Saille (Willow) II

“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)

The Roots:

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.

The Trunk:

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.”

The Foliage:

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.

[iv] For more discussion regarding the Willow’s connection to the bull and three cranes see the previous Willow blog post:

[v] Peter Berresford Ellis. The Druids.

[vi] Eryn Rowan Laurie. Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Laurie says that this can also be living ancestors such as grandparents.

Saille (Willow)

“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)

The Roots:

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.

The Trunk:

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].

The Foliage:

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.

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