Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Willow

Willow, a prolific tree of wet places, is the most versatile wood of all. It was used for baskets, fences, hurdles, and all manner of other products. A derivative of aspirin can be obtained from the bark, so it was prized by healers.
Its alternative name is 'withy'. Willow and withy both derive from the same root word as 'witch' and 'wicked'. The tree was highly valued by witches, a point which perhaps links to its healing properties: women who understood herb-lore were often accused of witchcraft.
Willow is the material the Druids supposedly made their wicker [another derivitive of willow] baskets for human sacrifices, although this may be Roman anti-Druid propaganda. You set the wood on fire, it burns away, the victims walk away. Doesn't really work.
Willow was also associated with the Greek Muses: their abode, Helicon, derives from the Greek 'helice' meaning willow.

Next time, another sacred tree.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Ash

The ash is one of the crowning trees of the British countryside. It grows tall, straight and strong and its peculiarly grey colour makes it instantly recognisable.
Its qualities make the wood ideal for spears, hence its old name of 'weapon-wood'. The Anglo-Saxon word 'aesc' meant both ash and spear.
Another characteristic of the ash is its stability: it rarely topples in even the worst winter storm. The Saxons believed that its roots sank into the underworld itself, and so the ash became the World Tree, known by myriad names worldwide, perhaps most commonly as Yggdrasil,  which links Earth with the realms of the Gods, giants, dwarves and the dead. The five Magic Trees of Ireland, felled by triumphing Christians in the 7th century, were also mainly ashes.
The Meliads, ash tree nymphs of Greek mythology, were much revered in ancient times, and the tree was sacred to Poseidon. This is the only tree except the oak to have its own specific supernatural inhabitants.
A 'maiden' ash, self-sown and never pruned, was especially powerful in Britain. Its wood was used for horse whips to ward off magical harm, and a wizard's magic wand was also often ash.
The recently discovered ash dieback disease has been said by some to herald the end of this tree, just as mature elms in Britain are now a relic of history.  I'm happy to say this is not now believed likely.
Next time, the story of another magical tree.

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Yew

The yew, which has an exceptional longevity - several examples are over two thousand years old - has  a deep and sacred connection with immortality and eternal life. It is also the tree of death, not least because all parts of it are deadly if eaten.
 The custom of planting it around churches and graveyards predates Christian times by at least a millennium: the Celts planted yews around burial mounds and along sacred ways. It perhaps aided a soul's journey into eternal life.
The three witches in Macbeth used 'slips of yew, slivered in the moon's eclipse' in their magical potion, and some say the tree can cause visions of fairies.
On a more prosaic note, the wood was used to make bows and spears until recent times. The oldest discovered wooden artefact in the world is a spear made of yew, 250,000 years old. Another yew spear, slightly more recent, was found embedded in the ribs of a skeletal elephant.
This tree has perhaps the oldest association with ourselves, as befits its immortal nature.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Ash

The ash is one of the crowning trees of the British countryside. It grows tall, straight and strong and its grey bark makes it instantly recognisable.
Its qualities make it ideal for spear-making, hence its old name of 'weapon-wood'. TheAnglo-Saxon word 'aesc' meant both ash and spear. It was also used for wheel spokes.
Another characteristic is its stability: the tree rarely topples in even the worst winter storm. The Saxons believed that its roots were anchored into the underworld itself, and so the ash became the symbol of the World Tree, known to the Scandinavians as Yggdrasil and myriad names to other worldwide cultures,  which links Earth with the realms of the Gods.
A 'maiden' ash, self-sown and never pruned, was especially powerful. Its wood would ward off magical harm, and so was carried by riders to protect their horses, and a wizard's magic wand was also often ash.
Next time, another magical tree.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Hawthorn

The Hawthorn is an iconic tree of the spring hedgerows, covered with a mass of white flowers.  This gives its alternative name: May.
Its bright red berries in autumn are a valuable food source for wintering birds, and are also edible for humans. A syrup made from the berries was once used to treat heart complaints and improve circulation.
Its association with the month of May made it key to the May Day or Beltaine festival. This was the only day when it was considered acceptable to pick the blossoms: any other time it was considered very unlucky.
The white flowers are a symbol of purity and chastity, and the month of May is traditionally the time for cleaning temples and holy places. We still 'spring clean' today.
A sacred and ancient hawthorn at Glastonbury is said to have been planted by Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of Jesus. This tree, which is actually of a genus originating from the Middle East, flowers at Christmas as well as in May, supposedly in honour of that fateful birth.
Next week, another sacred tree.

Monday, 21 September 2015

The Oak

The oak is considered the king of the forest, and an apt choice for the first tree I will discuss.
It is the tree of Zeus, Jupiter, Hercules and The Dagda, leaders of men and Gods. Sacred fires across Europe were kindled only with oak wood.
In Celtic culture, 'derw' or 'duir' was the word for oak, and from this derives 'Druid.' The oak groves of Druidic tradition were integral to their religion.
And that king of the birds, the wren, who gained his title by cunning, as I've mentioned in an earlier post, has a similar derivation: the 'derw-ren' or oak-bird. The wren was also important in Celtic culture; its song was said to be prophetic, and it is said that a prospective Druid had to hear and understand the song of the wren before he was accepted as such.
The reason may be related to a second meaning of the word 'oak.' The word 'duir' is linked to 'door,' and the oak offers a doorway into other realms, both physically and spiritually. Oracular oak cults existed in Ammon in Libya and Dodona in the Mediterranean, and the wren may also have had a foot in this spiritual door.
It is not surprising, therefore that the oak is one of our most loved trees

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Wisdom of Trees

As I've mentioned in a previous post, trees were central to life, both physical and spiritual, to many cultures, the Celts, Greeks and Saxons being three. Trees are often centuries old, and how much wisdom have they learned in that time?
The Norse often built their houses next to or sometimes around a tree, which symbolised the growing family over several generations, with links to past and future family members. This links to the shamanic concept of the souls still to be born being found among the branches of the World Tree.
Trees were used to witness sacred vows such as marriages, and many important rites took place beneath their branches. The Anglo-Saxon word 'treow' meant both tree and truth. This concept was later crushed in Britain by the incoming Christians, who proscribed that no vows should be taken except within a church.
Trees also formed the basis of a Celtic alphabet, with each letter represented by a particular tree, and also the Scandinavian runes.
 Many trees had important functions, both practically, spiritually and mythically , and this is something I shall return to in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

A Very English Fear

The Anglo-Saxons began to arrive in Britain in their droves in the 5th century, filling the power vacuum left by the crumbling Roman Empire.
They found deserted villas, settlements, sometimes entire towns, disturbed only by scurrying mice and gusting leaves. A ready made home, you'd think, which they'd take over at once, or at least plunder for materials.
This never happened. The Saxons avoided these forgotten places with superstitious dread, choosing to settle in new sites a distance away.
The Roman roads too, were avoided. The arrow-straight, paved routes, which sliced through groves, burial mounds and streams with no heed for the natural landscape, were regarded as a scar, a destruction of that harmony which so many cultures, the Saxons included, tried so hard to accommodate.
The Saxons knew this spiritual undercurrent of all things, connecting everything with everything else, as 'Wyrd'. This is where we get our word 'weird' from. Rather like the Chinese feng shui, the principle concept is to work with nature rather than superimpose our will upon it.
The Roman buildings, made of stone and tile rather than wood and thatch, were completely at odds with this principle, hence the Saxons chose to build new homes in the wooded groves, carefully chosen to give the best practical and spiritual advantage.
Hardly the principles of a barbaric people that they are commonly thought to be.

Friday, 20 March 2015

The Solar Eclipse

An 85% solar eclipse. It certainly felt strange: dull, hazy, noticeably cold. The birds stopped singing, and the sheep gathered together in the field. It's as if the whole natural world knew something strange was afoot.
Looking through a shield, just a slim crescent of the sun remained. We now know that this results from a chance crossing of the sun's and moon's orbits, so the latter obscures our view of the former. In ancient times, however, this disruption to the natural order would have been terrifying.
Both the Mayans and Chinese put a great deal of effort into predicting eclipses. During the 14th century, the Chinese emperor executed two astronomers for failing to predict an eclipse. Many believed it heralded the end of the world. The Aztecs' infamous human sacrifices were intended to preserve the life of the sun.
Some believe this stems from an ancient race memory of a huge comet which struck earth around 10,000 years ago, and ended the ice age and nearly the human race. The sun was obscured for months, floods, fires and famine ravaged the planet, and the entire world order was rewritten. We have worshipped, prayed and sacrificed for millennia to ensure this does not happen again.
True or not, the sun is now shining fully. The birds are singing and the world has returned to normal. We have survived another eclipse.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A Night Mare

A relic of a more superstitious age, sometimes a stone is found hanging from a beam or otherwise hidden in old houses, forgotten by all for centuries. This stone, called a Dobbie Stone or Hag Stone, always has a natural hole in it, thought to represent the all-seeing eye and ward off unwanted supernatural incursions. They were also hung in stables and animal byres to prevent the sudden onset of sickness and weakness now explained by viral or bacterial infection but formerly blamed on the Devil, the Faery or witchcraft. A horse that had been 'hag-ridden' in the night would all too often die in the following days, and it is thought that the term 'nightmare' comes from the same belief.

Similarly, in the house, a resident elemental called a Boggart, Boggle or Bogie was often to be found. From this we have the 'bogie-man' and 'mind-boggling.' They were considered responsible for all the phenomena which in the 20th century became the work of the poltergeist. They could make noises, move furniture, throw objects, tip sleeping people from their beds, curdle milk and cause all manner of chaos. Means were often taken to deter them, such as Dobbie Stones, rowan or hazel wreaths or crystals. But conversely, if treated with respect, a Boggart could perform helpful tasks, such as waking occupants in the case of fire.

Next time you have a nightmare, think of the night-hag who was hovering unseen above your sleeping form that night.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Wolf and the Moon

Clear, cold nights are perfect for looking at the night sky. The last couple of nights, the full moon has been shining down on us in a perfect emblem of winter.
Every full moon has its own name and characteristics, something I've mentioned in a previous post. The moon of January is known as the Wolf Moon.
Wolves are traditionally said to howl at the full moon, but there is no evidence that this is the case. Wolves simply howl at night because they are nocturnal, and there is no proven link to the phases of the moon. The reason for the link with January's moon is more complex.

Wolves are typically shy creatures and stay well away from human habitation, but during the cold spell around January they would often come near to settlements to scavenge and take livestock. And the cooperative nature of the wolf pack is an ideal lesson for those communities struggling to cope with the winter hardships. These two reasons are why the moon we see at the moment is the Wolf Moon.
For an overview of the other moons of the year, my article The Lady of the Night, published this month in Goddess Pages magazine discusses this and more.

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