The Hawthorn Tree - Magic and Ritual
The hawthorn is the most obvious plant to green up here in early spring.
Its leaves begin emerge from bare spiky branches in late March, a vibrant, shimmering haze along the farm road, but often don't leaf up completely until late April. The hawthorn is also where most of the small birds choose to built their nests; the thorny corridors keep out most predators, so the hedges are full of a constant noisy bustle and chirp.
The plants which are woven into people’s daily lives are the plants that attract the most myths and superstitions, that become infused with meaning and made and remade through stories. Hawthorns, which are native to many countries, have an incredibly rich and often contradictory folk history.
At the root of this is the contradictions within the plant - the frothy white flowers that appear in May and the sharp piercing thorns hidden amongst them, the sweet scent which attracts fly pollinators (the chemical triethylamine) which is related both to sexual arousal and decaying flesh.
Hope and fear, sex and death - the perfect mix for a wide range of mythological connections.
Fear and Death
As I live in a country with a Celtic folklore past, let’s start with fear and death.
Hawthorns in Celtic countries are connected with the fairies. Fall asleep under a hawthorn tree, it is said, and you are likely to be kidnapped and taken to the underworld. There may be many reasons for this. Maybe it is the commonness of the tree (oaks and ashes are similarly linked to fairies) and the idea that they live amongst us. Maybe it is that hawthorn leaves will quiver and dance when there is no breeze - a sure sign of the presence of fairies in stories. Maybe it is simply the memory of getting impaled on a hawthorn tree while walking home on a dark night.
Celtic fairies are not a benign force like the fairies of much modern day literature. They are rather quixotic spirits to be wary of, it is important to try and keep them happy. Crop failures, mystery illnesses, people disappearing and the death of livestock are all blamed on fairies seeking revenge and there is a long tradition of putting out food and bathing water outside a front door to appease them.
Traditionally it is unlucky and disrespectful to mention fairies by name - so in stories hawthorn trees are called ‘lonely trees’ and ‘gentle trees’ in many Celtic stories - both of which are euphemisms for ‘fairy tree’.
Cutting down a lone hawthorn tree was said to result in instant death - which is why many old hawthorns survived enclosure and the rationalising of fields. You often see hawthorns standing rugged and wind blown in the middle of fields (something that can only have helped their supernatural reputation). Sadly this wariness didn’t carry over to the thousands of miles of hawthorn hedge grubbed up in the past century.
Death also haunts the mythology of the hawthorn because of the chemical its flowers give off to attract its pollinators - triethylamine - which is also the first chemical given off by decaying flesh.
This sweet cloying smell of death would have been more recognised in the past - the laying out of bodies for several days, the lack of refrigeration. Now the nearest most of us get to it is the sniffing out of a dead mouse under a floorboard.
The great plague of 1665 - which killed off 20% English population - seems to have been important in associating hawthorn blooms with death. The number of plague deaths started to climb in May 1665 and by June they were high enough for the wealthy to flee London for their country homes. Driving through streets with bodies piled up, the stench of death coming through the carriage windows - you can imagine that it would have stuck in the sensory memory.
Significantly it is from this point that hawthorn blossoms are banished from homes in English folk traditions. At a time when scents - particularly herby/medicinal scents like rosemary - were regarded as a way of warding off the plague, hawthorn was seen as a possible transmitter.
Love and optimism
For anyone not sniffing the blossoms, hawthorns seem to have been associated more with optimism, fertility and love. They are associated with the Greek god of marriage Hymen - and altars dedicated to him from 5BCE were lit with spills made from hawthorn wood. England and much of Europe carried this idea through to medieval times - and the hawthorn was seen as a tree of love and romance, new starts and fertility.
Mayflower, with its connotations of optimism and fecundity, was a popular name for early C17th ships. There were 26 ships called Mayflower docked in London when the most famous one took Puritan pilgrims to America.
Branches of hawthorn blossom were traditionally hung above doorways to increase fertility and ward off evil spirits. Crowns of hawthorn flowers were worn by young women looking to attract a mate. The original maypoles were made from hawthorn wood, the setting for a fertility dance, the weaving the feminine ribbons and flowers around the masculine pole. The overt sexuality of the maypole led to the Puritan government banning May Day celebrations in 1644.
Originally May Day, also celebrated as the fire festival Beltane by neo-pagans, would have taken place several days later, at a more equal point between the Spring equinox and Summer solstice. In 1752, when the Gregorian calender was adopted in the UK, dates were changed to incorporate around 13 extra days. Obviously nobody told the plants, which is why pre C18th accounts have hawthorn flowering on May Day - where now that would be too early in most parts of the UK.
One thing that connects the fairies to May day and Neo Paganism is the hanging of fabric strips from the thorns of a hawthorn tree.
In traditional Celtic tales the strips are an offering to the fairies in return for the alleviation of pain. By the time the fabric decayed the ailment would have been cured, the circumstance changed. If you are going to do this, make sure your fabric is 100% natural fibres or it will not decay.
On May Day long ribbons of fabric are tied to the top of the Maypole. This would have originally been both shorter and more prickly than those used in celebrations today. The twirling round clockwise and anti-clockwise with the ribbons, the wrapping up of the pole, represent the feminine weaving round the masculine. It could have been seen as either as a nesting or an entrapment depending on your view!
In Neo paganism and Wiccan rites the colour coded ribbons have requests written on them - for increased powers over specific areas of life. They are then tied to trees and left blowing in the breeze.
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