Sacred Woods and the Lore of Trees

Since humans first utilized wood for fire, tools and utensils, certain trees have held a special significance as both practical providers and powerful spiritual presences. The specific trees varied between different cultures and geographic areas, but those held to be 'sacred' shared certain traits in common — unusual size or beauty, the wide range of materials they provided, unique physical characteristics, or simply the power of the tree's spirit could grant it a central place in the folklore any mythology of a culture. Even today, certain trees capture our imagination. The majestic oak, the ancient yew, the evergreens we bring into our homes each year — all are reminders of the power that trees can have in our lives.

Wood captures the essence of the tree. It is a living thing, imbued with the energies and characteristics of its parent. The physical characteristics of the wood often reflect the lore that surrounds the tree itself; bows made from the poisonous yew as bringers of death; the sweet scented apple wood as a symbol of love; the strong, straight ash that was believed to form the central axis of the world. Each wood has its own personality, its won spirit, and this spirit can augment the power of a talisman or a set of wood runes.

Here then is my introduction to some of those powerful trees which have been known and revered by the people of northern Europe, plus a few that have particular meaning to the indigenous cultures of North America. I have included physical characteristics and traditional uses of the wood in addition to the lore and myths associated with the tree, since all of these factors influence one another.

Alder (Alnus spp.)
This tree is a water lover. The oily water resistant wood has been used extensively for underwater foundations and pilings in Venice and elsewhere. It is used in dairy vessels and the branches in making whistles. It is associated with Bran, as He used His body as a bridge to span dangerous waters. It is sued in the construction of bridges. Bran's Head was oracular. Alder indicates protection and oracular powers.

Apple (Malus spp.)
A dense, fine-grained, rosy-colored wood with a slightly sweet smell. The Apple is the earliest cultivated tree. It is associated with choice. As Somerset, an auction was held for single acre plots on two pieces of common land. Plots were marked and matching marks made on the fruit. The apples were then placed in a bag and commoners were allocated land by the distribution of the fruit. All the acres of land were similar, as many times today choices must be made between similar and equally attractive things. Regardless, the choice must be made. In Norse myth, Idunna was the keeper of the 'apples of immortality' which kept the Gods young. The 'fruit-bearing-tree' referred to by Tacitus in his description of Norse runic divination may have been the apple. Apple indicates choice and is useful for love and healing magick.

Ash (Fraxinus spp.)
A strong, straight-grained wood; sometimes has 'olive' streaks or stripes in the grain. The European variety (fraxinus excelsior) was referred to in the Eddas as the species of Yggdresil — the 'World-Tree'. The first man, names Ask, was created from an ash log. Ash was commonly used to make spears because of its 'springiness' and straight grain. In North America, strips of black ash were split along the grin to make splints for baskets and hoops. It is used in weaver's beams. Women would weave cloth and intermingling threads together in a tight pattern as the microcosm and the macrocosm are united. Ash can be used in spells requiring focus and strength of purpose, and indicates the linking of the inner and outer worlds.

Beech (Fagus spp.)
Beech wood is closely grained, very easy to work giving a smooth even surface. At one time Beech tablets were used as writing surfaces because of the above mentioned qualities. Beech and book have the same word origins. Beech is concerned with ancient knowledge as revealed in old objects, places and writings. Beech indicates guidance from the past to gain insight which protects and provides a solid base upon which all relies.

Birch (Betula spp.)
A lovely pale, fine-grained wood. Long associated with fertility and healing magick, birch twigs were used to bestow fertility on cattle and newlyweds, and children's cradles were made form its wood. Birch is one of the first trees to grow on bare soil and thus it births the entire forest. Criminals were at one time birched to drive out evil influences on them, to renew them for the new year. Birch was associated with Thor, probably in recognition of his role as an agricultural and fertility deity. Birch is an incredibly useful tree — nearly every part of it is edible and it's sap was an important source of sugar to Native Americans and early settlers. The inner bark provides a pain reliever and the leaves are used to treat arthritis. It's bark was used for everything from paper to canoe hulls, and ax handles were also made from Birch. Birch is most useful for fertility and healing spells.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)
Blackthorn is a winter tree. The sloe, its fruits ripen and sweeten only after the nip of the frost. White flowers are seen even before the leaves in the spring. It is black barked with vicious thorns and grows in dense thickets. The wood is used in the cudgel shillelagh and Blasting Stick. Its thorns are used to pierce waxen images. Blackthorn indicates strong action of fate or outside influences that must be obeyed.

Elder (Sambucus spp.)
The Latin name sambucus is derived from a Greek work for a wind instrument made from elder. The pith can easily be removed from the small branches to make a flute. Elder regrows damaged branches with ease and can root rapidly from any part. A tea for purifying the blood can be made from the flowers and wine from the fruit, but in general the tree is poisonous. In Norse mythology, the Goddess Freya chose the black elder as her home. In medieval times it was the abode of witches and it was considered dangerous to sleep under its branches or to cut it down. Sticks of Elder were used as magickal horses by Witches. Elder indicates the end in the beginning and the beginning in the end. Life in Death and Death in Life.

Elm (Ulmus spp.)
A slightly fibrous, tan-colored wood with a slight sheen. Elm is often associated with Mother and Earth Goddesses, and was said to be the abode of faeries, explaining Kipling's injunction: "Ailim be the lady's tree, burn it not or cursed ye'll be." Elm wood is valued for its resistance to splitting, and the inner bark was used for cordage and chair caning. Elm adds stability and grounding to a spell.

Fir (Abies spp.)
Fir is a very tall slender tree that grows in mountainous regions on the upper slopes. Fir cones respond to rain by closing and the sun by opening. Fir can see over great distance to the far horizon beyond and below. Fir indicates high views and long sights with clear vision of what is beyond and yet to come.

Hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha)
A light, hard, apple-like wood. Hawthorn usually doesn't grow much bidder then a shrub, and is popular in England as a hedge plant. The wood from the Hawthorn provides the hottest fire known. Its leaves and blossoms are used to create a tea to aid with anxiety, appetite loss and poor circulation. The Greeks and Romans saw the hawthorn as symbolic of hope and marriage, but in medieval Europe it was associated with witchcraft and considered to be unlucky. This seeming contradiction it to be expected from a tree with such beautiful blossoms and such deadly-looking thorns. Hawthorn can be used for protection, love and marriage spells.

Hazel (Corylus avallania)
Hazel is another food tree. In Celtic tradition, the Salmon of Knowledge is said to eat the nine nuts of poetic wisdom dropped into its sacred pool from the hazel tree growing beside it. Each nut eaten by the salmon becomes a spot on its skin. The Hazel tree provided shade, protection and baskets. In Europe and North America, hazel is commonly used for 'water-witching' — the art of finding water with a forked stick. Magickally, hazel is used to gain knowledge, wisdom and poetic inspiration.

Holly (Ilex aquifolium)
A beautiful white wood with an almost invisible grain; looks very much like ivory. Holly is associated with the death and rebirth symbolism of winter in both Pagan and Christian lore. In Arthurian legend, Gawain (representing the Oak King of summer) fought the Green Knight, who was armed with a holly club to represent winter. It is one of the three timbers used in the construction of chariot wheel shafts. It was used in spear shafts also. The qualities of a spear shaft are balance and directness, as the spear must be hefted to be thrown the holly indicates directed balance and vigor to fight if the cause is just. Holly may be used in spells having to do with sleep or rest, and to ease the passage of death.

Larch (Larix europaea)
A light softwood, very similar to spruce. Larch is one of the few conifers which sheds its needles in the winter. It is closely related to the North American tamarack (larix laricina). The larch plays an important role in Sami (Lapp) and Siberian mythology where it takes the place of the ash as the World-Tree. The shamans use larch wood to rim their ceremonial drums. The smoke from burning larch is said to ward off evil spirits. Larch may be used for protection and to induce visions.

Maple (Acer spp.)
A very hard, pale, fine-grained wood. Although the sugar maple has the highest sugar content in its sap, all maple species can be tapped to make syrup and sugar, making them a vital resource to early North American settlers. In north-eastern North America, the annual 'sugaring-off' usually coincides with the vernal equinox, making it one of the first signs of spring. Maple can bring success and abundance.

Oak (Quercus rubra)

  • Red Oak (Quercus ruba): A strong, straight-grained, slightly porous wood with a slight reddish hue. Its energy is a bit lighter and more 'fiery' then the other oaks.
  • White Oak (Quercus alba): Darker and denser then red oak. It's strength and density have led to its being used in barrel-making and shipbuilding. Useful for spells requiring strength and solidity.
  • Brown (English) Oak (Quersuc robur): A richly-colored dark brown wood. 'Bog oak' is brown oak which has fallen into a peat bog and been preserved there for hundreds of years until it begins to have the consistency of coal. Brown oak has a very earthly feel, and is useful for grounding.

Oak has been considered sacred by just about every culture that has encountered the tree, but it was held in particular esteem by the Norse and Celts because of its size, longevity and nutritious acorns. The oak is frequently associated with Gods of thunder and lightening such as Zeus, Thor, and the Lithuanian God Perkunas. This association may be due to the oak's habit of being hit by lightening during storms. Specific oak trees have also been associated with the 'Wild Hunt', which is led by Herne in England and by Wodin in Germany. In general, oak can be used in spells for protection, strength, success and stability; the different varieties will lend their own special 'flavor' to the magick.

Pine (Pinus spp.)
The Pine tree is an evergreen, its old title was "the sweetest of woods". Its needles are a valuable source of vitamin C and can loosen a tight chest. The scent of Pine is useful in the alleviation of guilt. The Bach's flower remedies lists it for dealing with feeling of guilt. Pine indicates issues of guilt within you.

Poplar (Populus spp.)
The White Poplar flourishes beside rivers, in marshes and in other watery areas. The pith is star shaped. The upper leaves are green, the underside is silver. The wood was used in the making of shields. Leaves move with every puff of wind. It is commonly referred to as the talking, whispering and quivering tree. The Anglo-Saxon rune poem seems to refer to the poplar as being associated with the rune berkano. Heracles wore a crown of poplar leaves when he retrieved Cerberus from Hades, and the upper surface of the leaves was thus darkened from Hades' smoky fumes. In Christian lore, the quaking poplar (aspen) was used to construct Christ's cross, and the leaves of the tree quiver when they remember this fact. The Poplar's ability to resist and to shield, its association with speech, language and the Winds indicates an ability to endure and conquer.

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)
The Rowan tree (also called Mountain Ash) is long known for aid and protection against enchantment. Sticks of the Rowan were used to carve Runes on. It was also used in the art of metal divining. Rowan spays and crosses were placed over cattle in pens and over homes for protection. Its lovely red berries feed the birds in winter. The berries have a tiny pentagram on them. The pentagram is the ancient symbol of protection. The Rowan tree indicates protection and control of these senses from enchantment and beguiling.

Willow (Salix babylonica)
The Willow is another water loving tree. Willow bark contains Salicin which is used in the treatment of rheumatic fever and various damp diseases. Her catkins, which appear in early spring before her leaves, attract bees to start the cycle of pollination. In western tradition it is a symbol of mourning and unlucky love. The Latin name for the weeping willow refers to the psalm in which the Hebrews mourn their captivity in Babylon by the willows. Willow indicates cycles, rhythms and the ebb and flux.

Yew (Taxus baccata)
A beautifully smooth, gold-colored wood with a wavy grain. All parts of the tree are poisonous except the fleshy covering of the berry, and its medicinal uses include a recently discovered treatment for cancer. Long associated with magick, death, rebirth and the runes, the yew may be the oldest-lived tree in the world. Ancient yews can be found in churchyards all over Britain, where they often pre-date even the oldest churches. There are some convincing arguments for it being the original 'World-Tree' of Scandinavian mythology. In Europe, yew wood was used for making bows, while on the northwest coast of North America, the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia) is used by the Haida and other tribes for making masks and boxes. Yew may be used to enhance magickal and psychic abilities, and to induce visions.

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