Main: Rowan tree, Glen Loyne, Inverness-shire (Geograph.co.uk, CC license). Inset: Celtic Rowan Tree fairy by Mickie Mueller

Woe of the Witches – The Elevated Flying Rowan Tree

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Why were certain plants raised from mere utility to reverence in the collective consciousness of various populations from different cultures?   This elevation from purely physical use to the realm of the sacred is apparent in multiple cultures.  The lotus flower was used as a symbol for the source of the Brahma which sprang forward from the navel of Vishnu after the sacred word Ohm was uttered in the creation story of Hinduism.  The oak tree was associated with Thor as described in the passed down tales of the Norse. The oak was also held sacred by the Druids. This is evident in the legends of the sacrifices of white bulls that were made under the often expansive branches of mature specimens of oak trees.  This elevation also occurred with what is perhaps a lesser known plant, the rowan tree, which has also been reported to have been associated with the Druids and the Norse; as well as the Greek legend of Hebe.

Many plants and trees have been elevated to the realm of the sacred, such as the lotus flower in Hinduism. The Hindu goddess Lakshmi holding & standing on a lotus, Raja Ravi Varma painting.

Many plants and trees have been elevated to the realm of the sacred, such as the lotus flower in Hinduism. The Hindu goddess Lakshmi holding & standing on a lotus, Raja Ravi Varma painting. ( public domain ).

Qualities of the Rowan Tree

What quality or trait elevated this tree in the minds of the people?  The Rowan Tree (Sorbus aucuparia) also known as European Mountain Ash, Witch Tree or Witch Wood has been used for making jams, wines, and ales.  It can grow up to 15m (49 ft) tall and live up to 200 years. The aforementioned edible products are made specifically using the tart red berries which are reported to be high in Vitamin C and other beneficial compounds. 

The tart red berries of the Rowan tree

The tart red berries of the Rowan tree ( public domain )

Rowan Tree Rituals

This particular species has also been reported to have additional qualities that resulted in a similar elevation from everyday use.  It has been reported to have been used for the carving of rune staves by the Norse.  It has also been said to have been used to ward off the effects of witchcraft and other nefarious and ethereal influences.  In fact, it has been said that so much reverence has been given to this tree that it was taboo to use it for any other purpose than ritual.  Also, some have claimed that it was believed that when harvesting the wood a knife or blade should not be used.  There are also some legends that the wood should only be harvested on specific days to maximize the effects; more on that later. The use of the rowan tree was reported as a ward for protecting cattle in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

The people believed that on that evening and night (Beltane) the witches were abroad and busy casting spells on cattle and stealing cows’ milk. To counteract their machinations, pieces of rowan-tree and woodbine, but especially rowan-tree were placed over the doors of the cowhouses, fires were kindled by every farmer and cotter.

Rowan tree wood have been used for carving rune staves and for rituals.

Rowan tree wood have been used for carving rune staves and for rituals. Rowan tree bark by debs-eye / flickr.

Two additional methods of protection have been put forward by other sources.  The practice of affixing two sprigs of rowan tree wood together with a red twine in the shape of a cross has been reported as a common practice in some parts of Scotland.  This charm would then be worn or contained in a pocket. This was used in conjunction with a song that accompanied the charm to aid in the protection from spells and other influences of witchcraft.  It has been reported that others believe that a staff made from rowan wood wards off spirits of the forest from the sylvan wonderer.

A Rowan tree cross originating in Scotland, donated to a museum in 1893 but dating from much earlier.

A Rowan tree cross originating in Scotland, donated to a museum in 1893 but dating from much earlier. Credit: The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Rowan Berries and Pentagrams

Could the physical characteristics be enough to facilitate these beliefs?  Some have said that since the ends of the berries appear to be in the shape of the pentagram that this was possibly the reason for the connection with protection.  The ancient symbol of the pentagram may be found in the iconography of several civilizations; some which may not have been connected by trade routes or influenced by invasions or other modes of transfer.  It has been observed in cultures from all of the habitable continents.   It is commonly known to be used in Wicca as a means of protection during certain magical operations.  Perhaps the rituals of the Druids which some have strongly speculated to be the source of some modern day Wiccan practices. The Druids are also reported to have utilized the berries for certain lunar rituals provided the channel for the connection between the rowan tree and protection from surreptitious forces set against the wearer.  

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