Hazel

(Corylus avellana) A tree of countless virtues, a fairy tree, in fact. In the Grimms' Aschenputtel, a hazel sapling grows up on a mother's grave, and her bones transform it into a powerful wishing tree to work her daughter's revenge, for the tree shakes down the gold dresses and silk slippers that this Cinderella wears to the ball, and it shelters the doves, who act as her protectors (see Warner. 1994). Coll is the Celtic name for it, and a hazel grove is Calltuin in Gaelic, and there are Caltons in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and other places. The Edinburgh Calton was a fairy mound (Mackenzie). Nine hazels grew over a well in the Celtic land of promise, and it was a hazel that grew over the source of the river Shannon (F Jones). This was a life-giving tree in the Irish Elysium (Mackenzie), so it should be no surprise to find that sticks of hazel were laid on or under burials in Sweden, and deposits including "hazel nuts and the twigs of fruit-bearing trees" were noted in the Kennet avenue at Avebury (R Morris). It is the tree of wisdom (Graves), even a god in its own right if we accept the remark in Keating, History of Ireland, vol 1, that "Coll was god to MacCuill". In a roundabout way, it was the hazel that was responsible for Finn McCool's all-seeing wisdom, for that was the tree that grew over Connla's well in County Tipperary, and it was the nuts that fed the sacred salmon (F Jones). It was from one of these salmon that Finn gained his wisdom. Scottish children born in autumn were lucky, because they could be given "milk of the nut" as their first food (Mackenzie), just as Ficus sycomorus was given in Greece. Massingham suggested that the hazel was sacred to the Celts because of its "oily exudations", which probably means the same as the "milk" of the nuts; in Scotland, this is the milk-yielding tree, the "milk" being in the green nut, and an elixir given to weakly children is "comb of honey and milk of the nut" (Mackenzie).

Another aspect of the mythology of the hazel lies in its association with Thor, for it is a lightning tree, an actual embodiment of the lightning. Hence the common belief that hazels are never struck (Kelly), and so offer the greatest protection, in all circumstances. Christianity adopted the myth in the story of the Holy Family taking refuge under a hazel during the flight into Egypt (Dyer). But on the Aegean island of Chios they say the shadows of both the fig and hazel are "heavy", and it is not good to sleep under either (Argenti & Rose). This seems an aberrant view, though, but Bartholomew Anglicus agreed that "the shadow of the Nut-tree grieveth them that sleep thereunder". In Lincolnshire, hazel was often used as "palm" on Palm Sunday, and kept green the year round by putting it in water. In the south of the county, these "palms" were preserved for the express purpose of protection from thunder and lightning (Gutch & Peacock). In Somerset, they say you should make a cross in the ashes with a hazel twig on May Day, and put a branch outside the house (Tongue). The connection between the lightning tree and the robin, itself associated with fire, is expressed in the west of France by the custom, long since dead, of killing a cock robin on Candlemas Day, and running a hazelwood stick through the body, which was then put by the fire. It would turn by itself, so the belief was (Swainson. 1886). German farm labourers would cut a hazel twig in spring, and make the sign of the cross with it over every heap of grain as soon as the first thunderstorm broke. The idea was to keep the corn good for many years. Hazel twigs were sometimes put in window frames during a heavy shower, and, in the Tyrol, it was reckoned to be an excellent lightning conductor (Dyer).

In Sweden, they said that snakes would lose their venom by a touch of a hazel wand (Fiske), and elsewhere it was believed that snakes cannot approach the tree (Kelly). It was by use of a hazel stick that St Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland (Wilde. 1890). To this day, Dartmoor people say that if a dog is bitten by an adder, a hazel wand should be twisted into a ring and put round the animal's neck (St Leger-Gordon). A very long way from Dartmoor, in the Balkans in fact, they say that a young hazel twig, cut after sundown on St George's Day (a significant saint in view of this belief) should be used to rub a snakebite wound, and to draw a magic circle round it (Kemp). But in spite of all this, there was a German belief in something like a hazel serpent - a crowned white snake that lived beneath the hazel tree (Rowling). It is pointed out that the snake is traditionally the symbol of wisdom, while the crown of course represents sovereignty. The hazel too is the tree of wisdom, so it looks as if this snake belief actually belongs to the older Celtic myth. There was too a Welsh belief that a snake found under or near a hazel on which mistletoe grew, would have a precious stone in its head (Trevelyan), presumably another way of describing the traditional wisdom of the snake.

Hazel was the medieval symbol of fertility. Throwing hazel nuts at the bride and groom is sometimes the practice at Greek weddings, and sugar coated nuts are known too to take the place of the better known sugared almonds (the word used for sugared almonds is the same as for the nuts in these circumstances) (T B Edwards). Until quite recently, Devonshire brides were given little bags of hazel nuts as they left church. These had the same significance as rice and confetti have today (Rowling). The gypsy bridegroom, before the ceremony, had to carry with him hazel wands wreathed in ribbons, "to ward off the influence of water" (Starkie), so it was said, but the real reason was to ensure the fertility of the marriage. A Bohemian saying was that plenty of hazel nuts meant the birth of many bastards (Dyer), but in Somerset it meant fertility in wedlock too (Tongue). Double nuts, of course, presaged a number of twins (Leather). As the old saying was, "Good nutting year, plenty of boy babies" (Hole. 1957). But in France it is "année de noisettes, années de filles" (Loux). Ruth Tongue told the story of the Somerset village girl who returned from London in the 1930s to be married. She openly said that she didn't intend to be hampered with babies too soon, and would take steps to ensure this. Such talk outraged village morality, and when she got to her new house, she found among the presents a large bag of nuts, to which most of her neighbours had contributed. She had four children very quickly. The Somerset girl who goes nutting on a Sunday will meet the devil, and almost certainly the baby will come before the wedding (Tongue); in Oxfordshire too they say you should never go nutting on a Sunday, for the devil will go with you to bend the branches down to your hand (Hole. 1957). "Going a-nutting" is a euphemism for love-making, anyway. The symbolism contained in the Breton saying that when you break a hazel wand with the little finger, you will be married within the year (Sebillot), is not very difficult to decipher.

In Ireland, hazel was included in the "summer" brought into the house on May morning (Ô Suilleab-hain), and there is recognition in France of a connection with the Midsummer Fire (Kelly), both occasions when the fertility of the livestock and the land are in the mind. A few hazel nuts used to be mixed sometimes with the seed corn on German farms, to ensure its being prolific (Dyer). Yorkshire people used to stick hazel twigs with the catkins on them into various objects round the fireplace, the object apparently being in some way to help the sheep at lambing time (Gutch).

There seems no end to the magical properties of the tree. A hazel stick is the most effective protection that Irish folklore remembers against fairies or spirits, or the very generalization of evil (O Suilleabhain) ("If you cut a hazel and bring it with you, and turn it round about now and then, no bad thing can hurt you") (Gregory). Presumably this is why burials with hazel wands and leaves used to be so widespread. These are "measuring rods". Pennant. Tours in Wales, quotes an account of burials at Tal-y-llyn, Merioneth. Along the graves and coffins were laid hazel rods, with the bark on, and a hazel rod with the bark on was found in graves during the restoration of Chester cathedral. This rod would be cut to the exact length of the dead man's body, and put beside him in the grave. It would then actually represent the person buried. In the case of the "holy length", the measure is that of Christ, however that could be computed, and not of the deceased. These rods in some cases were to benefit the dead, in others to protect the living. But there are examples of its use in a healing rite, and in general it is a means of gaining power over that which is measured (Rees).

The Somerset practice of putting a hazel branch outside the door, and making a cross in the ashes with a hazel twig on May morning, seems to be purely protective in intent (Tongue). Among the many German beliefs about hazel is one that shows that a twig cut on Good Friday gives you power to strike a person who is absent (Dyer). Good Friday is the day, in the Tyrol, on which a hazel divining rod must be cut (Dyer). So it is in western Scotland, where St John's Day is added (Banks). Swedish folklore says that the nuts have the power of making you invisible. Obviously related to a legend of invisibility is a Scottish story concerning a certain "cave of gold" (Uamh an oir). The belief was that if any fugitive ran to the cave and struck the rock with a hazel stick it would open and let him in, and shut again before the pursuers could get there (Polson. 1891). In the Book of St Albans (c 1496), a recipe is given for making oneself invisible by carrying a hazel rod one and a half fathoms long, with a green hazel twig inserted in it (Graves). And of course the magician's wand was often made of this wood. Anyone, according to Irish belief, can draw a protective circle round himself with the hazel wand, provided it was cut on May morning, before sunrise. That would make it powerful enough to ensure that no evil thing could enter the circle (Wilde). The divining rod seems to have been introduced into Britain by German miners in the 16th or 17th century (Grigson). "Divinatory rods for the detecting and finding out of minerals; (at least, if that tradition be no imposture) is very wonderful;

by whatsoever occult virtue, the forked stick, so cut, and skilfully held, becomes impregnated with those invisible steams and exhalations; as by its spontaneous bending from an horizontal posture, to discover not only mines, and subterranean treasures, and springs of water, but criminals, guilty of murder, etc., ... made out so solemnly, and the efforts thereof, by the attestations of magistrates, and divers other learned and credible persons (who have critically examined matters of fact) is certainly next to miracle, and requires strong faith". Evelyn's words seem to be an indication of recent introduction; it could be argued that a practice of some antiquity would not be regarded as "next to miracle" by someone with his critical faculties. Hazel used to be the wood for a wishing rod, too (Grimm). And the Welsh wishing cap was generally made of the leaves or twigs, although sometimes juniper was used. They had to be gathered at midnight, and at new or full moon, and made up as quickly as possible (Trevelyan). This cap was worn for good luck, too, particularly by sailors, or anyone connected with the sea and ships (R L Brown).

Irish horse handlers always used to have hazel as the breast band on the harness, to keep the horse from harm (O Suilleabhain); in much the same way, Somerset drovers always used a hazel stick to drive cattle and horses, though in moist places rowan was often preferred. For a horse that had over-eaten, the remedy was to bind its legs and feet with hazel twigs to relieve the discomfort (Drury. 1985). Note also the purely magical use in this Welsh charm: "if calves were scouted overmuch, and in danger of dying, a hazel twig the length of the calf was twisted round its neck like a collar, and it was supposed to cure them" (Owen).

Welsh people used to look on the nuts as an emblem of good fortune. In the south they were always kept in the house until brown with age, and when quite rotten, they were burnt on the fire to ensure prosperity (Trevelyan) - to burn them in the house rather than to throw them out would seem the logical way to keep the good fortune inside. But to dream of the nuts is a sign of trouble from friends; to the tradesman it is a sign of prison, and decay of trade (Raphael).

Double nuts have a special folklore of their own. Nobody in the east of England would even think of eating the whole of one like this. One kernel would be passed to a friend, and the two would eat it in silence, wishing a wish that had to be kept secret (Gutch). The practice in Northamptonshire was to eat one and throw the other over the shoulder. In any case, the double nut is a sign of great good luck to come (Sternberg). They were called St John's nuts in Scotland, and used for throwing at witches (Grigson). Their name in Devonshire is loady nut, and there they were used to cure toothache (Grigson); so they were in Sussex - all you had to do was to carry one in your pocket (Latham). In Ireland, that was enough to ensure you did not get rheumatism or lumbago. In this case, the nut is acting as a protection against the fairies, for these are elf-shot diseases. A note in the Journal of the Gypsy lore Society. 1957 mentions a mother who gave her son, when he joined the army, a "double hazel nut with three wishes" to ensure his safe return.

One piece of weather lore connected with hazel nuts has to do with the thickness of the shells - the thicker they are, the harder the winter to come; conversely of course, thin shells, mild winter. (Conway). An American version expects a large crop of nuts to be followed by a hard winter (Hyatt).

There used to be a saying in Boston, Lincolnshire, that the devil goes a-nutting on Holy Rood Day, which is 14 September. Better to keep well clear of hazel trees then; at Ormsby, in the same county, they reckoned that nutters on that day were certain to come to grief (Gutch). Elsewhere, on the other hand, Holy Rood Day was reckoned to be the proper day to go nutting:

Tomorrow is Holy Rood Day

When all a-nutting take their way.

That is from Grim the Collier, act ii, sc 1 (1662) (Britten).

With hazel's supernatural background, one would expect the medicinal use to be hinged firmly on to magical practices. So they are, but there one or two that seem to be pragmatically genuine. Herbalists still maintain that hazel nuts improve the condition of the heart, and prevent hardening of the arteries (Conway), while they say in Wiltshire that they are good for curing coughs (Wiltshire). Ignoring certain early prescriptions that seem to be half way between the real and the magical, we are firmly dealing with charms in such a wart cure that involved cutting notches in a hazel twig, one for each wart, which would disappear as the notches grew out of the twig (Newman & Wilson). The very soil from under a hazel bush was valuable. In Yorkshire, it was given to cows that lost their cud (Hartley & Ingilby).

Some of the names given to the nuts need a little explanation. Filbert, with its variations, is the name under which the nuts of Coryluys maxima are known. Brouk suggested that it meant 'full beard' (from the fringed husk?), but the usual explanation is that it comes from a non-existent King Philibert, or from St Philibert, whose feast-day falls on 22 August. The nuts would certainly not be ripe then, so it is probable that the saint's day is old style, bringing the day into September, when there is more likelihood of their being ripe. Anyway, filbert is a Norman-French word, written as philbert in the 13th century, and still in use in Normandy patois at the beginning of the 20th century. Another name to explain is Cob-nut, with its variations. Cob-nut is actually what a game played with the nuts is called. One of them is very like conkers, and the winner is called the cob-nut (Hunter). Hence the Cornish Victor-nut (Jago) and the Devonshire Crack-nut (Britten & Holland). Halliwell's description of the game shows that there was more than one version. The one like conkers he considered the most recent, but he says the older consisted of pitching at a row of nuts piled up in heaps of four, three at the bottom and one at the top of each heap. All the nuts knocked down became the property of the pitcher, and the one used for pitching was the Cob. Finally, one must comment on the fact that hazel is the only British tree bearing edible nuts (walnut gives its origins away by its very name, for the first element means 'foreign'). No, this is the Nut-tree par excellence, and whenever that name was used, there could only be one recipient, the hazel.

Enneagram Essentials

Enneagram Essentials

Tap into your inner power today. Discover The Untold Secrets Used By Experts To Tap Into The Power Of Your Inner Personality Help You Unleash Your Full Potential. Finally You Can Fully Equip Yourself With These “Must Have” Personality Finding Tools For Creating Your Ideal Lifestyle.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment