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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Druidic Wands and Sacred Woods in Irish Tradition

   When the topic of wands and sacred woods within Druidism comes up most people immediately think of what we know from continental and British sources; understandable since the British model is the most popular. I think though that there is more than enough evidence from the Irish, if we look at both the ancient and folkloric sources, to give us a viable system for modern usage. I also think those of us who are Irish-focused polytheists, especially Druids, are better served looking to Irish sources when possible rather than using the more common but less applicable British models.
from top to bottom: a birch wand with crystal point, handmade, and two wands from  Spirit of Old  - a hazel wand with a skull craved at one end, and a blackthorn wand with bark left on the handle
   It's fairly well established that the wand was an important tool used by the Druids in general, and Celtic magic users as well. John Tolland, in his "A Critical History of the Druids", says, "...I return to the Druids, who were so prevalent in Ireland, that to this hour their ordinary word for Magician is Druid, the art of magic called Druidity [sic], and the wand, which was one of the badges of their profession, the rod of Druidism.". (Matthews, 1997). Wands were used not only as a sort of badge of office but also as a magical tool to direct and control energy, usually accompanied by a spoken charm. When we look at Irish mythology we see many instances of Druids using wands, as well as those who are not explicitly Druids but who are acquainted with Druidic magic, such as Fionn mac Cumhail. The story of Fionn includes the use of wands, generally made of hazel; it is a hazel wand that turns Fionn's wife into a deer, and in some translations it is a hazel wand that prospective members of the Fianna must use to defend themselves with when undergoing trials before being accepted, and one version of a story about Fionn has him using a hazel wand for divination (although most versions have him biting on his thumb). In some versions of the story of the Children of Lir as well a wand is used to curse the four children into the shape of swans and in the Wooing of Etain the druid Dalan uses three wands made of yew to divine the location of Etain. A wand is also associated with the traditional celebration of Imbolc where a slat Brighid (wand of Brighid) is placed with the Brideog, in the hopes that the morning will reveal the marks of the wand in the fireplace ashes. The slat Brighid is described as a straight section of white wood, with bark peeled off, and is often made of birch, willow, or bramble (Carmicheal, 1900). In Scotland the quarter days were celebrated, in part, with the use of rowan wands, which were placed above the doors for protection and blessing (McNeill, 1956).
   The trees used for magic and wand making were different in Ireland than in Britain; indeed the sacred trees themselves differed from the well known British oak and its attendant mistletoe. Oak was known and mentioned as sacred in Ireland, but it is the hazel and rowan that were most well known and associated with the Druids (McNeill, 1956). It is believed that the ancient Irish revered hazel, rowan  elder, and hawthorn in particular, with yew and ash also mentioned in some sources (Estyn Evans, 1957; Wilde, 1991). Even into the last century hazel and rowan were viewed as protective and blessing in Irish folklore (O Suilleabhain, 1967). Our knowledge of the Druidic uses of the different woods is somewhat limited but can be supplemented with the more recent folk beliefs about them for modern usage.
   The rowan was seen as a lucky wood and was considered to be the best protection against negative  magic; it is also considered by some to provide the berries that are the food of the aos sidhe (McNeill, 1956). Rowans were often planted by the front door of the home to protect it and rowan wood was used to make sacred fires to cook the little cakes often featured in folk ceremonies (McNeill, 1956). Some also believe that rowan was the wood used by the Irish Druids to create sacred fires for their rituals (Estyn Evans, 1957). In modern practice the rowan is sometimes associated with the goddess Brighid. On Beltane sprigs of Rowan were hung above cradles, churns, and doorways to protect them from fairy influence (Wilde, 1991).
   To the Irish the hazel was both seen as useful in magic, as a wand, and also connected to wisdom as hazelnuts were believed to provide knowledge. We see this in the story of Fionn, who eats a salmon that has eaten the hazelnuts of the well of Segias and gains the wisdom of the world. Hazel nuts are associated with Samhain divinations and may have been used for the same purpose by the Druids (McNeill, 1956). Hazel is also associated with weather magic and with water, being seen by some as connected to storms and having a long history of use in water divining (McNeill, 1956). It was believed that a hazel wand cut on Beltane had the greatest power, and that a person could use such a wand to trace a circle in the ground around themselves which would be a sure protection against fairies and evil spirits (Wilde, 1991). Besides protection, particularly from faeries, hazel was also associated with healing especially of poison (Danaher, 1964). As we've noted hazel wands appear in mythology used by Druids to transform and to divine.
 The elder was also seen as significant. This tree was associated with protection and also with the faeries (McNeill, 1956). The elder seems to have a contradictory nature, being used for healing and making musical instruments like flutes, but also used in cursing; it is said that striking a living thing with an elder twig will cause    illness or death (Danaher, 1964).
    The apple has a long history in Irish lore, being associated with magic, healing, and long life. In myth the apple branch is used to gain entry to the Otherworld, and is strongly associated with the aos sidhe. As Evans Wentz says in the epic Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, "For us there are no episodes more important than those in the ancient epics concerning these apple-tree talismans, because in them we find a certain key which unlocks the secret of that world from which such talismans are brought, and proves it to be the same sort of a place as the Otherworld of the Greeks and Romans." (Evans Wentz, 1911). Many modern Druids use an apple branch decked with bells to open the way to the Otherworld during ritual, and to invite in good spirits.
   Both the blackthorn and hawthorn were dual natured, seen as both protective and also as fairy trees that could be dangerous (O Suilleabhain, 1967). The hawthorn has many associations with Beltane. It may have been significant in part because of its flowers and berries, with the white flowers representing the hope of spring and its red berries the fulfillment of the harvest (Estyn Evans, 1957). While Hawthorns planted by people, or found in hedges, were not seen as special the lone Hawthorn was said to be a fairy tree and not to be disturbed or damaged (Estyn Evans, 1957). Hawthorn is considered one of the 7 herbs of great power by Lady Wilde, along with elder tree bark, ivy, vervain, eyebright, groundsel, and foxglove (Wilde, 1991).
   Finally the yew also plays a role in the Irish approach to magical trees. As mentioned we see a Druid using yew wands in the Wooing of Etain for the purpose of divination. The yew was renowned for its long life and was one of the trees about which it was thought that trimming would bring bad luck (Danaher, 1964). In modern folklore the yew is associated with death, but this is not likely to have been how the ancients saw it as the modern view is largely based on the fact that yews are often found in growing in church graveyards.
    Anyone looking to incorporate the use of trees, wood, or wands into the practice of Irish polytheism would do well, at the least, to focus on hazel and rowan. Including the other trees mentioned here - elder, apple, blackthorn, hawthorn, and yew - would also be useful. Studying the tree ogham for each of the mentioned trees is also helpful at adding depth to their symbolism and uses.

Matthews, J., (1997). The Druid Source Book
Estyn Evans, E., (1957). Irish Folk Ways
Danaher, K., (1964). Irish Customs and Beliefs
O Suilleabhain, S., (1967). Nosanna agus Piseoga na nGael
McNeill, F., (1956). The Silver Bough
Carmichael, A., (1900). Carmina Gadelica, volume 1
Evans Wentz, W., (1911). The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Wilde, L/. (1991) Irish Cures, Mystic Charms & Superstitions

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