Sacred and Magical Trees
- Oak has been identified at numerous Irish prehistoric sites, especially crannógs, which were artificial islands built in lakes or marshes. A crannóg excavated at Ballinderry was found to have been constructed using oak piles. Some of the foundations were oak planks more than half a metre across and 10cm thick. Likewise, some excavated toghers, or ancient trackways found across marshy ground, were constructed using split and shaped logs of oak laid on runners of alder. Oak wood was also used extensively for barrel staves as well as for a number of domestic and other items, including a 7.5 metre long dugout boat which was excavated at Ballinderry.
- Eo Mugna was one of the five legendary trees of Ireland. Its name suggests that it was a yew, but this unlikely tree was reputed to be an oak which bore apples, acorns and hazelnuts. It was supposed to have been a son of the Tree of Knowledge, found in the Garden of Eden. It is reputed to have fallen sometime before 600 AD.
- Derry, the anglicised version of doire (the Gaelic for ‘oakwood’), is a frequent component of place names throughout Ireland.
- Cloth can be dyed black using oak bark and acorns. The bark alone can be used for tanning leather, and is also used as kindling in the smoke house for curing bacon and fish.
- The St. Lawrence family, the Earls of Howth, is associated with a large oak tree at Howth Castle in Co. Dublin. It is believed that when the tree falls, the family’s direct line will come to an end. Hence, the branches are strongly supported by wooden uprights!
- The oak is known in Scotland as the ‘grief tree’ or the ‘gallows tree’. The tree was normally planted on high ground by highland chieftains, so that the public could see it from a distance. The reason for this was that the chieftains would hang their enemies or any deserter from it. Many such locations can still be found, not just in Scotland, but all across England and Wales. The high ground became known as ‘gallows hill’.
- An old Greek myth relates that when the announcement of Christ’s crucifixion was made, all the trees met together and agreed that none of them wished to be part of the event. When the time came for the wood to be selected by the soldiers, each piece began to split and break into many other pieces, making it impossible to use. However, only the evergreen oak or the ‘Ilex’ did not split and allowed itself to be used. Hence, the other trees looked upon the oak as a traitor, another Judas. As a result, some Greek people will not have any part of the evergreen oak tree brought into the house, or allow their axes to come into contact with the tree. Just like Judas, the tree is seen to be eternally condemned.
- In the Ancient Days, the Nine Hazels of Wisdom grew at the source of the River Boyne, at the well of Segais. Hazel, as such, is considered the Tree of Knowledge in Irish traditions, and under the Bretha Comaithchesa, the Laws of the Neighbour-hood, hazel was granted the highest rank as one of airig fedo, ‘a noble of the wood’.
- Hazelnuts were undoubtedly an important source of seasonal food in Ireland and elsewhere. The nuts have to be picked on a dry, mid-autumn day when they are about to fall. The dry nuts, once cleaned of the husk, can be stored for some time (providing the storage area is cool and well-aired) and may be eaten as required.
- It was thought that a hazelnut kept in the pocket wards off rheumatism and lumbago. The liquid from hazel catkins was used as an olive-coloured pigment in paint.
“Holly and hazel, elder and rowan and bright ash from beside the ford.”
“Cuileann agus coll, trom agus cárthan Agus, fuinseóg gheal o bhéal an átha.”
“Two hazel nuts I threw into the flame,
And to each nut I gave a sweetheart’s name.
This, with the loudest bounce me sore amazed,
That, with a flame of brightest colour blazed.
As blazed the nut, so may thy passion grow,
For ’twas thy nut that did so brightly glow.”
– Thomas Gray (1716-1761)
- Adorning the hair with individual twigs made of hazel (or ‘wishing caps’, as they were called) is a custom followed in many countries. It is thought that any wish made while wearing a wishing cap, would be fulfilled.
- Diviners in search of water hidden underground are known to often use forked branches taken from the hazel tree. These were traditionally called ‘wishing rods’.
“Since the eleventh-century we find mentioned the use of the divine wand for discovering springs and treasures. It is a forked branch of hazel, alder, beech or apple.This is how it should be held. One of the forks of the branchis held, not too firmly, with the palm of the hand turned up. By holding the other fork of the branch in the other hand, the main stem will be parallel to the horizon. The holder advances gently towards the place where the water is suspected to be. When he arrives there, if water is below, the rod turns in the hand and bends towards the earth like a needle which has been magnetised. Such is the account of those who believe in the virtue of the Divining Rod. They add, that it has also the property of discovering mines, hidden treasure, thieves and fugitive murderers.”
– M. Cheuruel, ‘Dictionnaire historique des institutions, moeurs et coutomes de la France’
- Rowan is reputed to stop the dead from rising, to help to speed the hound, to prevent fire charming when hung in the house, and to generally protect the home, milk and the dairy. A protector against evil, its red berries are the best deterrent from the devil. As such, a rowan should always be planted next to a house.
- Rowan was among the plants incorporated into May boughs and brought into the house on Mayday. The mystic properties of the rowan tree have been somewhat feared by witches, according to legend, as it was believed to hold powers which counteracted the effect of negative energies. A branch placed in a house on Good Friday, or placed in a bed, was said to ward off such forces. Wearing a sprig of the rowan also protected against charms.
- In Sligo, a legend tells of the ‘Forest of Dooros’. The ‘Dedannans’ or ‘Fairy Host’ dwelt there , bringing with them some scarlet rowan berries from Fairyland. One of the berries fell to the ground and out of this grew a huge rowan tree. It was believed that eating one of the berries, which tasted of sweet honey, would make a person very happy, having the same effect as drinking wine. Some may even live to be one hundred years old. Eating three of the berries from this tree would ensure that the person would live to be at least one hundred years old, as well as returning to the age of thirty.
- Rowan was known as ‘the druid’s tree’ throughout Europe. They will grow in all soils and in awkward and difficult places such as craggy rocks and mountainsides.
- According to Finnish legend, the God of Thunder was called ‘Ukko’, and his wife, ‘Rauni’. She took the form of a rowan tree. The intense redness of the berries led to the tree becoming known as ‘Thor’s Tree’, which meant that the tree became sacred.
- In Wales, the rowan tree has traditionally been considered to be a sacred tree. It was planted in churchyards to protect against and act as a warning to negative forces and evil spirits. Reputedly not one churchyard would be without it. Wearing a cross made from the tree was a tradition followed once a year by the parish. Coffins were rested under a rowan tree on the way to the funeral rather than being left out in the open, where they were vulnerable to approaches by such forces.
- The ‘flying rowan’ is a term given to a young rowan which has taken root within the fork of an older tree, presumably from seed deposited by birds. To chew a part of this tree was believed to protect the person against negative forces including witchcraft.
- Ash is a native of Ireland and has a special place in Irish folklore. Three of the five greatest legendary trees of ancient Ireland were ash trees: Bile Tortan, Craeb Daithi and Bile Uisneg. Bile Tortan is credited with sheltering the ‘men of Tortu’ and is supposed to have fallen in AD 600. There is a legend that St. Patrick visited Bile Tortan and established a church nearby for Justinian. Ash trees often marked sites of special significance. For example, a giant ash stood beside St. Brigid’s Cathedral in Kildare.
- In Samuel Hayes’s day, there was an enormous ash tree, ‘The Great Ash of Leix’, growing at Emo, Co. Laois: “This celebrated piece of antiquity stands on the high road Between Monasterevin and Portarlington and, though it has long since ceased to have any pretensions towards beauty, is still one of the most picturesque and magnificent objects of the kind I have ever met with; I measured it in April 1792; at 1 foot from the ground it was 40 feet 6 inches round, and at five feet higher which is actually the smallest part of the trunk, it is a full 25 feet in circumference….. this massive stem is a full 9 feet high, but the enormous grossness of the branches at their springing from the bole, and the horizontal position which most of them immediately take, make the stem appear much shorter than it really is.”
- Remnants of bowls made of ash and dated to the 14th century have been excavated at Adare Castle, Co. Limerick. Rods of ash with staves of hazel were used in the wattle walls of houses in medieval Dublin. Dried ash leaves were used as winter fodder for pigs, goats, sheep and horses.
- Of all of the strange ash trees, possibly the oddest was one noted by Samuel Hayes at Clarecastle, Co. Galway. It was called the ‘Old Ash of Donirey’ and had a hollow trunk 42 feet in girth. In the cavity, a little school had been held for about a quarter of a century.
- In the north of England, it was thought that by placing an ash leaf in the left shoe, a woman would meet her future spouse immediately. A traditional verse reveals that ash, together with oak, was regarded as having the power to reveal weather information:
“If the ash leaf appears before the oak,
Then there’ll be a very great soak.
But if the oak comes before the ash,
Then expect a very small splash.”
- People used to pick ash leaves in the hope of warding off negative energies and personal misfortune. The following verse acted as a guide to those who came upon an ash tree:
“Even ash, I do thee pluck,
Hoping thus to meet good luck.
If no good luck I get from thee,
I shall wish thee on the tree.”
HAWTHORN (sceach gheal)
- Traditionally, no one cuts the lone hawthorn tree as this is the meeting places of the fairies. Indeed, many roads have been diverted to avoid cutting one down.
- Hawthorn is generally seen as a tree which brings good luck to the owner and prosperity to the land where it stands.
- The leaves, when very young, can be included in salads and are supposed to be very tasty. They can also be mixed with speedwell (a small herb) and used to make a tea. Picked in their prime and steeped in brandy with sugar, the blossoms make an extraordinary liqueur. Jelly or wine can be made from the berries, and the seeds can be ground into flour to make a substitute for bread.
- The inaugural tree of the Maguires of F ermanagh was a hawthorn tree growing at Linaskea. Other solitary hawthorn trees became holy trees, associated with saints. At Kilkeedy, Co. Limerick, there stood a hawthorn which was said to have sprung from a thorn which St. Ita had plucked from the hoof of a donkey. As a result, all of its thorns pointed downwards. It was also customary to plant a hawthorn in a place where someone had suffered an accident.
- The flowers of the hawthorn were highly prized, and at one time, were exported around the world. The flowering of the hawthorn tree is often taken as a sign that winter is over and spring is underway. Hence, the tree has been viewed as an indicator of changes in the seasons, or a weather omen.
- The hawthorn was considered to be a tree destined to bring bad fortune to the owner, as this is the thorny tree which some believe was made into the crown of thorns used at Christ’s crucifixion. It is said that when Charlemagne knelt before the crown of thorns, they blossomed in his presence. The Roman Catholic Church tells us that the flowers had a strong aroma, that of the hawthorn. It follows that to bring any part of the tree into a house, especially the flowers, will result in someone in the household dying. Attacking or cutting down a hawthorn tree should not be attempted for the same reason. One contradiction to this belief is that placing a hawthorn branch above the door will warn negative forces not to enter. Some believe that the hawthorn is a holy plant, which is why no negative energies will find peace by it.
- The ‘Glastonbury thorn’ is a type of hawthorn found in England and in some parts of Palestine. The tree is said to have been brought by Joseph of Arimathea on a visit to England. Wherever Joseph travelled spreading the word of God, he carried a staff which he had acquired in Palestine. Legend tells that he visited the Isle of Avalon, Somerset, which at one time was surrounded by water. Tired from travelling, he sought rest and sat down upon ‘Weary-all Hill’, now called ‘Worral Hill’. Joseph stuck the staff into the ground, and legend says that it took root and a hawthorn tree grew. The tree was seen as sacred and was reputed to only blossom on Christmas Day.
- According to Irish tradition the elder (or the ‘bour-tree’, as it is sometimes called in the north of Ireland) is considered to be an evil tree. “It is a bad thing to give a man a scelp of that. If you do his hand will grow out of his grave.” Elder wood is said to be cursed. Superstition says that you must never put elder on a fire, because you’ll see the devil in the flame. It is also believed that elder wood should not be used to make boats or infant cradles, as the wood is so fragile that the fairies could easily steal the baby and substitute it with a changeling.
- Elder does have some positive uses. For example, the flowers can be used to make elderflower champagne, and the berries, elderberry wine. When green and unripe, they can be used to make an ointment for burns and blemishes. Simply steep a handful of elderflowers in a cup of boiling water, wash that part of the skin with the infusion, and blemishes and spots will soon disappear.
- Some believe that the rod used by St. Patrick used a branch of the elder in the form of a sacred rod to remove all of the serpents from Ireland. In ancient times, it was believed that someone falling asleep under an elder tree would attract negative forces. The person would suffer from horrific nightmares while asleep, and would become delirious upon waking.
- Traditionally, in Sicily, the elder is the preferred wood for driving out serpents and warding off thieves.
- In German folklore, of all the forest spirits, only the ‘Hylde-moer’ (Elder mother), it is said, was able to mend any injuries effected upon elder trees. She was a ‘Waldgeister’, a type of spirit which inhabited the forest in large numbers. Like all Waldgeisters, Hylde-moer was kind-natured, and the only forest spirit to know the power and formulae for medicinal plants. Before cutting down an elder tree, it was said that permission had to be asked for and granted from her to avoid misfortune.
- The elder was traditionally known in Germany as the ‘elsbeer tree’ or ‘dragon tree’. Hanging branches of this tree in houses or in any buildings belonging to a family on ‘walpurgis night’ was seen as protection against the darker forces out at play, particularly witches.