Written and Compiled by George Knowles
The Willow tree (Salix alba) has long had associations with Wicca/Witchcraft and figures in the folklore and mythology of many cultures. The botanical name of the Willow 'Salix' comes from the Celtic word 'sal' - meaning near, and “lis” - meaning water. Because the Willow grows rapidly and has deep tough roots, they are widely planted to check soil erosion particularly on the banks of rivers and streams. It also flourishes in the moist ground found in many temperate regions throughout the world. As the Alder tree is known as the 'King of the Waters' so the Willow became known as its 'Queen'.
The Willow tree comprises more than 300 shrubs or trees of the Salicaceae family and varies in height from a few inches to 70-80 ft (21-24 meters). Some of the more common types to be found are: the Black Willow (Salix nigra) named for its dark bark. The Pussy Willow also known as Goat Willow (S. discolor) usually grown as a shrub along the banks of streams, its furry catkins herald the coming of spring and are formed before its leaves appear. The tall White Willow (S. alba) is commonly found in cultivated ground and is probably a descendant of the White Willow of Europe. This is the largest of the Willows growing to over 75 ft (23 meters) with a girth of some 20 ft or more (6 meters); its ash-gray silky leaves give the tree its white appearance. The Weeping Willow (S. babylonica) is believed to have originated in China and often appears in Chinese art. Its beauty makes it a favorite ornamental tree in gardens and parks, but while it is widely cultivated for its beauty, it has practically no commercial value.
Perhaps the most commercial of the Willows are those of the genus called Osiers and a significant industry has developed from the use of its wood. The Osiers include the Common Osier or Basket Willow (S. viminalis) and the Purple Willow (S. purpurea). They furnish pliable shoots and twigs that are used in Europe for basket making and wickerwork. The wood of the Willow is white, soft and light but also tough and elastic, and is not given to splintering when subjected to strain. It is used for making tool handles, shipping containers, baseballs and cricket bats, and because it is relatively nonflammable for the brake blocks of railway stock.
The bark of the White Willow is thick, gnarled, rough and furrowed, and is the colour of pale greeny-brown. The leaves of the Willow are mostly long and narrow and those of the White Willow are two-tone in colour, being greeny-gray on top and ivory-white underneath. This makes them easily recognizable for when the wind blows it gives the impression of rippling silvery waves in motion on water. Willows flower and leaf during May, sometimes together or sometimes separately, flower before leaf. Male and female flowers grow on separate trees relying on the wind and insects for pollination. It flowers in the form of catkins of which the male flower is the prettiest.
Folklore and Myths:
The Willow tree is particularly rich in folklore and mythology, and has many associations with gods and goddesses, such like: Proserpina, Orpheus, Hecate, Circe, Belenus, Artemis and Mercury. One of the main properties of the Willow is fertility, and due to its slender branches and narrow leaves it also became associated with the serpent; the serpent in turn was sacred to the goddess Proserpina. In Athens it was an ancient custom of the priests of Asclepius to place Willow branches in the beds of infertile women, this in the belief that it would draw the mystical serpents from the Underworld and cure them, the connection being the phallic symbolism of the snake form itself. However in later times this was turned around, and the Willow became protective of snakes by driving them away. Asclepius himself was depicted with a serpent wrapped around one arm, and so came the belief that he had power over snakes. The ancient Spartan fertility rites of the goddess Artemis also demonstrates the Willows connection with fertility and fecundity. Here male celebrants were tied to the tree’s trunk with Willow thongs, they were then flogged until the lashes produced an erotic reaction and they ejaculated fertilizing the land with their seed and blood.
The Willow was also sacred to poets, for the sound of the wind through the Willow is said to have a potent influence on the mind which results in inspiration. Orpheus the Greeks most celebrated poet is said to have received his gifts of eloquence and communication from the Willow by carrying its branches with him while journeying through the Underworld. Due to his talents as a poet the god Apollo presented him with a lyre and asked him to make music, he in turn instructed the Muses in its use. It was said that when he played music he not only enchanted wild beasts, but also that the trees and rocks of Mount Olympus moved from their places to follow the sounds of his harp. Upon his death with the intercession of Apollo and the Muses, Zeus placed the lyre of Orpheus amongst the stars. Orpheus was depicted in bas-relief in the temple at Delphi leaning against a Willow tree touching its branches.
There is a darker side to the Willow however, for it is also associated with grief and death. The Greek sorceress Circe is said to have had a riverside cemetery planted with Willow trees dedicated to Hecate and her moon magic. Here male corpses were wrapped in un-tanned ox-hides and left exposed in the tops of the trees for the elements to claim and the birds to eat. From this association with grief and death came the practice of placing Willow branches in the coffins of the departed, and the planting of young saplings on their graves. Old folklore advises that to plant a young Willow and watch it grow, would ease the passage of your soul at death. The ancient Celts believed that the spirit of the dead would rise up into the sapling planted above, which would grow and retain the essence of the departed one. Throughout Britain many cemeteries, particularly those situated near rivers, lakes or marshes, are often to be found lined with Willow trees to protect the spirits in place.
The Willows connection with water links it directly with the moon goddess who is revered by contemporary witches and pagans alike. One old tradition concerning the Willow is still celebrated today by Rumanian Gypsies. This is the festival of Green George which takes place on the 23rd of April. A man wearing a wicker frame made from the Willow represents the character of Green George which is then covered in greenery and vegetation from the land. This is symbolic of the Willows association with water that fertilizes the land bringing fruitfulness to the fields. On the eve of the festival and in a gay and lively manner, everything is prepared in readiness. A young Willow tree is cut down and re-erected at the place of the festivities, there it is dressed and adorned with garlands. That same night all the pregnant women assemble around the tree, and each places an article of clothing beneath it. The belief being that if a single leaf from the tree falls on a garment over night, its owner will be granted an easy child delivery by the Willows goddess.
At dawn on the 23rd Green George appears in all his splendor and knocks three nails into the tree, removing them again, he then proceeds to the nearest river, lake or stream from whence the tree was cut and throws them into the water, this to awaken the goodwill of the waters spirits to their proceeding. Returning he collects the Willow tree and takes it back to the river, lake or stream and dips its branches and leaves in it until they are heavy with water, thus awakening the tree’s beneficial and fertile qualities. The water spirits and the Willow tree’s beneficial qualities evoked, all the communities animals, flocks and herds are led to Green George who raises the tree and shakes water onto them in blessing ensuring fertility for the coming year. This done the tree is taken back to the place of festivities and re-erected. Feasting, drinking and merriment then commences in thanks to the tree and water spirits.
Willow bark has been used for its pain-relieving qualities since ancient times. The White Willow (Salix alba) contains salicin, which is converted to salicylic acid in the body. Salicylic acid is closely related to aspirin the synthetic drug that has displaced Willow bark from popular use. Willow bark reduces fever and relieves rheumatism, a common ailment in cold and damp regions like the British Isles. A decoction can be used for gum and tonsil inflammations and as a footbath for sweaty feet. The bark is collected in the springtime being careful not to ring the tree or it will die. A decoction can be made by soaking 3 teaspoons (15ml) of the bark in a cup of cold water for 2 - 5 hours, then bring to the boil. Strain and take a wineglassful each day, a mouthful at a time. The bark can be dried, powdered and stored in an airtight container.
Black Willow (Salix nigra) has black bark as opposed to the light greens of the White Willow. Its properties are much the same but was used in the past as an aphrodisiac and sexual sedative. The Goat Willow and Sallow Willow (Salix caprea) is used in very much in the same way as the White Willow, but an infusion of Sallow bark tea is recommended for indigestion, whooping cough and catarrh. It can also be used as an antiseptic and disinfectant.
Of old, strips of Willow were used for binding magical and sacred objects together. The popular Witches' Broom was traditionally made with an Ash handle and Birch twigs bound with Willow. Willow is one of the best water-divining woods, along with Hazel and Birch. Perhaps the most common magickal use of the Willow is the making of Wands, for all the Willow's qualities are naturally contained within the wood, though you may wish to charge or empower certain aspects of its qualities for specific uses. Use a piece of fresh Willow cut from the tree with appropriate reverence and ritual, or use a newly fallen piece which the tree has recently shed. You may wish to strip the bark off and carve the wand with runic symbols to associate it with particular uses. It is easier to carve fresh wood and then let it dry out, small twigs will dry out quickly and without cracking in a house, but it is better to let larger pieces of wood dry slowly in an outhouse or shed or even under a hedge. When it is dry it can be polished with several layers of beeswax to protect the wood, or you may prefer to leave it natural.
Willow wands are used whenever there is a need to connect with intuition, dreams, seer-ship, visions and poeticly inspired writing or images. They are also used to deal with emotional numbness or emotional excess, or where there are negative emotional feelings which need to be worked through. Like the wand, talismans and charms can be made in the same way, perhaps using the natural shape of the wood to suggest and inspire a carving. Talismans may be worn round the neck or as a brooch, or carried within a pouch and kept close. Like the wand, runic symbols can be carved on a talisman representative to their uses.
The Willow has always been known as a tree of dreaming, inspiration and enchantment. It was associated in Celtic legend with poets and spells of fascination and binding. Our deep unconscious thoughts speak to us through our dreams, so if you have lost touch with your dreams or wish to increase their potency, place a piece of Willow under your pillow when you sleep. You will find your dreams will immediately become more vivid and meaningful. The Willow's weeping stance reflects its association with grief. By wearing a piece of Willow (as in the popular song "All around my hat I will wear the green Willow") a person will be able to access all the levels of their grief, and be able to move through these levels to gain healing and inner strength.
The Willow tree is known by many folk names: Osier, Pussy Willow, Saille, Salicyn Willow, Saugh Tree, Tree of Enchantment, White Willow, Witches Aspirin, Withe and Withy. Its deity associations are with: Artemis, Ceres, Hecate, Persephone, Hera, Mercury, Belili and Belinus. Its gender is female. Its planetary ruler is the Moon. Its associated element is Water. The willow is used to attract the powers needed for such things as: Protection, Divination, Inspiration, Healing, Fertility, Love, Grief and Death, and anything to do with the element Water.
Willow people (i.e. those born in March) are beautiful but full of melancholy, are attractive and very empathic, they like anything beautiful and tasteful and love to travel, they are dreamers and restless, capricious and honest, they are easily influenced but are not easy to live with being demanding, they have good intuition, but suffer in love and sometimes need to find an anchoring partner.
While researching this tree I came across an old folk song called 'The Willow Tree' of which there are three versions English, Irish and American. For the lyrics and music see: The Willow Tree (Folk Music).
Cunningham's Encyclopedia Of Magical Herbs - By Scott Cunningham.
Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft - By Raven Grimassi.
The Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft - By Rosemary Ellen Guiley.
Tree Wisdom (The difinitive guidebook to the myth, folklore and healing power of Trees) - By Jacqueline Memory Paterson.
AA Book of Britain's Countryside.
The Penguin Hutchinson Reference Library (CD cassette).
Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia (CD cassette).
Plus many websites to numerous to mention.
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In Worship of Trees - Myths, Lore and the Celtic Tree Calendar. For descriptions and correspondences of the thirteen sacred trees of Wicca/Witchcraft see the following: Birch / Rowan / Ash / Alder / Willow / Hawthorn / Oak / Holly / Hazel / Vine / Ivy / Reed / Elder. Also see: The Willow Tree (Folk Music)
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