The weeping willow is a common sign of mourning. Willow folklore often pokes tendrils into death superstitions and sayings. Margaret Baker relates the belief that “[i]n Louisiana, […] when a willow grew large enough to cast a grave-sized shadow, a family member would die” (2011, p. 159).
In the UK, no builders in the Fens used sawn willow, “traditionally the wood of the gallows” (Baker 2011, p. 160). Using this wood for any part of the built home brought disaster to the family.
But willow folklore goes far beyond mourning rituals or fears. Let’s go and meet this common tree and find out more of its secret tales.
The Willow and Religion
Baker notes that people hung crosses of willow around the house on Palm Sunday; “It was usually unlucky to cut willow but a ritual overturning of the taboo on Palm Sunday made it safe” (2011, p. 159). Homeowners kept the crosses until the following year to protect the house. Keeping the crosses green in water helped them act as “thunder charms”.
According to Baker, the willow droops as punishment for its use as Christ’s scourge (2011, p. 159). Yet many believe the willow weeps due to a line in Psalm 137; “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept/when we remembered Zion./There on the willow trees/we hung up our harps.” Newer scholarship actually think these trees were poplars, but the link to willow folklore remains.
Another explanation given for why the willow weeps is because it “hung over the heads of the apostles while they waited and slept when our Lord suffered his agony, and ever after it has wept” (Daniels 2003, p.86a).
Willow folklore even links the tree with the resurgence in nature religions. Druidry.org notes the potential link between those who followed the Old Ways as ‘wicca’ (men) or ‘wicce’ (women) and willow. The word ‘wicca’ referred to the abilities of these magical folk to manipulate or bend situations. It referenced the flexible nature of willow wood. Wicca became a derogatory term for anyone who pursued old crafts, until it was rehabilitated by the witchcraft movement in the 1950s.
That said, I did come across people who disagreed with this belief. For them, ‘wicca’ and ‘wicker’ got confused and led to the assumption they ever meant something similar.
The Willow and Magic
Willow is favoured as the best tree to make divining rods (Porteous 2002, p. 262). I’m guessing that’s due more to its flexibility than wider willow folklore.
Plenty of cultures feature tales of nymphs or dryads that live in trees. Oak is a favourite choice. But Alexander Porteous relates a Czech story about a nymph who lived in a willow. She ventured among humans during the day but returned to the tree at night. The nymph married a human man and even had children with him. Everything was going well until he cut down her tree. At that point, she died, and he made a cradle out of the wood. Her youngest child fell asleep whenever he was placed in the cradle. When he got older, he could talk to his dead mother using the willow tree stump (2002, p. 166).
Other magical creatures boast links with the tree. While rowan is usually used as the tree of choice to keep witches away, people in Essex planted willow near the door for the same reason (Coitir 2015, p. 42).
Rural folk saw willow as a treatment for rheumatism or ague because the trees grew in damp places. They used salicin, found in the bark, to treat rheumatic fever. This salicin becomes salicyclic acid when oxidised in the body. That later became aspirin.
In mythology, willow was sacred to Hera, Hecate, Circe and Perspehone; all of goddesses of the underworld. In Celtic mythology, willow represents death goddesses. And it’s good for magical work involving the dark self or hidden parts of the psyche.
Yet despite their dark side, willow as a flower remedy apparently alleviates bitterness. Willow leaves act as charms against jealousy.
Willow Folklore and Superstition
Baker describes how people used spikes of willow among their vegetables to protect crops and animals (2011, p. 159). Others believed striking children or animals with a willow stick stunted their growth.
She also notes the Yorkshire marriage custom involving the willow. An unmarried girl had nine attempts to throw her show at a willow on either New Year’s night or Easter. If it stayed among the branches, she’d marry that year. Elsewhere, young men wore willow wreaths if they’d been unlucky in courtship (2011, p. 160).
But willow folklore involves plenty of superstitions; some random, some fascinating.
The ancient Chinese hung willow branches above the door to keep evil spirits away. That might relate to the belief in Essex that it kept witches at bay.
The phrase ‘to knock on wood’ refers to the wood of a willow tree. I’m not sure why you’d knock on a tree, but it may relate to the secret-keeping capacity of the willow. Have a secret you want to keep? Tell a willow, and it’ll trap it in its wood.
‘Wind in the willows’ refers to the elves whispering among themselves in willows as people walked underneath.
It’s bad luck to burn willow wood. Weeping willows with branches growing up instead of down were even more unlucky, and people were advised to cut them down.
An Irish saying claimed willows had souls that spoke through music. Perhaps that’s because they used willow to make harps. But in Bohemia, people believed the willow’s soul died if the tree was cut down.
Fancy the power of prophecy? Take 99 leaves from 99 different willow trees. Burn them and turn the ash into powder. Eating it gives you the prophecy power (Daniels 2003 : 862). *Not recommended AT ALL.
A Greek proverb notes that men must pause to touch and smell a water-willow if they pass one. Otherwise, they’ll lose their sweetheart.
A Japanese superstition advises toothache sufferers to stick needles in a willow tree. The spirit of the tree would cure the toothache.
Willow folklore stretches far and wide.
It covers a varied range of tales and legends. Perhaps it’s so varied because the species varies. Some of these sayings relate to white willow, others weeping willow. Whatever the variety, it’s a beautiful tree. Just make sure you pause to listen next time you walk beneath one and it seems to whisper…
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Baker, Margaret (2011) Discovering the Folklore of Plants, 3rd edition, Oxford: Shire Classics.
Mac Coitir, Niall (2015), Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore, Cork: Collins Press.
Daniels, Cora Linn and C.M. Stevens (2003 ), Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World, Vol. II, Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific.
Porteous, Alexander (2002 ), The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, New York: Dover.
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