Trees mythology and legend

There can not be many among us, who are not aware of a legend attached to some of our familiar trees, for they have been steeped in myth and legend throughout history. Many of these are associated with a purpose in a certain locality , as for an example the ' hanging tree' or the 'shrew ash'.

The shrew ash was a common enough title for a tree in archaic times. The little shrew is a perfectly harmless little mammal, yet our ancestors looked upon them with distain and illogical suspicion. It would appear that nothing in the countryside, in their view, was safe from the creatures evil deeds. Some of these suspicions and genuine fears seem absurd to us in these more enlightened times. An example can be conveyed in the belief that if a shrew came to near domestic animals, the domestic beast would lose all power of limbs and was rendered unable to move.


Domestic beasts were in danger from the shrew!

Photograph by Dal

Our ancestors had the answer!

However, our ancestors had the answer to these evil deeds threatened by the shrew, and more often than not , this involved a great deal of cruelty. In the case of the shrew, a large ash tree was sought out and a hole bored into the trunk. that done, some witch-like incantation would be chanted and the poor shrew was forced into the hole still alive! The shrews fate, would literally be sealed, by means of a clay bung which would dry out and make it impenetrable.

From that time on, the tree attained an almost godly status, and with great respect shown to it. It was now officially a shrew ash and the locality was protected against shrews and their evil deeds. Any domestic animal that was ill, would only need to be touched with a twig from the tree to be made well and healthy immediately.

In old Norse tradition the ash was named as the tree from which man was created. { the woman from elm}. The ash was also considered to have power over water and the Ancient Celts incorporated the wood of ash into their boats to prevent them from sinking. During the time of the potato famine in Ireland, which saw a vast migration from that island, a piece of ash was carried over the Atlantic ocean for the same reason. The ancient Greeks dedicated the ash to Poseidon the god of the sea. 

Canopy of the ash tree

Photograph by Dal

Milkmaids and the elm

In days gone by any milkmaid worth her salt  would have some charm to make her ' butter come'. One of the most popular was to insert into the side of her churn a twig of wych hazel or wych elm, however, the reason for this has been lost in the mist of time. The elm tree is another species that features prominently  in folklore and legend. Nordic tradition regarded the elm as a guardian tree. An elm tree in Surrey {southern England} was known as the Queen's elm having been planted by Queen Elizabeth the first some 300 years previously. In ancient Greece elms were planted around burial places. In England elm was traditionally used to make coffins {caskets}


Hawthorn has always been associated with spring, vitality and life, and featured in many spring rituals. However, it was considered to be very unlucky to bring sprigs of hawthorn into the house. It was believed that if you were to do so, a member of the family would die that year. Science has since proved that a chemical produced in the flowers of hawthorn only occurs in one other place-it is a chemical produced by human corpses!

I recall the rhyme from my youth, with regards to finding shelter during a thunderstorm.--

                       ' Beware of the oak it courts the stroke,

                        Beware of the ash it courts the flash,

                        Creep under the thorn it will keep you from harm'

In Ireland the sacred springs have beside them a sacred tree it was commonly hawthorn that were planted there.

Although the flowers of hawthorn{may} are very attractive  it was considered unlucky to take them indoors.

Photograph by Dal

The rowan tree.

The Rowan was venerated throughout north west Europe. Rowan comes from the old Norse word 'ruan' meaning a 'charm'. It was regarded as a sovereign charm against evil and witch craft and reputedly kept 'the puir folk fra' harm'. It was reputed to be the tree of life which is reflected in the Anglo Saxon name of Cvicbeam from cvic meaning life and beam meaning tree. The Rowan's old name of quicken tree indicates ' blessing of life'.

Sprigs of Rowan were hung over doors and stables to neutralise the spells of witches and goblins that were thought to abound in the countryside. the tree was also reputed to be the medium between life and death and in many regions rowan wood was only ever burned on funeral pyres.

In Ireland the rowan was the traditional wood used in the production of spinning wheels. Rowan was associated with Brigid who was in turn associated with spinning and weaving.

Rowan in its spring glory

Photograph by Dal

Alder and elder trees

Records reveal that the Ancient Greeks imagined that the tree bled when cut. This alludes to the fact that when cut the sap of the alder sometimes turns red when it comes into contact with air. The alder woman has occurred in tradition since medieval time. Wooden images have been recorded from deep in our history, made of alder wood, one in particular dates from between 728 and 524 BC, discovered in a bog in Scotland.

Elder trees were planted over the graves of murderers in order that the roots would draw  the evil corruption from the ground. there has always been a strong belief among country folk that elder should never be cut down. It was believed that the Elder Mother, a spirit that lived in the tree, would follow the person home and punish them for cutting the tree. if the elder had to be pruned, one had to explain to the Elder Mother why one was having to do it. This belief or superstition persisted for centuries. Even today remnants of this belief can be observed in the form of a well trimmed hedgerow often having one or two unruly, uncut elder along its length.

Religion and trees

Many myths and legends associated trees with Christianity as for an example the aspen,Populus tremula, also known as the trembling poplar. The wood of this tree was said to have been used to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Divine punishment has decreed that the tree will forever tremble as a consequence.

Willow trees tend to rot from the inside out. legend explains the reason. A 'whip' branch of willow was used to punish Jesus as a boy, when he misbehaved. For this Jesus said the willow had no heart and would always rot from the inside out. 

Returning to the hawthorn in this respect,which has the legend which relates to the Glastonbury Thorn. It states how Joseph of Arumathea, came to preach the gospel in Britain. He landed on the then Isle of Avelon, finding himself weary and in need of sleep. Joseph thrust his staff into the ground and lay his weary body down to sleep. When he awoke, he found the staff had rooted and branched and had burst forth into blossom. This miracle had occurred over night and Joseph knew this was the place where his wanderings ended. It was here he settled to fulfill his sacred mission.

Yew trees are regarded as the 'gentle guardian of the dead' and is found in churchyards and other burial places throughout Europe. Many of the Irish saints were said to have preached from under yew trees. It is also another tree that represents life and death and it was associated with the resurrection.

Blackthorn with its bitter tasting fruit {sloes} and sharp prickly thorns was always going to be a candidate for bad traditions, often being associated with the devil, witches,and evil. However, God decided to shower the tree with white flowers to show the trees innocence. The Holly with its sharp prickly foliage and bright red berries has also long been associated with the crucifixion, the prickly foliage associated with the crown of thorns while the red berried represented the blood of Christ. The Anglo Saxons called it the Holy tree.

In Genesis {old Testament} 2-9 Eve says to the serpent-" We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the Garden"; but God said " You shall not eat of the fruit of 'the tree' which is in the midst of the Garden"

Genesis goes on to reveal that when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden {of Eden} God sends Cherubium ' to guard  the way to the tree of life'. many religions and races believe that the Tree of Life and it is often dipicted with a serpent or dragon guarding it. The tree of life is also referred to as the Tree of Knowledge or the Cosmic Tree, which illustrates mans deep rooted association with trees.

Holly berries depicted the blood of Jesus.

Photograph by Dal

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