Willow Lore


The Willow Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker

According to the Celtic Tree Calendar, the willow rules between April 15th to May 12th. In large part, the willow represents emotional topics, such as death, grief, melancholy, and heartbreak especially when due to lost or unrequited love. Personally, I feel this could link back to its connection with water, which is seen through many parts of the occult/esoteric sphere as representing emotions (ie the cups in tarot and water signs in astrology). However, this wasn’t always the case and it seems (as it is with most lore, I’m finding), this shift happened with Christianity.

The weeping willow’s scientific name is Salix babylonica, despite the tree being native to China and not Mesopotamia, home of the legendary Babylon. This misnomer comes from the biblical Psalm 137:

By the river of Babylon we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the willow-trees
we hung up our harps,
for there those who carried us off
demanded music and singing
and our captors called on us to be merry:
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

In recent years, however, biblical scholars have discovered that the reference to willow trees may instead be a mistaken reference to the Euphrates poplar which was, at the time, much more common in Mesopotamia than the weeping willow. Though, the poplar and the willow do both come from the Salicaceae family, also known as the willow family, which makes the mistake somewhat understandable and more likely a mistranslation somewhere down the line.

Many mark this as the beginning of the willow’s connection to grief. It was most likely further solidified in England when, not having many palm trees around, churches would collect and display branches from pussy willows with their fluffy blossoms to represent palms on Palm Sunday, the final Sunday before Easter, the day Jesus was crucified (in case you needed a reminder).

And, indeed, for centuries, art, music, and literature has used willow trees to symbolize not just death and heartbreak, but a tragic death or the mortal separation of lovers or the forlorn victim of unrequited love. In the 19th century, willow branches were carved onto tombstones and printed on mourning cards. In the 17th century, the folk song “The Seeds of Love” was first recorded and entails a forsaken lover’s lament:

For in June there’s the red rose bud,
And that is the flower for me;
But I oftentimes have snatched at the red rose-bud
And gained but the willow tree.
Oh the willow tree will twist,
And the willow-tree will twine,
And I wish I were in that young man’s arms,
Where he once had the heart of mine.

For several centuries, the idea persisted that a rejected lover should wear a wreath or hat made of willow. As of 1909, it was recorded that in Wales it was still asked of suitors on the morning of their sweethearts marriage to another person, “Where is your willow cap?” or “We must make you a willow cap.”


The Willow-Catkin Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker

However, as I said, this wasn’t always the case. At one point the willow was thought to have a strong magical potency and was used to make wands. Travelers were also known to carry willow rods for magical protection and luck. In fact, up until the 1990’s, the willow was considered a source of protection and even good luck on May Day in some areas. In Essex, Yorkshire, and Herefordshire, it was recorded that the willow was a “good” tree and kept witches (namely “marsh witches”) away from a home if planted by the door or twigs hung on the door, the same as Hazel, and protected against the Evil Eye if brought into the house (interesting to note, Vickery’s source here doesn’t specify which part of the tree, but a source from Shropshire states that the catkins, also called “goosy goslins” or “gullies” aren’t to be brought into the house or no “feathered goslings” will be hatched). As well, in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day, willow (or sally) rods were burned until they charred then used to draw a sign of the cross on each family member’s arm.

The ancient Greeks connected the willow with inspiration and creativity. It was said that Orpheus received his gift for poetry by touching the willows in a grove sacred to Persephone and the mountain where the muses lived was called Helicon coming from the word helike meaning willow. (There is also a nymph named Helice which, from her name, was a willow nymph and who nursed a baby Zeus back to health in Crete. Not really pertinent, just thought that was interesting.)

Because of its relation with water and water’s close relation with the moon, the willow has in neo-paganism begun to be connected with not only the moon, but also the night, dreams, intuition, and the sacred feminine. It is claimed that to place a piece of willow beneath your pillow will help your dreams to become more vivid and meaningful. It is also said that willow wands will help to level out ones emotions, opening up emotional numbness and reigning in emotional excess. As well, willow is used for when you need to shed a light on the things your having trouble seeing. With its connotations with death and mourning, as well as protection, this creates an interesting blend of exploring our shadow selves and the parts of our psyche that we are otherwise too afraid to confront even if doing so would mean to move forward into a better phase of life.

A few final bits of lore:

  • As with all trees, ask for permission before you cut a piece from a willow tree in order to not upset the fae or spirits living inside.
  • The Osage Nation has a legend called “Wisdom of the Willow Tree” in which a young man named Little One converses with a willow tree about life, death, and aging, referring to the tree as “Grandfather.”
  • In “English lore” (I honestly can’t find a good source for this and it isn’t in any of my superstition books, but since it keeps coming up and it’s interesting we’re gonna go with it) it is said that the willow tree can uproot itself and will stalk travelers.
  • I’m hesitant to include this one for reasons I’ll get into in a moment, but supposedly, the Druid cosmic creation myth was that two scarlet eggs were hidden in a willow tree and from these eggs was hatched the universe, the sun being in one and the earth in the other. It is claimed that the Druids reenacted this myth during spring rituals (with hens’ eggs painted red), the eggs being eaten at Beltane (which is important to note, since the Celts celebrated the points between solstices and equinoxes, but not the solstices or equinoxes themselves for reasons that warrant an entire post of its own). This then (supposedly) transferred over to the Christian celebration of Easter and was therefore the birth of Easter eggs. The claims of Easter’s pagan origins are many and shaky, with each generation trying to make connections between the church and the pagan traditions that came before it. The problem with this claim is that what we (Anglos, that is) think of as Easter is a very German thing and the Easter bunny/hare and his eggs didn’t start appearing in English speaking areas until well into the 1700’s and even then, it was primarily in Germanic communities such as the Pennsylvania-Dutch in America, the tradition not really making a public appearance among Anglo communities until the 1800’s. I like this Druid theory. It’s interesting and puts a deeper meaning to the Easter egg conundrum, but I’m not entirely sure how much stock to put into it……Now back to the willow tree.
  • Supposedly, the willow is referenced often in Chinese lore, which makes sense seeing as, as stated, weeping willows are native to China, but since this series is talking about the Celtic Tree Calendar and Chinese lore is not my specialty, I thought I’d leave those bits out. But, do know that it exists and if that is your interest or specialty, please let us know of some in the comments.

For more information on the Willow Tree check out my post “The Willow Tree”

Sources:
A Dictionary of Plant Lore, Roy Vickery
A Dictionary of Superstitions, Oxford: Ed. Iona Opie & Moira Tatem
Dictionary of Superstitions, Cassell. Ed. David Pickering
“Tree Lore: Willow”, Druidry.org
“The Willow Tree”, Controversical
“Willow”, The Goddess Tree

                 

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