1) The ‘Cosmic Tree’: the Axis of the World

The mysticism of the tree springs from its longevity, its great presence, its imposing majesty and its impressive height and size: it overhangs the valley and dominates the world. Moreover, the tree reunites and links the three parts of the cosmos in itself. Rooted in the chthonic* world, it stands out with its trunk and boughs in the terrestrial world, while its foliage spreads towards the celestial world. The tree thus represents the intermediary between the divine and human worlds and symbolizes the axis of the world. The ‘world tree’ or ‘cosmic tree’ is a recurrent theme in world mythologies.1035 The most suggestive example is the Norse ash tree Yggdrasil, which is said to be situated at the centre of the world.1036 Its branches spread all over the earth and towards the sky, the gods gather at its foot and springs, giving access to absolute knowledge, gush forth from its three roots, as this extract from the Edda by Snorri illustrates:

‘Þriðja rót asksins stendr á himni, ok undir þeiri rót er brunnr sá e heilagr er heitir Urðar brunnr. Þar eigu guðin dómstað sinn.

The third root of the ash extends to heaven, and beneath that root is a well which is very holy, called Weird’s well. There the gods have their court.1037

In Irish mythology, four trees - Bile Tortan (‘Tree of Tortu’), situated in Ardbraccan, near Navan (Co. Meath), Eó Mughna (‘Yew of Mughain’) at Mughain (Co. Clare), Craobh Uisnigh (‘Bough of Uisnigh’) at Uisneach (Co. Westmeath), Eó Rosa (‘Yew of Ros’) at Old Leighlin (Co. Carlow)and Craobh Dháithí (‘Bough of Dháithí’) at Farbill (Co. Westmeath) – were believed to be sacred. 1038 Bile Tortan, a gigantesque 150 metre-high and twenty-five metre-wide ash tree, situated in the territory of the Uí Tortan sept*, is sometimes described as the ‘world tree’. This tree, which fell down in the 7th c. AD, is said to have existed since the beginning of times and its branches, full of birds and fruit, spread up to the sky.1039 The bile, ‘large tree’, ‘tree trunk’ or ‘post’, from Celtic *bilios, generally had an atypical form and was believed to be the dwelling of the gods.1040 The chiefs of tribes and kings were inaugurated under its branches.1041 The ash tree Craobh Uisnigh was also regarded as the ‘world tree’ because it was believed to be situated at the exact centre of Ireland; hence its nickname ‘the navel of Ireland’. According to tradition, it fell down in the 7th c. AD.1042

Nell Parrot, analyzing the representations of sacred trees on monuments from Mesopotamia and Elam, explains: “There is no cult of the tree in itself; under such a figuration always lies a spiritual entity.”1043 In a poem of the Rennes Dindshenchas, entitled Éo Rossa, which depicts the five sacred Irish trees and tells how they fell, the Tree of Ross is described as “a firm strong god”:

‘Eó Rossa 7 Eó Mugna 7 Bili Dathi 7 Craeb Uisnig 7 Bili Tortan, coic crand sin.
Eo Rosa, ibar é. Sairtuath co Druim Bairr dorochair, ut Druim Suithe cecinit: Eo Rosa, roth ruirech recht flatha, fuaim tuinni, dech duilib, diriuch dronchrand, dia dronbalc […].

The Tree of Ross and the Tree of Mugna and the Ancient Tree of Dathe and the Branching Tree of Uisnech and the Ancient Tree of Tortu – five trees are those.
The tree of Ross is a yew. North-east as far as Druim Bairr it fell, as Druim Suithe (‘Ridge of Science’) sang: Tree of Ross, a king’s wheel, a prince’s right, a wave’s noise, best of creatures, a straight firm tree, a firm-strong god […].1044

The belief in Tree-Gods is evidenced in the epigraphy of Gaul. A MarsBuxenus, whose namemight be derived from a Celtic stem *box-, *bux meaning ‘wood’,1045 is mentioned in an inscription from Velleron (Vaucluse).1046 The god Fagus, honoured in Tibiran (Hautes-Pyrénées), St-Béat (Haute-Garonne) and Générest (Hautes-Pyrénées), has a Latin name signifying ‘Beech’ which is undeniably the transcription of an indigenous theonym*.1047 The god Expercennius, mentioned in a dedication from Cathervielle (Haute-Garonne), might be an oak god.1048 In the area of Angoulême (Charente), a god called Robori was worshipped. His name is generally glossed as ‘Sessile Oak’, but Delamarre suggests it rather means ‘Very Furious’ (Ro-bori).1049

As their names indicate, some goddesses are also the personification of a tree. A Celtiberian goddess called Drusuna is closely related to the tree, since her name is based on the stem dru- meaning ‘tree’, ‘oak’.1050 Drusuna (‘Divine Tree or Oak’) is venerated in a dedication from Segobriga (Catalogne): D[-]sunae [--] L(ucius) V[---] H[---]A v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To Drusuna L(ucius) V[...] H[...] paid his vow willingly and deservedly’,1051 and in two inscriptions from San Esteban de Gormaz (Vieille-Castille): Drusune Cisa Dioc(um) Suattan(i filia) v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To Drusuna Cisa Diocum(?) daughter of Suattanus paid her vow willingly and deservedly’,1052 and Atto Caebaliq(um) Elaesi f(ilius) D(rusunae) v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) m(erito), ‘To Drusuna, Atto Caebaliqum(?) son of Elaesus paid his vow willingly and deservedly’.1053 In the inscription from Segobriga, the dedicator has a Latin name and certainly bears the tria nomina of Roman citizens. In the two inscriptions from San Esteban de Gormaz, the dedicators’s fathers Suattanus and Elaesus are peregrines bearing Celtic names and the praenomen* of the dedicator Atto is Celtic.1054 The stem dru-, ‘tree’ is found again in the epithet of the possibly Germanic Matronae/Matres Andrustehiae, venerated in Germania Inferior, in Cologne, Bonn and Godesberg.1055 Delamarre proposes to split down their name as *and-dru-st-ya-, that is ‘The Ones who stand by the Big Tree (of the World)’, with ande, ‘very, big’, dru-, ‘tree’ and –sto-, ‘who stands’.1056 In this divine epithet might thus be reflected the concept of the Cosmic Tree, at the foot of which deities used to gather and meet.


Eliade, 1983, pp. 231-237 ; Brosse, 2001, pp. 32-38 ; Chevalier & Gheerbrant, 1982, pp. 62-64.


Eliade, 1983, pp. 238-239 ; Brosse, 2001, pp. 14-24 ; Guirand & Schmidt, 2006, p. 873 ; Mortensen, 2003, pp. 24-25, 27 ; Bek-Pedersen, 2007, pp. 64-65, 85-86, 91-93.


Faulkes, 1982, p. 17 ; Bek-Pedersen, 2007, pp. 90-91 for this poem, and pp. 64-65, 85-86, 91-93 for other references to Yggdrasil. See also the poem on the Nornes in Chapter 1.


Henry, 1978, p. 145 ; Gwynn, 1913, pp. 144-149, 505 ; Stokes, 1905, pp. 258-259 ; Stokes, 1894, p. 420 ; Vendryes, 1953, p. 4 ; O’Hanlon, 1875, vol. 4, p. 218 ; Stokes, 1887, p. 185 ; Stokes, 1895, p. 279 ; Gwynn, 1913, pp. 148-149 & 1924, pp. 240-247, 440-441 ; Bieler, 1979, pp. 162-163 ; Hennessy, 1866, p. 77.


Ó hÓgáin, 2003, p. 56.


Delamarre, 2003, p. 75.


Mackillop, 2004, p. 41.


Ó hÓgáin, 2003, pp. 56-57.


Parrot, 1937, p. 19.


Stokes, 1895, p. 277.


Evans, 1967, pp. 316-317 ; Lacroix, 2007, p. 37 ; Olmsted, 1994, p. 346.


CIL XII, 5832.


CIL XIII, 223, 224, 225 ; Rodriguez, 2008, pp. 178-179, n° 147 ; De Vries, 1963, p. 195 ; Vendryes, 1997, pp. 50-51.


CIL XIII 329 ; Rodriguez, 2008, pp. 210-212: the prefix ex- would be Celtic.


CIL XIII, 1112 ; De Vries, 1963, p. 195 ; Vendryes, 1997, p. 51 ; Delamarre, 2003, p. 94.


Olivares, Carlos, 2002, p. 124 ; Blázquez, 2001, pp. 65-66 ; Marco Simón, 1999, p. 151 ; Sopeña, 2005, p. 353 ; Sterckx, 2005, pp. 41-42.


Hep 2000, 178 ; Abascal & Cebrían, 2000, pp. 199-200, n°1, fig. 1.


Hep 1996, 893 ; AE 1995, 868 ; Gómez-Pantoja & García Palomar, 1995, pp. 187-188.


Hep 1996, 894 ; AE 1995, 869 ; Gómez-Pantoja & García Palomar, 1995, pp. 187-188.


Delamarre, 2007, pp. 173 (Suattanus), 94 (Elaesus), 32, 212 (Atto).


AE 1981, 669 ; AE 1956, 245 ; CIL XIII, 8212 ; AE 1931, 23 ; CIL XIII, 7995.


Delamarre, 2007, pp. 22, 211, 220, 232.