Berkana, or Birch, the 18th rune, is often said to be named after the birch goddess. I think however the “goddess” part is modern mythology. Before I go any further I want to say that there’s nothing wrong with that – that’s how mythology gets made. It is interesting to see how ideas get put together and grow into something new.
Birch is a pioneer species, colonizing burnt landscapes and the like. This is because it grows fast and loves sunlight. It is one of the first trees to leaf out each spring, and this may be why it is the first letter of the Irish tree alphabet, ogham.1
It can be used for purification: birch brooms, “birching” with twigs to drive out evil, and as an antiseptic. It was protective: boughs were hung over doors for good luck. It was the wood for Beltane fires, and sometimes for maypoles. The names for birch go back to an Indo-European root, *bʰreh₁ǵ- ‘to shine’.
B is for Birch
You will notice that rune books and sites about birch folklore tend to be vague about exactly who the “birch goddess” might be. That might be because only one the three rune poems mentions a detiy, and that deity is Loki:
Birch has the greenest leaves of any shrub;
Loki was fortunate in his deceit.
(Norwegian rune poem)
Which sounds like a Norwegian version of the Biblical verse about evil flourishing like a green bay tree.2 The Old Icelandic rune poem emphasizes the greenness of birch as well, no doubt a reference to its quickness in leafing out. The Anglo-Saxon rune poem, however, calls it “poplar”, probably because birch is uncommon in England. (That it means poplar, and not birch, is clear from its description of a tree that grows tall, and spreads by suckers, not seed.)
I think one of the main sources of the birch-goddess idea is the following quote from Thorsson’s classic work on runes:
The B-rune contains the complex mystery of the great mother. In its cosmological aspect it is the mother of all manifestation and embodies the mysteries of cosmic and human birth and death.
Berkana rules over the four pivotal “rites of passage” which take place at the crucial times of birth, adolescence, marriage and death. The birch goddess also displays the darker side of the “Terrible Mother,” ruling over death. In Norse mythology she is represented by Hel. In the Germania, chapter 40, Tacitus reports on the goddess Nerthus as the earth mother. In this cult, the goddess is attended by a priest and she is drawn throughout the territory in her chariot, spreading her blessings of peace and fertility. When the procession is at an end, Nerthus receives human sacrifice in order to replenish her spent power.
(Thorsson, Futhark: 56)
Kvedulf Gundarsson agrees, saying:
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. (Teutonic Magic: 76)
Nicantheil Hrafnhild’s book on Nerthus specifically mentions birch in its title, and while he mentions birch several times in the text, usually in a ritual context, any connections between birches and Nerthus, or indeed the goddess Hertha, who features in the chapter called “Birch”, are implied rather than spelled out. (To be fair, his book is a devotional, not a work of research.)
He may have felt that the connection between the birch as a tree of fertility and renewal, and Nerthus/Hertha, who seems to have specialized in the same things, was so obvious that it did not need explaining. (Nigel Pennick, in his Magical Alphabets, agrees that Nerthus is the goddess meant by the birch-rune.) Several websites and blogs have stated that Nerthus’ statue was kept in a birch grove, although Tacitus does not say which sort of trees they were.
Another writer on runes, Diana Paxson, has an interesting take on Berkana and a possible “birch-goddess”:
…the rune may be interpreted as a symbol of the tree goddess found in many cultures found in many cultures, female and motherly, source of nourishment and protection. This figure is archetypal, transcending the goddess-personae to which various peoples have ascribed it….Tree spirits are common in European folklore, and the birch tree is a logical home for the white maidens who haunt Germanic legend.
(Taking Up the Runes, Paxson: 181)
She goes on to say that the earliest Germanic images of deity were shaped from trees. All of this, however, does not link the birch to any particluar goddess, simply saying that goddesses and trees were often connected in people’s minds. (The Weisse Frauen, I should add, are closer to fairies than to goddesses.)
Hel and Nerthus, along with Frigg, another popular candidate, are definite, certified goddesses. Another category of supernatural female, known mainly from folklore, feature in many discussions of the birch-goddess.
Holda, Perchta, and the Weiss Frauen
Freya Aswynn, on her website, gives the following:
In most of the Germanic languages this rune has the meaning of “birch.” First and foremost this is a goddess-rune and especially relates to the goddess Berchta, who is the patron of mothers and children. Berchta has some aspects in common with Frigga and might indeed be a different form of the same goddess.
Berchta in Northern Germany, and Holda in the south, share many characteristics. Grimm seems to have thought they were the same goddess, going under different names, but it may be that they merely filled the same sort of functions for the people of their regions. Although all records of them come from the post-Christian period, and most of the information about them comes from folklore, they do share characteristics with the old goddesses.
Others, including Lotte Motz, have seen Berchta, Perchta and Holle as goddesses. However, neither Grimm nor Motz mentions birch anywhere in their discussion of these figures. All three also feature in discussions of the Elder Mother, so it may be that such folkloric figures seem to be the likely candidates for these functions.
The only direct link I can find between the birch tree and a northern goddess is Dea Vercana:
A goddess on two Roman votive inscriptions, one from Bad Bertrich (C.I.L. XIII 7667), the other from Ernstweiler near Zweibrucken, Germany (C.I.L XIII 4511). It is disputable whether the name is Celtic or Germanic; in the latter case it could be connected to the German *werka ‘work’, or else to the name of the b-rune, ON bjarkan (then Vercana for *Berkana). As the birch tree played a role in folk medicine, this interpretation would be semantically most appealing.
Unfortunately, as Simek himself states, we don’t know if Vercana is Celtic, German, or a hybrid.
If Vercana is a Celtic goddess, she may have been a war-goddess, based on her name, or a healing goddess, based on her associaton with a spring, or possibly both, like Mars Lenus. Vercana points up the difficulty of deciding anything based on a deity’s name alone. All we know is that she was associated with water.3
(I wrote another post summarizing the available knowledge on Vercana, if you would like to learn more about her.)
Spirit, Goddess, or something else?
In my post about the elder mother, I pointed out that no known goddess could be connected to the elder tree, and that the elder mother seemed to be tied to her tree. Therefore she was probably closer to a dryad than a goddess, especially since goddesses like Holda (Holunder is “elder” in German) seemed to be much freer beings, roaming about the world.
I’m not sure if I would say the same of any feminine power associated with birch. It is not hard to imagine that earlier people would have though that a helpful being of some kind was associated with the birch tree, given its usefulness and the variety of folklore associated with it. Perhaps calling that feminine power a “goddess” is a category mistake: the belief in a birch-spirit may be a more animistic one.
As Helio pointed out in a recent post, we need to expand our understanding of the divine in polytheistic religion. He points to the ancient Romans, who had a much more fluid understanding of who or what might be a god. Many small gods of everyday things overlapped with the Big Twelve of Olympus, and a god could be both at once.
The birch spirit might be a powerful spirit, who purifies and renews, but maybe doesn’t have a specific name. (Simon Nygaard has suggested a similar conception of the unknown Vanir in Norse myth, godlike powers who were nevertheless not given individual names, overlapping with the alfar or elves.)
A number of the writers I have quoted above seem to feel that a goddess conencted to the birch or personified in the tree eventually developed into the goddess Nerthus, or Nerthus and Hel, or else the Germanic goddesses whose later, Christianized, forms were Holle, Holda and Perchta. And this may well be true, but it’s speculative.
I think it quite possible that in the period after the last Ice Age, the birch tree had a numen associated with it, given that the tree could provide food, clothing, paper and dye, among other things. (Including an alcoholic beverage, and birch beer for the children. And this is not even getting into the tendency of pyschoactive mushrooms to grow near birches…)
Maybe because of this, and because the birch is known as “the Lady of the Woods”, moderns trying to reconstruct old beliefs feel that there must have been a birch goddess. (Although it was Coleridge who came up with that name.) It’s not hard to imagine a sort of provider goddess who ruled over beginnings, and whose power to purify and protect occasionally took fiercer forms (Berchta). But I think that such a goddess is a modern invention.
1. Rowan is next, while elder is the last of the consonants.↩
2. Sheffield (178) connects this verse with Loki’s mother Laufey, whose name is often translated as “leafy island”.↩
3. It seems a shame to leave such an overlooked goddess after such brief treatment, so I will write a post about her alone.↩
Aswynn, Freya 1990: Leaves of Yggdrasil: Runes, Gods, Magic, Feminine Mysteries and Folklore, Llewellyn Press.
Beck, Noemi 2009: Goddesses in Celtic Religion Cult and Mythology: A Comparative Study of Ancient Ireland, Britain and Gaul, diss. (available here)
Grimm, Jacob Teutonic Mythology IV, (available as a pdf here or through the Wayback Machine)
Gundarsson, Kvedulf 1990: Teutonic Magic: the Magical and Spiritual Practices of the Germanic Peoples, Llewellyn Press. (Archive.org)
Helio “Many Dead, Many Gods”, from The Golden Trail blog.
Motz, Lotte 1984: “The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holda and Related Figures”, Folklore 95 (2): 151-66. (pdf here)
Nicanthiel Hrafnhild 2009: Boar, Birch and Bog: Prayers to Nerthus, Gullinbursti Press. (ebook)
Nygaard, Simon 2015: “From Bog Bodies to High Halls: Changes in Spatial Focus and Religious Conceptions in the Pre-Christian North”, 16th International Saga-Conference (pdf here of abstracts)
Paxson, Diana 2005: Taking Up the Runes: A Complete Guide to Using Runes in Spells, Rituals, Divination and Magic, Red Wheel/Weiser. (Scribd)
Pennick, Nigel 1992: Magical Alphabets, Red Wheel/Weiser. (pdf here)
Sheffield, Anna Gróa 2013: Long Branches: Runes of the Younger Futhark, Lulu Books.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.
Thorsson, Edred 1992: Futhark: a Handbook of Rune Magic, Samuel Weiser. (reprint; pdf here)
Book on Irish tree lore (pdf)
Trees for Life on birch myths and folklore
Birch folklore in Britain
A more mystical look at birch
Birch as dawn or vigin goddess
Birch bark in medicine and mythology
Very interesting explanation about the birch. I had a certainly mixed up idea that there was some similarity between the birch and the bamboo. The birch is definite TREE in your illustration and I thank you for the description and background.
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“When the procession is at an end, Nerthus receives human sacrifice in order to replenish her spent power.”
Whoa, hold on. Where does Mr. Thorsson get that information, because it certainly isn’t from Tacitus’ “Germania”. At no point in his passage on Nerthus does Tacitus make any of the above claims.
He got it from the description of Nerthus’ cult, in chapter 40:
Afterwards the car, the vestments, and, if you like to believe it, the divinity herself, are purified in a secret lake. Slaves perform the rite, who are instantly swallowed up by its waters.
(Translation from the Perseus site)
While it doesn’t actually say that the slaves are sacrificed, it seems like a reasonable inference. It doesn’t say anything about restoring her power, that must be Thorson’s own idea. And of course whoever was telling Tacitus this tale may have merely wanted to emphasize the holiness and power of Nerthus’ cult, but you can see how Thorson concluded there must be human sacrifice involved.
That simply doesn’t follow from the evidence in any way whatsoever, nor could it be considered reasonable inference. It is baseless speculation (on his part, not yours), nothing more. Tacitus very deliberately uses the latin phrase “haurit,” third-person singular present active indicative of “hauriō,” which, in context, likely means either “I drain, drink up, swallow; absorb.” or, less likely, “I devour, consume, exhaust, deplete, use up; engulf.”
The reason this is so important is because “hauriō” has zero connotations of “to drown someone,” and there are three other Latin words that Tacitus could use that do mean “to drown someone:” “mergo,” “merso,” or “obruo.” Tacitus, being a trained historian, highly literate, and not prone to flowery language, would probably not use “hauriō” as a metaphor for drowning in lieu of the many words he could use to just factually state that the slaves were being drowned.
Another big issue is that Tacitus doesn’t actually place any third party actors in the scene to perform the action of drowning the slaves; a requirement if they were being drowned, since drowning requires three things: the one drowning the other, the one being drowned, and the liquid that is being used to drown them. “hauriō” requires only two things: the one doing the imbibing or drinking or swallow, and the thing being imbibed or drank or swallowed. Tacitus specifically states that the slaves are alone when they wash the cart and the goddess, but he doesn’t say that anyone then comes onto the scene to drown the slaves. This is a glaring issue if you’re trying to make the case that human sacrifice is occurring.
Another issue is that there is already a supernatural element to the story: the goddess is said to actually reside in the cart, and she herself is washed by the slaves. So we have a an actual, factual goddess in the story. This means there are mythical elements to the story, and, coupled with how Tacitus structures his description, it is a much more conservative and requires far less assumptions and speculation to interpret this as the slaves being killed by supernatural forces, NOT sacrificed by other people.
Another glaring issue is that, in the sentence immediately following, Tacitus states that, to paraphrase, “This story about the people who look at the deity [keep in mind that the supposed goddess is supposed to be hidden within a cart during her procession and that the washing takes place in a “hidden lake” (another mythical element)] and are then supernaturally killed for seeing her makes people terrified of inquiring as to what she looks like or what’s inside the cart, for fear of being supernaturally killed themselves.” Okay, maybe it’s actually longer than the original sentence with all of the clarifications, but you get the gist of it.
All of this together makes the whole story sound like it’s a myth to explain the ritual tradition of a cart with a goddess in it that you’re not supposed to look into, not a description of an actual ritual practice of sacrificing slaves to Nerthus. Logically leaping from this story to “slaves were sacrificed to Nerthus in ancient Germania” is, in my mind, like someone a thousand years from now assuming that there were child sweatshops in the arctic based on stories about Santa’s workshop and his elven laborers.
I apologize if this came off as aggressive in any way. I didn’t intend to come off that way, and I want to stress that I’m not criticizing you, I’m criticizing the methodology of the person you quoted. It’s just that human sacrifice has long been an ideological weapon used to delegitimize historical religions and make them out to be barbaric, and misrepresenting historical accounts makes the evidence seem much more widespread and conclusive than it actually is, and makes it all the more difficult to counter religious bigotry.