The Hawthorn Tree - Queen Of The May
By Glennie Kindred
(Originally published at Beltane 1997)
The Hawthorn (Crataegus mongyna), Whitethorn, Haegthorn, Quickthorn or May Tree, is one of the most wild, enchanted and sacred of our native trees. Known as the "faerie tree", this beautiful, often gnarled, thorny little tree can live to a great age, and can be found growing in the wildest and harshest of spots. It grows all over Europe, Greece, North Africa and Western Asia and is rich in folklore and legend.
Even growing in a town, the Hawthorn retains the spirit of the wild, and some town Hawthorn hedges have probably been there for hundreds of years - long before the town built up around them. The beauty of this tree in full blossom touches all our hearts and holds a special place in our affections.
The keyword for the Hawthorn is the heart, and this is reflected in its herbal uses as well as its symbolism and place in folklore and legend. It has a dual sexual significance, as a symbol of abandonment and fertility, linking it to the Beltane celebrations and revelries, and a later overlay in British folklore of misfortune, chastity and sexual abstinence. This later overlay is now being transformed again, coming forward out of the confines of puritanical Christianity to become once again a positive symbol of the heart through its ability on a subtle level to open the heart to spiritual growth and love.
The Hawthorn's many names reflect its uses and properties; Haegthorn is Anglo-Saxon and refers to its use as a hedging plant, and Quickthorn referring to the live hedge or boundary formed by living plants of Hawthorn. Whitethorn refers to the lightness of its bark, contrasted with blackthorn's black bark. In many old tales it is simply referred to as the Thorn, as in "Oak, Ash and Thorn", a particularly potent combination of trees if found growing together. Often it is viewed warily, because of its thorns, and because it is said to be the haunt of faeries, elemental and enchantments.
The most common folk name we have for the Hawthorn is the May Tree. The may blossom appears on the tree at the beginning of May in the south of England, at the time of the Beltane or May Day celebrations, when people and houses were decked with may blossoms ("bringing home the May"). The popular rhyme "Here we go gathering nuts in May" is thought to have been sung by the young men, gathering not "nuts" (which do not grow in May) but "knots" of may blossoms for the May Day Celebrations. These celebrations included a May Queen, representing the Goddess, and a Green May, representing the God and the spirit of the new vegetation. It was known as the "Merry Month" and folk went about "wearing the green", decking themselves in greenery and may blossom. Everywhere, everything is bursting with life and fertility at this time, and Beltane is a celebration of this potential. The cutting of the may blossom had great significance and symbolised the beginning of new life and the onset of the growing season.
The ceremony of the maypole and maypole dancing, is symbolic of renewed life and sexual union. The pole itself is a phallic symbolic, the discus at the top from which the ribbons are tied, represents the female principle, and the wearing of ribbons represents the union of the male and the female and fertility. In some parts of the British Isles, it was the custom to erect a may tree outside every house, or for young men to erect a may tree outside the home of their sweetheart. In folklore, the common practice was to bring a new pole into the village every year representing that year's incarnation of the vegetation of nature spirit. The dancing round the pole would include a green man who would dance around the outside of the maypole dancers. This represented the tree-spirit or nature-spirit who would bless the celebrations and bring fertility to the land. Although it is tradition for the maypole to be a may tree, I look at the Hawthorn and nowhere do I see a straight tall trunk suitable for dancing round in the tradition of the maypole, and I think there is here a much older ceremony of fetching a living tree into the village from the woods. This living tree would still have its resident treespirit or dryad within the tree, and it would be the tree-spirit itself who was central to the ceremony, and would be honoured and enlisted by the villagers to ensure fertility of the land and a good harvest.
This ties in with another old folklore custom of tying ribbons or shreds of ones clothing or rags onto may trees at this time, especially where they grew near wells. These were said to be gifts for the faeries or elementals who were thought to dwell by Hawthorns. Old May Day fertility rites used the sun symbol daisy to protect the participants from the faerie folk who are particularly active then. A twig from an Oak, an Ash and a Thorn, bound together with red thread, was another protective charm, as was the use of bells (on the legs of the dancing Morris men). These customs show the fear and the potency with which country folk viewed these ceremonies, and the Hawthorn, and reflect how watered-down they have become over the years.
Of course, one of the main elements that defused the power and potency of the old customs was Christianity, which tried in every way to make the people fear and even reverse their own power symbols.
In later folklore, the Hawthorn becomes a tree of misfortune and bad luck. In Rome, Greece and Britain, the Hawthorn becomes a tree of enforced chastity. What had been a time of revelry, and a celebration of sexual potency, became a time of purification ceremonies. No marriages were allowed during the month of May and up to the Ides of June (mid June) as it was considered unlucky to marry in the Hawthorn month. People went about in old clothes, didn't wash or do anything to make themselves beautiful. "Ne're cast a clout till May be out" is not necessarily referring to the unpredictable British climate, but meant instead "Do not change your old clothes until the unlucky month is over".. (I wonder here if the odd rough and tumble in the woods would then go unnoticed, and there was therefore an advantage in staying in one's old clothes.) There is a similar proverb in northern Spain, referring to this custom of wearing old clothes in May, which cannot be a reference to their weather, which is very settled there by then. The people abstained from sexual intercourse at this time, which is why it was considered not a good month to marry, and the Hawthorn because a symbol of chastity, purity and cleansing. The May Queen because white, pure and untouchable, and so the Hawthorn's month of the may blossom became transformed from a wild celebration of the sexual and the fertile to its opposite - a period of restraint, waiting, keeping oneself pure, and a preparation for spiritual growth.
The intrinsic energy of the hawthorn is focused on the heart centre. The leaves, the flowers and the berries can all be used herbally and are prized as a cardiac tonic. The berries especially are the most effective. The act in a normalising way upon the heart by either stimulating or depressing its activity, depending on the need. Hawthorn berries will gently move the heart to normal function, and may be used safely as a long-term treatment for heart weakness, palpitations, high blood pressure and angina. The Druids used the Hawthorn's properties to strengthen the body in the frailty of old age. Drink an infusion of the berries daily during periods of stress, pressure of work, or for any nervous condition. To make an infusion, pour a cup of boiling water onto two teaspoons (10ml) of the dried berries. Cover and leave to infuse for 20 minutes. Drink three times a day over long periods.
The blossom can be drunk as a tonic tea, which has a beneficial effect on the heart and circulation. It is both necessary and safe to take it over long periods as its action is very gradual. If you collect the flowers, they need to be dried quickly in brown paper bags hung in an airy place and then sealed in an airtight container, as their potency tends to deteriorate quickly. Gather them fresh every year.
Another name for the Hawthorn is the "Bread and Cheese Tree". This refers to the young leaves and leaf buds which country folk would eat straight from the tree. They have a sweet nutty flavour and can be added to salads along with the flower buds. A liquor was made from hawthorn buds and brandy. Formerly the timber, when of sufficient size, was used for making small articles, for handles, and because of its hardness, for engravers' blocks. The root wood was used for making boxes and combs. The wood has a fine grain and polishes up beautifully. It was most desirable as a fuelwood as it burns very hot, but it was protected by folktales from being cut wantonly because of its association with faerie.
The etheric signature of the Hawthorn appears to have a pulsation which is similar to that of the human heartbeat. Before taking Hawthorn, herbally or as a flower essence, it is a good idea to tune into your heartbeat for a few minutes, to help you consciously align with the energy of the Hawthorn. The Hawthorn will help release blocked energy, not only releasing stress, but creating an ability to trust and let go of fear. As fear is released, great psychic energy is liberated, primarily in the heart centre. Negative thought-forms in the person's own aura, become dislodged, and the way for the energy of love is opened. For this reason, the Hawthorn is particularly potent as a tool for healing affairs of the heart and can be given as a token of friendship and love.
The Holy Thorn of Glastonbury, a Hawthorn tree which flowers at Christmas time as well as in May, has been used as a talisman since it first appeared on the Isle of Avalon around 37ce, soon after the crucifixion of Jesus. It was said to have grown from the staff (magician's tool) of Joseph of Arimathea when he thrust it into the ground of Wearyall Hill at Glastonbury. Since then, many people have claimed that just touching this tree has helped them in their quest for deeper spiritual understanding , and the leaves are used as a talisman.
Talismans are a form of contagious magic, carried on the person. A talisman made from Hawthorn wood will enhance your ability to release love, open the heart and align yourself to your spiritual development. If you wish to cut yourself a piece of live wood from the tree, be sure to do it with reverence and thanks to the tree. I always manage to find plenty of cut Hawthorn in the lanes round about, but I do keep my eyes open for it as it is such a lovely wood to work with and I don't like cutting it. Carve off the bark while it is still green if you can, as it comes off easily before it dries hard onto the wood. Keep the piece of wood outside until you are ready to start work on it, as that will stop it from drying out too quickly. Carving is more easily done on green wood than when it has dried out, and Hawthorn is an especially hard wood.
You might want to carve it with the rune of the Hawthorn which is THORN. Plants grow thorns to protect themselves, and the rune Thorn is ruled, in terms of Western magick, by Jupiter which is a protective, expansive and generous energy, perfectly fitting the energy of the Hawthorn. In many respects, the Teutonic equivalent to Jupiter is Thor, who also was the "Great Protector" of Northern mythology. The Teutons would wear a small representation of the hammer of Thor around their necks, just as the Christians wore a cross, and for much the same reason. It is better to carve one symbol from one system onto your piece of wood rather than several symbols from a variety of systems which weakens the connection (eclectic synthesis).
The Ogham letter for the Hawthorn is Huath. Representing good fortune, spiritual growth and psychic protection. it is worth stating a phrase which expresses the purpose for which the talisman is made, as this will help focus its use. Wear your talisman round your neck, or as a brooch, or simply carry it in your pocket, to touch and gain strength from when needed.
Wands can be made in the same way, large wands for ceremonies or smaller ones for healing tools which can be carried in a small pouch or pocket.
Hawthorn is traditionally used to make psychic shields, particularly for the innocent and vulnerable. It can be given to help protect a child from any harsh energies in the environment, and particularly at puberty when a child is particularly sensitive and vulnerable, and in need of psychic protection. This aspect is also reflected in its use as a hedging plant, not only for its thick impenetrable growth, but also as a psychic shield.
A Hawthorn globe can be made, which is a charm ball, of its twigs and foliage. Traditionally made at first light on New Year's Day (Samhain) from last year's foliage, and tied with white ribbon. Burn the old charm ball from the previous year on a bonfire of straw, ash twigs and acorns. This represents your old self with all its troubles and sorrows being consumed. Your new self is forged anew in the new Hawthorn globe which is kept until the next New Year.
Whatever you make from Hawthorn, be sure to state your intent, and treat the tree with great respect if you cut the wood. The traditions of its being under the protection of the faeries, and the subtle wild energy of this little tree, should leave you in no doubt of its power. If you wish to learn from the wisdom of the Hawthorn, choose an old tree of great maturity and take time to sit with the tree, opening yourself to its wisdom. The many traditions associated with the Hawthorn, especially around spring and early summer, suggest that its energy is strongest at this time.
The Hawthorn's connection to our heart energy has transcended many different aspects of our growth, both within our relationships with ourselves and each other, and in relation to our spiritual connection to the divine within and without. I believe that the Hawthorn is very much involved in humankind's evolution into the Aquarian age of a more open-hearted and humanitarian attitude to life, love and spirituality. I sense a willingness within the Hawthorn's energy to help us and be part of this transformation.