By Isabella @TheWandCarver
With Samhain around the corner, I thought it a good idea to re-visit our favourite Samhain tree, the Blackthorn. As I do attempt to keep my blogs short enough for readers not be bored it also means I am unable to share everything possible about a tree – or whatever I’m writing about. This blog will not be about the usual – magick and healing – but it will be more about the lore, or folklore of the tree. But yes, there will be some magick in it for you 😊
I shall be sectioning each of Britain’s country’s folklore about Blackthorn, so no-one is confused as to where the information comes from.
Blackthorn is a prolific grower in the UK, notwithstanding in England, where it is planted in every hedgerow surrounding fields. If you are from another country and you have seen the aerial photographs of the stunning crop fields of the UK, you have seen where Blackthorn resides. Obviously, it grows elsewhere as well but it has a home in the hedgerows for good reason – protection. If you have never seen those wicked thorns/spines be sure to read my last blog on Blackthorn!
From Christianity, Blackthorn is seen as a sinister tree and associated with Witches. Blackthorn was [and is now] often used for ‘binding and blasting’. A ‘black rod’ is a Blackthorn wand with fixed thorns on the end, used to cause harm to others. In British folklore, a Witch will use a Blackthorn stang in rituals of cursing. The sharp thorns were reputedly used by English witches to pierce poppets in their curses, called the ‘pins of slumber’. In South Devon folklore in England, Witches were said to carry Blackthorn walking sticks, with which they caused much local mischief. Witches and heretics were burned on Blackthorn pyres. The Devil was said, in medieval times, to prick his follower’s fingers with the thorn of a Blackthorn tree.
In England Witches would carve the Norse rune thorn on a Blackthorn stave for protection.
In Dartmoor, you may hear talk of, “‘ow the slones be doin’” which is not referring to the rich city folk and their Chelsea Tractors, no, a ‘slone’ [or sloan] is local dialect for sloe berries. Folk would also shudder at the sight of a tree heavily laden with slones for: “many slones, many groans“. This meant that a heavy crop of berries was a sure sign that the coming winter would result in widespread sickness [groans]. But the most popular use of the slones was to make juice, wine and sloe gin.
When the trees began blooming [around early February / March] my father, would always speak of the old English warning of a coming “blackthorn winter” and “the cold blow” ahead.
“When winter comes in earnest to fulfil
His yearly task at bleak Novembers close,
And stops the plough and hides the fields in snows;
When frost locks up the streams in chill delay
And mellows on the hedge the purple sloes …”.
John Clare – The Shepherd’s Calendar – 1827
Blackthorn is often purported to bloom on Christmas Eve, going by the holy thorn at Glastonbury. It is one of the trees, which were reputed to form the thorny crown of Christ at His crucifixion. I think that at one time it may have done before the calendar changed for most of us to the Gregorian Calendar.
Ireland / Celtic
In the Irish legend, the Pursuit of Diarmaid and Grainne, a passage describes Sadhbh eating sloe berries and becoming pregnant as a result. She gave birth to a son who was born with a lump on his head. The lump turned out to be a worm or snake. The snake was eventually killed in sacrifice for another man. In the Sword of Oscar, sloe berries are part of a sacrificial theme as well. Blackthorn’s theme in traditional stories often indicate a warrior’s death in service to the High King or tribe.
At Samhain, because its berries ripen in the Winter, it helps us to prepare for the dark season to come. At this time, the Morrigan and Dagda, are said to mate.
We use Blackthorn in amulets and spells of protection for our shop. In Irish tales, heroes were aided by the Blackthorn tree – if they threw a twig of Blackthorn after them, it would take root and form an impenetrable hedge or woods, thwarting the pursuing giant.
Blackthorn can also herald the presence of the darker deities in your life, such as the Irish Morrigan and Dagda.
Blackthorn has been used for divining rods. As a method of trial [according to Irish legend], when Mochta’s axe was heated in a fire of Blackthorn, it would burn the skin of a liar but others were unharmed.
Blackthorn is Draighean in Irish Gaelic.
The Blackthorn tree is linked with warfare, wounding and death, associated with the Scottish Cailleach – the Crone of Death, and the Irish Morrigan. In Scotland, winter begins when the Cailleach [also the Goddess of Winter] strikes the ground with Her Blackthorn staff.
In the Word Ogham of Cuchulain Blackthorn is ‘an arrow’s mist’ and ‘smoke drifting up from the fire.’ These are both kennings for death.
Blackthorn is also associated with early [and present!] Witchcraft in Scotland. In 1670, in Edinburgh, Major Thomas Weir was burned as a Witch along with his most powerful magical tool – a Blackthorn staff, carved with a Satyrs head, which was said to have fantastic powers – it was even able to fly. Major Weir claimed that he received this magic staff from the Devil, but it is more likely that he obtained it while he served as an officer under General Leslie in Ireland. The Major was a pious Covenanter, and people came from miles around to hear his sermons. He was considered the ‘Saint of West Bow’, until one day in 1670, instead of his usual sermon, he confessed years of debauchery with his sister, Jean, to the congregation. Brother and sister were both tried and condemned to death. His ghost, along with the infamous Blackthorn staff, is still said to haunt the Edinburgh West Bow district.
Blackthorn is Draighionn In Scots Gaelic.
Very hard to find Welsh folklore concerning Blackthorn, but I have no doubt there is more than I did find. A good blog in the making, that! What I did find is this:
“Lastly, a few of the wells in that part of Gwyned may be grouped together and described as oracular. One of these, the big well in the parish of Llanbedrog in Lleyn, as I learn from Myrdin Fard, required the devotee to kneel by it and avow his faith in it. When this had been duly done, he might proceed in this wise: to ascertain, for instance, the name of the thief who had stolen from him, he had to throw a bit of bread into the well and name the person whom he suspected. At the name of the thief the bread would sink; so the inquirer went on naming all the persons he could think of until the bit -of bread sank, when the thief was identified. How far is one to suppose that we have here traces of the influences of the water ordeal common in the Middle Ages? Another well of the same kind was Ffynnon Saethon, in Llanfihangel Bachettaeth parish, also in Lleyn. Here it was customary, as he had it in writing, for lovers to throw pins (pinnau) into the well; but these pins appear to have been the points of the blackthorn. At any rate, they cannot well have been of any kind of metal, as we are told that, if they sank in the water, one concluded that one’s loverwas not sincere in his or her love.” ~ Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx, by John Rhys
Blackthorn in the Welsh language is draenen ddu.
On Nos Galan Mai or May Eve, villagers gather hawthorn [Welsh: draenen wen, “white-thorn”] branches and flowers which they would then use to decorate the outside of their houses, celebrating new growth and fertility.
In Anglesey and Caernarfonshire, it would be common on May Eve to have gware gwr gwyllt “playing straw man” or crogi gwr gwellt “hanging a straw man”. A man who had lost his sweetheart to another man would make a man out of straw and put it somewhere near where the girl lived. The straw man represented her new sweetheart and had a note pinned to it. Often the situation led to a fight between the two men at the May Fair.
Being the time between Summer and Winter, Calan Haf would be the time to stage a mock fight between the two seasons. The man representing Winter carried a stick of blackthorn and a shield that had pieces of wool stuck on it to represent snow. The man representing Summer was decorated with garlands of flowers and ribbons and carried a willow-wand which had spring flowers tied on it with ribbons. A mock battle took place in which the forces of Winter threw straw and dry underbrush at the forces of Summer who retaliated with birch branches, willow [Welsh: helygen] rods, and young ferns [Welsh: rhedyn]. Eventually the forces of Summer would win, and a May King and Queen were chosen and crowned, after which there was feasting, dancing, games and drinking until the next morning.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little bit of extra Blackthorn information and please do feel free to comment! And, as always, likes and shares are very much appreciated. Many warm blessings to all who wander this way x
Tree Wisdom, The Definitive Guidebook, by Jacqueline Memory Paterson, 1996
Celtic Tree Mysteries, Secrets of the Ogham, by Steve Blamires, 1997
Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx, by John Rhys, 1901
Famous Edinburgh Crimes, by Ross MacDonald, 1977
Whispers from the Woods, by Sandra Kynes, 2007