Meaning: Birch Tree
Supporting Meanings: Goddess, Earth Mother, pregnancy, nurturing, birth-death-rebirth, life cycles
Ancient Meanings: According to Diana Paxson, all three rune poems agree that this rune (Beorc in the Anglo-Saxon and Bjarkan in the Norwegian and Icelandic) all mean “birch tree”, though Osborn and Longland cite a gloss on the Anglo-Saxon that argues the meaning as “poplar tree”. The Anglo-Saxon poem notes that the birch tree is a splendidly branched tree that forms a ‘gloriously adorned’ lofty crown that reaches to the sky, but also that the birch bears no fruit or seed and is generated by suckers that develop from its leaves. With this description, Osborn and Longland may be on to something as poplars readily reproduce through suckers. Birch trees typically reproduce sexually through the production of catkins which then develop into seeds. Many of the seeds do not result in trees, however, and birch trees do have a limited ability to reproduce asexually through the formation of suckers. The Icelandic poem notes that while birch is “a leafy branch”, it is a youthful wood and is a little tree. The Norwegian verse is the most cryptic, saying that “birch is the greenest-leaved of branches; Loki was lucky in his deception.”
Modern Meanings: While Osborn and Longland align Berkano with the black poplar, that doesn’t really impact their interpretation of the rune: they take this description of asexual reproduction to represent continuous growth and an example of the masculine principle. Thorsson, however, calls it a rune of the Earth Mother, which makes sense as many cultures feminize the birch tree in their poetry. Berkano, then, suggests pregnancy and reveals the mystery of birth-death-rebirth and rites of passage. Gundarsson agrees, calling berkano “the rune of the earth who receives the sacrifice/seed and holds it within herself, guarding and nourishing it until the time has come for it to return to the worlds outside again.” Frey Aswynn ascribes the rune to the Goddess Berchta, who guards mothers and children, and takes special care of abandoned children and infant spirits. Wardle describes the rune as the shining may Queen and interprets berkano’s shape as an image of the open womb, making it the sequel to the birthgiving of perthro. Paxon notes that if berkano is a birch tree rather than a poplar, the rune may be interpreted as a symbol of the tree goddess found in many cultures, female and motherly, source of nourishment and protection. She prefers to see it as a rune of Frigga, the most motherly and most queenly of the Northern goddesses.
My Take-Away of the Meanings: Birch trees are one of the first trees to return to an area after a fire, flood, or any such disaster. Indeed, many grow from the stumps of older birch trees. They are a sign of the earth re-birthing itself, and is a sign of the Great Mother
Paxson’s Interpretation and Use: Berkano turns up at significant life passages. It indicates birth and becoming, rootedness, the feminine. Gundarsson calls it a rune of “bringing into being” and is the first protection given a child at his or her birth. It is useful in all female fertility magic and women’s mysteries. It hides the workings of other runes until their action is ready to be revealed and is a rune of hidden transformation and growth. It’s a useful healing rune for women’s troubles and menstrual problems. It suggests success for new enterprises or something beginning. It indicates healing, recovery, and regeneration. Birch also has some pain-relieving and fever-reducing qualities as willow, so it can be used magically to speed healing on these lines, too.
Paxson’s Practice for Living Berkano: One of the major uses of the birch in Scandanavia is in the sauna, a particular type of sweat-lodge where heavy stones are heated with birchwood; therefore, the scent of birch smoke is part of the true Finnish sauna experience. Fresh birch branches are tied together, and people swat themselves and other sauna bathers with it to improve circulation and to enjoy more of the birch scent. In Finland, the sauna is the most sacred place after the church, and prior to mass hospitalization, it was the place where women gave birth. Even today, the experience of a sauna is said to be cleansing for both the body and the mind. Since birch, healing, and motherhood are all important aspects of the sauna, it might do well to reflect upon berkano as you experience a traditional sauna.