The Tree of Enchantment
APRIL 15 – MAY 12
Willow is a tree that has been sacred in numerous religious beliefs and rituals dating back to the Old Stone Age, from which were found funerary flints shaped as willow-leaves. The words “witch,” “wicked” and “wicker” are all derived from the same ancient word for Willow, and all Druidical human sacrifices were offered at the full moon in wicker-baskets. A warning from the antique Song of the Forest Trees: “Burn not the Willow, a tree sacred to poets.” There is a famous Greek painting representing the poet Orpheus, as Graves writes, “receiving the gift of mystic eloquence by touching willow trees in a grove of Persephone,” the Underworld-goddess. In ancient Greek myths and religions the Willow is the tree sacred to several other Underworld-goddesses–among them, Circe, Hera, and Hecate, Mother of Witches.
In Jerusalem, in the worship of Jehovah, the Great Day of the Feast of Tabernacles–a fire and water ceremony–was called the Day of Willows; in Sumer circa 4000 B.C., the great goddess Ishtar’s predecessor was Belili, the Willow Mother. The Great Bear Callisto was also called Helice–meaning both “that which turns” and “willow-branch”–and the Helicon was the mythic mountain home of the Nine Muses, the enchanted inspiration for all the arts and sciences.
A deciduous, aromatic tree, the Willow grows most commonly beside waterways, with male and female flowers blossoming on separate plants in early Spring before the leaves. In Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, he says of Willow: “The Moon owns it,” because the moon controls moisture and tides, and Willow is “the tree that loves water most.” Its light soft wood is also called osier and is considered a poor fuel for fires. The leaves and bark of the Willow produce salicylic acid, long known to be effective against rheumatic cramps, and the main ingredient in aspirin. A Willow-leaf now symbolizes grief over unrequited love, or the loss of a lover, but was originally worn as a charm against the Moon-goddess’s jealousy.
Willow is the fifth tree-month of the year, and the letter S–for Saille, Irish for Willow–bears a great resemblance to the numeral 5, the number most sacred to the Roman Goddess Minerva, and especially holy to the ancient Great Goddess, whose sacred orgiastic bird, the Wryneck, always builds its nests in Willow-trees. A Spring migrant, the Wryneck “hisses like a snake,” as Graves explains, “and has V-markings on its feathers like those of oracular serpents in Ancient Greece.” The V-shaped Roman numeral for five is also the most ancient symbol for Woman.
May Day, or Premier Mai, the most festive of lovers’ celebrations, “famous,” as Graves says, “for its orgiastic revels and its magic dew,” falls in the middle of this tree-month (Willow/Blackthorn 17). Originally, this was celebrated as May Eve (April 30), the second of the four “cross-quarter” days, or Witches’ Sabbaths, or Irish fire-feasts, of the year. A sacred fertility rite, it included the ritual mating, sacrifice and resurrection of the May-eve goat; the goat represented fertility. The Goddess’ ritual animal, the hare, which spelt good hunting, was only allowed to be hunted on May-eve. The English folk-song If All those young men belonged originally to these May-eve Sabbaths:
If all those young men were like hares on the mountain–
Then all those pretty maids would turn hounds, go a-hunting…
As the patriarchal era took over, the love-chase eventually was reversed, and the hare became the pursuer.
A Willow tree, Pliny records, grew outside the cave in Crete where Zeus was born, and A.B. Cook suggests (in his Zeus) that the name of the goddess Europë–pictured on a Cretan coin sitting in a Willow-tree with a wicker basket in hand, means not only Eur-ope (“she of the broad face” or, the Full Moon)–but also Eu-rope, or “she of the flourishing willow-withies,” identifying her therefore with Helice, the Willow-goddess. Graves suggests that the custom of carrying sallow-willow branches on Palm Sunday, a variable feast usually celebrated in early April, was originally a celebration at the start of the Willow-month (mid-April). The Greek liknos, or “basket-sieve anciently used for winnowing corn,” Graves notes, “was made from Willow.” When Edward Lear writes of those riddling Jumblies, who
…went to sea in a sieve, they did;
In a sieve they went to sea…
the “nonsense” poet is making a veiled allusion to the North Berwick witches who confessed to King James I that on their Witches’ Sabbaths they went to sea in Willow winnowing-sieves.
The Tree of Strife
Sharing the month with Willow, and a vivid contrast to it, is Blackthorn, “the tree of black magic and blasting,” a thorny dark-branched shrub which at this time bears white flowers (before the leaves) and a dark purple fruit called Sloe, which is ripe in August, and which also is another name for the plant itself. In early English, the words “Sloe,” and “Slay” are closely connected, just as straif, the Irish word for Blackthorn, is connected to the word for “strife.” Considered an unlucky tree, the Blackthorn’s wood is used to make “the black rod,” or witch’s walking stick, said to cause miscarriages and her primary tool for sorcery. Witches also used its thorns for sticking into wax images of their enemies. At Irish fairs, the Blackthorn–in Latin bellicum–is the traditional wood used for fighting by bellicose tinkers. The Crown of Thorns has been thought to have been made of Blackthorn, which is the monks’ explanation for the tree’s unluckiness. Its white flowers, however, make it another aspect of the White Goddess, and in France the Blackthorn is known as La Mere du Bois, “the mother of the wood.” Black also is the color of wisdom, since Night knows how to put out the Sun and when you combine all colors together the result is black.
In another version of this calendar-system, Blackthorn can change places with Apple: their fruit is ripe at the same time–August, the period shared with Hazel–and their white flowers bloom at the same season–in this May-time shared with Willow. Graves points out that “the Apple White Goddess is of happier omen than the Blackthorn White Goddess as introducing the Summer,” and that the fruits of Hazel and Blackthorn certainly are complementary to each other, but the weight of his evidence leaves Blackthorn with Willow, perhaps as an earlier explicit warning of the dangers that continue to lurk in life and nature even during the most idyllic days.
From The Song of Amergin: “I am a hawk: above the cliff,” and this is the time when birds nest, and the Thrush (Stmolach) sings its sweetest song. The Hawk (Seg) was the royal bird of Egypt’s Horus, and the Egyptian hieroglyph for the North Wind–which was believed to fertilize–is a hawk. Griffon-vultures, kites and cranes are all sacred birds in religion and mythology, and Jehovah is identified with a bird. In Welsh, Sir Galahad’s name translates to “hawk of summer,” and Sir Gawain’s to “white hawk.” At this season the meadows are Fine-colored (Sadath), the new leaves Bright-colored (Sorcha). Also from Amergin: “I am a thorn: beneath the nail,” refers to Blackthorn, again a warning as the willowy days begin. Yet one more warning of strife is implicit in the Biblical jewel, the Ruby, representing this month of the razzia, or raiding party, an ever-present danger “while the corn is invitingly ripe,” and belonging to the tribe of Gad, “a robber band.”