The Monthly Wort: Blackthorn (Part 3)

The Monthly Wort

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The Monthly Wort will provide readers with detailed descriptions of specifically chosen herbs (aka “wort”, meaning a useful herb), splitting it into 4 categories over the span of the month. Herbal History, Medicinal Uses, Magical Uses and Growing/Harvesting. In order to get the full scope of each plant, stay tuned every week as we delve into spiritual and practical experience of Herbalism.


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With Blackthorn staff,
I draw the bound.
All malice and bane,
I thus confound.
— Unknown

These are the words of a protection spell ignited by the participation of Blackthorn. Much like its controversial medicinal use, Blackthorn has always had a rift between two specific dichotomies: Purpose and Intention. This specific spell is a traditional one of defense, of setting boundaries between you and a toxic darkness. History has revealed Blackthorn’s presence in exorcisms due to its purifying properties, and it maintains a level of spiritual and physical safety to the user, much like it does the birds that nestle in its thorny brambles, or the cattle herds it borders.

However, just as traditionally, and without discounting the prior allegory, Blackthorn has been associated with more sinister purposes, such as death, wounding, curses and warfare. Across Europe, it is depicted in lore as a tree of ill omen, perhaps by its wicked branches and cinder colored bark. A hard winter was often referred to as a Blackthorn Winter. To this day, it is very much agreed upon that the flowers of the Blackthorn tree should never enter a home, as they carry the omen of death with them.

Strange how this tree plays on two very different sides to a coin, not to mention the sizeable placement it has in European cultures despite its severe reputation.

  One thing that we can’t deny about Blackthorn is that it deals in the realm of fate and that, no matter what your intention or exposure to it is, it cannot be circumvented. That lack of control a user has over it is what makes it such a powerful tree. Let’s start from the beginning, back when Ireland was occupied by nomadic, nature worshipping folk who believed that trees contained wise and powerful spirits…

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Blackthorn in Celtic Legend

While we know it as Prunus spinosa in species, the Irish Celts knew Blackthorn in their own language as Draighean, with other similar variances in Welsh and Scottish languages. In the archaic ogam alphabet, it is known as Straif, a chieftain tree with a very ominous reputation. It is speculated that the word “strife” was derived from this specific name, and aptly so:  This tree is linked with conflict, blood, warriors and death, represented in deity associations such as Morrígan (Ireland), who was a powerful woman warrior and also a figure of deadly fate. For the Scottish, Cailleach – otherwise known as the Death Crone – was a woman who would strike the ground with a Blackthorn staff to summon winter. Blackthorn appears in many legends, including The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Grainne and The Sword of Oscar, both of which involved human sacrifice as the indication of a warrior’s death, particularly one in service to a powerful chieftain. To top it off, if you follow the astrological-herbal affiliations, Blackthorn is ruled under Saturn and Mars, both of which are known for their warring campaigns in mythology.

What’s all this merriment and cheer?
Is it not winter that you fear?
I am the old veiled one of the wood,
And my appearance shall do you no good.
My realm is cold, dead, and dark.
The ground is barren and the trees are stark.
My fierce white hounds, with eyes of red
Howl through the night, a paean to the dead.
I strike my blackthorn upon the ground!
Now nothing green or living shall be found.
I am the Cailleach Bheur, and now is my reign.
I shall not leave you until next Beltaine.
— Song of the Cailleach Bheur
“Dancing Fairies” by August Malmström

“Dancing Fairies” by August Malmström

Jumping the Hedge

Then there is Samhain. This pagan holiday, as you probably know, is that enigmatic time between the end of October and the beginning of November when the days start to shorten and the nights lengthen. During this period, the “veil” thins between the world of the living and that of the dead.

Crossovers happen, entities lurk in the corners of the common world, children unknowingly wander into the hollow of the spirit realm and are lost in time…

While it can be a frightening prospect for the unprepared, there are those who celebrate this evening for more than nostalgia for the dead. The phrase “jumping the hedge” is an expression for using astral projection to pass beyond the border that separates the two worlds, often times to communicate with the spirits there, and it is no coincidence of phrase when considering Blackthorn’s history in hedging and legendary connection to dark magic. The tree is physically impenetrable to most living things and, with its connotations with death, it is believed to be that exact barrier between worlds that requires jumping.

Blackthorn and Christianity

Burning at the stake. An illustration from an mid 19th century book.

Burning at the stake. An illustration from an mid 19th century book.

Another source that agrees with these matters is Christian folklore, which describes Blackthorn as a sinister tree and, not-so-coincidentally, partnered with witches. For the Christians, this was obviously bad ju-ju and was only one of the countless superstitions that they had about Cunning Folk that would sometimes end in the killing of the so-called Satan worshipping witches. For instance, medieval Christians believed that the devil would use a thorn to prick the finger of his followers, leaving one of his infamous ‘witch marks’. It was also said that witches would use Blackthorn stangs in curse magic while the thorns could be used - much like a voodoo doll - for stabbing poppets (cited as “the pins of slumber”), and therein causing harm to others. From all of this, it isn’t hard to fathom just how many people were scorned for being witches just because they lived near a blackthorn thicket. And although burning of witches was not as common as pop culture would like us to think, there are some texts suggesting that witches were burned on Blackthorn pyres as punishment for their malfeasance.

In Part 1 of the Monthly Wort, we talked about the Irish bata or shillelagh walking sticks that were popularly made from Blackthorn branches or root. This wasn’t just modern fashion! Not only did they make great, unassuming weapons for the average Paddy out on a stroll, but people of the dark ages truly believed they were called “black rods”, which was a thorny wand used for binding or blasting spells (the latter being magic in which the supposed user, specifically a woman, could destroy the fertility in a man, breeding animals or crops – don’t even get me started on all the penis problems that were blamed on witch women during these times…)

Disney’s Prince Phillip fighting through Blackthorn, probably in search of his penis…

Disney’s Prince Phillip fighting through Blackthorn, probably in search of his penis…

Where There is Shadow, So Must There Be Light

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Now, I know that I’ve built up this big story about how Blackthorn is a dangerous, frightening tree that should be used with caution, however I do also firmly believe that there is sometimes positivity found in the darker holes of magic. What can be considered harmful or black magic has never felt like a line I couldn’t personally cross. The reasoning to “beware the black magic, whoo-oooh” always seemed a little too similar to the things I heard in church growing up, about good and evil and how there was no space in between. I do not believe people or trees to be inherently moral or inherently immoral. Sometimes there are good people who do bad things, or bad people who do good things. That much can be said for Blackthorn in that it may have thorns that can cause septic wounds or open portals into the blackest night, but its flowers are also the first sign of spring and the sloes make sweet, delicious nibbles for people!

Better the bramble than the black-thorn, better the black-thorn than the devil. He who would go in the bramble for me, I would go in the thorn for him.
— Proverb; Alexander Carmichael: Carmina Gadelica Vol. II 1900

The same goes in the magic realm. Whereas Blackthorn can be used for cursing, Folk have also rewritten its place in healing magic over time. Much like in the physical realm, Blackthorn can be used in creating safe boundaries when using powerful spells, particularly ones that require astral projecting. By building a thorny hedge around yourself, you can stop negativity and combat – quite fiercely – outside attacks. Use the thorns to pierce through personal issues, particularly in relation to depression or emotional toxicity at the “deepest levels of our psyche”, so you can begin the healing.

According to Ogam Oracle, drawing a Blackthorn stave or card is an indication of fated action in your life, “something that cannot be avoided but must be faced and dealt with.” Much like its warrior nature, it demands that you face your adversities and accept the challenges head on. The sloe berries, for instance, sweeten after the first frosts, a wonderful allegory for endeavoring. Much like the inevitability of death, Blackthorn forces us to consider the unavoidable trials of living, in times when there is no other choice, and to conquer them.

With all the ways to interpret Blackthorn’s purpose in your life or the life of your ancestors, I leave it up to you. At the very least, Blackthorn is significant in very human aspects and ones that many don’t often like to think about because they can often be painful or abrasive. But, like the transition from summer to winter, as the sloes sweeten and ripen, it is important to also recognize the shadowy aspects of ourselves.

Thank you for following us through the third week of The Monthly Wort: Blackthorn. Whew, this one was a big hitter and there was so much information to sift through that I had to extend the post date. Blackthorn is such a fascinating tree and I hope to bring it back in a blog, alongside its sister tree Hawthorn! Keep an eye out for the next blog, Gardening and Harvesting of Blackthorn. And as a little gift to you, I’ve posted a wonderful song by Anuna below…

Mountain Hedgewitch

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