Rowan trees have long been associated with witchcraft and magic. Its wood acted as an antidote against fairies, the Evil Eye and even disease. It even bore the name of the “wayfarer’s tree” since it stopped people getting lost on a journey.
But what makes this humble tree so powerful?
Let’s investigate the folklore of the rowan.
Rowan and the gods
In Greek mythology, Hebe (goddess of youth) passed ambrosia to the gods using her magical chalice. When she lost the cup to demons, the gods sent an eagle to retrieve the cup. A fight ensued. The feathers and drops of blood turned into a rowan tree where they fell to earth.
The tree also appears in Norse mythology. The gods made the first man from an ash tree. But the first woman was made from rowan.
The tree has a further link with Thor. The god needed to cross the fast-flowing river Vimur. Climbing out on the opposite bank proved more difficult than he’d expected. A rowan tree bent down from the bank to lend a branch and Thor hauled himself free.
Rowan became the prescribed wood to create rune staves.
In Welsh mythology, the Cad Goddeu (Battle of the Trees) spoke of an ongoing feud between rowan and juniper. Any tree planted between these sworn enemies would be split in two.
And many scholars make a link between the tree and druidry. John Lightfoot didn’t like to draw any conclusions. But he did note the frequency of the trees near stone circles in his Flora Scotia (1777).
There’s no real way to know if that’s a coincidence. But given the protective powers of rowan, it wouldn’t be surprising if it were deliberate. And if rowan could protect a stone circle, imagine what it could do for people!
Protecting people against witchcraft
Parts of the tree became a useful talisman against evil. Many people kept equal-armed crosses made from rowan twigs and red thread in their pockets. In Cumberland, branches were prepared for use by carrying them around the Beltane fires. Welsh communities planted rowan trees in churchyards to protect against demons.
In Scotland, men who’d been christened could touch witches with a rowan sprig. It would mark her as one to be carried off by the Devil. Carrying a sprig in your pocket also protected against rheumatism.
If you found a person dancing in a fairy ring, you could reach a rowan branch in for them. They’d grab the branch and you could pull them free.
In Ireland, berries could even cure the wounded. But while rowan is a member of the rose family, the raw berries do contain harmful parasorbic acid.
But when did you harvest the wood? For many, the correct time to collect rowan was midnight on Holyrood Day (September 14). On this day in 335AD, the Empress Helena allegedly discovered the cross from Christ’s crucifixion.
Though elsewhere, St Helen’s Day (21 May) was the correct time to collect rowan. You should also use a household knife to cut away twigs. When you brought them home, you followed a different route than the one you took to reach the tree.
Protecting the home against witchcraft
Entrances into the home were particularly susceptible to witches. So how could you stop them from getting inside? Planting holly beneath the windows certainly helped.
And rowan is also known as a Portal Tree. It forms a threshold between our world and the otherworld. So naturally, people also used the tree at the gate to their property, or outside their door, for protection. According to Niall Mac Coitir, Scottish migrants took the custom of planting rowan trees at the door to New Zealand (2015, p. 29).
But what about the chimney? Chimneys were well-known to be the weakest point of the house in terms of illicit entry.
No problem. In North Yorkshire, builders used the wood for the side supports for a farmhouse fireplace. Known as ‘witch posts’, carvings and crosses made them doubly effective. In Scotland, builders used the wood for the chimney cross beams instead.
Protecting livestock against witchcraft
There were concerns about witches gaining access to livestock. So farmers hung rowan sprigs in the rafters of cowsheds. In some places, farmers wrapped plaited the sprigs around the horns of the cows.
As late as 1846, farmers fitted collars of rowan sprigs to their lambs in Yorkshire.
In Westphalia and County Wexford, farmers even lightly whipped their cows with rowan switches before they sent them to pasture on May Day. All to keep the fairies and the witches at bay.
And if you had a bewitched horse? Only a rowan stick could bring it under control.
Other uses for the wood
It didn’t just provide protection for livestock and houses. The wood even appeared in the construction of watermills. Seedbeds could be spiked with the wood to keep witches away from the plants.
Even boats carried the wood on board. Sailors believed such vessels couldn’t capsize, and no man would drown.
Danish sailors went further. They used the wood to protect them from storms raised by Ran, the wife of the ocean god.
As with the folklore of any plant or tree, it’s difficult to know how accurate or useful the information is. And you’d need to believe in the negative side of witchcraft for you to need rowan as protection.
But these old tales are diverting enough. And they tell us a lot about the way that our ancestors lived their lives.
They also tell us that they felt they needed protection from forces beyond their control. While we can seek information on Google, our ancestors had fewer resources at their command.
And if planting a tree beside your door made you feel safer, then who are we to judge?
Over to you! Do you have any of the trees near your home?
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy these other flower folklore-related articles!
Common Garden Flowers: Folklore of Bluebells, Daffodils & Hydrangeas
Why are these 3 plants essential in a witch’s toolkit?
Magical Plant Folklore: Larkspur, Periwinkle and Wormwood
Baker, Margaret (2011) Discovering the Folklore of Plants, 3rd edition, Oxford: Shire Classics.
Jordan, Michael (2001) Plants of Mystery and Magic. London: Cassell & Co.
Mac Coitir, Niall (2015) Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore, Cork: Collins Press.
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