The Nine Sacred Woods

Bonfire

“Nine Woods in ye Cauldron go; Burn Them Quick and Burn Them Slow….”

This is an excerpt of a paper I wrote when I was working toward initiation in my home coven of Raven Star.

According to the Clannada na Gadelica, a Gaelic culture education organization, there is little scholarly evidence as to which woods are the nine mentioned in “The Rede of the Wiccae.” Iain MacAnTsaoir writes in his article “Festivals Part 1-Preface v.1.1” (www.clannada.org/docs/frestpre.html), “The need fires themselves were built with nine sacred woods, which were ignited by an oak bow and rod. There are several places where these lists can be found. In the Silver Bough Vol. 1, by MacNeill, we find the following…

Choose the willow of the streams,

Choose the hazel of the rocks,

Choose the alder of the marshes,

Choose the birch of the waterfalls,

Choose the rowan of the shade,

Choose the yew of resilience,

Choose the elm of the brae,

Choose the oak of the sun,

-no definite ninth tree specified, but

MacNeill believes it could have been…

holly, ash, or pine.”

This source also lists a 13th century Irish poem called, “Song of the Forest Trees.” It specifies which trees are to be burned, and which are not to be burned. “The following is extracted from that poem….

Burn Ye Not

Woodbine – monarch of the forests…

Apple – tree ever decked with blooms of white…

Blackthorn – throughout his body…birds in their flocks warble.

Willow – a tree sacred to poems

Hazel – spare the limber tree

Ash – rods he furnishes for horsemen’s hands

Burn Ye These

Rowan – the wizard’s tree

Briar – burn him that is so keen and green

Oak – fiercest heat giver of all timber

Alder – very battle-witch of all woods

Holly – burn it green, burn it dry

Elder – him that furnishes horses to the armies of the Sidhe burn

Birch – burn up most sure the stalks that bear the constant pads

Aspen – burn, be it late or early

The Yew is singled out as being sacred to the feast.”

It is interesting to note here that Elder is listed in this source as a tree which is to be burned. Notice also the reason for this. It is stated in the source that the tree provides horses for the Sidhe (Faeries), and so it should be burned. This might be because the culture from which this source is taken may feel hostility toward the Fey because of the legends of Faeries taking children, causing havoc, and so on. Because Blue Star is traditionally a Fey-friendly group, we hold a tree associated with the Fey in high esteem.

Scott Cunningham, a well-known Wiccan author, listed the nine woods in his book, The Complete Book of Incense, Oils and Brews (Llewellyn, 1986):

Nine Woods Incense

1 part Rowan

1 part Apple

1 part Dogwood

1 part Poplar

1 part Juniper

1 part Cedar

1 part Pine

1 part Holly

1 part Elder or Oak

George Knowles, of Controverscial.com (correct spelling), writes of 10 trees, because there are so many listed as being the “nine sacred ones.” He gives an excellent overview of Birch, Rowan, Ash, Alder, Willow, Hawthorn, Oak, Holly, Hazel, and Elder. The following information is paraphrased from this source.

Birch

(Betula Pendula Alba)

Birch has many excellent practical and magical uses. Its wounded wood produces a sweet liquid which is used along with yeast to produce fermentation for wine, beer, spirits, and vinegar. Oil of Birch Tar is used in the tanning of Russian leather, and the sap is used along with honey, cloves, lemon peel, and yeast to produce Birch wine and also a reportedly very yummy cordial. A large amount of sap may be drawn from one large tree (up to 18 gallons) without harming the tree.

Birch is placed at the start of the Celtic Tree Calendar, and it is associated with the underworld and death. Birch is one of the traditional woods used for besoms. It is associated with the Diety Thor, but it is feminine and ruled by the planet Venus. Its element is water. It is used magically for protection, exorcism, and purification.

Birch leaf tea is used for gout, rheumatism, and dropsy. A decoction of Birch bark is good for skin eruptions. Oil of Birch Tar is astringent and works well as an insect repellent.

Rowan

(Sorbus Aucuparia)

Rowan is used for protection and fertility. In older times, Celtic farmers would drive their livestock through hoops made of Rowan wood to ensure protection and fertility.

Benevolent faeries were said to inhabit Rowan, and it was grown near homes for protection of the dwelling. A piece of Rowan sewn into a child’s clothing was said to protect from abduction (by the Fey).

Rowan berries are associated with Life, Blood, and the Life Cycle. The juice from Rowan berries may be used in rites to substitute for blood. This is because of an old myth that Rowan trees would spring up on battlefields where blood was spilled.

Rowan is sacred to Brigit and her Northern English persona, Brigantia, whose arrows were said to be made of Rowan wood.

Magically, Rowan is said to aid in the support of psychic powers and divination. Rowan berries grow in a five-pointed star pattern and are therefore associated with the pentagram. Carrying Rowan berries and/or twigs will help a person distinguish good from bad and protect from lightning strikes.

Ash

(Fraxinus Excelsior)

The Druids teach that Ash balances the masculine and feminine energies of Oak and Thorn, and so completes the trinity of Oak, Ash, and Thorn. It is said that faeries can be conversed with by humans anywhere the three trees grow together.

Ash wood is very tough, yet pliable, so it was used for many things, including weapons, joists, carts, etc.

Ash is associated with many deities, including Thor, Oceanus, Poseidon, Uranus, Nemesis, Mars, and Gwydion. The scourge of the Goddess Nemesis is said to have been made of Ash. She used it create fruitfulness. Ash is the traditional wood for broom handles, and it is used for help in divination, prophesy, and psychic development. Its element is water.

Magically, Ash is said to be excellent for making healing wands. It is also said to work well for the removal of warts, which is done by sticking a new pin in a living ash tree and then sticking the pin into the wart. Ash leaves in a bowl of water were said to heal the sick when placed under the sick person’s bed overnight. Discard the leaves onto open ground in the morning and repeat with fresh leaves for several nights until relief is obtained. Carrying loose Ash leaves in your pocket is said to cause you to become more attractive to the opposite sex. Heck, it can’t hurt.

The decoction of Ash bark and leaves is said to support liver detoxification and is also reportedly good for dieting.

Alder

(Alnus Glutinosa)

Alder trees are very long lived, and don’t reach sexual maturity until the age of 30 years. They can reach the age of 150. The wood is very resistant to water, and has been used for bridges, sluices, boats, etc. The bark is used in tanning and the charcoal makes good gunpowder.

Doorways to the world of Fey are said to be concealed within the trunks of Alder trees. The Alder is sacred to the God Bran in Celtic mythology, and is associated with the Raven. Ritual pipes and flutes were often made of Alder. Many cultures use Alder sap and bark to make red dyes.

Alder is an anti-inflammatory and astringent. It is useful as a poultice to reduce swellings, particularly of the feet. Hikers should put Alder leaves in their shoes to ease their pain. It is also used for rheumatism.

This tree is associated with both Fire and Water and is ruled over by the planet Venus. It is magically useful for self-protection, divination, and healing spells.

Willow

(Salix Alba)

Willow is a feminine tree that grows near water, and so it is associated with that element. It is traditionally used for baskets and wicker because of its pliability.

This tree is associated with the Deities Proserpina, Hecate, Orpheus, Circe, Belanus, Mercury, and Artemis. It is associated with fertility, the Underworld, and with the Serpent. Priests of the Goddess Artemis would undergo flogging until the pain transformed into erotic sensations, and the blood and semen would “fertilize the land.” Boy, there used to be a job for everybody….

In ancient Celtic culture, it was believed that the spirit of the departed would rise into a willow sapling that was planted over a grave.

White Willow contains salicin, which is a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory. It works very well for fever and for sore throats. White willow tea will produce results in a matter of minutes. Sallow Willow tea works well for catarrh and coughs. Black Willow is a sexual sedative.

Willow wands are useful for the Sight and for dream magic. Often, runes are made from Willow wood. Willow’s planetary ruler is the Moon. Use Willow for fertility, healing, divination, and dowsing for water.

Hawthorn

(Crataegus Oxacantha)

Hawthorn is associated with Beltaine and with the Fire God Belenus. This is because it makes an extremely hot fire. Hawthorn was traditionally used in Europe to delineate property boundaries instead of fences. “Haw” means “hedge.”

Hawthorn is a faery tree and it is considered bad luck to cut this plant down, for fear of offending the Fey. However, it is traditional on Beltaine to take cuttings from the plant into the house for protection. The Roman Goddess Cardea, said to bless wedding unions, was associated with Hawthorn, but in Teutonic lore, Hawthorn was associated with death and was used for funeral pyres.

Medicinally, Hawthorn is an anti-spasmodic and diuretic. It has sedative qualities, and its berries are used to soothe sore throats. Hawthorn berries also can be used to make brandy. Other deity associations for this plant are Flora and Hyman. Hawthorn is masculine. It is ruled over by Mars and its element is Fire. Use it in magic associated with chastity, marriage, fertility, protection, and death.

Oak

(Quercus Robur)

Oaks can grow up to 110 feet high and often have an amazing girth, the largest recorded at about 70 feet. They can be hundreds of years old. Oak wood is used worldwide for buildings, furniture, ships, and many other things. It is one of the most prized woods. Oak is also used for caskets and for aging spirits (liquor).

The Oak is associated with all Gods of thunder, such as Zeus and Jupiter (and Thor). This is because it attracts lightning strikes, and lightning comes shortly after the rumble of thunder. The Druids revered the Oak over all other trees, believing that it hosted the energies of their Gods. The legendary Druid, Merlin, was said to have used the topmost branch of an Oak tree for his wand, and there is also an association with Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest. There is an Oak there that is many hundreds of years old, called the “Major Oak,” that is said to have been the meeting place of Robin Hood’s band. The spirit of Herne the Hunter is said to inhabit an Oak tree, and he is also believed to haunt Sherwood Forest, leading the “Wild Hunt.”

Oak bark is used for tanning and for making many different dyes. The tree can take up to 60 years to mature and bear its first crop of fruit. The acorns have been used for food by peasant populations of Europe, and by Native Americans. They are a good source of carbohydrates and trace minerals.

Medicinally, Oak bark is tonic, astringent, and antiseptic. It reduces inflammations as an infusion and a decoction, and the bruised leaves work well as a poultice for all inflammatory conditions. A very strong decoction works well for diarrhea. Finely powdered Oak can be used as a “snuff” to relieve nosebleeds. The powder is also reputed to assist with “feminine complaints.”

Magically, the Oak is used all year long to help with a variety of intents. At Imbolc, the Oak can be used to lend strength to the New God, and assist the Goddess as she sleeps after birthing Him. At Midsummer, the Oak King rules, and at Midwinter, the Holly King takes over. Their eternal battle brings us through the seasons. In June, the Oak fortifies us through its association with longevity, and so it is often used in weddings and handfastings.

It is said that burning an Oak log in the fireplace will “draw off” the illness of one who resides in the house. Also, carrying an acorn is said to stay illness and retain the appearance of youth.

Holly

(Ilex Aquifolium)

In contrast to the barren landscapes of winter, Holly bears fruit. It is a beloved tree in Europe because of this, and many references to Holly exist in folk songs throughout the ages. It is a sacred plant to the Druids, and is so revered that the coming of Christianity did not stop people from singing carols to the Holly. Holly often grows near Oak and Beech trees, and has been used as a hedge boundary because of the ease with which it can be pruned.

In May, the Holly blossoms, and the trees are either male or female. The leaves have no taste, nor scent, but the berries are poisonous. Sheep, cows, and rabbits thrive on the leaves, and cows that eat Holly leaves produce more milk. Livestock often had no other winter food in old times, and this also made Holly a sacred plant.

The Holly represents the God, in the form of the Holly King. His brother, the Oak King, rules over the warm half of the year, and the Holly King (from whom we get Father Yule and Santa Claus), is an elfin deity who brings life through the winter months.

Medicinally, Holly leaves are diaphoretic and tonic. They are used as an infusion to cure catarrh, and when dried and sniffed (powdered), they are said to stop a runny nose.

Magically, Holly is protective and guards against mischief. Old stories tell of the Celtic tradition of bringing Holly into the house to shelter the Fey during the winter, with the warning that one must get rid of the Holly before the eve of Imbolg, lest misfortune befall you. Branches of Holly should be pulled, not cut, in respect for the tree, which is holy.

Holly is masculine and ruled by Mars. It is associated with the element of Fire. Therefore, it is associated with smiths and the Goddess Bridgit.

Hazel

(Corylus Avellana)

In Ireland, the Hazel is considered a tree of great knowledge. Male and female flowers appear on the same tree. Hazelnuts are used in ritual to represent wisdom. In ancient times, the Hazel was considered so sacred that the unjustified felling of it carried the death penalty (Europe).

Hazel is associated with Hermes/Mercury, and is considered therefore to be “a messenger of the Gods.” Because of Hermes’ association with both Air and Water, Hazel has these same correspondences. In Irish legend, it is associated with running water and with salmon, also a symbol of wisdom. Hazel rods were used to dowse water and to “find thieves.” It is used for poetic and magical inspiration, as well as divination. Hazelnuts were traditionally considered good luck for weddings.

Apparently, there are very few, if any, medicinal uses for Hazel, with the exception of “witch hazel,” an astringent.

Elder

(Sambucus Nigra)

Elder represents the thirteenth month of the Celtic Tree Calendar. This “month” is three days in length, being the last two days of October and the first of November (corresponding to our Samhain).

Elder is a particularly hard wood, and pan pipes and flutes are traditionally made from it. Mythology tells us that the Elder is said to be watched over by a spirit, the Elder tree mother, who will haunt those households which harbor furniture made of the Elder. This is most likely a faery being.

The Elder is associated with the White Goddess, and therefore, with the Moon. Little other information is found in my sources of the Elder.

As there is much dissent about which “nine woods” are actually the nine sacred woods, it is left to us to follow our intuition about which nine woods to use for our ritual purposes. Let us then proceed with wisdom and select those woods most propitious to our occasions, and burn in ritual the trees which best meet our magical needs.

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