“Thus, among tree species, we can recognize on sight as wind-pollinated the bulk of catkin-bearing trees, including the hazels, birches, and poplars, for in all of them there is an abundance of loose pollen, no nectar, and no conspicuous insect-attracting feature. Willows, with their large nectarines, constitute an exception and are insect-pollinated.” – Steve Cafferty (Firefly Encyclopedia of Trees)
Saille, the willow, is the tree of the otherworld.
The willow is the conductor of relationships. She is the bringer of love, of poetic inspiration, of the element of water, of music, the moon and of the great goddess herself. She is associated to many different creatures of the Earth and to the very idea of magic.
Willow is the builder of bridges, between this world and the next.
It is said that the willow tree can return from the dead, and there may be a kernel of truth to this.
The tree responds well to cutting, pruning and grafting. In Plants of Coastal British Columbia we are told that BC Natives would use poles from Hooker’s Willow for fishing piers because they would “take root” in the floor of the waterbed. The same source states that the Variable Willow grows “in the footsteps of retreating glaciers”, thus beginning the population process of the forest beneath the shadow of the ice ages.
In mythology the willow tree can be connected to many different goddesses. Saille is also associated to many living creatures in Celtic mythology like the crane, the bull, the bumblebee, the hawk[i] and the frog.
It is no mystery that the willow is a water tree, as it grows in damp places along riverbanks and lake shores. When the willow grows close to the water her roots reach into the life-giving liquid itself. To the Celts this must have been significant.
The Celtic ancestors believed that there was a thin veil between this world and the next. It was known that in places where reality bent, the veil between the worlds was thinnest. A mountaintop was sacred because it was neither part of the earth nor of the sky, beaches were neither of the land nor of the sea, and a forest clearing was neither a part of the woods nor separated from it. When it came to time, dusk and dawn were sacred because they were neither of the day nor of the night. Samhain was an especially good time to peer between the worlds for it neither existed in one year nor in the next. It was thus believed that many spirits could wander freely at this time and that humans could just as easily become lost to the other side as well. Babies born on boats were sacred under the same philosophy as well. One can also quickly see why rowan or mistletoe growing not on the ground but on another tree may have been especially significant, or why they would be harvested halfway between the full and the new moon. The list of places, times and events where the veil was thinner than usual could be considered as inexhaustible as the imagination is long.
Creatures such as frogs were considered sacred as they were neither a creature of the land nor of the water. For this reason so were many water birds as they were neither of the air nor of the water. The crane, swan, goose and duck make repeated appearances throughout Celtic mythology.
So to the Celtic people the fact that the willow tree, Saille, lived partly in the water as well as partly on the land was of a significant importance -as it likely was to many other ancient cultures as well.
Fred Hageneder in the Meaning of Trees lists the willow as being attached to the Sumerian goddess of love, Belili and in Greece to Persephone, Circe, Artemis and Hera and to the nine muses (which gave the gift of poetry to Orpheus). Hageneder also reminds us that the Irish Bards’ harp had the body of willow wood which is also significant as the bard was no mere musician, but a mystic and an inspired messenger of the gods.
Nor should we forget that the White Goddess-which Graves attempts to establish is but one and the same goddess in many forms throughout history-is also connected to “the Willow Grove” in her original form.
Willow’s being attached to the element of water, and thus to the moon, gives us many reasons for these spiritual or metaphysical connections, for most biologists say that life on this planet would never have occurred without the tidal effects of the oceans, which are caused by the moon.
In the Druid Animal Oracle, Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm point out that there are two separate surviving Celtic monuments that both show a bull and three cranes with a willow tree. These first century AD monuments show us the significance of the relationship between these three beings. The number three is extremely significant in Celtic mythology and reappears over and over again in the form of triads, in art, in legends and in the images of the triangle. The three cranes depicted on the monuments thus signify a divine group. The crane is often attached to the willow tree elsewhere as well.
Graves also points out that cranes were believed to have bred, and breed, in willow groves.
This braid of connection is significant, for it is the crane that is directly linked to the Ogham. It is the “crane bag” that carries the carved Ogham sticks and the sacred treasures of the sea god Manannan. Though the original Ogham was a gift to humanity from the god Ogma Sun Face[ii], “Greek mythographers credited Palmedes with [the additional invention of Ogham glyphs], saying that he received his inspiration from observing a flock of cranes, which make letters as they fly”. “Crane Knowledge” would then come to mean knowledge of the Ogham specifically (Carr-Gomm).
The horns of the bull are often said to represent the moon (numerous sources). The bull then is just as likely to represent us, as humans, as a singular warm blooded creature of the earth, reaching towards the heavens. It is said that if a person is changed into the shape of a crane then it is only the blood of a bull that can change them back (Heinz[iii]).
Willow can then be used as a bridge builder and a harmonizer between this world and the next. Saille can be asked to petition the goddess in matters of the heart or to make peace where discord exists between various people in a spirit of cooperation. For just as the bumblebee exchanges with her, the willow, the labour of pollination for nectar, so to can we find a place of common ground in the world of the willow no matter what our differences.
Like all of the symbolism attached to Saille though, perhaps her greatest gift is to show us that the world that we perceive as fixed and static is more fluid than we could ever have imagined, and that perhaps -as many of the mystics of the past have claimed – it is but an illusion[iv].
There is an old tradition of sitting beneath the willow tree while listening to the wind that blows through her leaves create the musical speech of poetic inspiration.
“Perhaps trees are mediators between the worlds: their branches reach far into heaven and their roots reach deep into the earth.” Saibne Heinz (Celtic Symbols)
[i] In the Ogham there are also certain birds, as well as trees, attached to each letter. The bird attached to Saille is the hawk.
[ii] Ogma “Sun Face” is the son of Dagda “the Lord of Knowledge”. He is a poet warrior god who also carries the souls of the dead to the otherworld. Little is known of Ogma but he is one of the younger generation of gods, known as the Tuatha De Danann. After a great battle against the Fomorii (the previous and dark ones) Ogma claimed a magical sword that would recite all of the things that it had ever done. (the Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology, Select Editions. 2002)There can easily be seen parallels between Ogma and Odin, who brought the runic alphabet to the Norse, or to Prometheus, fire bringer, type figures. What seems to separate Ogma from these other advancers of civilization however is that he does not seem to have been punished for giving the Ogham to humans. I have found that John Mathews description of the events leading up to the sharing of the Ogham with man in the Song of Talieson as intuitive as he describes the sacrifice and pain that was experienced by Ogma in the process of learning the Ogham in the first place.
[iii] Sabine Heinz uses German Celtic Historian Silvia Botheroyd as a reference here. As far as I know her work is only available in German.
[iv] The willow is also used in scrying and other forms of divination, dowsing, and also has healing properties. It is commonly known that aspirin is a synthetic representation of salicyclic acid found in “white willow bark”, which in its natural form does not have blood thinning properties.