The Celtic Tree of Life
is a vegetative plant pattern - a spiraling interlace form that usually climbs out of a pot and is often embellished with small birds and leaves.
This motif represents verdant life emerging from the vessel or source – the grail, sacred container of life. The first vegetative motifs appear in the La Tène Iron Age, and have been adapted from the more floral classical designs into a uniquely Celtic form. Birds – which represent spirit through their gift of flight and journeys into the heavens – are often associated with the Tree of Life, from which they pluck the fruit of wisdom. This is a deeply esoteric philosophy common to many ancient cultures and religions.
The Tree of Life motif
is not as early as the spiral or labyrinth, but was used in Egypt in 5000 BC and is an important symbol for cultures and faiths around the world. The vine motif, pot, and oval leaves with small eyes upon them, symbolize all plant forms; at the same time, they represent the deeper philosophy of the Tree of Life.
The Celtic Druids, priestesses and healer-women encoded their deep knowledge of trees and herbs into an ancient cryptic Tree alphabet – an Ogham cipher: Beth Luis-Nuin. In Celtic ornament, leaves and berries of sacred plants such as mistletoe are woven among the stylistic patterns, contributing the symbolism of their healing or magical properties to the totemic images.
The Celtic Tree of Life Motif in Antiquity
In keeping with the respectful tradition of not copying but instead abstracting forms that represent nature, there are no images of actual trees or specific flowering plants in the Celtic art of antiquity. Those more lifelike interpretations of this symbol that we often see today in the work of modern Celtic artists, are contemporary images – a perfect example of the evolution of the folk-art tradition that will continue into the future times.