Throughout all times and cultures the willow has been connected to the feminine, the moon, and the element of water in all its forms. Many of the goddesses of the ancient world resided in sacred willows or willow groves. For the Sumerians, for example, this goddess was Belili, who ruled the moon, love, sexuality, and the underworld, and was worshipped where there were willows, springs and wells. In classical Greece the willow was dedicated to Persephone, goddess of the underworld, and Kirke, who weaves and sings at the navel of the world.
The same association of the feminine and the willow is seen in Celtic tradition. In ancient Scotland, the willow represented strength and harmony. The later kings of the Scottish Isles, and the chieftains of the more powerful clans, would hold a branch of willow while administering justice - a custom that is a vivid reminder of the matriarchal structures that influenced the Celts.
Even in Christian times, this tree remained anchored in folklore. There are countless numbers of invocations and little rituals designed to invoke the magic of this tree to dispel pain or misfortune, and especially infertility. Much is based on superstition, but not all is a game of smoke and mirrors, not by any stretch of the imagination. Willow has many practical medicinal qualities. Salicin, which is found in the bark, is a natural painkiller that has been synthesised since 1898, and is still used today as an ingredient in painkillers.
The rituals performed by witch covens became centred on the willow tree, and as a result the willow became a focus for the hatred of Christian missionaries. Later on, in the mythological
writings of the 19th and 20th centuries, the willow is often associated with grief and sadness. The only basis for this interpretation is the biblical Psalm 137 where it is said that the exiled Hebrews, when they had given up all hope, hung their harps from the branches of 'willow' trees by the 'waters of Babylon'. Thinking of this, Christian botanists named a species of willow they had imported from Asia 'weeping willow' (Salix babylonica) because of its hanging branches. Hence the connection between the willow and grief, which is an historical misinterpretation. Actually it was the reverse, as we see when Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament orders that the tabernacle be joyously decorated with branches of willow. It's also worth noting that the 'weeping willow' of the Babylonian exiles was actually a type of poplar!
It is interesting that so much superstition and misinterpretation surrounds the willow. One reason for this may be that one of the associations of the moon, with which the willow is intimately connected, is that of illusion. Think if you will of the the Moon tarot card, the card of illusion. The flowing willow has soft, blurred edges, and an equally blurred identity, with flowing boundaries between it and its surroundings. This is very noticeable if you compare its form to the sharp and edgy contours (and history) of the oak, for example.
Putting human error to one side, we see that the willow is a tree of remarkable vitality and fertility. Single cut twigs of willow put out new roots and grow into trees themselves if just heeled into wet ground. Damaged branches can also recover to become dense thickets. The incredible regenerative abilities of the willow would no doubt make it immortal were it not for the fact that its quick growing and soft wood is so susceptible to fungal growth.
Willow teaches us to focus our energy in the here and now, and dive into the flow of life, without holding back, so that old wounds can heal and new growth can take place.
The key words that attune us to the spiritual realm of the willow are flowing, openness, and being at home in oneself.
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