The Monthly Wort
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.
Even in modern times like these, cultures across the globe are still heavily influenced by superstition. While, in ancient times, it was a panacea for every negative thing, superstition almost acts more as a generalized excuse for today’s problems. At least in America. When something, even small, goes awry, there’s always the phrases “well, I guess that’s just my bad karma” or “that’s just my luck”, things we tie together with black cats and only picking up pennies face-up. That being said, I believe that Hawthorn has one of the more persistent folklores in the current times, particularly in European culture.
Hawthorn: Do I Hear Wedding Bells?
Let’s start with the more positive side of things, shall we? Hawthorn is relative to the planet Mars, if you follow Nicolas Culpepper’s works on astro-herbal relativity. Plants under Mars tend to be for protection, revenge, vigor, vitality; plants with thorns and prickly surfaces, plants that enhance sex drive and potency and - largely here - blood purifying plants. For cultures such as the Ancient Greeks, Hawthorn was regarded as an emblem of hope. Historically, the branches were carried during wedding processions and the bride was said to wear a crown of this thorny bramble. If I can hazard a guess, I would hypothesize this was particular to Hawthorn’s early blooming nature; such would the warmth of a new spring bring the same delights as love. That being said, it was also written that the altar of Hymenaios – the god of love and weddings – was strewn with Hawthorn branches, which is why certain modern, syncretic pagan spiritualties often correlate the two in today’s practices.
It wasn’t just Greece that held it in such esteem either, as Hawthorn has been associated with love for the cultures that celebrated Beltaine, therein goddesses like Aine and Brigid. Some could say that it, once more, has its place amongst fertility rites in pagan tradition. The tree would be decorated on the 1st of May, not unlike Blackthorn, and wishes asked of it. The dew on its leaves was also said to be sacred, and could not only give youth but also great crafting skills if bathed in it. This, to me, seems to be a connection to Brigid, who was the goddess of many things, but particularly trades involving great craftsmanship. More recently, places in Great Britain have also found it to be a romantic tree. In the blooming month of May, when Hawthorn beckons on the new green, lovers gather beneath its bows in reverie and otiose.
The Faerie Tree
Now let’s delve into the grey waters of the Irish mythos. In Gaelic folklore, Hawthorn (sceach Gheal in Irish Gaelic, sgitheach in Scottish Gaelic) was heavily associated with faeries and the ‘otherworld’ – the latter being a different plane of existence after death, which might ring a bell if you read my first introduction post that talks about why I named this blog The Veil. In short, the old Celts and Gaels believed that you could, on rare occasions and in specific circumstances, pass between these worlds; the Hawthorn tree was considered an entrance into the next world, therefore revered and sometimes feared. To top it off, if you know anything about faerie lore in Great Britain and Ireland, you know full well that they can be a blessing or a curse, depending on whom you’re talking to.
Serbian and Croatian lore consider Hawthorn to be deadly to vampires, therefore a useful tree to have around just in case you had to make a stake for Count Bitey.
There is also a medieval tale surrounding the Glastonbury Thorn that survives by the legend that Joseph of Arimathea, who planted his walking stick at Glastonbury in Somerset, England that grew into a tree. This tree is said to bloom twice a year, which means it’s of the C. monogyna (a biflora, or twice bloomer) and was reportedly destroyed around the 16th century during the English Reformation. Luckily, some of the species was survived by cultivation and has been traditionally used to decorate the royal table around Christmas time, at least since King James I.
The Smelly Tree
I find this to be somewhat ironic, considering that (as I noted in Monthly Wort: Hawthorn, Part 1 ) it was very bad luck to bring a sprig or branch of blooming Hawthorn into the house, a warning taken with significant seriousness during the Great Plague. Apparently the flowers smell very similar to rotting flesh, a sadly common perfume in London’s air at the time. Oh the horror! Before you read too far into that, I want to note that the smell isn’t like the corpse flower that actually smells like putrification. The similarity these ‘nosey’ medieval peasants were turning their nostrils away from was a chemical we now know is called trimethylamine, which is one of the first compounds formed in decaying animal tissue and can also be found in Hawthorn blossoms.
On par with these other death related Hawthorn commentary, prehistoric burial sites excavated near cave dwellings showed that hawthorn bunches were tied to many of the bodies buried there. While the purpose is still technically unknown, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to speculate that it has something to do with the earlier reference to Hawthorn acting as an entrance to the ‘otherworld’. I’m also thinking about how the Irish Celts considered Hawthorn. Called Úath in the Ogam alphabet, the sixth symbol. Its sister, Blackthorn (Straith), was often associated with war, death and the afterlife; conversely, Hawthorn was not so much. It circled more around the realm of protection and defense. Like its dense wood, Úath is strong and reliable. Furthermore, in dichotomy with Blackthorn, it was also associated with a more masculine energy, rather than feminine, and fire.
You Can Look But You Can’t Touch
Despite that it might not make you undefeatable in battle, it can still affect you in other ways. Hawthorn was such a sacred tree to the ancients that the mere idea of cutting it was seen as a forbidden practice. The only time it was deemed safe was on holidays in which the faeries that lived in the Hawthorn were away – such as Beltaine, as Samhain is with the Blackthorn.
Because Hawthorn was seen as a bringer of spring and summer, superstitions for farmers in particular were widely known. Some farmers would even pile large rocks and boulders around the base of the tree to avoid accidentally causing it damage while ploughing around it. And this tradition still holds up! Many would believe that harming a Hawthorn tree is very bad juju indeed, and an actual motorway from Limerick to Galway was delayed for 10 years (LINK), and subsequently rerouted, because it would have ran through the path of a Hawthorn. Further, some speculate that the failing of the De Lorean Motor Company was due to the destruction of a Hawthorn in order to build its facility. Might explain Marty’s luck as well.
There are many ways of using Hawthorn in your ritual work, most of which I think involves a poking of some kind or another. Be in sachets, blood ritual or symbolic piercing, Hawthorn’s sharp and dense stangs are the ultimate tool for sympathetic magic (primitive or magical ritual using objects or actions resembling or symbolically associated with the event or person over which influence is sought). I think using Hawthorn when conducting love magic or protection spells, based on all I’ve read and written about this tree, are some of the most auspicious means, although if you want to use them to travel to the ‘otherworld’, my only recommendation is that you don’t tarry. The Fae will gladly keep you if you’re not careful and those thorns are hard to find your way back through.
I came across this Hawthorn spell online that I thought was fairly applicable to using in this day and age:
For Help in Difficult Situations: Take seven thorns from the Hawthorn, near the tip of twigs, and whisper each one of your problems that needs solving to them. Wrap them in a leaf and bury them under the Hawthorn bush. Leave an offering to encourage the faeries to help with your strife.
As always, best of luck with your magic and your relations with herbs. I think there is so much to learn from the natural world around us, things that you can’t find online, and things that aren’t written in books. I encourage you to go out and seek these trees and herbs, to spend time with them, get to know them and to let them know you. It’s the only way you’ll find a true connection to them. In the meantime, I hope my blog can help you get one step closer.