“The Queen went to the Stone House and took Morag out. She asked her how she had fared and thereupon Morag put the Rowan Berry in the Queen’s hand. She hastened to her own chamber and ate it, and her youth and beauty came back to her, and the King who had grown solitary, loved the Queen again.” – Patraic Colum (The King of Ireland’s Son, 1916)
The Rowan tree is one of the most significant trees found in Celtic mythology.
In Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids Robert Ellison states that the Rowan is a tree of protection, magic, and control of the senses.
Caitlin Mathews in Celtic Wisdom Sticks: an Ogham Oracle claims that the Rowan is “popularly credited with being the most magical of trees.” As well as being a protective tree, the Rowan in her divination system is also associated with staying on course and not getting lost.
In the Ogham Tract[i] the word associations given to the Rowan are “delight of the eye… flame” and “friend of cattle.”[ii] John Mathews in the Celtic Shaman interprets the first word riddle as being a reference to Love.
The instances found of Rowan’s protective nature against fairies, witches, and the evil eye are extensive in Celtic folklore. Besides being a protector, Luis is also a tree of magic.
J.C. Cooper in an Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols calls the Rowan the “Gallic Tree of Life.”
The use of the Rowan for protection was very widespread. The tree was said to offer protection against fire, lightening and witches and also to protect cows and milk products. Rowan was often planted in graveyards, like Yew, to prevent the dead from rising[iii].
In Irish legend the corpse might be staked with a Rowan branch bearing berries to prevent the ghost from wandering[iv]. Rowan was also used in shapeshifting spells[v]. When the tree grew close to the home it was considered very auspicious.
The Rowan tree is said to have been brought to Ireland by accident from Tir Tairngire, the Land of Promise, by the Tuatha De Danann[vi]. Etain is turned into a pool of water by being struck by a wand of Rowan and the Salmon of Wisdom is sometimes found to be eating Rowan berries instead of hazel nuts[vii].
The unfaithful wife of Finn Mac Cool, Graine, hides in a Rowan tree with her lover Diarmaid to avoid being captured. In the pursuit of the lovers the Fianna stopped beneath the same Rowan tree to rest. They started to play games to fill the time. Diarmaid was one of Finn’s men and it was said that when he was nearby, due to his magic, Finn would win every game. While playing beneath the tree, Finn loudly proclaimed that he wished that Diarmaid was present so that he could win every game. Hearing this, Diarmaid dropped one Rowan berry from the tree down to Finn who then won. This was done four times in a row for four separate games. After the fourth game Finn realized that Diarmaid was nearby and called the lovers down from the tree. A battle was then fought[viii].
In the King of Ireland’s Son, by Padraic Colum, a giant and his fearsome black bull guard the Rowan tree from mortals. In the tree itself are also found 24 vicious angry yellow cats. The giant who guards the tree has two servants, more like slaves, named Flann and Morag. Morag has placed herself in the service of the giant because she intends to steal a Rowan berry for her queen. Flann is an unwilling captive.
Morag is described as being very unattractive in the earlier portions of this tale. When she finally manages to steal a Rowan berry for her queen she also takes one for herself. Flann and Morag manage to escape and a series of adventures begin. This is not before Morag eats one of the Rowan berries and becomes beautiful. Flann and Morag then fall in love as a direct result of her eating the Rowan berry. They will eventually be together after many hardships.
It should be noted that the 24 cats, plus the Rowan tree itself, could easily represent the 25 letters of the Ogham.
Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm in the Druid Animal Oracle link the Blackbird to the Rowan. They also speak of the protective nature of Rowan in regards to the Cow. In many ways the traditions involving the Rowan have been carried forward to modern times. One example would be that Luis, the Rowan or Mountain Ash, can still be found on the clan badges of Malcom and McLachlan[ix].
The tree itself is not supposed to be cut down or hurt with a blade of any sort. Although the Rowan is a great protector, there is a suggestion in the stories that to harm the tree would be to court disaster.
Rowan sometimes grows from another tree like mistletoe. These branches are considered especially magical[x].
Ivo Dominguez, jr. includes some interesting lore on the Rowan tree in his text Of Spirits: the Book of Rowan[xi].
“Moreover, the Rowan’s true element is probably light of which fire is one manifestation. Rowan has the power to open and to close gates, to summon and to banish, to protect and to sustain. All parts of the tree are useful for the making of incense or magical tools.
“The berries were used by the druids and the Welsh witches in brewing wines and potions that increased the power of the second sight. The blossom end of the berry is marked with a natural pentacle. If the berries are charged in a ritual they achieve special vital energy potency so that if one berry is consumed it gives the prana of nine meals. Very useful for healing, strenuous work, and fasting. Even without the ritual, 1 berry quartered and brewed as a tea greatly increases second sight.”
It should be noted here that the raw fruit does contain parasorbic acid which if eaten in quantity may cause indigestion or kidney failure. This can be neutralized through cooking or freezing[xii].
“In the Highland version of the legend of Fraoch, given in the Dean of Lismore’s book, the rowan tree is a sort of tree of Life; it bears fruit every month and every quarter, and the virtue of its red berries when tasted was such as to stave off hunger for long:
Its berries’ juice and fruit when red For a year would life prolong.
From dread disease it gave relief If what is told be our belief.
Yet though it proved a means of life Peril lay closely nigh;
Coiled by its root a dragon lay Forbidding passage by.”
– George Henderson (Survival in Belief Amongst Celts, 1911)
[ii] This line is confusing as it also mentions the Elm tree.
[iii] Fred Hageneder. The Meaning of Trees.
[iv] Jacqueline Memory Paterson. Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook.
[v] Robert Ellison. Ogham: the Secret Language of the Druids.
[vi] James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology.
[viii] J.F. Campbell. Popular Tales of the West Highlands, 1890.
[xi] The newer updated version of this book titled Spirit Speak does not include this information on Rowan. Both books lend understanding to “the nature of discarnate beings” and I cannot recommend them enough for anyone interested in the spirit world.