Thursday, 14 February 2013

Explore Tree Myths and Superstitions

Are you a tree lover? Before there were so many people, before there was an industrial revolution and mass farming, the British Isles and most of Europe was covered with trees. Vast, dense forests covered hundreds of square miles and our ancient ancestors venerated some of these trees as gods, believed some of them could be used to heal their bodies and even that some of them were unlucky or evil and had to be appeased.  Even in our modern world, many of us find the idea of venturing alone into a deep, dark wood daunting and many horror films and books, such as ‘The Blair Witch Project’, centre around something dark and terrifying lurking in the shadows deep in the heart of the forest.  And who didn't listen to the fairy tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ when they were young, where the two little children laid a trail of breadcrumbs through the woods to find their way home again? So it is not perhaps surprising that there are many myths and superstitions about trees that have been passed down from our distant pagan past.  And when Christianity arrived and started spreading across Europe, the ancient beliefs about trees were not forgotten, but were incorporated into the new religion’s beliefs, and many trees came to be regarded as Christian symbols and had new myths attached to them.

Party Tree at Hobbiton, New Zealand - own image
Party Tree at Hobbiton, New Zealand

In Britain before the coming of Christ, the gods, spirits and elements were worshipped in groves of sacred trees by the Druids.  The three most sacred trees were thought to be the oak, the ash and thorn, and this triad was attributed with great powers and magical properties. It was thought that guardian spirits inhabited the trees, and our saying ‘touch wood’ comes from the old custom of gently touching a tree to show your respect for the spirit that dwelt within in it and to ask for healing, blessings and favours.  In ancient Greece, there was thought to be a type of nymph called a Hamadryad that was eternally bonded to their own tree.  If that tree was felled or destroyed, the tree’s resident Hamadryad was also thought to die, so the Greek gods severely punished any mere mortal who damaged a sacred tree.

Because they are very long-lived, trees were also regarded as a symbol of immortality, fertility and the never ending cycle of the seasons. Their longevity was a promise to our ancestors that life always renewed itself, and they would have known that many generations of their people would have met and worshipped under the shady branches of the same tree. This gave these leafy, shaded spaces a numinous quality, which allowed the echoes of the past to ripple into the present, providing continuity; a thread that bound them both to their ancestors and to the generations to come, so that wisdom and knowledge would never be lost. Trees were also an important source of fuel for their fires, building materials for their homes and provided fruit and berries for both food and medicine. When Christianity arrived in Europe, it seamlessly absorbed much of the mythology and the beliefs that surrounded pagan tree worship and turned it into Christian stories and legends.  Indeed, the very first story of this new religion involves the first man and woman, Adam and Eve plucking a forbidden apple from the Tree of Knowledge and the redeemer Jesus Christ being sacrificially slain on a cross made of wood.

So what are some of the myths and superstitions associated with certain trees?

Oak Trees

Oak trees were probably the most important, magical tree in European pagan mythology.  They were worshipped in sacred groves by the Druids and individual oaks were venerated. As they can make wailing, moaning noises when they are cut into or felled, they were thought to have human traits. Oaks possessed powerful magic that could cure you of your toothache if you drove a nail into the trunk, could stop you from ageing if you carried an acorn in your pocket and offered you protection from lightning strikes.  Oak was associated with Zeus and Thor, the powerful pagan male gods of storms and lightning, and, because of their shape, were regarded as symbols of male virility and power.  It is a good thing that oak trees offered protection from lightning, as they are more liable than other trees to be struck, partly because they are often the tallest object in the immediate landscape, but also because oak wood has low resistance to electricity. But being struck by lightning was also important to the oak tree, as sacred mistletoe was thought to have been left in the branches during lightning strikes. Oak leaves were used as symbols of power, conquest and military expertise, and Roman military leaders used to wear crowns woven from oak leaves during their victory parades.

Lone Tree in British Park - own image
Lone Tree in British Park

There are many famous, historic oaks in Britain that have had their own stories and legends woven around them.  Perhaps the most famous of them is the oak tree that stands in the grounds of Boscobel House in Staffordshire, where in 1651 the future King Charles II hid after the Battle of Worcester to escape from Oliver Cromwell’s men.  The day of his restoration to the throne, 29th May, has ever since been celebrated with feasting, singing and dancing as ‘Royal Oak Day’ or ‘Oak Apple Day’.  It was traditional on this day to pin oak leaves or oak apples to your clothes and if you saw someone who was not wearing any then you were allowed to physically punish them with a sly pinch, slap or kick. There is also a legend that Elizabeth I first heard about the death of her sister Queen Mary and her accession to  the throne while she was standing under the oak that stands in the grounds of Hatfield House, which has ever since been called The Queen Elizabeth Oak.

Another famous oak stands in Windsor Great Park, where legend has it that one of the keepers, known as Herne the Hunter, hung himself from one of the branches.  Herne had rescued Richard II from being gored by a white hart, but sustained mortal wounds while he was doing it.  He was healed by having the white hart’s antlers attached to his head by a mysterious stranger called Philip Urswick. Unbeknownst to him Urswick had struck a deal with the other keepers in Windsor Great Park, and after he healed Herne lost his position.  In desperation he hung himself from a large branch of the oak, where his swinging, antlered corpse was spotted by a pedlar.  By the time the pedlar had returned with the other keepers, Herne’s body had disappeared and that night the great oak tree was struck by lightning.  When the keepers returned to the oak at midnight they were confronted by Herne’s ghost who compelled them to ride with him forever in his Wild Hunt.


Ash is another tree that was once thought to possess magical powers. If a child was suffering from a hernia or rickets, it would be taken before the sun rose to be passed naked through a split in the trunk of an ash tree. The split would then be bound back together, sealed with clay and left to heal.  As the trunk healed, the child would miraculously recover from its ailment.  Ash was also used to heal lame animals by carving a hole into the trunk and placing a live shrew inside it.  The hole would be sealed over and when the shrew died and the ash healed, the lame animal would come sound again.  Ash faggots were traditionally burned in hearths at Christmas.  They would be bound together with green twigs, and as the ash burned you could make a wish every time one of the twig bindings snapped open.  The single girls of the household would each choose one of the twig bindings, and if you had chosen the first one that burst open in the flames then you would be the first of the girls to get married.  

Ash trees were an important part of Norse myths, because Yggdrasil the World Tree was a mighty ash that grew in the centre of everything and spread out into everything, as its roots grew down into the dark mysteries of the underworld, its branches shaded every part of the world, and its trunk grew so tall that it penetrated heaven itself. Yggdrasil was the sacred place where the Norse gods would come to sit in council and where Odin hung himself in sacrifice, losing an eye when the ravens pecked it out.  Hanging from a sacred tree is a continuing theme in tree mythology and one that carries on into Christian belief, as Jesus was nailed and hung from a tree to make his ultimate sacrifice for the sake of humanity, enabling their redemption.  This symbolism is carried on into the modern tarot where the Hanged Man card drawn in a reading suggests sacrifice, limitations and a time of waiting.

British Trees in the Snow - Own Image
British Trees in the Snow

Yggdrasil was also associated with nurturing and abundance, as a miraculous goat that grazed at the foot of the trunk produced mead from its udder rather than milk, and this potent alcoholic beverage was served at the great feasts held by the gods in their Great Hall.  Mead is made from honey and water, and this association with the ash tree may have come from the fact that some species of ash found in the mountains of Greece and in Northern Europe ooze a sticky, sweet substance that is a bit like honey.  Yggdrasil was also said to rain honey down from the skies for the sustenance of mankind below, so this miraculous ash could truly claim to be the tree of life.

Mountain ash is also known by the name rowan and is commonly found growing in Northern England, Scotland and Wales. It is another tree that offers you great protection for your household and can protect you and your family from witchcraft and evil spirits. It was used to protect and help farm livestock, as milkmaids used to tie rowan twigs to their buckets so that the milk would not sour and wreaths woven from rowan twigs were put around pig’s necks to fatten them up faster. Mares and cows would be fed rowan berries while they were giving birth, so that their labour would progress smoothly and the baby animal be born alive and healthy.


Hawthorn with its glorious white blossom is the tree that is associated with the return of the sun after the winter and the month of May, so much so that it is also known as the May tree.  The traditional maypoles that were set up on village greens to help celebrate the first day of May were often made from hawthorn wood and it was also used to make the garland that was used to crown the chosen ‘Green Man’ of that summer.  In pagan times hawthorn was very much associated with fertility, passionate love and marriage.  But the rise of Christianity saw the symbolism change as the white colour of the flowers were linked to purity and the Virgin Mary, to whom the month of May was dedicated.  Probably the most famous thorn tree in Britain is the ancient one that grows in the Somerset town of Glastonbury.  The Glastonbury Thorn was said to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea after he stuck it in the ground and it only flowers once in May and once during the Christmas season. Joseph of Arimathea was said to have carried the Holy Grail with him as he travelled, and hid it away somewhere in the British Isles where it still lays waiting to be discovered. Tradition also has it that the crown of thorns that was placed on Jesus’ head was made from hawthorn wood.

Hawthorn could also be used to protect your home from ghosts, witches and storms, by having the branches placed across the rafters by a person who was not a member of your immediate family.  Bundles of hawthorn twigs were also hung outside cowsheds to ensure that the cows carried on giving an abundant supply of milk. However, it was thought to be very unlucky to bring hawthorn into the house, and if you decorated the interior of your house with it you could expect illness and death to swiftly follow. This could be because during medieval times people thought that hawthorn blossom smelled like London during the time of the Black Death.  In fact, May flowers do contain a compound called trimethylamine, which is one of the chemicals that is formed in decomposing animal flesh, so would have given off a whiff of rotting bodies which would not been appreciated in someone’s parlour.

Yew Trees

Ancient yew trees can be found growing in many of the churchyards of rural Britain. They are a very long living species and can live for up to 1,000 years. In fact, the Fortingall Yew that grows in the churchyard at Fortingall in Scotland is thought to be between 2,000 and 5,000 years old. The trunk of the tree has split off into different offshoots over the years, so the true age cannot be determined by examining the rings within the trunk.  Local legend has it that Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor that handed Jesus over to be crucified, once played under the Fortingall Yew as a child and archaeologists think that it used to be the focal point of a local Iron Age cult.

Because of their extreme longevity, it is therefore perhaps not surprising that yew trees symbolized immortality for our pagan forebears and that many Christian churches came to be built where sacred groves of yew used to stand.  The yew also has what would have been viewed as miraculous powers of regeneration, as when one of the branches droops so low that it hits the earth, that branch can grow roots and start forming new trunks. Because of this link to a promised eternal life, in medieval times they used to line newly dug graves with yew branches to help guarantee the resurrection of the recently deceased soul.  Yew is also one of the woods that traditionally have been thought to have been used to make the cross that Jesus was crucified on. This link with death may have come about as yew is also poisonous, and can easily kill a man if ingested in sufficient quantity. The yew was also believed to be able to protect churchyards from storms that had been conjured up by angry, vengeful witches.  In the middle ages, yew was a favoured wood for making long bows; that ultimate weapon of the fighting man that was so vital to the English for gaining victory in battles such as Agincourt in October 1415.  At that time archery practice with the longbow was enforced by law, and each man in England who was of an age to fight was compelled to spend time practising his technique and skills until they were deadly accurate.

British Woodland - own image
British Woodland

There were myths and superstitions surrounding practically every species of tree and they varied from culture to culture, even from village to village.  It used to be thought that sawing up willow was very unlucky, so even very poor folk would not cut down the branches to use as firewood. But willow could also be very lucky if someone gave you a gift of willow branches on a morning in May. The poplar, also called the aspen, sometimes looks like it is shivering in the breeze.  This was thought to be because its wood had been used to make the cross for the crucifixion and that the poplar was so traumatised by this that it still shakes in horror. People used to believe that if they suffered from tremors or shivering while they were ill, that attaching a lock of their hair to a poplar and chanting an incantation could cure them.

The causes of disease were very poorly understood in years gone by, so folk thought that if they burned a fire of juniper wood during a plague epidemic that the resulting smoke would drive away the demons that were causing the terrible disease. If you dreamed of juniper berries you could expect the birth of a first male child, but dreaming of the juniper tree was a harbinger of bad luck. The elder was another tree that was a candidate for providing the wood that the cross of Jesus had been made from, so it also brought bad luck if it was brought into the house.  Its unfortunate reputation was further bolstered by another tradition that Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus at the Last Supper leading him to be universally reviled, had hung himself from an elder tree branch. Elder trees were also dangerous to approach during the hours of darkness, as witches gathered under them and if they caught you, then you could expect no mercy. 

Winter Trees in Oxford - own image
Winter Trees in Oxford

So these are just a few of the myths and superstitions that are associated with trees. Across all cultures and in many different regions there are common themes of fertility, virility, the cycle of the seasons, protection, and great leaders sacrificing themselves by hanging themselves from their boughs to bring healing and renewal to their people.  Trees are companionable, shady places to sit and dream under on a hot, sunny day, so the next time that you are sitting propped up against the trunk of your favourite tree, why not say hello to the spirit that lives there and give thanks to the tree for the healing and protection it gives you.

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