not being sour, was not eaten. It may, therefore, have been the Wood Sorrel, trefoil out in early spring. Spenser says--"If they found a plot of watercresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as a feast" Wyther wrote--"And feed on shamrooks as the Irish doe." The word Shamrock, or Shamrog, is applied to various trefoils, however, by Erse and Gaelic writers, though ancient herbalists knew only the sour variety by that appellation. The Gaelic seamarog is the little seamar trefoil. Dr. Moore of Glasnevin declares the black nonsuch (Medicago lupulina) to be the true shamrock, though the white clover is often sold for it.

The pious Angelico introduced the white clover in his sacred pictures, like the Crucifixion, and as Ruskin thinks, "With a view to its chemical property." Its antiquity is vouched for. Dr. Madden sings--

"'Tis the sunshine of Erin that glimmer'd of old
On the banners of Green we have loved to behold,
On the Shamrock of Erin and the Emerald Isle."

Ancient bards declare that it was an object of worship with the remote race of Tuath-de-Danaans. It was the emblem of the Vernal Equinox with the Druids. Greek emblems of the Equinox were triform. As the Seamrag, it was long used as an anodyne, being seen gathered for that purpose by Scotch wives as late as 1794; it must, however, be gathered by the left hand in silence, to preserve its virtues. The four-leaved shamrock is called Mary's Shamrock.

According to an engraving in Ledwich's Antiquities of Ireland, the shamrock appears on the oldest Irish coin. It is the badge of the Order of St. Patrick, founded in 1783, but the national badge since 1801. Pale or Cambridge blue, not green, is the true national colour of Ireland. But Ireland cannot claim sole possession of it as a sacred symbol. It was the three-leaved wand of Hermes, the triple oracle of the ancients. It was the three-leaved sceptre of Triphyllian Jove. It was seen on the head of Isis, of Osiris, and of a god of Mexico. It was recognized both on Persian and Irish Crowns.

It was the three-in-one mystery. "Adorning the head of Osiris, it fell off at the moment of his death. As the trefoil symbolized generative force in man, the loss of the garland was the deprivation of vigour in the god, or, as some think, the suspension of animal strength. in winter"

In the Dublin Museum is a beautiful copper vessel, or plate, with the trefoil, from Japan. In the Mellor church of Derbyshire is a very ancient font, with rude figures, horses, and men with Norman helmets. The tails of the horses, after passing round the body, end in a rude form of trefoil, which another horse, with open mouth, is prepare to eat, while its own long tail is similarly presented to the open mouth of its equine neighbour. The shamrock w mysteriously engraved on the neck of the oriental crucified figure in the relic collection at Glendalough.

The Oak

The OAK was also venerated by the early Irish. We read of Kil-dair, the Druids' cell or church of the Maig-adhair or Dearmhagh, the field of oaks; the Daire-calgaich, now Londonderry, the wood of Calgac; Dairbhre (now Valentine, Isle of Kerry), the place producing oaks Derrynane was Doire-Fhionain, the oak grove of Finian; Doire-maelain, now Derryvullan, the grove of Maelain; Derrada-Doire-fhada, the long oak grove; Derrybeg, little oak; Derry Duff, black-oak wood.

Derry is from Doire or Dair, oak. Kildare was Cill-dara, the church of the oak. St. Bridgid of Kildare built her cell, it is said, under a very high oak. Hanmer wrote--"Bridget builded a cell for her abode under a goodly faire oke, which afterwards grew to be a monasterie of virgins called Cylldara, in Latin Cella quercus."

Druids were so named from Dair, Doire, or Duir--the oak. The Druids were Dairaoi, or dwellers in oaks. There was the Gaulish Drus or Drys, the Gaelic Daru, the Saxon Dre or Dry, the Breton Derw, the Persian Duracht, the Sanscrit Druh.

The oak was thought sacred from its acorns being food for man in his savage state. It was dedicated to Mars and Jupiter. Etrurian inscriptions appear about the oak. The temple of the oracular Dodona was in an oak forest We read that 456 B.C., a Roman Consul took an oak solemnly to witness as a god. That tree was the symbol of the Gaulish deity Hesus, as it was of the German Thor.

The Dryades were priests of the oak. It was associated with the tau or cross. "So far as I know," says Forlong, "the cutting of a live oak into a tau, or deity, is unique on the part of the Druids." The stones in Sichem were placed under an oak. The oak or terebinth of Mamre was worshipped as late as the fourth century. The oak was sacred, as the acorn and its cup represented the male and female principles.

The Misteltoe

The MISTLETOE had an early reputation as a guide to the other world. Armed with that golden branch, one could pass to Pluto's realm:--

"Charon opposed--they showed the Branch.
They show'd the bough that lay beneath the vest;
At once his rising wrath was hush'd to rest."

Its connection with health, as the All-heal, is noted by the poet Callimachus, under the appellation of panakea, sacred to Apollo:--

"Where'er the genial panakea falls,
Health crowns the State, and safety guards the walls."

As the seat of the life of the Oak, as then believed, it had special virtues as a healer. The Coel-Creni, or omen sticks, were made of it, and also divining-rods. It had the merit of revealing treasure, and repelling the unwelcome visits of evil spirits When cut upon St. John's Eve, its, power for good was greatest "While the shamrock emblematic of the equinox, the mistletoe is associated with the solstice," says St. Clair.

The ancient Persians knew it as the healer. It told of the sun's return to earth. Farmers in Britain used to give a sprig of mistletoe to the first cow calving in the year. Forlong points out the recovery of old heathen ideas; saying, "Christian priests forbade the mistletoe to enter their churches, but yet it not only got in, but found a place over the altars, and was held to betoken good will to all mankind." It was mysteriously associated with the dove. The Irish called it the uil-iceach: the Welsh uchelwydd. The County Magazine for 1792 remarked "A custom of kissing the women under the mistletoe-bush still prevails in many places, and without doubt the sure way to prove prolific." Pliny considered it good for sterility. It was the only thing that could slay the gentle Baldur. In England there are some twenty trees on which the mistletoe may grow.

Other Sacred Plants

The Irish respected the Cairthaim, quicken-tree, quick-beam, rowan, or mountain ash, which had magical qualities. In the story of the Fairy Palace of the Quicken-tree, we read of Finn the Finian leader being held in that tree by enchantment, as was Merlin by the fairy lady. MacCuill, son of the hazel, one of the last Tuath kings, was so-called because he worshipped the hazel. Fairies danced beneath the hawthorn. Ogham tablets were of yew. Lady Wilde styled the elder a sacred tree; and the blackthorn, to which the Irishman is said to be still devoted, was a sacred tree.

Trees of Knowledge have been recognized east and west. That of India was the Kalpa. The Celtic Tree of Life was not unlike that of Carthage. The Persians, Assyrians, and American Indians had their Trees of Life. One Egyptian holy tree had seven branches on each side. From the Sycamore, the goddess Nou provided the liquor of life; from the Persea, the goddess Hathor gave fruits of immortality. The Date-palm was sacred to Osiris six thousand years ago. The Tree of Life was sometimes depicted on coffins with human arms. The Lotus, essentially phallic, self-produced, was an emblem of self-created deity, being worshipped as such at least 3000 B.C. Homa was the Life-tree of Zoroaster. The bean was thrown on tombs as a sign of immortality. The banyan and the onion denote a new incarnation.

The Indian and Cingalese Bo or Asvattha, Ficus religiosa, sheltered Gautama when he gained what is known as Entire Sanctification, or Perfection. The sacred Peepul is the male fig, the female being Ficus Indica. The fig entwines itself round the palm. The Toolsi, Ocymum Sanctum, and the Amrita are also worshipped in India, so are the Lien-wha, or Nelumbium, in China, the cypress in Mexico, and the aspen in Kirghizland.

Trees and plants were devoted to gods as the oak, palm, and ash to Jupiter, the rose, myrtle, and poppy to Venus; the pomegranate to Proserpine; the pine-apple to Cybele; the orange to Diana, the white violet to Vesta, the daisy to Alcestis; the wild thyme to the Muses; the laurel to Apollo; the poplar to Hercules; the alder to Pan; the olive to Minerva; the fig and vine to Bacchus; the lotus to Hermes. The leek of Wales, like the shamrock of Ireland, was an object of worship in the East, and as associated with Virgo. The Hortus Kewensis states that it first came to Britain in 1562. The mandrake or Love-apple was also sacred. Brinton gives a list of seven such sacred plants among the Creek Indians. The Vervain, sacred to Druids, was gathered in Egypt at the rise of Sirius the Dogstar.


Related Source:

Irish Druids And Old Irish Religions" by James Bonwick - London: Griffith, Farran [1894] - Original redaction by Phillip J. Brown, www.belinus.co.uk - Reformatted, pagination, and proofreading at sacred-texts.com, November 2002. J.B. Hare, redactor.
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