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The Mystery of Trees: Folklore & Magickal Uses

By Autumn

(Written for Ecclasia)

Trees have been with us since the dawn of time: ever watchful, silently standing guard, save for the occasional sound of the leaves as they whisper in the wind. As I stand before a giant sequoia in King's Canyon National Park I am in awe of something with a far greater wisdom and beauty than I can imagine. Trees have been symbolic throughout history and have been magickal not only to Witches, but to those of many other religions. Archaeological finds have provided evidence of the powerful religious significance of trees to our early ancestors. Sprays of mistletoe and boughs of oak trees having been found in many an ancient coffin. Per eyewitness accounts during the Roman occupation of Britain and Gaul, the druids held their ceremonies within groves of trees because they believed it a sacrilege to worship in a man-made structure. Some Gaulish altars have a tree image as the only decoration. The Germanic god Odin underwent a voluntary self-sacrifice and endured a great suffering in an ash tree, where he discovered runes. The Welsh god Lleu at his death transformed himself into an eagle and took refuge in the branches of an oak tree, which could neither be flooded by rain nor burned by fire. It was said he suffered many tests and trials in the tree. Those are just a few examples of the importance of trees in our varied and rich history, mythological or otherwise. The vast amount of different types of trees far outnumbers the pages allotted in this discussion, and so I will focus on the history, folklore, and magickal uses of the Nine Sacred Woods used in ritual fires: oak, pine, holly, hazel, juniper, cedar, poplar, apple, and ash.

During the Bronze Age, many Indo-European cultures associated the oak tree with weather gods. The significance of the weather gods being in their effect on the harvest, which was essential to human survival. The oak was particularly associated with gods of thunder and lightning due to the fact that it is struck by lightning more often than other trees. This is because its roots are at least as deep as its branches are high, and it has a tendency to grow above subterranean watercourses. The oak also had associations with war among many cultures from ancient times: its wood was used to construct fortifications or battleships, and the oak's thunder god might be called upon to use his power of lightning to strike an enemy. The oak tree, at other times, seems to have a more powerful, but caring and paternal quality. It is home to a multitude of insects, birds, and mammals. The ancient Gauls and Romans associated the oak with Mars Silvanus, the god of agriculture and healing. Eventually Mars was transformed into a war diety and the culteral history of the oak reflects this transition from the farmyard to the sword. There are two important legendary figures associated with the oak: King Arthur, who gathered his knights around the Round Table (which is said to be made of oak), and Robin Hood, who lived among the oak trees of Sherwood Forest. Both of these men symbolize a balance between the two qualities of the oak tree: the caring, paternal qualities and the ability to fight ruthlessly when justice demands it. There is much in the way of magickal uses when it comes to the oak tree. It is a tree ruled by the sun, associated with the element of Fire, and it bestows the qualities of protection, healing, financial success, sexual potency, fertility, and general good luck. Oak branches are traditionally burned in midsummer fires and used to make wands and staves. To protect against evil you can make a cross out of oak twigs tied together with red ribbon. To help in healing an old wound, an old custom states that you should take a dressing that has been on the injured body part, sprinkle it with oil of Rue, and place it inside the hollow of an oak tree during the waning moon. The wound will be transferred through the tree to the ground and dispersed into the earth. The acorn is also a powerful magickal tool, which can be carried to prevent pain or illness, or worn as a talisman of fertility, immortality, and longevity. The Gaelic word for oak is duir, from which we have made the word door. A door can be both a gateway and a protector from outside influences. The oak opens the door for a strong spirituality that is able to survive the tests of time.

The pine, comprised of more than ninety species of trees, has played an important role in many cultures, most notably the Native American’s. The Navajo used the needles from the pinyon pine as a ceremonial medicine, and the Hopi applied the “gum” from this same tree to the forehead as a protection from sorcery. The Ponderosa pine is used by the Kawaiisu to hang a baby boy’s outgrown cradle so that he will grow strong like a tree. The pine represents a balanced life existence to the Iroquois. Other cultures revered the pine tree as well: the Vikings used pine for their ships, Scottish clan chiefs and warriors preferred to be buried under this tree, and pine was used for the wall panels of royal burial chambers in Phrygia (modern western Turkey). Taoist monks cherish the pine for its nuts, which according to Taoist tradition, can bestow eternal life. In the ancient Mediterranean, the pine was associated with life force, vitality, death, resurrection, and particularly with the spirit of vegetation. Many pine trees were dedicated to Pan in Greece, or Attis in Phrygia. Attis is the son of the mother goddess Cybele, and at his death she transforms him into a pine tree. During his annual spring festival, a decorated pine was carried into the village. In the magickal world, pine is valued for its associations with fertility, purification, and immortality. During Yule and other winter rites, pine is burned and its branches are used to sweep the floor in preparation for rituals. Crushed and dried pine needles can be mixed with juniper and cedar and then burned to purify the home. Pine cones are carried as fertility charms and pine nuts are eaten for the same effect. It has been an old custom to place fresh pine boughs on a coffin during funeral rites to symbolize immortality. The pine grows in a circular shape, which symbolizes energy cycles like the year’s seasonal wheel. It’s wood is soft, symbolizing a strength that is gentle but firm.

The holly tree, for Wiccans, is often a reminder of the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King, which takes place twice a year. From midwinter to midsummer the Oak King rules the land, and from midsummer to midwinter the Holly King does. In medieval Christianity, John the Baptist was associated with the oak, and Jesus with the holly. In fact the word “holly” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “holegn” which means “holy”, and so holly made its way into some church ceremonies, as a substitute for palms on Palm Sunday and as a Christmas decoration. Some say the Druids used holly to decorate their homes, as it was a sign to the woodland spirits that they would find a safe haven from the storms of winter. To many ancient cultures, holly was symbolic of male energy, and ivy was representative of the female essence. Thus crowns interwoven of holly and ivy were made and given to newlywed couples. Magickally speaking, Holly is said to be a tree of protection. It is planted around the house as a general safeguard, and in particular can be used to protect against poison, evil spirits, and dangerous wild animals. You can use an infusion of holly to sprinkle on newborn babies as a protective charm. Holly, associated with Saturn, Mars, and the element of Fire, is a warrior tree, with thorns to defend it. A spear of holly will give focus and direction to spiritual struggles, will help to sharpen the wits, and give courage to succeed in your quests.

The hazel tree was considered to be the “tree of knowledge” by the ancient Celts and was often referred to in poetry of Irish Celtic tradition. In Welsh myth, King Arthur and his companions search for the child Mabon (the child of the Great Mother), and after a long journey find him underneath a hazel tree. The Latin name for the hazel, sylvestris, is associated with the ancient Latin forest god Silvanus. The hazel tree got a historical kudos in 1463 when Pope Pius II praised them by saying that they provided ideal walks for poets, as well as a home for the muses and nymphs, and perhaps even Diana herself. Magickally speaking, the hazel tree is associated with the element of Air, and is said to bestow fertility, protection, and wisdom. The power of the hazel can be used to enhance intuitive knowledge and creative impulses. Traditionally the forked branches of hazel were used to search for hidden objects, water, and persons guilty of robbery. Binding two hazel twigs into an equal armed cross with red yarn will bring good fortune. The wood of the hazel is also said to be an anti-lightning charm. One can use hazel twigs to form a circle on the ground for psychic protection or to delineate sacred space. An old tradition states that tree pieces of hazel wood driven into the walls of a house will protect it from fire. In England the hazelnut was used in love divination on Samhain. The hazelnut is sweet and compact and can be said to symbolize concentrated wisdom.

The juniper tree was highly regarded throughout Europe and many legends and folk tales represent the juniper as being a gateway to other dimensions, for example the dwelling places of fairies or giants. The Brothers Grimm collected a German tale called “The Juniper Tree” which tells of a dead child whose soul rises from the juniper as a bird. The juniper was, and still is, used as a place of offering to the local nature spirits. Estonians traditionally worshipped the patron god of livestock under the juniper. One way of communicating with the spirit world is the smoke offering (smoke carries blessings up into higher dimensions) and juniper smoke has been part of Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic, Finno-Ugric, and Asian ritual. Tibetans also offer juniper smoke in their temples for the blessing of all. Historically, the Middle Ages were a time of widespread deforestation in Europe, and one of the reasons the juniper is so rare today is that at that time its acidic juice was found to be an effective contraceptive, and so the Church encouraged the felling of junipers to protect the birth rate. The juniper has an abundance of healing properties, and infusions made from the tree can be made to treat a variety of medical problems, such as kidney and liver problems, arthritis, gout, stress, and respiratory congestion.

The cedar was known as the World Tree itself in southern Mesopotamia around the fifth millennium BCE. It was said to be the abode of Ea, the god of wisdom and the principal deity of that culture. Because of this the cedar became an important tree for oracles and prophecy. Babylonian tablets tell of initiation rites delivered under the cedar tree. Even thought the cedar does not grow in Israel and Judea, it was equally celebrated there. The Hebrew name for cedar, erez, occurs over 70 times in the Bible. Japanese tradition believes that trees have souls and old Japanese legends speak of ancient cedars that oozed blood when cut by an axe. The cedar is known as the tree of faithful love. There is an old legend that tells of a secretary named Hanpang who worked for King Kang of the Sung dynasty. King Kang lusted after Hanpang’s wife, Ho, and had Hanpang thrown in jail where he died of grief. When Ho learned of her husband’s death, she lept from a high terrace to her own death to escape the king’s passions. She left a last request that she be buried with her beloved husband, but the angry king instead buried them apart. During the night, however, two cedars grew from the two graves and within days their branches and roots were joined. Magickally speaking, cedar is especially effective for burning at Yule and at winter rites. It bestows qualities of prosperity, protection, and healing. As an incense it purifies an area and banishes nightmares. When hung in the house, cedar repels lightning and protects the home from negative energies. Placed in the wallet or purse it will attract money, or burn it to attract financial success and increase psychic powers. Cedar smoke can be used to consecrate wands. Cedar is an herb of the sun, its element is Fire, and it is said to be sacred to Astarte.

For the Lakota nation, the poplar is the sacred World Tree. During their sun dance ceremony, a poplar is cut and lowered to be re-erected in the center of the dance circle, and it must never touch the ground while it is being carried. Green branches, eagle feathers, and a buffalo skull decorate the tree during the rite. In Greek myth, the poplar seems to be associated with the dead. The white poplar was said to have originated on the banks of a river in the Greek underworld, and a grove of black poplars in the northern Peloponnese was sacred to Persephone; other groves were sacred to Hecate. Both are goddesses of the underworld. Homer mentions the black poplar being at the entrance to Hades, the realm of the dead. Magickally, poplar can be used as a wood in ritual fires and has been used to make shields by ancient peoples who believed its wood offered protection from death and disease. The quaking leaves of the aspen were thought to be having conversation with the wind. The wood of the poplar is used for protection and endurance and is used to help one hear the guidance of the spirit as it moves within and without.

Throughout time, the apple tree and its fruits have been associated with love, courtship, and fertility, hence its association with temptation in Christianity. However, despite popular belief, the apple is not mentioned in the Biblical account of Adam and Eve. During the Middle Ages and for many centuries that followed, many a fairytale would tell that the eating of an apple would ensure offspring. In Transylvania, there exists a custom in which a red apple is waved at the bride during her wedding. A medieval love charm from Germany suggests writing certain letters on a love apple and then giving it to the object of your affection to eat. The apple was said to be sacred to Demeter, the goddess of corn and sustenance, as well as Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Apple wood has traditionally been used to make wands for love magic. The peel of the apple can be dried and placed into sachets to attract love, while the fruit itself can be eaten to ensure fertility. In magickal spells the juice of the apple can be used in place of wine. Apple seeds and bark may be burned as incense. Apples are said to strengthen the powers of healing, garden magic, and immortality. Apple cider can be offered as a libation to the newly turned earth of your garden or fields.

The ash tree was highly valued by our ancestors for its healing powers and versatility as a building material. Mythologically, the Melaie (nymphs of the ash tree) were said to be daughters of the clouds and sea spirits. In later Classical times the ash was sacred to Poseidon, one of the ocean gods. Pieces of this wood were taken aboard ships as good luck charms not only in Classical times but years later in the 19th Century when Irish immigrants were crossing the Atlantic to America. The finding of a first-century druid staff made of ash, and decorated with a solar spiral, was found on the isle of Anglesey, showing an association between the ash tree and the druids. To the ancient Celts ash symbolized creation, balance, and destruction: forces that were said to be the sacred dimensions of every life’s journey. Magickally, ash is suitable for making wands or the staff of a witches broom. A staff of ash over the door guards the entrance from evil influences and ash leaves under the pillows induce prophetic dreams. Ash leaves scattered to the four directions will protect a house or a certain area. It is said one should carry a leaf to gain the love of the opposite sex. Ash is linked with the element of Water and thus is associated with many of the water gods such as Poseidon, Neptune, Woden, and Thor.

In conclusion, trees and humankind have had a symbiotic relationship throughout time: trees have offered shelter from the cold and the heat, have provided us with a multitude of fruits, leaves, flowers, and roots for food and medicine, and provided wood with which to make tools, weapons, houses, boats, and bridges. Perhaps most significant was that they have provided fuel for fire. Tree lore has reflected the entire spectrum of human existence through the ages: from birth, death, and rebirth to the age-old struggle between good and evil, as well as the quest for truth and enlightenment. Native North Americans call trees our “standing brothers and sisters”. We share with them an upright vertical orientation. We walk and they stand. We move and change, and they remain the quiet centre of being.


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This page last updated June 2, 2006