Into the Cauldron
The Sacred Woods Go
Burn them fast
And burn them slow.
Is it a poem? Is it a limerick? No, Wee Readers, it is a spell. If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you should remember that I am a vegan, in fact I was raised vegan from the age of two. How is this relevant to the current post, well, it’s not really – it’s just to remind you that I come from a slightly none traditional family. Which is why it should be less surprising when I say that we celebrated this May Day by performing a bit of magic. That is burning the nine sacred woods in the Beltane Bonfire. Well, what we did wasn’t really a bonfire per say, more like a small fire in a cauldron – but the intent still remains the same. We set fire to sticks from the nine sacred woods – in theory, they’re very difficult to find and some of them are toxic, so mostly we burned sticks that we were drawn to pick up – saying a blessing on to the world with each one we set a flame. Because it really felt like it needed it. The sacred woods consist of the first nine woods of the Celtic Tree Calendar, they are listed below in no particular order – along with some of the folklore associated with them.
Myth in its fibre, wood made word, the fissured bark
of Yggdrasil, world-tree, tree of Ask – the first man
tree of manna, foe feller, child healer, known by eye & fingertip
Excerpt from Ash Tree by Chris Poundwhite
Traditionally the Ash Tree represents the mother of the world. In ancient Norse Mythology the world tree Yggdrasil – that great holy tree that connected all the realms both mortal and otherwise was a an ash tree. In fact mortal Norse warriors would sometimes make their spears from ash, and they were referred to as Aescling or ‘Men of Ash’.
Know ye the willow tree
Whose gray leaves quiver,
To yon pale river,
Lady, at even tide
Wander not near it,
They say its branches hide
A sad, lost Spirit?
Excerpt from The Willow-Tree by William Makepeace Thackeray
In the ancient druid stories the universe, mankind and everything was hatched from two scarlet eggs hidden within the willow tree. One egg formed the sun and from the other came the Earth – which begs the question where was the Willow Tree. This was recreated in the seasonal festival of Beltane using painted eggs. This would later be hijacked by Christians, for the holiday Easter. So just remember, that come Easter Weekend when you’re rolling your brightly colored chicken fetus down a hill, you’re performing an ancient Druid ritual.
My palms rest
Upon the blackened trunk
Of a melancholy hawthorn
It’s choked wood crumbling
Falling between my fingers
Extract of Burning Hawthorn by Lotus
In Ireland the Hawthorn tree is known as the fairy tree, although take care to call it something else as it is disrespectful to mention the fairies by name. Because of this connection to the little folk it is considered extremely bad luck to cut down a hawthorn tree. So much so that in 1999 work on the main road from Limerick to Galaway was interrupted because a Hawthorn stood in the way. Wish the owners of the woods near my house shared such beliefs – sometimes I feel there won’t be a forest left by the time this lock-down ends.
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do.
Extract from Birches by Robert Frost
In Celtic mythology Birch represented renewal and purification – and it was celebrated on Samhain (the holiday that would later become Halloween) which was the beginning of the Celtic New year. It also, as you might have guessed is connected to Beltane – a festival known in more modern times as May Day. Ritual fires were made of birch and oak, and Birch Trees were often made into living May poles.
Oh rowan tree, oh rowan tree,
Thou’lt aye be dear to me,
Entwined thou art wi many ties,
O’hame and infancy.
Thy leaves were aye the first o’spring,
Thy flow’rs the simmer’s pride;
There was nae sic a bonny tree
In a’ the countrieside
Oh rowan tree!
Extract from The Rowan Tree by Lady Nairne
In Greek mythology it was said that the Rowan trees sprung from the fallen feathers of the eagle that had been sent to recover the cup of the Goddess Hebe. However it was attacked by demons before it could manage. Thus the Rowan Tree’s leaves are shaped like feathers and their berries are as red as blood. We can see great significance in Norse Mythology as well, where we see a rowan was transformed into the first woman – the first man having come from an Ash. As well as in British Folklore, where the Rowan is meant to protect against witchcraft and enchantment.
But the Hue of his every feture.
Stunned them as could be seen,
Not only was this creature
Colossal, he was bright Green
No spear to thrust, no shield against the shock of battle,
But in one hand a solitary branch of Holly
That shows greenest when all the groves are leafless.
Extract from ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Night’, author unknown
In Celtic legend the Holly King would battle the Oak King at the changing of the seasons. During Winter Solstice, the Oak King would arise triumphed – there after he reigns upon the earth, until the Summer Solstice where upon the two battle again. And this time it is the Holly King who defeats his opponent. And on and on, the cycle of the seasons go.
Are you weary, alder tree,
in this, the age of rain?
From your branches
droop clots of lichen
like fairy lungs. All week,
Squalls, tattered mists:
alder, who unfolded
before the receding glaciers
Extract from Alder by Kathleen Jamie
In Irish Folklore it is generally considered bad luck to pass an alder tree on your journey. The Alder tree was the tree of the God Bran – who you will remember if you’ve been following me, that I mentioned in this earlier post – along with Odin, Apollo and King Arthur. It was also associated with the Goddess of spinning, because it was a source for strong colored dye. In Magical belief Alder reminds us of the need to blend strength and courage with generosity of spirit and compassion.
A mighty wind blew night and day
It stole the oak tree’s leaves away
Then snapped its boughs and pulled its bark
Until the oak was tired and stark.
But still the oak tree held its ground.
While other trees fell all around
The Weary Wind gave up and spoke.
How can you still be standing oak?
Excerpt from The Oak Tree by Johnny Ray Ryder Jr.
Throughout the world’s cultures the Oak tree has been venerated, often as the symbol of the greatest god in the pantheon. Gods such as Zeus, Jupiter, Dagda, Perun and Thor – called the Oak tree their own. Many Ancient kings would imply they were personifications of these gods by wearing crowns of oak leaf during times of victory – and even today, the oak leaf remains a symbol of military prowess.
In the Beginning Love satisfies us.
When Love first spoke to me of love –
How I laughed at her in return!
But then she made me like the hazel trees,
Which blossom early season of darkness,
And bear fruit slowly.
The Hazel Trees by Hadewijch of Antwerp
The Hazel Tree has been venerated since the days of the Druids’ power, maybe even longer than that. There is an old ancient tale – repeated in varying forms across ancient Britain, of nine sacred hazel trees that grew around a pool. In the pool swam Salmon (who were honored by Druids), when the nuts fell from the trees, the Salmon would leap up and eat them – and from those nuts the salmon would absorbed the tree’s wisdom. I’ve mentioned the hazel nut before, in my previous post – because not only does it provide you with great wisdom, but a good boost to your immune system as well.
If you’ve enjoyed this foray into the folklore of the nine sacred woods, don’t forget to follow the wee blog if you haven’t already. Also check me out on Twitter, Instagram, GoodReads, Tumblr, Pinterest and Facebook. And follow The Wee Mailing List, for all new content. Also check out Trees for Life – where most of this folklore information came from, it’s a fascinating site for anyone interested in the folklore of trees. Remember if come next May Day you decide to burn the nine sacred woods in your own Beltane celebration, make sure to exercise proper fire safety – you will be working with open (if not very large) flames. I also advise eating something afterwards, I always feel light and giddily shaky after burning the wood and food in the belly is a good way to ground yourself, or so I’ve been told. If you found any inaccuracies in what I’ve said here today, don’t hesitate to mention them down below in the comments. I love to be corrected, it’s how we grow. Until next time Wee Readers, make sure to get plenty of Sunshine, stay safe and have a bonny day.