Brigid and the Mountain Ash

Photo Nino Barbieri.


Along with many other people, I have been reflecting for a long time on ways of making witchcraft (meaning Euro-shamanism) more relevant to the ecologies of North America. Like most forms of shamanism, witchcraft contains many elements specific to geography, including things like weather patterns, local flora and fauna, and geological formations such as mountains or springs. When transferring witchcraft to a new setting, there are inevitable changes that need to take place. Fortunately shamanic systems are highly adaptable. In the 21st century, this adaptation does not have to start from scratch: Appalachian folk healers, New England dowsers, southwestern curanderos, and herbalists from many other isolated communities have all trod this ground before. Often they have incorporated practices learned from Native American healers. There are problems that arise in continuing this trend, having to do with cultural sensitivity and the need to maintain the integrity of magical belief systems. Yet American witchcraft still has not “grown up,” in the sense of being firmly rooted in place. There is very little mythology and magical folklore that reflects the mountains, rivers, trees and animals specific to the various regions.

The American Mountain Ash seemed to me to fit nicely into a Euro-shamanic framework. This tree grows in moist lowland areas, but is especially prevalent on high rocky slopes at the edge of tree line. It is a very attractive tree, with a lovely shape and interesting leaf patterns, and it has big clusters of white flowers in the spring. The colors white and red have special significance in witchcraft. White is the color of the maiden aspect of the goddess, the color of the sacred white sow, and a color associated with death. Red is the color of the mother goddess, the color of the blood of the womb. Red, too, has a death association, and bodies were once painted with red ocher to symbolize rebirth in another world. The Mountain Ash has bright orange berries, and while red is not interchangeable with orange in a crayon box, for magical purposes the two colors often overlap. Mountain Ash berries are very attractive to birds, particularly grouse, and many animals feast on both the berries and the leaves. Moose especially love to browse the Mountain Ash tree. The sour berries are edible for humans as well, although they cannot be eaten in any great quantities because they are a mild laxative. Traditional medicinal uses for Mountain Ash berries or bark infusions include the treatment of depression, digestive ailments, colds, colic, and post childbirth ailments. Mountain ash berries have a component that has been synthesized to treat glaucoma, which in magic would give the tree a visionary quality. Mountain Ash wood separates easily from the bark, and its flexibility has made it useful for canoe ribs and snowshoe frames. Having economic usefulness, medicinal qualities, the colors white and red, a positive impact on the local ecology, and an attractive appearance gives a tree magical importance.

I was feeling rather smug about my identification of a new magical tree, when I learned that the American Mountain Ash is a New World subspecies of the rowan tree. Oh well.

Every beginning magic student hears about the rowan tree. The tree with magic berries, protected by a dragon. The source of the best wands. The tree of strong protection, which banishes lightening. The tree of vision. Both saints and heroes had some of their most extraordinary revelations under the rowan tree. “What’s a rowan tree?” I recall asking on more than one occasion. The response would be, “Oh, it’s some tree that grows in England, and it [recites a litany of magical qualities].” Why didn’t anyone tell me that the rowan is the Mountain Ash? Because they didn’t know. Because most of us learn about witchcraft in urban settings. Because I was studying in California, and the Mountain Ash doesn’t grow there any more than the rowan does. Because the study of magic has gotten lost in its abstractions. This is one of the reasons I started the Yellow Birch School of Magic, because I wanted to connect pagans with the tangible foundations of magical practice.

The rowan is the tree for the second month of the Celtic tree calendar. Says Robert Graves, “The important Celtic feast of Candlemas fell in the middle of it (February 2). It was held to mark the quickening of the year…” Quickening refers to the point in the pregnancy where fetal movements can be felt by the mother. In folklore it is believed to be the time when the spirit incarnates in the growing fetus. Graves goes on to say “Since it was the tree of quickening, it could also be used in a contrary sense. In Danaan Ireland a rowan-stake hammered through a corpse immobilized its ghost; and in the Cuchulain saga three hags spitted a dog, Cuchulain’s sacred animal, on rowan twigs to procure his death.”

By identifying the rowan tree with Candlemass, I have given away the link between this tree and the Celtic goddess Brigid. February 2nd is also known as “Brigid’s Day.” Brigid is the Celtic fire goddess. Patricia Monaghan says of her pre-Christian worship, “She may have been seen as a bringer of civilization, rather like other Indo-European hearth goddesses (Vesta, Hestia) who ruled the social contract from their position in the heart and hearth of each home.” Fire is associated with vision, and Brigid’s Day is a day for divination, particularly weather divination. This is why the groundhog sees or doesn’t see his shadow on this day. And how is the rowan tree connected with fire? For that we have to go back to those little orange berries, the color of a warm fire.


Sources

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.

Ketchledge, E.H. Forests and Tress of the Adirondack High Peaks Region. Lake George, NY: Adirondack Mountain Club, 1967.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.

Ristic, Radomir. Balkan Traditional Witchcraft. Trans. Michael C. Carter, Jr. Sunland, CA: Pendraig, 2009.

Tree Encyclopedia. American Mountain Ash – Sorbus americana

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