The Celtic Tree Calendar

Modern pagans are wont to promote a certain "Celtic Tree Calendar" which has thirteen months, named for trees, based upon the ogham alphabet. Some of them assert that the Celts followed this calendar, and that proof of this can be found in the existence of ogham, and in the works of Robert Graves. Unfortunately, this is as false as the assertion that the druids built Stonehenge.

First, it should be stated that like most (if not all) human civilizations, the Celts had a calendar--one which existed before the Romans, or at least independent of the Romans. It is known from Irish literature that there were four important holidays in the year--Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnassadh--and from archaeological findings (namely stone chambers, circles, etc.) it is possible they adopted the solstices and equinoxes, though these were not as important, but considered "mid" days (hense "midwinter," "midsummer").

We are given more evidence through the existence of the Coligny calendar--twelve months plus an intercalary month, based on the Metonic cycle, syncing up both the solar and lunar calendars, but relying more on the moon. The names of the months are not derived from trees, however, but instead translate names such as "Summer's End (?)" (November?), "Horse Month" (July?), and "Hot Month" (September?). They had two "weeks"--the first with fourteen days, the second with 14 or 15, depending on the apperance of the (full? new? this is still debated) moon. The year began on the first of Samhain--November 1. (For more, see the Coligny Calendar.)

However, in the nineteenth century antiquarian Edward Davies, on looking at a 16th century history of Ireland called Ogygia by one Ruairí Ó Flaitheartaigh, suddenly decided that the Celts had a thirteen month calendar named for trees. Now, Edward Davies was one of Iolo Morgannwg's partners in the "Druidic Revival" of the late 18th/early 19th centuries, in which unforunately many documents were forged as ancient. This Ogygia, however, was not a forgery--Ó Flaitheartaigh's history (which names Ireland after a mythical island in the Odyssey so as to avoid persecution by the English) does contain a discussion of ogham, ultimately derived from the ogham tract in the Book of Ballymote. However, Ó Flaitheartaigh does not mention calendars, only trees. It was Davies who insinuated there might be a calendar, and Graves who devised this calendar based on the 13 consonants and 5 vowels of Ó Flaitheartaigh. (Ogham actually contains 25 letters, but the last 5 are considered "extra" letters for foriegn words, and likely point to a foreign origin for the alphabet.)

Worse yet, people--including Graves--have now taken to calling ogham "Ogygia" after Ó Flaitheartaigh's book, ignoring the actual reason for his naming of the book. They even say "Ogygia" is a special, secret form of druidic ogham--which is laughable, as the druids never wrote down their teachings, much less carved them into stone.

At any rate, the dating of this calendar--as devised by Robert Graves and subsequently used by many--is as follows:

There are several problems with this calendar. First, he begins the year on December 23, not November 1--this is plainly wrong. He does this so as to coincide with the birth of the sun god. However, the Celts did not worship the sun per se, much less as a male sun (the word for "sun" in Irish is grainne--feminine, and the name of a goddess). Even if sunworship were involved, the year still began on Samhain, not midwinter. Now, he is somewhat correct in having months of 28 days; but the Celts would actually vary the lenght of the months, depending on the moon--Graves does not do this, but keeps the plan rigid.

And, as stated before, there is no evidence that the Celts ever named their months after trees. It just didn't happen. This is the result of Davies and Graves remembering that the Celts followed a lunar year, and picking and choosing the facts to suit their purpose, a problem epidemic to The White Goddess, Graves' wildly-popular book on the tree calendar, tree alphabet, and goddess worship. Graves even goes so far as to say that these 13 trees were also 13 signs of the zodiac--and that this constitutes the original Celtic Astrology. It does not. (read "The Fabrication of 'Celtic' Astrology" by Peter Beresford Ellis.)

There have been a number of books based on Graves and his "theories"--the absolutely dreadful 21 Lessons of Merlyn, various "Celtic Wiccan" books published by Llewellyn, and the ridiculous Handbook of Celtic Astrology by Helena Patterson--which takes this fallacy to a whole new level.

I wish to note a delicious irony: While researching his book, Graves wrote to Robert MacAlister, at the time the greatest scholar on ogham and Irish in general--moreover, he was the president and editor of the Irish Texts Society, still the standard in translation. MacAlister warned Graves not to take the tree alphabet too seriously, as it only went back to the sixteenth century and not before. Graves ignored him. This shocked MacAlister, and many scholars for:

If Robert Graves thought the tree alphabet tradition only went back to the thirteenth century AD (the Book of Ballymote is actually late 14th Century), and that is precisely what MacAlister was warning him about, for we cannot trace it back beyond that time, how is he conjuring its use and claiming it as a mystical druidic calendar used in pre-Christian times?

Presumably Dr MacAlister must also have been surprised at Robert Graves' argument' because Robert Graves' own grandfather, when President of the Royal Irish Academy, was leading authority on Ogham. Charles Graves had already dismissed the 'tree alphabet' as entirely spurious. MacAlister, like all Celtic scholars who had ventured into the field of Ogham, was well aware of Charles Graves' work and, indeed, MacAlister cites it in his own study.

--Peter Berresford Ellis.


For debunking the myth:

Boutet, Michel-Gérald. "Celtic Astrology: A modern Hoax"

Ellis, Peter Berresford. "The Fabrication of 'Celtic' Astrology."

----- The Druids. Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995.

Markale, Jean The Pagan Book of Halloween. Inner Traditions, 2001. (Depsite the title, this is actually a good exploration of Samhain and the Celtic calendar, and includes a helpful section on the Coligny calendar).

Cross & Slover. Ancient Irish Tales. Barnes and Noble 1996.

The origins of this myth:

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. Noonday Press, 1992. (reprint)

Nichols, Ross. The Book of Druidry. HarperCollins, 1992. (reprint)

Patterson, Helene. The Handbook of Celtic Astrology. Llewellyn, 1994.

Plus just about any book or website on "Celtic Wicca"

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Mary Jones © 2004