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The Bard's Path
Tree Legends, Lore and Whimsy
Part One: Fairies, healing and general folklore
By Randi Hendrickson
For countless ages forests have been a source of awe and mystery to humankind. Trees provide us with wood for our homes and fuel for the fires that keep us warm in the bitter cold of winter. They shelter the small wild ones from storm and heat and cold. We hug them and talk to them and seek the aid of the various tree spirits. And we lean against them and reach down through the roots to feel the very heartbeat of the earth.
Forests held special significance to ancient peoples, though it is difficult for modern people to comprehend the sheer power and feeling of "entity" of the vast primeval forests. Along with the dangers of animal attacks and human or Fairie foes, was the belief that the trees themselves could waylay an unwelcome intruder. But today, humankind has lost much of that respect in his attempt to control that which he once held in the profoundest awe. Vast deforestation has so drastically reduced these once mighty forests to shadows of their former selves that Gary Snyder in "The Practice of the Wild" was moved to say: "There are seven million homeless children on the streets of Brazil. Are the vanishing trees being reborn as unwanted children?"
Several modern authors have reawakened some of that lost respect with their stories - based in folklore - of wondrous forests and those that dwell within. Once read, who could forget the power of Tolkien's Tree Ents, the mystery and deceptive beauty of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, or Charles DeLint's magickal Canadian woods where distant piping can be heard, and if followed to it's source, one might glimpse a huge stag before it bounds away, or perhaps it was a man with stag antlers on his brow and upon his back a mantle of green leaves?
Not only forests, but groves and individual trees were considered sacred and this reverence has persisted through the centuries in Ireland. To cut down a "bile", or sacred tree, was considered a terrible crime. In the ballad of "The Two Brothers", one brother kills another as punishment for "cutting down a hazel bush that might have grown into a tree." Sacred trees often grew over or near springs or wells. The tree and well are considered sacred sources of power because they connected the Underworld, the Land and the Sky towards which the tree's branches reached. Also, because of their longevity, trees were seen as living links between the many generations of the lands inhabitants, and often marked ritual centers or places of public assembly. According to one Irish source, the "cran bethadh" (or tree of life) stood in the center of a clan's territory and tribal raids by rival clans would be made for the sole purpose of destroying that tree to demoralize the enemy.
Trees of all types are quite often associated with the Fairie Folk. An Irish author tells of how a "Fairie tree" that stood in the back yard of his home when he was a child was moved to the front of the house by his father. While the tree had remained in the back, his father had had good fortune in money matters. But soon after it was moved, his father lost much of his wealth. Once convinced of the reason for his loss, his father returned the tree to its original location and soon prospered again.
Other trees, such as the "ymp-tree" (a grafted apple),
were believed to be "under the influence of Fairies"
and any who slept beneath one was likely to be
"carried away by Fairie ladies". "Fairie Folks, are in
Old Oaks", is so common a rhyme, that many still find
it familiar. Mini whirlwinds of leaves, so often seen
during the fall, are said to be physical evidence of a
"Fairie dance". The tiniest of Fairies are believed to
ride on falling leaves. If a leaf is caught in the air, before
it has touched the ground, the Fairie must grant
the "catcher" a wish. At a natural outcropping of
greenstone on the hill above the vicarage in Newlyn,
Cornwall, the Troll of Tolcarne, described as a little
old man dressed in tight-fitting leathern jerkin with a
hood upon his head, could be called upon for assistance
if someone held in their hand three dried leaves
of ash, oak and thorn, and pronounced the appropriate
In England, Oakmen, who are described as squat
dwarfish people with red toadstool caps are the guardians
of animals and are believed to tempt intruders into
their wood with disguised food made from fungi. The
woods where they live is a thrice-cut coppice (grown
from fallen or cut trees rather than seed) and is full of
bluebells. An oak coppice was often considered an
Since the oak had a god-like status, and it has the ability to grow back from the roots of stumps, it was believed that the oak bitterly resented being cut. Because of the elm's (ellum) tendency towards death from disease it was believed that neighboring elms died from grief. The willow is a more sinister tree in that it had the habit of uprooting itself at night and following lone travellors, muttering.
Quite often those that harmed the oak came to harm themselves! The following quotes, from the late 1600's, demonstrate this.
“There was one Oak in the great Wood call'd Norwood, had Miselto. Some persons cut this Misselto, for some Apothecaries in London and left only one branch remaining for more to sprout out. One fell lame shortly after: Soon after, each of the others lost an Eye, and he that fell'd the Tree, about 1678 (tho' warned of these Misfortunes of the other Men) would not withstanding, adventure to do it, and shortly broke his Leg."
In 1824, a ballad was printed and circulated bemoaning the destruction of the Mile Oak near Oswestry. The following verse is from that ballad:
Not only the oak, but ash and elder were also considered
sacred and dire misfortunes would befall any
who dared to harm them. In the parish of Clenor in
County Cork is a sacred ash whose branches were
never cut though firewood was scarce. Another ash in
Borrisokane which was used in May Day rites, could
cause the house of any man "who burnt even a chip of
Among it's many properties, the ash was known for healing. It was believed that to apply a chip from a cut ash, of one, two or three year’s growth, at the hour and minute of the sun's entering into Taurus could stop a nose bleed. Another belief was that passing an injured or ill child through the opening of a young, flexible ash that had been severed and held open with wedges, would cause the child to be healed as the ash tree healed after it had been carefully bound up. The child was to be passed through three times by its mother. On the mornings of the three successive days, the child was to be washed in the dew from the leaves of this tree.