Feàrn is the Scottish Gaelic name for “alder,” the sixth letter of the modern Gaelic alphabet. The Gaelic alphabet is a “tree alphabet.” All the names of the letters are the names of trees, although a few of the tree and letter names are archaic –they are not the names a modern person would use to designate a given tree.
The tree scheme of the Gaelic alphabet originated in pre-Christian days and had mythical and ritual significance. Only hints of those old meanings remain. Today, the tree names serve primarily as a mnemonic device to help children learn the alphabet. The alphabet is still in daily use in the Gaeltacht regions of Scotland and Ireland.
But on to feàrn and to “singing heads.” The old Irish demigod Bran is symbolized by the alder. Bran appears in numerous myths and stories across the whole Celtic world. In some of these stories, Bran’s head is severed and carried away. Although without a body, Bran’s head continues to recite poetry and to sing – in ancient, preliterate days, singing and recitation were the same thing. You may spot the parallel with the myth of Orpheus, the Greek patron of song and poetry. He, too, was beheaded, and his head also sang on.
Traditionally, the top branches of the alder yielded the best twigs for making musical pipes and flutes. From Spain across France to Ireland, the top of the alder tree was known as “the singing head.” Which came first, the making of flutes from alder twigs or the story of Bran’s severed head? It is likely a chicken-and-egg question.
So, poets, trees, singing heads: it’s a fertile source of rumination and inspiration. Alders abound here in Eastern Coastal Maine where I sit to write this preface. However, on a breezy day such as this one, every tree is a singing head. Each tree recites its own suite of poems.