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The Druids

Weeping Wllow

Weeping Willow

The Willow

White Willow, saille, watery one
your shivering white-waved branches hide your form,
soft-whispering muse of goddess groves,
and grieving garland are you. Talismanic guide
Through death's strange shadowland.

Crouched is your shape, wrinkled and gnarled wise women work with you, peel off your bark
and crush your leaves to make their medicines.
Potent withy, moon-blanched witches' tree,
watchful, night walking Calleach, visionary.


Persephone returning from the underworld

Botany

Salix, the Willow, is a huge and diverse genus of some 300 species and according to Culpeper and the astrologers, governed by the moon. These include tiny alpines growing at high altitudes, shrubs, and large trees. They thrive on damp conditions near water and are mostly found in temperate zones in the Northern Hemisphere. The rapid growth and long, flexible branches have lent it to many uses throughout history. It has been used to stabilise banks of streams and rivers, for wickerwork, as animal fodder, and for wattle and daub walling. In modern times it is often grown to form a habitat for wildlife. Most species respond well to intensive pruning with vigorous regeneration. The salicin in the bark forms salicyclic acid which has had, and still has, a variety of medicinal uses as described below.

Lore

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.

Weeping Willow

Medical uses of White Willow Bark

White Willow, or saille, Bark can be used in the treatment of various aliments. It is a bitter, astringent, cooling herb which reduces fever. It also increases perspiration and so helps to cools the body, making it useful in the treatment of minor feverish illnesses, chills, colds, etc. It is also an anti-inflammatory and it can be used to relieve the painful inflammation and joint pain associated with neuralgia, gout, rheumatism, rheumatoid- and osteo- arthritis, osteroporitic and lower back pain and the inflammatory stages of autoimmune diseases. It is especially useful as an alternative for people who cannot tolerate non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs.

The use of willow bark dates back to the time of Hippocrates (400 BC) when patients were advised to chew on the bark to reduce fever. However, its use predates even Hippocrates. The leaves and bark of the willow tree have been mentioned in ancient texts from Assyria, Sumer and Egypt as a remedy for aches and fever.

It is also an antiseptic. The salicin in the herb is converted into salicylic acid and other related compounds by the liver and is excreted as such in the urine, which makes it helpful for treating kidney, urethra, bladder and other urinary tract irritations. It has also been used as a remedy for diarrhoea, dysentery and minor infections.

Used externally, White Willow Bark's antiseptic properties extend to its help in treating cuts, burns, wounds, sores, sweaty feet, dandruff and as a mouthwash to ease tonsillitis, sore mouth and sore gums. It is also high in tannin content, and it is believed to help with gastrointestinal disorders, such as sour stomach and heartburn. Reinforcing this, Culpeper recommends the leaves, bark and seeds for staunching bleeding, especially of the mouth and gums. He also recommends a decoction of the leaves, bark and seeds in wine to inhibit vomiting.

Culpeper goes on to state thet "the leaves bruised or boiled in wine, and drank, stays the heat of lust in man or woman". I leave it to you own judgement whether this particular effect is something you would regard as an asset or an impediment!

According to Galen, the flowers have "an admirable faculty for drying up humours, being a medicine without any sharpness or corrosion". He adds that the bark has the same effect and that the tree always has bark upon it but it does not always have flowers. He goes on to say that the burnt ashes of the bark mixed with vinegar destroy warts, corns and "superfluous flesh" when directly applied. Scurf and dandruff can be treated using a decoction of hte leaves in wine.

Several European countries have approved the medical use of willow bark for pain and inflammatory disorders:

  • The German Commission E has approved willow bark for fever, rheumatic ailments, and headaches.
  • The British Herbal Compendium indicates that willow bark can be used for rheumatic and arthritic conditions, and fever associated with cold and influenza.
  • In France, willow bark has been approved as an analgesic to treat headache and toothache pain, as well as painful articular (joint) conditions, tendonitis and sprains.
  • The European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy (ESCOP) has approved willow bark extract for the treatment of fever, pain, and mild rheumatic complaints.

Willow in the Christian Tradition

Because covens often met under the willow it suffered much disfavour in Christian eyes, ultimately becoming the tree of sorrow and grief. The only support for this view in the bible is that the exiled Hebrews hung their harps from the branches of willow trees by the waters of Babylon when they had given up hope Psalm (137). Also there is the association of the willow with the moon and therefore illusion. The association of the willow with grief is actually a misinterpretation; Yahweh ordered that the tabernacle be joyously decorated with willow branches.

The "Weeping Willow", Sulix Babylonica, was so named because of the drooping branches but in fact the 'weeping willow' of the Babylonian exiles was actually a poplar.

In reality, the willow is a tree of remarkable vitality. If you want to grow one in your garden, you only need to plant a cut branch in the ground and it will rapidly form roots and establish itself. It also has remarkable regenerative properties; damaged branches can recover and form dense thickets. The only downside to this is its susceptibility to fungal growth.

According to Tree Yoga (see references below), the willow teaches us to focus our energy on the here and now. A book by Baba Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), "Be Here Now" is a suitable and recommended companion to this attitude to life. Again, quoting Tree Yoga: Dive into the flow of life, without holding back, so that old wounds can heal and new growth can take place. The willow should not be the tree of sorrow but the tree of vitality.

The key words which attune spiritual energy to the tree are: flowing, openness and being at home in oneself.


Acknowledgements and further reading:

Tree Yoga - a WorkbookSatya Singh and Fred HagenederEarthdancer
The Oxford Companion to English LiteratureSir Paul HarveyOUP
The Observer's Book of TreesFrederick Warne & Co. Ltd.
The Green Man Tree OracleJohn Matthews & Will WorthingtonBarnes & Noble
The Celtic Book of Seasonal MeditationsClaire HamiltonRed Wheel
The Meaning of TreesFred HagenederChronicle Books
The Complete HerbalNicholas CulpeperGreenwich Editions

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Ken James 2008