“In some areas of Ireland and Scotland, willow is considered a tree of bad luck, while in others it is regarded as good.” – Erynn Rowan Laurie (Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom)
Saille, the Willow tree, is slightly more elusive than some of the other trees found in Celtic lore.
Within the Ogham Tract[i] the Willow is referred to as the “flight of women” and as being a “dead colour.” In the Celtic Shaman John Mathews interprets the meanings of these poetic riddles as being “Death.”
Eryn Rowan Laurie in Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom associates the Willow to the spirits of the ancestors.
Caitlin Mathews speaks of the Willow’s attributes in Celtic Wisdom Sticks. In her divination system, the consistent message found in connection to the Willow is for one to accept circumstances as they are, and to move forward.
In Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids, Robert Ellison says that the Willow is associated with changes, as well as moon and water magic. Ellison claims that the Willow is related to “mysteries and water related subjects” as well as to “feminine attributes.”
The Willow is associated with the moon and water. By extension, the tree is then associated with the changing tides, the ancestors, and the dead. The tree is a bridge to the Otherworld and is an aid in creating relationships with those things that are found on the other side.
Jacqueline Memory Paterson describes some of Willow’s folklore in her book Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook. “Branches of willow were traditionally placed in coffins and young Willow saplings were planted on graves. This is an echo of Celtic tradition, whereby the spirit of the corpse in the earth rises into the sapling planted above, which grows and retains the essence of the departed one.” Paterson goes on to explain how some burial mounds were lined with Willow trees to “protect the spirits of the place.” She also says that the Willow was also a traditional symbol of mourning and is still associated with grieving by some.
The Celtic god Esus is associated with the Willow tree. Esus is portrayed as cutting down the Willow tree[ii] which has mythological references that may be lost to us in modern times. According to the Roman writer Lucan, Esus is a God of war comparable to the Roman god Mars[iii]. Very little is known about him. In one image he is felling a tree with birds in the branches and in another he is associated with the bull and three cranes[iv].
While the meaning of the tree being cut down by Esus may be lost to us, the illustration is worthy of contemplation. Could Esus be the lord of winter and the Willow then be the symbol of summer? Along a similar vein, could Esus be preparing the May tree for Beltane? Is the association of Esus with the bull and cranes, as well as the willow, be representative of some sort of mastery over certain types of power? Could the Willow tree, especially with birds in the branches, represent the world tree and be telling an apocalyptic story or a metaphorical mastery of the travelling between worlds? These are all questions that we may never know the answer to, but they are interesting ones to ponder nonetheless.
(Le Pilier des Nautes. Photo by Thermes de Cluny)
T.W. Rolleston shares an interesting tale regarding the Willow in his 1911 text Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race. The story is short enough to share here in its entirety.
“Of Labra the Mariner, after his accession, a curious tale is told. He was accustomed, it is said, to have his hair cropped but once a year, and the man to do this was chosen by lot, and was immediately afterwards put to death. The reason of this was that, like King Midas in the similar Greek myth, he had long ears like those of a horse, and he would not have this deformity known.
“Once it fell, however, that the person chosen to crop his hair was the only son of a poor widow, by whose tears and entreaties the king was prevailed upon to let him live, on condition that he swore by the Wind and Sun to tell no man what he might see. The oath was taken, and the young man returned to his mother. But by-and-by the secret so preyed on his mind that he fell into a sore sickness, and was near to death, when a wise Druid was called in to heal him. ‘It is the secret that is killing him,’ said the Druid, and he will never be well till he reveals it. Let him therefore go along the high-road till he come to a place where four roads meet. Let him there turn to the right, and the first tree he shall meet on the road, let him tell his secret to that, and he shall be rid of it, and recover.’ So the youth did; and the first tree was a willow. He laid his lips close to the bark, whispered his secret to it, and went home, light-hearted as of old.
“But it chanced that shortly after this the harper Craftiny broke his harp and needed a new one, and as luck would have it the first suitable tree he came to was the willow that had the king’s secret. He cut it down, made his harp from it, and performed that night as usual in the king’s hall; when, to the amazement of all, as soon as the harper touched the strings the assembled guests heard them chime the words, ‘Two horse’s ears hath Labra the Mariner.’ The king then, seeing that the secret was out, plucked off his hood and showed himself plainly ; nor was any man put to death again on account of this mystery.”
Bards were initiates of magic and knowledge within the Celtic culture, so this story also likely has more to it than meets the eye. Bards were not subject to the same laws as other citizens and would not have been subject to the same punishments as ordinary people[v]. Harps were also often made from Willow trees, the most famous being the Brian Boru harp[vi].
The harper, Craftiny, would not have been held accountable for revealing the secret that his “harp” had spoken. Also, as a bard, he would have been protected from execution even if he was found responsible. Craftiny was able then to break a curse of sorts, which had been placed upon the people by Labra. Like many Otherworldly tales this story contains elements of the impossible. A harp could not be made from a Willow tree that had been felled that same day. The working would take much longer than this and the wood itself would have needed to be aged.
Eryn Rowan Laurie[vii] reminds us that Saille may be sending us messages from the ancestors. “It might be through the voice of falling water or through song and music.” This message from Willow might indicate that the dead are speaking[viii] or the tree may simply be suggesting “a need to connect with or listen to the ancestors or to honour them in some way.”
Some magical uses for Willow are found in Judika Illes’ Element Encyclopedia of 5000 spells. The following two are both associated with death.
The first is a “Threshold Transition Spell.” The practitioner is encouraged to plant a Willow tree to help ease the transition of death. It is said that the Willow should still be alive when you die for the spell to work properly. “For added enhancement, have leaves or small branches of this tree placed within your coffin.”
The second spell involving death found in Illes’ text is the “Rest in Peace Willow Spell.” In this section it is suggested that Willow branches should be placed beside a grave to drive away negative spirits and ghosts. “These Willow branches will also prevent the deceased’s ghost from rising, protect living visitors from ‘ghost sickness’ and attract benevolent protective spirits of the dead.” Illes recommends that the Willow branches be replaced with fresh ones as often as is needed.
“The god (Esus), bull, crane and tree are all major elements of Western pagan religion and magic, found extensively in classical and Celtic mythology. Even though it is not possible to define the bull-with-three-cranes in a full mythological context, they are clearly part of a Celtic tradition similar to that found in the Irish sagas. The ritual slaying, flaying and eating of a bull were a central part of a prophetic ceremony in ancient Ireland, in which Druids entered a sacred sleep to gain a vision of the future king; it seems likely that the tree-cutting and bull-with-three-cranes scenes are connected to the sacrificial kingship that underpinned Celtic culture from the earliest period.” –R.J. Stewart (Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses)
[ii] J.C. Cooper. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols.
[iii] M. Jordan. The Encyclopedia of Gods.
[v] Peter Berresford Ellis. The Druids.
[vi] Eryn Rowan Laurie. Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.
[viii] Laurie says that this can also be living ancestors such as grandparents.