The Singing Head
The title of our small book arises from myths associated with feàrn, the Scottish Gaelic name for the alder tree. Feàrn is also the sixth letter of the modern Gaelic alphabet — indeed, the Gaelic alphabet is a “tree alphabet.” All the names of the letters are the names – some in current use, some archaic –of trees.
.The tree scheme of the Gaelic alphabet originated in pre-Christian days and had great mythical and ritual significance. Nowadays only glimmers of those old meanings remain. Today, the tree names serve primarily as a mnemonic device to help children learn the alphabet. It is still in daily use in the Gaeltacht regions of Scotland and Ireland, where Gaelic is a required subject in the primary grades. Because Scottish and Irish Gaelic are spoken in isolated regions no longer in direct contact with each other, differences have arisen in the two languages and the alphabet.
But on to feàrn and to “singing heads”: in myth, the old Irish demigod Bran is symbolized by feàrn, the alder tree. Bran appears in numerous stories across the whole Celtic world. In some versions, Bran’s head is severed in battle and carried away. Although separated from its body, Bran’s head continues to recite poetry, to prophesy, and to sing – in preliterate times, prophesy, recitation, and song were a single thing. You may spot the parallel theme of the severed, singing head in the myth of Orpheus, the Greek patron of song and poetry. Orpheus, too, is beheaded, and his head also sings on.
Traditionally, the top branches of the alder yielded the best twigs for making pipes and whistles 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 twigs cut from the alder’s top branches or the story of Bran’s severed head? It is likely a chicken-and-egg question.
So, poets, trees, singing heads: for me, it is a fertile source of rumination and inspiration. Alders abound here in Eastern Maine where I sit to write this preface. However, on a breezy day such as this one, every tree has a singing head. Each tree recites its own suite of poems.
Halls Mills, Maine
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