July Hay Moon: Nemetona, Eagle and Oak

July is the time that the harvests begin, the first gathering in of the bounteous crops ripening over the land, the time for hay making. Wild-flowers abound in this month, meadows now full of poppy, ox-eye daisy, red campion and teasel, and butterflies gather nectar from dangling horns of violet buddleia. In Anglo-Saxon tradition, this full moon was known as the Wort moon, when the wyrt, or medicinal herbs were gathered to be dried and stored, or also Buck moon as July was the month when deer began to grow their velvet covered antlers.

All northern hemisphere agricultural societies associated the energy impetuous needed to ripen the crop with male energy in its most potent form. The month was named by the Romans for their most famous of kings, Julius Caesar, and in a Greece the Olympia, or early Olympic games, when men would come from all over Greece to demonstrate their prowess in competitions in athletics, drama and music, was presided over by Zeus. In Celtic tradition, the eagle and the oak are associated with this time of year, and the eagle was known as the king of the birds and the oak the king of the trees, both powerful images of strength and mastery.

According to legend, two great eagles guard the burial place of Arthur in Snowdonia, in Welsh called Eryri, or the nest of the eagles. It was also said that druids shapeshift into these eagles and create the whirlwinds of stormy cloud that sweep so frequently across Snowdonia with its mercurial weather patterns. The eagle is often also linked to the power of the sun, the source of heat and light on Earth, and in Gaelic it is known as Suil-na-Greine, eye of the sun. As such clan leaders and kings would wear plumes of eagle feathers to symbolise enlightenment.

In the Welsh tradition, the eagle is one of the four sacred birds and named as one of the five oldest animals. In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, it is the Eagle of Gwernaby who leads them to the salmon, the oldest and most revered animal of them all, and who is able to free Mabon. The eagle rules over the domain of air, of intellect and clarity of thought. The salmon, a creature of the waters, symbolises emotion and the unconscious. This story reminds us that it only through the union of the two that we gain wisdom.

The oak is the tallest and mightiest tree in any grove, the roosting place of oracular birds, and as such it was the central tree to the druids. In Celtic tradition it was the sacred tree of the Dagda the king of the gods, and in Norse mythology to Thor, god of thunder and lighting. The month of July has particularly strong associations with thunder and lightning in most cultures and these natural phenomena was seen as the tool of gods (e.g. Zeus was also often depicted with a lightning bolt.) Here we see an echo of father sky culture, where the male gods were seen to preside over lofty (heavenly) weather patterns, but also a reminder that for the crops to grow successfully, copious amounts of rain was also needed, which at this time of warm surface temperatures, would frequently come in the form of storms. This aspect of the male life force was seen as a necessary complementary energy to the nourishing fecundity of the bounteous energy bringing forth the crop from the earth. An oak tree was especially revered if it had been struck by lightning, a living symbol of the fusing of the two complementary energies of heaven and earth.

The pre-Roman peoples of Britain and Ireland did not build temples, but for thousands of years worshipped outside in nature, in particular in the sacred groves. These were natural clearings in areas of trees, deemed sacred on account of their position near water or other landmarks, and due to the particular mix of trees that prevailed. Oak groves were particularly sacred to the druids. These groves were made into sanctuaries, or sanctified, by evoking the presence of Nemetona, the guardian presence of the sacred place, which were themselves known as nemetons. Hawthorn was her most sacred tree, but mixed groves of hawthorn, oak and ash was deemed to be especially sacred.

This most elusive of goddesses has left virtually no trace in the written record, yet her presence would have endured for thousands of years as the guardian of consecrated and sacred enclosures in woods and forests, probably surrounding a central altar. In Roman times, she did have a shrine in Bath where she was depicted seated on a throne holding a sceptre, surrounded by three hooded figures and a ram. She was sometimes also associated with Rigonemetis, the king of the sacred grove whom the Romans associated with Mars. The ram figuring at the shrine was another symbol of potent male fire energy, again preserving this sacred connection between trees and lightning. In Celtic times however Nemetona would not have had a consort, as it was her presence alone that was needed to sanctify a grove. The circular nature of many nemetons could have been linked to later stone circles that also had the function of making an area of land sacred, and therefore able to function as a bond between heaven and earth.

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