Willow

(Salix spp) The Latin word salix, so it is said, comes from salire, to leap, bestowed because of the extraordinarily quick growth of the tree. Not for nothing is there a saying, "The willow will buy a horse, before the oak will pay for a saddle" (Denham. 1846). Willows have for a very long time been symbols of sorrow, and of forsaken love; in the Scriptures they are generally a symbol of woe and sadness (Dyer. 1889). Aubrey records the usage in Oxfordshire, albeit "in a frolique", but Shakespeare used the symbolism seriously as, for instance, in Much ado about nothing, when Benedick says: "I offered him my company to a willow-tree, either to make him a garland, as being forsaken, or to bind him up a rod, as being worthy to be whipped". Or, in III. King Henry VI, when Bona says:

Tell him, in hope he'll prove a widower shortly,

I'll wear the willow garland for his sake.

In Wales, willow caps used to be presented to people disappointed in love (Trevelyan), and willows were the symbols of grief, especially that of the disappointed lover. Weeping willows in particular used to be death and mourning symbols, often used in some stylised form embossed on Victorian mourning cards, though they first appeared as such at the end of the previous century as a tomb decoration, usually with the figure of Hope, or the widow weeping and clinging to the urn beneath its boughs (Burgess).

But according to the dream books, if one has a dream of oneself mourning under a willow over some calamity, it is actually a happy omen, forecasting good news! (Gordon. 1985). Because of their association with water, willows could be symbols of resurrection (Curl), and that may be why branches of willow are carried by mourners at a mason's funeral (Puckle). In China they have from very ancient times been looked on as tokens of immortality (Curl). They are even credited with aphrodisiac qualities - "spring water in which willow seeds have been steeped was strongly recommended in England as an aphrodisiac, but with the caveat that he who drinks it will have no sons, and only barren daughters" (Boland. 1977). The human backbone, according to Ainu tradition, was originally made of a willow branch, and the backbone, they say, is the seat of life (Munro). Willow was a symbol of vitality in China, too, and it is that aspect of it that probably accounts for the wearing of willow wreaths as a protection against scorpion poison (Tun Li-Ch'en).

Irish harps were usually made of willow wood, for these trees have a soul in them which speaks in music. Brian Borohm's ancient harp, still in existence when Lady Wilde was writing in 1890, was made of willow. There was another Irish belief that is related - willow had the gift of inspiring an uncontrollable desire to dance. A willow-wand, pared to a four-sided stick, with the necessary spells cut upon it, would cause all the inmates of a house to dance if it were put over the lintel (Wood-Martin). Perhaps that is why sawn willow was so unlucky in the house; if it were admitted at all, the wood had to be shaped with an adze (Whitlock. 1982). Magical beliefs like this had their sinister side, too. Dyer said that in Hesse, one may kill an enemy at a distance with knots tied in willows, and there was a gypsy magical rite that consisted in watering a branch of weeping willow for nine days and pouring this water in front of the house of the person who was to suffer (Clebert). This is homeopathic magic, of course, for the weeping willow symbolizes tears. And willows were supposed to have a sinister habit of following a traveller on a dark night. See the Somerset folk song:

Ellum do grieve,

Oak he do hate,

Willow do walk

If you travel late (Briggs. 1978).

Chinese farmers used to ask for rain by prayers to the Dragon King Lung Wang, who has control over rain, and they would wear willow wreaths during the ceremony (Tun Li-Ch'en), for willows grow in wet country, and homeopathic magic accounts for their use in this context (they were worn for other purposes, as already mentioned). So, too, the doctrine of signatures would ensure that they would be used for diseases like ague, caused by damp. There was a Welsh charm for ague that said: "Go in silence, without crossing water, to a hollow willow tree. Breathe into the hole three times, then stop the aperture as quickly as possible, and go home without looking round, or speaking a word" (Trevelyan). But there was another Welsh usage recorded by the same author, that of treating toothache by picking at the decayed tooth with a sharp twig of willow, until it bled. After that, the twig had to be thrown into a running stream. Simply chewing some willow bark would have been useful, for it contains salicin, from which salicylic acid was obtained. Later, this was compounded into acetyl-salicylic acid - aspirin, in a word (Grigson. 1955). Salicin, or Willow Quinine, as it is sometimes called (Savage), is apparently still used in the treatment of rheumatic fever.

Russian folklore contains a belief that willow branches put under the marriage bed would ensure a pregnancy (Kourennoff). But this is a fruitless tree, and so it would be used for contraception. Even in quite modern times German women believed that drinking willow tea would make them barren (Simons).

Gull is a Sussex word that seems to apply to any willow catkins (Parish); so too does Goslings, at least in Hampshire (Cope). These two names are connected, for in some places (Herefordshire among them) it is unlucky to bring willow catkins (called Gulls) into a house where there are young goslings (also called Gulls).

It was by the rivers of Babylon that the captive Jews hung their harps upon the willows, so the boughs were bent with their weight, and so they have always remained as Weeping Willows (Psalm 137: "We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof"). One belief connected with the tree is that a branch of it was used as the scourge with which Christ was beaten, since when it has always drooped its boughs and wept (Friend. 1883). There is a saying recorded from Alabama - "plant a weeping willow and by the time it casts a shadow, it will shade your grave" (R B Browne). For quite a different reason it was thought to be bad luck to plant a weeping willow in Kentucky; there the result would be to remain an old maid (Thomas & Thomas). This tradition that it was used as Christ's scourge accounts for the practice in the early Christian church, when the willow was used to punish those who did not go to early mass at Easter (Fogel). There is, too, quite a common belief that animals struck with a willow rod will be seized with internal pains, and children beaten with one will stop growing (Burne. 1914), or that it will cause swellings in both children and animals who are struck with it (Fogel).

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