BEWARE THE TREE SPIRIT! Celtic & Irish Tree Folklore
Updated: Jul 9
[Please keep in mind: this post is meant to entertain. Nothing in it is intended as medical or lifestyle advice.]
Don't cut down that tree! At least not until you find out if it has faeries or tree spirits guarding it.
Is ivy growing near your house? That's lucky. Well, bad luck for your whole household if the Ivy dies.
Want to hang some mistletoe to create the opportunity to kiss that enticing someone? There's a sacred ritual for harvesting it. But you knew that, right? No? Keep reading to find out the details plus more Celtic and Irish folklore--and laws--about trees (and a couple special plants).
The Celts connected with and revered nature. They had to for their survival. As agrarian people and fisher-folk, they depended on and contended with the blessings and vagaries of nature. In addition, they believed there was a spark of the Divine in everything: streams, rocks, trees, even individual leaves. It's unsurprising, then, that a body of beliefs, ranging from magical to mystical to medicinal, developed among the Celtic Irish. These folk traditions endured for centuries even after Christianity had spread across the island.
There is good cause for their durability. Much folklore has roots in reality. For example, folk medicine recommends chewing Willow bark to ease pain. Science has discovered that the bark contains salicin, a chemical similar to acetylsalicylic acid or ASA, which is the key ingredient in aspirin.
Some folk beliefs arise from a social need rather than a scientific root. For example, there are tales which warn children that, if they eat Cow's Parsley, they will kill their mothers. Perhaps this lore began as a way to protect children from being poisoned by Hemlock, which looks quite similar to Cow's Parsley.
No matter the reason for a particular belief or custom, Irish and Celtic folklore about trees is fascinating and fun. Below are some examples.
For babies and children
Bathe the baby in water infused with Holly leaves to protect the child from harm.
Place Ash berries in the crib to keep faeries from stealing the baby. (But it is a choking hazard!)
Make sure the crib is made from Elder wood. Or maybe not! Some versions of the folklore say that a crib made from Elder will keep a baby safe from faeries but other versions insist that placing the infant in a crib of Elder will increase the chances of faeries stealing the baby, so it's a risk either way.
To protect your house from lightning, plant a Rowan or a Willow near it.
Again, controversy exists. Some versions of Irish folklore say that an Ash tree will protect from lightning, but others say it attracts lightning.
Ivy growing near a home is a protection from evil, but will bring misfortune to the family if it dies. The Druids viewed Ivy as sinister but powerful.
Protection from Faeries, Evil Spirits, Witches, and the Dead
Holly trees were believed to offer protection from evil spirits
Rowan trees provided protection from witchcraft and enchantments. Burning Rowan wood in the fireplace in the morning on May Day, provided protection from the evil plans of witches . Placing Rowan flowers on windowsills and doorsteps kept evil spirits from entering the house. Rowans were planted in graveyards to protect the dead from evil spirits, and to keep the dead from rising from their graves.
Willow branches, placed in a home, protect the family from witchcraft and evil.
Hanging Mistletoe in a home protects the household from Faerie mischief.
Bringing Holly leaves into the house in winter was said to protect the faeries from the cold, resulting in a blessing for the whole household
Never Cut These Trees!
The Irish believed (and some still do) that a solitary tree (i.e. one growing alone in the middle of a field or by the side of a road) was a Faerie Tree inhabited or protected by faeries. Cutting one down would result in misfortune, possibly even death. Farmers would sow crops around the tree. Even roads were re-routed by planning committees as late as 20th century Ireland in order to avoid the consequences of cutting a Faerie Tree down.
In Ireland, cutting an Alder tree was against the law. Perhaps because the wood of the tree changes from white to red when it is cut, folklore taught that cutting one angered the tree spirits who guarded the tree. As punishment, they would burn nearby houses, so the consequences affected not only the perpetrator but the community as well.
In Scotland, cutting an Aspen was not only illegal, but was considered equivalent to killing a human.
According to Irish and Scottish oral tradition, chopping down a Hazel tree was punishable by death.
While not actually illegal, it is unwise to disturb thorn trees. Hawthorns are believed to guard the entrance to the faerie world, so disrespecting the tree in any way (let alone chopping it down) risks the wrath of the faeries.
Blackthorn trees are inhabited by malevolent moon faeries. If you'd like to use a branch to make a wand or a shillelagh or pick the berries to make gin, harvest them only on the night of a full moon. The faeries leave the tree at that time to have a celebration in honor of the moon goddess. NEVER disturb this tree in any way on the feasts of Beltaine or Samhain as the faeries will be particularly fierce in their retaliation.
Under Irish Brehon law. cutting a Bramble (or Blackberry) tree (technically a shrub) incurred a fine.
Mistletoe (a parisitic plant which attaches itself to a tree) was sacred to the Druids and could be harvested only in accordance with the proscribed ritual. This took place on the sixth day after the first full moon of autumn. The harvesters were forbidden to let the mistletoe touch the ground. After the harvest, cattle was sacrificed in thanksgiving, perhaps because the plant had many healing qualities and was considered a panacea, thus, having it was considered a blessing.
Some Fun Folklore
Elder trees were believed to have a bad temper or mischief inside of them.
Striking a child with an Elder stick, folklore taught, would cause the child to stop growing.
Ivy growing on a grave indicated a restless spirit.
Despite warnings against disturbing Hawthorn trees, an Irish folk custom involved placing strips of cloth or ribbons on Hawthorn trees on the feast of Beltaine. Each cloth or ribbon represented a wish, similar to throwing coins into a wishing well. Often, the ribbons were of symbolic colors, such as green or gold for money, blue for peace, red for love, yellow for happiness and so on.
An Irish legend warns that if you sleep under an Elder you may never wake up. This may come from the fact that the leaves have a mildly narcotic affect.
Want to get rid of a wart? Carry a needle around for three days then stick it into an Ash tree (poor tree!). The wart will be transferred to the Ash in the form of a knot.
An Ash, Oak, and Willow growing near each other indicates a magical pace where faeries can be seen.
The sound of the wind rustling Willow leaves is actually faeries whispering inspiration to poets.
Have a secret? Tell it to a Willow. Th tree will take the secret in and lock it away so it never gets out.
Folklore warns: Don't eat bramble berries after Samhain because the Puca (a mischievous shape-shifting faerie) spits on them!
The Elder, it is said, walks at night and peers through the windows of children's rooms. How creepy!
The Willow can walk at night too. It follows strangers and mutters after them.
There certainly is more Irish and Celtic folklore about trees and plants, but next week's post will be about Irish faeries. They definitely are no Disney princesses!
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