Willow- Tree of Poets.
The woodland willow stands, a lonely bush of nebulous silver,
There the spring Goddess cowers in faint attire of frightened fire. Robert Bridges 1844-1930
Whilst the woodland is still stark, the wind cold and the ground hard we witness a tree with golden yellow blossom as if it is reminding us that the sun is returning. The Sallow or Pussy Willow produces silver catkins first and then the catkins of the male tree laden with pollen turns gold, thus providing a valuable source of early pollen for the bees.
'How doth the little busy bee improve each shining hour
And harvest honey all the day from every open flower,
How skilfully she builds the cells, how neat she spreads the wax,
And labours hard to store it well with the sweet food that she makes.'
Isaac Watts ( 1674- 1748 )
The rest of the year the woodland Willow is probably unnoticed by most merging back into the dense woodland as just another small tree with green leaves.
The other two tree species of Willow (the Crack and the White Willow) are huge forest trees with branches growing low and high creating a dominating bush-like structure of abundant leaves in the summer. The Crack Willow is our most common large willow growing over many a waterway with shiny green leaves on top and silvery beneath. The White Willow can grow up to 80ft covered with silvery leaves on both sides creating an impressive sight in low-lying districts.
As with the Alder in the previous article Willow is intrinsically linked with the waterways, invoking a feminine presence which breaks up the skyline and encourages wildlife where the land meets the water. The beauty of our rivers, brooks and streams is a joy to behold and one can see why our ancestors gave names to the rivers linking them to the
Goddess. The terrible pollution of our waterways is in direct contradiction to the tradition and importance of their function.
Willow is the female guardian of the waterways, the ‘Lady’, whereas the Alder explored in the previous booklet is the male guardian, the ‘Lord’. Giving names to the landscape and its features creates a more intimate and familiar relationship with it. Our relationships are key to our psychological make-up and when we are in good relationship with someone or something we wish to respect it in every possible way.
Our ancestors relationship with rivers acknowledged their life- giving properties to the otherwise barren land. This quality is reflected in the nourishing aspects of the mother archetype thus giving rise to the rivers being named as goddesses.
This is a universal concept as seen in the river Ganges in India, named after the great Mother Ganga. In Europe the Goddess takes form as Danu in the river Danube, Sequana of the river Seine, Nimue and Diana in the lakes of Brittany, in Britain as Sabrina of the Severn, Vaga of the Wye, Sulis of the springs of Bath and in Ireland as Boann of the river Boyne.
In Celtic lore the Goddess is seen as three in the Matronae and as nine in the form of the gifting mothers or muses.Ultimately the source of inspiration in Celtic lore is seen as flowing from the cauldron of life which overpours into the waterways, offering inspiration to all who drink from its source. Geoffrey of Monmouth (author of The History of the Kings of Britain 1136AD) recognises this concept in his writings as he notes the importance of the three main trading rivers of Britain in the Thames, the Severn and the Humber. These could be seen as the arms of the Matronae in Britain, the Triple Goddess giving life, abundance and fruition to the beauty of the landscape. Geoffrey of Monmouth (Vita Merlini 1150AD) explores this further with the nine sisters which are prevalent throughout Celtic lore.
Their function is to bestow our souls with the gifts we can offer to the web of life and guide us to fulfil our destiny.
Folklore of the Willow
As the white Willow stands an indomitable presence shining with silver leaves she embodies a feminine strength flowing with the waters of life. As she produces her golden catkins and attracts bees and supports more invertebrates than any other tree except Oak its not hard to see why our ancestors would have looked to her as both noble and a muse for the poets:
‘The noble willow, burn not, a tree sacred to the poets.
Within his bloom bees are a- sucking all love his little cage.’
Iubdan the Leprachaun( Ancient Irish Tales)
Willow takes us into the creative world of the poet who in ancient times was the remembrancer of the tribe who travelled into the inner landscape.
Poetry is one of the key components of the British traditions as it can be used to explore the depths of the soul, giving voice to original thought and thus awakening a deeper understanding of life.
This importance of the soul was reflected in the poets of the nineteenth century such as Keats and Claire who had tragic, painful lives which perhaps enabled them to explore such depth through their poetry.
‘Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul....’
John Keats 1818
John Keats tragically short life was filled with loss and his choice to dedicate his life to poetry over a medical career was brave indeed, especially as he failed to experience his success and recognition in his own lifetime. However maybe the joy of following his true path transcended many of his woes as he states in his poem Sleep and Poetry:
‘O for ten years that i may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
That my own soul has to itself decreed’
In the Celtic tradition we discover the poet was exalted above any other profession and even Chiefs, Kings and Queens bowed to their supremacy - why?
The value of the soul was paramount and poetry was considered to be its expression taking us to the fruits of immortality in the Otherworlds.
It may seem strange in the modern world to give such importance to the arts but as the poet Leo Kermorvan reminds us in the poem The Return of Taliesin written in the 19th Century - ‘the soul remainth ever the same’ and we are indeed fundamentally the same as we have always been; and feeling conveyed through art still moves us deeply. It is probably only in the last century that material and worldly gain has taken precedence over concerns of the soul and spirit.
The Kennings of the Willow tree take us into the realms of death linking willow to bees, grief and loss:
Willow, the colour of the lifeless one
owing to the resemblance of its colour to a dead person.
Hue of the lifeless.
Beginning of loss, willow.
Strength of bees.
Book of Ballymote 1391
Bees represented a connection to the Other-worlds and also were considered an inspiration to community life as they work together as a whole to benefit the swarm.
The Queen bee represented the Great goddess in Classical traditions, often referred to as ‘birds of the muses’ bestowing eloquence and honeyed words. Bees as knowers of ancient lore are connected to the underworld. The female power and poetry they represent are not just about beauty and love but also take us deeper into the mysteries.
In Celtic lore the old women of wisdom, as already explored in the Rowan booklet, may be gnarled and twisted just like a Willow but command respect and bestow wisdom. In fact it is the old crones like the Cailleach and the Morrigawn who are the guardians of wisdom and the mysteries of death.
The early poet’s initiation into their arts was through a deep connection to darkness and the deep wisdom of the earth.
Willow invites us to acknowledge our grief and suffering and be aware of the destruction we unleash onto the green world. Owning up to the part we play in harming nature need not be a depressing or guilty process but an empowering, compassionate and ultimately freeing process.
The poet’s art was learned in the dark side of the year once the harvest was gathered in. The arduous training was conducted in dark cells sometimes likened to imprisonment. This enabled the poet to awaken the inner light which is spoken about in Shamanic traditions all across the world.
It is only by entering the darkness, feeling grief and truly acknowledging the darker aspects of ourselves that we can discover the strength of bees which is the entrance to the ‘Delightful land of honey and wine.’
This land is the perfection of your own inner light within you that the Irish call the Glefiosa, the bright knowledge, the dawning of which can be helped through Willow and a tranquil mind.
Celtic traditions encouraged Willow trees to be planted at burial sites so that the spirit of the corpse can rise into the sapling above, Willow probably being a preferred choice as it is said to ease the passage of the soul at death, a psychopomp- a guide for the soul to find their place after death.
To wear Willow is to grieve openly and the tree I suspect encourages us to be open to our deeper emotions.
Witches brooms may be bound with Willow to dedicate the broom to the goddess and the moon. Its leaves, bark and wood may be be burnt as incense for similar reasons.
Celtic lore speaks of Willow connected to in-between states and otherworld experiences. Her connection with water (as already discussed) enhances that as water represents that more fluid otherworldly state, the cycle of life and death and our returning to the source. Gypsies cut Willow on Green George day (23rd April) to propitiate water spirits, bless the crops, herds, and pregnant women, and to heal the young and old.
The Sumerian goddess Belili rules over the moon, love and the underworld and therefore is connected to Willow as are other powerful goddess archetypes such as Hecate and Cerridwen. Women were warriors and leaders in Celtic Society and often trained the young men in battle. The old adage of the Willow bending in the wind rather than resisting it comes to mind as we recognise the power of the feminine source.
If you have enjoyed this article you may wish to sign up for our free newsletter packed with information on Trees, plants and connecting with nature.
Poetry of flowers
Join me to explore the flora of the British Isles on this blog. My intention is to attempt to capture the unique quality and beauty of each species of flower, tree or shrub. For every species featured I will be growing many more wildflowers to celebrate the joy of their existence, their intrinsic conservation value and bewildering array of uses. For nearly 30 years I have noted, studied and explored wildflowers in the field much to the patience of the walker beside me. To share this passion is a heartfelt plea to respect, preserve and care for all British Wildflowers no matter how common they seem.