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Tree Folklore

If you are specifically interested in Folklore in relation to trees,
I've extracted the relevant sections from each tree article
and put them together into this single document.


Like the Hazel, The apple was considered sacred to the Celts and felling it carried the death penalty. It has always been a symbol of love but to the Celts it also represented the other world. Like the willow, it is linked to water which represents the transition or crossing to the other world (as in the river Styx). The apple also protects against evil magic and were used for this purpose at the festival of Samhain. The custom carries on today with apple bobbing on Hallowe'en night.

The faerie maiden lured Connla to the Land of Youth by throwing him an apple. After he ate it he pined for her so much that he willingly followed her into the faerie realm.

In a second story, king Cormac mac Art (227 -266 A.D.), High King of Tara, Co. Meath, who ruled in the third century A.D., was offered a magic silver branch carrying nine apples by a young man whom he espied when he looked out of his window one morning. When they were shaken they made the most beautiful music ever heard in the land; it lulled all who heard it into a sleep of forgetfulness. Whether they were in pain, sickness or sorrow they immediately forgot their trouble and fell into a soothing sleep.

The king went to meet the youth and asked for the branch, which the youth offered to him if the king granted him three requests. Cormac agreed and the youth departed, giving the king the branch.

A year later the youth returned to claim his three requests which were the king's daughter, his son and his wife. Each in turn were compelled to go with the youth, to the grief and distress of the king and all his subjects.

Mystical Quert, enchanted apple tree,
beneath you boughs young love lies free,
Your fragrant fruit in faerie hand
lured Connia to your timeless land.

Your magic silver branch red-bellied
with nine ripe apples sweetly swelled,
made faerie music in Manannan's hand
and sent forgetful slumber over all the land.


The Ash held great significance as the World tree, Yggdrasill, in Norse mythology. Odin and his brothers thrust Ymir into the Yawning Void and made the world from his body. They set the sea around the world and planted the Ash Yggdrasil to hold it in place. However we have to be careful - it seems that Ash was a later mis-interpretation and that Yggdrasil was actually a Yew tree. It was described as a "winter=green needle ash", The problem is that the ash is neither evergreen nor does it have needles. The Norse word ask can either mean an Ash tree or "pointed". so the correct interpretation is probably "a pointed evergreen tree with needles" - in other words, a Yew.

One of its roots extended into Niflheim, the underworld; another into Jötunheim, land of the giants; and the third into Asgard, home of the gods. At its base were three wells: Urdarbrunnr (Well of Fate), from which the tree was watered by the Norns (the Fates); Hvergelmir (Roaring Kettle), in which dwelt Nidhogg, the monster that gnawed at the tree’s roots; and Mímisbrunnr (Mimir’s Well), source of wisdom, for the waters of which Odin sacrificed an eye.

After Ragnarök (Doomsday), the world tree, though badly shaken, was to be the source of new life.


The Beech has since prehistory been used as a relatively light material on which to carve the written word. The old High German word buchhin, meaning 'from Beech wood', became the word for 'book' in both German and English.

Astrologers associate it with Saturn, giving it the traits of preservation, compression, contraction and isolation. There is very little undergrowth in a beech wood and often none at all close to the tree trunks. At the same time, the astrologers assert that all broad-leaved trees are ruled by Jupiter. This gives the beech the force of expansion. It is, perhaps, the balance of the two forces which gives the tree its vitality. It is one of the most successful trees in Western and Central Europe.


Both the birch and Brighid derived their names from the Indo-European word bher, "shining white".

The birch has a somewhat ambiguous history in folklore. While the tree is protector of children, protects them from the weaknesses which may arise in early life and is said to ward off evil spirits, it has also frequently been used for whipping children (hence, "birching"). Possibly the link was forged that while disciplining the children the branches were also driving out evil spirits.

Birch twigs were also used to "beat the bounds" of properties so that the exact limits of one's land were known and where the boundaries lay.

The birch is known as the "lady of the woods", reflecting its association with other trees considered to represent the female principle, including the rowan and the willow. In Norse mythology the birch is associated with Freya, goddess of fecundity and Frigga, goddess of marital life. The birch is said to be associated with the planet Venus and therefore with all aspects of love. The birch was the traditional wood from which witches' broomsticks were made, as the light within the trunks helped them to fly.

The Welsh associated the tree with Blodenwedd, the owl goddess, who can be both loving and treacherous. To the ancient Greeks the association was with Ariadne, imparting the mysteries of birth and life.

The birch has a special place in the traditions of Ogam, as the first message ever written in the secret alphabet of trees was Beith, the letter of the birch, used to warn Lugh (the sun-god) that his wife had been taken into the realm of he faerie-folk, sidhu. In Ireland and elsewhere the tree is still associated with light.


The tree is said to have originally come from Lydia, an ancient kingdom in Asia Minor. The best known of these in Western Europe is Aesculus hippocastanum, the Common Horse Chestnut, a native of the Greek / Albanian border region which was introduced into Western Europe in 1576 and to Britain in 1633. This explains why, as mentioned below, there is no Druidic or Wiccan lore relating to the tree.

It is related to the oak and can live for up to 500 years. The name "horse chestnut" arose because the Flemish ambassador to Turkey from 156 to 1562, a certain Ogier Chislain de Busteq, visiting the court of Suleyman the Magnificent, saw Turkish soldiers feeding the fruit to their horses.

There are no ancient British traditions associated with the horse chestnut. This is because the trees retreated south ahead of the last ice age. After the ice sheets melted, the trees found themselves stuck in a remote valley in Eastern Europe. While many tree seeds are carried on the wind or by birds, the large conkers could not distribute. It took them another ten thousand years to cross the mountain ridge! We have to move forward to the 1633 when the tree was re-introduced into Britain, to find traditions associated with these trees, and the best known is the childrens' game of conkers. This game started to be played in the 18th century.

To the ancient Greeks, the sweet chestnut was dedicated to Zeus and the name castanea comes from Castonis, a Town in Thessaly in Greece which cultivated the tree extensively. However, the Greek name was Sardis Glans, (sardis acorn). This name comes from the name of the capital of Lydia, now in Turkey, from where the trees originated. They were also called the "acorns of Zeus", as were walnuts.

There is an interesting annual festival in the village of Mourjou in the French département of Cantal. This is the hilly, wooded region known as the Châtaignerie (or 'chestnut grove') in the southern Massif Central. The two-day fair in October, for which planning starts eight months beforehand, is an exuberant mix of food, music, folklore, conservation and chestnuts, which attracts 20,000 visitors and most villagers take part. Tractors and forklifts loaded with giant cauldrons and sacks of apples rattle through the tiny Place de l'Eglise. Stalls and marquees go up outside the Mairie and line the roadside. Great bundles of leafy chestnut boughs are carted through the village to decorate the stands. This is the annual Foire de la Châtaigne, the chestnut festival.

A century ago when life was hard, sweet chestnuts were a local staple, ground into flour or fed to the pigs to add flavour to the pork. Nowadays, they are not relied on so heavily because the countryside has prospered. However, Auvergnats are proud of their rural traditions and the humble chestnut has not been forgotten.

This is a tremendous feat for the 360-odd inhabitants of what is hardly more than a hamlet strung out along a lane cresting a ridge. As Pascal Piganiol, the Mourjou-born journalist who came up with the idea 12 years ago, explains: "There is a great solidarity among the villagers. We all work together."


According to Tree Yoga (see references below), the Elm is attuned to the spiritual properties of communication, love, letting go and freedom but: "The elum hateth man and waiteth"

This proverb refers to the negative side of the "letting go" and "freedom" properties mentioned above. Don't climb, or stand under an elm tree: they have a habit of dropping heavy branches, often weighing over a ton, without warning. When I was a kid growing up in Ipswich, I remember two boy scouts, camping in a nearby field under an elm tree in a storm, were killed when the tree dropped a large branch on to their tent.

The tree has a long association with man; its leaves have been used for animal fodder since the stone age. The tree stood at the crossroads leading to the fairy world, and so an Old English name is "Elven Wood," ("Elfenholz" in German) which indicates its association with the spirit world and the elm has been associated with death rituals both in Ancient Britain and Classical Greece. In England the wood was used traditionally for coffins while the ancient Greeks planted it in graveyards. Orpheus bewailed the loss of his love Euridyce with his lyre, beneath an elm tree. His enchanting song was so full of grief and despair that all of the forest animals gathered around and even the wind stopped to listen and an elm grove sprang up from the sound of his lyre. According to Virgil, the tree was found in the underworld.


Coll, Bringer of wisdom, light, airy one,
bright-branched rod of inspiration
swifter than thought you shoot out intuition.
Your lithe brown wands touch powers unseen
Fleet, magical,
the hands of Druids dance your ecstasies

The Genus Corylus contains about fourteen to eighteen species of deciduous shrubs or small trees native to the Northern temperate zone. The Kew checklist and Flora of Asia disagree on the number. Known as Coll or Cuall by the Celts, it was one of the most magical of Celtic trees and always associated with poetry. Its nuts were believed to contain the essence of poetic inspiration. The "Well of Wisdom" where the Salmon of Wisdom lurked was surrounded by nine sacred hazel trees. The Salmon of Wisdom ate their fruits and thus imbibed knowledge of the otherworld. King Arthur eventually finds the divine child, Mabon ap Mordron ("Son of the divine mother") beside just such a pool.

Hazel wands were, in Druidic lore, linked to the element of air and were used to summon magical power and inspiration from the otherworld. Hazel was also linked to water and hazel dvining rods were used for dowsing. Catkins resemble lambs' tails and if they appeared in January the hailed an early spring. At Beltane, the hides of cattle were singed with burning hazel wands to ward off evil spirits.

An indication of the reverence given to the hazel can be gathered from the fact that in Ireland, felling the hazel carried the death penalty.

Astrologically, hazel is associated with Mercury. The Roman name for the Hazel, Sylvestra relates it to the mischievous Roman god of the forest, Silvanus. To the Celts in Ireland the hazel was always associated with poetic inspiration and an early Irish treatise, the Dinnshenchas, speaks of the "poet's music-haunted hazel" and the " nine hazels of Crimall the sage".

In nineteenth-century Germany it was thought that witches hid beneath the bark of the hazel and so only stripped branches were allowed in church.


"The holly berry that shines so red
Once was white as wheaten bread."

Ilex is a large genus of about 400 species native to the tropical and temperate zones of both the northern and Southern hemispheres. The white or greenish flowers appear solitary or in dense clumps. Ilex aquifolium, the Common or English Holly is evergreen and it is a bush or small tree but can reach fifty feet in height. It is actually native to western and southern Europe, northern Africa and western Asia. Away from a maritime climate its growth is stunted by the winter cold. However, it bears its largest & brightest fruit in winter. Because of this the holly has always been associated with winter magic and its very name is an outright statement of sacredness. The name derives from the Anglo-Saxon holegn and Old High German Hulis both of which mean "holy".

Throughout Europe holly was believed to repel evil and the old tradition of bringing holly branches into one's house in winter as a place for fairies to play has echoes in the present day, when holly wreaths are brought indoors for Christmas, to await the arrival of Santa Claus. It was long regarded as unlucky to leave holly wreaths up beyond Twelfth Night so they are burned on New Year's Eve.

The Oak and the Holly

The Celts believed the Holly King ruled over death and winter while the Oak King ruled life & summer. This ancient (conceivably originally Druidic) belief was preserved into medieval times in mummers' plays.

The oak and the holly
when they are both full grown
the oak fights the holly king
on midsummer's morn

The oak beats the holly king
and reigns for half a year
but the holly rises up again
when winter draws near.

The Holly King was a warlike giant who bore a great wooden club made of a thick holly branch. He found his way into Arthurian Legend as the Green Knight, who challenged Sir Gawain during a Yuletide feast, baring as his weapon "a solitary branch of holly."

The Holly in Welsh Mythology

The beautiful, far-haired goddess Creiddylad represents the sun, and the knights of the waxing and waning year fight over her. From midwinter to midsummer the sky god, represented by the oak, rules. From midsummer to midwinter, when the days grow shorter, the god of the earth and the underworld rules. His symbol of power is the holly. The holly is linked to the spirit of the greenwood, the Green Man.

The Holly in Norse Mythology

The Holly belonged to the god and Thor and goddess Freya. Holly's association with Thor's lightning bolt meant that it could protect people from being struck. The Norsemen and the Celts would plant a holly tree near their homes specifically to take lightning strikes and to protect the home and its inhabitants. It is true that that the holly does conduct lightning to ground better than most trees, with the least injury to the tree.

the trees themselves are of two sexes and so it is o surprise that Holly should be sacred to a God & a Goddess. An old Germanic tradition hols that when the household's Christmas decoration is made of a "he-holly," the husband would rule the house for the coming year and vice-versa.

The Holly in the Romano-Christian Tradition

the Romans may have independently regarded the holly as sacred, but they probably absorbed the traditions of the Celts when they colonised them. The Romans often absorbed aspects of other cultures' religious practices into their own. They probably, therefore, took over its ritualistic use from the Celts, hanging winter sprigs upon images of Saturn during winter's violently erotic Saturnalia.

Later still Roman Christians incorporated the holly into Christian lore. Holly was previously believed to have been deciduous, until Herod's soldiers came to slay the baby Jesus. At Mary's request, the holly tree regained its leaves in winter so that her infant could be hidden in the foliage. Another Christian holly legend states that the berries had once been white, until touched by the blood of Jesus when a holly wreath served as his martyr's crown.

The Holly in South American Folklore

In South America, the Guarada people tell the tale of the bearded god Pa-i-shume who taught many things to mortals, including how to make the stimulating & health-giving mate beverage from the leaves of the Paraguay holly tree (I. paraguayensis).

The Holly in Jewish & Islamic lore

The Holly is absent from Jewish & Islamic tree lore, as it was not native to Israel or Arabia and is not mentioned in the Torah or the Koran.

& had strong European pagan associations. But early Christians brought holly mythology full circle when following Rome into the British Isles. The tree's association with druidry or elves was easily transferred to the new religion, so that the sacredness of the much-legended Holly stands uninterrupted even to our modern age with its association with the birthday of Jesus & with Santa Claus, himself an elf king dwelling in the coldest most deathly & distant part of the earth.


There are many myths and traditions associated with the lime tree including those from Ancient Egypt Ancient Greece, Celtic times and the Middle Ages.

Oak trees and limes often grow close to each other. This could be the basis of a Greek myth, which speaks of a time when the gods, Zeus and Hermes, decided to pay a visit to the land of mortals to see if they were behaving themselves. In disguise, they knocked on many doors and found that no one would give them shelter, eventually, they came to the house of Philemon and Baucis who welcomed them. To reward them for their generosity, Zeus granted them their wish to remain together forever after they died and transformed Philemon into an Oak tree and Baucis into a tilia (lime tree) so they could be side by side.

The lime tree was sacred to the Celts and judicial cases were commonly heard by a court sitting under a lime tree. This was said to inspire fairness and justice.

Because of the heart-shaped leaves the Lime tree was dedicated to Venus, goddess of love and In folklore medicine, preparations from the lime were said to cure all diseases relating to her.


King of the forest, father of trees
Bare branches antlering the winter sky
thick-boled, reclothing at midsummer
But at winter solstice harbouring like snow
rare visitation, god's fertility,
white berried mistletoe

Sacred to the druids, as was the mistletoe which often grew on it, the druids priests often held their rites in the groves of the oak, which represented the male principle. (While the priestesses held their rites in groves of rowan or willow). The priests saw the oak as a symbol of endurance and strength. It has been suggested that the word 'Druid' may derive from the root of the Celtic word for oak: 'dru' which is itself related to the word for door, from the Sanskrit dur. The druids held a religion of nature, and although a few buildings have been discovered, their sacred sites were usually outside, not in buildings. These sites included springs, mountain peaks and rivers as well as groves. There was an oak grove recorded near Colchester, from which, it is believed, the overrunning of the Roman Colchester garrison was organised.

The little acorn, from which a great oak grows, was often worn as an amulet, representing long life and good luck. There is a tradition that an acorn placed on a windowsill offers protection and the acorn was often used as a windowshade pull. Brass representations of an acorn are still often used for this purpose. Also, because it take a long time for an acorn to grow into a tree, it is often a symbol for a project which has taken a lot of hard work to accomplish.

The oak is the most long-lived of the trees apart from the yew and so represented perseverance, stability and steadfastness. Its links to the sun and lightning gave it oracular powers and it was the habitat of the oak god, Herne the hunter. It battled the holly at midsummer to win back its crown (see "the oak and the holly," below). At Lughnasadh it produces new shoots to revive its glory.

The superstitions of touching wood or knocking on wood are believed to have originated with the Druids. Mentioning your good fortune was believed to attract the jealousy of evil spirits. Touching wood would encourage protection from good spirits. The Druids believed that good spirits lived in trees and they could touch wood and ask a favour from them. If the favour was granted they would go back and knock on wood. Knocking on wood three times has the added advantage of frightening away the evil spirits so that they do not hear of the good fortune.

To the Celts the Oak represented their most prized virtue, hospitality. The Celts loved to hunt in oak woods, as did the Anglo Saxons and in Celtic mythology it was the tree of doors, believed to be a gateway between worlds, a place where portals could be erected and sacred to the god Tiaranis. Hence the derivation, mentioned above, to the Sanskrit for door, dur. To the Norsemen it was sacred to the thunder god, Thor and Thor was its protector, possibly because it was frequently struck by lightning. This could be because oaks often grow directly over underground watercourses and may also be related to the extraordinarily high level of electrical activity in these trees. In the middle ages, the other most common target for lightning was the church steeple, as it was the tallest structure in the village and a that time did not have a lightning conductor. Lightning was considered to be divine retribution against sinners. It was difficult to understand why God targeted his own houses of worship for this purpose.

In Greek mythology it was the sacred tree of Zeus. In the Bible, the oak tree at Shechem is the site where Jacob buries the foreign gods of his people (Genesis 35:4) . Also, Joshua erected a stone under an oak tree as the first covenant of the Lord (Joshua 24.25-7). In Asia Minor the acorn was sacred to the goddess of nature. The Romans made crowns of Oak leaves symbolising bravery and humanity. The crowns were awarded for killing the enemy in battle or saving the life of another Roman. This tradition continues in modern times with awards being given "with oak clusters", representing a higher award than without clusters.

Oak is the common name of any of over 400 species in the genus Quercus. The flowers are catkins, produced in spring. The fruit is a nut called an acorn, borne in a cup-like structure known as a cupule; each acorn contains one seed (very occasionally, two or three) and takes between 6 and 18 months to mature, depending on species. The oak is home to more than 500 species of insects, spiders, birds and other animals, far more than any other tree in the temperate zone. From ancient times to he middle ages and beyond, pigs were put out to forage in oak and beech groves, while the oak was favoured for battlements by both the Celts and the Anglo Saxons.

According to Tree Yoga (see acknowledgements below) the key words related to the energy of the oak are Life energy, strength and determination.


On the first day of Christmas,
my true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

The religious symbolism for the twelve days of Christmas is:

  1. True Love is a reference to God
  2. Two turtle Doves is a reference to the Old and New Testaments
  3. Three French Hens is a reference to Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
  4. Four calling Birds is a reference to the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
  5. Five golden Rings is a reference to the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
  6. six geese A-laying is a reference to the six days of creation
  7. Seven swans A-swimming is a reference to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
  8. Eight maids A-milking is a reference to the eight beatitudes
  9. Nine ladies Dancing is a reference to the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
  10. Ten lords A-leaping is a reference to the ten commandments
  11. Eleven pipers Piping is a reference to the eleven faithful apostles
  12. Twelve drummers Drumming is a reference to the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

In ancient Greece the pear was sacred to Hera, wife of Zeus and goddess of marriage and childbirth. The pear, like the apple, has always had a strong connection with children, fertility and prosperity but whereas the apple has strong male-female connotations relating to courtship and marriage, the pear is usually associated exclusively with the female gender. There is an ancient custom in many parts of the world of planting a pear tree after a child is born and in the Swiss canton of Aargau, people used to plant a pear tree for a girl and an apple for a boy.


Although it is not a large tree, the Rowan has figured extensively in worship all over the Northern hemisphere. In an Icelandic myth, Thor the thunder god had his life saved by the Rowan. The name 'rowan' is thought to have derived from the Norse word 'rana' meaning 'charm'. In Norse mythology the first woman sprang from the rowan. Also, the rowan was sacred to Germanic and Norse tribes because Thor was saved from drowning in the river of the underworld by clutching the branches of a Rowan.

The rowan is still invoked in parts of Europe as a guardian against evil spirits and negative forces. Sprigs of rowan above a doorway keep those of evil intent away, while rowans are often planted near to churches and houses in the belief that a healthy rowan will protect the land it stands on. Rustling a rowan branch forces demons to speak the truth; placing a rowan branch on the bed keeps you safe for "no faerie dare touch or cross the rowan". (The Welsh Fairy Book). Traditionally, the Rowan is a particularly effective protection against the black arts and a piece of red thread bound around a rowan twig is said to be effective in turning aside any spell.

According to Druidic lore the Rowan is the tree of the Bard and bestows the gift of Awen, inspiration. The Druids planted rowan trees in the sacred groves, along with the oak and the ash. Being a small tree it was considered a "feminine" tree and the priestesses made rowan (and willow) groves their abode. The priests favoured groves of the "male" tree, the oak. It is believed that the worshippers inhaled smoke from rowan fires to induce a trance state which brought protection and enabled them to forewarn. In Ireland, the rowan is still known as fid na ndruad, 'the Druid's tree'. Also in Ireland the goddess Brighid is often represented by the rowan, while in Britain Brigantia was invoked under the sign of the rowan. Both Brighid and Brigantia were said to possess arrows made of rowan, which could catch fire when necessary.

Fair goddess-flowered oracular
your groves speak female wisdom while your rods
spin threads of life. Your subtle, scented fruits
drew Grainne in her quickening. Sacred moon-tree,
druid-favoured, when your limbs are bare
on frosted nights your head
holds starlight.

The Rowan gives protection and talismen and good luck charms were fashioned from it, along with countless invocations. The colours of the rowan are vibrant, deep green and scarlet, bright red berries. The colour of the berries associates them with life and death. The colour red was the colour of the blood of the gods and so the rowan was considered to be their natural food. In Greek mythology the rowan sprang from the blood of a sacred eagle sent by Zeus to take back the Cup of the Gods which had been stolen by eagles.


"Here we go gathering nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May ... "

This childrens' nursery rhyme doesn't make any sense, if you think about it. There aren't any nuts in May. There is blossom in May, nuts come in the autumn. The reason is that over the years, the verse has changed. It should actually read:

"Here we go gathering nuts of May,

The reference is not to the month of May but to "the may", aka the hawthorn. The replacement of one small word changes the sense of the verse completely. The hawthorn figures greatly in folklore. Often old text mentions "May", which is frequently misinterpreted as the month when it actually refers to the plant. The Hawthorn used to flower on or around the first of May and was associated with the Celtic May Day celebration for the coming of the season of Beltane. (see our article on the Wiccan Year). However, because of the change from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar, it now flowers around Mid-May.

May Day, the beginning of Beltane (see our article on the Wiccan Year) was the second most important festival to the Druids. The coming of Beltane was always associated with fertility, both for the crops and in the marriage. However the Maypole originated as a Roman custom celebrating of the coming of the month of May and was in fact made from a stripped pine tree. However, in mediaeval times hawthorn was often wound around the maypole while a crown was formed of blackthorn. May Queens were dressed in white and crowned with hawthorn blossoms, then carried in the May Day procession on horseback or on a cart. This was an echo of a much earlier ceremony where the priestess went from house to house to give blessings and protection to the crops and the marriage bed.

The Celtic goddess of spring was Olwen, daughter of the giant Yspaddadden Pencawr, which means giant hawthorn. where she walked white flowers grew up, which earned her the name of "white track". Culwich the hero fell in love with her and had to complete a series of impossible tasks given to him by her father, which he only managed to complete by enlisting the help of Arthur's knights. Eventually Yspaddadden himself had to be killed. This possibly is the reason for the association of the hawthorn with challenge.

The Hawthorn was sacred to the Roman goddess Cardea who looked after women in childbirth. Torches made of hawthorn were carried at weddings. Cardea was also known as Guardian of the Threshhold and she looked into the future and was an observer of the past.

The hawthorn was often planted near running water which associated it with the spirits of the ancestors. It is still the custom in parts of Britain and Ireland to tie pieces of cloth to the hawthorn if you want the ancestors to give you help with something.


The willow represents harmony, flow, connectedness and inspiration. The Willow has in many cultures been connected to the feminine, the moon and water. Many antiquarian goddesses resided in or near the willow. Examples from classical Greek mythology include Persephone, goddess of the underworld, daughter of Zeus and Demeter and goddess of the harvest, and Kirke, who weaves and sings at the navel of the world. Orpheus carried willow branches into Hades in search of his love Euridice. Persephone returning from the underworld is illustrated on the right.

In Sumerian mythology, the goddess Beilli was worshipped near willows, springs and wells. Beilli ruled the moon, love, sexuality and the underworld, while an altar to the Gaullish god Tarvortigaranos illustrates a priest taking slips from a willow tree.

In Celtic lore. with its strong matriarchal tradition, the willow represented strength and harmony. The tree often grows near water and especially rivers, and this is reflected in the Celtic name for the tree, 'saille:', from 'sal' meaning 'near' and 'lis' 'water'. The element of water is always seen as a way of crossing between the world (as in crossing the river Styx to the underworld). Reinforcing this, one species of the tree, known as the sallow, has boat-shaped leaves. In Druidic lore the oak was associated with the male principle while the willow was associated with the female principle. Druidic priests used Oak groves for their rituals, the priestesses favoured willow groves. The willow was also associated with the moon and its power was particularly strong at night. At this time, the bark was taken for spells and rituals: not without foundation, as the section on healing, below, will show. Many people feared the willow after dark and some believed that groups of willows could be seen walking at night.

The kings in the Scottish isles and the clan chieftains held a willow branch while administering justice. There are many invocations and rituals to dispel pain associated with the willow and they are not mere superstition. Willow has medicinal qualities including the presence of Salicin in the bark which is a natural painkiller. Salicin has been synthesised on an industrial scale since 1898 and is still a constituent of modern painkillers.


According to Tree Yoga (see acknowledgements below) the key words related to the energy of the Yew are rebirth, destiny, timelessness and eternity.

A number of ancient Celtic tribes and communities were named after the Yew, including the Eurobones and the Eurobovices, and also the Iberians from "ibe" meaning "yew". The ancient name for Ireland is "Lerne", meaning "Yew Island", "yew" is also the name of the 13th rune in the old Norse rune alphabet "Futhark". The 13 rune is called "ihwaz" or "eiwaz" meaning "Yew". It represents death and rebirth.

The Nordic Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, was also probably a Yew rather than an ash. In Norse mythology, Odin and his brothers thrust Ymir into the Yawning Void and made the world from his body. They set the sea around the world and planted the Ash Yggdrasil to hold it in place. Although the tree in question has come to be recognised as an Ash, it is described in their Icelandic scriptures, the Eddas, as a "winter-green needle ash". The trouble with that is, the ash is not evergreen and does not have needles. It seems that Ash was a later mis-interpretation and that Yggdrasil was actually a Yew tree. The Norse word ask can either mean an Ash tree or "pointed". so the correct interpretation is probably "a pointed evergreen tree with needles" - in other words, a Yew. Further confirmation of this is that in a younger Scandinavian rune set, yr there is a rune directly identified with the Yew which is identical with the stone-age symbol for the roots of the tree of life.

In Japan, the yew is called Ichii, the "Tree of God" and is connected with the creator gods and their mountain-top abodes.

While Yggdrasil indicates the "seed of Odin" and therefore relates to creation, it can also mean "I-carrier", supporter of the self while The oldest European names for the tree derive from the Germanic Iwe or Iwa, otherwise Ihhe or Ihha, the first person singular, the self. Odin climbing the universal tree is the shaman in search of himself.

Acknowledgements and further reading:

The Oxford Companion to English LiteratureSir Paul HarveyOUP
Tree Yoga - A WorkbookSatya Singh & Fred HagenederEarthdancer
Celtic Myths and LegendsGeddes and GrossetGeddes and Grosset
The Meaning of TreesFred HagenederChronicle Books
The Celtic Book of Seasonal MeditationsClaire HamiltonRed Wheel
A - Z of SuperstitionsCarole PotterChancellor Press

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© Ken James 2008